The rack in the Tower of London was used throughout the Tudor period in England. It was reserved for those identified as having committed the most serious of crimes against the state.
In theory there were rules about the use of torture. For example, people were not meant to be tortured to death or tortured repeatedly. People who were physically weak were not mean to be tortured because they might not survive the process. Attempts were made to start with ‘milder’ tortures before moving on to the rack if all else failed.
Terrible physical damage.
On the rack, a victims legs and arms were tied to bars at either end of the device, rollers were then used to stretch the body. The tension was maintained and gradually increased by use of a ratchet.
This caused terrible pain for the victim as well as increasing physical damage as the torture continued. Tendons were ripped, joints separated and bones fractured. The sounds of muscles and tendons tearing and snapping provided audible signs of the damage being done. A victim of the rack was often left with permanent physical disability. For example, because of injuries suffered after being racked three times the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was unable to raise his hand to swear at his trial.
Eventually, public disgust led to the Rack’s use being restricted. Richard Topcliffe, a notorious torturer, claimed to have invented the use of ‘gauntlets’ or manacles as a torture instrument. This was considered to be a lesser form of torture, however, this distinction may well have been lost upon people who experienced it. John Gerard, another Jesuit Priest described being hung by his wrists from a post in a torture chamber in the Tower of London.
‘ such a gripping pain came over me. It was worst in my chest and belly, my hands and arms. All the blood in my body seemed to rush up into my arms and hands and I thought that blood was oozing out from the ends of my fingers and the pores of my skin. But it was only a sensation caused by my flesh swelling above the irons holding them. The pain was so intense that I thought I could not possibly endure it.’
Gerard remained hanging for several hours and was only taken down after fainting. As soon as he revived he was put back into the manacles and suspended again. This continued until after 5’oclock when he was eventually returned to his cell. Incredibly, Gerard never broke and maintained his refusal to answer the questions put to him.
A terrible death.
Official reluctance to use torture was abandoned in cases of those suspected of involvement in the Gunpowder plot. In an incident which became infamous, Nicholas Owen the builder of secret hiding places was racked to death in the Tower of London. Owen, who was starved out of a hide during a search in Worcestershire was taken to the Tower for examination. Because of his knowledge about the secret Catholic organisation, Owen was a potentially valuable source of information.
Unfortunately for the authorities however, he never revealed any secrets and died on the rack without saying anything of use. An embarassed Government tried to suggest that he had killed himself with a knife. The truth is that an earlier injury ruptured and according to John Gerard ‘his bowels gushed out together with his life’ .
Torture – a controversial practice.
Official use of torture continued in England until the 1640’s. Throughout it’s use in this country it caused controversy, both on moral grounds as well as it’s usefulness – obviously, evidence obtained under torture has very limited use.
Sadly, this subject has current relevance as we continue to hear discussion around the rights and wrongs of torture. The rack is no longer employed, having perhaps been replaced by ‘waterboarding’ ? We are left to question whether we have really moved on all that much from our Tudor predecessors?
PS Since writing this post I came across this – things really haven’t moved on much from the 16th/17th Century!
I also found this blog which is worth a look.
PS – anyone got a spare Google wave invite? You could become Tudor Stuff flavour of the month? (if you do just leave a comment somewhere on the blog for me – it will never appear in public btw)
Google books Torture & democracy