Famous Executions at Tyburn
Tyburn Tree circa 1680
Did You Know What Marble Arch Used To Be?
What do you know about the Tyburn Tree? Imagine that it is a very hot and sunny summer afternoon. You are on the top deck of a London bus trundling its way down Oxford Street. As the bus then turns into the mass of traffic going around Marble Arch, I wonder if you will realise that you are travelling across the site of one of the most infamous places of execution in England? For that small area around Marble Arch used to be known by another name, a sinister name that still echoes down the years of history.
That place was Tyburn, and it was the home of the feared Tyburn Tree. For hundreds of years many traitors and criminals were publicly executed there, often in front of huge jeering crowds who had come for a good day’s entertainment and the chance of seeing some of the most notorious criminals of their day meet their grisly ends.
Women were also burned at the stake at Tyburn for crimes of treason, usually forging or filing coins, and if you think that burning at the stake was a medieval form of execution, you might be surprised to learn that Isabella Condon was burned at Tyburn for coining as late as 1779. Nowadays a stone plaque placed in the traffic island near Marble Arch marks the spot where the Tyburn Tree gallows used to stand.
First Person Executed At Tyburn
Tyburn gets its name from a stream of the same name or Teo Bourne that ran through the area on its way to join to the Thames. The stream is now completely covered over, and cannot be seen. The two main thoroughfares leading to the area used to be Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane, and these roughly equate to what are now the prosperous London streets of Oxford Street and Park Lane.
The very first recorded execution at Tyburn took place in 1196. The man executed was called William Fitz Osbern, who had been the ringleader in trying to organise an uprising of the poor in London in 1196.
He was captured in the church of St Mary le Bow, and several days later taken to Tyburn where he was ‘first drawn asunder by horses, and then hanged on a gibbet with nine of his accomplices who refused to desert him’. Fitz Osbern was declared a martyr by his followers, who gathered daily at his place of execution until armed guards were posted to deter them.
It wasn’t until 1571 that the infamous Tyburn Tree was erected and it was a very unusual form of gallows. The Tyburn gallows were made up of a horizontal wooden triangle on three legs, and it was constructed so that several criminals could be hanged simultaneously. This was very useful in the case of mass executions, such as when twenty four convicted felons were hanged on the same day in June 1649.
The Tyburn Tree stood in the middle of the road, as thus positioned these gallows acted as a major warning and deterrent to any would-be traitor or criminal. The first person to be executed on the Tyburn Tree was a Roman Catholic called Dr John Story. Dr Story had been condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered for refusing to recognise Elizabeth I as queen of England, and was executed on 1st June 1571.
Tyburn and Speakers Corner
Sometimes even being already dead did not save you from Tyburn. On his restoration, King Charles II had the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw dug up and hanged in January 1661 for the part they had played in the beheading of his father Charles I.
Speakers Corner in the north-eastern corner of Hyde Park is known as a place of democracy and free speech, and an Act of Parliament in 1872 ratified this space as an area for public speaking. However, the tradition of public speaking at Speakers Corner actually comes from the custom of the condemned prisoners at Tyburn giving speeches before they were executed.
Many of these speeches were directed at the administration of the day, and if the prisoner was a Catholic being executed for treason they would often open up a theological debate on the scaffold and attack the establishment of the Church of England.
The Tyburn gallows evolved into an arena for an open debate and discussion on the politics and religious issues of the day, and eventually this led to Speakers Corner being established as a place where politics and issues could be freely debated without any comeback from the authorities.
Going to the Gallows
Hanging days were huge public spectacles and were declared as public holidays for the working classes. The prisoners were taken from Newgate Prison, as the St Sepulchre bell, which was only pealed on hanging days, announced the event. They were then taken on a cart to Tyburn, accompanied by the prison chaplain and the hangman, and followed by a troop of soldiers and a posse of constables.
This cavalcade passed through Holborn, St Giles and then travelled down what is now Oxford Street to Tyburn. The procession would stop at taverns along the route so that the condemned could fortify themselves for their ordeal to come with a tot or two of hard liquor. It was not unusual for the prisoner to arrive at the scaffold totally drunk and incapable.
Money For Old Rope
If the condemned prisoner was wealthy they could pay to go to the gallows in a closed coach, and thus avoid the jeering crowds and the missiles that they would often throw at the prisoners.
Prisoners would often also wear their best clothes for their executions as this was their last opportunity to show them off. However, an executed prisoner’s clothes traditionally belonged to the hangman, so some prisoners chose to wear their oldest, most ragged clothes so that the executioner would not benefit.
After the execution had taken place, it was also the prerogative of the hangman to sell the rope by the inch, which gave rise to the old saying ‘money for old rope’. The crowd also believed that the bodies of recently executed criminals had some kind of healing properties, and people would pay the hangman to let them stroke the deceased’s hands or take a lock of their hair as a souvenir.
Executions as Public Spectacles
Huge crowds would gather around Tyburn to watch the executions; 200,000 were said to have attended the execution of highwayman Jack Sheppard in 1724 and Samuel Pepys recorded that there were between twelve and fourteen thousand excited spectators at the hanging of Colonel James Turner in January 1664.
Adding to the carnival-like atmosphere of hanging days, were the hawkers who would work their way through the crowds selling food, souvenirs and copies of the condemned’s final speech and confession (this in spite of the fact that they had not yet arrived at the scaffold).
The wealthy could remove themselves from this crush of people by paying for a seat in the stands that had been erected that were known as ‘Mother Procter’s Pew. A seat with a good view of the gallows was much sought after and people were prepared to pay a good deal of money for them. In fact, when the official site of execution for felons was moved from Tyburn to the privacy of Newgate Prison in 1759, the general populace was not at all happy at having their hanging day holidays curtailed.
Some of the prisoners who were executed were regarded as the celebrities of their age. The highwaymen especially were regarded in a romantic light by the ladies, and when Claude Duval was executed in April 1669 hordes of weeping and wailing women crowded around the gallows and then attended his lavish funeral afterwards. Claude Duval was a gallant Frenchman, who totally charmed and stole the hearts of the ladies that he robbed of their jewels.
He was reputed to have demanded a dance from one lady immediately after he had robbed her husband of £100. Another famous highwayman and burglar who hanged at Tyburn was Jack Sheppard.
He became the darling of the working people in London and a thorn in the side of the authorities, after he was captured five times and managed to escape an astonishing four times in 1724. Jack Sheppard was so popular that an autobiographical narrative, thought to have been ghost-written by Daniel Defoe, was sold at his execution.
Cheating Death on the Gallows
Another surprising fact is that some prisoners managed to survive being hanged at Tyburn. The prisoners would have the noose placed around their neck while they were still in the cart, and when all was ready the horses were whipped into pulling the carts away leaving the condemned dangling.
The drop was very short, and many would convulse for several minutes before they expired in agony. This was known as ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’ and sometimes the executioner and family and friends would tug on the prisoner’s legs to hasten their end.
On Christmas Eve 1705 John Smith dangled at the end of the rope for fifteen minutes while still alive. The crowd started to call for a reprieve and eventually Smith was cut down and carried to a nearby house where they managed to revive him.
In 1740, a teenager called William Duell was hanged for the rape and murder of Sarah Griffin. After he was cut down he was transported to the Surgeons’ Hall where his body was going to be dissected. However, it was noticed that he was showing signs of life and was revived. He was sent back to Newgate Prison and subsequently his sentence was commuted to transportation.
Do You Agree With Capital Punishment?
Historic Figures Executed at Tyburn
Many well-known historical figures were executed at Tyburn, including Roger Mortimer, Earl of March who was the lover of the English Queen Isabella and had rebelled against her husband Edward II, Perkin Warbeck who posed as one of the lost Princes in the Tower and was the figurehead of a rebellion against Henry VII,
Thomas Culpepper the lover of Queen Catherine Howard, Edmund Campion the Catholic martyr, and the last person to ever be hanged at Tyburn was John Austin on 3rd November 1783.
Mercifully, we no longer have the death penalty in the United Kingdom and the days of public executions being a spectacle and a ‘good day out’ are thankfully long gone.
But it pays to remember the horrors of places like Tyburn and all the poor souls who suffered there, so that we do ensure that public executions remain a thing of the past and we do not visit these cruelties as a punishment on any criminal now or in the future.
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