Smithfield: The bloody London district where people were hung, drawn and quartered

In Farringdon, an area just to the north of the historic city of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral, sits a place called Smithfield. It seems just like a pleasant neighbourhood on first glance, with some pleasant gardens and some shopping areas. On West Smitfield road, you might notice a building with a distinct Tudor era facade sticking out of it. This leads you to the church of St. Bartholomew the Great, which was founded in the year 1123. The area of Smithfield has been around for a long time, with its traditional meat market also having existed since the Middle Ages.

But the scene of a meat market is quite fitting, because Smithfield had another history, one which was much more notorious and gruesome too. The district was in fact a prominent site for high profile, public executions, which included individuals as prominent as William Wallace. The area which these killings were carried out was called “The Elms” and sat right in front of the old St. Bartholomew Church, which at that time was a large open space suited for large gatherings, which also made it an area for commerce, competitions and other events. Now, a circular road now runs right through it.

If you’ve seen the film Braveheart, for all its historical flaws, the scene of his execution, which took place in Smithfield on 23rd August, 1305, was one which was graphic and informative as Wallace suffered the horrific fate of being “Hung, drawn and quartered”. The real life execution however was far more violent. Wallace was first stripped naked and dragged through the street by a horse. Usually when this happened in the middle ages, peasants would take out their anger on the condemned by throwing rotten food and excrement at them as they were roped along the road.

After he arrived the gallows at the Elms, he was hanged, but not to the extent that it could break his neck and kill him, but only to choke him. The film also shown him being tortured via stretching on a rack to dislocate his joints. However, this does not appear to have historically happened. After the hanging, historical record notes he was placed onto a block and was castrated, before also being disembowelled and having his insides burned before him. Finally, to put him out of his misery, he was then beheaded and subsequently cut up, his limbs being sent around the country as a warning.

Executions in Smithfield continued up until the 18th century. This included people being boiled alive, but also all the executions stemming from the upheavals of the English reformation. But as the early modern era approached the “enlightenment” began and society changed, the concept of public spectator executions was deemed uncivilised and eventually it became a private practice in prisons. The brutality of “being hung, drawn and quartered” also thankfully came to an end as a modern legal and constitutional system began to develop over one which was just the whim of a monarch.

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