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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Crime and Punishment

William Harrison’s Description of England, written in 1587, offers an excellent account of what punishment was like in Elizabethan England. Here are a few highlights:

• The “greatest and most grievous punishment” was reserved for traitors, those who “offended” the state. These men were removed from prison to the place of execution by a “hurdle or sled” where they were hung until half dead, quartered and disemboweled so that their insides were flung onto a fire within their vision.
• High treason was punished with beheading, “trespasses” with the cutting off of their ears, “rogues” were burned through the ears, sheep smugglers lost their hands, heretics were burned alive, vagabonds were whipped or thrown in the stocks, and scolds were made to endure the ducking-stool in water. Criminals could also be pressed to death with weights, and those who used poison to commit murder might be boiled alive.
• Murderers were hung alive in chains near the place their crime was committed, although sometimes they were also strangled with a rope before hand.
• “Felonies” were all punished the same way, and included, robbery, conspiring against the prince, stealing maidens, the killing of a soldier off the field, sodomy, slander, embezzlement, and witchcraft. (In other words, there was little differentiation between the severity of punishment for many “crimes.”)

From Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

We’ve all been told that Shakespeare would have seen the heads of traitors stuck on pikes on his way to work across the Thames. London Online, explains that these heads were typically displayed along the gatehouses of the bridge. Some of the most famous heads include Sir William Wallace, Simon Frisel, Bolingbroke, Jack Cade and other rebels, and Sir Thomas More.

Beheadings were either achieved with a sword or with an axe, the messier of the two methods. Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, received three blows before her head could be completely severed from her shoulders on the block. This meant that executioners had to be really good at their jobs, which was not usually the case since beheadings were a more rare form of execution saved for nobility and people of higher ranks. When beheaded, the person loses consciousness almost immediately, and then dies within a minute, although the brain can still function for as many as seven seconds after the head has been lobbed off.

The Tower of London was an enigmatic symbol of power during the Wars of the Roses. Not only was it a place where tournaments and coronations might be held, but it was also a symbol of punishment and death. In the Tower, where prisoners of high rank and birth were typically imprisoned, executions took place either privately on the Tower Green, such as those of Lord Hastings and Anne Boleyn, or else they were public spectacles held on Tower Hill just outside the walls. The Tower of London also contains replicas of the racks that were used to torture Protestants during the reign of Mary I, and later Guy Fawkes in 1605 after the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered.

Prisoners often entered the Tower through the infamous Traitors Gate, which could be seen from all along the Thames. Elizabeth herself passed through this gate almost twenty years after her mother, Anne Boleyn, was also led this way into the Tower before she was beheaded by sword on the Tower Green.

During Elizabeth’s reign, Catholics who did not conform to the new Protestant “Act of Uniformity and Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament” of 1559 and attend church were punished for “recusancy” under “The Recusancy Law.” Not only was Elizabeth concerned about Catholic plots to overthrow her and place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne, but also everyday religious activity. Under this law, people could be jailed for attending private masses, fined for not attending church and then imprisoned if it was not paid. Elizabeth installed additional Justices of the Peace throughout the country to help collect the names and information of Catholic recusants for the government.

The danger of looking at Elizabethan-era capital punishment is that is allows us to feel better about the way in which we punish criminals today. We justify our own methods of execution by Othering those of the past, identifying beheadings, hangings and torture as too severe to resemble anything like our own lethal injections or electric chairs. This is also the problem with comparing execution methods around the world, such as where beheadings are still used today in Saudi Arabia with a sword. Is this necessarily less humane than execution methods in the US? The question becomes how do we make a contemporary audience frightened by this distant history of English punishment in an immediate, effective way?


“Elizabethan Recusants and Recusancy Laws.” <>.

Pritchard, R. E. Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times. London: Sutton Publishing. 1999.

“The History of Beheading and Decapitation.” <>.

“Welcome to the Tower of London.” Historical Royal Places. <>.

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