Treason's Fee

of his execution, Richard Whiting would have been allowed a final Mass, to prepare his soul to meet his maker. This would probably have taken place in a chapel of his own Abbey.

Then, he would have been paraded through baying crowds to the Tor. However much the locals may have respected the Abbey and its clerics, the prospect of a good execution seems to have produced an unpleasant mob - in any era.

The procession would have climbed the Tor in a spiral, in unconscious imitation of many a pagan rite held here in the preceding millennia. Meanwhile, the crowd already surrounding the summit would have been kept entertained by a number of support acts - a flogging or two, the chopping off of a hand or foot, a blinding.

Once everyone had reached the top, Richard would have been placed on a specially-erected platform. He may have been permitted a short speech, but it is doubtful whether anyone was listening. I suspect that many of the pious speeches recorded from these circumstances were invented later - what the central figure should have said, if he wasn't paralysed by fear or despair.

The execution began with a hanging. This was not the clinical, neck-breaking jerk of a "modern" hanging. It was more of a long, painful throttling. It was emphatically not intended to kill the victim; an executioner who lost his charge at this point might be in some danger of being torn apart by the crowd. Some victims attempted to swing and jerk against the rope, hoping to end their agony before the worst began. Some unlucky ones only managed to break the rope, thus prolonging the torture.

At a time, finely judged by the executioner, Richard would have been cut down from his noose - still alive and conscious. Using his keenest knife, the executioner would then slit his belly open, exposing his intestines. With a couple of skilful cuts, these intestines would be detached from Richard's body, from the stomach to the anus, raised to the crowd, and cast into a fire. The hissing and popping of intestinal gases would have raised the crowd's glee to fever pitch.

Of course, many victims would be dead of shock and pain by this stage, but, astonishingly, many seem to have remained alive to see their guts burn. Particular executioners had reputations for special tricks to ensure that this was the case.

Finally (as far as Richard was concerned) the executioner would reach into the cavity and tear out his heart, which was also cast into the fire.

As a rather superfluous climax to the event, the executioner then chopped off Richard's head, which was put on display in some suitably public place until it rotted - as a lasting reminder of the perils of annoying the King. Other parts of his body were distributed about various parts of the kingdom, to fulfil a similar task.

The penalty of hanging, drawing and quartering was abolished in 1821. It was last carried out on the unfortunate person of Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, Chief of the Clan Fraser - who had chosen the wrong side in the 1745 rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). His execution was carried out in London in the Spring of 1746.

That Simon Fraser was the last to suffer this punishment is a standard piece of information - to be found in many text-books. But it's wrong - as reader Betty Daly-King has pointed out.

Fraser was, indeed, sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but as a peer of the realm, he claimed the right to a more honourable death, and was beheaded.

But the deterrent effect of such harshness was dealt a blow by the behaviour of one of Fraser's co-rebels - Dr. Archibald Cameron, who continued to conspire against the British crown. He took part in the so-called ‘Elibank’ plot - a daft scheme to kidnap George II - and was hung, drawn and quartered in 1753.

There is a further tale of a young Fenian (Irish rebel) called Thomas Francis Meagher, who was said to have been senetenced to this horrible death in 1848 (some 27 years after the punishment was abolished), but who had his sentence commuted to transportation (to Van Diemans Land - modern Tasmania).

Meagher later made his way to the United States, and took a prominent part in the Civil War - on the Union side.

It may be that some special circumstances were raised by the Fenian rebellion, and Meagher was, indeed, given this sentence. However, there's quite a lot wrong with the story.

First, the date; if this punishment was abolished in 1821, there should be some record of its re-implementation - even if it were only for a particular emergency.

Secondly, it seems remarkable to have this sentence commuted to exile - rather than some ‘lesser’ form of death penalty.

I suspect that Meagher himself gilded his own tale with a heavy brush - but then, no Irishman would ever do that, would they, now?

By the way, before anyone imagines that such barbarity is a unique invention of Christianity, the pre-Christian Celts had an interesting artifact called the Wicker Man. This was an huge effigy of a man, 15 to 20 feet high, hollow and made of wicker. Human captives (probably prisoners of war or local miscreants) were imprisoned inside the Man, which was then set afire.

Glastonbury's peaceful atmosphere might make you believe that nothing like that could have happened here, but it's worth remembering that one of the specialities of the surrounding Somerset Levels is, even today, wicker.

Now to return to more pleasant thoughts: The Tor

© David Craig Send me a message