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When you hear the phrase “Burned at the stake” what leaps to mind? Well, I can tell you that entering it as a search term on Google will result in the several pages of references to the Catholic Church, heresy and, top of the pops, the Spanish Inquisition.

There are a few about Joan of Arc and a couple more about witches but they all seem to tie back to the innate inability of anyone ecclesiastical to restrain themselves from stacking wood around the feet of, preferably, diaphanously gowned damsels or heroes of the protestant reformation and gleefully apply a burning torch to the whole thing. Followed by cries of “Burn Heretic”, cackles of heartless laughter, smug self congratulation and pass the marshmallows complete the picture.

And I ain’t gonna say these things didn’t happen. Of course they did (with the exception of marshmallows, of course) and, trust me, no one wishes it was not the case more than the vast majority of Catholics living today. But burning was not, as is commonly believed, a sentence handed down exclusively by the Catholic church.

Burning at the stake, dismemberment on a gibbet, breaking on a wheel, flaying alive and many, many way gruesome methods of dispatching a little mediaeval justice were commonly practised by the civil authorities without any interference by bloodthirsty Dominicans or other heartless clerics.

For example, in England, a woman caught performing an act considered a threat to the state or the crown (almost always the same thing) could expect to be made an example to others by public burning. The most common act of treason that would land you in the fire? Coin Clipping.

it's all in the follow-through

The 2 wives of Henry VIII put aside for adultery were originally sentenced to be burnt because treason has many definitions. A little wandering outside the bounds of one’s matrimonial vows, if said vows be made to the monarch, was treason. The monarch, however, was permitted to frolic far and wide beyond the self-same boundaries without fear of much repercussion. Such is the privilege of divine anointment.

It was only because Henry harboured nuggets of sentiment towards ex-consorts Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard that he granted them the mercy of losing their heads…pemanently. Divorce was not an option in their case. A certain tragic irony for Anne, I think.

What happened to men convicted of the same things, i.e. treason, coin clipping or debauching the royal consort? They were sentenced to be drawn, hanged and quartered.

Quick side note, being drawn did not refer to the delightful practise of gutting the condemned and burning said entrails in front of him before removing his head. It referred to being drawn upon a sled or hurdle from the prison to place of execution.