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Authors: Geoffrey Abbott

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Seventeenth-century Japan, a country never averse to employing fiendishly fatal tortures, refined the conventional one of being buried alive into a method they named ‘torment of the fosse’.

The victim was suspended by his ankles from a gallows erected immediately over a hole dug in the earth, the length of the rope being such that the upper part of his body was below the level of the ground.

Suitably shaped boards were then placed tightly about his body to cover the hole, and pegged to the ground so that little light and air was able to penetrate. One of the victim’s arms remained unpinioned and above ground so that he could signal when he was prepared to confess to the crime of which he had been accused, or that he was ready to renounce his faith and accept another.

The sufferings of the victim were indescribable, and since its introduction in 1633 many criminals, heretics and political offenders met their deaths in that manner.



‘Some scattered remains of the body were perceptible in the fire at half-past ten o’clock, and the fire had not completely burnt out by twelve o’clock.’

This horrific method of execution was generally reserved not only for heretics but also for witches and women who had committed crimes such as petty treason – murdering their husbands, for instance – or high treason – such as counterfeiting the coins of the realm. They were not burned, as may be thought, in order to inflict one of the worst punishments possible on them; on the contrary, it was in order to protect their modesty: as the contemporary chronicler Sir William Blackstone phrased it, ‘for the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling their bodies’. In other words, instead of hanging and disembowelling them in full view of the lecherous, gloating spectators, they were to be set on fire.

In London the stake was usually erected at Smithfield. The unfortunate woman, usually seated on a stool, was then bound to the stake with either a chain or a noose about her neck, or a witch’s bridle, an iron ring 9 inches in diameter, with a hinged opening enabling it to be locked about her throat and secured to the stake.

The kindling and faggots heaped high around her were then ignited. But before any harm could come to her from the flames, the noose or chain would be tightened, or the stool pulled away, so that she died of strangulation before the fire took hold. That was the theory, and sometimes it actually worked, as in the case of Elizabeth Wright who, in 1733, ‘was put up in the cart with the other prisoners and joined in the prayers and begged hard to be allowed to be hanged with them. She was afterwards fastened to the stake set up on purpose and burned to ashes but was dead before the fire touched her, the executioner having first thrown down the stool on which she stood, from under her feet, and given her several blows on the breast.’

Eleanor Elsom, guilty of murdering her husband, was treated in the same approved and considerate manner, at Lincoln in 1722. With her clothes and limbs thickly smeared with tar, and wearing a tarred bonnet, she was dragged barefoot, on a hurdle, to the execution site near the gallows. After prayers, she stood on a tar-barrel positioned against the stake, to which she was secured by chains. A rope ran through the pulley attached to the stake, and a noose at its end was laced around her neck. When all was ready, the executioner pulled hard on the rope, strangling her as the fire was lighted, the flames roared upwards quickly, but it was half an hour before her body was totally consumed.

Mary Fawson was found guilty of poisoning her husband in Northampton in 1735, the
London Magazine
describing her demeanour: ‘Her behaviour in prison was with the utmost signs of contrition. She would not, to satisfy people’s curiosity, be unveiled to anyone, but confessed the justice of her sentence and died with great composure of mind.’ The magazine went on to mention ‘Margaret Onion, who was burned at the stake at Chelmsford, for poisoning her husband. She was a poor ignorant creature, and confessed the fact.’

Nor were these isolated cases. In the sixteenth century a spate of burnings took place in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, a woman being burned to death in the market-place in 1515, guilty of murdering her husband, and Margaret Read suffered the same fate in 1590, accused of being a witch. Two centuries later, in 1791, the landlady of a tavern in that town was murdered by a thief who had been admitted at dead of night by one of the servant girls. The miscreant was hanged and the girl burned to death at the stake.

Another accomplice to a crime was Margery Bedingfield who, together with her lover Richard Ringe, murdered her husband John, in April 1763. Although Ringe struck the actual blow, Margery was sentenced ‘to be taken from hence to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, on Saturday next, where you are to be burnt until you be dead; and the Lord have mercy on your soul’. And on the appointed day she and her lover were taken to Rushmere Heath near Ipswich where, at the same time, he was hanged and she was strangled and burned.

If contriving to become a widow was a heinous crime if detected, so too was counterfeiting coins, as Phoebe Harris found out in June 1786. The
Chelmsford Chronicle
reported that six men had been hanged for various crimes, continuing:

‘About a quarter of an hour after the trap had dropped following the men’s executions, the female counterfeiter, Phoebe Harris, was led by two officers of justice from Newgate to a stake fixed in the ground about midway between the scaffold and the pump [later needed to cool the ashes]. The stake was about eleven feet high, and near its top was a curved piece of iron to which the end of the halter was tied.

The prisoner stood on a low stool which, after prayers had been said, was removed, leaving her suspended by the neck, her feet being scarcely more than twelve or fourteen inches from the pavement.

Soon after the signs of life had ceased, two cart-loads of faggots were placed round her and set on fire. The flames presently burnt through the halter and the convict fell a few inches, being then supported by the iron chain around her chest and affixed to the stake. Some scattered remains of the body were perceptible in the fire at half-past ten o’clock, and the fire had not completely burnt out by twelve o’clock.’

Not all women, however, were fortunate enough to die before the flames started to lick around them, as poor Catherine Hayes would testify, were she able. Having disposed of her husband, she was taken to Tyburn on 9 May 1726 to be executed as sentenced. As soon as the rope was placed around her neck, the fire was started, but it flared up so quickly that executioner Richard Arnet scorched his hands badly while trying to reach the strangling rope and was beaten back by the heat. In vain Catherine screamed and endeavoured to push the burning timbers away from her. But the flames were leaping too high to be extinguished. In desperation, more faggots were quickly thrown on the fire to hasten the end of the burning, struggling woman, ‘her body not being perfectly reduced to ashes in less than three hours’.

Fire was also employed to cleanse the wayward souls of heretics, the first Act of Parliament permitting this being passed in the reign of Henry IV. By this act the bishops were authorised to arrest and imprison on suspicion, without any check or restraint, at their will and pleasure, anyone who refused to acknowledge their religious errors, who persisted in heresy, or who relapsed after renouncing their heresy. And they would then be sentenced to be burned alive.

The first one to suffer under the dreaded act was William Sautre, a chaplain found guilty of heresy; the Convocation of Canterbury stripped him of his ecclesiastical rank, the Church declaring no further need for him. Accordingly, the mayor and sheriffs of London took over responsibility, and Sautre was taken to a public place, probably Smithfield, and there the sentence was carried out.

The burning of heretics was quite a common sight in Tudor times. In 1537, in the reign of Henry VIII, the Pilgrimage of Grace occurred, a half-political, half-religious rising of the people. The rising was savagely suppressed, and the leaders were hanged; one, Lady Bulmer, was burned at the stake. During the five-year reign of Queen Mary, about 300 heretics died in the same manner; in the 45 years in which Queen Elizabeth ruled, many hundreds perished in the flames.

A typical case, described by a contemporary chronicler, was that of Friar Forest in 1539:

‘At his coming to the place of execution at Smithfield there was prepared a great scaffold (platform) on which sat the nobles of the realm, and the King’s majesty’s honourable council, only to have granted a pardon to that wretched creature, if any spark of repentance would have happened to him. There was also prepared a pulpit where a Right Reverend in God, and a renowned and famous clerk, the Bishop of Worcester, called Hugh Latimer, declared to him his errors; but such was his forwardness, that he neither would hear nor speak.

For Forest a gallows was prepared there on which he was hanged (suspended) in chains, by the middle and arm-holes, all quick; and a little while before his execution a huge and great image, which image was brought from Wales, and by the Welshmen much sought and worshipped, was burnt in the fire made under the heretic.

This friar when he saw the fire come, and that present death was at hand, caught hold upon the ladder, which he would not let go, but so impatiently was consumed and burned to death.’

Some victims of the flames were allowed to have small bags of gunpowder hung about their bodies and under their armpits to speed their demise. But even with such merciful aids, errors occurred. Where the faggots had not been piled high enough to reach the bags, considerable time could elapse before the exploding powder brought blessed relief.

When, ironically, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, who rebuked Friar Forest for his heresy, was himself burned at the stake at Oxford, together with fellow bishop Ridley, on the orders of Queen Mary in 1555, both were permitted that explosive concession. Latimer died first; as the flames blazed up around him, he bathed his hands in them and stroked his face. Then the powder exploded and he died immediately.

His companion was less fortunate. The branches had been stacked too thickly over the gorse kindling and smouldered, white-hot, around his legs, prolonging his suffering. ‘I cannot burn,’ he exclaimed. ‘Lord have mercy upon me; let the fire come to me; I cannot burn.’ His brother-in-law, with difficulty, threw more wood on, which succeeded only in keeping the flames down until someone lifted the smouldering faggots with a long fork, so that the flames suddenly roared upwards. Ridley forced himself into the heart of the fire, and the powder then did its work.

Another who suffered in similar fashion was John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, executed on Mary’s orders in the same city as the others. The execution site was outside the college of priests where he used to teach; spectators crowded the area and priests stood and watched from the rooms over the gateway. As he knelt to pray, a box was brought, in which was the Queen’s Pardon which would be granted if he would renounce his religion, but he waved it away and prepared himself for the stake, the sheriff insisting that he should remove his doublet, waistcoat and hose, leaving only his shirt.

BOOK: Execution: A Guide to the Ultimate Penalty
6.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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