Royal Armouries

Block and Axe

For important state prisoners of noble birth, executions were carried out by beheading. This was considered the swiftest, least brutal method.

Following execution the severed head was sometimes held up by the executioner as he cried out ‘behold the head of a traitor!’. It was occasionally claimed that the victim’s lips were still moving.

Margaret Pole (née Plantagenet), 8th Countess of Salisbury

(14 August 1473 – 28 May 1541)
PRISONER: November 1539 – 28 May 1541

The Countess of Salisbury was the last member of the royal house of Plantagenet. She was imprisoned for treason over her alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow King Henry VIII. She denied being a traitor.

According to some accounts, Lady Salisbury, who was 67 years old, frail and ill, was dragged to the block, but refused to lay her head on it, having to be forced down. As she struggled, she made it very difficult for the inexperienced executioner.

His first axe stroke made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck and several more blows were required to complete the execution.

Did you know?

Thunder birds are go!

Artillery pieces before about 1700 were often classified by names. A rare type of very big gun was known as a basilisk, a more common long powerful gun was known as a culverin while smaller versions were named after birds of prey such as saker and falcon.