Hanging, Drawing and Quartering: the Anatomy of an Execution
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
I found this an incredibly hard post to write - not just because of its length but also the amount of research into the act of execution. This led me on a very gruesome and depressing journey at times, but I felt it was important to detail what happened at a hanging, drawing and quartering rather than just gloss over it - as many books do. Sometimes I don’t think readers are aware of the full horror of this form of punishment - as well as its implications for family honour and spiritual salvation.
However, because of the nature of this piece I feel that I must issue a warning:
SOME GRUESOME DETAILS CONTAINED - NOT FOR SENSITIVE SOULS!!!
And for those who do read on… don’t have nightmares!
Hanging, drawing and quartering, at its most simple, could be seen as a means to an end: a way of producing the most bloody and visible death possible. And yet, under that first simplistic layer, there are other interpretations which throw a little more light onto the importance of the various acts. It must be remembered that the people of the 14th century were immersed, through the dominance of the church, in a culture of symbolism and ritual: for example, the practice of heraldic display included much symbolism that was tied up with rank and status. The whole process of hanging, drawing and quartering was to remove the criminal’s status and identity bit by bit until there was nothing left. With relation to Despenser, this had started even before his ‘trial’. He was removed from his horse and, without doubt, disarmed, taking away two of the most important symbols of knighthood (horse and sword). That he was then tied onto a skinny nag further emphasized his fall from the higher ruling order as well as the loss of his freedom. Stripping him of his finery, too, stripped him of another layer of his rank, whilst forcing him to wear a surcoat with his arms reversed, showed that he was no longer deserving of bearing a coat of arms - a potent symbol of identification and family honour. Finally, the crown of nettles placed on his head was, maybe a mocking parody of his baron’s coronet, or even perhaps a dig at his pretensions to rule England.
These visual signs of his loss of power and position would not have been lost on the crowds that came to see him arrive in Hereford. A man who had previously had complete authority over them was now helpless to their screams, taunts, missiles and the blare of horns and trumpets that accompanied him to judgement. As an object for the people’s wrath, Despenser became a scapegoat for all and any misdeeds that had befallen them - whether at his hands or not. This united hostility of the masses therefore made it easier for Isabella and Mortimer to execute him without the king’s consent - after all, who was going to protest? The rest of his sentence can be interpreted as follows.
The sentence of being ‘drawn’ is perhaps the one that causes most confusion as to its meaning. There are two basic definitions: that of being drawn or dragged to the place of execution (usually by horses and on a hurdle) or of being cut open and disembowelled. Most hanging victims were drawn to the place of their execution anyway, so I feel it would be a little odd to emphasize this as part of the punishment. Also, the term ‘drawn’ is usually placed after ‘hanged’, implying that the actions also took place in that order (it wouldn’t make sense the other way around). So, in my opinion, whenever you see the sentence as ‘Hanged, drawn and quartered’, the meaning is of being eviscerated. However, there are also examples (much later in history) of the sentence being given as ‘Drawn, Hanged and quartered’, in which case, I think the alternative definition is meant.
Hanging was a sentence usually meted out to common thieves in the middle ages. Hugh’s sentence of hanging was most likely because of his acquiring lands by often dishonourable and underhand methods. The hanging process at that time was of the ‘short drop’ - in other words the victim only fell a short way - not enough to break their neck or cause a quick death.
Those sentenced to hang were often made to stand on the back of a cart, a stool or a ladder and the noose was placed around their neck. The cart/stool/ladder was then removed and the noose tightened around the victim’s neck, under their own weight, especially if they struggled (which of course, they did). Death was either caused by asphyxiation or else the cutting off of blood to the brain via the pressure of the rope on the carotid arteries. In either case the hanged person might remain conscious for a few seconds or a few minutes, depending on the noose and the way they dropped. Although this does not sound a lot, it must have felt like an eternity. When semi-consciousness was reached, the body would start to spasm and all control would be lost over the bowel and bladder - in some cases men were also known to ejaculate. If the victim was to be hanged until dead, the person could be left for up to an hour before it could be certain that all life signs had been extinguished. By this point the face would also be blue, the tongue and eyes swollen and protruding.
However, in Hugh’s case he was cut down as he reached the semi-conscious (semi-vivus) stage in order to be revived for the next part of the execution. Most probably, due to his starved and dehydrated state, he would not have soiled himself, thus at least sparing one humiliation.
I have been trying to picture what a 50-foot high gallows would have looked like. It must have been a great building feat in order for it to be stable. The cross beam that Hugh was hung on might not have been that far off the platform itself (if there was one), and the whole apparatus was reached probably by a ladder. Or maybe it was built against one of the buildings in the market place - which would give the structure more stability. Although some chronicles have said that the fire was on the ground in the marketplace, under the gallows, I suspect that it was more likely to be lit in some sort of cauldron on the platform itself. That way, the burning of Hugh’s entrails would have been easier to accomplish and could have been done in front of him, as was common.
After the noose had been removed from Hugh’s neck, he was tied to a ladder - or maybe a table for the next part of the punishment. Note - Froissart says that he was tied to a ladder and that the executioner climbed a ladder next to him to do the deed (see picture in this post). In practical terms that would be rather tricky (and we know Froissart wasn’t given to being reliable with the facts). On the other hand, after being hung so high, it is unlikely that the rest of the sentence would be carried out where the crowd couldn’t see it. I suspect that there was some sort of ladder type frame that Hugh was fastened to on the gallows platform. Then he would have been brought back to consciousness either by a few slaps or by having cold water thrown on him.
Two documents - Froissart's chronicle and a manuscript held at Cambridge (Cambridge Trinity College R.5.41, f. 123v) are the only accounts that say that Despenser was castrated - a grisly flourish not mentioned in his original sentence. Although Froissart can generally be dismissed when it comes to providing a true account, on this occasion it does seem plausible that this happened as Froissart knew Hugh's grandson, Edward who may have provided him with the details. Froissart claims that Hugh was emasculated because he was a ‘heretic and a sodomite’, and indeed, castration was one of the penalties for anything regarded then as ‘un-natural’ sexual practice (heterosexual as well as homosexual - even using different sexual positions could be regarded as un-natural). However, it would be rash to assume that this is the only interpretation of the act. Castration had also been used at previous executions where there was no intention to punish for sexual deviancy.
Actually it was more commonly a symbol of taking away the victim’s future lineage and also any claim to masculinity and power (thereby placing him in a female ‘passive’ role) and was also sometimes seen as metaphorically ending his line and name. Another famous example of castration was Simon de Montfort, who, after being killed at the battle of Evesham in 1265, was beheaded, castrated and quartered by the king’s knights. In their eyes, de Montfort had been a traitor and thus deserved the full range of ‘deaths’ reserved for such a crime, including that of symbolically taking away his masculinity and the means by which he procreated.
Hugh was sentenced to be disembowelled because he had ‘procured discord between our lord the king and our very honourable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm’ ( TheGreatest Traitor, Ian Mortimer, p.162). Many medieval scholars believed that once a man was corrupt, then that corruption dwelt in his heart and bowels. The heart was also associated with love and passion, so quite possibly the message that was being sent out here was that Despenser’s notions of love for his king - both in the sense of as a subject and as a lover, were corrupt and corrupting - especially to the king’s marriage. Le Bel and Froissart saw it as the place where he contrived his evil schemes. By cutting him open and pulling out his heart and entrails, his corruption was therefore being made visible to the crowd. When they were then thrown into the fire before him, it was so that the corruption could be both destroyed and purified in his sight. In other words it was a rather extreme exorcism of the evil considered to reside within him. It was also, most possibly the last thing he saw.
Despenser was beheaded for returning from exile illegally. In other words, his actions made him an outlaw. The head traditionally is the seat of knowledge, honour and is the part which directs the person’s actions. In other words, it is the seat of control as is seen in common expressions such as ‘head of the family’ or ‘head of state’. In a famous inflammatory sermon against Edward II (although later he swore it was actually about Despenser), Bishop Stratford started by saying: ‘My head is sick’, using allegory to infer that if the head of the country (i.e. the king) was weak, then so would be the governance over the people. The solution was to remove the head.
Therefore the action of beheading could be seen symbolically as removing that which is sick or corrupt (as with the entrails) and putting an end to its influence on all around it. The head, an important symbol since Celtic times, was then placed on a pike and sent to London, where it would be paraded up and down to the usual accompaniment of horns and drums before being placed on London Bridge like a macabre trophy of good triumphing against evil.
The final act of the assault upon Despenser’s body was that of quartering. His body was hacked into four pieces, each to be displayed in a different town in England.
The integrity of the body at death was very important during the middle ages. It was considered that, at the Last Judgement, the soul would become reunited with the physical remains again and would rise from the dead. Therefore, to have one’s corporeal parts scattered about the country was tantamount to being denied a chance of salvation in the afterlife. It was probably because of this belief that Piers Gaveston’s head was sewn back onto his body again after his beheading at Blacklow Hill.
So, for state criminals such as Despenser, physical obliteration was not enough - they needed to be spiritually obliterated as well. Only then could justice be seen to have been done; only then could it be said that the corrupting influence had been totally and utterly destroyed.
Although such public and extraordinary executions as Hugh Despenser’s were treated by the watching crowd as an excuse for celebration and festival, in reality the bloody excesses were steeped in the symbolism of church and state. The whole process of humiliation, judgement and execution was designed to ritually strip away all ‘nobility’, title, dignity, power, name and even bodily integrity, so that at the end the individual who used to be known as Sir Hugh Despenser, Lord of Glamorgan ceased to exist - both physically and spiritually. In utterly destroying a person who was seen as an enemy of the established order and ideals of ‘nobility’, the whole community was also cleansed of taint. And yet the traitor’s deeds were not to be forgotten: the mutilated remains on display served as a reminder that even the greatest among them could fall if certain lines were crossed and rules transgressed.
‘Deconstructing Identities on the Scaffold: the Execution of Hugh Despenser the Younger, 1326’, Danielle Westerhof, Journal of Medieval History 33 (2007) 87-106 (really recommended for a deeper look into the symbolism behind aristocratic execution)
The Greatest Traitor - Ian Mortimer, Pimlico, 2004
Edward II - Roy Martin Haines, McGill-Queens University Press, 2006
Chronicles - Froissart, translated by Geoffrey Brereton, Penguin Classics, 1978
Several online articles about the medical effects of hanging.