Gruesome Ways People Were Executed In The Time Of Henry VIII

To say that Henry VIII was fond of executing people is putting it lightly. There was a lopped head here, a hanging neck there, and a drawn-and-quartered body almost literally everywhere. And while the gruesomeness of the practice is one thing, there is something to be said about the sheer number of people who perished under his reign. Some estimates put the total of Henry VIII's executions at a staggering 72,000 people - or, to put it into perspective, roughly 2.7% of England and Wales' population at the time.  

So, it's safe to say that Henry VIII loved separating folks from the Earth almost as much as he loved separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholics, his most famous accomplishment. But when your list of victims runs into the tens of thousands? Things must certainly start to get boring after a while. 

Below is a list of some of the most gruesome Henry VIII execution methods that cemented him as the most ruthless Tudor to ever reign. 


  • Pressing

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While commonly associated with the Salem Witch Trials, the act of crushing someone until they perish was nevertheless prevalent during the time of Henry VIII.

    Called "pressing," or "peine forte et dure," this method was simple: Place a large plank over the body of the captive, and steadily add weight until they can no longer breathe. While this was also an extremely effective torture method for gaining information from enemies, it was also one of the longer methods of execution, as the added weights were not brought on all at once, but rather slowly, ensuring the prisoners suffered as much as possible.

    This led to bones breaking and, eventually, asphyxiation.

  • Boiled Alive

    Boiled Alive
    Photo: Martin Johann Schmidt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Boiling is perhaps one of the slowest (and therefore, most painful) methods of execution. 

    While most other methods are fairly quick, Henry VIII reserved boiling for the enemies he truly wished to suffer before meeting their fate. In that case, whenever someone was found guilty of poisoning, they would be strung up in a series of pulleys and ropes, hanging precariously above a drum of boiling liquid. 

    And the "liquid" part of that description is relative, simply because sometimes Henry VIII didn't want to use just plain old water - he would occasionally use tar, oil, acid, wine, and sometimes molten lead to get the deed done. 

    At the other end of this intricate contraption of death is the executioner, who would slowly lower the prisoner down and raise them back up to psychologically torture them before plunging them into the liquid. And as the victim was lowered, their skin would slowly blister and pop before melting away to destroy the muscles, arteries, veins, and anything else that clung to the bone before turning the would-be poisoner into a bloody soup.

  • Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered

    At this point, we're starting to head into the "extremely creative" side of Henry VIII's punishments, specifically with one that easily made the biggest mess out of a human being.

    Being burned alive? Your body is going to be cremated into a nice little pile of ashes. Hanged? You're completely intact, so no real mess to clean up there. Boiled alive? Everything is ready to be dumped out from your steaming-hot person-cauldron. 

    But being drawn and quartered? Let's hope Henry VIII's clean-up crew was on point, because things are about to get very messy. 

    Typically reserved for those found guilty of high treason, the act of being drawn and quartered is very literally what the human body is subjected to. First, the prisoner was dragged behind a cart from where they were held to where they were executed, then they were hung, disemboweled,  and emasculated. Afterward, whether the prisoner was still living at that point or not, they would be chopped up into four pieces, all of which would be displayed in various parts of the country as punishment - and as a warning to others. 

    Occasionally, however, the "quartering" part of this punishment was relative, as prisoners were often subjected to various mutilations beforehand, such as having a hand or foot cut off before the rest of their body was diced into pieces. On top of that, often the prisoner's limbs would be tied to four horses, each sent racing off in a different direction, which would swiftly snap the limbs away from the torso in a gruesome fashion, rather than be sliced away by an execution's axe.

  • Burned To Death

    Burned To Death
    Photo: Hermann Anton Stilke / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Like classic jazz standards played by thousands of bands around the world, the act of being burned at the stake is one of the most familiar methods of execution, incorporated by countless leaders and communities over time. 

    And Henry VIII was no exception. Although there are a few different ways to burn a victim at the stake, either way, they slowly roasted to death.