Thursday, 27 October 2011

Mind your head.


While researching my current chapter, I pondered on the idea that it was common practice for noblemen/women to be decapitated when out of favour with the reigning monarch for whatever reason. I thought about the notion that even when you are being killed as a punishment, the laws of the land dictated that how you die depended on who you are.


Decapitation by sword or axe was considered the "honourable" way to die for a noble, who, being a warrior, could often expect to die by the sword in any event. In England it was considered a privilege of noblemen and noblewomen to be beheaded. Others suffered a dishonourable death on the gallows or through burning at the stake. In medieval England the penalty for treason by men was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. The penalty for women traitors was to be burned at the stake. In practice sentences of nobles were almost always commuted to beheading. In legends of Christian martyrdom the fictitious saints withstood all attempts to execute them, until the wicked heathens finally beheaded them.
If the headsman's axe or sword was sharp and his aim true, decapitation was quick and presumed to be a painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the executioner clumsy, multiple strokes might be required. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman to ensure that he did his job with care. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Mary, Queen of Scots, both required three strikes at their executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, required ten strokes before being dispatched by a fatal blow.
To ensure that the blow would be fatal, executioners' swords were usually blade-heavy two-handed swords. If an axe was used, it almost invariably would be wielded with both hands. In England a special form of axe was used for beheadings, with the blade's edge extending downwards from the tip of the shaft.
Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, first cousins and the second and fifth wives of King Henry VIII were both condemned to be burnt alive for adultery, but on Henry's orders they were both beheaded. Lady Jane Grey was also condemned to burn as a traitoress but again the sentence was commuted to beheading by Mary I.

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