In medieval England, there were no such things as Gangsta Rap music videos or violent computer games, so the populace had to keep itself entertained through good old-fashioned brutality to their fellow man.

Drawing and Quartering was a punishment meted out to those poor souls who had been found guilty of treason. It was basically a long, painful death drawn out over several acts.

This is how you do it:

  1. Drag the condemned to a suitable spot. There should be a tree nearby.
  2. Hang the prisoner from the tree, but cut him down before he dies.
  3. Slit open the prisoner's stomach and draw out their entrails.
  4. Burn said entrails before the prisoner's eyes.
  5. Decapitate the condemned.
  6. Divide the body into four parts. Sometimes this was done with a sword, and sometimes it was done by tying the four remaining limbs to four horses and tearing the body apart.

Ouch. According to britannica.com, 'Drawing' refers to the drawing out of the entrails. Cecil Adams points out that it probably refers to the dragging of the condemned by horses. It's still not a pretty way to go.

As you can imagine, this sentence was not given lightly. The Scotsman William Wallace was probably the most famous recipient of this punishment, which was carried out upon him in 1305 (the end of the movie Braveheart shows the initial stages of his fate). This punishment stayed on the books from the 13th til the mid-19th centuries.

Interesting sidenote:

The division of the body into quarters was designed so that the body could be buried in the four corners of the realm. The belief was that since the mortal body was not buried intact the individual's soul could not enter Heaven.

Proof that the good old fashioned brutality didn't end at killing the individual, but lingered into eternity.

Actually no. 'drawing and quartering' or 'drawn and quartered' is an American English idiom meaning to be 'severly punished'. The expression alludes to, and is derived from the old English punishment for treason, but is not actually the punishment itself. The correct term for which is hanged, drawn and quartered.

And please note that this does not involve the use of trees. This is England we are talking about, not the Wild West. Judicial hangings (whether accompanied by drawing and quartering or not) were carried out on a properly erected scaffold. And no horses; quartering by horses in this manner was never carried out in England. It was the French that used to perform executions in this manner.

Michel Foucault provides a description of one such quartering in his Discipline And Punish 1. From this and other accounts of similar executions it appears that the French practice of quartering by horses was never very successful.

And the idea that the quartering was done so that the body could be buried in the four corners of the realm sounds like and old wives tale to me. For one thing there were five body parts to deal with not four (don't forget the head). Secondly they were never buried, they were placed on public display and allowed to rot away. Which was the point of the exercise, getting an assortment of body parts to put on public display so that everybody got the message. (I've no idea what happened to the remaining bones, probably boiled down for glue I should imagine.)

For example that arch-criminal William Wallace who was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1305 had his head was displayed in London. His body parts however were sent to Newcastle (right arm), Stirling (left arm), Berwick(right leg) and Perth (left leg), which are all of course in one corner of the realm.

Of course in Wallace's case one of his arms is supposed to have been 'liberated' by the monks from Cambuskenneth Abbey and buried in the Abbey grounds pointing in the direction of the site of his great victory at Abbey Craig. But that's only tradition and no one actually knows what happened to his body. Which is the case with the most people who were hanged, drawn and quartered. They were either rebellious Scots or Welsh or religous dissidents, the authorities wanted to eliminate all trace of them. The last thing they would have wanted was four little shrines dotted about the country.


1 See http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~felluga/punish.html for example.

2See the The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer at http://www.xrefer.com/entry.jsp?xrefid=631071

In Denmark, drawing and quartering was a punishment separate from the actual means of execution, and inflicted subsequently, upon the body of the executed individual. Once the execution had been carried out, ropes were attached to each limb, and tension applied to the ropes - usually by teams of horses - tearing the body into four parts. However, the "drawing" part was sometimes left out, and the body simply chopped into the requisite number of parts by the executioner.

The parts of the body were then usually placed on wagon wheels which were attached to long poles. These poles were then placed prominently near the place of execution, to deter and dismay any other would-be felons.

As in many other states of the time, drawing and quartering was usually only applied in cases of treason. The last instance of the punishment being applied in Denmark was on April 28, 1772. Friederich Johann Struensee (previously count, physician to the king, lover of the queen, and all-but-dictator in the weak-minded king's name) and his accomplice Enevold Brandt, convicted of conspiracy to treasonously control the mentally-ill absolute monarch of Denmark, Christian VII, and of physically laying hand upon the royal person, were sentenced (three days before execution), as follows:

"...skal den højre hånd af ham levende afhugges og dernæst hans hoved; hans krop parteres og lægges på hjul og stejle, men hovedet med hånden sættes på en stage."

("...shall the right hand of him be severed while he be still alive and thereupon his head; his body be divided into parts and laid upon wheel and pole, but the head with the hand be placed upon a spike.")

As Struensee and Brandt were noblemen, they were executed by decapitation, not by hanging (as commoners would have been). Before the sentences were carried out, their coats of arms were publicly broken by the executioner. The reason for the hand being cut off while still alive was punishment for the separately treasonous act of physically assaulting the royal personage.


The executions, by the way, took place on Øster Fælled (the "East Commons") in Copenhagen, about five minutes' walk from where I live, today. A little bit of local history, to me, like the mass grave I live on top of (3000+ plague victims from the 1711 epidemic).

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