by Marie-Louise Jensen
This is a gruesome post. If you are squeamish, don't read on.
I was asked to talk to Year 7s and 8s last week about my book the Lady in the Tower and about the Tudors. It's not a recent book and I've never spoken specifically about it before, so I had a reread and a think and the thing that struck me most was the deaths by execution.
Really, the monarchs of that time, and especially Henry VIII were unfettered psychopaths and mass murderers.
Execution was so common; and it was a grand day out for all the family - take a picnic, take the kids.
Poor people were hanged at Tyburn. Mostly their main crime was just that; poverty. The same law for rich and poor, but as we know, the rich have no need to steal. Although they often do, just in more sophisticated ways.
But hanging was deemed too brutal for the nobility. They got to be beheaded instead on Tower Hill instead. Lucky them. Interestingly they also got to step up onto the scaffold with a priest, who would be offering religious comfort, and there they had to pay and forgive the executioner before execution. Yes, really.
I asked the class how much they'd pay him. The overwhelming response was 'nothing'. But I think I'd pay him an awful lot.
Because what good is money once you're headless? And if you've got to lose your head, you really, really want to do it quickly and cleanly. You don't want him taking eleven goes at it, which I believe is the record. There's nothing non-brutal about that.
Anne Boleyn, as is common knowledge, was so afraid of the axe that she begged and was granted, execution by sword instead.
She was also one of only seven nobles to be granted a 'private' execution inside the Tower of London at Tower Green, rather than the public spot of nearby Tower Hill. Five of these nobles were women, revealing that even unleashed psychopaths who murdered on trumped-up charges to protect their own position were aware that some sensitivity was required executing women.
Even inside the tower grounds, there might have been privacy from the masses, but the audiences still numbered up to 200.
And that nice little habit of picking up the severed head to show it to the crowd? Anyone who has always believed that this was to show the head to the crowd is wrong, or at least only partly right. It was mainly intended to triumphantly show the head itself its own body as it lay on the block: we remain conscious for at least 8 seconds after our head is severed, before lack of oxygen causes brain death. I didn't share this detail with the students; I find the brutality of this deeply disturbing as an example of what human beings are willing to do to one another. If only beheading was a practice that belonged firmly in the past in the world.
As for my main character's father, Sir Walter Hungerford: he was beheaded at Tower Hill, with Father Bird, the vicar of Bradford-on-Avon, a month after the execution of his friend and ally Thomas Cromwell. Reportedly he raved and fought his executioners on the scaffold. That's considered to be a sign that he was mad. But you could see him as the only sane and normal person in a sick charade (if it hadn't been for some of his more dastardly acts towards his own family).
After an execution, the family were handed the body to bury while the head was boiled ready for display on a spike on London Bridge. The final step in the gruesome pageant of power and death.
As for hanging, drawing and quartering or burning at the stake - well, that wasn't divided into commoner and nobility. These tortured fates were reserved for those the king really, really hated.