Capital Punishment in England: Nobles vs Commoners

270px-Execution_of_Mary,_Queen_of_Scots,_created_1613,_artist_unknownCapital punishment was common in England before the 20th century. The term “capital” originates from the Latin word for head. Literally, capital punishment involved decapitation. The circumstances of decapitation were very different depending on the class of the criminal. The nobility who committed treason were afforded the dignity of death by decapitation with a sword or an axe, often in private. It wasn’t always an easy death. It took three blows to completely decapitate Mary Queen of Scots, for instance. The pic is a contemporary painting of Mary’s execution.

490px-Execution_of_thomas_armstrong_1683Men who were commoners, like those involved in the Babington Conspiracy with Mary Queen of Scots, were subjected to the horrific death of being hanged, drawn, and quartered. A long description survives of the death of Sir Thomas Armstrong who was convicted of being a participant in the Rye House Plot in 1683. Enemies of King Charles II conspired to assassinate the king while he traveled to a horse race at Newmarket. Sir Thomas was taken to Tyburn where executions at were carried out in London. Sir Thomas was pulled on a sledge to Tyburn. He prayed until he was hung while a large crowd observed.

After the hanging, Sir Thomas’ guts were cut out and burned, then his arms legs were cut off. He was decapitated and his head was hung on London Bridge. Numerous drawings survive of Sir Thomas’ execution but this is the least gory. The aftermath of his death was very sad. Sir Thomas – a rake, gambler, and trouble maker – was discovered to be innocent. An enemy had accused him falsely. He was declared innocent and his property, which had been confiscated, was returned to his family.  Next week, Celebrate the Anniversary of the Opening of King Tut’s Tomb. Rita Bay

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