During the Middle Ages, execution was a big deal–usually a very public big deal, with citizens gathering from all around to witness the event, both as a celebration of justice (the king’s and therefore, the Lord’s) and a warning to others, as well as a social occasion, in the way that following an important trial might be today. The details of the crime may be horrifying, the “common interest” in the preservation of law and order is emphasized, and, well, it was a bloody good show. Tension, drama, high stakes. . .sometimes literally.
In England for many centuries, the official punishment for traitors was to be Hanged, Drawn and Quartered (sometimes with disemboweling thrown in for good measure, as in the executions of William Wallace or Hugh Despenser the Younger during the 14th century). It’s important to make a distinction between your ordinary hanging, and the sort practiced as part of a larger punishment scenario. Most hangings were meant to occur on a scaffold in which the victim would receive a large “drop”, often by pushing the individual over the edge of the platform. Done properly, and with a well-placed knot, this results in the neck breaking, with death following soon after. If the unfortunate soul did not break his neck right away, friends of family members might be permitted to rush forward and give a tug on his legs to ensure a quick death. Hence, “hanged by the neck until dead.”
In the longer version, the criminal would be lifted from the ground by the rope and suffer strangulation (more similar to what happens to Elisha in Elisha Barber), a more protracted death. If the victim is to undergo additional penalties, he would be cut down after a brief and terrifying interval, to await the next stage. In this case, either the disemboweling, or straight to to being drawn–limbs bound to four separate large animals who are driven in separate directions until the victim is torn, well, limb from limb, and thus, “quartered.”
For the traitor, the quarters are then sent to the four corners of the kingdom to serve as notice to any who might consider the same crime. The head is typically removed and retained separately, often for display on a spike on the Tower Bridge, if the execution has taken place in London proper. The heads could remain for a long time before disintegrating, or, occasionally, being smuggled down for burial by the supporters of the deceased.
When I’m reading or writing about stuff like this, after overcoming the initial impact, I start to wonder about the details, like who is responsible for dragging the quarters to their distant resting places? It is events like this, after all, which result in our fore-fathers banning of any “cruel and unusual punishments.” Cruel? Definitely. Sadly, not so unusual in the history of the world. Something to think about as we head into July 4th week. It’s clauses like that which make our nation worth celebrating.