Executions cause controversy – shock!

The executions enacted in the first episode of the new BBC series Gunpowder have attracted a good deal of adverse criticism. This comes despite warnings that the episode contained scenes that some people would find upsetting. They were too realistic and shocking. In case you don’t know, they showed a man being hanged, drawn and quartered and a woman being crushed under a door on which the executioner laid a series of heavy weights.

Were executions like that in those days?

Yes! The usual punishment for various crimes, including treason, was hanging, drawing and quartering. However, if you were an aristocrat you would be entitled to a beheading, or ‘decapitation’, as they now say. The punishment of being pressed under a door applied to those who refused to enter a plea and thus could not be tried. For centuries, both types of execution had been in use: they were not innovations in the reign of King James I. They really were horrific. They were meant to be.

Why did we use such forms of execution?

People at the time probably regarded hanging, drawing and quartering as a deterrent and an appropriate response to the seriousness of the crime.  Pressing under a door took effect slowly. That way the victim had a chance to opt to enter a plea at any stage and submit to a trial. Those in charge would then stop the proceedings.

Why invite such an execution rather than go to trial?

If you were found guilty of certain crimes, including treason,  the Crown would confiscate all your property. Your family might then have no source of income. In those days, there was no social security. You relied on your accumulated wealth or the generosity of friends and family. If you did not plead, you could not be tried. Therefore, your relatives would inherit your property, as if you had died in any other way. If you were a wealthy person with a lot of dependents, you would probably opt for a trial only if you were pretty confident you would be found Not Guilty.

Were the executions relevant to the story?

Yes! It is easy to condemn the plotters, but we need to see their actions in context. That is what this series is about. It shows Catesby as a hothead from the start, but these executions were the last straw for him. We had to see the full horror to understand his reaction. You may not condone his actions, but you might empathise better. If we just heard someone announce the executions, we would not have been able to relate to Catesby to the same extent. You might still say that two wrongs do not make a right. That’s your choice.

I commented on the relevance of Guy Fawkes to Highwaypersons previously.

I may write again about Gunpowder, before 5th November.