What were the Mutiny Acts?


The Mutiny Acts were an almost 200-year series of annual Acts passed by the Parliament of England, the Parliament of Great Britain, and the Parliament of the United Kingdom for governing, regulating, provisioning, and funding the English and later British Army.

The first Mutiny Act was passed in 1689 in response to the mutiny of a large portion of the army which stayed loyal to James II upon William III taking the crown of England. The Mutiny Act, altered in 1803, and the Articles of War defined the nature and punishment of mutiny until the latter were replaced by the Army Discipline and Regulation Act in 1879. This, in turn, was replaced by An Act to consolidate the Army Discipline and Regulation Act, 1879, and the subsequent Acts amending the Same, to be known as The Army Act in 1881. This was extended or amended or consolidated annually (the most recent update having been made in 1995). Today, mutiny by British forces is punished under the Armed Forces Act 2006.

Depending on events, additions, and changes within the established system more than one Mutiny Act might be passed within a given year. Within the empire specific geographical disturbances were sometimes governed by specific acts, such as the Mutiny, East Indies Act 1754 (27 Geo. 2 c. 9), or the Mutiny, America Act from 1765 (5 Geo. 3 c. 33) to 1776 (16 Geo. 3 c. 11). A closely related series of Marine Mutiny Acts starting in 1755 (28 Geo. 2 c. 11) would regulate His Majesty’s marine forces while on shore, and continue well into the 19th century.


During the Middle Ages, European rulers applied the same laws to both civilian and military populations. Because of this, military law (law governing armed forces) and martial law (control of society by the military) were not independent legal approaches. Rulers began separating the laws governing the civilian population and the laws for the armed forces as the medieval period drew to a close.

In England, William the Conqueror’s Aural Regis (or King’s Court) assisted him in ruling both his armed forces and the English population. Over time, this court divided and developed specialized legal expertise. King Edward I created a Court of Chivalry headed by the Lord High Constable and the Earl Marshall, two members of the King’s Court. This Court of Chivalry was given authority over cases of military law, chivalry, heraldry, and murder or high treason overseas. The army was seen as the crown’s personal force. Its governance, as a military force, was the crown’s royal prerogative. The crown governed the military by publishing articles of war. These articles applied to the army during a specific war or campaign. The Court of Chivalry assisted the crown by preparing these articles and enforcing them. Therefore, military law could and would change depending on the campaign or war. Although harsh, the articles were clear in their expectations for military personnel.

Meanwhile, courts of equity and courts of common law developed and were given authority to govern civilians. Common law did not have rules specific to military forces and common law courts could not apply military rules. However, prior to the Petition of Right, and especially during the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts, the crown would applied articles of war (which defined the military law) against civilians in Britain in trials administered by courts-martial (an exercise of martial law). The capricious use of harsh military law by the crown against civilians included the imposition of the death penalty. The practice of enforcing military law against civilians and the usurpation of common-law courts’ authority by courts-martial caused an outcry. The lack of a distinction between military law and martial law caused English legal minds to attack the exercise of military law during peacetime. William Blackstone complained:

For martial law, which is built upon no settled principles, but is entirely arbitrary in its decisions, is, as Sir Matthew Hale observes, in truth and reality no law, but something indulged rather than allowed as a law. The necessity of order and discipline in an army is the only thing which can give it countenance; and therefore it ought not to be permitted in time of peace, when the king’s courts are open for all persons to receive justice according to the laws of the land.

This abuse of the crown’s prerogative (the crown’s right to make and enforce rules for the military) caused Parliament to pass the Petition of Right in 1628. This act stated that neither civilians nor soldiers and officers who were in England during peace were subject to military courts or law. Only common-law courts and courts of equity could exercise authority over individuals in peacetime England. Because the articles of war did not fall under these court’s jurisdiction, military law could not be applied to anyone in England, whether soldier or civilian.

Passage of the First Mutiny Act

King William III replaced King James II in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution. At the time, a number of Scottish troops felt James II was still the true monarch. They marched home, refusing to obey orders from William III to fight in Holland. The mutinous troops were located in England during peacetime so only common law and courts of equity had authority over them. However, these courts’ power did not include the ability to enforce mutiny (which was a military law crime and not a common law crime). Therefore, no legal action could be taken to stop or punish the troops.

Parliament responded by passing the Mutiny Act 1688 (1 Will. & Mar. c. 5 ). This act made desertion, mutiny, and sedition of officers and soldiers crimes triable by court-martial in peacetime England and made such crimes punishable by death. The passage of this act initiated the codification of military law in Great Britain. Payment for quartering the troops was first included in the Mutiny Act 1692 (4 Will. & Mar. c. 13).

Renewal of the Mutiny Acts

Because the Bill of Rights prohibited the existence of a standing army during peacetime without the consent of Parliament, the Mutiny Act was expressly limited to one year’s duration. As a result, Parliament annually passed a new mutiny act. The Articles of War, published by the crown, continued to govern military forces outside colonies overseas while the mutiny acts imposed military law on military forces in peacetime England. Many other changes occurred during this transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, which were “products of the exigencies and opportunities of the quarter century of warfare on the grand scale that commenced with the accession of William and Mary, when England, and then Britain, was able “to set out such Fleets and Armies as were never heard of among our Ancestors.””

A new mutiny act was passed each year until 1879. The Mutiny Act was modified early on to allow courts-martial for other military crimes besides mutiny, sedition, and desertion. Modifications to the Mutiny Act allowed courts-martial trial of soldiers for acts prohibited by the Crown’s articles of war, as long as the articles conformed to the Mutiny Act 1718. Civilians who were closely associated to the military, such as victuallers, could also be tried by courts-martial.

In 1807 all serving black soldiers recruited as slaves in the West India Regiments of the British Army were freed under that year’s Mutiny Act.

The Quartering Acts

The Mutiny Acts 1765 and 1774 are better known as Quartering Acts because of the changes which added quartering requirements for British troops in the American Colonies, beyond what the Army had provided.


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