Posted in Crime and Punishment

Bloody and brutal, Tudor Punishments…


This was a very cruel way to die and it was used to convince a prisoner who refused to give a plea of innocent or guilty to change their mind. If no plea was given then a trial could not take place. Pressing took place inside prisons like Newgate or the fleet. The accused was laid on a table and had another table put on top of them. Then lead, rocks and weights were put on until they either decided to plea or were crushed to death.

The prison guards or ‘Keepers’ fed the victim with ‘Three morsels of barley bread without drink for the first day and as much filthy water as they like if they survived to the next day.

Just the threat of this inhumane death convinced many people to plea but not everyone. If you were pressed to death a you could not be found guilty and so your land and property would not go to the Crown. This meant security for the family that you left behind. Your children or close relatives would not be forced to give evidence against you either and would not need to carry the guilt of your execution for the rest of their lives. This type of punishment was not abolished until 1772.

Pressing in later times.

The wheel

This was a barbaric punishment which was used across Europe and was popular in Scotland and it was occasionally used in Tudor England. The condemned would be tied to a wheel spread eagled whilst alive. Their limbs would be whacked until they broke with an iron bar. Then they would be strangled or left to die in agony. After death the wheel would be displayed on a pole with the broken body in place.

The wheel


Hanging was the most popular and common way to execute criminals in Tudor England and had been for about 400 years before the Tudor period. It was considered to be the quickest and most humane way to kill someone apart from beheading.

In later century’s hangmen were experts in killing by careful, but covert, examination of the condemned prisoner whilst they took their exercise. Their weight would be taken and the drop and length of rope calculated. Compared to these later experts Tudor hangmen were amateurs and death usually occurred not by the breaking of the neck but by slow strangulation.

Often, after an execution, a dead corpse would sometimes be hanged in chains as a warning to others. The body would be left to rot slowly decomposing over years. Other unfortunate souls were alive when they were hanged in chains and left to die. This punishment was used on traitors such as the leader of the Kett rebellion, Robert Kett who was hung in chains alive over the walls of Norwich castle. Another was the leader of the ‘pilgrimage of Grace’ rebellion Robert Aske who was hanged alive in the city of York on a scaffold at Clifford’s tower.



Being burnt at the stake is usually associated with the ever changing heresy Laws of Tudor England. Murderers in Tudor times could also be burnt if they committed ‘petty treason.’ This was the murder of a superior in society.

Any type of treason was considered to be a worse crime than murder and therefore deserving of a harsher punishment. If the victim was fortunate gunpowder might be hung about the victim’s neck or they were strangled before burning. The others either roasted alive or died of smoke inhalation.

Witches would normally be hanged. An English woman could be burn for petty treason right up till 1790 when it was abolished. Today there are sites all over the country where people were burnt which are often marked with plaques. I noticed one outside a local pub.

The burning of Ridley and Latimer under Mary I.


Boiling was reintroduced by Henry VIII and enshrined in English law in 1551 for the punishment of poisoners. Before this time it was a little used punishment for murder or forgery.

Richard Coke was boiled in oil as a punishment for poisoning Bishop John Fisher. Fisher was very ill but he lived. A gentleman at his table was killed by the poison. Coke was a cook in fisher’s household and it was for him that Henry reintroduced the harsh law.

Rumours at this time were that Anne Boleyn and her father the Earl of Wiltshire had paid the cook to poison Bishop Fisher because he had declared loudly that Anne should not be able to marry the king. Later Anne sent was rumoured to have sen Fisher a note threatening him that, ‘if he should attend parliament he would get sick like he did in February.’ Boiling alive was abolished by Edward VI in 1547.

In 1552 an unmarried woman was boiled in water on market day in King’s Lynn, Norfolk for poisoning her mistress.

A male poisoner was boiled to death in water by being lowered on a chain several times before he died in Smithfield, London in March 1542

Boiling alive.


Members of the nobility were killed this way and usually with an axe. In Scotland in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots they used a device known as ‘the maiden.’ This was an early guillotine and a similar device was used in Northern England called the ‘Halifax Gibbet.’ It was used in Yorkshire to despatch thieves and murderers.




References: murder-files




I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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