Tag Archives: hanging

Surviving an execution

The law relating to executions is in the news at the moment, as pharmaceutical companies battle to dissociate themselves and their drugs from killing as opposed to healing (see, e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/13/arkansas-executions-lethal-injection-drug-makers ). Over in my world of medieval study, as a side-note to a current project on unauthorised hanging, I have been turning my attention to botched or failed – or successful and yet not final – executions. The first fruit of this is my ‘work in progress’ list of those who survived executions. It’s into double figures and no doubt there are many more instances out there: I am sure I will be adding to the list over time.

The victims (or not) are mostly male, mostly thieves, and many of the stories involve hanging, removal and revival in a church. Few are very detailed, but there are some interesting themes emerging. First, although there has been a lot of attention on the best-reported case, that of William Cragh of c. 1290, and the idea of miraculous resurrection after definite death (in that case, through the intervention of proto-saint Thomas de Cantilupe: see Bartlett, The Hanged Man: a story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University, 2006), most cases are not quite on that model. In more ‘secular’ sources, a few of those who survived excited talk of miracles, but even these instances do not seem to have been regarded as full resurrections.

They may be seen as miraculous escapes, or, at times, the result of blunders by others. Ropes breaik or people revive after having been taken down from the gallows. It is generally impossible to know whether there were interventions meant to defeat the intention of killing the convict – interference with ropes, or deliberate early removal from the gallows – as opposed to blunders and mistakes (certainly, there are other, clear, examples of deliberate rescue), but some, at least, of the stories suggest genuine surprise at the survival of a condemned person, as well as a lack of reliable testing for the expiry of life.

These cases certainly underline the important observation made by Henry Summerson: “It may be a sign of the extent to which present-day society has distanced itself from the realities of capital punishment that the word ‘execution’ is commonly misused to describe a killing that has been carried out in a manner quick, clean and efficient. A medieval execution at least was commonly a messy business, unskilfully carried out.” (H. Summerson, ‘Attitudes to capital punishment in England 1200-1350’, in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), 123-34, 132). Aside from the fact that modern systems generally do not allow their blunders to affect the ultimate outcome, by tending to reprieve those who have somehow managed to survive, the criticism is applicable to modern death-dealing legal systems as well.


19th April, 2017.

A Hereford hanging: lynching, lack of due process or lawful?

The Easter 1457 record and report of a Hereford appeal make intriguing reading.  I will be examining several aspects of this case in my forthcoming book on women in the medieval common law. It is also of great interest for the history of Herefordshire and the Welsh marches in this troubled period, for the history of the ‘Wars of the Roses’ and for the history of  subjects’ rights and due process of law. The case is Agnes Glover v Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others, YB Pasch. 35 Hen. VI f. 57b-58b; Seipp 1457.022. I identify this with KB 27/784 m. 85 (AALT image 180).

Agnes brought an appeal against Walter and several others (thirteen others are named in the plea roll) for the felonious homicide of her husband, John Glover, dyer.

The accused defended themselves by saying that the dead man had been convicted. at a session of the peace held at Hereford, of aiding and abetting ‘J.W.’, the murderer of one ‘J Vowant’, (who might, I speculate, be a Vaughan, connected with, or to be identified with Watkin Vaughan, killed in 1456). JW and the deceased husband were, they said, arrested tried, pleaded not guilty but convicted and hanged. The accused said that they were ready to show this and that they were not guilty of felony.

The Year Book dwells on the argument as to whether this was correct pleading, or whether they should just have pleaded ‘not guilty’. Were things different when someone in authority, as opposed to some stranger, had executed a man, and his widow claimed that this was done without proper process or warrant? There are some interesting discussions of the rights of widows and heirs of felons more widely, and of the scope of orders for execution.

The report gives more information about the accused – prominent men many of whom seem connected to the Herbert/Vaughan families. It also sets out Agnes’s case. She or her lawyer made the hanging of John Glover sound as much as possible like a lynching.

Most of the accused did not turn up. Matters dragged on and in the end, Agnes appears to have given up (or settled the case informally) and the accused were acquitted. We cannot know whether John Glover was indeed guilty, but, even if so, Agnes probably had little chance against the combined influence of the men she had tried to take on.

Gwen Seabourne



The case took a few more twists and turns as I pursued it backwards in the King’s Bench Plea Rolls. There are relevant entries on KB 27/781 Rex mm. 1d and 26d (AALT images 592 and 650) and KB 27/782 Rex m.22 (AALT image 299). The homicide in question was indeed that of Walter Vaughan. The part of Agnes in proceedings becomes more interesting – she was initially herself on trial as an accessory, but was acquitted because the indictment was insufficiently specific. There may have been some confusion about her husband’s name as well – some records call him John Dyer, others John Glover, Dyer. But he was accused as a principal not an accessory = the year Book report is confused on that point, perhaps because there were other accessory accusations in the case – with regard to Agnes, and with regard to the large group involved in John Glover’s hanging.