Drawn and quartered by horses
(Bones) broken on the wheel
Two forms of capital punishment, being drawn and quartered and being broken on the wheel, are so ghastly the details are rarely mentioned.
In the past, public executions were a popular form of entertainment drawing SRO crowds until a squeamish Queen Victoria and other rulers ordered the death sentence carried out in private.
In ancient Rome, condemned criminals were executed in the arena. As recently as the mid-18th century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, another form of execution, being drawn and quartered, was also a crowd pleaser, as was being broken on the wheel.
Drawn and Quartered – the Grisly Details
In 1603, England's Lord Chief Justice condemned Sir Walter Raleigh to death for meddling in foreign affairs. The judge's description of Raleigh's punishment appears in Fractured History Tales or Why (Almost Everything) You Thought You Knew About the Past Never Happened.
"The judgement of this court is that you shall be hanged and cut down alive, your body shall be opened, your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members [genitals] cut off, and thrown into the fire before your eyes, then your head stricken off from your body, and your body shall be divided into four quarters" with ropes attached to the corpse and four horses which "quartered" or tore limbs from the torso.
King James I, whom Raleigh had royally ticked off by attacking Spanish colonies in the New World, changed the death sentence to a swift and more merciful beheading, although often that kinder and gentler form of execution was anything but.
Incompetent headsmen sometimes had to dispatch the condemned with multiple blows to the neck and head before death granted release.
The 68-year-old Countess of Salisbury, framed by Henry VIII for treason, required more than 10 blows of the ax.
Only a handful of dramatic recreations have depicted unwatchable scenes of execution by being drawn and quartered.
Mel Gibson Drawn and Quartered in Braveheart
The Tudors miniseries dramatized that sanguinary end, although the cinematographer decorously filmed the execution with a close-up of the victim's face that spared viewers the gruesome details.
Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning 1995 film, Braveheart, was not squeamish as Gibson's Sir William Wallace suffers full-frontal death on camera, although the star omitted the castration and emasculation.
Bones Broken on the Wheel
Class distinctions prevailed even in death.
Royals and nobility were spared prolonged executions and decapitated, the fate of Anne Boleyn for cuckolding her husband, Henry VIII, at a time when a royal consort's infidelity was considered treason. Had Princess Diana lived in the 16th century instead of the 20th, she would have been beheaded not feted.
The Tudors miniseries on Showtime in 2010 inaccurately depicted Sir Thomas More's death by having the martyr drawn and quartered. Although More was not a member of the aristocracy, he had been Henry VIII's chancellor (prime minister) and in reality suffered the same fate as Anne Boleyn whose marriage to the king More had opposed and led to the ex-chancellor's execution.
HBO’s 2006 miniseries Elizabeth I depicted the full monty except for the genital mutilation.
Untitled offenders were often condemned to suffer the torture of being drawn and quartered or broken on the wheel. The latter form of execution consisted of tying the condemned man to a large wagon wheel, then systematically breaking every one of his bones with a sledgehammer.
In the 1700s, two notorious killers suffered horrific penalties for their crimes or attempted crimes:
A male prostitute who had robbed and murdered the greatest classical scholar of the day, Johann Winckelmann, an international celebrity and openly gay, met his Maker after being broken on the wheel.
The deranged would-be assassin of Louis XV was drawn and quartered while a mob of aristocrats and common people picnicked and enjoyed the show.
Asphyxiated not Burned at the Stake
Another form of execution, burning at the stake, is much better known although not as horrific as it seems. Heretics died of smoke inhalation before the flames consumed the corpse. Joan of Arc's killers prevented a relatively merciful death from asphyxiation by placing firewood far enough from the stake so that the flames, not smoke, would kill Joan.
The leaders of the purged warrior monks known as the Knights Templars suffered the same incendiary death as Joan of Arc in 1314 on orders from King Philip the Fair (IV) of France whose moniker referred to good looks, not fairness or justice.
Bankrupted by wars, the king of France coveted the wealth of the Templars, so he confiscated it and dissolved the monastic order. As flames consumed him, Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Templars, cursed the king and the pope, Clement V, who had colluded in his death.
While de Molay suffered the agony of burning at the stake, he apocryphally predicted the death of both the king and pope within a year. Whether or not de Molay actually said that, his prediction came true.
De Molay also cursed the king's descendants. Like fringe conspiracy buffs today, superstitious Frenchmen believed that Louis XVI's death on the guillotine occurred because of de Molay's curse.
A Russian Version of the Whip Used on Jesus Christ
Another barbaric form of punishment, which often amounted to capital punishment, was the knout. This method of torture began in Russia during the Medieval era and persisted for centuries afterward because Russia missed the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment and those eras’ more human attitude toward ending people’s lives.
A variation on the scourge that lacerated Christ, the knout consisted of several rawhide thongs, attached to a handle and embedded with metal hooks and about three and a half feet long. The hooks tore through flesh to the bone. Twenty-five strokes was typical; more almost inevitably resulted death. Peter the Great had his son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexis, scourged 35 times for desertion from the army and Russia. After the ordeal, Peter visited his son in prison, only to find that Alexis had already perished.
An Historian’s Assessment of Cruelty in the Past
The 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called life in the past "solitary, brutish, and short," an accurate assessment except that executions were rarely solitary, and Hobbes may have understated the miserable quality of life when he called it brutish.
Chamberlin, E.R. The Bad Popes. Dorset Press, 1969.
Massie, Robert K. Peter the Great: His Life and World. Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. Barnes & Noble, 1979.
Sanello, Frank. The Knights Templar: God's Warriors, the Devil's Bankers. Taylor Trade, 2003.
____________. To Kill a King: A History of Royal Murders and Assassinations From Ancient Egypt to the Present. Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
____________. Fractured History Tales or Why (Almost) Everything You Thought About the Past Never Happened. Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.
On this date in 1926, Leo Baird gives the first demonstration of television in London, and in 1943 the Allies bomb Nazi Germany for the first time.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders