Let's say you're the king of England in the 13th century. You enjoy absolute power and authority, but only if you can keep your grip on the throne, and there are all sorts of plotting pretenders and rebellious radicals keen on toppling your reign and seeing you dead.
So, what can you do to scare them off? You can't post a bunch of threatening Tweets (heck, the printing press is still a few centuries away). But maybe, just maybe, you can devise a form of punishment so twisted and sadistic that only a lunatic would even entertain the thought of committing high treason.
That's how historians believe medieval monarchs came up with the wildly violent execution method known as hanging, drawing and quartering. If you've seen the film "Braveheart," then you've had a (nauseating) taste of just how torturous and cruel the practice was. The Scottish rebel William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1305 (accused of being a traitor to King Edward I) and in the movie we see him disemboweled — his abdomen cut open and his intestines removed — while still very much alive. And that was only one part of the ordeal!
From the 13th century all the way until the 19th century, hundreds of Englishmen convicted of high treason were sentenced to die by this very public and grisly display of absolute power, including rebels like Wallace, political terrorists like Guy Fawkes and Catholic martyrs who refused to recognize the authority of the Church of England.
Drawing First, Then Hanging and Quartering
Richard Clark is the creator of the excellent history website Capital Punishment U.K. and the author of "Capital Punishment in Britain." He says that hanging, drawing and quartering was the "ultimate" punishment, but that the name creates some confusion.
Here's the actual text of the English law (on the books until 1870) outlining the death sentence for anyone convicted of high treason:
The "drawing" part actually comes first, and it involves the convict being tied to a type of sled that's "drawn" or dragged behind a horse all the way from the prison to the gallows. For many centuries, that journey was a full 3 miles from Newgate Prison in London to Tyburn, a remote locale outside of the city whose name became inextricably linked with public executions.
"It was probably a good three-hour drag," says Clark, and the streets would have been packed with riotous crowds jeering and throwing garbage at the poor sap as he prepared to meet his maker in the worst manner possible.
Hanged Until 'Mostly Dead,' Then Comes the Really Bad Part
Fans of "The Princess Bride" know that there's a big difference between being "all dead" and "mostly dead," and so did medieval executioners. After being dragged to Tyburn, the condemned man was hung from a rope (from a gallows or just a tall ladder), but not dropped the necessary distance to snap his neck. After a few terrifying minutes of near-asphyxiation, the man was cut down while only mostly dead.
Boy, did he wish he was all dead! Because what came next was absolute madness. As the law dictated, his "privy members" were cut off first — that means (ahem) his penis and testicles — and tossed in a roaring fire. Next, his abdomen was slit open from groin to sternum and his intestines were pulled out.
"At what point people lost consciousness and died, exactly, we'll never know," says Clark, but if the "de-privying" and disemboweling didn't do the trick, the next part certainly did — the man's heart was cut from his chest and also burned.
Quartering as a Publicity Stunt
In England, the final step of hanging, drawing and quartering was to cut off the condemned man's head and then "quarter" his remaining corpse by carving it into four pieces. According to graphic medieval drawings, that basically meant cutting off the legs and arms.
Clark says that the severed limbs were parboiled in a blend of spices designed to preserve the flesh for as long as possible. That's because the dead man's body parts would next be taken on a "publicity tour" of sorts to let everyone know what happens to people who challenge the authority of the king.
"One of the main points of doing all of this was to demonstrate the absolute power of the monarchy," says Clark. "Because there was no media or newspapers back then, the quartering could distribute the body parts to the surrounding towns as a warning."
The severed head was the sternest warning sign of all. The heads of prominent traitors like Wallace and Fawkes were placed on spikes on London Bridge or the Tower of London.
What about the practice of quartering a victim's body by tying his limbs to four horses and spurring them to run in four different directions? Clark says that was never done in England, but there's evidence that the French indulged, at least as torture. In 1610, King Henry IV of France was assassinated and the perpetrator, a man named François Ravaillac, was publicly tortured to reveal his accomplices. In addition to being scourged with hot pincers and molten lead, he was "torn to pieces by four horses," according to a report.
A Contemporary Account of a 1782 Execution
The very first person to be sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering in England was a pirate named William Maurice in 1241, but there are scant details about his crimes or his execution. Even the famous executions of Wallace and Fawkes lack much information beyond a few surviving illustrations.
But in 1782, a naval clerk named David Tyrie was convicted of high treason for selling information to the French, and this time there were newspapers around to record the event for posterity. Tyrie's execution is believed to be the last time that the three-part death sentence was carried out in full, and it drew a blood-thirsty crowd of 100,000 to the British coastal town of Portsmouth. The Hampshire Chronicle reported Aug. 31, 1782:
Why The Ugly Practice Ended
Over time, Clark says, "the more gruesome parts of the punishment were omitted," as with the executions of the five men convicted in the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. Although the men were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in the traditional grisly fashion, the sheriff of London didn't want to tie up traffic with a long procession and the executioners devised a more efficient way of choreographing the killings, says Clark.
The five were hung for 30 minutes to ensure they were completely dead. Then they were laid one by one in coffins conveniently placed atop the gallows. At the head of each coffin was a raised block upon which each man's head was removed by a trained surgeon or butcher. In this more "civilized" version of the execution, the severed head was raised to the crowd along with the pronouncement, "This is the head of a traitor," but the rest of the body was left intact.
By the mid-19th century, there just weren't as many acts of rebellion, says Clark, plus Victorian-era Londoners started taking a "not in my backyard" stance on public executions.
"The gentrification of places like Tyburn and Newgate had taken place by then and people didn't want that kind of thing happening in their neighborhood," says Clark. "They no longer found these kinds of horrific punishments something they wanted to see."
In 1870, the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering was officially removed from English law as part of the Forfeiture Act of 1870.