Sunday, August 5, 2012

So you say you want an execution...

by Samuel Thomas

Writers of historical fiction love executions. From Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, to Nancy Bilyeau’s The Crown, to my own The Midwife’s Tale, authors cannot resist the lure of the gallows or (even better) the stake. Such moments provide drama, and tell the reader something important about the world our characters inhabit.

Unlike today’s executions which usually take place in a private (and bizarrely medical) setting, early modern executions had all the trappings of a civic ritual. Prayers were said, sermons preached, speeches delivered, all with the goal of setting the world right after a terrible murder. The blood of the victim cried out for justice – an eye for an eye – and the executioner provided it. 

 But the symbolism went further than this.  In many cases, a murderer was executed not at the prison, but at the very scene of the crime. In 1668, Thomas Savage murdered his fellow servant, and after his conviction, he was hanged from a gibbet built in front of the house where he’d committed the crime. What better way to close the book on a murder?

Executions thus were morality plays in which the Crown saw justice done and overawed its subjects with the power of life and death. Given this public setting, it was important that everyone played their part. The condemned was supposed to confess to his crime and confirm that the execution was just. The crowd were supposed to bear witness to justice and the power of the government.

If this was the goal of the play, however, in many cases the actors or the audience went off-script and improvised an entirely new drama, with a much more opaque meaning. The first place that the meaning of an execution could go wrong was with the crowd, for many executions had all the dignity of a three-ring circus.  Peddlers strolled through the crowd crying their wares, and many in attendance treated the execution as an opportunity for eating, drinking and socializing.

One pamphlet from 1696 shows a preacher delivering an execution sermon, while behind him see not only the condemned offering up his last prayers, but a magician performing on an adjacent stage. (In this case it seems better to be the opening act than the headliner.) In other cases, government officials explained their decision to publish the condemned prisoner’s final words by saying that the crowd was too loud for anyone to hear him. 

If a festive crowd (and magician) could get an execution off on the wrong foot, the condemned could make things worse. In many cases, Catholics those condemned for treason proved the most difficult to control. Some Catholics claimed to die as martyrs to the Church (rather than traitors to the Crown – a vital distinction at the time), kissing each step of the ladder as they climbed it, and in one case kissing the executioner himself! Once on the scaffold, they would use their final speeches not to affirm the justice of their execution, but to defend the Catholic Church.

In cases such as these, the crowd or even the presiding officials could get involved, once again robbing the event of its solemnity. In 1591, judge Richard Topcliffe attacked one prisoner saying, “Dog-bolt Papists! You follow the Pope and his Bulls; believe me, I think some bulls begot you all!” Not to be out done, the condemned replied, “If we have bulls [for] our fathers, thou hast a cow to thy mother!” Other prisoners taunted the crowd (who naturally gave as good as they got), or even engaged in raucous religious debates.

If executions were meant as awe-inspiring ceremonies that demonstrated the government’s power, many did not get the message, and we can only wonder what those involved made of such events.


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. To give you some idea of the holiday atmosphere of a public execution follow the link to the last one to take place in America, complete with photographs, things hadn't changed much


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