Jacobean State Torture and Execution

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Military Times assesses some of the corporal punishment techniques employed by the English government in the time of Guy Fawkes, during its ‘war on terror’.

State Torture

The manacles

The English Protestant state employed two forms of torture in its ‘war on terror’ in the early 17th century. The manacles were used to suspend victims from the wrists for long periods. Body weight alone ensured severe and rising pain, often resulting in permanent damage to wrists and hands. The additional use of a weight attached to the ankles may have been a refinement peculiar to the Catholic Inquisition.

The rack

This more extreme torture often followed if the manacles failed to produce information. There was only one operational rack in England in 1605. This was located in the Tower of London, in a dark and dismal part of the complex (deliberately so, to inspire fear), and such was its reputation that mere sight of it was often enough to induce a prisoner to talk. A bed of rollers, ropes, and levers, the rack had the capacity, quite literally, to tear a human body apart.

State Execution

The grim English ritual of execution for treason by hanging, drawing, and quartering was rich in symbolism. Following sentencing, the condemned were hauled to the place of execution on hurdles, for they were not fit to walk upright, their bodies belonging with the dirt of the streets.

They were then hanged for a while, suspended on a gibbet. Still alive, they were cut down and tied to a block, so that their privy parts could be sliced off and burnt, since they were not fit ‘to leave any generation after’. Next, they were cut open; the bowels and hearts that had conceived such monstrous crimes were ‘drawn’ out. Finally, the heads ‘which had imagined mischief’ were cut off, and the trunk was ‘quartered’. The dismembered fragments of the body were then available for public display until the pecked and rotting remnants disintegrated and disappeared.

The Gunpowder Plot

The Catholic plot to blow up the House of Lords and its inhabitants on November 5th, 1605 – the opening day of Parliament – was foiled. The plotters were rounded up and executed.

The Gunpowder Plot as depicted in a famous contemporary engraving.

The top image shows eight of the 13 conspirators. The bottom three images show, left to right, the condemned Plotters being dragged to execution, the execution itself, and the subsequent display of their severed heads on pikes.

Timeline: England’s War on Terror, 1558-1609

1558: Accession of Queen Elizabeth I

1566-1576: Dutch Revolution

1577-1589: Spanish reconquest

1584: Beginning of Anglo-Spanish War

1586: Babington Plot

1587: Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

1588: Defeat of Spanish Armada

1590-1607: Dutch reconquest

1603: Death of Queen Elizabeth I Accession of James I (James VI of Scotland)

1604: Treaty of London: End of Anglo-Spanish War

Bye and Main Plots

1605: Gunpowder Plot

1606: Execution of Gunpowder Plotters and English Jesuits

1609: End of Dutch-Spanish War

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