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Engraving of the execution of Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1684
Drawing: Engraving of the execution of Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1684
Home » The Human Element » Treason: The Gruesome Execution Of Naval Clerk David Tyrie

Treason: The Gruesome Execution Of Naval Clerk David Tyrie

PortandTerminal.com, November 22, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – On August 24, 1782, in Portsmouth, England the Scottish spy David Tyrie was convicted of High Treason. Tyrie’s crime was of carrying out correspondence with the French, a nation the English were at war with. Tyrie, a Scottish clerk at the Portsmouth naval office, was found to be sharing sensitive information with the enemy and was sentenced to death for his crimes.

Today though, Tyrie is more famous for the manner in which he was executed than for the crimes he committed. That is because David Tyrie is believed to be the last person in England to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Portrait of David Tyrie (1782) - British Museum
Portrait of David Tyrie (1782) – British Museum

A Brief History: Hanged, Drawn & Quartered

"The Martyrdom of the Carthusian Monks" In 1535 King Henry the VIII sentenced 18 monks to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered
“The Martyrdom of the Carthusian Monks” In 1535 King Henry the VIII sentenced 18 monks to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered

In 14th-century England, no crime was worse than trying to betray the crown. So as a warning to those who would commit treason, being hanged, drawn, and quartered was born with the Treason Act of 1351.

Once enacted, it became the statutory penalty in England for men convicted of high treason. For reasons of public decency (they weren’t barbarians), women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

The English it should be noted were not alone in inflicting this punishment – it was practised across Europe at one time. The sentence could also be applied to subjects overseas in British colonies in the Americas, but the only documented incident of an individual there being hanged, drawn, and quartered was that of Joshua Tefft, an English colonist in 1676.

Method of execution

Drawing William de Marisco is drawn to his execution behind a horse
As illustrated in Matthew Paris’s 13th century Chronica Majora, William de Marisco is drawn to his execution behind a horse. Later, to ensure that a live victim was delivered to the hangman, victims would be drawn by horse on a wooden panel or hurdle.

The convicted traitor was fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and dragged by horse to the place of execution, where he was then hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered (chopped into four pieces). A skillful executioner would keep him alive throughout the process, ensuring the dying man saw his organs being pulled from his body. 

A horrific variation on this last step was sometimes was accomplished by tying each of the four limbs of the victim to a different horse and spurring them in different directions to rip the limbs from the victim’s body.

Whatever was left of the prisoner at that point was then boiled in a concoction of spices that would preserve the flesh and keep birds from picking at it. This last part was especially important since the remains would usually be displayed across the country as a warning to other potential traitors.

The drawing and quartering of François Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV of France, 1610.
The drawing and quartering of François Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV of France, 1610.

The execution of David Tyrie

Aerial view of Southsea Common. Sea in distance
Some say as many as 100,000 mobbed the gruesome public execution of David Tyrie at Southsea Common shown here as it looks today. (cc) image from Roo Reynolds.

On August 24, 1782, a crowd of people – some say as many as 100,000 -mobbed the gruesome public execution of David Tyrie.

A detailed account of his execution records that Tyrie was hanged for 22 minutes and then his head was cut off and his heart cut out and burned. Next, he was then emasculated and quartered, his body parts put in a coffin and buried at the seaside. It is said that immediately after his burial sailors dug up his coffin and cut the body into pieces as grisly souvenirs.

Tyrie was lucky although probably didn’t feel that way at the time. The order in which the sentence was carried out was a small mercy. He was decapitated before his genitals were cut off and therefore was already dead when he was emasculated.

William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) wasn’t so lucky. Wallace’s trial and execution in 1305 were designed to demonstrate King Edward I’s power and act as a warning to other “rebels” who might challenge his authority. No mercy was given.

Wallace was dragged behind a horse to his execution as the jeering crowd threw garbage at him. Then he was hanged but cut down before he died. So far, so good. Next, his genitals were sliced off, and his entrails pulled out while he was alive. Both were then burned in front of him before he was beheaded and split into pieces.

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