The London Theatre of Executions – Executions in London

On 23rd August 1305, William Wallace was sentenced as a traitor and was to be executed as one. The method would be the barbaric hanging, drawing, and quaterering. On the day of his execution, he was taken from the Tower of London to Smithfield where he was hung until nearly dead. He was then cut down and his internal organs were removed from his body while he was still alive. Finally, his head was removed and his body cut into three parts. 230 years later South East of Smithfield, Thomas More, who was also declared a traitor, placed his head on the execution block on Tower Hill, just outside the walls of the Tower of London. Just before the axe fell, he asked to move his beard as it would be a ‘Pity that should be cut, that has not committed treason.’ His beard duly moved out of the way, the axe fell  ending the life of Tomas More. Both of these men were traitors yet met differed deaths.

Henry VIII second Queen, Anne ‘of a thousand days’ Boleyn was executed by sword within the confines of the Tower of London on Tower Green for the treasonable offence of cheating on King Henry in 1536. Ten Years later and back at Smithfield Anne Askew after being racked and totrued was burned at the stake for being a heretic. Again different methods, different sites.

There are more examples to give which I will explore later in this post. There are a number of execution sites in London itself. Being the capital of England from the 12th Century, it would be the main base for the monarch and so where many people would face their deaths. But what decided upon the site and method of executions? Why were some executed in the conies of the Tower and others just outside? Why were some hung drawn and quartered and others burnt? In later years the main form of execution was just simple hanging but again why were some hung at Newgate for example and those accused of piracy hung at what was nicknamed ‘execution dock?’

Well much of it links to the crime committed and WHO committed it and their rank. You see the Romans regarded death by Beheading as the only honourable form of execution and the least painful and so those of noble rank. The first record we have of this being done under the judicial sentence of death in England was of Alban in 283AD at Verualiaum (see my post … for more information on this). From as early as the Romans it seems that beheading was the method of execution for the nobility. I have already mentioned the two sites most associated with beheading in London in my introduction – Tower Green (within the confines of the Tower of London) and Tower Hill, just outside. There would have been no permanent structure built for the executions but usually one would be erected at times of executions.

Those who were of royal birth or royalty would be executed in the confines of the Tower. It being deemed a more private affair. In total six people have been judicially executed at the Tower, (there was William Hasting who was beheaded without trial on the orders of Richard III, which really is seen as murder). Those such as Anne Boylen, Jane Grey, and Robert Deveraux have all been beheaded there and their bodies removed and buried under the chapel a stone’s throw from their execution in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincual in the Tower.

Tower Green was for those of noble birth. The first beheading here again was in the illegal sense being Simon of Sudbury during the Peasants Revolt in 1381. Maybe it was a result of his death that gave the idea of using the area as an execution site. During the 14th – 18th, centuries there were 125 people were executed on Tower Hill including George Boleyn, Edmund Dudley, and James Scott (Duke of Monmouth). The last to be executed was Lord Lovat in 1747. The execution block used for his beheading is on display today at the Tower of London. Today a small memorial marks roughly the site of the scaffold and lists the names of all those beheaded there for their ‘treasonous crimes’.

Beheading as I have mentioned was for those of noble birth but still traitors. Those deemed at having committed High Treason and of ‘common birth’ had a far worse fate in store. Their method of execution was to be “drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.” Yikes!

The likes of William Wallace were subjected to this at Smithfield. The first record of someone in England facing this method of execution was William de Marios in 1241. However, this method was only used on men as it was felt to be too indecent to expose a female’s body so publicly. Smithfield was also the site for the burning of Lollards (pre-Protestant Christian religious movement ), witches and heretics.

The witch in Smithfield shall be burned to ashes” – William Shakespeare.

 It was down to the executioner how severe the hanging would be. They could hang the prisoner until unconcious before the ‘drawing’ to restrict the amount of pain they would feel or just do it enough to cause some discomfort but the prisoner still being fully conscious to feel everything that was done. This is what happened at Lincolns Inn fields and the executions of those involved in the Babington Plot (a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne instead). The historian William Camden noted that the executions of the plotters were ‘‘not without some note of cruelty’.

From 1196 the main form of execution used in London for common felons was hanging. It is believed that judicial hanging has been around from at least the Anglo Saxon period in England. It was made the standard form of punishment by William Rufus. There are two sites in London mainly associated with hangings – Newgate Prison and Tyburn.

Tyburn is a word, which conjures up images of hangings and the hanging tree. It is believed that over 1,000 people met their deaths at the noose at Tyburn. The first recorded execution at this site was William Fitzosbert in 1196. Original a portable gallows would have been built or erected on the days of executions until around 1571 when a permanent gallows was built. It was form a triangular shape so that it could face three roads and could hang up to eight people. It was removed in 1783.

; when the trial is over, those condemned to the rope are placed on a cart, each one  with a rope about his neck, and the hangman drives with them out of the town to the gallows, called Tyburn, almost an hour away from the city, there he fastens them  up one after another by the rope and drives the cart off under the gallows which is not very high off the ground; then the criminals’ friends come and draw them down by their feet, that they may die all the sooner. They are then taken down from the gallows and buried in the neighbouring cemetery, where stands a house haunted by such monsters that no one can live in it, and I myself saw it. Rarely does a law day in London in all the four sessions pass without some twenty to thirty persons — both men and women — being gibbetted. Thomas Platter 1599

In the 18th century, alone 6,000 people were sentenced to be executed of which 1,600 of these were carried out.

During the religious turmoil of the Tudor period, 180 Catholics were executed at Tyburn. In 1901 Mother Mary of St Peter, original from France set a new religious community in Tyburn to remember those ‘martyrs’ who were executed at the site. It is the Mother House of her congregation, which has monasteries all over the world. The convent is open to tours where they have a replica model of the Tyburn tree along with relics from those martyrs executed.

Another site that has a macabre history is Newgate Prison, now the site of the Old Bailey. The Prison itself was created in the 12th Century and was in use (albeit various re builds and developments) until 1902. It was on its final rebuilt in 1782 that hangings were moved from Tyburn to Newgate Prison. They had gone from a spot, which was originally outside of London and a remote field to the heart of the City.

It is believed that between 1783 and 1870, 1,000 people here executed the prison, just outside the prison walls. The prisoners were brought out from the debtors doors and would mount the scaffold. In 1783 the scaffold was mounted on wheels and drawn out by two horses on executions days.

The hangings would be in groups due to the sessions at the Old Bailey being held only 8 times a year and this is where the sentence would have been pronounced. The exactions themselves would usually take place six weeks after the Sessions had finished. In 1752, it was changed so that those convicted of murder have to be hung within two days of sentencing (but never on a Sunday). The largest multiple execution was of eight men on 11th December 1820.

The reason for the high number of executions in this period is a result of what is known as the Bloody code. In 1815, there were 215 crimes, which were punishable by death! Crimes include some of the obvious ones such as murder and arson; other crimes include stealing from a rabbit warren, stealing from a shipwreck, and wrecking a fishpond.

The reason for such a high list was an attempt to deter those from considering committing a crime. That along with the execution being public, however it did not really work. In fact many juries were reluctant to find people guilty feeling that the punishment was too serve for some of the crimes. Less than 10 years later in 1823 the Judgement of Death Act was passed, “stating that in all cases except those of treason and murder, judges could use personal discretion in using the death penalty or not. This overturned the previous 200+ offences that demanded the death penalty under the Bloody Code.(Online

Between Tyburn and Newgate we have covered the locations of where most met their death in the 17-19th centuries but not all. There were a few exceptions and one of these was those who were judge under the admiralty. This includes those sentenced as pirates. Their execution spot was a place, which gained the name ‘execution dock’.

Situated near Wapping Old Stairs, those receiving punishment were hung until dead and there to remain until three tides had overflowed them – J Stow. Usually held at Mathalesea Prison and sometimes Newgate on the day of their execution there would be parade across London Bridge and past the Tower. The High Court Marshall would be present with a silver oar to show he held the authority of the Admiralty.

The difference from hangings at execution dock than those elsewhere was the length of the rope. It was shorter than that used at Tyburn and Newgate, which meant that the prisoner’s neck would not break and their death would be a result of slow strangulation. The prisoner would dance the Marshals dance.

Thames was major highway with the watermen being the equitant of today’s taxi drivers. ‘The pool of London was London’s main port from Roman times…was always a sea of masrs and a high of activity. Wapping was the centre of it…the banks of the Thames…provides an obvious place fo t the … and gibberitng og delond who had committed offence on tidal waters (Brandon and Brook. Pg159) This form of execution would cease 1831. It was a perfect location to show the power of the admiralty and their punishment they dished out. The executed pirate William Kidd after being executed in 1701 was then moved down river to Tilbury point where his remains stayed on display for at least two years.

Back to the Tower…

The Tower as previously discussed is known for its beheadings but did you know more men were executed there in the 20th Century than in the previous centuries put together? In addition, they were not beheaded, no these men were still traitors but not English. Their method of execution – being shot. You see they were found guilty of being spies during the First and Second World Wars. The location was 29 The Casemates, which was situated between the Martin and the Constable Tower. Today it is a car park for those who live on site. The last man to be executed at the Tower was Josef Jacobs. A German spy he was captured in Huntgdoshire after breaking his ankle, he was placed in the care of M15 and questioned. He was sentence to death under the Treachery Act of 1940 and executed 15th August 1941. Jakobs would be the last person to be executed at the Tower. The chair used for his execution can be seen on display at the Tower today.

These are just a few of the executions sites in London. There are many more around. I cannot talk about exactions in London without discussing the theatre of it all. Not only for the spectators but also for the person being executed to. Hangings at Tyburn would be known as the Tyburn Fair or a Hanging match. Apprentices would be given the day off to attend, the intention being that one would be put off the idea of a life of crime. However sometimes it had the opposite affect and those sentenced to death were seen as heroes or just celebrities that for one final moment in their lives were the centre of attention. And they knew it and played on it.

As clever Tom Clinch, while the rabble was bawling,

Rode stately through Holborn to die in his calling,

He stopt at the George for a bottle of sack,

And promised to pay for it when he came back.

Of course, Tom Clinch would not return and the innkeppers would know this. Those facing death as pirates were allowed one last drink before their execution. Sometimes the masses cheered them on at other times they were a bloodthirsty mob wanting to be entertained by the executioner.

From the night before an execution to the evening after people would enjoy the festivities that came with it. Like a carnival or fair, stalls would be set up with people selling their goods. Charles Dickens who witnessed such and execution on November 1849 wrote “I was a witness of the execution at Horse monger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over. ….As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour.”

The element of theatre was an essential part of Public Hangings. Those who were being executed could play the crowd, the crowd were entertained, and the State got their punishment even though it did not have the exact effect they required.

The death penalty was abolished in England in 1965. The last public execution in London took place 1868 when it was abolished under the Capital Punishment Act. Newgate Prison closed its doors for good in 1902. Today the dark tourist can visit many of these sites. Some with memorials to those who died and others just a place with hardly any evidence of their macabre past.

Other sites in London which have been execution sites include:

Banqueting House, Whitehall – Execution of Charles I – See

Old Palace Yard – Half of the Gunpowder plotters were executed here along with Walter Rayleigh –

St Pauls Cathedral – The other half of the Gunpowder Plotters

Charing Cross – Some of those responsible for the execution of Charles I.

Kennington Common – Highwaymen and some of those involved in the Jacobite rebellion.

Stratford le Bow – Burnings of many Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary I, including Archbishop Cranmer.

For more visit:


Arnold, C (2012) Underworld London. Simon and Schuster: London

Brandon, D, and Brooke. A. (2006) London the executioner’s city. Sutton Publishing Gloucestershire.
Froude, James A. History of England. Vol II. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1872. 274-277.
Seller, L (1997) Shot at the Tower. Pen and Sword: London

Webb, S (2011) Execution. The History Press: Gloucestershire.

Weinreb, B and Hibbet, C (1988) The London Encyclopaedia. Papermac: London.

Anon (nd) Prison and Penal reform in the 1800s. Available from [Accessed 05/11/19]

Anon (nd) Tyburn Martyrs. Available from: [Accessed 01/11/19]

Anon (2019) De heretic comburendo. Available from: [Accessed 04/11/19]

Clarke, R (nd) Hanging, Drawing, and Quartering. Available from:

Clark, R (nd) Newgate Prison. Available from: [Accessed 08/11/19]

Dickens, C (1849) Charles Dickens to the Times. Available from: [Accessed 04/11/19]

Foucault, M (1977) Discipline, and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. Available from: [Accessed 08/11/19]

Johnson, B (nd) Execution sites in London. Available from: [Accessed 04/11/19]

Lyons, M (2012) The Babington plot. Available from: [Accessed -5/11/19]

Platter, T (1599) Thomas Platters Travels in England. Available from:

Swift, J (1727) Clever Tom Hinch. Available from: [Accessed 04/11/19]

One comment

  1. […] What the bridge is famous for during the medieval period is displaying the heads of traitors. Heads of those executed for treason such as Thomas More and Guy Fawkes were parboiled and then dipped in tar and placed upon a spike atop of the gatehouse of the bridge and there remain until they were taken down or fell into the river. The first head to start this macabre tradition was that of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. (For more on executions in London see😉 […]


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