On the 19th May 1536, Anne Boleyn – Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of the future Elizabeth I – was beheaded in the Tower of London, having been found guilty of adultery, treason, and incest.
Although found unanimously guilty by a jury of 27 peers, the evidence against her was questionable. Only one person accused of an affair with Anne admitted his guilt, and this was allegedly extracted under torture. Some historians believe that her involvement in court politics led the influential Thomas Cromwell to engineer her downfall. Meanwhile, other historians point to the problem of her not having bourn the king a male heir. A series of miscarriages in the months prior to her arrest further suggested she wouldn’t do so in the future. The lack of a son from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had originally driven Henry to find a new wife. Anne found herself in a precarious situation. She gave birth to a stillborn son in January 1536, and soon afterwards Henry took Jane Seymour – one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting – as a mistress.
Since she was queen, the Treason Act meant that the queen’s infidelity was treasonous. The punishment for a woman was burning alive, but Henry commuted it to beheading and had an expert French swordsman brought over to carry out the execution with a single stroke.
Anne maintained her innocence to the end. She was buried in an unmarked grave, but the site was identified in 1876 and is now marked with a marble slab.
The 25th April 1792 saw the world’s first use of the guillotine as a method of execution. Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, was the guillotine’s first – but by no means last – victim.
Pelletier’s status as a common criminal was significant. Prior to the French Revolution, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility. Commoners were usually subjected to longer and arguably more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, the National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.
It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome form of execution. On 10th October 1789, physician Joseph Guillotin argued that every execution should be swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.
Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine. Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antione Louis who is credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries the Guillotin’s name.
As for the highwayman Pelletier, his execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’. Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency.
On the 11th April 1961, the trial of Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann began in Israel. Eichmann was known as the architect of the Final Solution, the man who coordinated the transportation of Jews from across Europe to Death Camps in the East.
At the end of the Second World War, Eichmann had fled Europe in an attempt to escape being tried for war crimes. Eventually arriving in Argentina with his family, he lived for a number of years under the assumed name Ricardo Klement. However, as one of the world’s most wanted Nazi war criminals, the Israeli secret police – the Mossad – spent years tirelessly searching for him. After being given the tip-off that he may be in Buenos Aires, they eventually captured him and forcibly took him to Jerusalem for trial.
With Eichmann sitting inside a purpose-built bullet-proof glass booth, the trial lasted 16 weeks and exposed for the first time the extent of the atrocities that occurred in the Holocaust. Eichmann’s main line of defense was that he was not personally involved with the killings, and was just following orders. However, on the 15th December 1961, the three judges hearing the case unanimously found him guilty of the 15 charges against him and sentenced him to death. Eichmann was executed by hanging six months later, his body cremated, and his ashes scattered at sea.
On the 7th April 1498, a group of Franciscan monks met their Dominican rivals in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence to take part in the first trial by fire in 400 years. The belief was that God would intervene to protect the rightful side from the flames as they walked over them. But the trial never went ahead.
The Dominican friar Savonarola had built a powerful following in Florence with his passionate sermons against vices and luxuries that tempted people to sin. The previous year he had been excommunicated for defying Pope Alexander VI’s order to stop preaching sermons in which the Pope himself was criticized for corruption and greed. However, Savonarola ignored the Pope’s order and continued to preach and to celebrate mass. Combined with his support for the French invasion of northern Italy, which he claimed was God’s punishment for the Florentines’ sinful past, Savonarola began to face a large and vocal opposition.
When he hinted at having performed miracles, monks from the rival Franciscan order proposed a trial by fire to prove Savonarola’s holiness. When the two sides met on the 7th April, they squabbled for so long that a rainstorm eventually led to the cancellation of the event.
With Savonarola unable to prove his claim, the crowd turned against him. The next day his convent was stormed by an angry mob and he was arrested. Within six weeks he and two fellow friars had been executed for heresy.
(The image shows Savonarola’s execution, but we can’t find any of his trial by fire.)
On the 1st March 1692, the Salem witch trials began when Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba were brought before local magistrates in Salem Village, Massachusetts. The paranoia and hysteria that ensued eventually led to the executions of twenty men and women, and the deaths of seven more accused whilst in prison.
Salem’s witch hysteria began in January 1692 when the daughter and niece of the Reverend Samuel Parris began to suffer violent fits. The local doctor couldn’t find a physical cause for their illness, and so blamed the supernatural. Other young girls in the community soon began to display similar symptoms, and three local women were accused of bewitching them.
Significantly, the three women were all in some way social outcasts – Tituba was a slave; Sarah Good was a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne was a poor elderly woman who rarely attended church. They were brought in front of local magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, and although both Good and Osborne denied their guilt Tituba confessed to being “the Devil’s servant”. The reason for her confession is unclear, but it is presumed that she sought to act as an informer in a bid to save herself.
Over the next few weeks dozens more people were accused of witchcraft including the four-year old Dorothy Good, Sarah’s Good’s daughter, who was imprisoned for nine months before being released on bond for £50.
Of the three women first accused of witchcraft in Salem, only Sarah Good was executed. Sarah Osborne died in jail while on trial while Tituba was eventually freed from jail after an anonymous person paid her fees.
Pietro Leopoldo, the ruler of Tuscany, came to power in 1765 after his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, died. Pietro Leopoldo later became Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, but in the years immediately after his father’s death his mother Maria Theresa co-ruled the empire with his elder brother Joseph II. After five years Leopold successfully obtained a free hand to rule Tuscany as he liked after he travelled to Vienna where his mother agreed to remove her appointed counsellors.
Leopold was an enlightened ruler who revitalised Tuscany’s economy through the introduction of new rates of taxation and the creation of public works projects. His habit of spending revenues on improving the state was in sharp contrast to the government of the Medici family who had preceded his father, but had a broadly positive impact on Tuscany’s financial position.
A year before Leopold came to power in Tuscany, the Italian Enlightenment writer Cesare Beccaria condemned torture and the death penalty in his famed treatise On Crimes and Punishments. The book, which proposed radical reform of the criminal system, influenced Leopold to stop signing death warrants and after 1769 no executions took place in Tuscany.
On 30 November 1786 Leopold formally abolished the death sentence as well as banning the use of torture. All instruments used for administering the death penalty were also destroyed. The day is now celebrated as Cities for Life Day on which numerous cities around the world show their commitment to the abolition of the death penalty.
Raleigh had been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, who granted him permission to lead three expeditions to the Americas. Although he had inspired the Queen’s fury after secretly marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting, Raleigh had returned to her favour by the time she died in March 1603.
In November, Raleigh was found guilty of treason for his involvement in the Main Plot that sought to depose Elizabeth’s successor James I and replace him with his cousin Arabella Stuart. The King suspended the death sentence and instead imprisoned Raleigh in the Tower of London, where he lived for thirteen years before being pardoned.
Raleigh was freed and granted permission by James to undertake an expedition in search of the fabled city of El Dorado, which began in 1617. In January 1618 a group of his men ignored an order to avoid confrontation with Spanish settlers when Lawrence Keymis, Raleigh’s closest companions, led an attack on the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé de Guayana on the Orinoco River. This was in direct contravention of peace treaties signed between England and Spain. Raleigh’s son, Walter, was also killed in the attack.
Although Raleigh himself had specifically ordered his men not to attack, he knew that their actions had broken a key condition of his pardon. On his return to England the Spanish ambassador demanded the earlier sentence be reinstated, and King James had little option but to order Raleigh’s execution. He was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster on 29 October 1618.
At 12.15pm on the afternoon of the 16th October 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed by guillotine in the Place de la Revolution in Paris. Found guilty of treason earlier that morning, she was transported to her death in an open cart and later buried in an unmarked grave.
Following the execution of her husband, the former King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette had continued to be held prisoner in the Temple along with her children. Following the creation of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror, calls for her trial grew louder and this become the National Convention’s preferred policy following the fall of the Girondins at the end of May.
After her son was sent to live with a Jacobin cobbler as a form of revolutionary re-education, Marie Antoinette was moved to an isolated cell in the Conciergerie from which she plotted a failed escape attempt known as “The Carnation Plot”. It’s argued by some that it was this that convinced the CPS to bring her to trial in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal on the 14th October.
Although the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, Marie Antoinette had expected a sentence of life imprisonment or exile. Despite this she showed courage throughout the remaining hours of her life including the verbal abuse she suffered on the hour-long journey to the guillotine. On climbing the steps to the scaffold she accidentally stepped on the foot of the executioner, reacting by saying, “Pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it”.
These were the last words she said before the blade fell.
On the 18th August 1612, the trials of nine Lancashire women and two men known as the Pendle Witches began. Accused of various murders, twelve people were charged of whom was found not guilty and another died in prison before going to trial. The other ten were found guilty and executed by hanging.
The trials of the Lancashire witches are not only some of the most famous, but also some of the best recorded witch trials in British history. This is due to a published account called The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts, the clerk to the Lancaster Assizes where all but one of the trials took place.
One of the most interesting things about the trial is that the majority of the defendants self-identified as witches, or at least as village healers who practised what they referred to as ‘magic’ in return for payment. A number of the accused even admitted to Roger Nowell, the justice of the peace for Pendle and chief prosecutor at the trials, that witchcraft had been practised by a number of people in the area around Pendle Hill for many years.
In historical terms, the Pendle Witch trials were significant for their scale. Despite a popular belief that witch trials were a common occurrence in the early modern period, only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft throughout the 300 year period when they were carried out. This means that the ten found guilty in Pendle represented an astounding 2% of all British witches to face trial during the period.
I’m very grateful to Giselle K. Jakobs for her thorough research and detailed website about the focus of today’s podcast – her grandfather, Josef Jakobs. You can visit her website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/
The last execution at the Tower of London took place on the 15th August 1941. Josef Jakobs was a German spy who was arrested after he signalled for help after breaking his ankle when he parachuted into Britain.
Jakobs had served in the German Army during the First World War, and became a dentist in the interwar period. However, due to impact of the worldwide depression he turn to selling fake gold, for which he served two and a half years in jail.
After his release, Jakobs became involved in providing counterfeit passports to German Jews fleeing Hitler’s regime. However, he was arrested in 1938 and sent to a concentration camp from which he was released in 1940.
Within six months Jakobs had begun training with the Abwehr – the intelligence wing of the Germany Army – and on the 31st January 1941 dressed in a business suit and parachuted into England. Having broken his ankle, he was found the next morning in a field near Dovehouse Farm in Huntingdonshire.
Jakobs was taken into custody, and was held at Dulwich Hospital in London while complications with his broken ankle were treated. Eventually he was transferred to Wandsworth Prison, where he was formally charged with espionage and tried by General Court Marshall in early August since he didn’t have British nationality and was a formal member of the Germany Army.
Found guilty, he was taken to the miniature firing range at the Tower of London on the 15th. Having been strapped to a wooden Windsor chair, he was killed by firing squad at 7:12 a.m.