Tyburn: ‘Deadly Tree’ to ‘Tree of Life’

Let’s explore Tyburn, the place where 50,000 people were executed in London…

Queen Elizabeth I forced the wife of an Earl to abort her unborn baby boy. She had discovered that Earl Philip Howard had converted to Catholicism – so he was naturally executed and members of his family were imprisoned. But what kind of a world did Shakespeare live in where the Queen could even execute an unborn baby?
1196 to 1783 was the “Age of Tyburn”, when public executions were today’s equivalent of a football derby. During the 18th century 20,000 people would gather for a day out, to have a picnic and watch up to 24 people be hung simultaneously. How did this happen? In the following points I will give a short introduction to the execution sight of Tyburn and touch upon some of its aftermath today.


  • Tyburn, near Marble Arch, was the site of ‘ The King’s Gallows’ from 1196 when Henry II set his eyes on a suitable Elm tree. Initially the tree’s branches were used as gallows. When the Elm tree died,  a two-legged structure was built with a 6-person-width capacity.
  • Queen Elizabeth brought it up-to-date by having a three-legged, three-sided structure erected, with every side having an 8-person-capacity.
  • Bodies that were not claimed were thrown into a nearby pit. When it would fill, they would pick up the gallows and move them further down the road, digging out a new pit for the dead.
  • In recent years they have found two such mass graves during road works on Oxford street!

Thus Tyburn was not actually a fixed spot, but a representative name for anywhere that the gallows were positioned around the area. This is interesting when we think about how Shakespeare’s theatre company also moved the timber of their theatre from North to the South of the river, keeping everything but the geographical position of the theatre intact.

Photo courtesty of http://www.fidnet.com/~dap1955/dickens/dickens_london_map.html#bricklane


  • Although the map above is from Dickens’ age, most London maps from the 16th century do not actually span to Tyburn – this gives us an impression about how far it actually was from the city, how it was even beyond the fringe of the liberties.
  • Tyburn was a village named after The Tyborn, a stream that today is completely underground. The villagers, enterprising as they were, set up stands so that everyone could get a good view. By the 18th century crowds of 20,000s would gather, and you could only get in with tickets.


  • Prisoners would come from the Old Bailey through Holborn, down Oxford street all the way to Tyburn, routinely dragged the 3 miles by a horse on a hurdle. The public was welcome to throw eggs, or anything else at them.
  • Every execution was different because every ‘event’ depended on the mood of the crowd, and in particular the mood of the executioner. He could take people off the hook when they were only just unconscious, or wait till they were actually dead, to start cutting them open and taking out their organs and then quartering them.
  • Depending on their crime, if they were to be made an example, their quartered body parts would be boiled in a large pot, to preserve them somewhat, and then nailed on walls for display

    Relics of Tyburn Martyrs

  • Executioners had the rights to cut up the victims clothes – and even the rope they were hung on! – to sell them as relics, especially to fervent Catholics, such as the Spanish ambassador’s representative, who later shared some of these relics with British monasteries.
  • The picture shows some relics, such as threads of bloodied clothes, burned skin, or hair, in the martyr’s shrine in Tyburn.
  • Zealous Catholics once even dug through a mass grave to assemble two martyrs body parts and tried to smuggle them to Spain. Alas, they were caught and imprisoned and executed themselves.
  • But this shows a similar fascination with limbs as we can see in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, something more foreign to today’s tastes.
  • In the 19th century the entire area was rebuilt as residential area; the timber from the gallows was chopped up and made into kegs for a local pub!
  • The Tyburn stream was covered, and in general all memory of the executions was “whitewashed”, similar to how Titus Andronicus became a highly unpopular play with the Victorians!



  • 105 Catholics were martyred purely because they would not accept the King/Queen as a higher ruler than the Pope. During the reformation around 350 Catholics were killed in total, and a similar number of Protestants were also executed during the time of Catholic rulers.
  • In the early 1900s France ruled an Anti-Clerical law, where they would disband any religious orders that were deemed unuseful, in particular contemplative orders. Thus it came that Marie A. Garnier set up her congregation anew in the place of the old Tyburn, in order to keep the shrine and honour the 300+ martyrs that died for their faith.
  • Due to the multitude of (Catholic) religious martyrs, the Catholic church turned around its meaning from Tyburn’s “Deadly Tree to Tyburn’s Tree of Life” [1]

Shrine of the Martyrs of Tyburn-Rather similar to the symbol of the Cross, the order has turned the gallows into a holy symbol.

  • The three-sided gallows are replicated in their shrine, and are made into a holy place, with lanterns hanging from the beams instead of bodies, and the martyr’s coats of arms surrounding them
  • Martyr originally means “witness” (Greek) – to become a witness therefore one must undergo suffering/torture/death

In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, this is portrayed by Lavinia’s experience of witnessing her horrors, thus she is a ‘real’ martyr.


As we can see, countless contradictions are embodied by Tyburn. The main ones are:

  • fixed place for execution – but a wandering place for the gallows themselves
  • death of both the worst criminals (e.g. murderers) and the most altruistic martyrs, side by side; actually, Catholic priests would often try to bring all on the death row to final confessions or confirmation before they died.
  • death as a final stage-play: everyone had the right to their last words. Many criminals would make it a point to die to the sounds of laughter and think up witty stories (just like Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus).
  • Others, priests like Oliver Plunkett would print out their final speech/sermon and have it sold at the evening of their own execution.


The tree meant Death: of the martyrs but life to the (Catholic) church, and gave life to a new Catholic Order, the Tyburn Nuns. Today the nuns’ average age is 34 (!) and they have expanded to 10 other countries and built up monasteries in places such as Colombia, Peru or New Zealand.

Ironically, today the convent is right across Speaker’s Corner -the centre of freedom of Speech in Hyde Park. On the other hand, the nuns themselves choose to live their lives behind bars, giving up many of their freedoms.

This picture depicts a monk, still conscious when taken off the gallows, has been cut open and the executioner is taking out his heart. Reportedly the monk’s last words were “Good Jesus, what will you do with my heart?”

-Margita Eddy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. http://www.tyburnconvent.org.uk/convent/covent.html
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