Saturday, January 2, 2016

What happened to the bodies of executed felons in medieval Dublin (and where were they hanged)?

First of all, apologies for the gap between blog posts - I will try to do better in 2016!

The Irish plea rolls furnish us with many, many examples of executions, especially hangings, which appear to have been all too common in the late medieval period. What they do not tell us is where hangings took place and what happened to the body after death. Certainly, the bodies of those who had committed treason in England were put up on display after they were executed, and it is safe to assume that the same was true of Irish traitors. However these sort of executions were few in number and the executed were usually of high social status – for they had the most to gain and lose from committing acts of treason. We only have a handful of examples of execution for treason in Ireland. For example, in 1328 David O'Toole of Imaal, described as a “strong thief, the king's enemy, the burner of churches, the destroyer of the people”, was led from Dublin Castle to the Tholsel. There he was sentenced to be drawn through the city after a horse's tail to the gallows, there to be hanged, drawn and quartered. (Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts Preserved in the Archiepiscopal Library at Lambeth, 1515-74, vol. 5 (London, 1871) [Book of Howth], p. 150.

William de Marisco being drawn to the gallows (since I don't have a pic of David O'Toole)

David was a notorious character, but where were the ordinary felons of medieval Dublin executed and what happened to their bodies after they died? The sources usually go silent after the felon is hanged, but one court record may provide some clues as to the ultimate fate of the remains of the executed. Ironically, these clues come from a case where the felons survived their hanging. A plea roll entry from 5 July 1311 describes how two convicted felons: Robert Goderd and Richard Faber – who were from Sandwich and Liverpool respectively – survived their hangings. They, along with William Rede, Roger Gategod and Alexander Botsweyn had been charged with assisting Thomas White, a mariner, in the murder of Robert Thursteyn, a royal official. These men were sailors and all of them, apart from William Rede were found guilty. It is possible that William had friends among the jurors. The other men were hanged but Goderd and Faber, who were presumed dead when they were cut down from the gallows, revived in the cart taking them to Kilmainham for burial. They took shelter in a church there and were subsequently pardoned.

Here's the entry in full:

William le Rede, Gilbert de Whithavene, Robert Godard of Sandewiz, Richard son of Robert Faber of Lyverpol, Roger Getegod and Alexander Botsweyn, charged that they were freely with Thomas le White, mariner, who feloniously slew Robert Thurstayn, giving him forcible assistance in the slaying, and so caused the death of the said Robert, come and defend, etc. Andrew de Asshebourne, Walter Keppok, Robert le Woder, John le Mareschal, Richard de Eytoun, William le Graunt, Robert Joye, William Fynsur, John de Capeles, Hugh de Carletoun, John Baret, Geoffrey de Tauntoun and John Bouet, jurors, say that William le Rede is not guilty, but that Gilbert, Robert Godard, Richard, Roger and Alexander are guilty. Therefore William is quit. Let Gilbert and the others be hanged. Chattels, none; they have no free land. Afterwards Robert Godard and Richard were taken down as dead from the gallows, and when carried in a cart to Kilmeynan to be buried were found to be alive and took refuge in a church there, and at the instance of John de Ergadia [i.e. John of Argyll], who asserts that they had set out with him to pay homage to the King in Scotland, and testifies that they are valiant and good strong mariners, suit of the peace is pardoned to them. (Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls of Ireland: I to VII years of Edward II [1308-14], ed. H. Wood and A.E. Langmen, rev. M.C. Griffith (Dublin, 1956), p. 219.)

St Michan's Church, Dublin, where Adam Trop was taken after his execution.

There was another interesting case from 1363 where Adam Trop also survived his hanging. This also took place in Dublin. We don't have the court records for this case, but the citizens of Dublin city were fined 100s because it was suspected they had somehow given aid to Adam. We only know about the case because it is mentioned in a patent letter dated 16 November 1363, where is says the citizens were pardoned. When he was cut down from the gallows he was carried to St Michan's Church for burial. The next morning he woke up, broke out of the church, and made his way to Kildare. On this occasion the sheriff of Dublin followed him, brought him back and this time successfully hanged him. I suspect if Adam had stayed in the church instead of escaping he would have stood a better chance of being pardoned, since most people in this situation appear to have been able to secure pardons for themselves. 

Letter from published Calendar of Patent Rolls

Both of these cases offer us some clues as to where felons were hanged and buried in Dublin. Trop woke up in a church close to where he was hanged and Goderd and Faber appear to have been revived close to where they would have been buried. The county gallows was north of the river Liffey in the medieval and early modern periods – and it can be seen on the seventeenth century Down Survey map. 

Down Survey map, gallows at centre of map.

The exact location is unknown, but Hammonds Lane, close to St Michan's Church (where Trop was taken after his execution), was originally known as Hangman's Lane, so the gallows must have been in this vicinity. My guess would be that the original county gallows was located in the vicinity of Arbour Hill Prison. Gallows were often located on a hill and prisons were sometimes built on the same location where gallows had stood. Where Kilmainham Gaol was constructed was known as Gallows Hill in the seventeenth century and executions continued to be carried out just outside the prison after it was constructed, though the gallows was moved inside the prison when executions began to be carried out away from the public gaze during the course of the nineteenth century.

Hammond Lane is marked in red at the lower right-hand side of map, Arbour Hill is located at top left-hand side. Both locations are about 700 metres apart.

Trop was taken to St Michan's to be buried (and probably was when he was successfully executed a second time).  Robert Goderd and Richard Faber woke up in Kilmainham, not far from the county gallows, but on the other side of the river. The Knights Hospitallers held Kilmainham at this time and they may have been responsible for executing and burying felons sentenced in the royal courts. In Clerkenwell, London, the Hospitallers often took on these gruesome duties (for a fee) and buried the dead in Pardon cemetery, which was adjacent to their priory. The Hospitallers may have been doing something similar in Dublin. Bully's Acre, a cemetery that may have been in use for over a thousand years and is reputed to be the burial site of some of those who died at the Battle of Clontarf, was in close proximity to the Hospitaller's priory and Kilmainham church. If the Hospitallers were responsible for disposing of the dead, they may have used their own cemetery. Certainly, in the modern period Bully's Acre was a pauper's graveyard, and may have been in the medieval period too. In England, the executed were often buried in the same cemeteries as the poor and destitute – not surprisingly, considering they too were probably of low social status. We don't know where Goderd and Faber were executed, it might have been on the gallows on the north-side of the river, but if the Hospitallers were responsible for both execution and burial they may have used their own gallows, which was likely to have been located where Kilmainham Gaol now stands. While most executions probably took place on the Arbour Hill site, there is nothing to say that executions were carried out elsewhere. While some executions were carried out on purpose-made gallows, trees were still commonly used in the fourteenth century, for example felons in London were executed on the elm trees at Tyburn. 

Tyburn, London, in the early modern period the elm trees had been replaced by a purpose-built gallows

Place-name and cartographic evidence, together with local knowledge, give us some clues as to where felons died and were buried in Dublin in the late medieval period. Court documents can be frustratingly vague when it comes to these little details. We only know that Robert Goderd and Richard Faber were taken to Kilmainham because they happened to survive their executions, in the vast majority of cases the records simply tell us the felons were hanged. Though the evidence is slim, I consider Bully's Acre to be a strong contender as the place where those hanged in Dublin ended up. Fortunately for Goderd and Faber, they lived to tell the tale.


  1. Really fascinating and interesting information. I enjoyed reading this very much.

  2. A fascinating article, and it was interesting to learn more about Bully's acre. Thanks for that :-)

  3. Thanks Beata and Gavin.

    I might do a more indepth blog about Bully's Acre at some point! Interesting place, though most of our evidence is early modern.