Famous Executions at Smithfield
Smithfield is an area tucked away in the north-west of the City of London and is a part of the capital that is not so frequented by tourists unless they wish to visit the famous meat markets. However, this is an area rich in history and, however unlikely it may seem in the middle of a thriving, modern city, Smithfield was once a place of bloody execution.
This is an area that has seen human activity since Roman times, when it was an expanse of grassy high ground located just outside the city walls of what was then known as Londinium. Since Roman customs banned burials within the perimeters of city walls, they used this location which they called ‘Smoothfield’ as a cemetery and several stone coffins and cremations of that era have been excavated when building or renovation works have taken place.
During the Middle Ages Smithfield was a prosperous commercial area and a centre for healing and religion. In 1133 an Augustinian monk called Rahere was given permission to build the priory and hospital he named St Bartholomew’s. Over the next few centuries the hospital gradually grew until it covered a huge area, housing dozens of monks and attracting many sick people in need of medical treatment.
A large horse fair was also held here right through medieval times as was the Kings Friday Market. In 1133 a royal charter initiated the three day annual event that was to run for the next seven hundred years, St Bartholomew’s Fair. It developed into one of the most famous cloth fairs in Europe and on occasions would run for as long as a fortnight. It brought substantial revenues into the priory and church, but was discontinued in 1855 due to the rowdy behaviour that took place. Smithfield was also a place used for horse racing and jousting, attracting huge crowds that would bet on their favourite horse or knights.
So how did a colourful, busy area full of market traders, merchants, monks and patients become a place of execution? In modern times, many countries now do not permit capital punishment or if it is handed down as a sentence it is undertaken in private, usually within the walls of a prison. But back in medieval times, one of the main reasons people were executed was to set an example and send a message.
It was not a very subtle message, but it was an effective one. If you committed this crime, this is what would happen to you. Executions were also used to underline the authority of the king and the government, the reasoning being that if they allowed traitors or heretics to go unpunished then they were potentially undermining their own regime. It was a period in history when ‘might was right’ and any dissent was brutally crushed to maintain stability for the greater good of all.
Therefore it was important that executions were witnessed by as many as possible, so it made sense to choose a place where people already congregated to go about their daily affairs. It also has to be said that, however distasteful it might appear to us, back then people enjoyed a good execution. They were regarded as a holiday and the crowds would attract hawkers and street entertainers. The atmosphere would have been more reminiscent of a modern sporting event than what we might associate with the agonising death of another human being, and even children and young infants would have been brought along. It really was a case of fun for all the family!
The place of execution in Smithfield was known as The Elms and these gallows were thought to have stood very near to the Church of St Bartholomew the Great, before they were taken away to be used at Tyburn sometime in the reign of King Henry IV. The first famous person to be executed at Smithfield was William Wallace, who was hung, drawn and quartered on 23rd August 1305, having been captured at Robroyston near Glasgow and handed over to King Edward I for punishment.
William Wallace, the Hollywood ‘Braveheart’, had been rebelling against England’s control over Scotland and was trying to drive the armies of King Edward I back south over the border so Scotland could once again be an independent country.
Because of his rebellion against the English crown, he was punished as a traitor, hence the hanging, drawing and quartering. Aware they may have created a martyr for his supporters, the authorities ensured that Wallace had no burial that could potentially become a place of pilgrimage by dipping his head in tar to preserve it and then setting it up for display on London Bridge and his limbs were dispersed to different locations in the north as a warning to other would-be rebels.
In medieval England, various methods of capital punishment were reserved for different crimes. Traitors were beheaded if they were of royal or noble blood and hung, drawn and quartered if they were commoners, heretics and women who killed their husbands or lovers (a crime known as petty treason) were burned to death, and felonies were punished by hanging.
If a woman was convicted of treason she would either be beheaded or burned, as hanging, drawing and quartering would have involved public nudity which was not considered at all proper for a member of the fairer sex. In England, witches were not burned at the stake, as witchcraft was a felony, so they were hanged.
The fourteenth century saw another couple of notables meeting their end at Smithfield. In 1330 Roger Mortimer paid the ultimate price for being the lover of Queen Isabella of France, helping to overthrow her husband King Edward II and then controlling the way the new monarch king Edward III ran the country.
As soon as he was old enough, the youthful Edward III had Mortimer arrested at Nottingham Castle and convicted of High Treason. Despite his nobility, he was condemned to being hung, drawn and quartered for his crimes and it was said the remains of his body were left hanging for two days before they were removed and buried. But even a vengeful Edward III baulked at executing his own mother and Queen Isabella was imprisoned for the rest of her life.
During the reign of King Richard II in 1381, the first big uprising of the people against the power of the nobility and great landowners took place, known as the Peasant’s Revolt. The leaders of the rebellion were demanding the abolition of serfdom and they amassed with their supporters at Blackheath south of the Thames on June 12th.
The youthful Richard II, who was only fourteen at the time, was safe behind the sturdy walls of the Tower of London, but his Lord Chancellor Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and his Lord High Treasurer Robert Hales were both killed by the rebels and his uncle John of Gaunt’s palace of the Savoy was raised to the ground.
King Richard bravely met with the rebels at Mile End and agreed to their terms, but this did not stop them from rioting across the City of London. So he met with Wat Tyler, one of the rebel leaders, again the next day at Smithfield. Tyler would not be convinced the King intended to keep to his agreements, which caused a fight to start between the king’s men and the rebels. Tyler was dragged off his horse by William Walworth, the Mayor of London and killed.
This treacherous act almost ignited the situation into all out violence, but Richard II remained calmed and dispersed the peasants with promises their demands would be met. However, Wat Tyler was right to question Richard’s probity, for as soon as the rebels had returned to their homes he reneged on all his promises and revoked the pardons and charters of freedom he had granted.
But the form of execution that Smithfield was to become most famous for was burning at the stake. This was the place where England burned many of its heretics. England never became as enthusiastic as some continental countries about burning heretics and the Inquisition luckily never got a foothold here. But it was still a staunchly Roman Catholic country until the Reformation and heresy was a capital offence that was not tolerated by the all powerful church.
During the late 14th century John Wycliffe, a theologian at Oxford started translating the bible into English, so it could be read and understood by ordinary people. Although this may seem an entirely reasonable thing to do by us, this was considered heresy by the church at that time, whose doctrine demand that religious texts and services be kept to the original Latin.
Wycliffe soon attracted a band of followers who became known as Lollards, who preached against what they saw as a powerful, venal clergy and who wanted the church to be reformed. He wanted the church to return to holding scripture as its authority, for ordinary people to be able to assume responsibility for their own religious lives and even went as far as calling the pope the antichrist.
These arguments invoked strong opposition especially among the clergy, although he did have some powerful supporters who agreed with his views, one of which was John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. In 1381, he put together his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper which was pronounced heretical. He appealed to the king and wrote in English a great confession that was widely distributed and he was also widely blamed for supporting the Peasant’s Revolt, when in fact he did not agree with it at all.
Although many of his writings were declared heretical or erroneous Wycliffe was not condemned for heresy, although after his death he was declared a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1415 and his body was dragged out of his grave, his bones burned and the ashes thrown into a nearby river. It was his supporters, the Lollards, who carried on his work who were to suffer.
In 1401, the Statute of Heresy became law in England, signed by King Henry IV, which allowed the punishment of heretics by burning them at the stake. That this law was enacted to deal with the Lollards there is no doubt. It was beefed up by the 1414 Suppression of Heresy Act which made heresy a common law offence so civil law officers were given the powers to arrest suspected heretics and hand them over to the ecclesiastical courts for trial and punishment.
One of the first Lollard victims to fall into this net was a priest called William Sawtrey, who started preaching the beliefs of John Wycliffe. He was briefly imprisoned in 1399 for heresy, but was released when he recanted. However, he resumed his earlier activities, preaching his Lollard beliefs in London, and was arrested in 1401. He was convicted of heresy by Archbishop Thomas Arundel and burned at Smithfield in March 1401.
In 1410 another Lollard, John Badby would also die for his beliefs. He had preached against the doctrine of transubstantiation whereby the Catholic Church believes the bread and wine used during the Eucharist literally changes into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. He was arrested and tried in Worcester and then in London where the same Archbishop Thomas Arundel who had condemned Sawtrey also sent Badby to be burned at Smithfield. Legend has it that the future King Henry V attended his execution and tried to get him to recant by offering him his freedom and a good pension. Badby was followed in 1431 by Thomas Bagley, who was also executed for following the teachings of John Wycliffe.
1441 was to see the very rare spectacle of a witch being burned at the stake in England when Margery Jourdemayne, known as the ‘Witch of Eye’ was executed at Smithfield. She had been arrested along with Thomas Southwell and Roger Bolingbroke, for helping Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester make an wax image of King Henry VI in order to divine when he was going to die.
Although she pleaded that all she had done was try to help the Duchess have a baby and that the wax image was only a fertility symbol, she was given the death penalty. This was very harsh as she had not been convicted of either treason or heresy. It may have been because this was her second offence, but was much more likely a sinister warning to anyone who was considering offering the Duchess their political support.
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The reigns of Henry Tudor and his daughter Mary were to bring a further spate of burnings to Smithfield. When King Henry created the Church of England so he could cast off his Catholic wife and marry Anne Boleyn he made England a Protestant country, but there were still beliefs that were allowed and others which were condemned.
Henry VIII was a traditionalist at heart and was opposed to what he viewed as the more extreme Protestant teachings. In 1539 the Act of the Six Articles was brought into law which confirmed the traditional beliefs in transubstantiation for the sacrament, that priests should not marry and the hearing of confession to be continued. King Henry also started to move towards once more restricting the reading of the bible.
In 1543 he married his last wife Catherine Parr who was a staunch protestant and believer in further reform of the church. This placed her in a very difficult and dangerous position at Court as the conservatives, such as Thomas Wriothesley the Lord Chancellor, were gaining ground in their attempts to stamp out heresy.
In 1546 the queen’s name was linked with that of a Protestant woman called Anne Askew, who had already been arrested for preaching her beliefs and giving out bibles. King Henry was told of this connection and Anne Askew was arrested on March 10th and then again in May of the same year. After her conviction for heresy she was sent to Newgate and then to the Tower of London, where it is said she was tortured on the rack to try and get her to implicate Queen Catherine and other court ladies for holding the same beliefs.
She did not reveal any names or information even though she was so badly tortured she could no longer walk and had to be carried to Smithfield in a chair for her execution. Although she faced the agony of burning she refused to recant and was strapped to the stake in a chair with a pouch of gunpowder around her neck, gaining the dubious accolade of having been the only woman in England to have ever been both tortured and burned at the stake.
Although Anne Askew had not betrayed the queen, Catherine Parr had been heatedly debating religion with her husband Henry VIII, even going so far as to disagree with him over some of his articles of faith. This led to a warrant being issued for her arrest, but when Wriothesley arrived to take her to prison the queen very cleverly pleaded with Henry VIII that she had only been trying to learn from his superior knowledge. Henry was suitably flattered and Wriothesley was sent packing with his tail between his legs.
However, Catholicism was to have a final flowering in England when in 1553 Henry VIII’s daughter Mary came to the throne. A fervent Catholic, she set about undoing the Reformation and bringing the country once more back to what she regarded as the true religion. Any Protestant who did not convert or flee the country risked being burned at the stake.
This period became known as the Marian Persecution and it has been estimated that nearly three hundred Protestants around the country died for their faith, which earned the queen her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. Smithfield was still used as a place of execution and in 1555 alone John Bradford, John Rogers and John Philpot met their ends there. During this period the condemned prisoner would have been stood in an empty wooden tar barrel, with faggots of wood piled up around them. It was not then the custom to strangle prisoners before the flames could reach them, so they died a very slow and painful death.
Luckily capital punishment is no longer allowed in the United Kingdom and you can now explore the fascinating old streets and buildings of Smithfield without being scared of turning a corner and seeing an execution taking place. But we still need to acknowledge the bravery and tenacity of those men and women who were prepared to give up their lives for their beliefs. They laid the foundations for the religious tolerance and diversity we all enjoy today, so we are now free to worship as we please or not follow any religion at all.
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