history Gruesome Ways People Were Executed in the Time of Henry VIII  

Jeff Richard
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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 deaths is one thing, there is something to be said about the sheer number of people killed 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 2.8% of England and Wales' population at the time.  

So, it's safe to say 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 deaths 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 which cemented him as the most ruthless Tudor to ever reign. 

Pressing


Pressing is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Gruesome Ways People Were Executed in the Time of Henry VIII
Photo: Uknown/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

While commonly associated with executions during the Salem Witch Trials, the act of crushing someone to death was nevertheless prevalent during the time of Henry VIII.

Called "pressing," or "peine forte et dure," this method of execution was simple: place a large plank over the body of the prisoner, 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 - sometimes as long as several days.

This led to bones breaking and, eventually, asphyxiation.

Boiled Alive


Boiled Alive is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Gruesome Ways People Were Executed in the Time of Henry VIII
Photo: Martin Johann Schmidt/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

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


Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Gruesome Ways People Were Executed in the Time of Henry VIII
Photo: Unknown/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

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 is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Gruesome Ways People Were Executed in the Time of Henry VIII
Photo: Hermann Anton Stilke/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

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. There were two main methods for a Henry VIII bonfire, the first of which included piling small sticks of wood around a large stake, which held the prisoner by a length of chain. The second was taking those small sticks of wood and adding a lot more to the pile, effectively creating a wall around the prisoner. In both cases, the small sticks were lit and the victim was slowly roasted to death.