Getting Your Message Across in Dramatic Ways
In the days before radio, television, and social media, how did you get your messages across? You couldn’t just reach millions of people with the press of a button. It was easier from the fifteenth century onwards with the use of printing, but of course, there were still problems as literacy was not universal and print could be expensive. And print takes time to produce and digest and doesn’t always have a visceral impact on the memory.
As a general rule of thumb, the earlier you go back in history, the people in power (church and government) communicated more non-verbally to get their messages across. Costumes and displays at festivals, stories in glass and painted on walls in churches, stones and statues erected at important sites, plays and pageants all contained messages likely to linger in the mind.
And non-verbal messages conveyed through punishments could be very powerful. Living close to people who had been maimed (castration or the cutting off of a hand, a foot, a nose, or an ear, the gouging of an eye, the mutilation of a tongue, the branding of some flesh) was a permanent and powerful reminder of the dangers of transgressing the law. If you watched (and perhaps participated in) the disgrace, the filth, and possibly the pain and death of someone sitting in the stocks, you may have been moved to avoid the behaviour that resulted in the punishment.
Of course, the biggest crimes required the most brutal, spectacular, and memorable punishments. Two of the biggest “crimes” were treason and heresy (including witchcraft) – both because they represented a threat to the supreme authority of the monarch and the church.
Although death is ultimately brief and could be an escape, death for these crimes has to be made into an horrific spectacle as possible and made to last longer than the quick slice of an axe or sword or the breaking of a neck bone. If you could succeed in doing this you achieved maximum horror for the victim (hence appropriate punishment) and maximum warning for the witnesses that remained in their memory for a long time (maximum deterrent).
Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered
The Wikipedia article summarises it well:
To be hanged, drawn and quartered became a statutory penalty for men convicted of high treason in the Kingdom of England from 1352, although similar rituals are recorded during the reign of King Henry III (1216–1272). The convicted traitor was fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where he was then hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). His remains would then often be displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge, to serve as a warning of the fate of traitors.
If you are male, imagine that the last thing you might see while alive is your genitals being burned in front of you!
In addition to the excruciating pain, the sheer terror, the complete humiliation, and the prolonged process, there are two other important aspects of this method of execution.
The first is spiritual. If your body was incomplete and spread around the countryside, it could not have a Christian burial. In the mindset of the time, this may hinder your chances of reaching heaven, even if you avoid hell and get to purgatory (an added dimension of punishment and warning).
The second aspect is about communication effectiveness. Because your body was split into five parts (four quarters plus head) and sent to five different parts of the country, many more people than the local witnesses are going to be discussing your actions and the results.
In the Nineteenth Century the beheading took place after execution by hanging, and the practice was finally removed from the UK statute book in 1870.
Burning At The Stake
For reasons of public decency women were never hanged, drawn, and quartered, though they were burned at the stake for treason and a variety of other offences (notably witchcraft). In the UK the sentence was abolished in 1790. Men were also burned at the stake (mainly heretics).
Invariably woman were chained to the stake to prevent falling into the fire. A noose was also sometimes tightened around their necks which resulted in death by hanging before the flames took hold.
Some who were being burned at the stake (mostly heretics), were given bags of gunpowder to tie between their legs and under each arm. Those lucky enough to have well-lit fires soon met an explosive end, meanwhile others weren’t so fortunate.
Some of the Public Punishment Displays in King’s Lynn
1 June 1537 a priest, William Gysburgh, along with a Carmelite Friar, John Pecock, were drawn, hung, beheaded, and quartered for high treason on the Tuesday Market Place. These two were part of a “conspiracy” objecting to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, in particular, the closing of the Shrine at Walsingham. They were part of a group of 13 who were punished for this crime throughout Norfolk. Nine others were executed and two were imprisoned for life. (At the beginning of 1539 there were 70 Catholic priests in Lynn. By September there were only two.)
1590 Margaret Read was burned in the Tuesday Market Place for witchcraft. It is claimed that Margaret’s heart burst out of her body and seared a permanent sign in the brickwork of a house opposite. There is a diamond shaped heart on the brickwork of the house No 15/16 Tuesday Market Place. However, this house was built much later, and any explosion may have been the result of merciful gunpowder attached to her body.
1598 Elizabeth Housegoe was executed in the Tuesday Market Place for witchcraft.
1650 Following a late Royalist insurrection, a Major Saul was captured and then hanged in the Tuesday Market-place.
1730 Mary Taylor and her accomplice George Smith were executed in the Tuesday Market Place for the robbery and murder of her mistress. Smith was hung and Taylor was burned at the stake.
My sources record many other punishments in Lynn, though it is not always clear under what circumstances, or where precisely the punishments took place. I have listed some of them below:
- 1531 a maidservant was boiled alive for murder of her mistress.
- 1587 John Wanker’s Wife and Widow Porker were carted for whoredom – that is they were publicly exposed as prostitutes and put in a cart and driven throughout the town. “This custom was not only practised here but in Norwich and several other places …”
- 1616 Mary Smith was hanged in Lynn for witchcraft.
- 1653 One Say hanged here for killing her husband—one account says it was by poison.
- 1667 A woman, named Wharton, hanged for killing her child.
- 1676 William Pearson was hanged in Lynn for shoplifting.
- 1677 One John Swift, a shop-breaker, hanged.
- 1708 two children, Ann and Michael Hammond, were hanged for petty theft outside the South Gate
- 1710 a “scolding wife” was subjected to the indignities of the ducking stool that was situated on Purfleet Quay.
- 1749 Charles Holditch executed for burglary.
- 1751 William Chaplain, for the murder of Mary Gafferson, was hanged in chains on a gibbet upon South Lynn Common.
- 1754 One Elizabeth Neivel stood in the pillory.
- 1754 One Hannah Clark ducked for scolding.
- 1754 William Chaplain was hung for murder – “the first man known to be hung in chains in this town” (possibly a reference to him being gibbetted, that is his body being left to rot in an iron frame).
- 1766 January 27, Rudderham hanged for the murder of Leonard Wilson.
- 1782 A woman, named Howard, stood in the pillory.
- 1783 Beeton was executed for robbing the mail.
The last public execution in Lynn was in 1802 when a soldier was hanged for forgery.
© James Rye 2021
- Richard, P. (1990). King’s Lynn, Phillimore
- Richards, W. (1812). The History of Lynn: Civil, Ecclesiastical, Political, Commercial, Biographical, Municipal, and Military, from the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time, W. G. Whittingham