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Marble Arch monument in London, UK

Marble Arch and Public Executions

Image Credit: | Above: Marble Arch monument in London, UK

Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don't draw spectators, they don't answer their purpose….The public was gratified by a procession: the criminal was supported by it.

Samuel Johnson, The Life of Johnson

Imagine the sight: a huge wooden triangle with up to 24 bodies swinging from its beams by nooses, gasping their last breaths. From the middle of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, this was the spectacle that attracted thousands of spectators every week to London's notorious Tyburn Tree.

Executions took place at Tyburn for almost 600 years, with the first recorded as William Longbeard in 1196 and the last as John Austen in 1783. In between, tens of thousands of highwaymen, robbers, forgers, murderers, traitors and other convicted men and women met their end at Tyburn. From the Reformation period onwards, this included many Catholics who would not abandon their faith.

The original Tyburn trees used for hangings were a row of elms alongside an underground stream called Tyburn Brook. But it was the huge triangular Tyburn Tree, erected in 1571 and made of thick wooden crossbeams 3m (9ft) long on 5.5m (18ft) legs, that is associated with the mass executions during the Tudor era and afterwards.

The site of the Tyburn Tree is said to be at what is now Marble Arch, at the north-east corner of Hyde Park. Some historians give a more precise location as slightly to the north-west at Connaught Square. In fact, many bodies were found there when the square was being built in the 1820s, so it's possible that some Tyburn victims were buried right where they died.

Mass executions took place on Mondays, when prisoners were transported from Newgate Prison to Tyburn in an open wagon, often in their finest clothes. The procession, which was watched by a large and enthusiastic crowd, wound down Snow Hill, across Holborn Bridge into Holborn, down Broad St Giles into Oxford Street and on to Tyburn.

Once at Tyburn, those due to die were put onto a specially built horse-drawn carriage that was moved under the Tyburn Tree. Nooses were placed around their necks and then the carriage driven away, leaving the condemned suspended until they died. Reports tell of friends and relatives tugging at hanging men's feet so that they should die quicker, and not suffer.

Hangings were witnessed by thousands of spectators who would pay to sit in open galleries erected especially for the occasion, as well as in rented upper-storey rooms in houses and pubs. After the corpses were cut down from the gallows, there was a rush to grab the bodies, as some believed their hair and body parts were effective in healing diseases. They were also sought after by surgeons for dissection.

In 1783, public executions were moved to Newgate Prison, as the crowds by the route to Tyburn started to disturb the increasingly fashionable areas close to Oxford Street.

The mass hangings at Tyburn are commemorated by a stone plaque in the ground on one of the Marble Arch traffic islands. Also close to the site, at 8 Hyde Park Place, is the Tyburn Convent. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century, it contains a Shrine of the Martyrs in remembrance of more than 350 Catholics who died at Tyburn during the Reformation.

Did you know?

Prisoners were allowed to stop en route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn for a jug of ale, but would then have to get back 'on the wagon', never to drink alcohol again, which is thought to be the origin of the saying.