• Jul 6, 2015

Don't Lose Your Head: Why Were Executions Public?

By Trevor Floyd

Anne Boleyn’s beheading at the Tower of London has stuck in the public imagination for centuries, and our fascination with executions has endured for even longer. Human history is littered with examples of people taking a trip to the local town square to watch some nobleperson or enemy of the state lose their life. It is a phenomenon that remains true from biblical times all the way to the 20th century, and can still be found occasionally today, even in developed nations. What is it, exactly, that has drawn people to want to witness such a violent and gruesome event throughout the years? And why have we given in to these basest of desires and allowed such public demonstrations?

When people think of public execution, many of the images that come to mind are from the Medieval and Early Modern periods in Europe. The primary reason for this is not because it was an inherently more violent time than any other in history, but because this was a time when a monarch’s power to maintain a rigid social order through codes of law was being tested and expanded upon. The English crown, specifically, was embroiled in wars and controversies over power, authority, and legitimacy for centuries. To deter widespread violence that suggested a chaotic world with no order, it was important for Kings and Queens to display the state’s violent capabilities and reinforce that they were the divinely appointed arbiters of order. 

Therefore, the main victims of public executions were those who challenged power or stability in some fashion. Acts punishable by death included treason--which refers to anything from a direct plot to kill a monarch to counterfeiting state currency--murder, robbery, heresy and witchcraft.

Depending on who you were and the crime you committed, there are a number of different ways the execution could happen. Here are some examples:

Beheading—This was the exclusive privilege of the noble class, no matter what their crime. Seen as quick and merciful, it allowed the upper class to maintain their status over commoners even in death.

Drawn and Quartered—Perhaps the most gruesome execution method, this involves being dragged by a horse to a spot where the victim would be hanged until they were nearly lifeless. Then, they would be gutted on a table while still alive before finally having their head cut off. This was the fate of treasonous commoner men.

Burning at the Stake—Today we think of this as being a common punishment for witches. This is due to the fact that this method of execution was reserved for common women convicted of treason and anyone who committed heresy.

Hanging—The most merciful death, perhaps, that a commoner could ask for, and the most common form of execution in England.

The public execution was a major staple of life in England and Europe during this time. They were almost like modern sporting events. People were drawn to the drama, the gossip, and the communal nature of the events, and although their purpose was to subdue violence and excitement, it was not unheard of for crowds to become a little too raucous, especially if the prisoner received a pardon, or the executioner did a shoddy job. The event was also very ritualized, which only increased the spectacle that historian Richard van Dulmen called the “theater of horror”. Prisoners were dramatically led to their execution spot in front of a crowd, where they were given a chance to speak and ask forgiveness for their sins. This moment acted as the rising action and conflict; if the prisoner confessed and begged forgiveness from God, they were often treated with a bit more humanity by their executioners and their audience. The climax was the execution itself.

Anne Boleyn herself was beheaded in a private affair in the Tower of London, which makes sense—a public execution of the Queen would do very little to display the power and stability of the monarchy. However, this was a mercy only applied to noble women; noblemen were more often beheaded outside the Tower of London, in public view. 

Over time, the popularity of the public execution faded away, forced mostly into darkness as a more educated and literate populace began demanding more appropriate punishments from the state and the absolute power of the monarchy dwindled in England and abroad. However, it is not hard to understand what made the events so captivating. They were spectacles designed to demonstrate the power of the state while entertaining and subduing the masses, and for many years they served their purpose. Anne Boleyn may have been killed in private, but the spectacle is there all the same—you can tell by the great amount of historical intrigue into her life and death, including the production of this very play. We are fascinated by the various ways humans have found to execute one another throughout the centuries, and if you were alive during the Medieval period, you had a front row seat to history.