The word tyburn is Saxon in origin, and there are various theories pertaining to the origin of the name. The second syllable of the word is likely derived from burna, a word that refers to stream or brook. The first syllable, ty, could be derived from the name of the Germanic god Tiw, who was the god of law or refer to the union of two streams, or two streams dividing to surround an area of land. Tyburn could also have been called originally Teoburna, a stream referred to in the Charter of King Edgar in 951, in which case the word could mean ‘boundary stream.’ By the time the Domesday Book was written, Tybourne had evolved to refer to the area now known as Marylebone.
Because the elm was considered by the Normans to be the tree of justice, official sites of gallows, including Tyburn, were often simply referred to as ‘the Elms.’ During the medieval era, there were ‘Elms’ at both Tyburn and Smithfield, making it difficult to determine where exactly certain criminals were executed in the Middle Ages. For example, William FitzOsbert is often mentioned as the first known criminal to be executed at Tyburn in 1196. It is unclear, however, whether he was hanged at the ‘Elms’ at Tyburn or those in Smithfield. Similarly, it is unclear whether seditionist Constantine FitzAthulf was executed at Tyburn or Smithfield in 1222. Even in the Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London, Tyburn is referred to as ‘le Elms’ in the index of names and places.
The Tyburn gallows were originally located on the banks of the now-underground Tyburn Brook in Middlesex. The trees were situated within the bounds of what is now Hyde Park, by the corner of Marble Arch. In 1571, the famous Tyburn Tree was erected. These gallows were triangular in shape and made of thick crossbeams and legs. This structure is what is associated with the mass executions during the Tudor era and afterwards.
Regardless of its physical structure, the methods of execution at Tyburn were particularly brutal. In 1241, the punishment of drawing and quartering at Tyburn was first recorded. This punishment involved drawing the condemned on a plank of wood pulled by horses through the city (often from the Tower of London) to Tyburn, where the prisoner would be hanged. Before convicted traitors died, they were taken down from the gallows, disemboweled, beheaded, and then cut into quarters. Often, the head was displayed at the Tower of London. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Scottish rebel William Wallace was executed at ‘the Elms,’ possibly those at Tyburn. Wallace was drawn, hanged, beheaded, and his body parts were subsequently burnt, though his head was one of the first displayed on Drawbridge Gate of London Bridge. A ballad detailing the event claimed that one of the other Scottish leaders, Simon Fraser, was drawn from Cheapside to Tyburn before his head was mounted alongside Wallace’s on London Bridge. Even if the ballad is not entirely historically accurate, the use of Tyburn as place for high-profile executions indicates the site’s reputation. When Londoners thought of execution, they thought of Tyburn. This type of punishment, including the public display of the offender’s head, continued on for centuries. There is a description of the trial and execution of a man named Benedict in the memorials of 1416. In this description, the prisoner is drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, where he is hanged and beheaded, his head taken to London Bridge.
Executions during the medieval and early modern periods were somewhat of a spectator sport. Enormous crowds of people crowded around Tyburn gallows, and later Tyburn Tree, to watch seditionists, highwaymen, and heretics be brutally and publically put to death. Aside from Wallace and Fraser in the fourteenth century, Roger Mortimer, who successfully rebelled against Edward II with the help of his lover, Queen Isabella, only to be overthrown by Edward III, was executed at Tyburn in 1330. In the early modern period, Catholic nun Elizabeth Barton was executed here in 1534 for prophesying the death of Henry VIII if he married Anne Boleyn. In 1783, highwayman John Austin was the final person to be hanged on the Tree, marking the end of Tyburn’s bloody history.
- Kristen Gendron