Friday, April 17, 2009

Question from Joy - Death sentence of Thomas More

I'm just starting to watch The Tudors on Showtime. I know it's riddled with misinformation, so I've been researching to find out what really happened! Anyway, I've just seen the episode in Season 2 where Sir Thomas More is put to death. In it, he was supposed to be drawn and quartered, but then Henry decides to just behead him, in what I'm assuming is some sort of relent. Did this actually occur, or was this just for dramatical purposes only? Thanks in advance!


PhD Historian said...

More was tried and found guilty of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the church in England. The refusal was considered treasonous. The punishment for all traitors was hanging, drawing, and quartering.

It was a brutal punishment in which the convicted was hung by the neck until unconscious but not dead. They were then taken down and their abdomen was cut open while they were still alive, which usually caused then to regain consciousness, if only briefly, and their entrails were removed. Quite often the genitals were cut off and stuffed in the convicts mouth. The body was then hacked into pieces and the parts displayed publicly on pikes for several days as a warning to others.

If you ever want to see what hanging, drawing and quartering actually looked like, it is depicted with remarkable accuracy and detail in Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

Because More had served Henry VIII in the high office of Lord Chancellor, Henry commuted his sentence to beheading, which was much quicker and thought to be painless if done correctly. Henry did More a final favor, essentially.

Joy said...

So it was true, thank you! Yes, unfortunately, I did see Braveheart...

Foose said...

"The Tudors" did show Sir Thomas being dragged on a hurdle through a groaning mob to the place of execution, which is ahistorical -- I think he had a private execution at the Tower and merely walked to the block from his cell. However, being dragged on the hurdle may have been a traditional part of the original punishment, which as phd historian points out was commuted for Sir Thomas.

Marilyn R said...

Contrary to popular belief, remarkably few people were executed within thw Tower. In Henry's reign 112 people were imprisoned there (101 men & 11 women),69 of whom were executed.

The 'common' folk, of which there were 45, were mainly executed at Tyburn, the site now of the Marble Arch; the 'quality', that is nobility, or high-ranking politicians or clergymen, including Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, as well as those men implicated with Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard, were beheaded on Tower Hill, outside the perimeter walls of fortress, where they are commemorated with modern bronze plaques.

The infamous axe and block in the Tower claimed only William Lord Hastings in the reign of Richard III (in this case he was beheaded over a log), Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole, Kathryn Howard and Viscountess Rochford in Henry's reign, Lady Jane Grey in Mary's reign and the Earl of Essex on the orders of Elizabeth I.

PhD Historian said...

While Marilyn R is largely correct that few people were executed within the walls of the Tower, I think she is incorrect in leaving Thomas More off her list. According to every scholarly and academic secondary source I can find, Thomas More was indeed executed within the Tower on Tower Green, not on Tower Hill outside the Tower walls.

Anonymous said...

The majority of people executed at the tower of london were executed on Tower Hill and the majority of the executed were male.only very few were executed on Tower Green.
It all depended on his or hers position/Rank at the time king henry VIII ruled.Anyone who was close to the king who committed treason would have been executed at Tower Green anyone who was of noble birth but committed treason against the king or country would have beeen executed at Tower hill.

Marilyn R said...

I’m afraid you are wrong on this one PhD, and I’m very surprised – and a little disconcerted – at the recognised scholarly and academic secondary sources you mention getting such a well-known fact wrong.

Like you, I am a very well-qualified researcher, and have been an educator for the past 40 years; I am well aware that students use this web site and I would not have sent information unless 100% sure of its authenticity.

The Tower itself was not normally a place of execution and, as I said before, only 7 beheadings are recorded as having taken place on the infamous Tower Green. Richard III had William, Lord Hastings dragged out from a meeting and summarily beheaded over a log, while Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole, Jane Rochford, Kathryn Howard and Lady Jane Grey were decapitated within the Tower precincts because of their high-standing and because they were women. Essex was beheaded privately within the walls because the authorities feared riots if he was executed in public.

High-profile prisoners were usually beheaded at Tower Hill, lesser mortals at a number of sites including Tyburn and Smithfield.

Hall’s Chronicle tells us that Fisher perished on Tower Hill on 22nd June, 1535 and that Thomas More was brought to the scaffold on Tower Hill on Tuesday, 6th July. He had walked the few hundred yards from the Tower and the execution took place at approximately 9 o’clock in the morning.

'This year also on 1 July, being Thursday, Sir Thomas More, sometime chancellor of England, was arraigned at Westminster for high treason and there condemned, and the Tuesday after, being 6 July, he was beheaded at Tower Hill and his body was buried within the chapel in the Tower of London, and his head was set on London Bridge.'

On Tower Hill today there is a small memorial garden where the unfortunates are commemorated on bronze plaques:–


The first plaque bears the names of:

Sir William Stanley, KG 1495

Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick 1499

James Tuchet, 7th Baron Audley 1497
Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham 1521

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester 1535

Sir Thomas More 1535

Thomas Darcy, Lord Darcy of Templehurst, KG 1537

There are photographs of these plaques at

while - shows a high-profile execution on Tower HIll.

Anonymous said...

"The infamous axe and block in the Tower claimed only William Lord Hastings in the reign of Richard III (in this case he was beheaded over a log), Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole, Kathryn Howard and Viscountess Rochford in Henry's reign, Lady Jane Grey in Mary's reign and the Earl of Essex on the orders of Elizabeth I."

I must quibble with your choice of phrasing. Anne's execution involved neither axe nor block. It would have been more accurate to say "The only executions recorded as taking place within the Tower wallls..."