6 March 2012

Tuesday Talk - The Gruesome Topic of Decapitation

The topic for discussion at the London Chapter of the Historical Novel Society for 3rd March 2012 was – Death. Neither I nor Pamela Mann could attend the meeting but Pamela had prepared a piece about Anne Boleyn’s beheading, so I offered, as my contribution, to post it here on my Tuesday Talk Blog.

I thought I’d add some more facts to Pamela’s article – so this is a joint effort.
It’s a bit gruesome though – be warned -

An interesting explanation of what happens when someone is decapitated.

Beheading, as a form of Capital Punishment, has been used for several thousand years, although the term ‘Capital Punishment' is a fairly recent one. The word 'capital' was used to describe execution by decapitation and is derived from the Latin ‘caput’, which means 'head.'

Decapitation by sword (or axe) was considered the honourable way to die for an aristocrat; in England it was considered a privilege of noblemen to be beheaded. This would be distinguished from a dishonourable death on the gallows or through burning at the stake. In medieval England, high treason by nobles was punished by beheading; male commoner traitors, including knights, were hanged, drawn and quartered; female commoner traitors were burned at the stake. (Note most witches were hanged – not burned.)

There is much speculation and debate regarding the length of time that the brain remains conscious after the removal of the head from the body. Does a beheaded person almost instantly lose consciousness due to the massive drop in blood pressure, and/or the impact of the used decapitation device, or are the many eyewitness reports describing lingering moments of awareness accurate? It is possible that the brain in a severed head may remain lucid long enough to know what has happened.

Anne Boleyn’s Execution

Henry VIII sent for the Hangman of Calais the day before Anne Boleyn’s trial because it was a two day ride and he wanted her to be executed as quickly as possible after the trial.
(HH. Which goes to prove that the trial was an utter sham, because the verdict was already decided.)
The Hangman of Calais was known to be the best swordsman, who used the finest Flemish steel. Anne was therefore beheaded according to the manner and custom of Paris.

The sword was three or four feet in length, with a 2” wide, double edged blade and a leather-bound handle so that it could be gripped by both hands. A groove was normally scored the whole length of the blade to channel the blood away from the razor-sharp edge to prevent its being blunted.*

* HH I have been informed that this is an incorrect statement (see comments below). The information was taken direct from Alison Weir's non fiction book The Lady In The Tower. Apparently several"facts" in her various works are disputed. 

Most people were hung, drawn and quartered so it often took the axeman, who were not skilled with beheading, several attempts before the head was separated from the body - as happened to Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, and Mary, Queen of Scots, who required three strikes at their respective executions. Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury, required ten strokes before the fatal blow.

Anne Boleyn, in the Tower of London
Although Anne heard the swordsman call for his sword, she then didn’t know where he was because he took off his shoes so that he couldn’t be heard. He raised the sword above his head and swung it in a circling motion in order to gain momentum. (HH. She was, therefore, I assume sitting upright, not prostrate with her head on a block ?)
A record of someone watching in the crowd saw, as everybody else did, that right after decapitation Anne Boleyn’s mouth and eyes moved.

Was she still alive? How long does it take to “die” if decapitated?
(this is the gruesome bit – don’t read on if you have a weak constitution)

Late 19th century research suggested that most people die within two seconds, while a more modern estimate would be an average of thirteen seconds. This is because oxygen is still being carried to the brain by blood, the brain is, therefore, still functioning - which means so is consciousness and awareness.

Anecdotal evidence describe blinking eyes, wandering gaze, and moving lips. As grotesque as this sounds, muscular spasms are not uncommon after death – the nerves remain twitching giving the impression that limbs, etc, are still alive and moving. More difficult to attribute to nerve reflexes are specific facial expressions of beheaded victims - expressions changing several times - ranging from pain and confusion to grief and fear in the last few moments.

Aristocratic heads on pikes
 a cartoon from the French Revolution
In 1905, a French doctor observed that a decapitated criminal’s eyelids and lips worked for five seconds before the face relaxed and the eyes rolled back. At that point he called out the man’s name, only to see the eyes’ gaze fixing on him and the pupils focusing before the lids fell and the pupils glazed over again.  He called the victim’s name a second time and the same thing happened. The man’s eyes popped open and his sight fixed on the doctor. The whole process had taken 25 to 30 seconds.
As written in Archives d’Anthropologie Criminelle, here are the doctor’s observations:

‘Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds … I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased.
The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead.
‘It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: ‘Languille!’ I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions … Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves … After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.
‘It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.
‘I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.’

In the U.S. in 1989, a man was decapitated in a car accident. His face registered shock, then terror, then grief, as the living eyes looked directly at the witness before dimming.
An Army veteran was riding in a taxi with a friend when it collided with a truck. The witness was pinned to his seat, and the friend was decapitated by the collision:
‘My friend’s head came to rest face up, and (from my angle) upside-down. As I watched, his mouth opened and closed no less than two times. The facial expressions he displayed were first of shock or confusion, followed by terror or grief. I cannot exaggerate and say that he was looking all around, but he did display ocular movement in that his eyes moved from me, to his body, and back to me. He had direct eye contact with me when his eyes took on a hazy, absent expression . . . and he was dead.’

So perhaps Anne Boleyn, and other poor men and women, did experience a few dreadful moments of awareness of what was happening. 
(HH. I think I’d rather pass away peacefully in my bed, thank you.)

Pamela Mann is writing a novel set in the 16th century, when suspicion was rife, religion was a roller coaster ride and, unless you got into the right carriage at the right time, you didn’t survive. In this uncertain world lives a naive, wealthy, plain girl who falls in love with a servant and takes whatever steps are necessary to marry him.

But when her parents die she is left alone and penniless, has to practise midwifery and finds herself the subject of malicious gossip. Now that she is finally leading a good life, how can she be accused of witchcraft? Watch this space to find out!


Members gathered in a London Pub to discuss the topic of "death and death scenes in historical fiction" and it proved a popular topic with some great examples read out. Here are the books brought along:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears ...  a passage where a convicted criminal, condemned to death, is being asked to decide what should be done with his body after he is executed. An unscrupulous man is offering to have his body pickled (!) rather than given up for the usual dissection which was common at that time.

The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa. The story of the post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristan ... the final scene, where Gauguin is dying and some of the people around him discuss him as if he's already dead.

The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts. Set at the time of the plague in 1665, it is about a girl who longs to practise as an apothecary, but can't because women weren't allowed at that time. The scene Carol read out was of the heroine watching as her father is buried unceremoniously in a plague pit with lots of other victims.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, in which a man allows himself to be killed because the woman he loves doesn't love him back. The entire novel deals with death and the belief in the possibility of rebirth and redemption ... set during the time of the French revolution.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne set in 1942 and seen through the eyes of a 9-year old German boy. He befriends another little boy, who is wearing pyjamas, on the other side of a fence. Somehow, he manages to get inside the fence as well and borrows a set of pyjamas, but doesn't understand when they are all led into a gas chamber ...

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse  a scene where a 15 year old boy hears of his brother's death on the Front during World War I.
A battle scene from Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen (the story of Margaret Beaufort). It was from the well known battle of Bosworth, but given a new perspective by having an omniscient narrator who shows what is happening both to King Richard and to Henry Tudor.

Sharpe's Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, which contains a very long drawn out grisly death, where the poor wounded man takes over 80 pages to die!

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace - a pregnant woman says goodbye to her husband as he's going away. She is having her first child and is scared of childbirth (and in fact she dies soon after while giving birth).

Cynthia Harrod-Eagle's The Princeling Set during Tudor times, the scene depicts a family coming home travelling by cart when they are set upon by thieves and robbed. A 13-year old girl is abducted and the others set off to look for her in a nearby forest. They find her with her throat slit in a horrendous way.

Creatures of the Kingdom by James A Michener, a compilation of chapters from his various books featuring animals... a chapter about a salmon called Nerca, who returns to the lake where he was born in order to die.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh, a fictional tale of the life of the Emperor Constantine's mother.

Gallow's Thief by Bernard Cornwell, which starts with a death scene, the hanging of four people in Newgate prison.

Oliver Twist by Dickens where Sykes kills Nancy – the cold-blooded murder makes for very chilling reading and is vividly described!

The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick - the scene where Earl Waltheof (a Saxon) is beheaded for treason by the Normans.

HH. My choice, had I attended would have been the second Poldark Novel - Demelza by Winston Graham. There are two vivid scenes where Ross Poldark's baby daughter dies and the event is almost immediately followed by a shipwreck - both are very emotional scenes.

Thank you to Pia (who writes as Christina Courtenay ) for the information

The next meeting will be held on Saturday 31st March at the Zetland Arms, South Kensington, London,  and the theme will be 'birth'.
Anyone interested in Historical Fiction is welcome to come along e-mail me if you are interested.

Doing anything interesting in September?
Then why not come to the 


  1. I've been informed by Elspeth Cooper on Twitter that the groove on a sword blade was nothing to do with channelling blood, but was to reduce weight.

  2. An excellent article! While reading, I was reminded of the wonderfully ghoulish gag in Carry On Don't Lose Your Head. Charles Hawtrey is about to be beheaded when somebody tells him they have a letter for him.

    He replies "Toss it in the basket, I'll read it later"!

  3. #laugh Graham - there were some exellent gags in those movies!

  4. Another extra fact from Elspeth via Twitter (thgank you Elspeth!) An executioner's sword did not have a point, but a rounded tip, like a cook's palette knife.

    I must also add that the incorrect statement about the groove was taken directly from Alison's Weir's non-fiction work. Pamela and I should have been more wary as several of her "facts" are disputed as incorrect. But then, Pamela and I are only historical novelists, Ms Weir professes to be an historian...

  5. And I'm only an amateur sword nut. Thing is, references to a sword's fuller as a "blood groove" are extremely common - it seems to be one of those things that everyone just "knows" and thinks is correct. It's not, and is easily proven so, so it amazes me when people who really should know better, a.k.a. historians, persist in spreading misinformation.

    The article did make fascinating reading, though, and prompted me to research executioners' swords, which was how I found out they were rounded and mentioned it to Helen. Amazing what you can find on the internet.

  6. that's what I like about these sort of blogs Elspeth - none thing leads to another

  7. Hi Elspeth: Thanks for your comments. Interesting that you're an "amateur sword nut". Do you specialise in a certain type or era?

    Pamela Mann

  8. That was extremely gruesome, but fascinating - thank you! I'm so glad we don't have capital punishment any more!

  9. Pamela,

    I am an equal-opportunities sword fancier, but have a particular fondness for longswords, bastard swords, zweihander and the like - I have a replica 15th century longsword in my office. My excuse is that as a fantasy author, I have to know a bit about them, but the truth is I've just been in love with edged weapons for 30 years.

  10. This article is copied from wikipedia!

    1. If you look at my sources above Nikx you'll see...
      * Alison Weir The Lady in the Tower
      * damninteresting.com Article #183, written by Alan Bellows
      * Wikipedia
      * Peter Linebaugh The London Hanged
      * Kelly Grovier The Goal
      * David W. Page Body Trauma
      so yes I used Wiki as a source - if you look I have even linked to the original article which is far more comprehensive than my small offering. I have also used some of the graphics - but again I have quoted my source.

      Other information came from the other source references. Since I wrote this in 2012 - if you found something else that is exactly the same then maybe someone has copied me?


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