Medieval execution methods and medieval executioners. History of execution. Capital punishment in medieval times. Hanging, burning at stake, impalement, sawing, breaking wheel and other methods of the capital punishment.

Execution is defined as to put to death as punishment. Imposing a “Death penalty” or “death sentence”. Execution of criminals, religious and political opponents was used to punish crime and to suppress religious or political dissent. Medieval execution methods were often barbaric, designed to inflict the most agonising pain and some executions methods were designed to prolong the execution as long as possible.

Medieval execution was a clear message to all potential criminals, law breakers, rebels and enemies that law is simple and final and disobedience will not be tolerated.

Decapitation (beheading)
Beheading was a very fast and merciful execution method if performed well. Decapitation was relatively honorable death often offered as some kind of mercy. Nobles were beheaded by sword, others were executed by an axe.

If the headsman’s axe or sword was sharp and his aim was precise, decapitation was quick and was presumed to be a relatively painless form of death. If the instrument was blunt or the executioner clumsy, however, multiple strokes might be required to sever the head. The person to be executed was therefore advised to give a gold coin to the headsman to ensure that he did his job with care.

Heads of convicts were often placed on a stakes and esposed on a frequently visited places to warn others.

There are numerous description of failed beheading executions in historical chronicles.

Decapitation by guillotine was a common mechanically-assisted form of execution, invented shortly before the French Revolution and used in France till 1970s.

Notable beheadings in history: In 1627-27 Czech highborn nobles were beheaded in Prague for protestant rebellion against catholic Habsburgs. Many of them got a combined death. For example Jan Jesenius lost his tongue just before he lost the head.

Beheading execution

Beheading-execution of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, Queen of England was beheaded in 1526 on order of her husband, Henry VIII. She was charged of adultery, incest and treason.

The Saw was widely used throughout the Middle Ages, mainly because the tools required were found in most houses and no complex devices were required. It was a cheap way to torture and kill a victim who was often accused of: witchery, adultery, murder, blasphemy or even theft.
The victim was tied to an inverted position. This had several “benefits”: first, it assured sufficient blood diverted to the brain, second, it slowed down the loss of blood and third, it humiliated the victim.

Sawing execution

Sawing execution

Depending on the victim and torturer, this torture could last several hours. When a confession was required, the victim was frequently forced to watch someone else be subject to this method. If he didn’t confess, he’d be slowly cut in half.

During the Inquisition, this method became even more popular as the inquisitors traveled from village to village often without any torture devices at their disposal.

Execution by boiling was used for poisoners, counterfeiters, swindlers and coin forgers during the middle ages.

Execution by boiling

Execution by boiling

In England in the 1500s this was the legal method of punishment. The victim was immersed in boiling water, oil or tar until dead. Imagine the fear the prisoner felt when they were taken to this deadly big pot to suffer their horrible fate.

Burning at stake
Burning at the stake was a very common way to execute blasphemers, heretics, thieves and witches. It was used throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Burning at the stake

Burning at the stake

If the fire was big enough, death occurred first by asphyxia rather than damage done by the flames. However, this was a known fact and the victims were usually burned in a smaller fire so they would “suffer until the end”. When the fire was small, death occurred because of loss of blood or a heatstroke which could take even hours.

Families of victims often paid executioner to strangle victim before burning started. Pouch with gunpowder could be attached to victim neck in later times to make his death faster.

Famous people burned: Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), Joan of Arc (1431), Giordano Bruno (1600).

Buried alive
Unrepentant murderers were buried alive in medieval Italy. Women who murdered their children or husbands were buried alive in central and eastern Europe.
People accused of vampyrism were buried alive and their body was penetrated by a stick through the grave.

Buried alive execution

Buried alive execution

The death is caused by suffocation but also often by infarct from panic, fear and shock.

Flaying was a very painful method that consists of “skinning” a person alive. In one version of the Flaying Torture, the victim’s arms were tied to a pole above his head while his feet were tied below. His body was now completely exposed and the torturer, with the help of a small knife, peeled off the victim’s skin slowly. In most cases, the torturer peeled off his facial skin first, slowly working his way down to the victim’s feet. Most victims died before the torturer even reached their waist.


Flaying execution.

According a legend William Wallace skinned out Hugh de Cressingham, the English treasurer after Battle of Stirling.
Pierre Basile was flayed alive and all defenders of the chateau hanged on 6 April 1199, by order of the mercenary leader Mercadier, for shooting and killing King Richard I of England with a crossbow at the siege of Chalus in March 1199.

Hanging was probably the most common medieval execution method.
In every town, and almost in every village, there was a permanent gibbet, which, owing to the custom of leaving the bodies to hang till they crumbled into dust, was very rarely without having some corpses or skeletons attached to it. According to prescribed rule, the gallows were placed in an important part in the political as well as the criminal history of that city.
The hanging can cause death by breaking of the neck what is very fast but it usualy cause much slower and more painful death caused by closure of veins and arteries. Death can came in a few seconds but also after several minutes.
There were various types of the hanging execution. Execution by rope, by hook or hanging in a cage. The rope was placed around the neck. The hook was stabbed under ribs. Victims were usually after toruturing placed into cages and hanged on a visible place. This is the slowest death, convicts suffered by several wounds and they were target of insects, rats and birds. Cage hanging could bring death even after several days.
Executed people were removed sometimes immediately after execution, but often the bodies were left there permanently, till the total disintegration. Such bodies served as warning and as info the laws is working in the area.

Hanging execution

Hanging on hook

Notable people hanged: John Ogilvie (1615, England), Juraj Janosik (Slovak Robin Hood and national hero-on the picture above), legend says he voluntarily pulled the hook under his ribs. Cossacks of Taras Bulba were hanged on hooks by Poles.

Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered
Hanged, drawn and quartered was the punishment for traitors, i.e. men who committed treason, i.e. the violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or to the state. This form of execution was used in England from the 13th century until 1790.

William Wallace execution

William Wallace execution

William Wallace was executed by this terrible method in 1305.

1605-Conspirators of Gunpowder Plot against English King James were also executed by method.

Breaking Wheel
The Wheel torture was a very painful form of capital punishment. Death could be prolonged to a day or more.
Reserved for hated criminals, murderers and robbers, The Wheel always killed its victim, but did so very slowly.
The Wheel originated in Greece and quickly spread to Germany, France, Russia, England and Sweden. The device consists of a large wooden wheel with many spokes. The victim’s limbs were tied to the spokes and the wheel itself was slowly revolved. Through the openings between the spokes, the torturer usually hit the victim with a hammer or iron bar that could easily break the victim’s bones. Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die, sometimes placed on a tall pole so the birds could feed from the still-living human. It could take up to two or three days for him to die of dehydration.
Softer method combined with mercy was breaking neck first and breaking the other body parts after death of convict.

Breaking wheel

Breaking wheel execution

There were two methods:
Breaking in wheel-convict was placed on wheel, his bones were broken by a hammer and his legs and hands were weave into wheel.
Breaking by wheel-convict was placed on a wooden cross, sometimes with holes under his knuckles and he was smashed by a wheel with iron hoop then.

Impalement or impaling was a terrible form of a medieval execution used mostly in Ottoman empire but also in Europe. Vlad III Dracula used impalement for 10000s of his enemies but impalement was used for eample during War of Roses in England and in other countries of the medieval Europe.
Following the multiple campaigns against the invading Ottoman Turks, Vlad Tepes would never show mercy to his prisoners of war. The road to the capital of Wallachia eventually became inundated in a “forest” of 20,000 impaled and decaying corpses, and it is reported that an invading army of Turks turned back after encountering thousands of impaled corpses along the Danube River. Woodblock prints from the era portray his victims impaled from either the frontal or the dorsal aspect, but not vertically.
Impalement, as a method of torture and execution, involves the body of a person being pierced with a long stake. The penetration could be through the sides, through the rectum, through the vagina, or through the mouth. This method leads to a painful death, sometimes taking days. When the impaling instrument was inserted into a lower orifice, it was necessary to secure the victim in the prone position; the stake would then be held in place by one of the executioners, while another would hammer the stake deeper using a sledgehammer. The stake was then planted in the ground, and the impaled victim hoisted up to a vertical position, where the victim would be left to die.

Impalement execution

Impalement execution by Vlad Dracula

In some forms of impalement, the stake would be inserted so as to avoid immediate death and would function as a plug to prevent blood loss. After preparation of the victim, perhaps including public torture and rape, the victim was stripped, and an incision was made in the perineum between the genitals and rectum. A stout pole with a blunt end was inserted. A blunt end would push vital organs to the side, greatly slowing death.

Lucky victim died after a few minutes when his vessels were damaged but it could take even more than 24 hours to die by this terrible execution method.

Impalement was also used for convicts of vampyrism. They were often buried alive and their body was impaled later. The same punishment was used for mothers who killed their own children in central Europe.

Dismemberment by horses
Dismemberment by horses was often used for assassins of kings or also for mother and father killers. 2 or 4 horses were used to pull out the legs and hands and to destroy body of the convict. Dismemberment was carried out in the feckin’ Medieval and Early Modern era by tyin’ a person’s limbs to chains or other restraints, then attachin’ the feckin’ restraints to separate movable entities.
Francois Ravaillac (1610) and Robert-Francois Damiens (1757) were publically executed by this form of the capital punishment for regicide.

Medieval execution by horses

Medieval execution by horses

Viking blood eagle
The Blood Eagle was an unimaginably gruesome form of torture and execution practiced by the Vikings. They caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of victim, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine so they resembled blood-stained wings, and then they ripped out his lungs. The salt was added into wounds for a better effect.

Blood eagle

Viking Blood eagle

Walking around tree was an another viking execution method. Belly of the victim was opened and his intestines were partially tooken out and fixed to the tree. Convict was then pressed to walk around the tree to remove all his intestines out of body and to reach the dead. This was very cruel execution. The convict knew he must walk as fast as possible to pull out his intestines and to break his vessels to end the suffering.
These viking execution methods described in viking sagas are histrically discutable.

Medieval executioner
A skilled torturer would use torture methods, devices and instruments to prolong life as long as possible whilst inflicting agonising pain on a prisoner awaiting execution. The customs of the Medieval period dictated that many prisoners were tortured before they were executed in order to obtain additional information about their crime or their accomplices. Torture was also seen as a preliminary to the punishment of death by execution.
Medieval executioners were an occasional one like military officers, guard members, soldiers or the professional executioners.

Executioners sword

Executioners sword

Professional executioners were usually very well paid men, they were often protected by a warrant. They lived in a city or they travelled around the country to fullfill their contracts.
Executioners were often responsible for torturing during trials, executions and they also cared of animal liquidation.
Executioners were an important and needed members of medieval society, they were well paid, feared, respected but also knocked out of the common life. They lived in a special houses outside of common settlement and they were also buried outside of others.

Failed executions: It was not uncommon that even fast execution changed into a terrible massacre for a convicts. If the execution failed the executioner risked he will get on place of his victim. Some executioners were killed by an angryx crowd after failed execution. In some cases the convicts obtained mercy after the failed execution.

Gallows Hill

Gallows Hill-Execution site

Execution sites
Places of executions were usually located outside of the medieval towns. These places were called gallows hills. Execution places were source of numerous ghost related stories. Gallows hills were also often visited by medieval moneymakers. Thieves hunted down these places for body part of convicts and also for a magical plants growing around. These “articacts” were highly profitable products used in medivcine and various rituals but people robbing these places were often next victims of the medieval execution shows.

Medieval swordsExecution sword