Weirdest laws in history

Beard token
A Russian beard token from 1705 that would prove the owner had paid the tax | Wikimedia | Public Domain

They say the law is an ass, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to some of the bizarre laws passed by monarchs and governments around the world over the centuries. Some of the laws we think are real turn out to be nothing more than urban myths. Others, however, are very real and some even remain on the statute books to this very day. Here we take a look at some of the weirdest laws ever imposed on bewildered populations.

The Ancient Greek penal code that took no prisoners

Draco was 7th Century Greece’s first legislator and when it came to punishing lawbreakers, he didn’t mess about. Before Draco, Greece’s laws were either settled by blood feud or through a series of oral laws passed down from generation to generation.

Draco was the first man to introduce a written penal code, and he decided that the punishment for pretty much everything was death. You could be executed for just about anything illegal under Draco’s new code, from murder right down to stealing a cabbage. When asked why he had decided to make so many offences punishable by death, Draco replied that as far as he was concerned people deserved to die even for minor crimes, and he could think of no worse punishment for more heinous ones.

His successor, Solon, receded all but one of Draco’s laws when he came to power, reserving the death penalty for homicide alone. Draco’s laws may have been scrapped, but his name lives on through the ages. Whenever the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime committed, we call it ‘draconian’.

Wearing a suit of armour in parliament is a big no-no

When it comes to imposing weird laws on its citizens, the United Kingdom has always been a heavy hitter. To be fair to its legislators, some of the laws people think the country has enacted have never actually existed, such as the one that supposedly made it illegal to crack open a boiled egg at ‘the sharp end’.

While it’s always been legal to crack open an egg in Britain any way you want, other laws were very real indeed, such as the legal requirement to keep a longbow in the house and take part in two hours of archery practise a week. This, alongside many of the UK’s weirder laws, was repealed long ago.

One bonkers law that is still on the statute books is the one that states it is illegal to wear a suit of armour in the Houses of Parliament. Dating back to 1313, this law was introduced by the hapless Edward II. Edward’s unhappy reign was plagued by rebellions, and to prevent powerful noblemen from turning up to sessions of parliament in full armour to intimidate other members, the king banned the wearing of armour. This didn’t prevent his eventual overthrow and rumoured agonizing death at the business end of a red-hot poker in Berkeley Castle in 1327.

Even death can be against the law

While it seems rather hard to enforce, there have been several countries down the centuries that have made dying illegal. The earliest known case of this occurred on the Greek island of Delos in the 5th Century BC. The island was considered a holy place by the ancient Greeks, so much so that it was decided the entire place needed purifying to make it a fit and proper place to worship the Gods. In the 6th Century BC, all dead bodies in graves in sight of the island’s main temple were dug up and removed. Deciding this wasn’t good enough, the Delphic Oracle decreed that all bodies on the entire island must go. Further to this, the act of death itself was made illegal, as was giving birth.

And it wasn’t just the ancients who made death illegal. In 2005, the mayor of the Brazilian town of Biritiba-Mirim introduced a law that made death illegal in a futile attempt to solve the city’s lack of available burial space. In France, meanwhile, three towns have made death illegal since the year 2000, all because planning permission for new cemeteries was turned down.

The Tsar who made beards illegal in Russia

Tsar Peter the Great was a man who greatly admired the cultures of Western Europe. To this end, he introduced to his court western styles of dress, western art and philosophy and western architecture, most notably in the city that bears his name to this day – St. Petersburg. The other thing Peter noticed on his visits to the west was that beards were not very popular. By contrast, Russia was awash with beards, from the lowliest peasants to senior members of Peter’s court. The reason for this is that the beard was seen as bringing a man closer to God, and therefore most men sported one.

Peter decided he was having none of this and introduced a beard tax that effectively made the wearing of beards illegal for most people. Those who could afford to pay the beard tax were given special beard tokens proving they were allowed to keep their beards. Those who couldn’t afford the tax or who couldn’t produce a beard token when asked could be held down by the police and forcibly shaved in public. Thanks to this, the wearing of beards fell out of favour in Russia.

The Puritans who tried to ban mince pies

The idea that England once made the eating of mince pies illegal has been doing the rounds for years. The truth, however, is a little more complicated. Eating a mince pie in England has only ever been illegal once in England, and that occurred in 1644 when everything Christmas-related was banned because Christmas Day fell on a day of fasting. When Oliver Cromwell came to power after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, his government tried on several occasions to ban or at least downplay the celebrating of Christmas, and that included eating mince pies.

The closest they ever came was a proposed clampdown of illicit Christmas celebrations in 1656 which would have seen the eating of mince pies become a criminal offence, but the law was never enacted. Thankfully for fans of mince pies, the desire for miserabilist puritan Christmases ended when King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Since then, mince pies have been free of legal interference.

Landed a whale? Better get in touch with Her Majesty

For anyone intending to do a spot of fishing in the UK, take note that the Queen owns all the whales, dolphins, porpoises and sturgeon caught within three miles of the English coast. In Scotland, she owns any whale over twenty-five feet long. The monarch’s right to have first dibs on these animals stretches right back to the reign of Edward II, and it’s still on the statute books today.

So what should you do if you catch a sturgeon in British waters? Well, the law says you have to first offer it to the Queen via an official called the Receiver of the Wreck. And it’s not just something you can do via an app. You actually have to contact Buckingham Palace, tell them you’ve caught a ‘Royal Fish’ and await instructions. Usually, you’re given permission to dispose of a Royal Fish however you see fit, but it’s best to make sure as you don’t want to find yourself locked in the Tower!

Can a pregnant woman urinate in a policeman’s hat?

Ask around in England what weird laws are still on the statue books and someone will inevitably bring up the ‘fact’ that a pregnant woman can relieve herself wherever she likes, up to and including in a policeman’s helmet. Unfortunately for any pregnant lady bursting for the loo, this one’s a load of rubbish and always has been. In actual fact, pregnant women are subject to the same laws as everyone else, which is to say they can’t go urinating wherever they like. Good news for all the policemen out there.

While the commonly held belief that pregnant women can urinate in police helmets may be bunkum, there are plenty of bonkers laws that are still on the books in the UK - or were up until recently. Walking along the pavement with a plank, firing a cannon within 300 yards of somebody’s house and being drunk in charge of a horse are all still against the law. It’s also illegal to ‘handle salmon in suspicious circumstances’, so whatever you do, don’t do that.

Banning the national game

Football is an ancient game, and it’s been banned on several occasions in England, as well as in Scotland and France. The first official ban came in 1314 when King Edward III banned the sport within the London city walls following complaints from merchants that the sport was causing a great disturbance and interfering with trade. Several monarchs including Richard II and Henry IV followed suit with their own bans, usually on the grounds that it interfered with archery practise which, as we’ve already explained, was mandatory for hundreds of years. Even Henry VIII had a go at banning the sport, and that’s despite the fact he is known to have ordered the very first pair of football boots.

Not to be outdone, King James I of Scotland banned football in 1424. Playing the game in Scotland was punishable by a fine of four pence and the law stayed on the statute books for centuries, though nobody paid any attention to it. France, meanwhile, banned a form of football know as ‘La Soule’ in 1319 and again in 1369.

Whatever you do, don’t get drunk in a pub!

Finally, you would expect the one place it would be acceptable – some would say even mandatory - to be drunk in England would be in the pub, but this is not the case and it hasn’t been for a long time. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 makes it an offence for a pub landlord to allow drunkenness or disorderly conduct on his premises.

The 1872 Licensing Act states that 'every person found drunk … on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty'. Tony Blair’s government went even further in 2003, making it illegal to sell booze to an intoxicated person on licensed premises. Anyone who’s been in a rowdy English pub on a Friday or Saturday night can tell you just how successful these three laws have been in practice. Cheers!

Written by:

BP Perry