The origins of judicial hanging.
Hanging is thought to have originated as a
method of judicial execution in
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
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
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
The Home Circuit which covered
the counties of Essex,
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,
The Western Circuit covered the
The Norfolk Circuit, covering
the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire,
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,
Defendants in the counties of
The Brecon Circuit for the counties of Breconshire, Glamorganshire and Radnorshire.
The Carmarthen Circuit covering Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.
The Chester Circuit comprising
The North Wales Circuit which covered the counties of
By the year 1177 Tyburn
had become the place of execution for
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
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
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
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
It would not be until 1872 that the “long drop” method of hanging
was introduced to
Back to Contents Page