Executions at the permanent gallows at Tyburn, west of the city, were an enormously popular tourist attraction and created an instant celebrity of the condemned.  William Hogarth’s depiction of the Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn, part of a series called Industry and Idleness, paints a vivid scene. In the right background can be seen the triple tree of Tyburn; each of its three horizontal beams could hang eight men at once. The hangman is seen casually smoking his pipe on one of these beams. The condemned is arriving in a cart, left midground, accompanied by his coffin and an exhortative preacher.  In the foreground a poor woman, holding her baby, is selling what purports to be the condemned’s dying speech.

The Description of Tyburn
by John Taylor (the Water-Poet)

I Have heard sundry men oft times dispute
Of trees, that in one year will twice bear fruit.
But if a man note Tyburn, ‘will appear,
That that’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.
I muse it should so fruitful be, for why
I understand the root of it is dry,
It bears no leaf, no bloom, or no bud,
The rain that makes it fructify is blood.
I further note, the fruit which it produces,
Doth seldom serve for profitable uses:
Except the skillful Surgeons industry
Do make Dissection of Anatomy.

Here, Taylor invokes the use of executed bodies for surgeons to practice on.  Some men arranged for their friends to steal their body after an execution so their remains would not suffer that fate.

Newgate Prison

For a gaoler’s fee, the public could view the condemned the day before an execution and even be let into his cell at Newgate Prison.

A Prison is a grave to bury men alive . . . it is a microcosmos, a little world of woe, it is a map of misery . . . . It is a place that hath more diseases predominant in it than the Pest-house in the Plague time, and it stinks more than the Lord Mayers dogge-house, or Paris garden in August …

From Essays and characters of a prison and prisoners by Geffray Mynshull (1618)

There were eighteen prisons in and around the city of London in Shakespeare’s time including the Tower but excluding Bridewell.  In theory, all prisons as well as the bodies of his subjects were owned by the king.  Like the court system, each prison usually specialized in a type of criminal.  The most well known was Newgate, for felons, debtors and those awaiting execution, Ludgate for debtors and bankrupts, and the Fleet which contained offenders in the courts of Chancery and Starchamber.  Other less known prisons were the The Wood Street Counter, Bread Street Prison, and the Gatehouse at Westminster.

Considering its reputation, it is not surprising that Southwark had more prisons than London.  The more well known locations were the Clink which housed religious offenders, the King’s Bench for “debt, trespass and other causes,” the Marshalsea for debtors, religious prisons, and pirates (maritime offenses), East Smithfield Prison for “theefe or paltry debters,” and New Prison for heretics.  Others include The Counter in the Poultry, The Compter, the White Lion, the Hole at St. Katherines, and the Lord Wentworth’s. The Tower held the most important political prisoners and was the earliest building used as a prison.  Two prisons of a different category were Bethlehem Hospital (or Bedlam as it was commonly called), a madhouse which operated as a concession under its Tudor administration.  Many paid to see the inmates as a form of performance, a showcase for madness.  The last example is Bridewell, a house of correction for prostitutes and vagrants – “idle knaves” – who were beaten before being brought and forced to perform labor as an early form of rehabilitation.

A stay in prison had a different significance to a London citizen.  Experienced by innumerable members of all social strata (the playwrights Jonson, Chapman, Dekker, Marston, Lyly, and Tourneur were familiar to its workings), prisons were used more as a holding place before a court date than as a means of punishment.  The crimes were the focal point of interest, not the prison stay, in judging a man.  The language and conditions of the prison were familiar to any pedestrian since the jails were not segregated from the public.

The Fatal Bellman

In 1605, a wealthy merchant and tailor named Robert Dow bequethed 50 pounds to have a bell rung outside the cell of the condemned at midnight before an execution. The Bellman of St. Sepulchre (a clerk at the church) would recite the following while ringing a handbell:

All you that in the condemned hole do lie,
Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die;
Watch all and pray: the hour is drawing near
That you before the Almighty must appear;
Examine well yourselves in time repent,
That you may not to eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls
The Lord above have mercy on your soul.

The Procession

Early the following morning, the prisoner would be moved from Newgate Prison on a cart, often seated on his own coffin, with a prison chaplain. When the procession reached the steps of St. Sepulchre, the criminal would be given brightly colored nosegays by friends, the church bell would sound, and the clerk would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the parade passed by, the clerk would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” According to the popularity of the criminal, he could be pelted with rocks and other missiles or cheered along the two-hour trip to Tyburn.

Another important processional leading to a hanging was the execution of pirates on the banks of the Thames in the area known as Wapping.  Practiced for more than four centuries, those convicted of piracy were brought from Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, across London Bridge, and past the Tower to Execution Dock.  The procession was led on horseback by the Admiralty Marshal or his deputy carrying a silver oar.  The oar represented the authority of the Admiralty which had jurisdiction over crimes on the sea (offenses on land were the responsibility of the civil courts).  Like the Tyburn ritual, the prisoner traveled on a cart with a chaplain by his side.  With the church of St. Mary in the background and a crowd assembled on land or on boats moored in the river, he was given the same opportunity of a last dying speech.

After being “turned off” (see Glossary), the tide would rise and submerge the body.  The custom held that three tides would wash over it before it was taken away.  After the hanging, the more notorious pirates were covered with tar and suspended on a gibbet or in irons along the Thames at Graves Point to warn sailors on ingoing and outgoing ships the price of mutiny and piracy.  Captain Kidd was the most famous pirate executed at Wapping but for reasons unknown to me, he was incarcerated at Newgate prison instead of the Marshalsea where pirates were usually held.  Today, the original location is overlooked by a riverside pub called the Captain Kidd.

Last Words

After drinking with the hangman at a tavern along the way and saying prayers with the chaplain, the condemned would arrive at the gallows with the expectation of a “last dying speech,” his final penitent words on the precipice of eternity. Not all prisoners were willing to follow the script due to claims of innocence, resentment of the spectacle, religious beliefs or complete inebriation. In any case, this was a high theatrical moment that many dramatists found too rich to overlook on the stage. Considering the popularity of the Tyburn spectacle and its cultural importance to Londoners, it is little wonder that Shakespeare makes a reference to hanging (literally or by the popular oath “go hang!”) in almost all of his plays.

Emotions could run high at executions and sympathy was often stirred up in the crowd. There are instances of riots breaking out when surgeons tried to claim dead bodies after a hanging for purposes of dissection. In 1586, when the Babington conspirators were hanged, drawn, and quartered, there was such a public outcry concerning the barbarity of the procedure that the authorities decided only to hang the next seven the following day. Obviously, there were limits to the support that could be given by the public.

Reading an Execution

Execution was an aesthetic as well as emotional experience. The ars moriendi tradition enjoyed a strong revival under Elizabeth and the Stuarts; how one died was as important as how one lived. The execution ritual was an instrument of the state but was a highly personal statement for the individual as well. The public clambered for chapbooks containing accounts of the condemned’s behavior and the wisdom of their last words. The executions scene, like plays, were “read” by audiences of the time and almost always moralized. Most accounts editorialize the final performance of the condemned as successful (died well) or disgraceful (died badly). Pamphlets recording last dying speeches were more a literary genre than a form of journalism and were so popular that they continued until the 18th century.

2 thoughts on “Hanging

  1. A very interesting article. I have used it to clarify in some detail many of the twists and turns of the London underworld as described in Henry Fieldings “Jonathan Wild.” Thank you for your investigation.

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