Drawn and quartered punishment is perhaps the best known of the nastiest ways people were put to death in the past. There is arguably no better-known case than the wannabe kingslayer, Damiens, who in 1757 in France after failing to assassinate King Louis XV, was punished to the extreme.
The author of the Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, later wrote about this terrible cruelty. As did French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who said such a grim spectacle of violence was a turning point in how we punished people.
Damiens was first made to wear feet-crushing boots, then he had his hand that held the knife that tried to kill the king dipped in molten lead. After which he was cut open and had hot oil poured into his wounds. He then had his limbs tied to horses and they were ripped off slowly, and with some effort. Finally, apparently still breathing, his torso was burned at the stake.
After hearing that you might agree that humanity has come some way, and as we said, the case of Damiens disgusted a lot of people at the time. It was barbaric to the extreme, and while stories differ as to how Damiens died – was it at the stake, or was it when his last limb was pulled off – even the most avid viewer of executions in those days was muttering something along the lines of, “Hmm, I think that might have been just be a little bit too much.”
It was a fact that those who tried to kill a king, known as regicide, would get the worst kind of punishment.
Still, what happened to Damiens sickened some people to such an extent that as Foucault points out in his book “Discipline and Punish”, they were asking for reform.
Here’s what an Italian author and adventurer who saw the execution said, “We had the courage to watch the dreadful sight for four hours. I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him.”
Prior to his death, Damiens at least hadn’t lost his sense of irony, apparently stating, “La journée sera rude”, which most translate as “The day will be hard”, but it could also be, “It’s gonna be a rough day.”
You might not disagree with Damiens here. If getting your feet crushed, hand melted, having red hot pincers tear holes in you and having hot oil poured into your wounds isn’t punishment enough, being ripped apart certainly could be called the icing on the cake.
It’s actually written that the horses didn’t do the job properly, and someone had to go in there with a knife to cut the stubborn tendons. It was no doubt a pretty rough day.
But how many other ill-starred people in this world have had a similarly bad day?
If the French went over the top in the middle of the 18th century, their neighbors and often mortal enemies, the British, had been giving people bad days for a long time. In fact, it’s said it was the Brits that came up with the punishment we now call “Hanged, drawn and quartered.” It’s called that because the way those Brits would do it is to pull (draw) the man to a place where he would usually be hanged, but only until the point of death, not actual death.
The drawing part was all about pulling the criminal through the crowds so they could jeer and feel the fear. This kind of punishment was reserved for people who had committed high treason, people called traitors of the state. Now for the end part, quartering.
Not all such executions were exactly the same, but usually a traitor would have his manhood removed with a knife, his insides ripped out (evisceration), and then either chopped into four pieces or such as what happened to Damiens, his four limbs pulled apart by horses.
For good measure, what was left was sometimes burned at the stake. Other times there was no burning, but the torso or head would be left hanging from London Bridge just as a reminder to anyone else who might go against the state. Also, sometimes the four limbs would be sent to four corners of the country.
You’ll find some people calling this the very worst execution in history
But let’s face it, if you’ve seen other tortures and terrible punishments it’s hard to pick a top spot. The worst part of course was that it was often not over quickly, and just like with Damiens, prisoners might survive a lot of the cutting, tearing, burning, and at times might even have something left when almost limbless.
We are told that in England and many other places in Europe, the purveyors of justice would decide how long it lasted. If they took pity on someone, they would strangle or hang them until dead and then do the nasty work.
On the other hand, they also knew how to keep someone alive throughout the worst of it. If a prisoner was really fortunate, they might accidentally kill him while hanging him, which is something we’ll discuss later.
Same thing happened to the famous Scottish knight
Another famous example of this torturous execution was that of William Wallace, the Scottish warrior knight. You might have seen the movie Braveheart, but remember that when Hollywood does history you could say the interpretation is so loose it barely gets the countries right. Wallace fought the law, and the law won.
He was convicted of treason in 1305, although famously he said how can I be a traitor if I am not a subject of England. Wallace had led the fight for Scottish independence against the English and King Edward I. On 23 August that year Wallace was stripped naked and dragged through the streets of London by a horse.
No doubt the locals were shouting for joy as the accused Scottish miscreant was dragged along. It’s said he was then hanged, but taken down still alive and very much conscious. He then had his willy chopped off, after which the executioners ripped out his guts.
Those insides were then burned while a dying Wallace was made to watch the operation. He was then cut into four and had his head chopped off, which must have been a great relief. His head was dipped in tar and stuck on a pike on London Bridge for all to see. Not the kind of sight you’ll see these days during a spin on the London Eye.
But this was the brutal past, and laws were there for the most part as a deterrence; the harsher the punishment, the less people would break the law. Rehabilitation didn’t really exist back then.
Many people just in Britain met this fate.
But as we said, some got off with less of a painful experience. Under Queen Elizabeth 1st, it’s said that many Catholic priests were sentenced to being hanged, drawn and quartered. This might have been the golden era of art, poetry, the likes of William Shakespeare, but Lizzy wasn’t keen on some of those pesky Catholics.
Those accused of being part of a Catholic Popish Plot lost their limbs. This also happened in 1681 to the Archbishop of Armagh called Oliver Plunkett, under the reign of Charles II. Spies sometimes went that way, too, as did some folks accused of being sympathetic to revolutions.
The obscene punishment was supposed to keep people frightened, or meek, but as is often the case, such extreme behavior can cause people to go against the state. It’s also said that during those difficult centuries, many people loved a good execution, with sometimes many thousands of people filling the streets and sometimes even trying to rip bits of the corpse off for themselves, so they had a trophy.
Many years later, it’s said there were some cases of hanging, drawing, and quartering in the American War of Independence, with both sides calling their enemy a traitor. We can’t possibly go through all the cases as there are so many, but some historians agree that the first was in England in 1283. A bunch of Scottish rebels, as we said, went that way sometime later, as did a few people who had joined the Peasants Revolt in 1381.
The 16th century was a good year for hanging, drawing, and quartering
Though not long into the 17th century, a bunch of guys tried and failed to blow up the British parliament. That is the famous story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Still today, some Brits get together on November 5th and burn an effigy of Fawkes on a bonfire.
As we said, the plot failed, and then Fawkes was caught and tortured. He and other plotters were sentenced to die in a horrible way in 1606. First, they were to be drawn backward through town, their heads taking a beating.
Then, as the judge said, they would be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both.” That meant the not quite killing part when they are hanged. Their genitalia was then to be removed and then burnt right in front of their eyes.
Next, the men were to be opened up, and their bowels pulled out. But this time, the executioner was also asked to rip out the men’s hearts. It’s written that the most famous plotter, Fawkes, actually got off lucky because his rope was set incorrectly, and when they hanged him, his neck broke. As we said, you can see effigies, kinds of dolls meant to look like humans, of Guy Fawkes being burned every year in the UK.
We could go on about uprisings in Britain and downfalls of so-called traitors, but we think you now get the picture regarding how this operation went. As we have said, come the latter part of the 18th century and some people were starting to ask if this punishment wasn’t a tad on the inhumane side.
These kinds of punishments slowly fell out
America would call it a cruel and inhumane punishment, and by and large more developing countries started to turn more towards deprivation, or prison, than deterrence with a spectacle of violence.
In Britain some sources say a man called David Tyrie was the last man to receive the punishment in 1782. He got the full Monty after being accused and convicted of spying for the French.
This is written about that day, “He was sentenced to be drawn to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck; cut down alive and his entrails and privy member cut from his body and burned in his sight; his head to be cut off and his body to be divided into four quarters and disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
Apparently 100,000 Brits turned out, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, to cheer this on.
Nonetheless, utter brutality was falling out of fashion as Europe was becoming much more reasoned and enlightened. In the 19th century Brits said enough is enough, let’s perhaps leave the evisceration and manhood mangling out of it and just draw folks through the streets and then just hang them until dead or chop off their heads.
This happened in 1803, and the victim was called Edward Despard. His sentence was commuted from the former hang, draw, and quarter, to the latter, just draw and kill quickly.
He was a high-ranking soldier who it’s said was stationed in Honduras during the days of Empire. He was seen by some of the ruling class as troublesome as he gave some rights to slaves and espoused an unusual ideal of the time of racial equality.
He married a black woman and then really upset some of the ruling Brits when it’s said he treated blacks the same as whites. He was in charge at the time, but then because of his appalling kindness and humanity he was sent back to England and then later accused of being involved in a plot to kill the king.
The largest gathering for a long time tuned up for the drawing and execution, 20,000 people in all. It was fast, and compared to the past, not so horrendous.
An era was over, and never again would the public get to see someone butchered in the streets while screaming in agony. No longer would heads be decorating London Bridge, and filling stomachs with hot coals or oil would never again be a la mode in the chambers of justice.
Featured image: Execution of Damiens, by Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons