Executions & Beheading at the Tower of London

 

Executions and Beheading at the Tower of London

  • Important events detailed in the Executions and Beheading at the Tower of London
  • Information & Facts about Executions and Beheading at Tower Hill and Tower Green
  • Execution by Beheading - the methods and traditions of the Tower of London

Executions & Beheading at the Tower of London

Executions by Beheading or other methods
Executions by beheading were considered the least brutal of execution methods and were accorded to important State prisoners or people of noble birth. The usual implement used for beheading was the axe. On very rare occasions the sword was used, such as in the case of Anne Boleyn's execution. Killing the lower classes was usually achieved by hanging from the gallows. The more serious the crime the more severe the punishment. Burning to death at the stake or the barbaric method of slowly killing by inflicting unimaginable pain was by 'Hang, Draw and Quartering' - these methods of execution might be delivered to any class of victim.

Executions by Beheading
Death by beheading with the use of the axe could be a terrifying prospect. The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed. If the executioner' axe was sharp and his aim was true, beheading was quick and relatively painless. If the instrument was blunt, the axeman inexperienced or careless, then the execution might take several strokes to sever the head. This was certainly the case in the execution by beheading of the brave Countess of Salisbury who was struck eleven times with the axe before she died.

Executions by Beheading - the Traditions
Various traditions were observed at executions by beheading. A raised platform was built (scaffold) and covered with straw. A minister of the church would be available to offer religious comfort to the victim. The victim would be expected to pay and forgive the executioner. It would be hoped that the headsman completed  his job swiftly and with care. The condemned prisoner was usually given the opportunity to address the spectators - with the King's permission. The heads of traitors were displayed on top of spikes on London Bridge.

Executions by Beheading - Showing the head to the crowd?
Following execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner. This was done, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the faces of crowd and it's own body! Killing by beheading is not immediate. Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness and eventually death.

Executions of the Tower of London Prisoners - Tower Hill or Tower Green
The type of executions of the Tower of London prisoners depended on the severity of the crime and whether the prisoners were members of the higher or lower classes - most executions were conducted in public. The vast majority of Tower of London prisoners who were sentenced to death met their end in public on Tower Hill.  But private executions of Tower of London prisoners were conducted behind the walls of the Tower if the execution was considered too politically sensitive to carry out in open view - this especially applied to the executions of women. Even these 'private' executions on Tower Green were conducted in the full view of many important spectators, which often numbered up to two hundred. These important victims of such executions were usually hurriedly buried
in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula situated next to Tower Green. The following table provides additional facts and information about the Executions & Beheading at the Tower of London

Tower of London 'private' executions on Tower Green
The private executions conducted on Tower Green include the most poignant of many of the Tower of London prisoners: 

Date Tower of London executions on Tower Green

13th June 1483
William Hastings

Execution by Beheading 

William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings (1431 - 1483)
William Hastings fought to secure the throne for Edward IV. He was appointed Lord Chamberlain in 1461. When King Edward died in 1483 he was a staunch and loyal supporter of King Edward's young son - Edward V, one of the tragic little Princes in the Tower. He was arrested on charges of treason by the dead King Edward IV's brother Richard on route to the young prince's coronation.  The two little princes were declared illegitimate and, as next in line to the throne, their uncle and Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was declared the true King and was crowned Richard III. The two little princes were never seen again. And William Hastings was executed without trial.

19th May 1536
Queen Anne Boleyn 

Execution by Beheading 

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England (1507- 1536)
Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII. He divorced his wife, Katherine of Aragon, broke with Rome and was excommunicated, for the love of this woman. Then lost interest, fell in love with Jane Seymour and had her arrested on the charges of treason, adultery and incest with her brother George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Anne Boleyn entered the Tower of London via Traitor's gate where she was met by William Kingston, the Constable of the Tower. She asked whether she was to be taken to a dungeon but was assured she would be imprisoned in the Royal apartments where she spent her time before her coronation. Death by the axe was a terrifying prospect. The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed. Anne was therefore granted some clemency and a swordsman was called from France to undertake the execution. When she talked of her execution and referred to the comforting fact that she "only had a little neck."

27th May 1541
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

Execution by Beheading 

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury (1473-1541)
The Countess of Salisbury was the last direct descendant of the Plantagenet line - she was as descendent of King Edward III. The countess made the mistake of appearing to side with Katherine of Aragon against the king and he declared her a traitor. She was arrested two years before her execution and badly treated and neglected as a prisoner in the Tower of London. She was not given a trial. She was small, frail and ill. But she was a proud noble. She was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head on the block. She was forced down and struggled. The inexperienced executioner made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. She leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, with his axe. She was struck eleven times before she died. There were 150 witnesses to her execution. She was 68 years of age.

13th February 1542
Catherine Howard

Execution by Beheading 

Catherine Howard, Queen of England (1524 - 1542)
Catherine Howard was the pretty fifth wife of King Henry VIII and the cousin of Anne Boleyn. Henry was besotted with her, calling her his 'Rose without a Thorn' and showered her with gifts and public affection. She had led a permissive life in the household of her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. and was an uneducated, neglected girl. After her marriage to Henry VIII who was an old, repulsive, obese man, she had an affair with the young and handsome Thomas Culpepper. And was found out. King Henry was devastated. Catherine was arrested at Hampton Court for adultery and tried in vain to reach the King. She was dragged screaming back to her apartments. Her lovers were executed and she passed their gruesome, impaled heads on London Bridge on her way to Traitor's gate, the entry to the Tower of London. Catherine asked William Kingston for a block so that she could practise her execution. Legend has it that Catherine's last words were: "I die a queen, but would rather die the wife of Culpepper."
She was just 18 years old.

13th February 1542
Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford

Execution by Beheading 

Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford (1505 - 1542)
Jane Rochford  was the wife of George Boleyn, the brother of Queen Anne Boleyn who had been executed on the trumped up charge of incest with his sister. Jane Rochford was a spiteful, jealous woman. Her marriage to George Boleyn was an arranged and unhappy one. She was instrumental in the arrest of her sister-in-law, Anne and her husband George Boleyn, providing damning evidence against them to Thomas Cromwell. Her sworn affidavit helped convict them of incest and treason. The allegations were completely false.  She later became a Lady of the Privy Chamber to Catherine Howard. Jane Rochford revelled in intrigue and encouraged the young queen in her affair with Thomas Culpepper with whom she helped organised secret meetings. Her part as a go-between was discovered and Jane Rochford was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. She was interrogated and lost her sanity. A new law which allowed the execution of the insane was passed in order to have her condemned to death. She confessed before her death, "God has permitted me to suffer this shameful doom as punishment for having contributed to my husband's death. I falsely accused him of loving in an incestuous manner, his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn. For this I deserve to die." She was executed immediately after poor, tragic Catherine Howard.

12th February 1554
Lady Jane Grey

Execution by Beheading

Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England (15371554)
Lady Jane Grey was Queen of England for just Nine Days from Monday 10th July 1553 to Wednesday 19th July 1553. Edward V a devout Protestant and Henry VIII's only son, died of tuberculosis and he left the throne to 'the Lady Jane and her heirs male.' Lady Jane Grey was the puppet of her ambitious parents the powerful Dudley family. She was proclaimed Queen of England and the Protestant Queen Jane and her husband Guildford Dudley were taken in full state from Syon House to the Royal Apartments in the Tower of London. On 19th July 1553 Queen Jane was deposed as Queen, she raised no objection - the Catholic Princess Mary was the rightful heir. Lady Jane Grey and her husband were imprisoned in the Tower. On 12th February 1554 Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley were executed at the Tower of London. Lady Jane watched her husband go from the Beauchamp Tower to his death on Tower Hill, a few hours before her own execution on the Green. Jane's death warrant was signed by Queen Mary later known as 'Bloody Mary' for her persecution of Protestants.
Lady Jane Grey was just 17 years old.

25th February 1601
Robert Devereux
2nd Earl of Essex

Execution by Beheading 

Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex (1566 - 1601)
The Earl of Essex was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. He was handsome, witty, arrogant and ambitious and the Queen heaped favours upon her favourite. Essex was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland - a post in which he failed dismally. His relationship with the Queen deteriorated and he attempted a political coup. He lead a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth and attempted to seize control of the City of London on February 8th 1601. He was arrested and convicted of treason. Dressed in black, but with a bright red waistcoat, Essex executed at the Tower of London on February 25, 1601. Over 100 people witnessed the execution - three strokes of the axe were needed to sever Essex's head.

Tower of London public executions on Tower Hill
The public exhibitions of executions conducted on Tower Hill, Tyburn and Smithfield were countless. Some of the prisoners who were killed by public executions on Tower Hill suffered the most atrocious and painful deaths by being burned to death at the stake and Hung, Drawn and Quartered. The most famous executions included the following historical figures:

  • King Baliol of Scotland (1296)
  • William Wallace (1305)
  • John Fisher Bishop of Rochester (1534)
  • Sir Thomas More (1535)
  • Implicated with Anne Boleyn (1536)
    • Mark Smeaton
    • Sir Henry Norris
    • George Boleyn
    • Sir Francis Weston
    • William Brereton 
  • Thomas Cromwell (1540)
  • Implicated with Catherine Howard (1542)
    • Thomas Culpepper
    • Henry Mannox
    • Francis Dereham
  • Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1546)
  • Thomas, Duke of Norfolk (1546)
  • Thomas Seymour, High Admiral of England (1549)
  • Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector (1552)
  • Guildford Dudley - husband of Lady Jane Grey (1554)
  • Guy Fawkes  (1606)
  • Thomas Overbury (1613)
  • Sir Walter Raleigh - first imprisoned for 13 years then released but eventually executed (1618)
  • Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (1641)
  • James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1685)
  • Roger Casement
  • Corporal Josef Jakobs

The Executions and Beheading at the Tower of London
The information and facts about the people in history who suffered executions and beheading at the Tower of London provide sad details of those who were killed on the orders of their King or Queen. Many of these victims are reputed to haunt the Tower and their details can be found by clicking the following link:

 Tower of London Ghosts

Executions and Beheading at the Tower of London


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