Hanged, drawn and quartered

Hanging, Drawing, and Quartering

HANGING , drawing, and quartering, with their attendant horrors, have been termed "godly butchery," on account of the divine authority which was adduced to support their continuance. Lord Coke finds in the Bible a countenance for each of the horrid details of the punishment. We see that the texts supposed to bear upon the subject are raked from all parts of the Scriptures with great ingenuity, but with, in our modern eyes, not much of either humanity or probability of there being anything more than a forced reference. The sentence on traitors was pronounced as follows: "That the traitor is to be taken from the prison and laid upon a sledge or hurdle [in earlier days he was to be dragged along the surface of the ground, tied to the tail of a horse], and drawn to the gallows or place of execution, and then hanged by the neck until he be half dead, and then cut down; and his entrails to be cut out of his body and burnt by the executioner; then his head is to be cut off, his body to be divided into quarters, and afterwards his head and quarters to be set up in some open places directed." The headsman, or hangman, commonly sliced open the chest and cut thence the heart, plucking it forth and holding it up to the populace, saying, "Behold the heart of a traitor." The members were disposed on the gates of the cities, and in London on London Bridge, or upon Westminster Hall.

It is asserted that this mode of capital punishment was first inflicted in 1241, on William Marise, pirate, and the son of a nobleman.

For a long period this disgusting punishment was the penalty for high treason. A late instance, and the last in the provinces, occurred at Derby in 1817. At this period distress prevailed to an alarming extent in many parts of the country, but no where was it more keenly felt than in the Midland counties. At the instigation of paid government spies, the poor, suffering people were urged to overthrow the Parliament. The plot was planned in a public house called the White Horse, at Pentrich, Derbyshire. A few half-starved labouring men took part in the rising, being assured by the perjured spies that it would simultaneously occur throughout the breadth and length of the land, and that success must crown their efforts. The deluded men had not advanced far before they were scattered by the Yeomanry, and the chief movers taken prisoners. It was the object of the government to terrify the public and cripple all attempts at obtaining reform. Four judges were sent to Derby to try the poor peasants for rebellion, and commenced their duties on the 15th and ended them on October 25th. Three of the ringleaders, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner, and Isaac Ludlam, were found guilty of high treason, and the capital sentence passed upon them; the greater part of the other prisoners were condemned to transportation. Little time was lost in carrying out the sentence; the death warrant for the execution was signed on November 1st by the Prince Regent, and it remitted only quartering, and directed that the three men be hung, drawn, and beheaded. It appears that the High Sheriff, after consultation with the surgeon of the prison and other officials, proposed taking off the heads of the unfortunate men with a knife, and the operation to be performed by a person skilled in anatomy. On this being brought under the notice of the authorities in London, it was, however, decided that the execution should be carried out according to old usage with the axe. Bamford, a blacksmith, of Derby, was entrusted with an order for two axes, to be made similar to the one used at the Tower. They measured eight and a half inches across the edge and were one foot long. On the morning of November 7th, before execution, the three men received Sacrament. The town blacksmith knocked off the irons by which they were loaded, and substituted others that were fitted with locks, so that they might easily be removed. A simply made hurdle was then brought in the prison-yard, and on it they were pulled by a horse to the gallows. It was so roughly constructed that the poor fellows had to be held to keep them on it. "On mounting the scaffold in front of the gaol," says Dr. Cox, to whom we are indebted for many details in this chapter, "Brandreth exclaimed, 'It is all Oliver and Castlereagh;' Turner, following him, also called out, 'This is all Oliver and the Government; the Lord have mercy on my soul.' They hung from the gallows for half-an-hour. On the platform, in front of the gallows, was placed the block and two sacks of sawdust, and on a bench two axes, two sharp knives, and a basket. The block was a long piece of timber supported at each end by pieces a foot high, and having a small batten nailed across the upper end for the neck to rest upon. The body of Brandreth was first taken down from the gallows, and placed face downwards on the block. The executioner, a muscular Derbyshire coal miner, selected by the sheriff for his proficiency in wielding the pick, was masked, and his name kept a profound secret. Brandreth's neck received only one stroke, but it was not clean done, and the assistant (also masked) finished it off with a knife. Then the executioner laid hold of the head by the hair, and holding it at arm's length, to the left, to the right, and in front of the scaffold, called out three times—'Behold the head of the traitor, Jeremiah Brandreth.' The other two were served in like manner. Turner's neck received one blow and the knife had to be applied, but Ludlam's head fell at once. The scaffold was surrounded by a great force of cavalry with drawn swords, and several companies of infantry were also present. The space in front of the gaol was densely packed with spectators."[19] "When the first stroke of the axe was heard," says an eye-witness, "there was a burst of horror from the crowd, and the instant the head was exhibited, there was a terrifying shriek set up, and the multitude ran violently in all directions, as if under the influence of a sudden frenzy."[20]

The poet Shelley is said to have witnessed the painful spectacle. On the previous day had passed away in childbirth the Princess Charlotte. The two circumstances formed the subject of an able pamphlet, drawing a contrast between the deaths, and furnishing a description of the scene within and without the prison at Derby. "When Edward Turner (one of those transported)," says Shelley, "saw his brother dragged along upon the hurdle, he shrieked horribly, and fell in a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. How fearful must have been their agony sitting in solitude that day when the tempestuous voice of horror from the crowd told them that the head so dear to them was severed from the body! Yes, they listened to the maddening shriek which burst from the multitude; they heard the rush of ten thousand terror-stricken feet, the groans and hootings which told them that the mangled and distorted head was then lifted in the air." The title of Shelley's pamphlet is "We pity the Plumage, but forget the Dying Bird. An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte. By the Hermit of Marlow."

On the same night the three executed men were buried without any religious service in one grave in the churchyard of St. Werburgh, Derby.

When Dr. Cox was preparing for the press his "Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals," he saw the block on which these men were beheaded and supplies a description of it as follows: "It consists of two two and a half inch planks fastened together; it is six feet six inches long by two feet wide. Six inches from one end a piece of wood is nailed across three inches high. The whole is tarred over, but the old warder drew our attention to the fact that, though the cell where it is kept is very dry, the wood is still in places damp. It is a gaol tradition that the blood of these unhappy men shed in 1817 has never and will never dry."

On May 1st, 1820, the Cato Street Conspirators were, after death by hanging, beheaded. This is the latest instance of the ancient custom being maintained in this country. In connection with this subject we may perhaps be permitted to draw attention to a chapter by us in "England in the Days of Old" (1897), entitled "Rebel Heads on City Gates;" it includes much curious information bearing on this theme.

We must not omit to state that the great agitator against the continuance of the barbarities of hanging, drawing and quartering was Sir Samuel Romilly, who in the reign of George III., brought upon himself the odium of the law-officers of the Crown, who declared he was "breaking down the bulwarks of the constitution." By his earnest exertions, however, the punishment was carried out in a manner more amenable to the dictates of mercy and humanity.


[19]Cox's "Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals," 1888.

[20]The Examiner.