Two types of executions have long been considered the most brutal in Britain. The first is death by hanging, gutting and quartering, which was supposed to be for high treason (for more details see # XX for 2020). Today we will talk about the second – burning alive at the stake.
Evidence of execution by burning in England appears in the 13th century, and, unlike many other European countries, here such punishment was not at all for witchcraft. Laws have changed, and there have been times when people were burned for making counterfeit money, but mostly heretics (regardless of gender) and women guilty of high treason or so-called petty treasons were executed this way. What is it?
Petty treasons, that is, minor betrayal (they were also called “crimes of loyalty”), is a rather specific part of English law. Such treason included three types of crimes: the murder of a husband by his wife, the murder of the owner by a servant, and the murder of a prelate by an ordinary priest. It is noteworthy that the murder of a wife by her husband was considered not a minor betrayal, but an ordinary murder, for which a much less painful execution was supposed.
There were two types of punishments for minor treason: hanging for men and burning alive by a stake for women. And if a man’s execution was not much different from that which was due for an ordinary murder, then the woman who killed her husband died a very slow and terrible death. And we will get to know this sad story about English family law through the biography of Catherine Hayes – the last woman to be burned alive in England.
Catherine was born in 1690 near Birmingham in a poor family. The girl very early began to lead a free lifestyle, and at the age of fourteen she left the village and became first a professional prostitute, and then an official kept woman at once with a whole group of young officers at a military unit.
Later, Katherine got a job in Warwickshire – she was hired as a servant in the house of a local farmer, where she quickly acquired a bad reputation and an illegitimate baby. When the farmer discovered that his eldest son John had secretly married the maid, he was horrified, but it was too late to do anything. The young couple lived on a farm for some time, and then moved to London. There, John Hayes soon became a very successful trader, and then a pawnbroker – a pawnshop owner. Nevertheless, good did not work out: Catherine was distinguished by her promiscuity and quarrelsome character, and John – the habit of fiercely hitting her family.
There is no living place
I must say, at that time, domestic violence often led to even greater trouble. Until the 19th century, marriages and divorces were subject to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical court, and divorce was a great rarity there. Sometimes a church court could annul a marriage, declaring it invalid, but this also happened infrequently and only for special reasons, such as a consanguineous relationship that was accidentally revealed between the spouses. Beating and torture were not considered a reason for divorce (and, by the way, for deprivation of parental rights too) – moreover, they were not prosecuted by law and were not limited to anything. They were punished for them only if someone was beaten to death. Then the culprit was tried for murder and was usually hanged without further ado.
As a result, millions of English women and children were permanently beaten to a pulp (with concussion and broken bones), as well as severe exhaustion (the law did not forbid starving households as long as everyone was alive). From this situation, there was often no other salvation than death, and female and child suicide was common until the 19th century.
Accordingly, the situation when the wife was accused of murdering her husband was not uncommon either. Some of those under investigation got rid of a life partner, tired of bullying or protecting children, someone – wanting to marry someone else, and someone – for the sake of the opportunity to inherit property. Catherine Hayes was guided by several reasons at once, but she matured to murder only in 1726.
She orchestrated the murder
The Hayes lived in their house on Oxford Street. They rented out three rooms on the second floor, and in 1725 two young men settled there: Thomas Wood and Thomas Billings, both from the same village as John Hayes. Thomas Billings was the illegitimate son of Katherine – the same one she gave birth to as a girl and who, at the insistence of John Hayes, was given to be raised in another family before the wedding.
Motherhood, neighborhood and sixteen-year age difference did not prevent Catherine from having a love affair with both of her guests at once. Having done this, she spent six months trying to persuade them to kill her husband by all available means, promising to give them the money inherited from him. Catherine knew how to manipulate, and the lovers agreed. They made John Hayes drunk and beat him to death with an ax. Then, the three of them, in the company of Catherine (she prudently decided not to participate in the murder), they dismembered the body, threw the head into the Thames somewhere in Millbank, and threw the rest into a pond in Marylebone.
The murder was discovered by accident. In the morning, John Hayes’ head washed ashore in Westminster, was picked up, impaled on a lance and placed in the courtyard of St. Margaret’s Church for identification, and on the same day one of Hayes’s business partners saw and recognized the head. The guards, just in case, arrested everyone who lived in his house: three guests and Catherine (she was caught in bed with Thomas Billings) – and soon found traces of the crime.
The investigation is conducted
After his arrest, Thomas Wood fell ill in prison and, feeling that he was dying, confessed to the murder and told the details. Katherine insisted to the last that she did not know about the impending crime. When interrogated about the reasons for her hatred of her husband, she spoke about the prohibitions from attending church, the constant severe beatings and the murder of their two newborn children.
Children deserve special mention. According to Katherine, it turned out that the first two children of the couple, who were born prematurely, were strangled by her husband John immediately after birth and buried in the garden (back in Warwickshire) at night so as not to increase family expenses. He treated the other children badly: Catherine gave birth to twelve for him, but they either died in early childhood (Catherine said that from beatings), or were sent away from home to study very early. According to the laws of those years, parents were obliged to raise children only up to five years old, after the child it was already possible to send to work so that he earned himself a living on his own – John Hayes did just that.
The court was not completely sure that Catherine’s words were true, but a letter to Warwickshire to find the remains and arrange for their burial in a Christian way was still written. Two murderers were sentenced to be hanged, and Katherine, who organized the murder, was found guilty of minor treason and sentenced to be burned alive.
The last bonfire
Burning was usually done in an open space. The victim was tied to a pillar dug into the ground, covered with bundles of brushwood and set on fire. In the old days, women were burned alive, but by the 18th century, medieval savagery began to wither away, so that the murderers began to strangle with a noose thrown around their necks immediately after the brushwood caught fire, and the corpse was already burned. They tried to do the same with Catherine, but the rope noose caught fire, so the woman was burned to death. The executioner, wanting to rectify the situation, began to throw heavy logs at the criminal, but he could only break her head.
This execution had an unexpectedly strong impact on the public. Contemporaries were horrified, and control over the execution of sentences was tightened, so that Catherine Hayes became the last woman in England to be burned alive. In 1790, burning was banned altogether.
But historians are still arguing about who Catherine really was – an unfortunate victim, a fighter for women’s rights or a calculating killer, for the sake of gaining rid of her husband by someone else’s hands.
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