From the crowning of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the kings and queens of the House of Tudor ruled England (and beyond) with ambition, religious zeal – and brutality. The age of Shakespeare and Francis Bacon was also a time of blood-stained politics and religious persecution. Heads rolled, bodies were barbequed, and guts were yanked out.
Heretics, royal spouses, and unlucky courtiers were not the only victims of the wicked whims of the Tudor monarchs, however. Many ‘ordinary’ folks were also offed in the name of justice. It has been estimated that as many as 72,000 people in total were executed under Henry VIII alone. Here we look at seven gruesome methods of judicial killing from this gory era.
1. A Pressing Matter – Death by Crushing
Known as ‘peine forte et dure’ (strong and harsh punishment), this sanction was reserved for those who refused to enter pleas at court. The prisoner would lie on the floor of a ‘little dark room’ of the prison, a board would be placed on top of them and then weights would gradually be added. It was typically intended to act as coercion – the accused would be ‘pressed to plead’.
In some cases, it was a clear death sentence as opposed to an attempt to induce a plea, as in the case of Margaret Clitherow (1556-1586), who was sentenced to be pressed to death. With her own front door placed on top of her and the weights added, she was dead after fifteen minutes.
2. Fire Away! - Burning at the Stake
For Tudor women guilty of treason, and for male and female heretics, this was the method of dispatch – to be publicly burned alive.
Being broiled for the crime of heresy was legally codified in England in 1401, and the last torching of dissenters was in 1612.
The age when the incineration of apostates was red-hot, though, was under the reigns of Henry VIII and his kids. In a nutshell, Henry VIII broke with Rome and burned Catholics; Edward VI was an ardent Protestant who burned a small number of Catholics; Mary I, a devout Catholic, then burned many Protestants when she was queen; and Elizabeth I, a Protestant, then burnt Catholics.
Those doomed to die by fire would typically be bound to a stake on top of a pyre, heaped up so that the baying crowd could observe the human BBQ.
Clergyman would preach sermons as the flames licked the feet of the condemned and their coughs turned to screams. Occasionally, cruel executioners would wet the wood to make it burn slower.
Other officials were kinder, such as the humane functionary who hung a bag of gunpowder about the neck of Anne Askew (1521-1546), the mini-blast cutting short her suffering. Some guests of the bonfire banquet were ‘lucky’ enough to be strangled first, while others were also fortunate to die of smoke inhalation before being cooked to a crisp.
3. Kitchen nightmares - Boiling alive
For this barbaric punishment, the method is simple: take one unfortunate felon, throw into a cauldron of water, oil, tallow, or molten lead, while alive, and bring to the boil until dead. (Although some were dangled above the pot on a chain and dipped in and out of the scalding water, which was far worse).
Henry VIII’s 1531 ‘Acte for Poysoning’ (repealed 1547) made death by boiling alive the prescribed form of capital punishment for those convicted of committing fatal poisonings. Henry instituted this after cook Richard Roose killed two people by spiking their porridge.
Chef Richard was publicly boiled alive at Smithfield in London in 1531, where according to a contemporary source he ‘roared mighty loud’ and the crowd were shocked and felt sick. Also, that year, a servant girl was publicly boiled in King’s Lynn for poisoning her mistress.
One modern source describes this punishment as being ‘once common both in England and on the continent’, and in the Tudor era, it was sometimes used on ‘coiners’ (makers of counterfeit coins), as well as poisoners.
4. What a Choker! - Death by hanging
For ordinary crimes, ‘common’ criminals were typically rubbed out by being hanged. (Members of the ‘higher’ classes were typically beheaded.) Crimes for which you could be strung up in the 16th century included murder, rape, arson, witchcraft, and theft of items worth more than a shilling. In fact, on average during Elizabeth’s reign three-quarters of those sent to the gallows were done so for theft.
The typical procedure for many such criminals condemned to hang in Tudor London was to be taken on the back of a cart from Newgate prison west to Tyburn (hence, ‘went west’) where they would be choked by the noose, often attached to the gallows while still on the cart, and the cart then being removed from under them. Family members were at this point sometimes allowed to pull on their twitching loved ones to hasten death.
London hangings were not all at Tyburn – many pirates were given the rope at the low-water mark at Wapping, East London, and several violent robbers who had preyed on innocents in St Paul’s Churchyard met their fates there too.
5. Clean-up on scaffold 10! - Drawing, hanging, and quartering
Enshrined in law in the Treason Act of 1351, women convicted of treason were burnt at the stake and male traitors were drawn, hanged, and quartered.
First, the doomed fellow would be ‘drawn’ (dragged) through the crowd-lined streets by a horse, sometimes naked, to their place of execution.
Next, they would be hanged to a point close to death, then taken down and made to watch as their genitals and entrails were removed and burnt.
A coup de grâce entailed the head being lopped off at this point, but often the ‘quartering’, i.e., the butchering of the body, would begin while the prisoner was still clinging to life. Typically, the hands and feet would be cut off first, then the cleaver would halve the body at the waist. The two halves would then be jointed along the rib cage and pelvis, respectively.
Sometimes the quartering would be done by using four horses to pull the body apart.
The head would then typically be set on London Bridge or another landmark, and the quarters placed in a gibbet.
Famous Tudor victims included Francis Dereham (d. 1541), Anthony Babington (1561-1586), and William Thomas (d. 1554).
6. Don’t lose your head - Beheading
Elizabeth I sometimes said of her enemies that she would make them ‘shorter by a head’. These frightening words would have been enough to make many a courtier hot under the ruff because she often followed through on this lethal promise.
For Anne’s ceremonious bumping off, Henry brought in an expert swordsman from France. At the moment of execution Anne, kneeling upright, suddenly turned her head away from the Gallic chopper on hearing a voice. In a flash, Anne’s head was off with one clean swish of his blade.
A swift, painless death such as this was what many scaffold-climbers hoped for, including Anne. ‘I have a little neck’, she told the Constable of the Tower before her beheading, squeezing it with her hands and laughing.
It was not always just nobles who lost their heads, though. The Halifax Gibbet, a large guillotine in use in the Yorkshire town at this time, was reputedly used on common criminals.
Severed heads would typically end up set on London Bridge or other prominent places.
7. Wheel of misfortune – Death by the breaking wheel
A perfect punitive procedure to ‘round’ off with is this bonus item not from Tudor England and Wales but from a Scotland newly in monarchic union with England.
On June 16 1603, Robert Weir, a servant who had been convicted of the 1600 murder of his master, John Kincaid, was ‘broken’ on the wheel at the Mercat Cross in the centre of Edinburgh.
Strapped to a large cartwheel in front of a gathered crowd, the executioner used the coulter of a plough to crush Weir’s bones. By this on-wheel method, the prisoner would be affixed to the wheel so that their limbs were over the gaps between the spokes. A metal rod or club would then be used to strike their arms and legs repeatedly, shattering them. The executioner would then either bring down a fatal blow as a mercy or would let them linger in agony for several hours or days, eventually succumbing to an agonising death later.
By the second method, the wretched convict would be staked to the ground and the wheel itself would be wielded by the deadly official, lifting it high above his head and smashing it down onto the body of the unfortunate person. Some wheel executions of this latter type in Germany involved a specially-built frame for the prisoner to be strapped to on the ground, referred to in some records as a ‘bonebreaker machine’. Sounds wheely bad, eh?
The wheel was more commonly used on the continent, such as in the infamous Pappenheimer family executions in Munich in 1600, which sent waves of revulsion across Europe.