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‘Godly butchery’: the horrifying history of hanging, drawing and quartering

In medieval England, the crime of treason was so heinous, and so against the normal social order, that it required a punishment that would horrify as much as it would deter. Historian Rebecca Simon reveals the details of a gruesome method of execution reserved only for the worst of the worst…

Froissart illustration of Hugh Despenser the Younger's execution by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Despenser is on a ladder, as a man beside him disembowels him and tosses his entrails into a fire
Published: December 10, 2021 at 10:05 am
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In 1241, a man named William Marise, the son of an English nobleman, was convicted of one of the worst crimes it was possible to perpetrate against a nation: piracy. His punishment was to be publicly ripped apart into four pieces.

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It was known then as ‘Godly butchery’ or ‘three deaths’. Today, we recognise the gruesome method of execution, unique to England, that is seemingly synonymous with the medieval period as being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Marise, who was executed in 1242, was the first-known person to suffer it. Hanging, drawing and quartering was reserved only for the worst of criminals – the traitors.

Committing treason was even worse than murder since it was said to challenge the God-given order of kingdom and society. The Treason Act of 1351 defined it as conspiracy to kill the sovereign or fighting against the sovereign, among others. Piracy, which was an act directly against a monarch, fit into this definition. And as a direct crime against the monarch, treason had to be punished in the most severe way possible.

So barbaric was the form of execution that it could only be carried out on men, as it was deemed indecent to expose a woman’s body to such treatment. A woman convicted of treason would instead be beheaded or burned at the stake.

Why were people hanged, drawn and quartered?

More than a punishment, the purpose of hanging, drawing and quartering was to establish the boundaries of normal behaviour. The people who deserved such an end were not meant to be seen as human, and the pain, humiliation and brutality was intended to create a distinct separation between the audience and the condemned. The message was that ‘normal’ men would not suffer the three deaths.

These ‘death-tortures’ inflicted pain for so long that they practically became an art-form. This served to justify the state’s decision to carry out such a brutal method of execution and to act as a warning to anyone who might consider violating the social order between country and king.

What happens when you are hanged, drawn and quartered?

Being hanged, drawn and quartered was a multi-pronged process of torture and humiliation, performed in front of large, eager crowds.

First, the condemned man was dragged to their place of execution by horse, perhaps while lashed to hurdle, leaving them covered with painful lacerations before the real agony had even begun. This is one possible meaning of the ‘drawn’, as in drawn by the horse – more on the second possible meaning in a moment.

The second step was hanging: the condemned having a rope tied around the neck before being yanked off the ground, sometimes by use of a pulley. There he would dangle and thrash around helplessly until just before the moment he fell into unconsciousness, at which point he was lowered to the ground and disembowelled in front of the horrified yet morbidly fascinated audience.

William Marisco, the first known person to suffer hanging, drawing and quartering, is dragged by a horse as part of his execution
William Marisco, the first known person to suffer hanging, drawing and quartering, is dragged by a horse as part of his execution (Photo by Alamy)

This is the second possible meaning of ‘drawn’ – there is a debate amongst historians as to the definition of the term. It could, perhaps, refer to both actions. According to the Chronicle of Lanercost – a history of northern England covering parts of 13th and first half of the 14th centuries – the famed Scottish rebel William Wallace, who was executed in this way suffered the further indignity of having his entrails burned in front of him.

Finally, the unfortunate victim was quartered. Sometimes, this was achieved by tying each limb to a different horse, which were then startled into running in different directions so as to rip the body apart. The sundered corpse was then then displayed on city gates across the country – popular sites for the head included London Bridge and Westminster Hall – to serve both as a warning to would-be traitors and an advertisement of the consequences of betraying your sovereign.

Who are the most famous people to be hanged, drawn and quartered?

William Wallace was not the first person to suffer hanging, drawing and quartering in response to inciting insurrection against the English. The Welsh ruler Dafydd ap Gruffydd suffered the fate of godly butchery in 1283. As with Wallace, his death sentence had also been ordered by Edward I. And Wallace would, by no means, be the last.

Among the ‘great and the good’ to suffer the ‘three deaths’ were Hugh Despenser the Younger, whose 1326 execution following the overthrow of Edward II is immortalised in a Jean Froissart manuscript (main image); several prominent figures of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381; Francis Dereham, one of courtiers alleged to have dallied with Catherine Howard, fifth of Henry VIII’s six wives; and a number of leading figures in the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I.

The one who got away was arguably Guy Fawkes, the man at the centre of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. He received this sentence, but managed to escape the most horrific parts.

On 31 January 1606, Fawkes was taken to Westminster to be hanged, drawn and quartered. In the chaotic event, Fawkes’s neck broke when he jumped from the gallows ladder, meaning that his entrails were not publicly removed. He was, however, quartered and his body parts displayed at the “four corners of the kingdom”.

When was hanging, drawing and quartering abolished?

By the 19th century, it was rare for hanging, drawing and quartering to be carried out even when sentenced. That was exemplified in 1839, when some 10,000 Chartists led a massive rebellion in Wales. The leaders were caught and sentenced, but the executions were commuted to transportation to Australia instead.

Hanging, drawing and quartering was abolished altogether thanks to the passage of the Forfeiture Act of 1870, thus ending one of the longest traditions of public executions in history. Given our ongoing fascination with the medieval method of execution, the punishment may be over, but its legacy is far from dead.

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Dr Rebecca Simon is a historian specialising in early modern piracy and the history of executions. Her latest book is Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Media, 2020)

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