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The Gibbet and the Maiden: a very British Punishment

In the days before modern policing, the authorities relied on the public’s fear of punishment as a means to keep law and order. No punishment was more feared than the instruments of execution known as The Gibbet and the Maiden. Here we take a look at these British ‘guillotines’ in use more than two centuries before the French Revolution!


Everyone has heard of 'Madame Guillotine'. She was used during the French Revolution to execute the condemned as quickly and painlessly as possible. People of the time were moving away from more brutal techniques of the medieval period such as breaking on the wheel and the axe. These old methods were seen as barbaric and slow. Before the beheading machines, it was common for criminals to be beheaded with an axe or a sword. This method wasn’t always reliable. It depended on the blade being sharp, the strength of the executioner and his aim. There are many famous cases where executions did not go as planned. Here are some well-known ones.


Margret Pole, Countess of Salisbury was 65 years old when she was executed in 1541. She was one of the last surviving descendants of the Plantagenet dynasty, with a rival Catholic claim to the English throne. The usual executioner was away on the day she was to be beheaded, so a young and inexperienced executioner stood in. He did not do a good job; it was said that he hacked at her neck and shoulders and it took him ten blows to get the job done.


Mary, Queen of Scots was executed for treason in 1587. She was executed by a man named Bull. Poor Bull did not do the best job on this very important execution. His first swing missed her neck and hit the back of her head. The next swing was true but a little bit of sinew was left and had to be cut away. When he then picked up the severed head by what he thought was her hair, it turned out she was wearing a wig and her head fell to the floor. Additionally, her little lapdog was hiding in her skirts the whole time.


Jack Ketch was not a victim but an executioner during the reign of Charles II and James II. He was a well known botcher of executions. His execution of Lord Russell in 1683 went very badly, taking him many blows to get the job done. It was so bad that Ketch wrote a pamphlet apologising for it. Another well known mishap of his was on the illegitimate son of Charles II, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, who was executed for his part in the Monmouth Rebellion to overthrow his uncle James II. James was said to have asked Ketch to deal only one blow, knowing that he had done such a bad job in the past. Ketch again didn’t manage it in one blow. After the first swing, James rose and looked reproachfully at Ketch then laid his head down again. It took five to seven blows to get it done.


So you can see why people would want a more efficient form of punishment, hence the guillotine. But the guillotine was not the first of its type. In Britain there were two well-known examples of early forms of guillotines.


The Maiden was made in Edinburgh in 1564 and over its 145 years of service it was used in 150 executions. It was gifted to Edinburgh by the Lord Provost and the magistrates of the city. It was a flat pack design so was not a constant fixture on the streets of Edinburgh. It was brought out when needed and then packed away. The lead weighted blade would be lifted by the rope which was then attached to a trigger. Once the trigger was released the blade would fall quickly due to the weight. People from all over Scotland were brought to Edinburgh to be beheaded by The Maiden. The crimes of the executed included murder, incest, stealing, treason, adultery, forgery and robbery.


An interesting and possibly ironic fact is that one of the well-known victims, James Douglas 4th Earl of Morton, may have been the person that came up with the idea of using a machine. He was executed for his part in the murder of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was not arrested until 13 years after the murder.


Another well-known victim was Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll. He was not the only member of his family to be executed on The Maiden. His father was executed 24 years earlier for complicity in the death of King Charles I. Archibald was executed for his part in a plot to overthrow James I (James VI in Scotland). His plot was organised in parallel with the Monmouth rebellion. If you compare Archibald’s execution with Monmouth's, it shows how two executions that happened within a month of each other could go very differently. Archibald died quickly and effectively with minimum suffering, whereas James would have been in pain and suffered.


At the end of the life of The Maiden it was stored away, but eventually found and is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland.


Another guillotine-style machine used in Britain was the Halifax gibbet. Some believe that the gibbet was the precursor to the Scottish Maiden. Though the exact date of the creation is unknown, it is believed to have been erected in the 16th century. It might seem strange that Halifax had a specialist beheading machine while other larger cities like London and York did not. But in the 16th century Halifax was an important centre of the English wool trade. The people of Halifax made woollen cloth which was a major source of income for the market town and for England. For this reason, it was important to protect the wool trade in the city.


Halifax was also a part of the manor of Wakefield. The lord of the manor of Wakefield had certain long-held privileges that gave him the right to have thieves that stole 13 1/2d and over executed. Around 100 people were executed by this law and 53 of them were by the gibbet. The Halifax gibbet looked very similar to the French guillotine apart from the blade which was axe-shaped instead of triangular. It was also never sharpened which meant it relied on the weight and drop to sever the head by tearing.


The gibbet was so well known that it was mentioned in a famous proverb called the thieves litany: “From Hull, from Halifax, from hell, 'tis thus, From all these three, good Lord delivers us”. However there was a way to escape the gibbet. If you got your head out before the axe fell and managed to run the mile to cross the parish boundary, you were free to go. You wouldn’t be brought back to continue the execution but you were banished, and if you crossed back over the boundary at any time you would be executed. Two men are known to have managed it. One never came back but the other did after seven years, thinking that because he’d escaped he was pardoned. He was not! He was executed as soon as he returned. A local legend about the gibbet says that during one execution a woman was riding by with a load of hampers. As she went by the gibbet, the execution happened and the head of the victim flew off the stand and either landed in a hamper or bit and held on to her apron.


The last execution was in 1650. Not long after Oliver Cromwell had the gibbet dismantled and the stand that it sat on was not found until 1839. There is a modern replica in the place of the original.

Though beheading by axe and sword did not always go to plan, it was still seen as the most reliable and painless way to execute a criminal, which is why it was mostly used on the noble classes. This is what makes the Halifax gibbet and The Maiden so unique in the UK as they were used to punish the common classes. The last beheading in the UK was in 1747 when it was replaced by hanging as the country's main execution method. This remained the case right up to the last execution in the UK in 1964.

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