So you’ve been a very, very bad person or at least someone in power thinks you have been a very bad person. Well, you have a not so fun time ahead of you. Torture was an acceptable method to get a person suspected of a crime to confess or obtain additional information about the crime or conspirators. Anything gathered under the influence of torture was admissible at trial and certainly was acted upon by authorities. The Church had condemned the practice as early as 866, but it was still used in practice for hundreds of years after this. However, the Church changed its tune and did use torture in religious inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition being the most famous example. Torture chambers and dungeons were a common part of a castle layout and were put to good use. Torture was seen as a precursor to death by execution in many cases. However, there were some rules.
Social standing did apply as the gentry were rarely tortured. However, there were some notable exceptions. Anne Askew was racked severely despite being a daughter and wife of a gentleman. When she was taken to her execution, she had to be carried to the stake because her turn on the rack had wrenched her limbs from their sockets. This was the exception. When Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers were rounded up, only Mark Smeaton was racked because he was not a gentleman. The other nobles of the court were put in the Tower and beheaded, but were not harmed in any other way. Cold comfort.
There were many creative ways to cause pain known to torturers. One of the favorites was to stretch a person on the rack. The rack was a rectangular machine with wooden rollers at each end. The prisoner was tied across a board with their arms were attached to a roller at one end and their legs to a roller at the other. The rollers at either end were turned, which pulled the prisoner’s body in opposite directions. Prolonged use would end with the prisoner’s limbs being dislocated or wrenched from their sockets. Some famous names of the day ended up on the rack including the aforementioned Anne Askew, William Wallace, Guy Faulkes and Thomas Kyd.
Another device popular in England was the scavenger’s daughter. This machine did the exact opposite of the rack. The rack stretched the limbs, the scavenger’s daughter compressed them. It was an iron bar connected to shackles which were attached to the prisoner’s hands, feet and neck. This put the prisoner in a sitting position and compressed the body to force blood from the nose and ears. It was invented by a Lieutenant of the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII named Leonard Skeffington. This device is also referred to as Skeffington’s Irons.
The water cure was popular in France and was called “being put to the question”. The prisoner is forced to drink a large quantity of water in a short period of time. This led to gastric distention, water intoxication and sometimes death. In 17th and 18th century France, puting the “ordinary question” to a prisoner consisted of forcing eight pints into his/her stomach. The “extraordinary question” was forcing sixteen pints.
Many times this was just a prelude to death by execution, and the execution itself could be be classified as torture. However, torture for information was done in private, usually done in a dungeon or most famously the Tower of London. Torture to death was a public affair, such as the auto-da-fé, which was the burning of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. For an execution as with torture, there were many different ways to go about it and it depended on social status. The gentry often had their sentences commuted to the headsman rather than the hangman. Death by ax wasn’t always quick, but it was quicker than being hung for a while then being taken down and having your innards drawn out while you are still living. The ultimate was to have a swordsman. This was the favor Henry VIII did for Anne Boleyn. He had a swordsman from France come to do her execution to make it quick and painless. And who said chivalry was dead?
For common people convicted of treason, hanging, drawing and quartering was the order of the day. A chronicler described it as thus, “The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.” The four limbs and head were then put up display as a warning to others. Yikes.
Another public means of execution was breaking on the wheel. This was also known as Catherine’s Wheel, named for the martyr who supposedly gave her life on the device. The prisoner was put on a cart wheel and had their limbs stretched along the spokes. The wheel was spun and the limbs broken by iron bars. Sometimes, the law allowed a coup de gras, or a blow on the chest or stomach to end the torture. In France, the prisoner was strangled after the second or third blow.
Finally we come to burning at the stake. This was saved for heretics. Many people were led out to the flames in the auto-da-fé in Spanish Inquisition as well as the wars of religion in England and France. Joan of Arc was convicted of being both a witch and a heretic and was burned to death. A long pole called a stake was driven in the ground and piles of wood and kindling were piled up around it about the height of a man. A path was left so the prisoner could get to the stake. The prisoner was stripped and led to the stake and chained there. Then the wood and straw was shoveled on the prisoner until he or she was covered. Then they lit the fire. Sometimes, people gave the prisoners bags of gunpowder to wear around their neck to offer them a quick death. Sometimes the executioner would put an iron bar at the prisoner’s chest to quicken things. Otherwise, the prisoner burned to death, and it could be slowly if the wood was wet or green.
So, dear reader, keep your noses clean!
Sources available on request