Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Old English Crime and Punishment: Death By Pyre...A More seemly Death For Women?

Death By Pyre was a frequent method of punishment in the barbarous days of many nations. In Britain it was used by the Anglo-Saxons as the penalty of certain crimes, and, as the standard punishment of witchcraft, it was maintained throughout the Middle Ages. The laws of Athelstan, (the first king of a unified England, 927 A.D) brutally decreed that a female slave convicted of theft was to be burned alive by eighty other female slaves. In addition, being burnt at the stake was from early times the recognized method of dealing with heretics of all classes and many different religions.

What is perhaps lesser known is the fact that death by fire was commonly used to punish women for civil offenses...as a more seemly death than hanging, since they did not need to be displayed naked as they would if drawn and quartered. This practice was considered by the framers of the law as a commutation of the sentence of hanging, and a concession made to the sex of the offenders.

"For as the decency due to the sex," says Blackstone, "forbids the exposing and publicly mangling their bodies, their sentence is, to be drawn to the gallows, and there to be burnt alive;" and he adds: "the humanity of the English nation has authorised, by a tacit consent, an almost general mitigation of such part of these judgments as savours of torture and cruelty, a sledge or hurdle being usually allowed to such traitors as are condemned to be drawn, and there being very few instances (and those accidental and by negligence) of any persons being disemboweled or burnt till previously deprived of sensation by strangling."

The annals of King's Lynn tells us that, in the year 1515, a woman was burnt in the market-place for the murder of her husband. Twenty years later, a Dutchman was burnt for reputed heresy. In the same town, in 1590, Margaret Read was burnt for witchcraft. Eight years later, a woman was executed for witchcraft, and in the year 1616, another woman suffered death for the same crime. In 1791, at King's Lynn, the landlady of a public-house was murdered by a man let into the house at the dead of night by a servant girl. The man was hanged for committing the crime, and the girl was burnt at the stake for assisting the murderer to enter the dwelling.

On 25 May 1537, Lady Ann Bulmer was convicted of high treason and burned at the stake by Henry VIII for her role in Bigod's Rebellion.

 In 1681, under English Colonial law, a slave named Maria tried to kill her owner by setting his house on fire. She was convicted of arson and burned at the stake at Roxbury, Massachusetts, and following suspected slave revolt plots in 1708, one woman was burnt alive in New York.

There is an account of a burning at Lincoln, in 1722. Eleanor Elsom was condemned to death for the murder of her husband, and was ordered to be burnt at the stake. She was clothed in a cloth, "made like a shift," saturated with tar, and her limbs were also smeared with the same inflammable substance, while a tarred bonnet had been placed on her head. She was brought out of the prison barefoot, and, being put on a hurdle, was drawn on a sledge to the place of execution near the gallows. Upon arrival, some time was passed in prayer, after which the executioner placed her on a tar barrel, a height of three feet, against the stake. A rope ran through a pulley in the stake, and was placed around her neck, she herself fixing it with her hands. Three irons also held her body to the stake, and the rope being pulled tight, the tar barrel was taken aside and the fire lighted. The details in the "Lincoln Date Book" state that she was probably quite dead before the fire reached her, as the executioner pulled upon the rope several times whilst the irons were being fixed. The body was seen amid the flames for nearly half-an-hour, though, through the dryness of the wood and the quantity of tar, the fire was exceedingly fierce.

An instance in which the negligence of the executioner caused death to be unnecessarily prolonged is found in the case of Catherine Hayes, who was executed at Tyburn, November 3rd, 1726, for the murder of her husband. She was being strangled in the accustomed manner, but the fire scorching the hands of the executioner, he relaxed the rope before she had become unconscious, and in spite of the efforts at once made to hasten combustion, she suffered for a considerable time the greatest agonies.

Two paragraphs, dealing with such cases, are in the London Magazine for July, 1735, and are as follow: "At the assizes, at Northampton, Mary Fawson was condemned to be burnt for poisoning her husband, and Elizabeth Wilson to be hanged for picking a farmer's pocket of thirty shillings."

"Among the persons capitally convicted at the assizes, at Chelmsford, are Herbert Hayns, one of Gregory's gang, who is to be hung in chains, and a woman, for poisoning her husband, is to be burnt."

In the next number of the same magazine, the first-mentioned criminal is again spoken of: "Mrs. Fawson was burnt at Northampton for poisoning her husband. Her behaviour in prison was with the utmost signs of contrition. She would not, to satisfy people's curiosity, be unveiled to anyone. She confessed the justice of her sentence, and died with great composure of mind." And also: "Margaret Onion was burnt at a stake at Chelmsford, for poisoning her husband. She was a poor, ignorant creature, and confessed the fact."

We obtain from Mr. John Glyde, jun., particulars of another case of burning for husband murder (styled petty treason). In April, 1763, Margery Beddingfield, and a farm servant, named Richard Ringe, her paramour, had murdered John Beddingfield, of Sternfield. The latter criminal was the actual murderer, his wife being considered an accomplice. He was condemned to be hanged and she burnt, at the same time and place, and her sentence was that she should "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." Accordingly, on the day appointed, she was taken to Rushmere Heath, near Ipswich, and there strangled and burnt.

Coining was, until a late period, an offense which met with capital punishment. In May, 1777, a girl of little more than fourteen years of age had, at her master's command, concealed a number of whitewashed farthings to represent shillings, for which she was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be burnt. Her master was already hanged, and the fagots but awaiting the application of the match to blaze in fury around her, when Lord Weymouth, who happened to be passing that way, humanely interfered. Said a writer in the Quarterly Review, "a mere accident saved the nation from this crime and this national disgrace."

In Harrison's Derby and Nottingham Journal, for September 23rd, 1779, is an account of two persons who were several days previously tried and convicted for high treason, the indictment being for coining shillings in Cold Bath Field, and for coining shillings in Nag's Head Yard, Bishopsgate Street. The culprit in the latter case was a man named John Fields, and in the former a woman called Isabella Condon. They were sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, the man to be hanged and the woman burnt.

Phœbe Harris, in 1786, was burnt in front of Newgate. The Chelmsford Chronicle of June 23rd, 1786, gives an account of her execution. After furnishing particulars of six men being hanged for various crimes, the report says:

"About a quarter of an hour after the platform had dropped, the female convicted" (Phœbe Harris, convicted of counterfeiting the coin called shillings) "was led by two officers of justice from Newgate to a stake fixed in the ground about midway between the scaffold and the pump. The stake was about eleven feet high, and, near the top of it was inserted a curved piece of iron, to which the end of the halter was tied. The prisoner stood on a low stool, which, after the ordinary had prayed with her a short time, being taken away, she was 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 cartloads of fagots were placed round her and set on fire; the flames presently burning the halter, the convict fell a few inches, and was then sustained by an iron chain passed over her chest and affixed to the stake. Some scattered remains of the body were perceptible in the fire at half-past ten o'clock. The fire had not completely burnt out at twelve o'clock."

The last instance on record is that of Christian Murphy, alias Bowman, who was burnt on March 18th, 1789, for coining.

The barbarous laws which permitted such repugnant exhibitions were repealed by the 30th George III., cap. 48, which provided that, after the 5th of June, 1790, women were to suffer hanging, as in the case of men.

English Queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, (wives two and five of Henry VIII) were both condemned to burn at the stake,  however their sentences were commuted to beheading.  His sixth wife, Lady Catherine Parr was also to be condemned to the tower with the same intention, however she avoided her fate by soothing his temper along with his ulcerated leg. Lady Jane Grey was also condemned to burn at the stake for attempting to usurp her cousin Mary's throne, she however, was beheaded despite the fact that her cousin later became known as "Bloody Mary" for burning so many protestants at the stake during her five year reign. In Thomas Mallory's Le Morte d' Arthur, Queen Guinevere was also sentenced to burn at the stake, but was literally rescued at the last moment by Sir Lancelot, thus presaging the beginning of the end for the glory of Camelot.

One of the more dramatic scenes in my historical fantasy, Shadows In A Timeless Myth, concerns a ritual burning at the stake (auto-de-fé) of thirteen victims, and rescue attempt during the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

Teresa Thomas Bohannon,
MyLadyWeb, Women's History, Women Authors
Regency Romance A Very Merry Chase
Historical Fantasy Shadows In A Timeless Myth.


  1. Fascinating (if gory) post, thank you. Burning is always something that seems barbaric for the sake of it but I had no idea of it being perceived as a more ladylike way to die. I'm sure the women would disagree!

  2. "For as the decency due to the sex" ... this made me laugh. Rather bitterly, because when did women ever get any decency shown to them in the bad old days? I suppose it was at the discretion of the authorities that a woman was burnt or hanged? Because there were many women hung for crimes during this time period.

  3. I think it is interesting that they felt that women should be burnt for the sake of decency, but queens that were sentenced to death would be beheaded. Yet, queens got much better treatment as prisoners, so was beheading not thought to be perhaps better treatment?

    If women had asked their preferred way to die, I doubt it would have been by burning.


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