Capital punishment survived in many forms in England for several centuries. The annals are filled with stories of beheading, hanging, boiling to death, and various other practices for such crimes as murder, treason, coin clipping, and theft. According to Foucault, public execution was a necessary
political ritual,because criminals offended law-abiding persons, and personally attacked the sovereign
since the law represents the will of the sovereign(47). Because crime threatened the power dynamic between sovereigns and their people, execution was viewed as a necessary means to restore the proper dynamic within a country (48).
According to John Laurence, William the Conqueror is accepted as having introduced beheading to England, with Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, as the first victim in 1076 (28). Beheading was considered to be an honourable way to die and was, therefore, used only for nobles or criminals of the higher classes (6). Some famous persons who were executed by beheading include Mary, Queen of Scots (1587); Sir Walter Raleigh (1618); and Charles I (1649). Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword (1536), wielded by a Frenchman brought over especially for the occasion (29). Beheading was a problematic form of execution because the level of humanity involved was directly related to how well practiced the executioner was (35). There are many recorded cases of executioners who used several strokes to sever a head from its body.
Hanging was a form of capital punishment that had been practiced for several thousands of years; it is mentioned once in the Mosaic law (see Deut. 21:22–23). In London, the main permanent gallows were located at Tyburn. Sometimes, gallows were set up to supplement those at Tyburn, if there were a large number of hangings that were to occur at the same time. An example of just such an occasion occurred in 1554, when 58 men were hanged in connection with Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion. The locations of the extra gallows were recorded by Henry Machyn in his diary:
The xij day of February was mad at evere gate in Lundun a newe payre of galaus and set up, ij payre in Chepesyde, ij payr in Fletstrett, one in Smythfyld, one payre in Holborne, on at Ledyn-hall, one at sant Magnus London [-bridge], on at Peper allay gatt, one at Sant Gorgeus, on in Barunsay [Bermondsey] strett, on on Towr hylle, one payre at Charyngcrosse, on payr besyd Hyd parke corner.
Most of these gallows were temporary.
Under the reign of Edward III, treason was made punishable by hanging, drawing, and quartering (Laurence 6, 11). The sentence, according to the Statue of Treason of 25 Edward III, 1351, states:
that the traitor is to be taken from prison and laid on a hurdle [...] and drawn to the gallows, then hanged by the neck until he was nearly dead, then cut down; then his entrails were to be cut out of his body and burnt by the executioner; then his head to be cut off, his body divided into four quarters, and afterwards set up in some open place as directed.
(qtd. in Laurence 11)
Records of executions show variations on this sentence for treason and other offenses. For example, in 1576, a goldsmith named Thomas Green was drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and was there hanged, beheaded, and quartered for the clipping of gold and silver coins (Marks 160). Another example can be seen in Stow’s Annals, where Stow records the execution of William Constable in 1556:
The 26. of February Willi. Constable alias Fetherstone was arraigned in the Guild hall of London, who had caused letters to bee cast abrode, that king Edward was aliue, and to some he shewed himselfe to be king Edward, so that many persons both menne and women were troubled by him, for the which sedition the said William had bin once whipped and deliuered, as is aforesaid: But now he was condemned, and the 13. of March he was drawne, hanged and quartered at Tyborne.
(qtd. in Marks 153)
Some men were similarly punished during the reign of Elizabeth, for printing books which were believed to be seditious and/or in support of Catholicism. Other forms of execution that existed during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras include burning at the stake (for Protestant heretics and witches), and ducking and drowning (also for witches, in both England and Scotland) (Marks 177; Laurence 10). In London, burning at the stake was conducted at Smithfield, the location made famous by Queen Mary, who was said to have executed nearly three hundred heretics in that manner within a span of three and a half years (Borer 145).
History of Tyburn
It is unknown when Tyburn Tree, the most famous permanent gallows of London, was established. Alfred Marks conjectures that Tyburn dates from the time of Henry I (57). He believes that Tyburn must have been constructed by the Normans because it was first called
The Elms,and the elm tree was the Norman tree of justice (57). The first recorded hanging at Tyburn was that of William FitzOsbert in 1196, for the crime of sedition (Laurence 177).
According to a 1607 map of Middlesex, engraved by John Norden, Tyburn was located just outside of Hyde Park, well outside of the city of London (so far outside, in fact, that Tyburn could not be included in the Agas map). Marks states that in 1220 the king ordered the construction of two gallows at Tyburn (63). These gallows were used until 1571, when they were replaced by a triangular gallows, or the
triple treeas it was called, which was capable of holding over twenty-four men at a time (64). The first recorded reference to the triple tree came from an account of the execution of Dr. John Story, who was executed there 1 June 1571 (64, 159). In 1759, the triangular gallows were replaced by moveable gallows, and the last execution at Tyburn took place 7 November 1783 (69, 70). Marks conjectures that fifty thousand persons were hanged or executed at Tyburn over its approximately six hundred years of existence. This figure is quite low, considering that it averages out to less than fifty-two persons annually hanged or executed (78).
London’s consciousness of what happened at Tyburn is evident in the writings of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Executions at Tyburn were recorded by John Stow, in his Annals, and Henry Machyn, in his diary. There were also references made to Tyburn in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; the first was made by the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate in Pappe with an Hatchet (1589):
Theres one with a lame wit, which will not weare a foure cornerd cap, then let him put on Tiburne, that hath but three corners(qtd. in Marks 64). Another reference to Tyburn appears in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost:
Thou makest the triumviry, the corner-cap of society, / The shape of love’s Tyburn, that hangs up simplicity(4.3.49–50). These references deal mainly with the triangular shape of the gallows at Tyburn. John Taylor dedicates an entire poem to Tyburn with his Tyburn make it almost impossible for a person think about pre-nineteenth-century executions in London without thinking about Tyburn.
The Description of Tyburn
The Praise and Vertue of a Jayle and
(Taylor 134–35)I Haue heard sundry men oft times disputeOf trees, that in one yeere will twice beare fruit.But if a man note Tyburne, ‘will appeare,That that’s a tree that beares twelue times a yeere.I muse it should so fruitfull be, for whyI vnderstand the root of it is dry,It beares no leafe, no blossome, or no bud,The raine that makes it fructifie is bloud.I further note, the fruit which it produces,Doth seldome serue for profitable vses:Except the skillfull Surgions industryDoe make Desection or Anatomy.It blossomes, buds, and beares, all three together,And in one houre, doth liue, and die, and wither.Like Sodom Apples, they are in conceit,For touch’d, they turne to dust and ashes streight.Besides I find this tree hath neuer binLike other fruit trees, wall’d or hedged in,But in the high-way standing many a yeere,It neuer yet was rob’d, as I could heare.The reason is apparent to our eyes,That what it beares, are dead commodities:And yet sometimes (such grace to it is giuen)The dying fruit is well prepar’d for heauen,And many times a man may gather thenceRemorse, deuotion, and true penitence.And from that tree, I thinke more soules ascendTo that Coelestiall ioy, which ne’r shall end :I say, more soules from thence to heau’n doe come,Than from all Church-Yards throughout Christendome.The reason is, the bodies are all dead,And all the soules to ioy or woe are fled.Perhaps a weeke, a day, or two, or three,Before they in the Church-yards buried bee.But at this Tree, in twinkling of an eye,The soule and body part immediatly,There death the fatall parting blow doth strike,And in Church-yards is seldome seene the like.Besides, they are assisted with the almesOf peoples charitable prayers, and Psalmes,Which are the wings that lift the hou’ring spirit,By faith, through grace, true glory to inherit.Concerning this dead fruit, I noted it,In stead of paste it’s put into a pit,And laid vp carefully in any place,Yet worme-eaten it growes in little space.My vnderstanding can by no meanes frame,To giue this Tyburnefruit a fitter name,Than Medlers, for I find that great and small,(To my capacity) are Medlers all.Some say they are Choak’d peares, and some againeDoe call them Hartie Choakes, but ‘tis most plain,It is a kinde of Medler it doth beare,Or else I thinke it neuer would come there.Moreouer where it growes, I find it true,It often turnes the Harke of grace to Rue.Amongst all Pot-herbes growing on the ground,Time is the least respected, I haue found,And most abus’d, and therefore one shall seeNo branch or bud of it grow neere this Tree:For ‘tis occasion of mans greatest crime,To turne the vse, into abuse, of Time.When passions are let loose without a bridle,The precious Time is turnd to Loue and idle:And that’s the chiefest reason I can show,Why fruit so often doth on Tyburne grow.There are inferiour Gallowses which beare(According to the season) twice a yeare:And there’s a kinde of watrish Tree at Wapping,Wheras Sea-theeues or Pirats are catch’d napping:But Tyburne doth deserue before them allThe title and addition capitall,Of Arch or great Grand Gallowse of our Land,Whilst all the rest like ragged Laqueyes stand ;It hath (like Luna) full, and change, and quarters,It (like a Merchant) monthly trucks and barters ;But all the other Gallowses are fit,Like Chapmen, or poore Pedlers vnto it.
- Borer, Mary Cathcart. The City of London: A History. New York: McKay, 1977.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.
- Laurence, John. A History of Capital Punishment with Special Reference to Capital Punishment in Great Britain. 1932. Reprint. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1971.
- Machyn, Henry. The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London, From A.D. 1550 to A.D. 1563. Ed. John Gough Nichols. London, 1848.
- Marks, Alfred. Tyburn Tree: Its History and Annals. London: Brown, Langham, n.d.
The Praise and Vertue of a Jayle and Jaylers.All the Workes of Iohn Taylor The Water Poet. 1630. London: Scolar, 1973. STC 23725.
Last modification: 2016-05-27 14:37:29 -0700 (Fri, 27 May 2016) (tlandels)