Category Archives: Death

Crime Death Execution

Witches are hanged, or sometimes burned

These fragments come from William Harrison’s A Description of Elizabethan England (1577), and form an intriguing survey of Elizabethan crime and punishment. The images are taken from a 17th Century collection of prints (right click and open in a new tab for larger image).

In cases of felony, manslaughter, robbery, murder, rape, piracy, and such capital crimes as are not reputed for treason or hurt of the estate, our sentence pronounced upon the offender is, to hang till he be dead. For of other punishments used in other countries we have no knowledge or use; and yet so few grievous crimes committed with us as elsewhere in the world. To use torment also or question by pain and torture in these common cases with us is greatly abhorred, since we are found always to be such as despise death, and yet abhor to be tormented, choosing rather frankly to open our minds than to yield our bodies unto such servile haulings and tearings as are used in other countries. And this is one cause wherefore our condemned persons do go so cheerfully to their deaths; for our nation is free, stout, haughty, prodigal of life and blood, and therefore cannot in any wise digest to be used as villains and slaves, in suffering continually beating, servitude, and servile torments. No, our gaolers are guilty of felony, by an old law of the land, if they torment any prisoner committed to their custody for the revealing of his accomplices.

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.

Sometimes, if the trespass be not the more heinous, they are suffered to hang till they be quite dead. And whensoever any of the nobility are convicted of high treason by their peers, that is to say, equals (for an inquest of yeomen passeth not upon them, but only of the lords of parliament), this manner of their death is converted into the loss of their heads only, notwithstanding that the sentence do run after the former order. In trial of cases concerning treason, felony, or any other grievous crime not confessed, the party accused doth yield, if he be a noble man, to be tried by an inquest (as I have said) and his peers; if a gentleman, by gentlemen; and an inferior, by God and by the country, to wit, the yeomanry (for combat or battle is not greatly in use), and, being condemned of felony, manslaughter, etc., he is eftsoons hanged by the neck till he be dead, and then cut down and buried. But if he be convicted of wilful murder, done either upon pretended malice or in any notable robbery, he is either hanged alive in chains near the place where the fact was committed (or else upon compassion taken, first strangled with a rope), and so continueth till his bones consume to nothing. We have use neither of the wheel nor of the bar, as in other countries; but, when wilful manslaughter is perpetrated, beside hanging, the offender hath his right hand commonly stricken off before or near unto the place where the act was done, after which he is led forth to the place of execution, and there put to death according to the law.

As in theft therefore, so in adultery and whoredom, I would wish the parties trespassing to be made bond or slaves unto those that received the injury, to sell and give where they listed, or to be condemned to the galleys: for that punishment would prove more bitter to them than half-an-hour’s hanging, or than standing in a sheet, though the weather be never so cold.

Manslaughter in time past was punishment by the purse, wherein the quantity or quality of the punishment was rated after the state and calling of the party killed: so that one was valued sometime at 1200, another at 600, or 200 shillings. Such as kill themselves are buried in the field with a stake driven through their bodies.

Witches are hanged, or sometimes burned; but thieves are hanged (as I said before) generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving in Halifax, where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and has been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confesses the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence-halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and down in a slot, rabbet, or regall, between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height. In the nether end of the sliding block is an axe, keyed or fastened with an iron into the wood, which being drawn up to the top of the frame is there fastened by a wooden pin (with a notch made into the same, after the manner of a Samson’s post), unto the midst of which pin also there is a long rope fastened that cometh down among the people, so that, when the offender hath made his confession nd hath laid his neck over the nethermost block, every man there present doth either take hold of the rope (or putteth forth his arm so near to the same as he can get, in token that he is willing to see true justice executed), and, pulling out the pin in this manner, the head-block wherein the axe is fastened doth fall down with such a violence that, if the neck of the transgressor were as big as that of a bull, it should be cut in sunder at a stroke and roll from the body by a huge distance. If it be so that the offender be apprehended for an ox, oxen, sheep, kine, horse, or any such cattle, the self beast or other of the same kind shall have the end of the rope tied somewhere unto them, so that they, being driven, do draw out the pin, whereby the offender is executed. Thus much of Halifax law, which I set down only to shew the custom of that country in this behalf.

Rogues and vagabonds are often stocked and whipped; scolds are ducked upon cucking-stools in the water. Such felons as stand mute, and speak not at their arraignment, are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board, that lieth over their breast, and a sharp stone under their backs; and these commonly held their peace, thereby to save their goods unto their wives and children, which, if they were condemned, should be confiscated to the prince. Thieves that are saved by their books and clergy, for the first offence, if they have stolen nothing else but oxen, sheep, money, or such like, which be no open robberies, as by the highway side, or assailing of any man’s house in the night, without putting him in fear of his life, or breaking up his walls or doors, are burned in the left hand, upon the brawn of the thumb, with a hot iron, so that, if they be apprehended again, that mark betrayeth them to have been arraigned of felony before, whereby they are sure at that time to have no mercy. I do not read that this custom of saving by the book is used anywhere else than in England. Pirates and robbers by sea are condemned in the Court of the Admiralty, and hanged on the shore at low-water mark, where they are left till three tides have overwashed them. Finally, such as having walls and banks near unto the sea, and do suffer the same to decay (after convenient admonition), whereby the water entereth and drowneth up the country, are by a certain ancient custom apprehended, condemned, and staked in the breach, where they remain for ever as parcel of the foundation of the new wall that is to be made upon them, as I have heard reported.

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Crime Death Execution Marriage Murder

A woman given to looseness and lewdness of life

These snippets come from an early 17th Century account of a murder allegedly committed in London by a wife and brothel owner.

Margaret Ferne-seede, a woman given to all the loosenesse & lewdnesse of life, which either unlawfull lust, or abhominable prostitution could violently cast uppon her, with the greatest infamie, yea, and with such a publique and unrespective unchastitie, that neither beeing chaste nor caught, she regarded not into what eare the loathsomnesse of her life was sounded, or into what bed of lust her lascivious bodie was transported. This more than beastiall lasciviousnes, having consumed the first part of her youth, being then confirmed in some more strength of yeares, she tooke a house neare unto the Iron-gate of the Tower, where she kept a moste abhominable and wilde brothell house, poisoning many young women with that sinne wherewith her owne body long before was filthilie bebotched. From this house at the Iron-gate, she was married unto one Anthony Ferne-seede a Taylor, dwelling in Ducke-lane, but keeping a shop upon Addle-hill neare Carter-lane. This Anthony was amongst his neighbors reputed to be both sober and of very good conversation.

Now it happened that some few monthes agoe in the fieldes of Peckham neare London, there was found a man slaine having his throate cut, a knife in his hand, golde ringes uppon his fingers, and fortie shillings in money in his purse. His woundes [were] of so long continuance that his body was not onely corrupted, but there was also Maggots, or such like filthie wormes ingendered therein, which gave testimony to the beholders that he had not slaine himselfe in that place, as well because the place was free from such a spectacle the day before, as also that such corruption could not proceede from a present slaughter. Againe, what the person slaine no man knewe, both because his phisionomie was altered in his death, and because his acquaintance was little or none in those partes about Peckham. In the end, searching his pockets, and other parts of his apparaile, amongst other notes and reckonings, they found an Indenture wherein a certaine youth which did serve him was bound unto him: this Indenture gave them knowledge both of his name, and of the place of his dwelling, whereupon, certaine discreete persons of Peckham, sent to London to Ducke-lane.

Inquiring for the house of one Anthony Ferne-seede, [they] delivered to his wife the disaster and mischance which had befallen her husband, which her hardoned heart received not as a message of sorrow, but as if it had bene the report of some ordinarie or vulgar newes. She embraced it with an irrespective neglect and carelesness & demanded instantly (before the message would tell her how he dyed) whether his throate were cut, or had he cut his own throate, as either knowing or prophesing how he died. She [then] prepared herself & her Servant in all haste to go to Peckham to behold her husband.

When she & her boy came where the bodie was, where more for awe of the Magistrate than any terror she felt, she made many sower faces, but the drinesse of her braine would suffer no moisture to descend into her eyes: many questions were asked her, to which she answered with such constancie, that no suspition could be grounded against her: then was her boy taken and examined, who delivered the abhomination of her life and that since her mariage with his maister, she had lived in all disquietness, rage, and distemperature, often threatning his life and contryving plots for his destruction. That she had ever since her mariage, in most publique and notorious manner, maintained a yong man, with whom (in his view) she had often committed adultrie: that the same young man since his maisters losse was fled he knew not whither, and that his mistris had even then before the message of his maisters death, sold all his goods (as he supposed) to fly after him whom she loved: all these speeches were not only seconded, but almoste approved by some of her neighbors, which lived neare unto her.

She was taken into a more strict examination, and in the end, by authoritie of Justice she was committed to the White Lyon in Southwarke: during the time of which imprisonment, till her time of tryall, thinking to out face truth with boldnesse, and sin with impudence, she continued out all her examinations taken before severall Justices in her former denialls. She was seldome found to be in charitie with any of her fellow prisoners, nor at any time in quiet with her selfe, rather a provoker then an appeaser of dissentions, given to much swearing, scarce praying but continually scoulding, so that she was as hatefull to all them that dwelt with her in the prison, as shee was to people of honest conversation while she lived abroad. In this uncivill order, spending her houres, the time of tryall comming on, this Margaret Ferneseed was indighted, & arraigned, the purpose of which inditement was to have practised the murther of her late husband Anthony Ferne-seede, who as before was found dead in Peckham field nere Lambeth.

She pleaded not guiltie, putting her cause to God and the Countrie, then were these severall witnesses produced against her, namely of the incontinentness of her life past, her attempt to poyson her husband before this murther, as also to prepare broth for him, and put powder in it, her slight regard of him in his life, and her carelesse sorrow for him after death: with other circumstances as the flight of the fellowe whome she had lived long in adulterie with all, her present sale of her goods uppon her husbands murther, as it may be justly thought, with purpose to flie after him: on which lawfull evidence, she was convicted, & after judgement given her to be burned: and from thence she was conveyed backe to the White Lyon, till the time appointed for her execution.

On Munday being the last of February; she had notice given her, that in the after-noone she must suffer death, and a Preacher commended unto her to instruct her for her soules health, who laboured much with her for the confession of the fact, which she still obstinately denied, but made great showe of repentance for her life past, so that about two of the clocke in the after-noone she was stripped of her ordinary wearing apparell, and uppon her owne smocke put a kirtle of Canvasse [a sort of long tunic] pitched cleane through [painted in tar to speed up the burning process], over which she did weare a white sheet, and so was by the keeper delivered, on each hand a woman leading her, and the Preacher going before her. Being come to the place of execution, both before and after her fastening to the Stake, with godly exhortations hee admonished her that now in that minute she would confesse that fact for which she was now ready to suffer, which she denying, the reeds were planted about, unto which fire being given she was presently dead.

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Death London Medicine

Lord have mercy on us!

Reading through some plague statistics recently I was shocked to discover just how many lives were claimed by this disease in the 17th Century. I had known that during plague outbreaks hundreds of people died, but I hadn’t realised just how enormous those numbers were. What follows is a brief overview of the disease, followed by the numbers of deaths which occurred during several big plague outbreaks, recorded during a particularly virulent outbreak in 1665.

Bubonic Plague is a disease transmitted by rats. Or rather the fleas on rats. When a plague-carrying flea bites a host, human or rodent, the bacillus enters the bloodstream. This infection then spreads through the lymph nodes, leading to swellings, or buboes, in the neck, armpit, and groin. Of those infected, about two-thirds die. Symptoms of plague included vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, nausea, bleeding from the ears, fever and abdominal pain. More general pain resulted from the slow decay of the skin of an infected person which produced black spots all over the body.

In the 17th Century, an outbreak of plague was impossible to treat. Those infected were isolated in their houses for at least twenty days and were compelled to pin a paper to their front door bearing the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. The parish often paid members of the community to visit plague victims to bring them food, and, in the case of death, call for a cart to bear the body away. All bedding and linen used by an infected person was burned. Those who had visited an infected house carried a long white stick to warn others to avoid contact with them.

Some plague numbers: In 1591-2, 11,503 people died of plague. In 1625, it claimed 35,428 lives, and five years later in 1630, another 1,317. Between 1636-8, 16,213 people succumbed to the disease, and between 1646 and 1648, another 8,324. In 1665, more than 64,296 people died between January and October.

During the outbreak of 1665, the above numbers were published, along with some approved remedies for curing the plague, entitled Certain approved Medicines for the plague, both to prevent that Contagion, and to expel it after it be taken; as have been approved in the year 1625 and also in this present visitation 1665.

To correct the Aire

Thyme, Mint, Rosemary, Bay leaves, Blame, Pitch, Tarre Rosen, Turpentine, Frankincense, Myrrh, Amber. One or more of these, as they are at hand, or may be readily procured, to be cast on the coales to perfume the house.


Such as are to walk abroad, or talk with any may do well to carry Rue, Wormwood, Angelica, Gentian, Myrrh, Valerian or Setwall-root in their hands to smell, and of those they may hold or chew a little in their mouths as they go.

Inward Medicines for the Prevention of the Plague

Take a Spoon full of quick wine vinegar, wherein Wormwood chopped hath been infused. Take good Figs, thirty, Walnut kernels twenty, green Rue picked a good handful, Salt one spoonful, stamp them and incorporate them together. Take of this mixture every morning the quantity of a Prune; Children and weak bodies, as much as a Hasel nut.

For the Cure of the Plague

If any person be infected, let him sweat with Marigold drink, mingling therewith two drams of London treacle (a medicinal salve, or compound, composed of many ingredients).

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Death Execution

Having a fig in her hand

As a native of the fair city of York I have often walked down The Shambles, one of the most famous streets in England. A narrow medieval thoroughfare overhung with Elizabethan houses, The Shambles was originally a street of butchers. Nowadays it’s home to tired souvenir shops and cafes, but in the mid 16th century, the street was home to the saint and martyr Margaret Clitherow.

The Shambles, York

Known as ‘the Pearl of York’, Margaret Clitherow (1556?-86?), a Catholic convert, was married to the butcher John Clitherow. Their home became a refuge for Catholic priests seeking shelter during a time when Catholicism was being driven underground, and Margaret herself became a leader of the recusant community in York. Indicted for harbouring priests, she refused to stand trial, and was sentenced to peine forte et dure, pressing to death by stones. Today’s post is an account of her death, originally published in 1619.

After her examination she was put into a secret place under ground, and her husband into another, but about seven of the clock at night she was conveyed into the castle and there committed close prisoner, and her husband also about some hour after. Four days she remained there before she came to trial, during which time she never spake with her husband but once, and that in the presence of the jailer, after which time she could never be admitted to see him or speak to him.

During her imprisonment in the Castle she gave herself unto more strictness in abstinence and prayer. It being reported to her that the boy had accused her of harbouring and maintaining divers priests, and that according to a law newly in force, she was to suffer death for the same, she was much pleased with the news, and, smiling, thanked the messenger, wishing she had some good thing to give him, but, wanting better means, having a fig in her hand, she gave him that for a reward.

From the time that this holy martyr was committed to prison unto her death, which was some nine or ten days, she never wore any linen next unto her skin and her diet was water-pottage, rye bread, and small ale, the which she took once in the day but in little quantity. And from that time that she had certain notice that she should die she took no food at all.

The night before her death she spake unto the man’s wife that had the custody of her to have some women watch with her that night. ‘Not that I fear death,’ quoth she, ‘for that is comfort; but the flesh is frail.’ The woman told her that the jailer had locked the door and was gone to bed and, therefore, none could be had. But the woman herself, being ready to go to bed, put on her clothes again and sat by her until towards midnight. At this time the martyr rose up from her prayers, put off her apparel, and put on a linen habit. Without any other garment, she betook herself again unto her prayers on her knees until three of the clock, at which time she came unto the fireside and laid herself flat upon the stones where she lay until six in the morning.

At eight of the clock the sheriff came, and she went barefoot and bare-legged, and her gown loose about her, but her headgear was decently put on, and so she went cheerfully. The place of execution was the toll-booth some twenty foot distant from the prison. The street was full of people; insomuch as she could hardly pass. Yet as she went, she dealt her alms. The sheriff hastened her to come away, to whom she answered merrily, ‘Good Master Sheriff, let me deal my poor alms before I go. I have but a short time in this world.’

There were admitted into the room where she suffered death no more but the two sheriffs, one gentleman, one minister, four women, and those the sergeants had hired to to the execution. The martyr, coming into the room, kneeled and prayed unto herself. The officers and standers-by bid her pray with them and they would pray with her, which she denied, saying she would not so much as say ‘Amen’ unto their prayers. Then they willed her to pray for the queen whereupon she said, ‘I do pray for the Catholic Church, for the Pope’s holiness, for all such as have care of souls, and for all the Christian princes in the world.’ At which words the officers interrupted her, and commanded her not to put the Queen’s Majesty amongst that company. Yet she proceeded, ‘And for Elizabeth, Queen of England. And I humbly beseech God to turn her to the Catholic faith’. One of the sheriff’s, called Gibson, moved with compassion for her, withdrew himself unto the door and stood weeping. The other, nameth Fawcett, commanded her to put off her apparel, saying she must die naked.

She fell down on her knees, and the rest of the women with her, requesting him, for the honour of womankind, that she might not be seen naked, but be suffered to die in her smock, which he would not grant. Then she requested that the women might unclothe her, and they would turn their faces from her during the time of her unclothing, which was granted. And the women put upon her the long linen habit which she had brought with her, and so was quickly laid down on the ground, a sharp stone being laid unto her back. Her face was covered with a handkerchief, her secret parts with the linen habit, and all the rest of her body naked.

When the boards that were joined together in the fashion of a broad door were laid on her to bear the weight, she raised up her hands towards her face and joined them together. The sheriff commanded two of the sergeants to part them and to tie them unto two posts set there for that purposed, which was done, and so her arms extended and her body made a perfect cross. After this they laid weight on her, which when she felt, she cried out, ‘Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me!’, which were the last words that were heard to come from her. She was dying about one quarter of an hour. They laid on her about seven or eight hundred weight, which did not only break her ribs but caused them to break through her skin. And this was the end of this virtuous and glorious martyr, the day of her death the 25th of March.

Margaret’s death

Upon hearing Margaret’s sentence, her husband John reportedly wept until blood came from his nose and exclaimed, ‘Alas! Will they kill my wife?’

    The plaque outside Margaret’s former home on The Shambles
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