Elizabeth Ist coat of arms

Elizabethan Executions

Picture of a Pirate being Hung

Picture of a Pirate being Hung

Elizabethan England - Elizabethan Executions
Elizabethan England and Elizabethan Executions. The Death Penalty was definitely not an issue during the Elizabethan era, the only question was what form of execution did the person in question deserve. Elizabethan England was split into two classes - the Upper Class consisting of the nobility and courtiers, and high ranking members of the Clergy - and everyone else.

The Upper class were well educated, wealthy and associated with Royalty. They would often become involved in Political intrigue and matters of Religion. The nobility could therefore become involved in crime which were not shared by other people. The form of executions would vary according to class.

Elizabethan Executions by Beheading - the Traditions of the Elizabethan Upper Class
Executions by beheading were considered the least brutal of execution methods and were accorded to important State prisoners or people of noble birth. Various traditions were observed at executions by beheading. A raised platform was built (scaffold) and covered with straw. A minister of the church would be available to offer religious comfort to the victim. The victim would be expected to pay and forgive the executioner. It would be hoped that the headsman completed his job swiftly and with care. Death by beheading with the use of the axe could be a terrifying prospect. The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed. If the executioner' axe was sharp and his aim was true, beheading was quick and relatively painless. If the instrument was blunt, the axeman inexperienced or careless, then the execution might take several strokes to sever the head. This was certainly the case in the execution by beheading of the brave Countess of Salisbury who died on 27th May 1541. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head on the block. She was forced down and struggled. The inexperienced executioner made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. She leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, with his axe. She was struck eleven times before she died. There were 150 witnesses to her execution. She was 68 years of age.  The condemned prisoners was usually given the opportunity to address the spectators - with the sovereign's permission. The speeches given at this terrible time were made with the knowledge that the victim's family would suffer should the victim anger the King or Queen any further.

Executions by Beheading - the Tradition of showing the head...
Following execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner. This was done, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the faces of crowd and it's own body. Killing by beheading is not immediate. Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness and eventually death. The punishment by beheading therefore even continued after 'death'. The Heads of Elizabethan traitors were placed on stakes and displayed in public places such as London Bridge.

Elizabethan Executions by being Hung,

Drawn and Quartered
The most dreadful punishment of being Hung, Drawn and Quartered. This barbaric form of execution was reserved for the most hated prisoners who had usually been convicted of treason.  The form of execution referred to as being Hung, Drawn and Quartered was described by William Harrison, an Elizabethan chronicler, as:

"The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose." The Quarters of the the body were then hung in prescribed locations in the City of London as a deterrent to all English citizens.

Executions by being burnt at the Stake
Being burnt at the stake was another terrible form of death and execution. Executioners sometimes showed mercy to their victims by placing gunpowder at the base of the stake which helped the victims to a swifter, and less painful, death. The only other respite from the excruciating pain of being burnt alive was if the victims died of suffocation through smoke inhalation and lack of oxygen. This form of execution was traditionally reserved for traitors or those who spoke out against the religion favored by the current sovereign. Queen Elizabeth's Catholic sister Queen Mary sent over 300 Protestants to their death by burning earning herself the name of Bloody Mary.

Additional forms of Elizabethan Executions
The other forms of execution included the following methods:

  • Hanging
  • Pressing
  • Boiling in oil water or lead (usually reserved for poisoners )
  • Starvation

The Places of Executions
The vast majority of Upper class prisoners, housed in the Tower of London, who were sentenced to death met their end in public on Tower Hill. But private executions of Tower of London prisoners were conducted behind the walls of the Tower if the execution was considered too politically sensitive to carry out in open view - this especially applied to the executions of women. The public executions of the Lower Classes and less honored members of the upper classes, especially traitors, were conducted at Tyburn and Smithfield in London.

Famous people put to death by Executions during the lifetime of Elizabeth

  • Anne Boleyn (1536) - the mother of Queen Elizabeth I
    • Mark Smeaton
    • Sir Henry Norris
    • George Boleyn
    • Sir Francis Weston
    • William Brereton
  • Thomas Cromwell (1540)
  • Catherine Howard (1542)
    • Thomas Culpepper
    • Henry Mannox
    • Francis Dereham
    • Jane Rochford
  • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1546)
  • Thomas, Duke of Norfolk (1546)
  • Thomas Seymour, High Admiral of England (1549)
  • Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector (1552)
  • Lady Jane Grey (1554)
  • Guildford Dudley - husband of Lady Jane Grey (1554)
  • February 8, 1587 - Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
  • 25th February 1601 Robert Devereux (1566-1601), Earl of Essex was executed

The lifetime of Elizabeth was fraught with danger. Executions were common place. When she was crowned Queen she avoided signing death warrants. She bitterly regretted signing the execution warrants of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex. Compared to her predecessors Elizabeth was a merciful monarch. For details of the famous executions which took place at the Tower of London we recommend the following link: Executions at the Tower of London.

Elizabethan England
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