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). Executions were mostly public events and very well attended.
Condemned traitors could expect to suffer being ‘hung, drawn and quartered’: a barbaric punishment in which the prisoner was hung and cut down when still alive, their heart and entrails removed and burnt, and their bodies divided into four and displayed in public places such as the city walls, as a warning to others contemplating treason.
Yet, the sentence most closely associated with the Tower 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. These tended to be women or political prisoners, although they still would have had many people watching.
Beheading was usually carried out using an axe. If the executioner’s axe was sharp and he was experienced then beheading could be quick. However, if the instrument was blunt, the prisoner moved, or the executioner was careless, then beheading might take several strokes.
For an execution to take place, a raised platform (scaffold) was built and covered with straw to soak up the blood. The executioner’s block had two curved cut-outs which were to take the victim’s head and upper chest, leaving their neck exposed.
This expression originates with the misfire of a flintlock or similar gun. The powder in the pan is supposed to ignite the main charge in the barrel. Sometimes only the powder in the pan flashed without firing the main charge.