To the west of Dartmoor is Gibbet Hill, a rounded prominence offering good views and grim memories.. For it was here that criminals who were hanged were gibbeted after death – as an example to others tempted to stray off the straight and narrow.
There were many gibbets across the land – for execution was not uncommon in the old days, and lots of men, women and children were left to swing after the hangman had “turned them off”. Most executions didn’t take place actually at the gibbet. The dead were brought there for prominent display where they might overlook the roads and tracks used by others who might be similarly tempted.
Interestingly, Dartmoor’s Gibbet Hill was an exception. It seems that execution and slow tortuous deaths might have taken place there as well. The great Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing relates that:
The modern road passes over the shoulder of Gibbet Hill, the highest point of Black Down, the scene, as some stories say, of the death by burning of the wicked Lady Howard. Tales are also related in the neighbourhood of unfortunate wretches being confined there in an iron cage and left to die, as a punishment for their crimes on the highway. It is told of one that he existed for a considerable time in the cage, the country people supplying him with food, and that he was sometimes so ravenous that he had been known to devour candles, when the market folk going homeward had nothing better to offer him, It may be remarked that one of the gates of Black Down, at the end of Burn Lane, is still known as Ironcage Gate. A Hundred Years on Dartmoor.
Our ancestors might have been tough on crime, but they cared little for the causes of crime. Poverty, starvation even, drove desperate people to break the law. You could be hanged and gibbeted for offences that would just get you a police caution these days. And the system was socially biased – the rich could get away with lots, the poor paid a terrible price for the most modest stepping over of the legal boundaries.
The great place for London executions was, of course, Tyburn (present-day Marble Arch). I never used to walk down London’s Oxford Street without remembering that this was the way that the condemned were brought from Newgate Gaol on their way to execution – a journey that could take two or three hours, despite it only being two miles distant. The grim procession would stop frequently at every tavern so that the doomed criminal could indulge in refreshments.
There were usually eight hanging days at Tyburn a year, and they were great social occasions. Far from having a deterrent effect that attracted thousands of onlookers for a day out. The hangings were a popular entertainment for London folk.
Apart from gibbeted people, the countryside was fraught with danger of the casual walker. Stray off the path and you might well be peppered by shot from a gamekeeper’s spring gun or caught in a landowner’s man trap. Rights of way, public highways – the footpaths and bridleways we walk today – are fortunate to survive. Landowners generally looked askance at wanderers and vagabonds. Some, of course, still do!
Overlooking Ballachulish in Scotland is the site of the gibbeting of James of the Glens, executed for the murder of Colin Campbell, a act of vengeance in a vicious clan war, though James was almost certainly innocent. Robert Louis Stevenson used the Appin Murder and its consequences as the plot for his great novel Kidnapped. There is a moving memorial to James on the spot now, just up from the Ballachulish Bridge.
The last gibbetings took place in England as recently as 1832. Durham miner William Jobling was executed for murder and gibbeted at Jarrow Slake:
The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.
James Cook of Leicester met a similar fate, gibbeted close to the Aylestone Tollgate. The Newgate Calendar records that
Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.
If you weren’t gibbeted your corpse was often handed over to the surgeons for medical research.
It’s interesting that when you think of people wandering the tracks, roads and footpaths, before the 1830s, including some of our greatest chroniclers such as Charles Dickens and George Borrow, that the sight of gibbeted corpses must have been so familiar that they scarcely mentioned it.
Nearly all the gibbets have gone now, though a few replicas have been erected, such as the one in my picture above at the Beamish Living Museum. But the memories linger on…
The late-medieval French poet Francois Villon, wrote the following about gibbets when he was waiting to be hanged -fortunately he was spared…
Dried by the sun are we, black from its ray;
Washed clean and spotless, for the rains come nigh.
Close hang the ravens and the vultures grey,
To feast upon and hollow out each eye.
Even for beard and eyebrow they will sigh.
No rest for us, spinning ceaselessly,
Only the wind and pay the law’s last fee,
More pecked of birds than fruit on garden wall.
Therefore, in mercy, look not scornfully,
But ever pray that God will pardon all.
L’Epitaphe Villon, Trans. Lewis Wharton.