Monday, August 20, 2012

Ultimate Torture

We have so often heard the phrase "hanged, drawn and quartered" that we probably don't think about the details--or perhaps we simply ignore the details because our imaginations can supply them quite readily. The truth is, however, that the phrase became standard despite the fact that it could mean different things.

From the Chronica majora of Matthew Paris.
"Hanged" is pretty self-explanatory, "quartering" we can picture, but it's the "drawn" that presents confusion, since in the case of execution it can mean two things. On the one hand, it can refer to being dragged to the place of execution, either by being tied directly to a horse, or by being tied to a board that is dragged by a horse (the second method was developed so that the victim had a chance to be still alive and capable of further suffering). Matthew Paris illustrates an example of the first method in his Chronicle when he relates the story of a would-be assassin of Henry III. This story, in fact, is the earliest example we have of the multi-phase style of execution that evolved into "HDaQ." There was a second meaning of "draw" that applied to this punishment, however, for which I (thankfully) do not have an illustration: to draw out the intestines/organs of a person. We have several written accounts of this taking place, however.

Was there a distinction between HDaQ and DHaQ? That is, if the sentence was "hanged, drawn and quartered" did it always mean the convicted was disemboweled between the hanging and the quartering? Scholars disagree on this, and there is a case to be made that having "drawn" in the second position in the phrase could mean the convict was dragged, not disemboweled; it was merely mentioned second (although it might have taken place first, to get the convicted to the gallows) because it was not as significant as the hanging itself.

Whatever the case, the hanging was the trickiest part, because the goal was to strangle the victim just enough, but not kill him outright: you wanted him alive so he could suffer during the next step(s). The plan didn't always work: one victim was so hated that members of the crowd pulled down on his legs while he was hanging and hastened his death, and Guy Fawkes of Gunpowder Plot fame threw himself from the gallows platform, breaking his neck and cheating the Crown of its chance to punish him further.

Still, even if you survived the hanging and drawing—whichever definition was used—you usually weren't conscious (much less living) once the quartering started. So was the quartering essential to the process? Sure, because quartering wasn't part of the sentence for its value as torture. Quartering was important so that different body parts could be sent to different parts of the kingdom to be put on display as a warning to others who might be contemplating treason. The head, of course, was often prominently displayed on London Bridge, the major southern entrance into London, so that visitors and citizens could see it. I wonder if the mob of the Peasants Revolt saw any heads as they marched on London?

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