Beheading with a sword or axe goes back a very long way in history, because like hanging, it was a cheap and practical method of execution in early times when a sword or an axe was always readily available.
The Greeks and the Romans considered beheading a less dishonourable and less painful form of execution than other methods in use at the time. The Roman Empire used beheading for its own citizens whilst crucifying others.
Beheading was widely used in Europe and Asia until the 20th century, but now is confined to Saudi Arabia, and Iran. One man was reportedly beheaded in Iran in 2003 – the first for many years. It remains a lawful method in Qatar and Yemen, although no executions by this method have been reported.
Beheading continued in Britain up to 1747 (see below) and was the standard method in Norway (abolished 1905), Sweden (up to 1903) and Denmark (last in 1892) and was used for some classes of prisoners in France (up until the introduction of the guillotine in 1792) and in Germany up to 1938. All the European countries that previously used beheading have now totally abolished the death penalty.
China also used it widely, until the communists came to power and replaced it with shooting in the 20th century. Japan too used beheading up to the end of the 19th century prior to turning to hanging.
Equipment for beheading.
There were two distinct forms of beheading - by the sword and by the axe. Where a person was to be decapitated with a sword, a block is not used and they are generally made to kneel down although they could, if short, be executed standing up, or even sitting in a chair. A typical European execution sword was 36-48 inches (900-1200 mm) long and 2 to 2-1/2 inches (50-65mm) wide with the handle being long enough for the executioner to use both hands to give maximum leverage. It weighed around 4 lbs. (2 Kg.)
Where an axe was the chosen implement, a wooden block, often shaped to accept the neck, was required. Two patterns of block were used, the high block, 18-24 inches (450-600 mm) high, where the prisoner knelt behind it and lent forward so that their neck rested on the top or lay on a bench with their neck over the block. The neck on a high block presented an easier target due to the head pointing slightly downwards, thus bringing the neck into prominence. It also meant that the axe was at a better angle at that point in the arc of the stroke to meet the neck full on.
The high block was favoured in later times in Britain and was standard in Germany up to the 1930's.
Some countries used a low block where the person lies full length and puts there neck over the small wooden block which is just a few inches high. This arrangement was used in Sweden. The low block presented the executioner with certain difficulties. The arc prescribed by the axe as he brought it down meant that the blade was at quite an angle to the prisoner's neck making it more difficult to sever the head with a single blow. Two patterns of axe were also used - the pattern used in Britain, which was developed from the traditional woodsman's axe, has a blade about one foot 8 inches (500 mm) high by 10 inches (250 mm) wide with a 5 foot (1525 mm) long handle. In Germany the axe was like a larger version of a butcher's cleaver, again the handle was long enough for the headsman to use both hands.
Beheading in Britain.
In Britain, beheading was used in Anglo Saxon times as a punishment for certain types of serious theft. It was reintroduced during the reign of William the Conqueror for the execution of Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland on the 31st of May 1076 on St. Giles Hill, near Winchester. Waltheof had been convicted of treason for taking part in the Revolt of the Earls against the King and was beheaded with a sword.
Beheading was confined to those of noble birth who were convicted of treason and was an alternative to the normal punishments for this crime. Men convicted of High Treason were condemned to hanged drawn and quartered and women to be burned at the stake. In the case of the nobility the monarch could vary these punishments to death by beheading. Beheading was both far less painful and considered far less dishonourable than these other methods. Several members of Royalty were beheaded, including Charles I, Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey. Many other Earls, Lords and Knights, including Sir Walter Raleigh, and even some bishops were executed thus.
The majority of English beheadings took place at the Tower of London. Seven were carried out in private within the grounds, of which five were of women. A further 86 men were decapitated on Tower Hill outside the walls of the Tower, where there stood a permanent scaffold from 1485. Only a very small number of beheadings were carried out elsewhere, as the Tower was the principal prison for traitors of high birth. It should be noted that treason often meant displeasing the monarch, rather than in any way betraying the country.
The spot indicated as "The site of the scaffold" on Tower Green which visitors can see today was not used for all of the 7 private beheadings although the plaque implies this.
Those beheaded in private on Tower Green were Lord Hastings in 1483, Anne Boleyn on the 19th of May 1536, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury on the 28th of May 1541, Catherine Howard and her Lady in Waiting, Jane, Viscountess Rochford on the 13th of February 1542, Lady Jane Grey on the 15th of February 1554 and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex on the 25th of February 1601.
At various times both the low block and the high block have been used. The axe was the normal implement of execution in Britain, although Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword (see below).
A replica of the scaffold used for the 1601 execution of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex has been constructed for exhibition in the Tower. The original was set up in the middle of the Parade Ground and was made of oak, some 4 feet high and having a 9 feet square platform (1.2 m high x 2.75 m square) with a waist high rail round it. The prisoner mounted it by a short flight of stairs and was not restrained throughout the execution as it was expected that people of noble birth would know how to behave at their executions! Devereux lay full length on the platform and placed his neck on the low block with his arms outstretched. It is recorded that three strokes of the axe were required to decapitate him. Straw was spread on the scaffold to absorb the blood.
The last female execution by beheading was that of 67 year old Lady Alice Lisle who was beheaded for treason at Winchester on the 2nd of September 1685 having been convicted of sheltering two traitors.
Beheading in public on Tower Hill was used when the government of the day wished to make an example of the traitor (or traitors). Double beheadings were rare, although not unknown, and were carried out in order of precedence of the victims, as occurred with the Jacobite Earls, Kilmarnock and Balmerino, executed in 1746 for treason after the battle of Culloden.
Simon Lord Lovatt became the last person to be beheaded on Tower Hill when he was executed for treason on April the 9th, 1747. The high block used for Lord Lovatt together with the axe were on display in the Tower. It was normal for the executioner to pick up the severed head and display to the crowd proclaiming, "Behold the head of a traitor!"
The execution of Anne Boleyn.
29 year old Anne, Henry VIII's second wife, had been convicted on trumped up charges of adultery and treason and was thus sentenced to death by burning at the stake or beheading at the Kings pleasure. Fortunately for Anne, he chose the latter and perhaps through a pang of conscience imported a skilled headsman from Calais in France to ensure the execution was performed as humanely as possible. British hangmen normally got the job of beheading those condemned but were generally very poor at it due to the rarity of such sentences.
On the 19th May 1536, Anne was led to the Parade Ground within the Tower with an escort of 200 Yeoman of the Guard (Beefeaters). She was wearing a loose, ermine trimmed, grey damask robe over a red underskirt. Her hair was "up" covered with a white coif and a small black cap and she wore a cross on a gold chain at her waist and carried a white handkerchief and a prayer book.
She had to climb 4 feet (1200 mm) up the steps to the scaffold to meet her headsman who was wearing a black suit and half mask covering the upper part of his face. The long two handed execution sword was concealed under the straw on the scaffold.
Anne made a short speech to the assembled witnesses and then removed her cape and her hair coif and cap which was now replaced by a white cap. She knelt on the platform and prayed with her chaplain. When she had finished one of her ladies in waiting blindfolded her with a large handkerchief. All was now ready and the headsman took up the sword and beheaded her with a single blow. Her ladies in waiting recovered her head and as there was no coffin provided, she was placed in an old arrow box and duly buried in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vinicula, within the Tower.
Lady Jane Grey.
Lady Jane Grey, the daughter of the Duke of Suffolk, was born in October 1537 and was only 16 years old when she was proclaimed Queen on the 10th of July 1553 by Protestant nobles, including her father, after the premature death of Edward VI. She reigned, uncrowned, for just nine days and was unable to win public acceptance because of her religion in what was a predominately Catholic country. Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) took over the throne and commenced her persecution of Protestants. Thus, Jane was deposed and imprisoned in the Tower for six months before being condemned for treason and executed on the 13th of February 1554. She was led to the scaffold erected on Tower Green in front of the White Tower. She made a speech and recited a psalm before using a large white handkerchief to blindfold herself. She knelt on a cushion in front of the high block. Having blindfolded herself she couldn't see the block and fumbling for it said "What shall I do, where is it, where is it?" One of the people on the scaffold guided her down and before the fatal blow she said "Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit". Earlier on the same day her husband, Lord Guilford Dudley, whom she had married on the 21st of May 1553, was beheaded on Tower Hill and her father suffered the same fate 11 days later for his part in the alleged conspiracy to seize the thrown for his daughter. Many others were to be beheaded or burned at the stake under Mary's reign, hence her nickname.
King Charles I.
Charles I was the only English monarch ever to be executed. He was beheaded on Tuesday the 30th of January 1649 on a raised scaffold in front of the Palace of Whitehall. Charles had been convicted of High Treason and “other crimes” for his activities during the civil war against the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. An act of parliament had to be passed to set up a means to try him before a special court composed of Commissioners. The trial began on the 20th of January 1649 and the king refused to recognise the court or to enter a plea. In Charles’ case the executioner managed to sever the head with a single blow. His head was sewn back onto the body and after the family had paid their last respects he was buried in the George Chapel in Windsor Castle.
Saudi Arabia - beheading in the 21st century.
Saudi Arabia uses public beheading as the punishment for murder, rape, drug trafficking, sodomy, armed robbery, apostasy and certain other offences. 2007 was the record year for executions with 153 men and three women executed. Forty five men and two women were beheaded in 2002, a further 52 men and 1 woman in 2003 and 35 men and a woman in 2004. Executions rose in 2005 with 88 men and two women being beheaded and then reduced to 35 men and four women in 2006. 102 people were executed in Saudi Arabia during 2008 but it is thought that two of these were by shooting in Asir Province. 67 people were beheaded in 2009, including two women. The execution rate fell markedly in 2010 with 26 men being beheaded.
The condemned of both sexes are typically given tranquillisers and then taken by police van to a public square or a car park after midday prayers. Their eyes are covered and they are blindfolded. The police clear the square of traffic and a sheet of plastic sheet about 16 feet square is laid out on the ground.
Dressed in either a white robe or their own clothes, barefoot, with shackled feet and hands cuffed behind their back, the prisoner is led by a police officer to the centre of the sheet where they are made to kneel facing Mecca. An Interior Ministry official reads out the prisoner's name and crime to the crowd.
Saudi Arabia uses a traditional Arab scimitar which is 1100-1200 mm long. The executioner is handed the sword by a policeman and raises the gleaming scimitar, often swinging it two or three times in the air to warm up his arm muscles, before approaching the prisoner from behind and jabbing him in the back with the tip of the blade, causing the person to raise their head. Then with a single swing of the sword the prisoner is decapitated.
Normally it takes just one swing of the sword to sever the head, often sending it flying some two or three feet. Paramedics bring the head to a doctor, who uses a gloved hand to stop the fountain of blood spurting from the neck. The doctor sews the head back on, and the body is wrapped in the blue plastic sheet and taken away in an ambulance. Burial takes place in an unmarked grave in the prison cemetery.
Beheadings of women did not start until the early 1990’s, previously they were shot. Forty seven women have been publicly beheaded up to the end of 2010.
Most executions take place in the three major cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dahran. Saudi executioners take great pride in their work and the post tends to be handed down from one generation to the next.
Beheading with a high block and axe was the normal method of execution in some Länders (provinces) of Germany and was carried out in public up to 1851. Other Länders used the sword or the guillotine. Franz Schmidt, the executioner of Nuremberg from May 1578 to 1617, often tried to persuade the authorities to allow him to behead a condemned woman, rather than hang her, as a mercy to the woman. When this was permitted, she was seated in a chair and Schmidt beheaded her with his sword from behind. He executed at least 42 women during his 44 years in office.
A later modification was to lie the condemned on a bench at the same height at the block. The prisoner’s manacled wrists were attached to ropes that passed through two metal rings screwed to the block to keep them still. The executioner used an axe weighing around 15Kg. which he brought vertically downwards and then pulled towards him to sever any skin still attaching the neck to the head.
The execution of Bertha Zillman on October 31st, 1893 was described by journalists. Zillman had poisoned her husband with arsenic, because he beat her and their children, for which she was sentenced to death. She was beheaded at Plötzensee prison at 8 a.m. Her dress was cut out at the neck down to her shoulders and her hair put up in a bun. She was given a shawl to wear. When the Inspector of the prison went to fetch her, he found her prostrate with fear and she had to be helped to the high block by two male warders. She silently removed the shawl and with one swing of the axe the executioner had decapitated her. It was all over by 8.03 a.m.
There was a double female execution in 1914 when Pauline Zimmer and Marie Kubatzka were beheaded for murder in Ratibor in the Prussian province of Silesia. The women were executed in turn using a high block. In front of the block was a black cushion on which the manacled woman knelt and then bent forward to put her head on the block which was higher on her side causing the neck to be slightly bent down. The assistant executioner held the women's hair out in front of her to prevent her moving at the crucial moment while the masked executioner beheaded her with a short handled axe, rather like a butcher's cleaver.
Two famous beheadings in Germany were carried out at 6 a.m. on 18th February 1935 when Baroness Benita von Falkenhayn and her friend Renate von Natzner, who had been convicted of spying, were beheaded with the axe by the executioner Carl Gröpler wearing the traditional tail-coat, top hat and white gloves, at Berlin's Plötzensee prison. In 1938, Hitler decreed that all future executions should be by guillotining or hanging. West Germany abolished capital punishment altogether in 1951 and the last execution there was in 1949.
Some 644 people, including nearly 200 women, were beheaded in Sweden between 1800 and 1866. From 1866 until manual beheading was replaced by the guillotine in 1903 only 14 more people were to suffer this fate. Capital punishment was abolished in Sweden in 1921.
The last public beheadings took place on the 17th of May 1876 when two men were executed in different locations for robbing the mail coach and killing the coachman. Their names were Gustav Erikson Hjert who was beheaded at Lida Malm by Fredrik Hjort and Konrad Lundqvist Petterson Tector who was executed at Gotland by Peter Steineck. In Anna's Månsdotter case, the blade of the axe passed through her lower jaw which was left attached to her neck afterwards. She was the last woman to be executed in Sweden and had been convicted of strangling her daughter in law, Hanna Johansdotter. Anna was having an incestuous relationship with her son, Per, who also received the death sentence for his part in the crime, which was later commuted to life in prison.
Although hanging had been permitted as a form of execution up to 1866, beheading seems to have been much more common for both sexes.
The cause of death.
Beheading is as humane as any modern method of execution if carried out correctly and a single blow is sufficient to decapitate the prisoner. Consciousness is probably lost within 2-3 seconds, due to a rapid fall of the “intracranial perfusion of blood" (blood supply to the brain). The person dies from shock and anoxia due to haemorrhage and loss of blood pressure within less than 60 seconds. However, because the muscles and vertebrae of the neck are tough, decapitation may require more than one blow. Death occurs due to separation of the brain and spinal cord, after the transection (cutting through) of the surrounding tissues, together with massive haemorrhage.
It has often been reported that the eyes and mouths of the decapitated have shown signs of movement. It has been calculated that the human brain has enough oxygen stored for metabolism to persist for about 7 seconds after the head is cut off.
The problem with beheading.
Beheading requires a skilled headsman if it is to be at all humane and not infrequently, several blows were required to sever the head. It took three blows to remove Mary Queen of Scot's head at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587. In Britain, beheadings were carried out by the “common hangman” and were relatively rare, so he had very little practice or experience, which often led to unfortunate consequences.
Saudi executioners pride themselves on their skill and efficiency with the scimitar.
The prisoner is usually blindfolded so that they do not see the sword or axe coming and move at the crucial moment. Again, this is why in both beheading and guillotining it was not unusual for an assistant to hold the prisoner's hair to prevent them moving.
In any event, the results are gory in the extreme as blood spurts from the severed arteries and veins of the neck including the carotid and the jugular.