This has been on my list of possible topics for a while now, and at least three readers have asked me to write a posting about it…so here goes…
In the Medieval period, from 1066-1500s, most countries were ruled by monarchies. Kings, queens and princes. Medieval times were dangerous times to be alive and with religious persecution happening on almost a daily basis, with different kings wanting their religion to be the one which everyone followed, it’s not surprising to know that kings were willing to go to great lengths to see their decrees, commands and orders, carried out. Social discipline in the Medieval period was strict, and any disruption to social order was severely punished, as were any crimes committed against the people or even worse…against the monarchy! What were some of the more infamous forms of punishment, torture and execution that were used throughout the Medieval Period? This article will cover ‘execution’. Subsequent articles will cover torture and punishment.
Burning at the Stake.
Popularly associated with the crime of witchcraft, burning at the stake involved strapping the victim (a woman), to a wooden post in a public place (such as a town square), and surrounding that post with logs and faggots. Before you get antsy, a ‘faggot’ is a unit of measure meaning a bunch of sticks. The faggots and logs were then lit and the victim was sent to her fate. How was it done and how did the person die?
Upon being found guilty of witchcraft, the woman would be walked up the pile of wood and would be tied to the stake at the top in such a way that they would not be able to move. The executioner then used a burning torch to light the faggots at the bottom of the pile of wood and then stepped back to watch his handiwork. Despite what you might believe, most victims of burning did not actually die of burning. Most would have died of smoke inhalation long before they actually ever caught fire. However, on some occasions, when smoke inhalation didn’t kill the victim, she would be tied to the stake until her clothes, and later, her flesh, started to burn, literally killing her by burning her alive, at the stake.
Beheading, or death by decapitation, was how most noble people were executed if they were found to have committed a crime. Beheading was quick, relatively clean and a great spectator…ehm…event. The job of beheading the victim came to the executioner, in this case, commonly called the ‘headsman’, for obvious reasons. A noble who was accused of treason (crimes against the king or country) was usually executed through beheading. It was done like this:
The condemned man (or woman) was allowed to say a few words before death. He or she would then get on their knees and rest their head on the chopping-block, face down. A priest might say a short prayer, and then the headsman would do the deed. Despite what you may think, it actually takes a considerable amount of strength to decapitate someone. If the headsman was particularly strong or if the axe was very sharp or heavy, he might be able to lob off the head in one, clean blow. However, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it could take two, three or even four blows of the axe to decapitate someone and kill them. Even then, if the head didn’t fall right off, you’d have to take out a knife (called a ‘slitting knife’) to cut away the leftover skin and muscle so that the head came away completely. While this was going on, blood would be pumping out of the neck and saturating the execution-platform in blood, making the entire place wet and slippery.
Having decapitated the victim, the executioner then held up the head, and would call out to the crowd: “Behold the head of a traitor!”, as a warning to anyone else who dared to incur the king’s wrath.
Once the head was lobbed off and held up to the crowd, it would then have to be boiled with herbs and spices…not to eat it…but to preserve it! This was because once the head was off, it was shoved onto a spike and propped up on a wall or bridge or some other prominent place, for public display. The headsman certainly didn’t have an easy life. Usually, headsmen were big, beefy fellows with black masks or hoods over their faces. This was to protect their identity from people who might resent having the condemned lose their heads. Once the ordeal was over, however, the headsman did get to keep any clothes that the deceased had. And before the deed was done, he might even get a fat tip from the condemned nobleman, who wanted a quick, clean (so to speak), job.
Although still in common practice today in some countries, hanging was the standard execution for most capital crimes such as murder or rape (then called something pretty and euphamistic like ‘unlawful carnal knowledge’). Hanging involved a scaffold (called a ‘gallows’) and a length of rope, done up in a distinctive ‘noose’ knot. Everyone thinks hanging is simple – you tie a rope around the guy’s neck and let him dangle, but there was actually a fair bit of skill to making someone cark it through hanging. Factors influencing how the hanging was to be done included the weight of the victim, the type of neck he or she had, the type and length of rope and the length of the drop. The ‘drop’ is the distance between the victim and the ground. But casting aside all the technical tiddlybits, this is how it was done:
The noose was put over the victim’s neck and done up nice and tight, with the knot draped over one of his or her shoulders. The victim was allowed to say a few last words, and then a lever was pulled. The lever opened a trapdoor under the victim’s feet. their own body-weight sent them down, the noose tightened…and the job was done. Despite what you might see in movies, the point of hanging was not actually to strangle the victim. If a condemned prisoner was strangled from the hanging, it was considered a botched job. The point of a successful hanging was to actually break the neck. Since it’s harder to break someone’s neck than it is to strangle them, you can now kinda see why it was such a technical job, involving weights, distances, neck-thicknesses, lengths of rope and all that other stuff.
The Brazen Bull
One of the lesser-known methods of execution. And probably just as well. The Brazen Bull was invented in ancient times, and it worked by throwing the victim into a hollow statue of a bull made of brass (hence the name). Once the victim was inside, the door at the top of the bull was locked and a fire was lit under the bull’s belly. The metal absorbed the heat and the inside of the bull soon became absolutely roasting hot. As the victim screamed, his voice would come out of the bull’s mouth, making it sound like a bull’s bellowing. Eventually the heat got so extreme that the victim was literally cooked to death.
Impalement is best known today due to the actions of a certain, 15th century nobleman known today by the various names of…Vlad Tepeche…Vlad the Impaler…or…Vlad Dracula. Vlad Tepeche or Vlad Dracula (‘Dracul’ = Dragon. ‘Dracula’ = Son of the Dragon) was a Wallachian nobleman who was infamous for killing anyone and everyone who stood in his way, by his favoured method of execution – impalement, from which he recieved his epithet – Vlad the Impaler.
Impalement was barbaric at the very least, but Vlad didn’t care. He impaled thousands of his own people – Men, women and children, for the pettiest of crimes. Usually, the sharpened, wooden stake was driven through the victim’s abdomen and he or she was then hoisted up and put up in the air, being left to slowly bleed to death. Even worse was that sometimes, the stake was inserted up the anus, to come out the mouth. Either way, it was a very slow way to die. The stakes were cut so that the victim didn’t die immediately from shock. Instead, they’d die from a combination of starvation, blood-loss and exposure in an execution that could take hours…days…even weeks. It’s probably not surprising to know that Vlad Tepeche was universally hated. In the end, he was captured by frustrated Wallachians who had had enough of him, and he was dispatched from our world as he had done with so many others – by impalement.
Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.
The ultimate medieval execution. And for good reason, too, when you find out just what it involves. Hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment used for those people who had committed the crime of High Treason, meaning a crime against the country, or even worse…against the reigning monarch. Elizabeth I of England wrote down once, specifically what hanging, drawing and quartering meant…those with weak stomachs, or who have just finished a significant meal…click to another web-page now.
The victim was first hung, much like how everyone else was hung (see above), only in this instance, the goal of the hanging was not to break the victim’s neck, but rather to bring on unconsciousness through lack of oxygen. Once this was achieved, the victim was cut down and then came the next stage.
To be drawn. According to historical records, to be ‘drawn’ meant to have your abdomen literally drawn open, like a zip-fastener. The executioner took out a knife and opened you up from the ribcage down to the bellybutton. Your intestines were heaved out and burned on a brazier. Your genitals were removed and also burned. Your heart (still beating), was cut out of your body and held up, and the executioner would say: “Behold the heart of a traitor!”
By this time, you’re probably dead (remember, you’re awake during all this). Once you were dead, your body was quartered.
Quartering meant decapitation, followed by chopping off your limbs (arms and legs), so that you made up four ‘quarters’. These would then be posted around the community so that everyone could see you (or…part of you), and know what you had done.
Despite how horrific hanging, drawing and quartering was, it was an accepted part of life in the United Kingdom for centuries, and at least from the 1500s to the 1700s. Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century London diarist, wrote of such an execution in his personal diary:
- “I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.”
Diary, Saturday, Oct. 13th, 1660.