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What does It Mean to be Drawn and Quartered?

Being drawn and quartered was a gruesome medieval punishment, reserved for the most heinous crimes. It involved a harrowing process of being dragged, hanged, and dismembered. This extreme measure reflected the era's harsh justice system, aiming to deter others by example. How did society transition from such brutal practices to modern-day penal systems? Let's explore this transformation together.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A prisoner who was sentenced to be drawn and quartered was subject to one of the most disgusting and cruel methods of execution available. It involved a person being hanged, disemboweled, beheaded, and then cut into pieces. The person was usually alive when this method was employed, though not for long, and the pain at this type of death is absolutely unimaginable. The punishment also put the person in jeopardy of ascension to heaven even after confession, since it was believed that bodies had to be kept whole so they could rise at the second coming.

This style of execution was likely first employed in England by Henry III, who reigned from 1216-1272. It was a punishment reserved for people who committed high treason. The average murderer was not drawn and quartered, and women never suffered this punishment. The method was most often used in the UK.

Most instances where someone was drawn and quartered occurred in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.
Most instances where someone was drawn and quartered occurred in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.

There’s a little confusion about the term, and a misunderstanding regarding the way that it was practiced. Some believe it meant attaching a body to four horses running in different directions to split the body in four. This is not the case. Drawn may mean hung, or it may mean drawn to the place where the execution took place.

The person was hanged by the neck, but this was usually not fatal — prisoners were frankly fortunate if this did cause their death. He was then disemboweled and had his genitalia removed, which were burned. Beheading came next, and then the remaining body was cut into four parts. Technically, this isn’t quartering a body, since the body was cut into five pieces. The head was normally kept near the tower of London, and the body parts would be sent to different parts of England, as a gruesome message of the price high treason would cost.

Hanging was the first step in a drawn and quartered execution.
Hanging was the first step in a drawn and quartered execution.

It would take England a full 600 years to finally ban this extremely brutal punishment, and it was finally outlawed in 1832. It’s difficult to think that such a punishment existed when England was civilized in so many other ways. Nevertheless, to be hanged, drawn, and quartered was the sentence of many, including Guy Fawkes. The sentence occurred under British rule once in what is now the US, sentencing Joshua Teft for supporting the Narragansett Tribe during a war with Britain. The Founding Fathers could technically have ordered the same sentence for others convicted of treason during the Revolutionary War, but they did not, though many convicted of treason were executed in other fashions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the purpose of drawing and quartering as a form of punishment?

Beginning with the reign of King Henry III, various British rebels were drawn and quartered at the Tower of London.
Beginning with the reign of King Henry III, various British rebels were drawn and quartered at the Tower of London.

The purpose of drawing and quartering was to serve as a severe punishment for high treason in England. It was designed to be a deterrent by showcasing the dire consequences of betraying the crown. The brutality of the execution, which involved dragging the convict to the place of execution, hanging until near death, disembowelment, beheading, and quartering, was intended to instill fear and demonstrate the power of the law.

How was the process of drawing and quartering carried out?

Medieval times were known for their cruel and unusual punishments.
Medieval times were known for their cruel and unusual punishments.

The process of drawing and quartering involved several gruesome steps. First, the condemned was drawn to the execution site by horse or wooden hurdle. Then, they were hanged by the neck but cut down before death. While still alive, the individual was emasculated, disemboweled, and their entrails were burned before their eyes. Finally, the body was beheaded and quartered (chopped into four pieces), which were often displayed publicly as a warning to others.

When was the last known instance of drawing and quartering?

The last known instance of drawing and quartering in England occurred in 1782. The unfortunate recipient of this punishment was David Tyrie, who was convicted of treason for spying during the American Revolutionary War. Following this, the practice began to fall out of favor, and the British government eventually abolished it as a form of capital punishment with the passage of the Forfeiture Act in 1870.

Were there any notable figures in history who were subjected to this form of execution?

Yes, several notable figures were subjected to drawing and quartering. One of the most famous was Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were sentenced to be drawn and quartered, although Fawkes died from a fall off the scaffold before the full punishment could be carried out.

Has drawing and quartering been used in any other cultures outside of England?

While drawing and quartering is most closely associated with England, similar forms of execution have been used in other cultures. For example, in France, a method called écartèlement involved the condemned being attached to four horses and pulled apart, though this was less common. However, the specific combination of drawing, hanging, and quartering as a singular form of capital punishment was uniquely English in its historical application.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent HistoricalIndex contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent HistoricalIndex contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments

anon999671

This should be the swift punishment for Florida school mass murderer Nikolas Cruz and it should be posted onto Youtube, Facebook, etc. for anyone/everyone to see. Maybe that would deter future psychopathic would-be mass murders. Guns don't kill - psychopaths with guns kill!

anon990595

People today are outraged by the brutality of the beheadings in the middle east (and rightfully so). But what folks don't realize is that life and punishment was far worse in the supposedly "civil" English world of 1200-1800 AD. For a particularly brutal example of capital punishment, read about the execution of Balthasar Gérard in the 1500s. People of the time reveled in this stuff.

anon989983

What is wrong with our species?

anon989610

I believe prisoners on death row should be dealt with in this manner!

anon349916

"Drawn", in this context, refers to the drawing out of the bowels from the body - it does not refer to being drawn on a hurdle, or hanging (where did you get the idea it referred to hanging?)

It is a symbolic punishment. First, the condemned is suspended between heaven and earth, being worthy of neither (the hanging). Then, the condemned's bowels, within which the treason did grow, are removed and burnt (disembowling). Then the genitals are removed (so the condemned can beget no more traitors) and burnt. Then, the head, which did think the treasonous thoughts, is removed and the condemned, mercifully, dies at last. --Lucien

anon346506

This would be perfect for Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter.

anon185781

Anyone wiling to carry out this type of punishment would have to be a sociopath. Likely just about as sick as the person who would deserve such a death. What do you do with the executioner when he finally loses it?

anon150273

If we had this form of punishment today, you can bet life would be much better for us law abiding decent citizens. I would love to see this law enacted in the USA and then get to see someone punished by it, or better yet, I'd like to be the person in charge of executing the sentence. I can easily think of quite a few scum I would like to get rid of today.

panda2006

Many people joke now about being hung, drawn, and quartered for doing something you were not supposed to. But the reality is that it really is not something cute or funny, it was actually quite cruel. I suppose it has been outlawed for so long that many of us do not realize its real meaning, which is perhaps a good sign, in a way.

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    • Most instances where someone was drawn and quartered occurred in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.
      By: skvoor
      Most instances where someone was drawn and quartered occurred in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.
    • Hanging was the first step in a drawn and quartered execution.
      By: Ungor
      Hanging was the first step in a drawn and quartered execution.
    • Beginning with the reign of King Henry III, various British rebels were drawn and quartered at the Tower of London.
      By: Mapics
      Beginning with the reign of King Henry III, various British rebels were drawn and quartered at the Tower of London.
    • Medieval times were known for their cruel and unusual punishments.
      By: ufot
      Medieval times were known for their cruel and unusual punishments.