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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hanged, drawn and quartered

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Hanged, drawn and quartered

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Meaning

A gruesome form of torture and, eventually, death by execution.

Origin

This grisly phrase is the proper name for the death sentence which is often colloquially called hung, drawn and quartered. This describes a form of execution used in England from the 13th century until 1790. The sentence was given to others after that date but not carried out. Hanged, drawn and quartered was the punishment for traitors, that is, men who committed treason, that is, the violation by a subject of his allegiance to his sovereign or to the state. Women traitors were burned at the stake. The punishment was most often meted out for High Treason - acts of betrayal, or actual or attempted murder of the sovereign (regicide).

High Treason was then the worst imaginable crime and the execution was intended to be the worst imaginable death. The victims were first hung by the neck but taken from the scaffold while still alive. The entrails and genitals are then removed (drawn), the head cut off and the torso hacked into four quarters. There's some debate over whether drawn refers to the dragging of the live victim to the butcher's block or the (with)drawing of the entrails. A supposed contemporary account of the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators has it that "... after his fall he [Robert Keyes] was drawn to the block, and there his bowels withdrawn, and he was divided into four parts". If this account is to be believed, drawing referred to either of or both the moving of the still live body and the subsequent withdrawal of the entrails.

hung, drawn and quarteredThe Gunpowder Plot, 1605, was a failed attempt to kill the English King James I by a group of Catholic conspirators. These included Robert Keyes, mentioned above, and the most famous traitor in English history - Guy Fawkes. All the conspirators that survived long enough to be tried were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes escaped this fate - if escaped can be the correct term in the circumstances - as he jumped from the scaffold with the noose around his neck and died by hanging before later being quartered.

The executions were popular public events. The casual manner in which people approached these grim spectacles is indicated by the entry in Samuel Pepys' Diary for 13th October 1660:

"To my Lord's in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn; and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy."