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To be hanged, drawn and quartered was from 1351 a statutory penalty in England for men convicted of high treason, although the ritual was first recorded during the reigns of King Henry III (1216–1272) and his successor, Edward I (1272–1307). Convicts were fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). Their remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.
The severity of the sentence was measured against the seriousness of the crime. As an attack on the monarch's authority, high treason was considered a deplorable act demanding the most extreme form of punishment; although some convicts had their sentences modified and suffered a less ignominious end, over a period of several hundred years many men found guilty of high treason were subjected to the law's ultimate sanction. They included many English Catholic priests executed during the Elizabethan era, and several of the regicides involved in the 1649 execution of Charles I.
Although the Act of Parliament defining high treason remains on the United Kingdom's statute books, during a long period of 19th-century legal reform the sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering was changed to drawing, hanging until dead, and posthumous beheading and quartering, before being abolished in England in 1870. The death penalty for treason was abolished in 1998.
High Treason in England Edit
High treason was the most egregious offence an individual could commit. Attempts to undermine the king's authority were viewed with as much seriousness as if the accused had attacked him personally, which itself would be an assault on his status as sovereign and a direct threat to his right to govern. As this might undermine the state, retribution was considered an absolute necessity and the crime deserving of the ultimate punishment.
The practical difference between the two offences therefore was in the consequence of being convicted; rather than being drawn and hanged, men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered, while for reasons of public decency women were instead drawn and burned. The Act declared that a person had committed high treason if they were:
- Compassing or imagining the death of the king, his wife or his eldest son and heir;
- Violating the king's wife, his eldest daughter if she were unmarried, or the wife of his eldest son and heir;
- Levying war against the king in his realm;
- Adhering to the king's enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in his realm or elsewhere;
- Counterfeiting the Great Seal or the Privy Seal, or the king's coinage;
- Knowingly importing counterfeit money; killing the Chancellor, Treasurer or one of the king's Justices while performing their offices.
The Act did not limit the king's authority in defining the scope of treason. It contained a proviso giving English judges discretion to extend that scope whenever required, a process more commonly known as constructive treason. It also applied to subjects overseas in British colonies in the Americas, but the only documented incident of an individual there being hanged, drawn and quartered was that of Joshua Tefft, an English colonist accused of having fought on the side of the Narragansett during the Great Swamp Fight. He was executed in January 1676. Later sentences resulted either in a pardon or a hanging.
Executing the Dreaded Sentence Edit
Once sentenced, malefactors were usually held in prison for a few days before being taken to the place of execution. During the early Middle Ages this journey may have been made tied directly to the back of a horse, but it subsequently became customary to be fastened instead to a wicker hurdle, or wooden panel, itself tied to the horse. Historian Frederic William Maitland thought that this was probably to secure for the hangman a yet living body. The use of the word drawn, as in "to draw", has caused a degree of confusion. One of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of draw is "to draw out the viscera or intestines of; to disembowel. The presumption is that where drawn is mentioned after hanged, the sense is as here." Historian Ram Sharan Sharma arrived at the same conclusion: "Where, as in the popular hung, drawn and quartered drawn follows hanged or hung, it is to be referred to as the disemboweling of the traitor." The historian and author Ian Mortimer disagrees. In an essay published on his website, he writes that the separate mention of evisceration is a relatively modern device, and that while it certainly took place on many occasions, the presumption that drawing means to disembowel is spurious. Instead, drawing may be mentioned after hanging because it was a supplementary part of the execution.