Category Archives: Torture

Curiosities Torture


I stumbled upon another woodcut of seventeenth century waterboarding earlier today, which dates from 1624. You can read a detailed, if gruesome, later published account of the event itself here

Crime Execution Torture

Hanged alive in chains

Punishment in early modern England was famously brutal and today’s fragments form a brief outline of some of the more serious types of crimes and punishments prevalent in Elizabethan London.

Catholic priests were subjected to several different types of torture in the Tower of London:  The Pit – a dark hole 20 feet deep; Little Ease – a tiny room too small to stand upright in; The Rack which ‘by means of rollers and other machinery tears a man’s limbs asunder’; The Scavenger’s Daughter – an iron band which compressed the head and feet into a circle, while further iron gaunlets crushed the hands, arms and legs.  Needling – pushing needles under nails; a secondary torture method used at the discretion of the examiner.

Capital punishment such as murder was usually punishable with hanging. A butcher often acted as executioner. The criminal was seated in a cart with one end of a length of rope around his neck, the other tied to the gallows. The cart would then be jolted out from underfoot and he or she would be left to hang.  Often well-meaning relatives would yank on the criminals legs to speed up the process. Some murderers were ‘hanged alive in chains’ until their ‘bones consume to nothing.’ The more serious crime of treason was punishable with hanging, drawing and quartering – see Beware the Executioner.

Convicted pirates were hung at Wapping

at the low water mark, there to remain until three tides had overflown them.

Poisoners were burned at the stake, or

boiled to death in water or lead, although the party died not of the practise.

Heretics were burned alive although occasionally they were deported. Suicide was a punishable offence, but since the offender was already dead, it was left to the authorities to inflict punishment on the body alone – in 1588 a coroner ordered that a suicide’s body should be:

carried from her house to some cross way near the town’s end and have a stake driven through her breast and so be buried with the stake to be seen, for a memorial that others going by, seeing the same, might take heed.

Criminal trials were fast and not always fair. However there were certain circumstances the criminal could cite which might reduce a sentence. A woman could ‘plead her belly’ and assert she was pregnant. It was not lawful to kill her unborn child, so a sentence such as hanging might be deferred until she was no longer pregnant; the hope being she would be reprieved or released in the interim. A man might be able to claim benefit of clergy – he did not necessarily have to be a clergyman, he just needed the ability to read. This rule had survived the Reformation, when illiteracy rates were incredibly high. After proving  benefit of clergy by reading one verse of a psalm, the offender was usually branded on the thumb, as in the case of the playwright Ben Jonson.

A sentence of Peine forte et dure (crushing or pressing) did have the benefit of ensuring that the offender’s goods could not be seized by the Crown. For this reason many men who wanted to save their families from starvation after their death, chose in their trials to remain silent, neither pleading innocent or guilty. The result was an agonisingly slow and painful death beneath huge stones; allowed only a little stale bread and a few sips of foul water until death overtook them.


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