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Famous Executions at Tyburn

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Tyburn Tree circa 1680

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 on the traffic island near Marble Arch marks where the Tyburn Tree gallows used to stand.

First Person Executed at Tyburn

Tyburn gets its name from a stream of the same name—Teo Bourne—that ran through the area on its way to join 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, roughly equating to the prosperous modern-day London streets of Oxford Street and Park Lane.

The very first recorded execution at Tyburn took place in 1196. The man executed was 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.

Tyburn Tree

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, 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 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.

The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn - William Hogarth 1747

The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn - William Hogarth 1747

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 northeastern 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. 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. 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 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, 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 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 they would often throw at the prisoners.

Prisoners often wore their best clothes for their executions as this was their last opportunity to show off. However, an executed prisoner’s clothes traditionally belonged to the hangman, so some prisoners wore their oldest, most ragged clothes so the executioner would not benefit.

After the execution, 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 (even though 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.

Rev William Dodd being hanged at Tyburn

Rev William Dodd being hanged at Tyburn

Executed Highwaymen

Some of the executed prisoners were regarded as celebrities of their age. The ladies regarded the highwaymen in a romantic light. When Claude Duval was executed in April 1669, hordes of weeping and wailing women crowded around the gallows and then attended his lavish funeral. 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 authorities’ side 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 necks 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’; sometimes, the executioner, family, and friends would tug on the prisoner’s legs to hasten their end.

On Christmas Eve, 1705, John Smith dangled at the rope’s end 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 his sentence was commuted to transportation.

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.

Other notable figures hanged at Tyburn include Thomas Culpepper, the lover of Queen Catherine Howard and Edmund Campion, the Catholic martyr; the last person ever to 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 for any criminal now or in the future.

Sources and Further Reading

Questions & Answers

Question: Was Dick Turpin, infamous highwayman, executed/hanged at Tyburn? Where is he buried?

Answer: Dick Turpin was hanged in York in 1739. He was buried in St George's parish graveyard

Question: When was the last hanging for highway robbery carried out in England?

Answer: The last highwayman to be hanged in England was James Snooks in March 1802. He was executed on Boxmoor, which is near Hemel Hempstead. This location was chosen as it was the nearest public space to where he committed the crime, as was the custom of the time.

© 2010 CMHypno


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 08, 2014:

Thank you for your long detailed comment Der Teufel and for reading the hub. As to strangulation, yes it often did happen before burning but not always. - Joan of Arc being a good example.

Der Teufel from Hell-Ville on June 07, 2014:

Bit of a misnomer about "burning at the stake" here. They did not, in fact, burn women alive in the 18th century. By that time the executioners always (as far as I've read) strangled the women before lighting the fire. The last woman to officially be burnt alive in England was Elizabeth Gaunt, in 1685. She was convicted, wrongly, of treason. Her crime? Charity. She gave a man shelter who happened to be a rebel. The rebel ratted her out to save his own skin. She was convicted of treason and sentenced to be burnt alive, which was actually done. The crowd was sympathetic, but despite that, she was not given the mercy of strangulation as most other women were by that time. She died a miserable, painful death in the flames while the actual criminal was allowed to live. Apparently the whole issue was political in nature, which is why she was convicted and murdered in such a brutal manner.

I can only hope the rat who sent her to the stake, the executioner, and everyone involved contracted a very painful, very slow, very deadly disease later in life.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on January 24, 2012:

Thanks for reading about Tyburn, My Esoteric. The saddest thing is that cruelties such as this still go on in the world on a daily basis

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on January 23, 2012:

Extremely interesting and a very sad commentary on humanity.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on December 31, 2011:

Thanks for reading the hub bogtrotter. As a New Year is about to begin, it would be great if mankind could make a group resolution to treat each other kindly, refuse to offer violence or verbal abuse to others, and accept that other people choose to follow different faiths and lead different lifestyles. We should celebrate all the differences in our world, as they are what makes it such a vibrant and interesting place to live.

bogtrotter on December 30, 2011:

It's hard not to assume that our world lost it's collective mind in the atrocities of the 20th century & what has unfolded in the 21st is not encouraging that any lessons have been heeded. Yet we can see that unspeakable intolorance & cruelty have always had willing participants & a ready audience both vocal & mute to the suffering of others thru the centuries. Imagine what was successfully suppressed that we have no idea it ever took place! God help us!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on September 21, 2010:

Thanks for the great comment Rose, I knew of the convent but did not realise that they had relics of the Catholics who were martyred at Tyburn for their faith.

rose on September 21, 2010:

There is to this day a Convent to mark the deaths of the CAtholic martyrs there in the Reformation. In the Crypt below the chapel are various remnants of the saints rescued from the gallows such as fingers and blood stained cloths. The shrine is a must see at the top of Oxford Street

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on July 30, 2010:

Hi Nell, glad that you enjoyed reading about the infamous executions at Tyburn. I agree with you that certain modern reality TV programmes are the modern equivalent of the Roman arenas, a public executions, as they seem to encourage the participants to be cruel to each other and whip up public feeling. If you are intrigued by the Princes in the Tower, there is a lot of literature on the subject, and I have written a Hub on Richard III and whether or not he could have been responsible for their disappearance. Thanks for reading the Hub and leaving a great comment.

Nell Rose from England on July 30, 2010:

Hi, this was a very detailed and fascinating history of Tyburn, and the video was gruesomely appealing to watch! I am glad that you mentioned Perkin Warbeck because I have always been intrigued by the Princes in the tower and have recently read a Phillippa Gregory story about this time, but it never mentioned what happened to him, I think it must be in the next book, it was only recently that I found out about the swop of the princes, or at least one of them. it was a fascinating time, but very gruesome, and to think that people actually bought food to stand there and watch! In a sense we have a much more tame but modern feel about tv reality programmes, we boo and yell at people who have been kicked off of the programmes, so we haven't changed that much! lol apart from the killing though! cheers nell

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 25, 2010:

Hi billyaustindillon, they are interesting stories of the executions at Tyburn, even though they are also gruesome. We all seem to have a curiosity about these things, even though they also give us the creeps. Thanks for reading the Hub and commentating

billyaustindillon on June 24, 2010:

Very interesting history - interesting the ones that survived - the executions all sound very gruesome. The crowds were so bloodthirsty then it seems too. Not unlike those hangings in Iraq I guess with Saddam - that would be the best recent example I think.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 22, 2010:

Thanks for reading the Hub on Tyburn Brian S. Yes it is amazing that places that look innocuous nowadays were home to some very dark events. Many beautiful European squares and piazzas were where they used to burn heretics and witches and execute felons.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 22, 2010:

Glad that you enjoyed reading about the executions at Tyburn K J Page. The subject matter is not pleasant, but we should not forget how brutal our quite recent past could be and how public execution was accepted as a norm - indeed when they stopped using Tyburn and started private executions in Newgate Prison, the London populace was not pleased to have their 'days out' curtailed

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on June 22, 2010:

Very good hub, you sometimes forget as you wander around places that now look pretty innocuous in modern times what their history holds. Couldn't believe they actually burned someone at the stake in the 18th century, as you rightly said I assumed that was a medieval practice. Thanks for the information.

K J Page from Pacific Northwest on June 21, 2010:

Although somewhat not my preferred reading material, I did find the story interesting enough to complete - great research and delivery of a subject not pleasant, but a reminder still of more primitive style 'justice'.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 21, 2010:

Hi 2patricias,I think that the convent is still there, and that they pray for the English Catholics who were martyred for their faith at Tyburn. Thanks for reading the Hub and leaving a great comment.

2patricias from Sussex by the Sea on June 21, 2010:

What an unusual topic for a Hub! You have really done your research.

There used to be a 'closed' convent near Tyburn - at least until about 10 years ago, and it may still be there. It was/is a contemplative order of nuns, who pray all day. This was a most appropriate location, given the gruesome history, and no doubt lost souls.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 21, 2010:

Thanks Sandyspider, the executions at Tyburn were interesting to write about, albeit fairly gruesome!

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on June 20, 2010:

Great hub on the executions at Tyburn.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 19, 2010:

Thanks for the addendum humagaia, what was done to other human beings back then in the name of justice was barbaric. It makes me grateful for living where I do in the 21st century

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 19, 2010:

Thanks for reading the hub about Tyburn tonymac4, and leaving a great comment. I wonder if we will ever be able to leave violence and barbarism behind, but I think that educating people in the violence of the past may help any complacency and a slide back to thinking that capital punishment and torture is ok

Tony McGregor from South Africa on June 18, 2010:

I found this horrifying and at the same time educative. I am totally opposed to state sanctioned murder and I think it very useful to keep in mind the barbarism that we have left by doing away with the death penalty. Of course there is still a lot of barbarism around, unfortunately.

Love and peace


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 17, 2010:

Thanks for the comment christopheranton. They used to think that a woman murdering her husband was against the natural order of things, so just a plain old murder charge wasn't good enough, it had to be an offence against the State as well. As back then women weren't regarded as being as important as men, it was viewed in the same way as a servant killing his master.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 17, 2010:

One of the crimes that they used to burn women was "Petty Treason" which was if she murdered her husband. The executioner would normally use a long rope to strangle her before the flames reached her, but sometimes the rope burned through before she could be strangled.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 17, 2010:

I think we are all a bit morbid, De Greek, and executions and torture fascinate a lot of us as long as we are able to convince ourselves that is was all a long, long, time ago. I was very shocked when I found out how late on in history they were burning women in the country, as I thought it had died out in the 16th century

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 17, 2010:

Hi Hello, hello, glad you found reading about the executions at Tyburn interesting

De Greek from UK on June 17, 2010:

I must be morbid. I found this tremendously interesting

Hello, hello, from London, UK on June 17, 2010:

That is a well written hub and I enjoyed reading it and learning from the information you provided.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 17, 2010:

Thanks for the great and detailed comment humagaia. For some reason our more violent past and executions are compelling areas of history to study, even though I am also against capital punishment. I have already written a hub on executions in the Tower of London, which incorporates Tower Hill. The Old Bailey is on the site of the old Newgate Prison, where many prisoners were taken from to be hanged at Tyburn, and then in later years they were executed within the gaol itself. Smithfield was an area reserved for the execution and burning of heretics. We didn't throw ourselves into this as enthusiastically as our neighbours on the Continent, but enough poor souls perished in agony purely for holding beliefs not sanctioned by the State.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on June 17, 2010:

Glad that you found reading about Tyburn interesting christopheranton

Charles Fox from United Kingdom on June 17, 2010:

It is perhaps a throwback to the times that crowds found these execution days entertaining, that we now find ourselves compelled and fascinated by descriptions of executions. What is it in our psyche that so fascinates us?

My "Teggs Dictionary of Chronology" 1854, relates the following remarkable! executions at Tyburn since 1700:

Jack Sheppard, robber, Nov 16, 1724

Earl Ferrers, murder, May 5, 1760

Elizabeth Brownrigg, murder, Sep 14, 1767

Daniel and Robert Perreau, forgery, Jan 17, 1776

Rev Dr Dodd, forgery, June 27, 1777

Hackman, for the murder of Miss Reay, April 18, 1779

From 1750 to 1820 there were almost 2,000 executions in London alone. From 1821 to 1824 there were 90 executions per year on average but by 1834/35 this number had dropped to zero.

I have found reference also to Tower Hill, Smithfield, Old Bailey and Horsemonger-lane as places of execution in London after 1740. Perhaps you could produce hubs on these also.

The most interesting reference in Teggs is the comment that at the execution of John Holloway and Owen Haggarty for murder, Old Bailey, Feb 22 1807 between 30 and 40 spectators were trodden to death - he does not say by what or the reason.

I found your hub interesting and well recounted.

Although I am totally against any form of execution I do find the subject compelling and fascinating.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on June 16, 2010:

Thank you for a very well written and interesting article.