I took a quick look through the posts we have made so far on this blog and noticed that a great many of them refer to the cultural achievements of Tudor times. This period saw an extraordinary flowering of music, poetry, literature, painting and the theatre. However, these times are also remembered for the savage treatment that offenders could recieve, and this post examines the subject of capital punishment.
Death by hanging was the most commonly used form of capital punishment. This was imposed upon those convicted of murder and manslaughter as well as a range of other crimes. In 1563, Queen Elizabeth’s government passed an anti-witchcraft law making it a capital offence to cause the death of a person by witchcraft. Although we often think of burning at the stake as a Witches punishment it was far more common for hanging to be used in these circumstances. A witch could be imprisoned for a first offence of harming a person but this would become a death penalty for a second offence. As well as witchcraft, other offences were punishable by death such as buggery, rape, and stealing hawks.
The condemned person was usually placed beneath the gallows on a horse drawn cart, once the rope was around the neck the horse was led away and the person left to hang (sometimes a ladder was used as per the illustration ). This method of hanging often meant the person died slowly of strangulation, as a mercy people were sometimes allowed to pull on the victim’s legs to hasten the process. In more recent times great care was taken to ensure that the execution was quick and efficient (this film gives some information).
Off with his head!
In the case of offenders from the nobility the penalty was to be beheaded. This would often take place away from the public eye, in London of course this meant execution on Tower green within the walls of the Tower of London. In the case of Anne Boleyn, a specialist swordsman was brought from France for the occasion to ensure that the death was a quick one. Thomas Cromwell however was not so fortunate. The executioner was incompetent and the first axe blow cleaved into Cromwell’s skull. There were reports that it took several blows to remove his head and rumours were that this had been arranged on purpose.
Burnt at the stake.
Heretics were sentenced to death by burning at the stake, a punishment meant to symbolise the flames that awaited the sinner in hell. Although used throughout the Tudor period it reached a peak during the reign of Mary I where an estimated 200-400 people died this way. Revulsion at this penalty is said to have hardened the resolve of many people against Catholicism and the memory of these executions was kept alive by the very popular book called ‘Foxes book of Martyrs’. Even this horror was not enough for some offenders.
Hung, drawn and quartered.
People convicted of high treason could be sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. This punishment which was first developed in the time of Edward the first was a particularly brutal event. The term ‘drawn’ has a couple of meanings, firstly it refers to the way that the condemned persons were tied to a hurdle and drawn through the streets, usually tied head down behind the horse.
Once upon the scaffold the person was hung until nearly dead. Upon being cut down their ‘privy parts’ were cut off before their innards were ‘drawn’ from them (ideally whilst still alive) – these were thrown upon the fire and the person was then beheaded. After this the person would be cut into quarters and these parts were displayed prominently as a warning to others.
The illustration below dates from 1616 and shows the old London Bridge – if you look at the tower at the entrance to the bridge on the Southwark side of the river you can see the heads displayed on spikes above the entrance.
The death penalty today – facts from Amnesty International
Medieval life and times : Execution
Ultimate top ten lists - execution
Wikipedia capital punishment