A History of Beheading in England

By Tim Lambert

Beheading is an ancient method of punishment. St Alban was the first recorded British martyr. He was beheaded circa 305 AD in the Roman town of Verulamium, which is now called St Albans.

In the Middle Ages, William the Conqueror introduced beading as a punishment for the upper class in England. Beheading with a sword or an axe may have been more merciful than hanging but that was not always the case. Sometimes several blows were needed to sever the person’s head. 

Henry VIII is, of course, renowned for beheading people. Ironically Henry VIII’s great-grandfather Owen Tudor was beheaded in 1461 in Hereford. His head was placed on the market cross. 

In July 1540, Henry VIII married Catherine Howard. But it didn’t work out well. She was beheaded in February 1542. Another wife, Anne Boleyn was beheaded on 119 May 1536.

Several other important people were also beheaded during Henry’s reign. Cardinal John Fisher was beheaded on 22 June 1535 for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as head of the Church in England. Former Chancellor Thomas More was beheaded on 6 July 1535. Former Chancellor Thomas Cromwell was beheaded for treason on 28 July 1540. On 19 January 1547 Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was beheaded for treason. Henry VIII died 9 days later. Of course, Henry’s death did not stop people being beheaded.

In 1553 Lady Jane Grey was crowned queen. However, she was only queen for 9 days. The unfortunate girl was beheaded on 12 February 1554. She was only 17 years old.

On 11 April 1554, Thomas Wyatt was beheaded for leading a rebellion against Queen Mary. On 29 October 1618, Walter Raleigh was beheaded. There is a legend that his wife had his head mummified and she kept it in a red bag for the rest of her life. But it’s not certain if the story is true. 

However, even monarchs were not immune from beheading. In 1625 Charles I became King of England and Scotland. He lost a civil war and he was beheaded on 30 January 1649.

The last woman in England to be beheaded was Alice Lisle, in 1685. She was beheaded in Winchester. Before the execution, she was held prisoner in the Eclipse Inn. On the day of her execution, she stepped out of a window of the inn onto the scaffold. Her ghost is supposed to haunt the inn. But her ghost isn’t headless.

On 9 April 1747, Simon Lovat (Lord Lovat) became the last person to be beheaded on Tower Hill by the Tower of London. In 1820 five men convicted of treason were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. But the full sentence was not carried out. They were hanged until they were dead then beheaded with an axe.

An executioner