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a tale of Restoration intrigue by

Molly Brown


Thomas Platter, Travels in England, 1599:

At midnight before a condemned person was to hang at Tyburn, a bell would be rung at St Sepulchre's, the church nearest to Newgate, and the bellman would solemnly pronounce:

The following morning the prisoners were taken to the "Press Room", where their irons were removed, their arms bound with a cord and a halter placed about their necks. The condemned prisoner was allowed to choose his or her own clothing; some chose to die in their finest, while others wore a shroud to signify repentance. Some, aware that the hangman would claim their clothes afterwards, wore something cheap like a nightshirt to deny their executioner any profit.

The condemned were drawn on a cart, accompanied by a procession of about 200 men for crowd control - contingents of marshalmen, javelin men and constables - led by the City Marshal and Under Marshal. Along the way, they had to force the way through drunken mobs lining the route, thwart rescue attempts and even protect certain unpopular prisoners from being lynched before they could be hanged.

One of the more bizarre hangings at Tyburn occurred shortly after the Restoration of Charles to the throne: the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton, Bradshaw, and Pride were drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn and hung up in their coffins.

It was possible to escape the gallows by pleading "Benefit of clergy". In an age when clergymen were among the few able to read and write, any felon convicted for the first time who was capable of reading the "neck verse" (Psalm 51, verse one : "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy steadfast love; according to Thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions."), were able to claim clerical status, which meant that they were branded (to facilitate future identification) rather than hanged. As the same verse was always used, many of those who claimed benefit of clergy couldn't read at all, they had simply memorized the verse beforehand. (Benefit of clergy was claimed by over 80% of those convicted of steeling sheep or cows at Essex assizes between 1579 and 1603.)

tottenham covent garden start of tour home

(c) 1996 Molly Brown