From the baying crowds who attended William Wallace’s brutal execution in 1305 to the sombre hanging of Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen in 1965, the punishment of paying with your life has long been a source of morbid fascination. Murderers, martyrs, witches, pirates, and royals are just a few of those who have met their end on British soil. Here’s a list of the most infamous executions in British history.
William Wallace (d.1305)
Born in 1270 to a Scottish landowner, William Wallace has become one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes.
In 1296, King Edward I of England forced the Scottish king John de Balliol to abdicate, and then declared himself ruler of Scotland. Wallace and his rebels enjoyed a series of victories against English armies, including at Stirling Bridge. He went on to capture Stirling Castle and became guardian of the kingdom, meaning that Scotland was briefly free of English occupying forces.
After a severe military defeat at the Battle of Falkirk, Wallace’s reputation was ruined. French support for the rebellion eventually waned, and Scottish leaders recognised Edward as their king in 1304. Wallace refused to yield, and was captured by English forces in 1305. He was taken to the Tower of London where he was hanged until nearly dead, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burned before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts which were displayed in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth.
Anne Boleyn (d.1536)
In order to marry second wife Anne Boleyn in 1533, Henry VIII broke ties with the Catholic church in Rome, which allowed him to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. This led to the establishment of the Church of England.
The high-stakes circumstances of her marriage to Henry VIII makes Anne’s fall from favour yet more marked. Only three years later, Boleyn was found guilty of high treason by a jury of her peers. Accusations included adultery, incest, and conspiracy against the king. Historians believed that she was innocent, and that the accusations were issued by Henry VIII to remove Boleyn as his wife and enable him to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour, in the hopes of producing a male heir.
Anne was beheaded on 19 May 1536 at the Tower of London. She died at the hands of a French swordsman, rather than an axeman. On the eve of her execution, she said ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.’
Guy Fawkes (d.1606)
From his ascension to the throne in 1603, Protestant James I wasn’t tolerant to Catholicism, imposing heavy fines and worse upon those who practised it. Guy Fawkes was one of a number of conspirators under leader Robert Catesby who attempted to blow up Parliament during its State Opening on 5 November, when James I, the Queen, and his heir would also be present. They then hoped to crown the King’s young daughter, Elizabeth.
Having been in the military, Fawkes was a gunpowder expert, and was chosen to light the fuses in the cellars beneath Parliament. He was only caught after an anonymous letter to the authorities warned of the plot, and Fawkes was accosted in the cellars by a number of royal guards. He was tortured for days, and eventually supplied the names of his co-conspirators.
Along with many of his conspirators, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. Fawkes was last, and fell off the scaffold before he was hanged, breaking his neck and saving himself from the agony of the rest of the punishment.
Charles I of England (d.1649)
Charles I is the only English monarch to have been tried and executed for treason. He succeeded his father James I as king. His actions – such as marrying a Catholic, dissolving Parliament when faced with opposition, and making poor welfare policy choices – resulted in a struggle between Parliament and the king for supremacy, which led to the outbreak of the English Civil War. After his defeat by Parliament in the Civil Wars, he was imprisoned, tried for treason, and sentenced to death.
On the morning of his execution, the king rose early, and dressed for the cold weather. He asked for two shirts so that he wouldn’t shiver, which could be misinterpreted as fear. A huge crowd had gathered, but were so far away that nobody could hear his speech or record his last words. He was decapitated in one blow of the axe.
Captain Kidd (d.1701)
Scottish Captain William Kidd is one of the most famous pirates in history. He started his career as a respected privateer, hired by European royals to attack foreign ships and protect trade routes. It was, however, understood that privateers would plunder loot from the ships they attacked. At the same time, attitudes towards privateers – and piracy – were becoming more discerning, and it was increasingly seen as a crime to attack and loot ships without good reason.
In 1696, under the backing of Lord Bellomont, Kidd set sail to the West Indies to attack French ships. Morale amongst the crew was low, with many of them dying of illness, so they demanded a hefty reward for their efforts. Kidd therefore attacked and abandoned his ship for a 500-ton Armenian vessel with a treasure trove of gold, silk, spices, and other riches.
This led to his arrest in Boston. He was shipped to England for his trial, where his powerful connections failed him. He was hanged, and his body was left to rot in a cage next to the River Thames, a highly visible location that was meant to serve as a warning to the passing public.
Josef Jakobs (d.1941)
Josef Jakobs was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. A German spy during World War Two, he parachuted from a Nazi plane into a field in England in early 1941, and was incapacitated when he broke his ankle upon landing. He spent the night trying to bury his incriminating possessions.
In the morning, unable to bear the pain of his injury any longer, he fired his pistol in the air and was discovered by two English farmers. Suspecting his German accent, the farmers handed him over to the authorities, who discovered a large number of suspicious items on his person, including a German sausage. He was court martialled and sentenced to death.
Owing to his broken ankle, he was shot while sitting down on a chair, which is still on display at the Tower of London.
Ruth Ellis (d.1955)
Ruth Ellis’ trial was a media sensation, owing both to her character and because she became the last woman to be executed in Britain. She was known for her work as a nude model and escort and had even enjoyed a part in the film Lady Godiva Rides Again. She worked in a variety of hostess roles, including at the Little Club in Mayfair, which was notorious as somewhere enjoyed by the Krays, amongst other unsavoury characters.
It was at this club that she met wealthy socialite and race-car driver David Blakely. They shared an alcohol-fuelled, passionate, and violent relationship – at one point, his abuse caused her to have a miscarriage – until Blakely wanted to break things off. Ellis sought him out, and shot him on Easter Sunday 1955 outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead. She offered little defence for her actions, and was sentenced to death, even though a petition signed by over 50,000 people was filed in light of the nature of Blakely’s violence being revealed.
She was hanged in 1955, aged 28.
Mahmood Hussein Mattan (d.1952)
Mahmood Hussein Mattan was the last person to ever be hanged in Cardiff, and the last innocent person to be hanged in Wales. Born in Somalia in 1923, Mattan was a sailor, and his job ended up taking him to Wales. He married a Welsh woman, which upset many in the 1950s community of Butetown.
In March 1952, Lily Volpert, a 41-year-old unofficial moneylender, was found dead lying in a pool of blood at her shop in the docklands area of Cardiff. Mattan was charged with the murder nine days later, and within five months had been tried and wrongfully found guilty.
Officers at the time described him as a ‘semi-civilised savage’ and told him that he would die for the murder ‘whether he did it or not.’ During the case, a prosecution witness altered his statement and was rewarded for giving evidence. He was executed in September 1952.
Years of tireless campaigning meant that his family finally won the right to have his conviction reassessed and it was eventually overturned 45 years later, in 1988.
Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen (d.1964)
Though their crime wasn’t particularly remarkable, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen were the last men to be executed in the UK.
24-year-old Evans and 21-year-old Allen knew their victim, a bachelor called John Allen West who lived alone after the death of his mother. They wanted his money to pay a court debt. They bludgeoned and stabbed him to death, then escaped by car. Police found Evans’ jacket hanging on the victim’s banister, which quickly incriminated them.
Both were sentenced to death, and were hanged simultaneously on 13 August, 1964. Due to a more liberal public who were becoming more uncomfortable about the death penalty, historians believe that a delay of a few weeks would have seen them reprieved.