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The Tyburn Tree: London's historic execution spot
It was London’s foremost place of execution for 650 years. From the lowliest in the land to highborn noblemen, Tyburn was the place where thousands of men and women met their maker.
An ancient place of execution
The first recorded execution at Tyburn took place in 1196. The popular rebel leader William Fitz Osbert was captured by troops acting on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury and dragged to a dusty junction by a small stream in the manor of Tyburn on the outskirts of London. There, Osbert was hanged alongside eight accomplices. Their deaths marked the start of Tyburn as a place of execution, and over the following centuries, many notable people were put to death. Among them Roger Mortimer, the first Earl of March, Richard III supporter Sir Humphrey Stafford and the royal pretender, Perkin Warbeck.
While those men were executed by hanging, others experience much more painful deaths. Some, such as the poor unfortunate Francis Dereham, suffered a horrifying end at Tyburn. Found guilty of sleeping with Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, Dereham was dragged to Tyburn where he was hanged until he was barely conscious. He was then taken down, his genitals cut off, his stomach sliced open and his bowels ripped out while he was still alive. Finally, he was beheaded and his body cut into quarters to be displayed to the public as a warning to all those who thought of defying the king.
Hanging, drawing and quartering was an infamous execution method for traitors. Several suffered this fate over the years including John Houghton, the Catholic priest who refused to acknowledge Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England, and Oliver Plunkett, who played a part in the plot to assassinate Charles II.
The Tyburn Tree
In 1571, a most extraordinary gallows was erected at Tyburn. Known as the ‘Tyburn Tree’, the gallows consisted of a horizontal wooden triangle supported on three legs and were used for multiple executions. This unusual design allowed for 24 prisoners to be executed at the same time - a grisly spectacle that delighted the hollering crowds who gathered for every execution.
Executions at Tyburn were seen as a great day out for all the family. Hundreds of shouting, jeering, often drunk Londoners gathered to catch a glimpse of the condemned prisoners as they made their way from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn Tree. Among the crowds wandered gang members, muggers and pickpockets - ironically, the place that hanged petty criminals became a hotbed of petty crime.
The journey to the gallows
Prisoners were transported to the gallows through the lively crowds in an open horse-drawn cart. Despite being just three miles from Newgate, the journey to Tyburn usually took about three hours thanks to the crowds blocking the streets along the way. Before reaching their destination, the cart often stopped at the Bowl Inn in St. Giles where prisoners were allowed to drink strong liquor or wine to help them steel themselves for what awaited them.
When the prisoners arrived at Tyburn, the cart was parked under the Tyburn Tree and ropes were slung around the prisoners’ necks. In the square facing the gallows, the crowd was at its rowdiest as people jostled to get a good view. Those that could afford it paid for a seat in stands that were erected for the occasion.
The condemned were allowed to say a final word - the crowds especially loved it when someone laughed in the face of death and made a rousing or amusing speech - and then the cart was pulled away and the prisoners were left dangling in the air, their legs kicking away as they frantically fought against the inevitable. ‘Doing the Tyburn Jig’ was the euphemism coined for the dance the prisoners unwillingly performed as they hung from the gallows. The crowd occasionally took pity on them and pulled their legs to quickly snap their necks.
The end of executions at Tyburn
Thousands of people were hanged from the Tyburn Tree over 200 years. Famous faces to meet their end in front of a baying mob included the notorious 18th century thief ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sheppard and the highwayman, James MacLaine.
The Tyburn Tree was dismantled in 1759, after which a portable gallows was wheeled out for public executions. The highwayman John Austin became the last man to be executed at Tyburn in November 1783. After that, hangings took place outside Newgate Prison until 1868 when executions were moved inside the prison, away from the prying eyes of the public. It was the end of a very bloody era.
Facts about Tyburn
- The site of the Tyburn Tree is now occupied by Marble Arch. A stone on a traffic island, at the junction of Edgeware Road, Oxford Road and Bayswater Road, marks the spot where the gallows once stood.
- A convent was built near the site of the Tyburn Tree. It commemorates the 105 Catholic martyrs who were executed there during the English Reformation.
- Following the restoration of King Charles II, the body of Oliver Cromwell was disinterred from Westminster Abbey and submitted to a posthumous execution at Tyburn. Cromwell’s head was removed and set on a spike outside Westminster Hall, where it remained for 24 years.