Now, I’m not big on commemorating deaths, but today’s anniversary reminded me of the history of crime and punishment. On this day in 1536 the beheading of Anne Boleyn, queen of England and wife to Henry VIII, brought her life to an end. It was claimed by Henry and his counsel that Anne had committed High Treason via adultery. Her punishment was death by having her head removed from her shoulders.
Henry was a ruthless and all-powerful leader, who believed that he had been appointed by God – as did all English kings – which allowed him to execute at will. Anyone who crossed him had their life snuffed out, even those closest to him. But he was not the first monarch to act this way, it is just that the others were not quite so glamorous.
In Anglo-Saxon times adultery was an offence that could end in death, sometimes by drowning. Slander would get your tongue cut out and thieves could have their hands cut off. In many cases though, fines were imposed for offences including murder of a freeman or slave. Only the murder of a noble would result in execution. Or if the king decided you needed to lose your head then so be it.
Early England was a violent and dangerous place and its lawlessness is well documented in theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, archaeologists studying burials from the seventh and eighth centuries believe that the larger kingdoms had secured a stable society. To maintain the peace kings introduced civil justice and law codes that included capital punishments for the very serious offences. Burials have been found in non-consecrated ground containing bodies of people who have been decapitated and with their hands tied: obviously criminals. Written sources have frequently mentioned the judicial courts and range of punishments and executions for the guilty.
There were plenty of hand-to-hand battles to account for the mutilated bodies found, but the way the criminals have been laid out indicates the purpose of their death. Many were buried face down with rocks on their backs as if to weigh them down and often they were buried in batches, suggesting particular execution periods. They were buried outside the towns or village borders as if they were not welcome in the community. There were many hangings, as the evidence of gallows suggests, but even so, heads were still cut off from the bodies. The reason for this is so that the person would not be resurrected or his spirit come back to haunt the living. I have included examples of this in Gulfyrian and The Dark Garden.
This method of peace-keeping and control was designed to keep order and to inflict suffering on the wrong-doers. Thank goodness we no longer live in the Dark Ages…
But today I am disturbed to read that a woman in Sudan is to be executed for not converting to Islam. In Pakistan a woman is stoned to death for marrying a man her family does not approve. These are not isolated cases. How far have we actually moved on from the Dark Ages? Well, not very.