Burning at the stake.

Burning at the stake in public was used in England & Wales to punish heresy for both sexes and for women convicted of High Treason or Petty Treason. Men who were convicted of high treason were hanged, drawn and quartered but this was not deemed acceptable for women as it would have involved nudity. High Treason included such offences as counterfeiting money and "coining" (the clipping of coins for pieces of silver and gold which were melted down to produce counterfeit coins), possession of coining equipment and colouring base metal coins (to pass them off as of higher value). Oddly, men who committed these same crimes suffered just ordinary hanging having been first drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle. Petty Treason was the murder by a woman of her husband or her mistress, as they were considered her superiors in law.  In Scotland burning was the punishment for witchcraft (see later). 

It is not known when burning was first used in Britain, but there is a recorded burning for heresy in 1222, when a deacon of the church was burnt at Oxford for embracing the Jewish faith so he could marry a Jew.
In 1401, the king authorised a Statute of Heresy which gave the clergy power to arrest and try those suspected of heresy. The first to suffer under the new act was one William Sautre, a priest, who was executed at (Kings) Lynn in 1402. This statute was repealed in 1553, but burning was re-introduced by Henry VIII. His daughter, Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary"), was also very keen on this method and 274 burnings of both sexes for heresy were recorded during her five year reign (reign of terror) in the mid 16th century. In most cases their only "crime" was following the Protestant faith. The normal place of execution in London being at West Smith Field (now called just Smithfield). An engraving of the period shows that these unfortunates were stood in empty tar barrels at the stake and then had faggots heaped round them. It was not the practice to strangle heretics before they were burnt so they died slow and horrible deaths - being literally burned alive.

Burning was in use throughout Europe at this time and was particularly favoured by the Spanish Inquisition as it did not involve shedding of the victim's blood, which was disallowed under the prevailing Roman Catholic doctrine, and because it ensured that the condemned had no body to take into the next life (which was believed to be a very severe punishment in itself).  It was also thought at that time that burning cleansed the soul which was considered important for those convicted of witchcraft and heresy.

Although many people might associate burning at the stake with witchcraft, it was much less used for that offence in Britain than in other parts of Europe - particularly France, Switzerland and the Nordic countries. In England witchcraft was a felony and thus punishable by hanging. Alice Molland is thought to have been the last person to suffer for witchcraft, at Exeter in 1684.  However, Scotland did burn witches and there are many recorded instances of both sexes suffering this fate.  On the 18th of May 1671 Janet McMuldroche and Elspeth Thompson were strangled and burned at Dumfries.  The following are the words of the warrant for their execution, dated two days earlier : “Forsamuch as in ane court of Justiciarie holden be us within the Tolbuithe of drumfreis vpon the fyftein day of May instant Jonet McMuldroche and Elspeth Thomsone were found guiltie be ane ascyse of the se[ver]all articles of witchcraft spe[cif]it in the verdict given againest them theiranent Were decerned and adjudged be us the Lords Commissioners of Justiciarie to be tane vpon thursday next the eighteen day of May instant Betuixt tuo and foure houres in the afernoone to the ordinare place of executione the toune of drumfreis And their to be wirried at ane stake till they be dead And theirafter their bodies to be brunt to ashes And all their moveable goods and geir to be escheat. 
Note : (wirried means strangled and escheat means confiscated) 


The last person to be burned as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne at Dornoch in Ross shire in 1727. Janet had been accused of witching her daughter to make her hands and feet grow into horses hooves, so that she could ride her. The daughter had a deformed hand, due to being “shod by the Devil”!  She was also tried but acquitted.  She later had a child who exhibited the same kind of congenital hand deformity.  A stone at the place of execution commemorates her death. The witchcraft Acts were repealed there in 1736.
It is claimed that as many as 200,000 people were burned for witchcraft in Europe in 16th and 17th centuries. 

Three slightly different methods of burning were used. The first, consisted of using a heap of faggots piled around a wooden stake above which the prisoner was attached with chains or iron hoops. The British and Spanish Inquisition preferred this method as it had the greatest visual impact.  This form of burning typically subjects the prisoner to a far more agonising death as it some time before the flames reach head level.  In most cases of treason and witchcraft the prisoner was strangled first before the fire was lit.  In Scotland the strangling formed part of the sentence for convicted witches.

The second method was to tie the condemned to the stake and heap faggots all round them, effectively hiding their sufferings, so that they died inside a wall of flames . It is said that Joan of Arc died like this.  It is thought that this method led to a much quicker death because the victim was forced to breathe the flame and hot gasses surrounding their face.  The heat of the air causes the lining of the trachea to swell up thus blocking the airway and leading to suffocation within a few minutes.
The third method, used in Germany and the Nordic countries, involved tying the prisoner to a near vertical ladder, the top of which was tied to a frame, and then swinging them down onto the fire.

Until 1790, every woman convicted of counterfeiting gold or silver coin of the realm, was sentenced to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and there " to be burned with fire till she was dead." (Blackstone's Commentaries, 204. Ibid, 377)  In England women who were sentenced to be burnt were allowed by law to be strangled with a rope before the fire got to them and thus died in much the same way as they would have by hanging. On the Continent, strangling before burning was also allowed, the rope being called a "retentum."  In some Nordic countries, a small barrel of gunpowder was tied to the prisoner which was meant to explode on contact with the flames, thus giving them a fairly instant death.  If they were neither strangled or blown up, they died from a combination of shock, burning of the lungs and air passages and smoke inhalation, all of which took a considerable amount of time to kill and caused extreme pain.
Elizabeth Gaunt was the last woman to be burnt for high treason in the normal sense of the word. She was executed in 1685, having been convicted of involvement in the Rye House plot. She was denied strangulation and was thus burned alive. The burning of a woman for treason at Tyburn is depicted
here.

18th century burnings.
Between 1702 and 1734, 10 women were burned at London’s Tyburn.  Two of these were for the Petty Treason murder of their husbands, and eight for High Treason, comprising two for possession of coining equipment, four for counterfeiting and two for coining itself.  Barbara Spencer was burned for counterfeiting on Wednesday, the 5th of July 1721 at Tyburn. Barbara was a rebellious young woman who wanted easy money and coining seemed to offer this. She was drawn to Tyburn tied to a hurdle (similar to a piece of wattle fencing) behind a horse.  (Male traitors were also drawn to the gallows in this way before being hanged and quartered and strangled at the stake prior to the fagots being lit. 
Catherine Hayes was burned at Tyburn on Monday, the 9th of May 1726 for Petty Treason (the murder of her husband). She had persuaded her two lovers to kill her husband with an axe, a crime for which the two men were sentenced to hang. She too was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn and when she had finished praying, was fastened to the stake by an iron chain round her body. A rope halter was put round her neck (running through a hole in the stake) and the faggots (bundles of dry brushwood) piled round her. When Richard Arnet, the executioner, lit the fire he found the flames too fierce to allow him to pull the strangling rope so the poor women was burned alive - a horrible death that took a considerable time. Her execution is vividly described in the Newgate Calendar. She was reduced to ashes within an hour, so we are told. (
Click here to see a drawing of her execution and here for a detailed account of her crime and execution).
Elizabeth Wright was burned for coining on the 19th of December 1733, although her 26 year old daughter and accomplice were reprieved.  Wednesday, the 2nd of October 1734 saw a triple burning, at Tyburn, of Mary Haycock, Elizabeth Tracey and Catherine Bougle for counterfeiting and possession of coining equipment.  This is London’s only recorded multiple burning in the 18th century.
Although burning was not a common punishment by this time, at least 33 women suffered this fate between 1735 and 1789.  They were:

Name

Date

Place

Crime

Margaret Onion

08/08/1735

Chelmsford

Murdered husband

Mary Fawson

08/08/1735

Northampton

Murdered husband

Ann Mudd

25/06/1737

Tyburn

Murdered husband

Mary Bird

01/07/1737

Ely

Murdered husband

Mary Groke or Troke (age 16)

18/03/1738

Winchester

Murdered mistress

Ann Goodson

12/04/1738

Guildford

Murdered husband

Susannah Broom (age 67)

21/12/1739

Tyburn

Murdered husband

Elizabeth Moreton (or Owen)

10/08/1744

Evesham

Murdered husband

Mary Johnson

?/04/1747

Lincoln

Murdered husband

Amy Hutchinson

07/11/1749

Ely

Murdered husband

Elizabeth Packard

?/?/1750

Exeter

Murdered husband

Ann Whale (age 21)

08/08/1752

Horsham

Murdered husband

Ann Williams

13/04/1753

Over, near Gloucester

Murdered husband

Susannah Bruford  (age 19)

03/09/1753

Wells (Somerset)

Murdered husband

Mary Ellah

28/03/1757

York

Murdered husband

Alice Davis

31/03/1758

Tyburn

Coining (High Treason)

Margaret Bedingfield

08/04/1763

Ipswich

Murdered husband

Mary Heald

23/04/1763

Chester

Murdered husband

Mary Saunders

21/03/1764

Monmouth

Murdered mistress

Mary Norwood (age 33)

08/05/1765

Ilchester (Somerset)

Murdered husband

Ann Sowerby

10/08/1767

York

Murdered husband

Susannah Lott

21/07/1769

Maidstone

Murdered husband

Mary Hilton (or Hulton)

06/04/1772

Lancaster

Murdered husband

Elizabeth Herring

13/09/1773

Tyburn

Murdered husband

Margaret Ryan

18/03/1776

Maidstone

Murdered husband

Elizabeth Bordingham

30/03/1776

York

Murdered husband

Ann Cruttenden (age 80)

08/08/1776

Horsham

Murdered husband

Isabella Condon

27/10/1779

Tyburn

Coining (High Treason)

Rebecca Downing

29/06/1782

Exeter

Murdered mistress

Mary Bailey

08/03/1784

Winchester

Murdered husband

Phoebe Harris

21/06/1786

Newgate

Coining (High Treason)

Margaret Sullivan

25/06/1788

Newgate

Coining (High Treason)

Catherine Murphy

18/03/1789

Newgate

Coining (High Treason)

*Over is a village about a mile from Gloucester, where the county gallows stood at this time. 
Elizabeth Webber (or Webster) was probably burned at York in December 1739 for the murder of her husband but her execution cannot be confirmed.  Alice Davis was most probably burnt for coining on the 31st of March 1758.

At the September Sessions of the Old Bailey on the 8th of September 1773, Elizabeth Herring was indicted for “feloniously, traitorously, and of her malice aforethought, making an assault upon Robert Herring, her husband, and with a certain case knife giving him a mortal wound on the right side of the throat, of the length of one inch, and the depth of two inches, of which wound he instantly died, on August the 5th of that year.”  She was convicted of Petty Treason (note the word “traitorously” in the indictment) and the Recorder passed the following sentence upon her, "you Elizabeth Herring are to be led from hence to the Gaol from whence you came; and on Monday next you are to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution; where you are to be burnt with fire until you are dead."  The sentence was carried out at Tyburn in front of some 20,000 spectators on Monday, the 13th of September 1773.
The last woman to be burnt for petty treason, i.e. the murder of her husband in Britain, was Mary Bailey at Winchester, on Monday, the 8th of March 1784 thereafter hanging was substituted for this crime.  Her co-accused, John Quinn, was hanged first.
The last three women to be burnt for coining offences were executed outside London’s Newgate prison, these being Phoebe Harris on Wednesday, the 21st of June 1786, (Click here for a detailed account of her case), Margaret Sullivan on Wednesday, the 25th of June 1788 and Catherine Murphy (also known as Christian Bowman), who was put to death on Wednesday, the 18th of March 1789.
Margaret Sullivan and her co-accused, Jeremiah Grace, came to trial at the 7th of May Sessions of the Old Bailey in 1788.  They were indicted as follows, “for that they, on the 29th of April, a piece of base coin resembling the current silver coin of this kingdom, called a shilling, falsely and deceitfully, feloniously and traitorously did colour with materials, producing the colour of silver.”  For this crime of High Treason, Jeremiah was sentenced to be hanged and Margaret to be burnt.

Catherine Murphy’s execution was to be the last burning of a woman in England and was really was only a modified form of hanging, followed by burning. She was led from the Debtor's Door of Newgate past the nearby gallows from which four men, including her husband, were already hanging, to the stake. Here she mounted a small platform in front of it and an iron band was put round her body. The noose, dangling from an iron bracket projecting from the top of the stake, was tightened around her neck. When the preparations were complete, William Brunskill, the hangman, removed the platform leaving her suspended and only after 30 minutes were the faggots placed around her and lit.

On the 10th of May 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett raised the issue of burning women in the House of Commons. He told fellow MP’s that it had been his painful office and duty in the previous year to attend the burning of a female (
Catherine Murphy), in the office of Sheriff of London at the time, and he therefore moved to bring in a Bill to alter the law. He pointed out that the sheriff who refused to execute a sentence of burning alive was liable to prosecution, but thanked Heaven that there was not a man in England who would carry such a sentence literally into execution.  (see earlier reference to strangling prior to burning) The Treason Act of 1790 was passed (30 George III. C. 48) and Parliament substituted ordinary hanging for coining offences on the 5th of June 1790.  25 year old Sophia Girton who had been convicted of coining at the Old Bailey on the 24th of April 1790 was thus saved from the fire and was in fact pardoned on condition of transportation for life to New South Wales on the 12th of June 1790. Her co-defendant, Thomas Parker, was hanged on the 19th of May 1790.

Executions by burning at Newgate were distinctly unpopular with the local residents of what was a respectable business area of the City.  They had sent a petition to the Lord Mayor requesting that Phoebe Harris’ execution be carried out elsewhere.  There was an early version of “not in my back yard” rather than a protest against the severity of her punishment.  It was later reported that some locals became ill from the smoke from her body.  There were similar protests over the Sullivan and Murphy executions and a great feeling of relief when Sophia Girton was reprieved, and the whole ghastly business passed into history under the provisions of the Treason Act of 1790.  The Sheriffs were also becoming increasingly unhappy about attending burnings, and it was they who brought forward the Bill to end this practice.  Even though by this time the condemned woman was dead before the faggots were lit, it must have still been a gruesome and revolting spectacle and one which conveyed a feeling of injustice.  Men convicted of coining offences were hanged in the same way as other condemned males.  The Times newspaper took up this theme after Phoebe’s burning and printed the following article:  “The execution of a woman for coining on Wednesday morning, reflects a scandal upon the law and was not only inhuman, but shamefully indelicate and shocking. Why should the law in this species of offence inflict a severer punishment upon a woman, than a man. It is not an offence which she can perpetrate alone - in every such case the insistence of a man has been found the operating motive upon the woman; yet the man is but hanged, and the woman burned.”  Other London newspapers carried similar articles.  Similar outrage was expressed two years later at the burning of Margaret Sullivan, although strangely there was little media interest at the burning of Christian Murphy.

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