8 Gruesome Ways People Were Executed By Popes And Other Catholic Authorities

You might say the Catholic Church was the glue that held medieval Europe together. Unfortunately, that glue got a kick out of instigating campaigns of terror and death in the name of the big man on the throne in the sky. Executions ordered by popes or carried out in his name by Church authorities were not a civilized affair. Indeed, Vatican execution methods often involved long stretches of humiliation and torture in the build-up to some of the most horrific deaths you can fathom. Heretical thoughts were serious business to Church leaders, so they dealt with them in the most serious ways they could. That seriousness brought about sadism and terror that's still a black mark against the intuition.

Who was persecuted? Jews, Muslims, accused witches, and really anyone who didn’t conform to the Church’s beliefs. Catholic Inquisition executions were often carried out by and at the discretion of friars or other minor religious authorities, acting on behalf of popes or monarchs. So, better to not piss off anyone associated with the Church, lest they elect to slice you to ribbons in the name of God. During this time, you also had executions in Papal States, over which the Vatican held dominion. 


  • Drawn And Quartered: Dragged By Horses And Ripped To Pieces

    Drawn And Quartered: Dragged By Horses And Ripped To Pieces
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In the early 19th century, the Papal States (areas of Italy under direct papal authority), banned some of the more heinous methods of execution, though held on to drawing and quartering for crimes that were "especially loathsome." 

    If you've never seen Braveheart, maybe you aren't intimately familiar with the process, so here are the basics: drawing and quartering has two parts. First, the condemned is drawn (dragged) by horses to the site of the execution. So, that hurts like hell. Then, the actual execution takes place, and methods are relatively diverse. One popular version of quartering involved tying each of the condemned’s limbs to different horses and spurring them off. You can guess how that ended. 

    In another iteration, "hanged" was added to the sentence ("hanged, drawn, and quartered" is a common phrase in the torture and execution world). So, there was the horse dragging, hanging, removal of the genitals, evisceration, decapitation, then the corpse was chopped to pieces (quartered). 

  • Burning At The Stake: Business As Usual

    Burning At The Stake: Business As Usual
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While burning at the stake was used for both sexes, it was the go-to for women because it was deemed too vile for them to be drawn and quartered. Joan of Arc, for instance, went out this way thanks to the Vatican (she was convicted of wearing men's clothes). 

    Men were burned at the stake too. It happened to William Tyndale, who deigned translate the Bible into English for common people to read. 

  • Boiled In Oil: More Or Less Self-Explanatory

    Boiled In Oil: More Or Less Self-Explanatory
    Photo: Claude Noury / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During the Roman Inquisition, it was a good idea to keep your head down and your ideas non-controversial. Unfortunately, civil law student Pomponio Algerio didn’t get that memo.

    His philosophical ideas against the Church caught their attention, so they threw him in prison. After a year, he refused to change his views, so he was boiled alive in hot oil. It took him 15 minutes for him to die. 

  • Water Torture: Forced Ingestion While Choking On Cloth

    Water Torture: Forced Ingestion While Choking On Cloth
    Photo: Joos de Damhouder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Water torture, also known as the water cure, was a common technique during the Spanish inquisition, used by those acting on Catholic authority to brutalize accused heretics and anyone else they didn't like. The accused had their mouth pried open with a bit of iron and a cloth stuffed into it. Then, buckets of water were forced down the accused's throat for choking. The water also lodged the bit of cloth in the accused's throat, for a bit of extra choking fun. 

    In some cases, to be extra nasty, interrogators used boiling water or huge quantities of vinegar, expediting the process with a funnel. In at least one documented case, a man accused of demon possession and of being a werewolf died of a distended stomach. Interrogators claimed the werewolf in him went a little wild and drank so much water that he died. 

  • The Ax: Like A Hot Knife Through Your Neck

    The Ax: Like A Hot Knife Through Your Neck
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sometimes, the simplest methods are the best. As the Medieval Inquisition spread, agents of the Church went from village to village finding new supposed witches and heretics to persecute.

    The problem was, if they were found guilty, these agents didn't have the usual tools to carry out the execution. So, they had to settle for axes to decapitate people with. Crude, but it got the job done. 

  • Immurement: Walled Up And Left To Die

    Immurement: Walled Up And Left To Die
    Photo: Vinzenz Katzler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    You probably haven’t heard of immurement. To be immured was to be put, by the Church, into a space with no exit. Sometimes, this meant building a room around the condemned, but in other, less lavish, cases of immurement, the condemned was simply shoved into a coffin.

    Proper immurement meant starving to death or dying of dehydration, while immurement in a confined space, such as a coffin, led to death by asphyxiation.