Many prisoners, whether they had been tortured or not, only left the Tower to go to their execution. Some were burnt at the stake at Smithfield, but most common criminals went to the gallows on Tower Hill or at Tyburn (where Marble Arch now stands). Condemned traitors could expect to suffer the barbaric punishment of being ‘hanged’, cut down when still alive, ‘drawn’, having their heart and entrails removed and burnt, and ‘quartered’. Their bodies were divided into four and displayed in public places such as the city walls as a warning to others contemplating treason.
The sentence most closely associated with the Tower, however, is beheading with the axe. This was generally reserved for more important and distinguished prisoners, and to die by the axe was considered both more honourable and more merciful. Public executions took place on Tower Hill, although a small number of especially important prisoners were executed within the Tower itself, to avoid public attention and outcry.
This illustration shows Tower Hill, a site often used for executions, just outside the walls of the Tower of London.
Only a few people were executed within the walls of the Tower. These tended to be women or political prisoners who were executed away from the public, although they still would have had many people watching.
For important state prisoners or people of noble birth, executions were carried out by beheading. This was considered the swiftest, least brutal method. Most lower class prisoners were executed by hanging.
For an execution to take place a raised platform (scaffold) was built and covered with straw to soak up the blood.
- Beheading was usually carried out using an axe. If the executioner’s axe was sharp and he was experienced beheading could be quick. However, if the instrument was blunt, the prisoner moved or the executioner was careless, then beheading might take several strokes.
- The block has two curved cut-outs which were to take the victim’s head and upper chest, leaving their neck exposed.
- You can see many spectators have gathered to watch.
Executions were mostly public events and very well attended.