UNDERWORLD LONDON – Crime and Punishment in the Capital City by Catharine Arnold

Published by Simon & Schuster

A beautifully executed book (if you’ll excuse the pun) from the author of Necropolis, Bedlam and City of Sin, packed with down and dirty, gruesome and ugly crimes and their punishments in our country’s capital.  With fantastic illustrations throughout – this is a great book to dip in and out of or to devour in one large slice.

Here’s an exclusive first chapter from the book to wet your appetite, and if you like what you read here, leave a comment (along with your email address, replacing @ with (AT) to confuse the spambots out there) for a chance to win one of ten copies for your very own, thanks to those lovely people at Simon & Schuster.

And if you don’t win a copy, you can always order one here.


Roots of the Tyburn Tree

The shadow of the noose looms large over London’s history. Nowhere more so than at Tyburn, that desolate space beyond the city walls, where rebels, criminals and martyrs have been executed from time immemorial, as merciless governments strove to preserve an iron grip upon the populace. In the ear- liest years, offenders were hanged from the branches of the elm trees, until the development of purpose-built gallows, consisting of simple wooden structures with a transverse beam, from which the unfortunate prisoners dangled at the end of a very short rope.

Today, Marble Arch, surrounded by an endless flow of traf- fic, marks the spot where once the gallows stood. Eight hundred years ago, this windswept plain was silent, apart from the rustle of the elm trees and the caw of the carrion crow. Tyburn was located three miles north west of London for a reason. While the sight of a hanged man was believed to represent an effective deterrent, no citizen wanted to live alongside the reek of putrefaction. Tyburn also had its gibbets, metal cages in which the corpses of the hanged were displayed and left to rot. The mediaeval historian Matthew Paris recorded seeing two prisoners gibbeted, one already dead, the other still alive, condemned to die of exposure and starvation. Between executions, foxes, birds and badgers feasted on the ‘friendless bodies of unburied men’1 and scattered their remains across the heath.

On 6 April 1196, the stillness was shattered by the arrival of a roaring mob, and the pounding of hooves as a horse appeared in a cloud of dust over the horizon, dragging behind it the body of a man. This was the scene as William Fitzosbert, alias ‘Longbeard’, arrived at Tyburn to be executed for trea- son, the most grievous crime in the land. Plotting to overthrow the king and the state could only be punishable by death, and death of the most horrific and undignified kind. The sentence consisted of drawing, hanging and quartering, a barbaric practice which involved being dragged or ‘drawn’ to the gallows, then ‘hanged by the neck and let down alive’ before being disembowelled (another form of ‘drawing’ when the intestines were ‘drawn’ from the body), burnt alive, beheaded, and hacked into four parts or ‘quarters’. Finally, the mutilated head and ‘quarters’ were put on display in promi- nent positions, such as Tower Bridge or the Temple Bar, pour décourager les autres.

Fitzosbert had already been stripped to the waist, bound hand and foot with rope, tied to the tail of a horse, and then ‘drawn’ or dragged from the Tower of London, a distance of over five miles. Many prisoners died of ‘drawing’ long before they reached the gallows.

As Fitzosbert was untied and hurled at the foot of the gal- lows, where a thick chain was placed around his neck preparatory to hanging, he must have reflected on the unhappy series of events that had brought him to this pass. For Fitzosbert had been a privileged man, even if the ‘Fitz’ in his name denotes that he was a ‘bastard’, born out of wedlock, to the affluent Osbert family. Fitzosbert, who was raised by his older brother and followed him into the family tailoring busi- ness, should have led a long and uneventful life, without troubling the history books. But Fitzosbert was the original bearded agitator.2 Despite the Norman fashion for a clean shave and cropped hair, Fitzosbert had retained the waist- length beard he had grown when serving on the Third Crusade. Indeed, Fitzosbert’s beard became a symbol of polit- ical resistance as he encouraged his Saxon supporters to follow his example, making them as unlike the Norman ruling class as possible.

Fitzosbert prided himself on challenging the authorities, denouncing the government from St Paul’s Cross, a prototype of Speakers’ Corner located in the precincts of St Paul’s Cathedral, where craftsmen and labourers flocked to hear him.3 Fitzosbert’s moment of glory finally arrived as a result of the imposition of a tax imposed to secure the release of King Richard I, who had been kidnapped by Duke Leopold of Austria on his return from the Crusades. The Duke demanded £100,000 (around £20 million today) for his release. ‘Some citi- zens claimed, with considerable justification, that the Mayor and Corporation of London had assessed themselves and their friends lightly for the tax and passed the greater part of the burden on to their poorer neighbours.’4 In a bid to stop the tax, Fitzosbert sailed to France, where the king was held hostage, and explained his grievance to the king in person. Richard gave him assurances that he and his fellow Londoners would not be heavily taxed to raise funds for the ransom. Fitzosbert returned to London, where the authorities were waiting for him. A well- loved demagogue of the people he may have been, but Fitzosbert was not so popular with the Mayor of London and his aldermen, who were terrified that Fitzosbert would incite a tax riot. The government, headed by the Justiciar Hubert Walter in the absence of Richard I, shared their fears. Apprehensive that trouble in the City might spread to the out- lying countryside, the authorities decided to move against him.

Barricading himself into his headquarters with a band of loyal supporters, Fitzosbert prepared for a long siege. But the authorities surrounded him, fearing that London would go up in flames. During the fighting that ensued, Fitzosbert killed one of the king’s men. Fitzosbert might have seized this opportunity to parade through London with a dripping sword, followed by hundreds of rebels. Instead, he was so hor- rified by the fact that he had killed a man that he fled to the nearby church of St Mary-le-Bow for sanctuary. Many of his supporters deserted him, and a mere nine men and his ‘con- cubine’ accompanied him into the church where he prepared to wait it out. Hubert Walter, the Justiciar, was faced with a dilemma. Should he defy ecclesiastical law and send in his men to arrest Fitzosbert and his supporters, with the atten- dant violence and possible killing, on holy ground? Or should he play a waiting game, until Fitzosbert ran out of food and ammunition and gave himself up?

The resourceful Hubert Walter formulated a plan. He ignored the time-honoured right of sanctuary and instructed his men to kindle a fire around the walls of the church. Coughing and spluttering, with streaming eyes, Fitzosbert and his followers were forced to abandon their sanctuary or choke to death on the fumes. One long-term consequence of this tactic was that the tower of St Mary-le-Bow collapsed in 1271, as a result of the fires lit to smoke Fitzosbert out.5 As they emerged into Bow Lane, Fitzosbert was attacked and wounded by the son of the man he had killed. Fitzosbert and his men were arrested, and Fitzosbert was tied up, fastened to a horse’s tail and dragged to the Tower to await trial for trea- son and the inevitable sentence of death.

And so Fitzosbert found himself at Tyburn, standing with a chain around his neck, awaiting the remainder of his sen- tence, which entailed being ‘hanged by the neck and let down alive’, then disembowelled while still conscious. He would then be faced with the grisly prospect of watching his own intestines burnt in front him, before his head was cut off.

There are conflicting accounts as to how Fitzosbert responded to his final ordeal. Over one thousand years later, historians cannot agree on the exact circumstances of his death. According to the thirteenth-century Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris, a massive crowd turned out to pay their last respects to this people’s champion who had incited riots against an unfair tax. The Elizabethan historian John Stow, however, wrote that Fitzosbert died ignobly, blaspheming Christ, and calling ‘upon the devil to help and deliver him. Such was the end of this deceiver, a man of an evil life, a secret murderer, a filthy fornicator, a polluter of concubines, and a false accuser of his elder brother, who had in his youth brought him up in learning and done many things for his preferment.’

Whatever the truth of his final moments, Fitzosbert’s exe- cution was notable for two reasons. His death was the first recorded execution for treason at Tyburn, and it was also the first occasion upon which a victim of Tyburn had become a martyr. According to Matthew Paris, after Fitzosbert had been hanged in chains, his gibbet was carried off and treated as a holy relic by his supporters. ‘Men scooped the earth from the spot where [the gibbet] had stood. The chains which had held his decomposing body were claimed to have miraculous powers.’7 Fitzosbert was vindicated, having ‘died a shameful death for upholding the cause of truth and the poor’.

Fitzosbert’s status as a secular martyr did not prove popu- lar with the authorities. The pilgrims who came to worship at Fitzosbert’s ‘shrine’ were driven away by Hubert the Justiciar, who had instigated the action against him. But Fitzosbert had his posthumous revenge. Two years later (1198), the monks of Canterbury complained to the Pope about Hubert’s conduct, claiming that he had violated the peace of the church of St Mary-le-Bow by forcing out Fitzosbert and his supports. In response, the Pope put pressure on Richard I and Hubert was dismissed from his post as Justiciar.

Fitzosbert’s status and crime made him eminent enough to enter the record books, while the thousands of humble thieves who perished at Tyburn were regarded as so unexceptional that they did not deserve a mention. Hanging had been introduced by the Anglo-Saxons during the fifth century as a punishment for murder, theft and treason. While William I repealed the death penalty, it was reinstated by Henry I in 1108. As Fitzosbert’s fate demonstrates, hanging served as a means of social and political control. According to the great Edwardian historian of Tyburn, Alfred Marks, ‘the country swarmed with courts of inferior jurisdiction, each with the power to hang thieves’.

The law of the day had nothing to do with dispensing justice, and existed merely to defend property, which was regarded as more valuable than human life. The right to erect a gallows was granted to some surprising places, including monasteries. Despite the fact that England was nominally a Christian country, the church had no reservations about capital punishment, with St Paul and Thomas Aquinas enlisted in its defence.10 The treatment of criminals was governed, not by the compassionate doctrines of the New Testament but by the implacable concepts of the Old. Wrongdoers were publically punished, so that their agonies would be witnessed by as many people as possible, both for the retributive satisfaction and the deterrent effect.11

Although the priesthood were forbidden to shed blood, they were not banned from requesting their bailiffs to hang criminals. The Abbot of Westminster owned sixteen gallows in Middlesex in 1281, and the practice extended to convents. Geoffrey Chaucer’s tender-hearted prioress, Madame Eglantyne, who was said to weep at the sight of a mouse caught in a trap, would nevertheless have had a gallows on her property, upon which, at the hands of her bailiff, she would have hanged thieves.12

The gallows was a familiar sight throughout the land. One popular anecdote tells of a foreign traveller, who, having sur- vived shipwreck, scrambled ashore on the English coast and found himself gazing up at what appeared to be a massive shrine. Crossing himself he fell to his knees, grateful to have arrived in a Christian country. But the structure he was kneel- ing before was in fact a gallows.

The very first recorded execution at Tyburn was that of John Senex, in 1177. Senex, a nobleman, had been the ring- leader of a gang that perpetrated a series of burglaries on private houses in London. By 1236, when Henry III had ordered the King’s Gallows to be erected at Tyburn, it had become the place for men of rank to be executed, usually for treason. A notable case was that of William Marsh, who was not only drawn and hanged but quartered. Marsh, son of the viceroy of Ireland, was accused in 1235 of murdering Henry Clement, a messenger who interceded between the Irish and the king. Although he protested his innocence, Marsh was already under suspicion for the attempted assassination of the king. His assets were seized and he went on the run, eventu- ally joining a gang of brigands on the island of Lundy, off the English south-west coast. Turning to a life of piracy, Marsh gave himself up to plunder and rape, as he and his gang descended suddenly on parties of unsuspecting travellers. Henry III put a price on Marsh’s head, and he was eventually betrayed by his comrades and ambushed by the king’s men, who brought him back to London and threw him into the Tower in 1242, with instructions that he ‘should be safely contained in the direst and most secure prison in that fortress, and so loaded with irons’ that there could be no risk of his escaping.

On 25 July Marsh and sixteen of his henchmen went on trial at Westminster and were condemned to death by the king with immediate effect. Marsh was drawn from Westminster to Tyburn, and hanged from a gibbet. When his body was stiff it was cut down and disembowelled, and the bowels were at once burnt on the spot. And then, according to the chronicler, ‘the miserable body was divided into four parts, which were sent to four of the chief cities, so that this lamentable spectacle might inspire fear in all beholders’.

Some fifty years later, the execution of Sir Thomas De Turberville for treason on 6 October 1295 is notable for the degree of humiliation the prisoner endured as he travelled to his death. De Turberville had been captured during the war with France and released on condition that he became a spy and conspired with the French to invade England and support the cause of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot. Detected in the act of writing to the Provost of Paris, De Turberville was tried and condemned. The unusual manner of his execution was described as follows. ‘He came from the Tower, mounted on a poor hack, and shod with white shoes, his being covered with a hood, and his feet tied beneath the horse’s belly, and his hands tied before him.’17 Riding alongside De Turberville were six torturers dressed up as devils, who hit him with cudgels and taunted him. Sitting on the horse with De Turberville was the hangman himself, grasping the horse’s bridle. De Turberville was led through London to Westminster Hall in this manner, where Sir Robert Brabazun pronounced judgement upon him, sentencing him to be drawn and hanged, ‘and that he should hang so long as anything should be left whole of him’.  De Turberville was drawn on a fresh ox hide from Westminster to Cheapside, and then to Tyburn. The purpose of the ox hide was not humanitarian. Instead, this method was adopted so that the prisoner would not die before reaching the gallows.

De Turberville’s death was barbaric, even by the standards of the day. The fate that awaited William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, was even worse. Wallace (1272–1305) went on trial at Westminster Hall in 1305, although the trial itself was a travesty, and Wallace was forced to wear a crown of laurels as a mockery. He was condemned to be hanged and drawn for his ‘robberies, homicides and felonies’, and, ‘as an outlaw beheaded, and afterwards for your burning churches and relics your heart, liver, lungs, and entrails from which your wicked thoughts come shall be burned . . . ’  Wallace’s execu- tion included one refinement. ‘The Man of Belial’ as the chroniclers refer to him was hanged on a very high gallows, specially built for the occasion, let down alive, then disem- bowelled before being beheaded and then undergoing the further indignity of ementulation or abscisis genitalibus. In other words, Wallace’s genitals were cut off his body and burnt. Finally, because all Wallace’s ‘sedition, depredations, fires and homicides were not only against the King, but against the people of England and Scotland’, Wallace’s head was placed upon Drawbridge Gate on London Bridge, where it could clearly be seen by travellers on land and water, and his quarters were hung in gibbets at Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth, ‘to the terror of all who pass by’. A year later, on 7 September, the head of Simon Fraser, another Scots rebel, was placed on Drawbridge Gate alongside that of his leader.

Brutal and barbaric as these methods of execution may appear to the modern reader, they were consequence of an unstable political climate. And as kings were believed to be divinely appointed, treason was regarded as a crime against God. They are perfect examples of the punishment being designed to fit the crime. But while the majority of convicted criminals awaited a predictable fate on the gallows, early records also yield some curious anecdotes, such as the fate of the ringleader of the first great robbery in the annals of London crime, and his cruel and unusual – but very apposite – punishment.

In 1303 the biggest robbery for six centuries was carried out in London, the amount involved being £100,000, or £20,000,000 in today’s currency. The target for the robbery was the palace of King Edward I, which at that period was located next to Westminster Abbey and housed the king’s treasury. In addition to valuable ceremonial regalia, there were funds amounting to £100,000, destined to finance Edward’s ongoing war with Scotland. When Edward I left Westminster for Scotland on 14 March 1303, a gang of thieves broke into the treasury, scaled a ladder by the Palace gate, broke open the refectory door, and ‘carried off a considerable amount of silver plate’, as well as jewels and coins. When officers arrived to investigate they found broken boxes, scattered jewels and the king’s signet ring, bearing the privy seal, rolling about on the floor. There was no sign of the treasure.

As soon as the robbery had been discovered, forty-one friars and thirty-four monks were rounded up and sent to the Tower of London. It soon emerged that this audacious robbery was the earliest ‘project crime’ in London, an inside job plotted by William the Sacrist, the churchwarden, and Richard de Podlicote, keeper of the Palace of Westminster, and both their servants.

Months earlier, the monks had planted a crop of hemp in the cemetery plot in the cloisters, creating a thick bed of vegetation. It was here that they stashed their ill-gotten gains, which were later removed by another monk, Alexander of Pershore. Alexander placed the treasure in baskets, and rowed off with it to King’s (now Westminster) Bridge. Eventually, ten monks and one cleric were arraigned but they refused to be tried by secular judges. They were remanded to the Tower, but the secular judges ‘condemned the Sacrist of Westminster for receiving and concealing jewels of our lord the king’, There is no record of the sentence handed down to Richard de Podlicote or William the Sacrist. Indeed, there was not a word as to their fate for centuries.

It was not until 1863, when the architect Sir Gilbert Scott was working on the restoration of St Margaret’s, Westminster, that he became fascinated by the discovery that certain doors giving access to the king’s treasury appeared to be covered, inside and out, with skin. Scott submitted a sample to an emi- nent scientist of the day, a Mr Quekett of the Royal College of Surgeons, who, Scott regretted to tell us, pronounced it to be human skin. There had been vague anecdotes about these doors having been covered with ‘the skins of Danes’ at some grisly point in the abbey’s history, but Dean Stanley (the dean of Westminster Abbey) stated that the skin was that of ‘a fair- haired, ruddy-complexioned man’ and concluded that this was all that remained of William the Sacrist. Scott concluded that the human skins were ‘those of persons executed for sac- rilege, intended as a means of terrifying less hardened depredators’. A cruel and unusual punishment indeed.The fate of Sir Richard, meanwhile, remains a mystery.

The gallows at Tyburn did not stand idle over the follow- ing century. While hundreds, if not thousands, of unrecorded executions took place on this spot, the next notable victim was Roger Mortimer, Baron of Wigmore and Earl of March and effectively king of England for three years between 1327 and 1330.

In February 1327 the unscrupulous and ambitious Mortimer had joined forces with Queen Isabella to depose and murder her husband, Edward II. Isabella, living up to her name as ‘the she-wolf of France’ proved as ruthless as Mortimer. More than anything, Isabella wanted to see her husband dead so that she could rule in his stead, with Mortimer at her side. Edward II, a flamboyant homosexual with little interest in government, was murdered at Berkeley Castle on the orders of Mortimer, in a particularly grisly fashion – suffocated with a mattress while a red-hot poker was rammed up his anus. By 1329, Isabella’s son, Edward, had formed a powerful alliance to overthrow Mortimer, and Mortimer was eventually seized at Nottingham Castle, brought to London and committed to the Tower. On 29 November, Mortimer was condemned to death at Westminster, in the presence of the entire parliament. Despite pleas from Queen Isabella to her son to spare Mortimer’s life, Mortimer was drawn to Tyburn, ‘and there hanged on the common Gallowes’.  Mortimer was left to hang for two days before his body was cut down and buried in Greyfriars Church.

The execution of an innocent man or woman is one of the most grievous consequences of capital punishment. One of the earliest examples of a miscarriage of justice was recorded in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars in 1386. It concerns the land- lord of the Cock in Cheapside, who was ‘mortheryd in hys bedde be nyght’. The victim’s wife was found guilty of killing her husband and sentenced to the mandatory punish- ment for husband murder or ‘petty treason’, which was to be burnt to death at Smithfield. Three of the servants, who were implicated in the murder, were drawn and hanged at Tyburn. According to Stow, this was a terrible judicial error. The land- lord’s wife was innocent, and the actual perpetrator was a thief who ‘came in at a gutter window’ in the night and who later confessed to the murder when he was at the gallows, waiting to be hanged for another crime.

One of the most extraordinary cases – which led to its pro- tagonists’ deaths at Tyburn and Smithfield respectively – came in 1441, when Roger Bolingbroke, an astrologer and magi- cian, was charged with attempting to kill King Henry VI by sorcery, at the instigation of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Eleanor’s intention was to see Henry VI dead so that her own husband, the Duke of Gloucester, could take the throne. The plotters set about their nefarious task with the aid of Margery Gourdemaine, ‘the Witch of Eye’ (Ebury, a village near Westminster), and Canon Thomas Southwell of St Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster. While Margery worked on her magic potions, Southwell attempted to ‘consume the kings person by way of Negromancie’ by saying black masses in Hornsey Park, and Bolingbroke sat in a special chair deco- rated with magical symbols and willed the king to die.

Despite the fact that these spells were manifestly unsuc- cessful, Bolingbroke and Southwell were arrested and charged with treason, while Dame Eleanor fled into sanctuary at Westminster, which was taken to be an admission of guilt. Thomas Southwell boasted that he would never live long enough to be executed, and indeed, he was found dead in the Tower. The trial of the remaining three plotters at the Guildhall features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Pt 2, with their sentences providing some insight into the way that social class affected punishment. While ‘the witch in Smithfield shall be strangled on the gallows’, Dame Eleanor escapes capital punishment on the grounds that she is ‘more nobly born’, but she is condemned to spend the rest of her life ‘in banishment’ on the Isle of Man.30 The reference to the witch being strangled on the gallows alludes to the practice of garrotting the more fortunate prisoners before the fire was lit, so that they would be dead before the flames consumed them. Bolingbroke, being a nobleman, was drawn from the Tower to Tyburn where he was hanged and quartered, proclaiming his innocence with his dying breath and begging for God’s mercy.

Bolingbroke and his comrades suffered the predictable fate for conspiracy and witchcraft. While Margery was consigned to the flames for ‘witchcraft’, a specious crime for which thousands of women were murdered over the centuries, Bolingbroke met his death at Tyburn, like so many men before him. Far more rare are references to the death of women at Tyburn, as the following intriguing entry in the Chronicle of the Grey Friars reveals:

1523. And this yere in Feuerelle [February] the xxth [20th] day was the lady Alys Hungrford was lede from the Tower vn-to Holborne, and there put in-to a carte at the church- yerde with one of hare seruanttes, and so carred vn-to Tyborne, and there bothe hongyd, and she burryd at the Grayfreeres in the nether end of the myddes of the churche on the northe syde.

Upon reading this one immediately wonders who this myste- rious lady could have been, and what she could have done to deserve such a fate. Stow provides some clues in his History of London, in which the great historian refers to a monument in Greyfriars Church commemorating one ‘Alice Lat Hungerford, hanged at Tiborne for murdering her husband’. The Victorian antiquarian John Hardy became so fascinated with this case that he decided to investigate the fate of ‘Lady Alice’ more closely. Hardy concluded that whatever the lady’s motive for murdering her husband, it seemed unlikely to have been greed. An inventory of her assets, which were forfeit to the Crown, included an extraordinary collection of valuable property including plate, jewels and sumptuous hangings.

Hardy published his findings in The Antiquary in December 1888. He revealed that the lady’s name was not Alice at all, but Agnes, and she had married Sir Edward Hungerford in 1518. Sir Edward’s family seat was Farleigh Castle, near Bath, and he owned a magnificent house in London, while the name lives on in Hungerford Stairs, by the Thames, and Hungerford Bridge. In December 1521, Sir Edward made a will in favour of his wife. When he died six weeks later on 24 January 1522, he freely bequeathed the residue of his estate to Agnes, includ- ing all goods, jewels, plate, harnesses ‘and all other moveables [furniture] whatsoever they be’.32 One wonders why Agnes would want to kill such a generous husband, a man consider- ate enough to leave her such wealth, when she already enjoyed a lavish lifestyle as his wife while he was alive?

The answer is simple. The husband who died, and who Agnes was accused of murdering, was not Sir Edward Hungerford. It emerged that Agnes had been married before, to a John Cotell of Somerset. Digging through the court records, John Hardy discovered that on 25 August 1522, two yeoman appeared in court in the county of Somerset charged with mur- dering Cotell three years previously on the orders of Agnes Hungerford. These two men, William Matthew and William Ignes, both from Wiltshire, were indicted for attacking Cotell at Farleigh Castle. The pair set upon Cotell and ‘then and there feloniously did throttle, suffocate, and strangle’ him with his own scarf. In order to dispose of Cotell’s body, they placed it in the kitchen furnace, where it was consumed by fire.

This case raises many questions. Agnes obviously had a con- siderable position of power at the castle. Burning one’s first husband’s body in the kitchen fire was guaranteed to set tongues wagging among the staff. How had John Cotell come to be at the castle? Had he heard that Agnes had married again, and come to Farleigh Castle demanding an explanation, or threatening to blackmail her for bigamy? Or had young Agnes, employed upon the estate, caught the eye of rich old Sir Edward, who had arranged to have Cotell murdered so that he could marry Agnes? Was Sir Edward ruthlessly securing the hand of an attractive but innocent young woman, or was she herself complicit in her first husband’s murder? The fact remains that for three years nothing was said about the death of Agnes’ first husband, though there must have been gossip and speculation. Perhaps the powerful Sir Edward protected her while he was still alive. It was just seven months after he died that Agnes went on trial for ‘petty treason’, the murder of her first husband. Agnes was subsequently charged with pro- viding shelter, comfort and aid to her servants, and all three were hanged at Tyburn on 20 February 1523.

Whilst Tyburn had become infamous as an execution ground for criminals and traitors, another faction to be put to death here were the religious dissenters. The first religious martyrs were the Jews, during the thirteenth century. Jewish immi- gration to England came with William I, when he brought Jews over after the Conquest on the grounds of financial expe- diency. Although the Christians were forbidden by canon law to practice usury, the Jews suffered no restrictions. Banned from entering medicine or the law, money lending was the only profession open to them. But as they prospered, the Jews endured terrible hatred from the gentiles. In 1189, a series of riots saw the entire Jewish population of London fleeing for protection to the Tower.34 In 1255, eighteen Jews were accused of the ritual murder of a seven-year-old boy, Hugh of Lincoln. This ‘blood libel’, which was nothing more than anti-Semitic propaganda, saw the eighteen men hanged at the Tower.

In 1275, Edward I’s Jewish Statute insisted that the Jews abandoned usury and learned a trade. Unable to practise as moneylenders, many Jews turned to a form of forgery known as ‘clipping the coin’. This consisted of filing the edges off legitimate coins and melting them down to produce higher- denomination counterfeit money. The Jews became so proficient at ‘clipping the coin’ that there were fears that the entire financial system would collapse. However, they paid dearly for their skill. As the king controlled the Royal Mint, and therefore all the money in England, ‘clipping the coin’ constituted a form of treason. As a result, in November 1278, the entire Jewish population of England, around 600 people, was rounded up, charged with fraud and taken to the Tower. Two hundred and eight Jews of both sexes were hanged, many at Tyburn. Those who survived were banished by King Edward in 1290.

The next persecuted minority consisted of the Lollards. This group (the word ‘Lollard’ derives from the Dutch, lollen, to ‘mutter’) were precursors of the Protestants. They followed the preaching John Wycliffe (c.1320–84), a priest and teacher who helped translate the Bible into English and criticized the authority of the Pope, who promptly launched a Papal Bull against him. The Lollards were regarded as heretics on the grounds that they disregarded the sacraments and encouraged the laity to preach, and they represented such a threat to the established church that, in 1401, an act was introduced entitled De Haeretico Comburendo or ‘On the Burning of Heretics’.

This act permitted sheriffs and Justices of the Peace to burn suspected heretics to death. This punishment gave rise to the popular misconception that the name ‘Tyburn’ derived from the fate of the Lollards, as in the observation that: ‘Tieburne, some will have it so called from Tie and Burne, because the poor Lollards for whom this instrument was first set up, had their necks tied to the beame, and their lower parts burnt in the fire’. In fact, many Lollards also perished at Smithfield, and the name ‘Tyburn’ derives from the Saxon ‘Teo-burna’ or ‘Two Brooks’, referring to the two streams that converged at this location.

The third category of martyrs to die at Tyburn were the Roman Catholics, executed upon the orders of King Henry VIII following the Reformation of 1534, when Henry severed relations with the Pope of Rome and appointed himself Defender of the Faith and head of the Anglican church in England. Among the unfortunate was one Elizabeth Barton (1506–34), later christened ‘the Holy Maid of Kent’. Elizabeth, a nun, suffered from petite mal, a mild form of epilepsy, and was credited with seeing visions during her trances. In 1534, Elizabeth prophesied that if Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, the ‘Bullen whore’, he would no longer be king of England and would die shortly afterwards. As a result of this prediction, Elizabeth Barton was arrested for treason, imprisoned in the Tower, and hanged at Tyburn on 20 April.38 Elizabeth’s head was later placed upon a spike on London Bridge, making her the only woman to be granted that grisly distinction.

As for the king, he survived for another fifteen years, during which he continued to stamp out support for the Roman Catholic cause with a series of high-profile executions at Tyburn. One of the most graphic instances was the execution of three Carthusian priors. On 4 May 1535, Father Robert Lawrence, prior of Beauvale, Father Augustine Webster, prior of Axholem, and Father John Houghton, prior of the Charterhouse in London, were dragged from Newgate to Tyburn. Father Houghton was cut down while still breathing and dragged to one side, where his garments were torn from his body and his genitals sliced off and roasted on a spit in front of him. Despite the fact that he was being disembowelled and his entrails burnt in a brazier, Father Houghton ‘bore himself with more than human endurance, most patiently’, to the astonishment of the crowd. Even as his heart was being torn out, the Father turned to his executioner and enquired, ‘Sweet Executions at Tyburn, c. 1607. Criminals, traitors and martyrs met a grisly end at this infamous execution ground.

Jesu, what will you do with my heart?’  These were his final words. His head was cut off, his body quartered, and his right arm was taken back to the Charterhouse where it was nailed to the door as an horrific warning. The remains of his fellow Carthusians were thrown into cauldrons and parboiled, and later displayed in different parts of London. In all, 105 Catholic martyrs died at Tyburn. Many were subsequently canonized, and they are commemorated at Tyburn Convent. This Benedictine convent, founded in 1901, stands on the spot where so many met their deaths, known and unknown.

This completes the first visit to Tyburn. Now it is time to travel to another sinister landmark on the historical map of London. To the Tower, that great castle of darkness from which so few escaped with their lives. 

Now, if you want more of that, and why wouldn’t you, then leave a comment and your email and you could win a copy for your own bookshelf !



Filed under Book news, Book Review, Prize draw !

5 responses to “UNDERWORLD LONDON – Crime and Punishment in the Capital City by Catharine Arnold

  1. Sounds very interesting!


  2. Scary Claire

    Great! About time we had a “Horrible Histories” style of book for grown ups 🙂

  3. george granville aaron

    Will we ever learn how to control and punish crime.This book provide examples of past gruesome atempts for us to consider

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