In this week's Claire Chats video talk, I look at the tradition of displaying the heads of traitors on pikes. A lovely subject, don't you think?
This is the picture I mention. It's taken from a panorama of London by Claes Visscher in 1616.
And here is "the Southwark Needle", official name the Southwark Gate, which is the spike near London Bridge said to represent the spikes or pikes that were used for displaying heads on the original London Bridge.
Notes and Sources
Photo of the Southwark Needle: © Copyright Stephen Craven and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, Geograph.org.uk.
- The second book of the travels of Nicander Nucius of Corcyra translated into England by Rev. J. A. Cramer (1841), Camden Society - read online at https://archive.org/stream/secondbookoftrav00nuciuoft#page/48
- "London Bridge head spikes, 1300 too 1660" - https://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/london-bridge-head-spikes
- "Cabbie’s Curios: Mind Your Head!" - https://blackcablondon.net/2012/01/30/cabbies-curios-mind-your-head/
- "Heads up on history – 300 gruesome years at London Bridge" - https://pastinthepresent.net/2012/09/01/heads-up-on-history-how-300-years-of-severed-bodies-tells-the-story-of-medieval-england/
- "What Does The Spike On London Bridge Represent?" - https://londonist.com/2016/05/what-s-the-spike-on-london-bridge-for
- Lovejoy, Bess (2016) Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Simon and Schuster.
There is a curious statement by Eustace Chapuys in a letter (dated May 19, 1536) to the Emperor saying that ‘although the heads and bodies of those executed the day before yesterday have been buried, the head of the concubine’ (that is Anne Boleyn) ‘will be exposed on the bridge, at least for some time’.
In actuality, this wasn’t the case. Perhaps this was just wishful thinking on the part of Chapuys who disliked Anne intensely.
I must admit I would have thought they were taken down after a few months, but I suppose there is no set time. Five years does sound ridiculous even for Henry Viii, but well these two men had allegedly spoiled his lovely and perfect wife, Katherine Howard for him, so maybe he just thought they deserved a special punishment so people would remember. It does more likely make sense that as a new visitor he was told that is the head of Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper, oh and for another shilling sir, we will show you the rest of them, as Dereham was hanged, drawn and quartered. It was a stark sight to the daily hords coming to the City to behave. Of course, as you point out arms and legs and body were placed around other parts if you were given a full traitors death. Some executioners, like Sir John Toptiff, the enforcer of Edward iv, liked to impale the remaining body parts right the way through in the most horrible way possible. It must have been horrible seeing all of these boiled heads, but I do wonder if people actually got so used to seeing such things that they were not as shocked as we might be. The other thing that must have been awful was the smell. Pew!