BEHEADING, a mode of executing capital punishment. 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 entrenchments ; 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, 1g, 28). It was with a sword that Cicero's head ,was struck off by a common soldier.
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. The liberty of Hardwick, in Yorkshire, was granted the privilege of beheading thieves. (See GUILLOTINE.) But beheading was usually reserved for offenders of high rank. From the 15th century onward the victims of the axe include some of the highest personages in the kingdom. Simon, Lord Lovat was the last person beheaded in England (April 9, 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 the case of the 4th Earl Ferrers (176o) 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 I5th 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), I. Eng. Rep. 8g, the proper sentence was "quod ... per collum suspendatur et vivus ad terram prosternatur et quod creta membra eius amputentur, et interiora sua intra ventrem suum capiantur et in ignem ponantur et ipso vivente comburantur, et quod Caput eius amputetur, quodque corpus eius in quatuor partes dividatur et illo ponantur ubi dominus rex eas assignare voluit" (that he be hanged by the neck and dropped to the ground alive and that his private parts be cut off and that his bowels within his belly be taken and put upon a fire and burned while he lives and that his head be cut off and that his body be divided into four parts to be placed where it may please his majesty the king to assign them). There is a tradition that Harrison, the regicide, after being bowelled, rose and boxed the ears of the executioner. In 1814 the king was empowered by royal warrant to substitute hanging as the ordinary mode of executing criminals ; but as late as 182o in the case of the Cato Street conspiracy (33 Howell, State Trials, 1,566), 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.
Drawing and quartering were not abolished till 187o.
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, which is undoubtedly the block upon which Lord Lovat suffered. The axe which stands beside it was used to behead him and the other Jacobite lords. On the ground floor of the King's House, at the Tower, is pre served 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 'ft. Bin. high by loin. wide, and is fastened into a wooden handle 5ft. 4in. long. The handle is ornamented by four rows of burnished brass nails.
In Scotland they did not behead with the axe or with the sword, as under the Roman law and formerly in Holland and France, but with the maiden (q.v.).
Beheading is now very rare in European countries, most of which have abolished or abrogated by disuse capital punishment (q.v.), but it was practised very extensively by the Chinese war lords, especially by Sun Chuan-fang in Shanghai.