Medieval Executions

Getting away from the subject of modern executions for a moment, let's look at a little history.

Everyone who has seen the film Braveheart will be familiar with the execution scene in the closing minutes - the festival mood of the crowd as William Wallace is partially hanged and disembowelled. Such scenes were at one time commonplace - public execution was a popular spectacle in many places. Tyburn and Newgate gaol were popular venues in London, with many people paying for a good view of the proceedings, and entertainers and vendors taking advantage of the holiday spirit of the spectators.

In England, up to the 19th Century, most hangings were public - the tradition at one time being for the condemned to be dragged to the gallows on a hurdle, partially hanged (with no neck-breaking drop, simply being hauled up by the neck), sometimes also being stretched by having people pulling their legs. The victim would then be cut down before being either dismembered or disembowelled, all the while on display to the public, until the executioner, some of whom seemed to be "quite the showman", would raise the remains for all to see. This practice, known as being hanged, drawn and quartered, was generally reserved for more serious crimes, such as treason, altough some common criminals were also treated to it.

At the more recent, straightforward hangings at Tyburn, people of substance or nobility were offered a glass of sherry along the route at the George and Blue Boar, common criminals partaking of ale at St. Giles in the Fields. All the while, crowds would be jostling the cart or hurdle, either cheering them (as in the case of many highwaymen) or baying for their blood. Finally, the gallows would hove into view, and the prisoner would be introduced to the executioner, and would frequently tip the hangman and ask his forgiveness. Presumably, this was also a request for a quicker dispatch.

The common crowd would be pressing for a better seat, paying more for a better view. The religious would preach, hawkers would advertise their wares, the cut-purses seek to take advantage of the unwary. Finally, to the cheers of the people, the execution was carried out. The clean kill or the botched execution - all were equally welcome, and the crowds came back, again and again... this what we really want, and need today?