BEHEADING, a mode of executing capital punishment (q.v.). It was in use among the Greeks and Romans, and the former, as Xenophon says at the end of the second book of the Anabasis, regarded it as a most honourable form of death. So did the Romans, by whom it was known as decollatio or capitis amputatio. The head was laid on a block placed in a pit dug for the purpose, - in the case of a military offender, outside the intrenchments, in civil cases outside the city walls, near the porta decumana. Before execution the criminal was tied to a stake and whipped with rods. In earlier years an axe was used; afterwards a sword, which was considered a more honourable instrument of death, and was used in the case of citizens (Dig. 48, 19, 28). It was with a sword that Cicero's head was struck off by a common soldier. The beheading of John the Baptist proves that the tetrarch Herod had adopted from his suzerain the Roman mode of execution. Suetonius (Calig. c. 32) states that Caligula kept a soldier, an artist in beheading, who in his presence decapitated prisoners fetched indiscriminately for that purpose from the gaols.
Beheading is said to have been introduced into England from Normandy by William the Conqueror. The first person to suffer was Waltheof, earl of Northumberland, in 1076. An ancient MS. relating to the earls of Chester states that the serjeants or bailiffs of the earls had power to behead any malefactor or thief, and gives an account of the presenting of several heads of felons at the castle of Chester by the earl's serjeant. It appears that the custom also attached to the barony of Malpas. In a roll of 3 Edward II., beheading is called the "custom of Cheshire" (Lysons' Cheshire, p. 299, from Harl. MS. 2009 fol. 34b). The liberty of Hardwick, in Yorkshire, was granted the privilege of beheading thieves. (See Guillotine.)
But with the exceptions above stated beheading was usually reserved as the mode of executing offenders of high rank. From the 15th century onward the victims of the axe include some of the highest personages in the kingdom: Archbishop Scrope (1405); duke of Buckingham (1483); Catherine Howard (1542); earl of Surrey (1547); duke of Somerset (1552); duke of Northumberland (1553); Lady Jane Grey (1554), Lord Guildford Dudley (1554); Mary queen of Scots (1587); earl of Essex (1601); Sir Walter Raleigh (1618); earl of Strafford (1641); Charles I. (1649); Lord William Russell (1683); duke of Monmouth (1685); earl of Derwentwater (1716); earl of Kenmure (1716); earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino (1746); and the list closes with Simon, Lord Lovat, who (9th of April 1747) was the last person beheaded in England. The execution of Anne Boleyn was carried out not with the axe, but with a sword, and by a French headsman specially brought over from Calais. In 1644 Archbishop Laud was condemned to be hanged, and the only favour granted him, and that reluctantly, was that his sentence should be changed to beheading. In the case of the 4th Earl Ferrers (1760) his petition to be beheaded was refused and he was hanged.
Executions by beheading usually took place on Tower Hill, London, where the scaffold stood permanently during the 15th and 16th centuries. In the case of certain state prisoners, e.g. Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, the sentence was carried out within the Tower on the green by St Peter's chapel.
Beheading was only a part of the common-law method of punishing male traitors, which was ferocious in the extreme. According to Walcot's case (1696), 1 Eng. Rep. 89, the proper sentence was "quod ... ibidem super bigam (herdillum) ponatur et abinde usque ad furcas de [Tyburn] trahatur, et ibidem per collum suspendatur et vivus ad terram prosternatur et quod secreta membra ejus amputentur, et interiora sua intra ventrem suum capiantur et in ignem ponantur et ibidem ipso vivente comburantur, et quod caput ejus amputetur, quodque corpus ejus in quatuor partes dividatur et illo ponantur ubi dominus rex eas assignare voluit." There is a tradition that Harrison the regicide after being disembowelled rose and boxed the ears of the executioner.
In Townley's case (18 Howell, State Trials, 350, 351) there is a ghastly account of the mode of executing the sentence; and in that case the executioner cut the traitor's throat. In the case of the Cato Street conspiracy (1820, 33 Howell, State Trials, 1566), after the traitors had been hanged as directed by the act of 1814, their heads were cut off by a man in a mask whose dexterity led to the belief that he was a surgeon.
Female traitors were until 1790 liable to be drawn to execution and burnt alive. In that year hanging was substituted for burning.
In 1814 so much of the sentence as related to disembowelling and burning the bowels was abolished and the king was empowered by royal warrant to substitute decapitation for hanging, which was made by that act the ordinary mode of executing traitors. But it was not till 1870 that the portions of the sentence as to drawing and quartering were abolished (Forfeiture Act 1870).
The more barbarous features of the execution were remitted in the case of traitors of high rank, and the offender was simply decapitated.
The block usually employed is believed to have been a low one such as would be used for beheading a corpse. C.H. Firth and S.R. Gardiner incline to the view that such a block was the one used at Charles I.'s execution. The more general custom, however, seems to have been to have a high block over which the victim knelt. Such is the form of that preserved in the armoury of the Tower of London. This is undoubtedly the block upon which Lord Lovat suffered, but, in spite of several axe-cuts on it, probably not one in early use. The axe which stands beside it was used to behead him and the other Jacobite lords, but no certainty exists as to its having been previously employed. On the ground floor of the King's House, at the Tower, is preserved the processional axe which figured in the journeys of state prisoners to and from their trials, the edge turned from them as they went, but almost invariably turned towards them as they returned to the Tower. The axe's head is peculiar in form, 1 ft. 8 in. high by 10 in. wide, and is fastened into a wooden handle 5 ft. 4 in. long. The handle is ornamented by four rows of burnished brass nails.
In Germany the instrument used varies in different states: in the old provinces of Prussia the axe, in Saxony and Rhenish Prussia the guillotine. Until 1851 executions were public. They now take place within a prison in the presence of certain specified officials.
Beheading is also the mode of executing capital punishment in Denmark and Sweden. The axe is used. In Sweden the execution takes place on the order of the king within a prison in the presence of certain specified officials and, if desired, of twelve representatives of the commune within which the prison is situate (Code 1864, s. 2, Royal Ordinance 1877).
In the Chinese empire decapitation is the usual mode of execution. By an imperial edict (24th of April 1905) certain attendant barbarities have been suppressed: viz. slicing, cutting up the body, and exhibiting the head to public view (32 Clunet, 1175).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)