Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
  playwright game the show for educators
dossier players locations evidence glossary works In Search of Shakespeare - Home
« back     Full Timeline     Fribbling Reports


Execution - Elizabethan style

hanged, drawn and quartered engraving
Hanged, drawn and quartered engraving
Execution was a popular spectator sport in Elizabethan England, and as such, became an effective tool of the police state in maintaining loyalty and obedience to the crown.

Petty criminals could be hanged for a variety of offences, nobles and even royalty beheaded, but if the state really wanted to make an example of the victim - usually on the grounds of supposed treachery - their chosen method of execution was as barbaric as anything yet seen.

If the Roman concept of crucifixion seems cruel and unusual enough to modern eyes, think what kind of imagination that the man who came up with the almost Monty Pythonesque notion of hanging, drawing and quartering must have had.

Victims would first be dragged from their prison to the place of execution on a wooden hurdle pulled by horses, suffering the contempt and abuse of the crowd as they went. The whole process would be conducted publically, often at the site of an established market or meeting place, like Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch stands today), Smithfield (which aptly would become a famous meat market), Cheapside or St. Giles. The victims would there be hanged by the neck for a while, then cut down while still alive.

Next the executioner would castrate the victim, slit them open and haul out internal organs before setting fire to them. You would have to hope for the victim's sake that they died early on in this process, because after that things got really unpleasant.

Taking a butcher's knife, the executioner would begin to carve up the body, separating limbs from the torso, and of course the head from the shoulders. These body parts would then be taken to high profile areas - usually gateways into the city or river crossings like London Bridge - and displayed on long poles to warn travellers of the terrible fate that awaited traitors.

It should be remembered, however, that these were already brutal times. Death in childhood was common, plague regularly raged through the population, street violence was an everyday occurrence, and numerous conflicts had flooded the city streets with horrifically maimed veterans. Bating, in which bears or bulls fought dogs to the death, was considered a family entertainment. Simon Cowell, take note!

To really make a point against a backdrop of such everyday brutality you had to be really, really nasty in your treatment of those who had displeased the State.


The River Thames, LondonShakespeare's London

Warwickshire landscapeShakespeare's England

« back  
©MayaVision International, 2003 (site credits) (site feedback)