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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

On This Day: Tudor punishment

Updated: Feb 16

December 1st, 1581: Having been convicted of high treason, English Jesuit priest Edmund Campion was drawn through the streets of London, hanged and then quartered at Tyburn.

As a devout Catholic, Campion had been conducting an underground ministry in what was then officially Protestant England. Religion during Queen Elizabeth I's reign was a powder keg where one little spark could have plunged England into civil war. It is a rather complicated subject but here goes an attempt to explain what was going on.

Henry VIII's split with Rome For many centuries the dominant religion in England, as with the rest of Europe, was Christianity as represented by the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome. Elizabeth’s father, Henry Vlll, brought religious upheaval to England when the Catholic Church frustrated Henry’s desire and refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In 1534 Henry passed a law making himself head of the Church of England. This one act precipitated a break with the Catholic Church, allowed Henry to divorce his wife, and led to the formation of the Protestant Church of England.

Edward VI Although his father, Henry VIII, had severed the link between the Church and Rome, Henry VIII had never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine or ceremony. It was during his son Edward VI's reign that Protestantism was established for the first time in England. With it came reforms that included the abolition of the Mass and clerical celibacy, meaning priests could marry, and the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 which made compulsory services in English not Latin.

By 1553 it had became clear that Edward was suffering from tuberculosis and would not live long. John Dudley, by then Duke of Northumberland, was determined that England's religious reforms should not be undone, so he persuaded Edward to approve a new order of succession. This declared Edward's half-sister Mary illegitimate and that the throne would pass to Northumberland's daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, a more distant descendant of Henry VIII. Edward's reign came to a premature end with his death on July 6th, 1553 aged just 15. Three days later Jane was acclaimed queen but her reign lasted only nine days until, with overwhelming popular support, her Catholic cousin Mary took the throne.

Mary I A devout Catholic, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Mary was determined to crush the Protestant faith in which her half-sister Elizabeth had been educated. Mary ordered that everyone attend Catholic Mass; Elizabeth had to outwardly conform. Mary's initial popularity ebbed away in 1554 when she announced plans to marry Philip of Spain, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an active defender of the Catholic faith. Discontent spread rapidly through the country, and many looked to Elizabeth as a focus for their opposition to Mary's religious policies. Unsurprisingly this greatly endangered Elizabeth’s life.

Elizabeth In 1558 upon Mary's death, Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister to the throne and set out to rule by good counsel. In government, Elizabeth was more moderate than her father and half-siblings had been. One of her mottoes was "video et taceo" ("I see but say nothing").

In religion, she was relatively tolerant and avoided a return to systematic persecution of those with different religious views. Elizabeth therefore sought a Protestant solution that would not offend Catholics too greatly while addressing the desires of English Protestants. As a result, the parliament of 1559 started to legislate for a church based on the Protestant settlement of Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, with the monarch as its head, but with many Catholic elements. For example, Elizabeth was raised a Protestant but, much as her father had done before, kept many Catholic symbols, such as the crucifix, and practices. Elizabeth and her advisers, however, were well aware of the threat of a Catholic crusade against heretical England. The Pope declared her illegitimate in 1570 and released her subjects from obedience to her. As a consequence, several conspiracies threatened Elizabeth’s life, but all were defeated with the help of her ministers' secret service.

High Treason Enter Edward Campion. In 1580, the Jesuit mission to England began and Campion was fervently involved in ministering to England's Catholic minority. Campion's administering the sacraments and preaching to Catholics in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lancashire, and the publication of his pamphlet Decem Rationes ('Ten Reasons') arguing against the validity of the Anglican Church, were deemed threats to Elizabeth's reign. The hunt for Campion was stepped up until he was eventually captured preaching in Berkshire on July 15th, 1581. After four months of imprisonment, questioning and torture, on November 14th Campion was finally 'charged with having conspired, in Rome and Reims, to raise a sedition in the realm and dethrone the Queen.' Found guilty of treason, Campion and two fellow priests were sentenced to death by Lord Chief Justice Wray:

'You must go to the place from whence you came, there to remain until ye shall be drawn through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive, and your privy parts cut off, and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads to be cut off and your bodies divided into four parts, to be disposed of at Her Majesty's pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls.'

Execution of the sentence To be 'hanged, drawn and quartered' became a statutory penalty for men convicted of high treason in the Kingdom of England from 1352. The severity of the sentence was measured against the seriousness of the crime. As an attack on the English monarchy's authority, high treason was considered a deplorable act demanding the most extreme form of punishment aimed fully at discouraging others. Thus many English Catholic priests executed during the Elizabethan era were subjected to the law's ultimate sanction.

Once sentenced, the convicted were usually held in prison for a few days before being taken to the place of execution; in Campion's case Tyburn (now Marble Arch, London). But was he 'hung, drawn and quartered' as it is popularly expressed or 'drawn, hung and quartered'? Indeed, is there a 'correct' sequence (note the 19th-century sentence wording in the InfoBox below right)? Were we to rigidly follow Lord Wray's pronouncement then Campion would have been 'drawn, hanged, drawn (again) and quartered'. It seems to be the term 'drawn' that causes the confusion as it can mean both publicly dragged through the streets and/or removing the viscera or intestines of the victim (disembowelling).

During the High Middle Ages the convicted traitor may have been tied directly to the back of a horse. Later it became customary for the victim to be tied instead to a wicker hurdle, or wooden panel, that was itself fastened to and drawn behind a horse to the place of execution. There the traitor would be hanged, beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces). The victim's remains would often be displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge, to serve as a warning of the fate of traitors. Note that the personal pronoun 'he' is deliberately used in this context as, for reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

Hanging almost to the point of death and the subsequent emasculation and disembowelment were, it seems, not necessarily the fate of most traitors. As historian and author Ian Mortimer argues [1]: 'the evisceration of a criminal does not appear to have been described as "drawing" before modern times.' While it certainly took place on many occasions, the presumption that drawing meant to disembowel is dubious. As Mortimer suggests: 'A more likely reason for "drawing" being often mentioned after "hanging" is because it was a supplementary aspect of the punishment...[D]eath was the main punishment, being "drawn" to the gallows like a traitor simply an added humiliation.'

And finally Campion was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and canonised in 1970 by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated every 1st of December.



1. Mortimer, I., (2010), Why do we say 'hanged, drawn and quartered?' (accessed December 1st, 2021).


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