The origins of judicial hanging.




Hanging is thought to have originated as a method of judicial execution in Persia about 2500 years ago for male criminals.  It was brought to England by the Saxons in the fifth century AD.
Britain has used many forms of capital punishment over the centuries.  These include beheading, boiling alive, burning at the stake, drowning, hanging, hanging, drawing and quartering, decapitation by machine and shooting for military offences.  However hanging was by far the most common method and was used until William the Conqueror abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes in the 11th century, returning in the 12th century and remaining in use until 1964.

It was the most common method because it was simple, not excessively cruel and could be carried out anywhere by unskilled executioners.  It also served as a highly visible deterrent.

The Anglo Saxons used hanging to punish traitors, particularly heinous murderers and arsonists.  However most murderers were subject to wergild (which is literally translated from the original German word Wergeld as “person price”) and is similar to the payment of “blood money” still recognised in Islamic Sharia law to this day.  Each person had a value put on them and also on their body parts and if you killed or injured them you had to pay this level of compensation.  Corporal punishment and mutilation were the typical punishments for less serious crimes as prisons did not exist.  Although death by hanging was specified for theft in Anglo Saxon times a fine was normally substituted up to the time of Henry I (1100 – 1135).


The Anglo Saxon name for a gallows is “galga”.  Galga Days (our Gala Days) was the old term for hanging days.  There are, of course, no statistics for executions in this period but one gets the impression that the numbers were small as the local kings were not keen to kill potential fighting men and saw criminals as a useful form of constantly needed income.


It is noteworthy that in the first written laws, the Dooms of Aethelberht (King of Kent 601-04) there is no mention of capital punishment at all.  Each of his laws requires the payment of compensation.  King Alfred (871 – 899) did include the death penalty in his written laws.  What we would now call high treason and drawing a weapon or fighting in the King’s presence were to be punished thus.  The manner of execution was not specified.

About the year 930 AD King Athelstan raised the age of criminal responsibility from 12 to 16 because he felt that the execution of children was cruel and was concerned at the number of juveniles being put to death.


The death penalty ceased altogether under William the Conqueror and was little used by his son William Rufus.  His successor Henry I was rather more in favour of capital punishment and abolished the practice of substituting a fine for hanging in thefts of over 12d (12 pence) in 1109.  All crimes classified as felonies attracted the death penalty unless specifically stated otherwise in the written law.  Capital felonies were the crimes of murder, manslaughter, arson, highway robbery and larceny.  Mayhem and petty larceny (stealing to the value of less than 12d) were the only non-capital felonies.  Hanging was the normal punishment although beheading and drowning, usually in a drowning pit, were also used, particularly for murder.

It is recorded that the owner of Baynard Castle in London, which had been constructed by William the Conqueror, had the right to drown traitors apprehended in his jurisdiction in the river Thames.

During the reign of Edward I it is recorded that the Abbot of Peterborough had a man hanged for theft at Collingham in Nottinghamshire.


The court system.

Before criminals could be executed they had to be tried and convicted of a capital crime, so let us look briefly at the court system and the crimes for which it could send a convict to the gallows.


In 1166, King Henry II (1154-1189), promulgated the Assize of Clarendon and specified that cases were to be heard in each county by the King’s judges sent out from London on circuits.  Certainly by 1189 (the year before which anything happened is judged to be before “time immemorial”) what we see as the beginnings of the assize court system was in operation.  The courts were known as Eyres and the records of some of them still exist.  The judges were referred to as Justices in Eyre and tried the more serious, felony cases with a twelve man jury and could pass death sentences.  They were to investigate and try the crimes of murder, robbery, theft or anyone who harboured a murderer, robber, or thief.  A Grand Jury, consisting of 12 men in each hundred and four men in each township would report to them any of the crimes mentioned, for trial.  The Assize of Northampton in 1176 added counterfeiting, forgery, and arson to the list of capital felonies.  One of the effects of these Assizes was that England now had national laws rather than local laws and this became known as the Common Law system.

Looking at a surviving set of Assize Rolls from 1221, only two men were sentenced to hang, both for murder.

By the middle of the 16th century there were six assize circuits each under the control of the Clerk of the Assize. The Assizes were normally held twice a year in Lent and Summer. In some counties the Assize was only annual and therefore people could spend many months in prison awaiting trial.  The Assize Court and Quarter Sessions system remained in operation until 1971 when it was abolished by the Courts Act of that year and replaced by the present Crown Court system.  Prior to the coming of the railways the judges had to travel on horseback or by coach from town to town.  In more populous counties, they would typically spend a whole week dealing with cases before moving on to the next county town.  They had a lot of ground to cover in each circuit.  In early times it is thought that in some cases a hangman would travel with the judge to carry out death sentences.  In later times counties employed a regular hangman, who was often a criminal who had been reprieved on condition of carrying out executions, a practice which continued into the early part of the 19th century.

England’s Assize Circuits were :

The Home Circuit which covered the counties of Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

The Midland Circuit, covering the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Warwickshire; together with the Counties of the City of Coventry and Lincoln and the Counties of the towns of Leicester and Nottingham.

The Oxford Circuit, covering the counties of Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire; together with the Counties of the Cities of Gloucester and Worcester.

The Western Circuit covered the counties of Cornwall, Devonshire, Dorset, Somerset and Southamptonshire (Hampshire), together with the County of the City of Exeter and the Counties of the towns of Poole and Southampton.

The Norfolk Circuit, covering the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, together with the County of the City of Norwich.

The Northern Circuit, covering the counties of Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire, together with the County of the City of York and the Counties of the towns of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Kingston-upon-Hull.

Additionally there were several towns and cities that could pass death sentences at Quarter Sessions.  These were Berwick, Bristol, Exeter, King’s Lynn, Lichfield, Oxford, Peterborough and Yarmouth.

Defendants in the counties of London and Middlesex were dealt with separately at the more frequent Sessions of The Old Bailey.

Wales, including Cheshire, had four circuits, known as the Great Sessions, comprising :

The Brecon Circuit for the counties of Breconshire, Glamorganshire and Radnorshire.

The Carmarthen Circuit covering Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

The Chester Circuit comprising Cheshire and Chester, Denbigh, Flintshire and Montgomeryshire.

The North Wales Circuit which covered the counties of Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire.

Capital crimes.


By the year 1177 Tyburn had become the place of execution for London, the first execution where we have the name of the prisoner was in this year when one John Senex was hanged for housebreaking.  In 1196 William Fitz Osbert (or Osbern) was hanged at Tyburn with nine of his supporters.  Osbert was known as the “Bearded” on account of his long beard and had championed London’s poor against the depredations of the local government, leading a revolt against it.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, who was also a London Justiciar was given the task of stopping this revolt and sent men to arrest or kill Osbert who was finally surrounded in the church of St. Mary le Bow.  As he refused to surrender Walter had the church set on fire, thus forcing Osbert out.  He was arrested and after a quick trial was dragged to Tyburn behind a horse and hanged.  At this time Tyburn was also known as “the Elms” due to the number of elm trees that grew along the banks of the river Tyburn (or Tybourne).  It is not clear whether these trees were used for hangings or whether a permanent gallows had been erected by this time.  In 1220 Henry III ordered the construction of two gibbets (or gallows) at the Elms (Tyburn).

In 1221 these gibbets were presumably used for the hangings of a former Sheriff of London, Constantine Fitz-Athulf, his nephew and one Geoffrey who were executed without trial on the orders of Justiciar Hubert de Burgh for sedition.


In 1212 King John is reputed to have ordered the hanging of 28 young men and boys at Nottingham Castle. They were the sons of rebel Welsh chieftains whom he had taken hostage.  King John was three years later forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymeade which for the first time guaranteed rights and standardised the judicial system.  It set up the Court of Common Pleas and laid down rules for the proper conduct of criminal trials.  These required evidence to be heard from credible witnesses and convictions were not permitted on the basis of rumour or suspicion.  A particularly important passage of the Charter read : "No freeman shall be taken and imprisoned or disseised (executed) or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land."


By 1540, during the reign of Henry VIII, there were just 11 capital crimes defined : High treason, including counterfeiting coin, petty treason, murder, rape, piracy, arson of a dwelling house or barn with corn in it, highway robbery, embezzling ones master’s goods, horse theft, robbing churches (sacrilege) and robbing a person in a dwelling house.  Men convicted of high treason were typically hanged, drawn and quartered, while women, convicted of either high treason or petty treason were burned at the stake.  (Petty treason was the crime of murder of one’s husband or superior, e.g. one’s employer) For high treason the Sovereign could commute the sentence to beheading but only did so for nobility. Two years later, in 1542, witchcraft was made a felony in England by Henry VIII.  In England, unlike Scotland, it was punishable by hanging, rather than burning.  All of these crimes were tried at Assizes.  There are claims that some 72,000 people were executed during the 38 year reign of Henry VIII but this is impossible to verify from remaining records.

An Act of Parliament in 1713 made stealing from a dwelling house in the value of 40 shillings (£2) a capital crime.  The following year the Riot Act was passed, coming into force on the 1st of August 1715.  Rioting that caused serious damage to churches, houses, barns and stables was punishable by hanging.

The capital felonies mentioned above remained much the same until 1723, when Parliament passed the “Black Act” on the 1st of June of that year.  It was designed to prevent poaching by persons who had disguised themselves or blackened their faces.  Some fifty new capital crimes were added to the list by this and subsequent Acts.  By 1810, there were no less than 222 individually defined capital crimes in the statute book.  These laws were collectively known as the “Bloody Code”.  It should be noted that witchcraft ceased to be a capital crime in 1736.  After a peak in executions in 1800 (131) and 1801 (219) there were moves to reduce the number of capital crimes.  By 1837 the “Bloody Code” had been completely repealed and just murder, attempted murder, treason and arson in a Royal Dockyard remained punishable by death.  There would be five hangings for attempted murder between 1837 and 1861, when this crime was made non capital.  The remaining 345 executions during the period 1837 - 1868 all being for murder.

Evolution of the gallows.

A tree was the earliest form of gallows with prisoners being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder or the tail of a cart. In Anglo Saxon times the criminal was either suspended from a tree or a very simple gallows.  In this illustration of an Anglo Saxon gallows it appears that the condemned person had to climb up one of the vertical legs, while the hangman climbed the other and tied the rope to the crossbeam.  Having done so he dislodged the prisoner’s legs, leaving him suspended.  There was little or no drop with this style of hanging.  It was not unusual for the body to be buried under the gallows or close to it and there is considerable evidence of burial mounds at the sites of Medieval gallows.  The Medieval period was from the 5th to the 15th centuries.

Gallows were typically set up on the western edge of towns or a local hilltop where the inhabitants would be able to get a good view of the execution.  Prisoners were conveyed there either on foot or in open horse drawn carts, as at Tyburn.  Alternatively a “hanging” tree could be utilised with the sufferer and the executioner climbing one or two ladders.  Once the rope was tied to the branch the hangman would descend and turn the prisoner’s ladder over.  Hence the term “turning them off” (the ladder).  In many towns and cities the gallows stood in same place for centuries.

In 1571, the famous "Triple Tree" was set up at Tyburn (see picture) to replace previous smaller structures and remained in use until the end of 1759.  It was first used for the execution of John Storey who was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.  The "Triple Tree" consisted of three tall (approx. 12 foot high) uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form to provide a triple gallows under which three carts could be backed at a time.

Such primitive methods obtained well into the 18th century.  For instance, on the 6th of April 1752, 33 year old Mary Blandy was hanged at Oxford for the murder of her father.  A plank of wood was placed between two trees to form the gallows beam and she was made to ascend a ladder.

The first hanging utilising a “drop” was that of Earl Ferrers at Tyburn, on Monday the 5th of May 1760.  A special new gallows was constructed at Tyburn for the occasion.  It comprised of a scaffold covered in black baize reached by a short flight of stairs. Two uprights rose from the scaffold, topped with a cross beam.  Directly under the beam there was a small box like structure, some three feet square and 18 inches high, which was designed to sink down into the scaffold and thus leave the criminal suspended.  The box was found to be liable to stick rather than fall smoothly as happened in this execution.  It was replaced by one or two leaf trap doors.  This concept became known as the “New Drop”.  Here is a drawing of the scene.

By the end of the 18th century new County Gaols were being built and executions now took place either outside them or on the gatehouse roof utilising some form of “New Drop” gallows.  The “New Drop” had become universal by 1831 in all English and Welsh counties.  There was no standardisation of design, each county providing what it saw fit. The drop given was rarely more than 18 inches and was not sufficient to break the prisoner’s neck.  The last surviving specimen of a “New Drop” gallows is still housed at the Rutland County Gallows and is pictured here. 

It would not be until 1872 that the “long drop” method of hanging was introduced to Britain by William Marwood.  Its evolution can be traced here.

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