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Off With The Head!

This week we’re returning to one of our favourite themes which is graphic execution.


This week’s chosen method of checking out is Tudor favourite of beheading, the nobleman’s execution. It’s a quicker, cleaner and more dignified death. Supposedly. But as a method of execution it’s not without its own bizarre pitfalls and eccentricities and it’s these we’re going to look at today.


This is a method of execution reserved for the gentry and the nobility. It’s the first-class carriage to the afterlife. You had to be a close, personal friend of the King to be beheaded on Tower Green, and this gives us a problem in England, because what beheading requires is a skilled executioner. You can’t just give this job to anyone who owns an axe, and skilled executioners are not really something Britain has until after beheading has gone.


When Henry VIII ordered the execution of famous second-wife Anne Boleyn he hired in a specialist executioner from France who could do the job in one swift stroke without error. I’m fairly sure there are plenty of other thoughts she wished he would have had, but it highlights the issue quite neatly when a man so powerful he’s told the Pope where to go, can’t find a decent headsman in his own back yard.

If you’ve ever seen the Blackadder special with Charles I you’ll recall that they won’t let Baldrick be the executioner for fear of him hacking away with that penknife he owns, and this isn’t too far removed from the truth.


If we take the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, who might be an enemy of the state, the debate continues on that one. But she was still a member of the Royal Family. She was first-cousin once removed to Elizabeth I. So she was family, and she was the rightful monarch of another country – remember we don’t have Great Britain until 1707. If you’re going to execute someone like this then you’d better do it cleanly.


Murdering a monarch you hold as a prisoner is one thing, see Edward IV, Henry IV, Richard III if you’re of that mind. You can get away with that. Executing a monarch is a whole different ball game.


Unfortunately for Mary her executioner, a man called Bull, was shall we say less than competent. His first blow missed her neck and hit the back of her head… and that didn’t kill her…. She was then struck again, this time it killed her but it didn’t sever the head, Bull ended up having to saw through the remaining tissue with his axe to sever the head.


This is a botched execution, but let’s give the executioner a bit of credit that history has denied him shall we? There is a persistent rumour that following the severing of the head, that Bull lifted the head by the hair and then dropped it as Mary was wearing a wig. There just isn’t the evidence to support this.


The most famous account of the execution is that of Robert Wynkfelde who wrote the following description:


he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short”


The wig certainly fell off her head. But there is no account of Bull dropping the head. You don’t get to be an executioner of monarchs with such errors, and while Bull can take his place in history as presiding over farce, we don’t need to need to make it more farcical.



With this sort of pressure to perform you can see why nobody really wanted to be an executioner. At the execution of the Earl of Kilmarnock (above) in 1746, according to the account in the Gentleman’s Magazine, the executioner needed something administering to prevent him from fainting. Then the public scenes became too much for him and he burst in to tears.


In the end he had to be comforted and reassured by the very man he was there to behead. He ended up paying him 5 guineas for a good job, and it still took two blows.


So in order to make things much easier on the executioners and generally cleaner and more accurate, particularly if you’re doing a large number of executions then of course we have to look to France, the late eighteenth century and Dr. Guillotin yes?


Well no.. actually…


If we’re wanting to look at the history of the Guillotine then we want to look at the picturesque Yorkshire town of Halifax, what we believe to be the late 13th century and the Halifax Gibbet.


Basically under the manor of Wakefield in the early middle ages the lord had the power to execute thieves who stole to the value of more than 13 and a half pence:


“If a felon be taken within their liberty or precincts of the said forest [the Forest of Hardwick], either handhabend [caught with the stolen goods in his hand or in the act of stealing], backberand [caught carrying stolen goods on his back], or confessand [having confessed to the crime] cloth or any other commodity to the value of 13½d, that they shall after three market days or meeting days within the town of Halifax after such his apprehension, and being condemned he shall be taken to the gibbet and there have his head cut off from his body.”


It's worth pointing out here as well that this law just requires two pieces of evidence. Were stolen goods found on the defendant’s person? And were those goods worth more than 13½ pence. If the answer to both of those questions was yes then off with the head – you didn’t need to have stolen them yourself, or even know that they were stolen.


The device used to execute was unique to England at that time and resembles this – look familiar? – this is a 17th Century engraving of the Halifax Gibbet so we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that Halifax had it before France.



It’s a wooden structure where an axe blade is wedged into a heavy block of wood which runs down grooves. The block is secured by a rope and pin, and when the pin is removed the block, and blade will come crashing down severing the neck with one stroke. The pin would be attached to a rope which was then attached to a horse or ox. In this way the condemned was technically killed by the animal rather than a common man and therefore didn’t put any souls in mortal danger. They’ve thought of everything haven’t they?


However one contemporary account from Ralph Holinshed 1586 adds a level of audience participation to the proceedings:


“In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin ... unto the middest of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that when the offender hath made his confession, and hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed) and pulling out the pin in this manner, the head block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such violence, that if the neck of the transgressor were so big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke, and roll from the body by a huge distance.”


Because, if nothing else, Yorkshire folk do like to be involved.


Because we don’t have a record of when precisely it was built we can’t truly say how old it really is. The timeline starts from the first execution we’ve been able to identify it with, which was John of Dalton in 1286, and from there until its last recorded use in 1650 prior to being outlawed by Crowell it has executed over 100 people that we know of.



It was dismantled after 1650 but a replica stands in the same site on Gibbet Street in Halifax today. The blade you can see there is cast from the actual gibbet blade at the time of dismantling, and that is on display in the Bankfield Museum on the other side of town.


Halifax may well be the first but it isn’t the only beheading machine we know about, the original Maiden is currently on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and we know that was in use between 1564 and 1710.


Of course the guillotine itself would be made legendary by France throughout the French Revolution and beyond, but not only were they somewhat late to the automated beheading party, but this is one of those things that’s a lot less historic than you think.


The last guillotining in France was done on 10 September 1977 – that’s within my lifetime. In fact that’s 4 months after the release of Star Wars… think about that, the last man to have his head removed by a guillotine, was 4 months after the first man to have his arm removed by a lightsabre.


I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that fact.


Thank you for reading.

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