Being the old English punishment for the offence of treason 1, but exclusively applied to the male sex. Women were considered far too delicate for such a procedure and were generally burnt alive instead 2. And the nobility of whatever gender generally got away with a simple beheading. (Such are the privileges of rank.)

Here's a contemporary description from the sixteenth century that explains the process;

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose. 3
or another from the eighteenth century
Lord Ellenborough used to say to those condemned. You are drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged, but not till you are dead; for, while still living, your body is to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burnt before your face; your head is then cut off, and your body divided into four quarters. 4

As you can see there appears to have been some variation in the practice and therefore a question as to,

but the basics are agreed Now the drawing of the condemned on hurdles wasn't some pleasant stroll through town; it often involved strapping the naked body to a few wooden poles and dragging him along the streets behind a team of horses. The rest of the process from took approximately half an hour to complete, which I suppose at least meant that the spectators got their money's worth.

There is some debate as to whether the exact proper expression of the sentence should be hanged, drawn and quartered or drawn, hanged and quartered, depending on whether the drawn refers to the drawing to the place of execution or the drawing of the intestines from the still living body. Personally, I see a macabre medieval pun, and the former is in any case, the generally accepted expression irrespective of its precise derivation.

One further thing, it was also a general practice to parboil the remains in order to better preserve them. In the best traditions of the British Civil Service here is a matter of fact description from the sixteenth century;

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, for a carpenter for making the same and the dray to drag them, a labourer who digged the holes, four men who helped set up the gallows and for drink to them, for carriage of timber from Stable Gate to the dungeon, to two men that set the kettle, a great cauldron, and parboiled him, to two men that carried his quarters to the gate and set them up, for a halter to hang him, for two ha'penny halters, for straw, to the woman that scoured the kettle afterwards and to him that did execution, four shillings and eight pence.

Parboiling and preservation were important since the dismemberment had the advantage of providing five judicial trophies which were then capable of public display so as to remind everyone of the gruesome fate that awaited any traitor. (An important factor in an age of widespread illiteracy and no television.) The point of the process was not so much to inflict pain and distress upon the condemned (although it was probably quite successful in so doing) since if that was the case one would have dispensed with the hanging altogether and gone straight into the painful and bloodthirsty bit. No the point was the effect it was intended to have on everyone else. The hanging was there to render the condemned reasonably insensible to what followed. (At least it probably damaged the vocal chords sufficiently so as to render any screams of agony relatively inaudible and therefore limit any feelings of sympathy from the watching crowd.) The point of the thing was that it was a public spectacle, designed to demonstrate the power of the state and to terrorise the population into submission.

Hanging, drawning and quartering remained the offical punishment for treason in English law until 1814, but it increasingly came to be seen, even before them, as rather a barbaric punishment and was generally replaced with a simple hanging. In its heyday it produced a steady stream of victims, amongst whom it is worth mentioning,


NOTES

1 And Piracy too. And probably Arson in a naval shipyard as well. Heinous crimes all.

2 Just to even things out a bit, a wife who killed her husband was guilty of petty treason, not murder and was therefore sentenced to death by hanging. And if the king's wife was unfaithful that was high treason, and the punishment was to be beheaded. Kings, generally speaking, received no punishment whatsoever for infidelity.

3 From Harrison, William, Description of England (originally published 1577-78, republished for the New Shakespeare Society 1877-1878) quoted in "Crime and Punishment in Elizabethan England," EyeWitness - history through the eyes of those who lived it, www.ibiscom.com (2001).

4 From the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1803, part i. pp. 177, 275. quoted in E. Cobham Brewer, The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898 available here and there online.

5 In a normal judicial hanging (if there is such a thing) the the drop was precisely calculated in order to ensure that the condemned's neck was broken; here it was just as important to ensure that it wasn't broken

6 An account of the execution of Friar John Stone, the head of the White Friars who dared challenge Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy from http://www.channel4.com/history/timeteam/cant_robin.html

Sources in addition to those mentioned above,

  • the Capital Punishment UK website at http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/contents.html
  • The Companion to British History by Charles Arnold Baker (Longross Press, 1996)

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