Ceremony On The Scaffold

by Arthur Machen


On the tenth of June, 1541, Sir Edmund Knevet was arraigned before the officers of the Green Cloth for striking one Master Cleer of Norfolk within the Tennis Court of the King's House. The sentence was that Sir Edmund Knevet must lose his right hand, and forfeit all his possessions.

Now supposing that the Board of Green Cloth existed still in all its vigour, with the old power of passing exemplary sentences, what would happen to plain Bill Smith of these days convicted of giving Tom Robinson one for himself within the verges of St. James's Park? I can imagine the scene very well. Bill would be taken from his cell at eight o'clock one morning. He would be led to a dingy and despairing metal shed in the prison-yard by a couple of warders. Here there would await him the Governor of the Prison, the Medical Officer, perhaps the Chaplain, a skilled surgeon, an anæsthetist, a nurse (very bright and cheerful, with red cheeks), and an operating table. On this table Bill would be politely requested to place himself. He would inhale the very latest formula, the Medical Officer keeping in careful touch with his pulse. The distinguished surgeon would then amputate Bill's right hand, the dressings would be applied with the greatest care, and in due course the prisoner would be escorted to the hospital. Here he would remain for the next three weeks, being nurtured on a light but nourishing diet. On his release from prison he would be fitted with an artificial hand, of the newest pattern. Such would be the course of justice in 1926, if it had continued to order right hands to be cut off.

They did not do things in that shabby, hole-in-the-corner way four hundred years ago. The ancient chronicle from which I quote continues the story thus:

“Whereupon there was called to do execution, first the Serjeant Surgeon, with his Instruments pertaining to his office, then, the Serjeant of the Wood Yard, with a mallet and a block to lay the hand upon, then the King's Master Cook with a knife to cut off the hand, then the Serjeant of the Larder to set the knife right on the joint, then the Serjeant Ferrier with searing irons to sear the veins, then the Serjeant of the Poultry with a Cock, which Cock should have his head smitten off upon the same block and with the same knife; then the Yeoman of the Chandry with Sear-cloaths, then the Yeoman of the Scullery, with a pan of fire to heat the Irons, a chafer of water to cool the ends of the Irons, and two forms for all officers to set their stuff on, then the Serjeant of the Cellar with Wine, Ale and Beer; then the Serjeant of the Ewry with Bason, Ewre, and Towels.”

There! It must be confessed that there was nothing mean about the court of Henry VIII. If it was only a matter of cutting off a gentleman's hand, the thing was done magnificently; with—I think we may say—a sense of style. In this particular affair of Sir Edmund Knevet I am afraid that some of the company were disappointed; for when it came to the point of execution Sir Edmund confessed everything and submitted himself in every respect, only begging that the King's Majesty would take the left hand instead of the right, since with that hand, he said, he might live to do the King some service. Whereupon somebody ran to tell the King, and the King immediately forgave Sir Edmund, and left him both his hands and restored to him all his forfeited lands and goods. I am afraid, I say, that, some of the company went away grumbling and asking (more or less) if they were going to have their money back; but I daresay there were others who were all for a happy ending. And I have no doubt that the seven Serjeants, the two Yeomen, and the King's Master Cook gave a good account of the Wine, Ale, and Beer.

Things did not always end so pleasantly. When Nigel (he of “The Fortunes") was in prison for drawing his sword on the villain, Dalgarno, in the precincts of the Court, Sir Mungo Malagrowther visited him, and, by way of consolation, gave a lively account of some proceedings under the Board of Green Cloth which he had once witnessed. The culprit, if I remember, bore the striking off of his hand bravely enough, but when it came to the application of those red-hot irons to the stump, he uttered an eldritch screech. The Palace Court, the body which once gave these savage sentences, lingered on far into the 'forties of the last century. Tip (otherwise Edward) Dorrit once occupied a stool in the office of an attorney “in a great National Palladium called the Palace Court,” and indeed the Marshalsea, whence Tip came, was originally built as a prison for persons accused of offences committed within the verge of the Court. But I suppose that in its later years the tribunal bled its victims rather metaphorically than literally.

But as to the general question of the public ceremonial and elaborate execution of judgment upon criminals; how does it compare with our grim and secret way of carrying out the last doom of the law? So far as we are concerned, no doubt Charles Dickens, that determined and consistent denouncer of public executions, was perfectly right. Johnson was mistaken when he said that the pageant of Tyburn, with its long drive from Newgate, furnished an example to the populace. Dickens describes the execution of the Mannings and the demeanour of the crowd that waited all night to witness it; it is plain that the vilest degradation, not reformation, was the result of that hideous spectacle. But as for the criminal himself; there, perhaps, Johnson was right in thinking that he was fortified by the dismal pageantry, by the bell ringing at St. Sepulchre's, by the flowers presented by lady admirers, by the last drink at St. Giles's. Jonathan Wild is reported by Fielding to have picked the chaplain's pocket of a corkscrew going in the cart to Tyburn, and Sixteen Stringed Jack wore a bright pea-green coat as he went on his way to the Three Wooden Stilts. And, then, there was the admirable Colonel Turner, who was hanged in the seventeenth century for something like robbery with violence. He made what Leslie Stephen rightly called a superb dying speech. “He spoke under the gallows as if he were the good apprentice just arrived at the mayoralty....” He was brought up in an honest family in the good old times, he said, and lamented the bad times that had since come in. So the Colonel ran on happily, speaking of his loyalty to the King, his firm piety, his detestation of profane swearing and drunkenness; in a word of his well-nigh saintly character. At last the hangman put the rope round his neck.

“Dost thou mean to choke me, fellow?” asked the Colonel. “What a simple fellow is this! How long have you been executioner that you know not how to put the knot?”

Then, as he was putting on the white cap, he saw a lady at a window. He kissed his hand to her, said, “Your servant, Mistress,” and pulled down the cap, undaunted to the last, as an eye-witness of the scene reports.

It is clear that Colonel Turner would not have liked our modern ways of doing things.