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Execution in the Middle Ages

Hanging was very commonplace in the Middle Ages | Image: Shutterstock

During the Middle Ages (also known as the Medieval period) public torture and execution was common throughout the United Kingdom and regarded as a socially accepted form of punishment.

Different levels of pain and types of execution were inflicted on prisoners depending upon the nature and severity of their crime.

Torture was typically used as a way to extract evidence and information and public execution was often used as a warning to prevent others from committing crimes.

There were no laws or rights given to prisoners, allowing torture and executions to be widespread and completely unregulated.

Despite the gruesome nature of all of this, executions were often public and attended by large, jeering crowds.

These are some of the most common types of Medieval execution:


Believe it or not, beheading was deemed as one of the most honourable and least painful way to be executed in the Middle Ages. If a sharp enough axe was used, a person could be decapitated with one swift blow, allowing for an instantaneous death. Because of this, beheadings were often reserved for nobles, knights even royalty.

Hung, Strung and Quartered

Perhaps the most brutal of all execution methods is hung, strung and quartered. This was traditionally given to anyone found guilty of high treason. The culprit would be hung and just seconds before death released then disemboweled and their organs were then thrown into a fire - all while still alive. Once dead, they would then be cut into four pieces and traditionally have their body parts sent to four different parts of a city as a public warning to others.


To be "burned at the stake" was a common type of execution and was often given to people believed to be heretics or witches. Strapped onto a wooden stake and surrounded by branches, these were then lit and would slowly burn alive.


Used both as torture and for execution, Medieval crushing involved placing the accused's head in a device that slowly crushed the top and sides of the head together. Eventually the eyes would pop out, skull would crack and the neck would break.

Boiling to Death

Boiling to death was usually reserved for poisoners, coin forgers and counterfeiters. It involved being flung into a cauldron of boiling water or oil and the accused would slowly scald to death.


As the name suggests, Medieval impalement meant to be impaled (or stuck through) a large sharp object, such as a metal spear or pole and left to die. This corporal punishment was regarded as one of the most shocking public form of executions and was often given to suspected witches, women found guilty of infanticide and child molesters.


One of the most well known forms of execution, traditional hanging was still very commonplace in the Middle Ages. Someone could be hung for various different reasons, from the petty thief to an esteemed Nobleman. When hung with a trap door the neck would break allowing for a quick death but simply being hung could take minutes (sometimes longer) to die.

The Wheel

The wheel or Catherine wheel involved the victim’s limbs being gradually broken while strapped onto a wheel and then left to die. Agonising, this form of execution could take days to die.


Sawing is just as it sounds. The victim would be hung upside down and slowly sawn in half. If sawn all the way, they would die, but often the victim was only sawn up to the stomach and left to die, which could potentially take several days.


Harking back to biblical times, crucifixion was also carried out throughout Medieval Europe. Crucifixion is to nail a person to a cross with their hands and feet and leave them there until they die. A very prolonged and of course painful way to die, it can take days and even up to a week for death to occur.