Katherine Royer’s new book, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2015) analyses the meanings behind the often gruesome executions carried out in the medieval and early modern period.
Reviewed by Stephen Basdeo
To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the usual method of execution for those accused of treason between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was one of the grimmest ways that a malefactor in the medieval and early modern period could meet his end. An illustration found in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora (1259) depicts a man being dragged along the ground tied to a horse. Once the offender arrived at the place of execution, he would have hanged almost to the point of death where usually he was disembowelled and had his ‘privy members’ (penis and testicles) cut off, until finally he was quartered: his head and all of his limbs would be cut off and each part of his body would be displayed throughout the kingdom. Reading about these forms of executions can be unsettling for modern readers.
Yet in a way, these criminals have lived on: their final moments have been recorded in medieval chronicles, last dying speeches, criminal biographies. I have written regularly on this site about the last dying speeches of condemned men during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I confess I knew little about such speeches from before this era. This was until I read Katherine Royer’s The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2016), which examines narratives of public executions, in particular the last dying words of offenders about to face ‘spectacular’ or ‘exemplary justice’, during the medieval and early modern periods.
Royer currently serves as a Professor of History at California State University Stanislau, where she teaches a variety of subjects and time periods ranging from the middle ages to the nineteenth century. She has previously published on similar topics, and The English Execution Narrative is her first monograph.[i] And it is an impressive tome. For too long, scholarship on public executions and their related narratives in print have been beholden to Michel Foucault whose Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). Foucault argues that exemplary executions in medieval and early modern Europe were part of the long march in the state’s attempts to establish a monopoly of violence. While Discipline and Punish contains some valuable insights, is now rather dated and Foucault’s findings, dealing as he does with France and Europe, are often inapplicable in parts to the British Isles which developed a wholly different legal system. For example, as Royer points in her introduction, torture was never a formal part of criminal law in England during the late medieval period, especially after 1215 with the passage of Magna Carta, when the legal process relied on a jury to convict (in theory if not always in practice) (p 4). Thus, it is refreshing to see a scholar of executions in Britain move away from Foucault.
But it is not with the legal system that Royer is concerned, but rather the final moment in a felon’s life as it is depicted in ‘narratives’. The definition of narratives is left quite broad, and in the book it is taken to mean anything ranging from the supposed last words of an offender as recorded in chronicles and pamphlets, to the display of criminals’ physical remains in towns. The first chapter challenges the idea that the display of malefactors’ body parts in towns and cities throughout the country was an attempt by the state to deter would-be criminals from committing acts of domestic order, and thereby facilitating the development of the state’s monopoly of violence (p. 16). As Royer points out, rarely did issues of domestic disorder (such as rioting or treason) influence a ruler’s decision to have a person hanged, drawn, and quartered. Most of those who were subject to the punishment in thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were not English subjects but foreigners who had waged war against the king of England. Thus, the imposition of such a sentence had more to do with the imperialist politics of the Angevin Empire and less to do with deterrence.
The chapter that I personally found most interesting was Royer’s second chapter entitled ‘The Case of the Missing Blood’. The descriptions of executions in various contemporary narratives are often horrific. Yet, as Royer points out, rarely do they refer to blood or to bleeding. I confess that this is something that I had considered as being of little consequence: after all, if a person is being emasculated, disembowelled, and then hacked to pieces, the presence of blood should be implicit in every execution narrative, should it not? Royer cites a contemporary account of the execution of Hugh Despenser to begin her chapter:
His private parts were cut off … his private parts were then cast into a large fire kindled close to him; afterwards his heart was thrown into the same fire because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable councils so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded … the other parts of Sir Hugh were thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London (p. 33).
As we can see, blood is mentioned nowhere in this rather grim account. Royer considers other similar cases to this account, and we find indeed that Despenser’s account is typical. The reason that blood is never mentioned, Royer argues convincingly, is because blood was connected to ideas of the innocence of Christ, who, of course, had been wrongly executed. Blood humanised people, and the deliberate omission of blood from execution narratives were designed to do the opposite: to dehumanise the condemned; Christ was innocent and his blood was spilt, the felons on the chopping block were not. The subsequent display of traitors’ body parts were a further stage in this process of dehumanisation: it reduced the remains of the condemned to no better status than beasts’ carcasses, left to rot out in the open air (p. 45).
The third chapter examines the idea of death on the scaffold: why was it necessary that traitors’ body parts be exposed to the elements in public locations, if it was not about deterrence? Nowadays, death is usually depicted as a single moment: as Royer points out, today, doctors are asked to state ‘time of death’, and so forth. But in the medieval period, they had a different view of death: they lacked precision in estimating time, which was usually estimated by the position of the sun or social conventions, such as the time it took to say a prayer (p. 51). In this imprecise world, there was three stages of death: the social death, in which a traitor was cut off from the community and taken on a journey to the place of execution; physical death through torture then followed; the final stage was a spiritual death, in which the life force left the body, which could only be achieved once the carcass had completely decayed (pp. 51-2). However, politics and ideology soon changed this state of affairs: the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory meant that eventually, by the late medieval period, death became a discrete event rather than a long, drawn out process. In tandem with this were the crusades: when kings died abroad, their bodies were embalmed and divided up; after their deaths abroad kings’ souls were in purgatory, but they were physically dead (p. 53). After the idea of death as a discrete event became the norm, what began to matter more in accounts of executions was not the physical display of traitors’ remains, but their behaviour in their last dying moments. This of course paved the way for the decline of hanging, drawing and quartering in England, and the adaptation of the French amende honorable into the English last dying speech in the sixteenth century.
A better title could have been chosen for the fourth chapter, ‘Clothes and the Construction of Identity on the Scaffold in Early Modern England’. Royer makes the point that, in contrast to medieval traitors who wore sackcloth to the scaffold, early modern traitors were allowed to wear whatever they wanted. In effect, they could shape people’s perceptions of themselves in their last dying moments. While this is very interesting, the chapter is about so much more than clothes: for an important part of post-medieval execution narratives is that condemned criminals were allowed to speak before their deaths, which permitted them to rehabilitate their characters in front of the community, which is the argument of the fourth chapter. Tudor monarchs originally allowed the condemned to speak in return for a statement of submission to the will of the king or queen. Thus, there is the execution of Ann Boleyn for treason against Henry VIII:
Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.[ii]
However, this opened the door to defiance on the scaffold: criminals often made a last dying speech which sounded as though it conformed to the state’s requirements, but was subtly ambiguous enough as to challenge the government. For example, men like Thomas Wyatt proclaimed that they had been ‘lawfully condemned’, but they never actually admitted the crime for which they were sent to the executioners’ block. Other common terms at the scaffold were ‘the law has found me guilty’, implying that the condemned was submitting to an unjust sentence, but that they did not consider themselves guilty of the charge. Moreover, bravery was the sign of a guilt-free heart, and if a traitor showed courage in the face of death, this further subverted the state’s narrative about the guilt of the condemned (p. 77).
The concluding chapter examines a further stage in the evolution of the execution narrative: the emergence of widespread print culture in the seventeenth century and its implications upon depictions of felons’ last dying moments. As we have seen, death had by the early modern period become a final, discrete event in a felons’ life, and their behaviour on the scaffold was increasingly focused upon by writers. Writers, therefore, with the emergence of the execution broadside and biographical pamphlet, looked back over the course of a criminals’ life and endeavoured to show that their whole lives were the product of wickedness. Thus, the stage was set for the flurry of criminals’ lives that appeared during the eighteenth century.
Royer makes frequent use of the term ‘spectacular justice’, yet the meaning of this is left unclear in the main body of the text. It is defined in further detail in the notes: ‘the term spectacular justice or theatrical justice will be used to refer to an execution that was meant in some form or another to be theatrical and public’ (p. 102). There is no issue with Royer using this definition, but a reader should not have to search through the book for an endnote to find the definition of a key term used throughout.
In spite of the above, Royer’s work is a refreshing read which avoids jargon and will be of use to anyone interested in crime and execution during the medieval and early modern period.
Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700, 2nd Edn. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 187pp. ISBN9781138664753 RRP £30.00
[i] Further publications by Royer on similar topics include the following works: “Dead Men Talking: Truth, Texts and the Scaffold in Early Modern England,” in Penal Practice and Culture 1500-1900: Punishing the English, edited by Simon Devereaux and Paul Griffiths. Basingstoke: Palgrave Press, 2004: 63-85; “The Body in Parts: Reading the Execution Ritual in Late Medieval England,” Historical Reflections, 29 (2003): 319-339.