To be hanged, drawn and quartered was from 1351 the penalty in England for men guilty of high treason, although its use is first recorded during the reign of King Henry III and that of his successor, Edward I. The convicted were fastened to a wooden hurdle which was dragged by horse to the place of execution. Once there, they were ritually hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). As a warning against further dissent, their remains were often displayed at prominent places, such as London Bridge. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were burnt at the stake.
Although some convicts had their sentences commuted and suffered a less ignominious end, over a period of several hundred years many men found guilty of treason endured the full sanction of the law. Many notable figures were subjected to the punishment, including over 100 English Catholic priests executed at Tyburn. Plotters engaged in religious conspiracies like the Gunpowder Plot were killed, as were some of the regicides involved in sentencing Charles I to death. During the 1685 Bloody Assizes several hundred rebels were dispatched in less than a month.
Although the Act of Parliament that defined high treason remains on the United Kingdom's statute books, hanging, drawing and quartering was in 1814 downgraded to drawing, hanging until dead, and posthumous beheading and quartering. It was finally abolished in England in 1870.
Treason in England
The first recorded instance of a person being hanged, drawn and quartered in England is that of William Maurice, who in 1241, during Henry III's reign, was convicted of piracy. However, the punishment is more frequently recorded during Edward I's reign. Dafydd ap Gruffydd was the first nobleman in England to receive the sentence. He had previously fought alongside Edward, but in 1282 he turned against the king, and on the death of his brother proclaimed himself Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdon. He was captured, tried and executed in 1283; his quarters were distributed across the country, while his head was placed atop the Tower of London. The Scottish knight William Wallace suffered a similar fate. Captured and tried in 1305, he was strapped to a hurdle and dragged by horse through the streets of London, to the scaffold at Smithfield. Along the way he was whipped and hit by the spectators, who also threw rotten food and waste at him. After being hanged, and while still alive, he was emasculated and eviscerated. He was then beheaded and quartered. His preserved head (dipped in pitch) was placed on a spike on London Bridge (the first to appear there), while his arms and legs were displayed at various towns across England and Scotland.
These and other executions (such as those of Andrew Harclay, 1st Earl of Carlisle and Hugh Despenser the Younger) happened when acts of treason in England, and their punishments, were not clearly defined in common law.[nb 1] Treason was based on an allegiance to the sovereign from all subjects aged 14 or over, and it remained for the king and his judges to determine if that allegiance had been broken. The Treason Act of 1351, passed in the 25th year of Edward III's reign and still in force today, was an attempt to resolve this ambiguity. It was enacted at a time in English history when a monarch's right to rule was indisputable, and was therefore written principally to protect the throne and sovereign. The act split the old feudal offence of treason into two classes. Petty treason referred to the killing of a master (or lord) by his servant, a husband by his wife, or a prelate by his clergyman. Men guilty of petty treason were drawn and hanged, while women were burnt.[nb 2]
High treason was the most egregious offence an individual could commit, seen as a direct threat to the king's right to govern. Attempts to undermine his authority were viewed with as much seriousness as if the accused had made a direct assault on his body, which itself would be an attack on his status as sovereign. As such an attack could potentially undermine the state, retribution was considered an absolute necessity, for which the ultimate punishment was required. The practical difference between the two offences therefore was in the consequence of being convicted; rather than being drawn and hanged, men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered, while for reasons of public decency (their anatomy being considered inappropriate for the sentence), women were instead drawn and burnt. The act declared that a person was committing high treason if engaged in one of the following seven offences:
- compassing or imagining the death of the king, his wife or his eldest son and heir,
- violating the king's wife, his eldest daughter if she was unmarried, or the wife of his eldest son and heir,
- levying war against the king in his realm,
- adhering to the king's enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in his realm or elsewhere;
- counterfeiting the Great Seal or the Privy Seal, or the king's coinage,
- knowingly importing counterfeit money,
- killing the Chancellor, Treasurer or one of the king's Justices while performing their offices.
However, the act also contains the proviso:
And because many other cases of like treason, may happen in time to come, which a man cannot think or declare at this present time; It is accorded, that if any other case, supposed treason, which is not above specified, doth happen anew before any justices, the justices shall tarry without going to judgement of treason, till the case be showed before the king and his parliament, and it be declared whether it ought to be judged treason or other felony.
Therefore it did not fully constrain the monarch's authority to define the scope of treason, and gave English judges discretion to extend it whenever required—otherwise known as constructive treason.
Only one witness was required to convict a person of treason, although in 1552 this was increased to two. Suspects were first questioned in private by the Privy Council. At the public trial, defendants were allowed no witnesses and no defence counsel, and were generally presumed guilty from the outset. This system remained in place until the Treason Act of 1695 was passed, allowing defendants counsel, witnesses, a copy of their indictment, and a jury. When not charged with an attempt on the monarch's life, they were to be prosecuted within three years of the alleged offence.
After being sentenced, malefactors were usually held in prison for a few days before being drawn by horse to the place of execution, usually on a hurdle, their hands tied. Once stripped of their clothing, they were taken to the scaffold and hanged for a short period, but only to cause strangulation and near-death. They were then disembowelled, and normally emasculated.[nb 3] Those still conscious at this point might have seen their entrails burnt, before their heart was removed. The body was then decapitated, signalling an unquestionable death, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Each dismembered piece of the body was later displayed publicly, as a warning to others.
As happened with Wallace, the heads of the executed were often displayed on London Bridge, for centuries the route by which many travellers from the south entered the city. On occasion accompanied by the parboiled quarters of executed men, such gruesome trophies served as a more permanent reminder of the penalty for treason. Several eminent commentators remarked on the visage; in 1566 Joseph Justus Scaliger wrote that "in London there were many heads on the bridge... I have seen there, as if they were masts of ships, and at the top of them, quarters of men's corpses", and in 1602 the Duke of Stettin emphasised the ominous nature of their presence when he wrote "near the end of the bridge, on the suburb side, were stuck up the heads of thirty gentlemen of high standing who had been beheaded on account of treason and secret practices against the Queen".[nb 4]
Some confusion exists over the meaning of the term hanged, drawn and quartered. One of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of draw is "to draw out the viscera or intestines of; to disembowel (a fowl, etc. before cooking, a traitor or other criminal after hanging)", but is followed by the postscript "in many cases of executions it is uncertain whether this, or sense 4 [To drag (a criminal) at a horse's tail, or on a hurdle or the like, to the place of execution; formerly a legal punishment of high treason], is meant. The presumption is that where drawn is mentioned after hanged, the sense is as here." Author S. R. Sharma arrives at the same conclusion: "Where, as in the popular hung, drawn and quartered (meaning, facetiously, of a person, completely disposed of), drawn follows hanged or hung, it is to be referred to as the disembowelling of the traitor." However, the historian and author Ian Mortimer disagrees. In an essay published on his website, he writes that the separate mention of evisceration is a relatively modern device, and that while it certainly took place on many occasions, the presumption that drawing means to disembowel is spurious. Instead, drawing (as a method of transportation) may be mentioned after hanging because it was a supplementary part of the execution.
Before they were hanged, prisoners normally gave a public speech, expressing their remorse and asking for forgiveness. This was a form of ritual cleansing, illustrated by one example where a young man already on the ladder, refusing to believe that he had been forgiven by God, was called back down by the Puritan clergyman William Perkins. The clergyman managed to convince him that he had been forgiven, and the youth reportedly went to his death "with tears of joy in his eyes...as if he actually saw himself delivered from the hell which he feared before, and heaven opened for receiving his soul".
Robbing of honour
According to history student Maeve Jones's essay on high treason, each step of the procedure marked a rite of passage and the "progressive robbing of honour from the offender". Dragging was a form of transport usually reserved for carcasses and other low-value goods, and served to humiliate the offender. Removing their clothing stripped them of their social status.  Several purposes were served by the criminal's mutilation. In the case of Hugh Despenser the Younger, his hanging was punishment for theft: "that you are found as a thief, and therefore shall be hanged". For being a traitor, he was drawn and quartered, and for being an outlaw he was beheaded. For coming between the king and queen he was disembowelled, and his organs burnt. In the opinion of Professor Robert Kastenbaum, Hugh's mutilation (presuming that his disembowelment was post-mortem) was a reminder to the crowd that dissent was not tolerated. The corpse became so unrecognisable to them that any compassion was unlikely, and even in the afterlife, God might no longer want Hugh—a view which lingered for centuries, exemplified by the controversy surrounding the dissection of corpses for anatomy. Quartering the corpse might also remove any prospect of funereal support, as relatives had to wait until the spiked remains had decomposed before they were allowed to bury them. Since relatives were normally responsible for taking care of a recently-departed family member, denying them a funeral in this way spread the traitor's shame onto his family. Kastenbaum also suggests that burning the viscera might also have been to expel any evil spirits contained within. Jones writes that the evisceration of an offender while conscious did not just mark his public disgrace; the intimacy of the executioner's method also highlighted the offender's submission to legitimate authority. The burning of his organs may have been a supplementary form of torture, a method of prolonging his agony.
Use in England
This section provides several notable examples of when the sentence was used, in what context, and how treason law was modified to suit. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of those people hanged, drawn and quartered.
Also introduced in 1351 was the Statute of Labourers. This and other social grievances including the Black Death, were instrumental in prompting the 1381 Peasants' Revolt. Its leader, Wat Tyler, was killed in June 1381 at Smithfield, during a meeting with the young King Richard II. The Lollard priest John Ball, also involved in the uprising, immediately fled, but was captured less than a month later. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15 July. The uprising led to a change in the law in 1382, making it treason to start a riot. The law was again changed with the Treason Act 1397.
Richard had succeeded to the throne while still a child, and in the ensuing power struggles between his advisers Thomas Usk was one of those who fell foul of court politics. He was accused of misleading the young king, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in 1388. Soon after Richard was deposed by Henry IV, Owain Glyndŵr, a Welshman loyal to Richard, became the leader of the Glyndŵr Rising, subsequently defeating Henry's army at the Battle of Mynydd Hyddgen. Henry responded by bringing up from Worcester a large army to capture Owain. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan was pressured into his service, but as a loyal patriot, and with two sons in Owain's army, he led the king in the wrong direction. This allowed Owain to escape, and when in 1401 Llywelyn admitted to Henry what he had done, the king had him disembowelled and dismembered at Llandovery Castle.
At the start of Edward IV's reign in 1461, John Tiptoft, 1st Earl of Worcester, was appointed to the king's council. He became constable of the Tower of London, and the following year was made Constable of England, with authority to try all cases of treason. He was responsible for many executions, but the hanging, drawing and quartering of 20 of the earl of Warwick's men provoked strong public condemnation, and when Edward fled the country to be replaced by Henry VI, Tiptoft was arraigned and condemned for high treason. He was beheaded on Tower Hill, in October 1470.
During Henry VII's reign treason law was again modified, on this occasion making it possible to commit treason only against the de facto king, and not de jure. Between 1533 and 1540, Henry VII's son, Henry VIII, took control of the English Church from Rome, the start of years of religious tension in England. The eighth Henry made it treason to ignore a legal summons to surrender, or to injure the king, or even to wish him injury. One also could not call the king a heretic or deny his royal titles, and in 1535 therefore the Carthusian priest John Houghton and four of his colleagues were dragged to Tyburn to be executed, when Houghton refused to swear the recently-enacted Oath of Supremacy. Houghton said on the scaffold: "Our holy mother the Church has decreed otherwise than the king and parliament have decreed. I am therefore bound in conscience and am ready and willing to suffer every kind of torture rather than deny a doctrine of the Church". The execution is recorded in the Catholic archives:
Then he cut open his belly, dragged out his bowels, his heart and all else, and threw them into a fire, during which our blessed Father not only did not cry out on account of the intolerable pain, but on the contrary during all this time until his heart was torn out, prayed continually, to the wonder not only of the presiding officer but of all the people who witnessed it. Being at his last gasp, and nearly disembowelled, he said to his tormentor while in the act of tearing out his heart, "Good Jesu, what will you do with my heart?" and saying this, he expired. And lastly his head was cut off and the beheaded body was divided into four parts, the remains thrown into cauldrons and parboiled, and put up at different places in the city. And one arm of our Father was suspended over the gate of our Carthusians' house.
Henry later made it treasonous to deny the validity of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and later still made it an offence to maintain the validity of the same marriage. His union later with Katherine Howard proved lethal for Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper, after it was discovered that they each had carnal knowledge of Katherine. Both men were executed in November 1541. Culpeper was drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn and beheaded there, in itself unusual since most beheadings were carried out at Tower Hill. There was nothing to distinguish Dereham's punishment however, as he was hanged, drawn and quartered in the same place. Katherine was deprived of her queenship, and was beheaded in February the following year. Many of Henry's modifications to treason law were repealed but then re-enacted by Henry's son and heir, Edward VI, who also made it treason for more than 12 people to meet and discuss state affairs. Edward died a young man, however, and was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary I, who removed the changes from the statute books. Mary also attempted to return England to Catholicism, but her marriage in 1554 to Philip II of Spain proved to be deeply unpopular, so much so that it was made treasonous to pray for her death, or to preach against Philip's title as king. Her marriage prompted Thomas Wyatt the younger to rebel against the union, but the rising failed and consequently he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was commuted to beheading; his head was later exhibited on a gallows near Berkeley Square, while his quarters were displayed at various places across the city. As many as 400 rebels may have been killed for their involvement in the uprising. Also caught in the aftermath was William Thomas, a Welsh scholar accused by some of the rebels of planning to murder the queen. He was hanged, drawn and quartered in May that year. His head was placed on London Bridge, and the rest of his body at Cripplegate.
Mary was succeeded to the throne by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I. One of her first acts was the 1559 Act of Supremacy, which amongst other things made denying her title an act of treason. Further acts, such as the Bulls, etc., from Rome Act, increased the number of offences by which an individual could be tried for treason. English Catholics struggled in a society dominated by the newly separate and increasingly Protestant Church of England. Elizabeth's response to the growing religious and political divide was to increase the severity of anti-Catholic legislation, with stiff penalties exacted on those who refused to comply. Priests such as Cuthbert Mayne and Edmund Campion, two of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, fell foul of these laws and were hanged, drawn and quartered. Other Tudor conspiracies, such as the Babington plot, resulted in further executions:
...John Ballard a preest, and first persuader of Babington to these odious treasons, was laid aloue vpon an hurdell, and six others two and two in like sort, all drawne from Tower hill through the citie of London, untu a field at the vpper end of Holborne, hard by the high waie side to saint Giles in the field, where was erected a scaffold for their execution, and a paire of gallows of extraordinarie hight...and although the thousands were thought (and indeed so seemed) to be numberlesse: yet somewhat to note the huge multitude, there were by computation able men enow to giue battell to a strong enimie...On the first daie the traitors were placed vpon the scaffold, that the one might behold the reward of his fellowes treason. Ballard the preest, who was the first brocher of this treason, was the first that was hanged, who being cut downe (according to judgement) was dismembred, his bellie ript up, his bowels and traitorous heart taken out and throwne into the fire, his head also (seuered from his shoulders) was set on a short stake vpon the top of the gallows, and the trunke of his bodie quartered and imbrued in his owne bloud, wherewith the executioners hands were bathed, and some of the standers by (but to their great loathing, as not able for their liues to auoid it, such was the throng) beesprinkled.
The Stuart era and English Interregnum
For their part in the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy to kill Elizabeth's successor James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch, from 30–31 January 1606 the surviving eight Catholic conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered. The most notorious, Guy Fawkes, managed to cheat the executioner by jumping from the scaffold while his head was in the noose, breaking his neck. His lifeless body was nevertheless drawn and quartered, and his body parts distributed to "the four corners of the kingdom".
Use of the sentence continued through the English Interregnum. John Southworth was the only Catholic priest executed during the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, and the last person executed simply for being a priest in England. Arrested on 19 June 1654, he was tried before the common serjeant, and not the high court of justice (which had sole jurisdiction over treasons), meaning that he was probably executed under an earlier conviction. He refused to deny that he was a priest, an option which might have saved his life. Foreign ambassadors pleaded on his behalf, but unlike the kings and queens before him Cromwell had no authority to pardon the priest, who was to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 28 June. Instead Cromwell ordered that surgeons be present at his execution, to sew the corpse back together so that it could be sent to Douai College for burial. Exhumed when the college was demolished, it is the only corpse of an English Catholic martyr to have survived into modern times.
With the restoration to the throne of Charles II, Major-General Thomas Harrison, a Fifth Monarchist and regicide who helped sentence Charles's father Charles I to death, was himself executed for high treason.[nb 5] His sentence, passed at the Old Bailey, was pronounced:
That you be led to the place from whence you came, and from thence be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and then you shall be hanged by the neck and, being alive, shall be cut down, and your privy members to be cut off, and your entrails be taken out of your body and, you living, the same to be burnt before your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided into four quarters, and head and quarters to be disposed of at the pleasure of the King's majesty. And the Lord have mercy on your soul.
Harrison was executed two days later, at Charing Cross. After being hanged for several minutes, half-choking, he was cut open. Watched by a large crowd of spectators, including the new king, Harrison reportedly leaned across and hit the executioner—resulting in the swift removal of his own head. His entrails were thrown onto a nearby fire. Three days later his head adorned the sled which drew fellow regicide John Cooke to his execution, before later being displayed in Westminster Hall; his quarters were fastened to the city gates. In all, 13 men were hanged, drawn and quartered for their involvement in Charles's execution.[nb 6] Several years after Charles' restoration, about 100 men (including some former parliamentarian soldiers) launched a failed insurrection against the new regime. In what became known as the Farnley Wood Plot, the rebels were arrested and tried, and 26 of them condemned to death. Of those, 16 were hanged, drawn and quartered at York in a single morning, providing, in the words of historian Andrew Hopper, "a spectacle on a scale unseen in the city for nearly a century."
The Glorious Revolution
William Staley was a victim of the fictitious Popish Plot, and was hanged, drawn and quartered on 26 November 1678. His quarters were given to his relatives, who promptly arranged a "grand" funeral; this incensed the coroner so much that he ordered the body to be dug up and set upon the city gates. Staley's was the last head to adorn London Bridge. Another victim of the plot, Archbishop of Armagh Oliver Plunket, was arrested on 6 December 1679. He was arraigned at Dundalk in July the following year, but following problems at the trial he was moved to London in October, and arraigned at Westminster Hall on 3 May 1681. Amidst public hysteria over the alleged plot, he was eventually tried on 8 June. He was found guilty, and was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July 1681. Plunkett was the last of 105 Catholic martyrs executed there between 1531 and 1681.
Four years later, following the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, almost 1,400 rebels involved in the plot to overthrow Charles' brother, King James II, were charged with treason, and tried during what became known as the Bloody Assizes. In less than a month over 200 of them were hanged, drawn and quartered. Their remains were parboiled, tarred, and displayed on poles, trees and lampposts; only when James conducted a progress through the area were they removed and buried. James was, however, the last Catholic monarch to reign over the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, abdicating during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. During Charles' reign it was made treason to imagine any physical injury to the king, but in 1702, according to the Act of Settlement, the offence was expanded to include interference with the succession. Asserting the right to the throne of anyone outside the line of succession became an offence in 1707. The 1715 Riot Act allowed the government to treat rioters as felons, dispensing with the requirement under the 1351 act to use constructive treason.
Following the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745, in which Charles Edward Stuart attempted to regain the throne for the House of Stuart, several captured Jacobite officers were hanged, drawn and quartered. By then however, it was up to the discretion of the executioner as to how much those being executed should suffer, and thus the rebels were killed before their evisceration. For his part in the uprising, Archibald Cameron was also hanged, drawn and quartered, but in 1753. The French spy François Henri de la Motte was executed in 1781, but was hanged for almost an hour before his heart was cut out and burnt. David Tyrie was less fortunate, his sentence for passing confidential information to the French resulting in him being hanged, decapitated and quartered at Portsmouth in 1782. Some of the 20,000-strong crowd fought over his corpse, making trophies of his limbs and fingers. The Catholic priest and Irish nationalist James Coigly was convicted of high treason in 1798, but was hanged only. Edward Despard was arrested in 1802, apparently planning a coup d'état, and with six co-conspirators was drawn, hanged and beheaded in front of an audience of about 20,000 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in February 1803.
The last woman sentenced to be burnt was Catherine Murphy, in 1789. Although she was first hanged to death, her sentence was oppugned in the House of Commons by Sir Benjamin Hammett, who called it one of "the savage remains of Norman policy". As a result, parliament introduced the Treason Act of 1790, which, for women guilty of treason, substituted hanging for burning. The Treason Act of 1795 made it a treasonable offence to intimidate Parliament. The Treason Act of 1814 changed the sentence for high treason to drawing, hanging until dead, and posthumous beheading and quartering. In 1817, amidst high unemployment and poor social conditions, Jeremiah Brandreth led a 100-strong contingent of men in the Pentrich Rising, but along with two of his lieutenants, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam, had his sentence reduced to being hanged until dead and then beheaded. The Prince Regent, George, Prince of Wales, later George IV, insisted that the three have their heads removed with an axe, despite appeals to instead use a knife. The three men were hanged at Derby Gaol for about an hour, before their bodies were removed to a trestle. There a local miner, masked for anonymity, carried out the latter part of the sentence (poorly), but as he held the first head high and made the customary announcement, the crowd reacted with horror and fled. In 1820, amidst more social unrest, five Cato Street conspirators were hanged and beheaded. This time however, the crowd reacted with anger when the corpses' heads were removed, and the executioners were forced to find safety behind the walls of Newgate Prison. Three men involved in the Chartist Newport Rising of November 1839 were sentenced to be hanged, decapitated and quartered in January 1840, but following a nationwide petition and lobbying of the Home Secretary by the Chief Justice, their sentence was commuted to transportation.
Petty treason was abolished in 1828, but hanging, drawing and quartering was finally rendered obsolete in England by the Forfeiture Act of 1870, which limited the death penalty for treason to hanging alone; although the 1814 Act allowed for the monarch to substitute beheading for hanging.
The 1351 treason act also applied to those subjects overseas in British colonies. Although some executions for treason were performed in the provinces of Maryland and Virginia, only two people were hanged, drawn and quartered; one in Virginia in 1630, and another in New England. Further sentences were issued in the late 18th century but all were either pardoned or simply hanged.
- Treason before 1351 was defined by Alfred the Great's Doom book. As Patrick Wormald writes, "if anyone plots against the king's life ... [or his lord's life], he is liable for his life and all that he owns ... or to clear himself by the king's [lord's] wergeld."
- Women were considered the legal property of their husbands, and so a woman convicted of killing her husband was guilty not of murder, but petty treason. For disrupting the social order a degree of retribution was therefore required; hanging was considered insufficient for such a heinous crime.
- Some modern sources do not mention the latter part of the sentence, but this is by no means an indicator that it did not still occur.
- Women's heads sometimes adorned the bridge; Elizabeth Barton was a domestic servant at Aldington in Kent who became a nun. After forecasting the early death of Henry VIII, she was drawn to Tyburn on 20 April 1534, and hanged and beheaded.
- Although Harrison was a regicide, no such crime existed in English law and he was therefore charged with high treason.
- A fourteenth, Henry Vane the Younger, was also executed, but for his religious beliefs, his politics, and his lack of contrition.
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