History

In the Middle Ages, Botched Executions Were a Sign

On mercy and clemency in a “bloodthirsty” time.

Medieval European painting of a count’s execution.
Justice of Emperor Otto III: Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire (1471–75), by Dieric Bouts. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

In 1234 King Henry III of England was informed that one Walter of Pyonne, hanged for murder, had been found alive by those who had come to bury him. Learning of this, the king decreed that divine clemency must have allowed the man to survive his hanging, ordered his release, and cleared him from further prosecution for the crime.

In 1394, in France, a woman named Perrenelle Horrie was sentenced to death by drowning for having killed her infant daughter. But although she was bound and thrown into the Charente River, the woman did not die. Her bonds loosened and she floated to safety. Many who witnessed this attempted execution declared it a miracle, and she was returned to prison while the authorities deliberated their next steps. When the French king learned what had happened to Horrie, he granted her a full pardon, requiring only that she go on pilgrimage to expiate her sin.

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We’re thinking of these cases because of the failed effort to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, documented in gruesome detail last week by Elizabeth Bruenig in the Atlantic. Smith had been due to be executed in Alabama on November 17, but he spent an hour strapped to a gurney as prison staff tried and failed to find a vein through which they could administer a lethal injection.

The attempt to execute Smith took place after the Supreme Court, in a 6–3 vote, rejected Smith’s lawyers’ last-minute plea that their client not suffer through such an ordeal, given the state’s recent record of difficulty in successfully carrying out executions by lethal injection. GOP Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, in a statement issued after Smith’s execution failed, ordered a pause on executions in the state and a review of procedures, somehow managing to place the blame for these incidents not on the prison staff but on mysterious “legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system.”

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And so, our minds have turned to the history of botched executions, and how people have responded to them in the past. Our two medieval examples, from England and from France, might at first seem as if they must have been exceptional. Given the bloodthirsty reputation of medieval Christian monarchs, surely it would take a miracle, like someone surviving a hanging or a drowning, for such leaders to refrain from finishing an execution once they’d started the job. But read another way, these two stories are about restraint, a willingness to be wrong, and openness to the possibility of showing mercy, even when facing the horror of crimes that might seem to call for capital punishment.

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It turns out that kings, judges, and juries in medieval Europe were, in reality, quite consistently squeamish about carrying out the death penalty. When executions failed, as in the two examples we began with, they usually gave up. If the noose, or even the gallows, broke, they might try again, but quite often any such problems were enough for those involved in carrying out the execution to call it quits. We have evidence for this in royal and other official records, as well as accounts of the deeds of saints and testimony that people offered of their miracles. But it didn’t take a miracle for those condemned to execution to get a reprieve.

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In medieval France and England, and elsewhere in Europe, there was a shared reluctance to execute convicted offenders. No medieval Christian ruler wanted to be cast in the role of Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor who oversaw Christ’s execution). The Christian imperative to show mercy was something many medieval leaders took quite seriously, at least when they had their judges’ caps on. Certainly, several people were condemned to death, but a strikingly high proportion of those prosecuted either were acquitted or had their cases dropped. Banishment was most often the “solution” in cases when the crime technically merited the death penalty. This was in large part because people in the position of having to pass judgment essentially did not want to sentence someone to death if they could avoid it.

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Certainly, in some cases offenders were immediately executed, in some haste, precisely to forestall the many things, including royal or princely intervention, that would usually prevent the execution from happening. Instead, for those initially sentenced to death, the sentence was quite often reduced, the convicted offender pardoned, or, in the absence of formal procedural measures, the prison doors left open so they might “accidentally” escape.

Escape from prison, if not necessarily surviving a hanging, did not take a miracle at all. Medieval prisons were not always so confining. Often enough, the warden, or wardeness, could be overpowered in a jailbreak, or doors and walls broken open, without any need for saintly intervention to pry open bars or break chains. One man, eventually pardoned by the French king for his crimes, managed not just one but two escapes from judicial authorities tasked with detaining him during the investigation against him for his abduction of a nun. He was far from alone.

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The fact that the history of medieval Christian Europe is full of stories of escapes from prison, botched executions, and miraculous survivals of various attempts at execution should not be so surprising, given that such stories have a fundamental role in the core texts of early Christianity and beyond. Testimony given by witnesses to the miracles of St. Elizabeth in Hungary included some who came forward to explain how they had survived execution. For example, in 1235, Hartmann of Grünebecke, a German town near Cologne, testified under oath that he had been sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. When his friends cut him down, with permission from a judge, and began digging the hole to bury him in, his family prayed to Elizabeth that he be restored to life. After they prayed for “some time,” he “came back to life.” Additional witnesses corroborated Hartmann’s story.

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To return to the English kings, and their pardons of the survivors of botched executions, in 1280 Edward I pardoned John Elenstreng for “his larcenies,” but only after Elenstreng had been, after his hanging, taken to the church of St. John in York for burial, where he “was found to be alive.” Similarly, in 1284 Edward pardoned the widow Margaret Everard, who had been hanged, cut down for burial, and then miraculously recovered life.

In The Hanged Man, historian Robert Bartlett wrote mostly about the miraculous survival of a Welsh brigand, but he also mentioned several other cases that took place elsewhere, such as the Italian story of a man named Cecco, who was hanged in the town of Capua along with a thief. The guards kept watch all day long, then headed home, but as they walked, “were startled to find that Cecco was following them, with the noose around his neck, crying out, ‘Saint Zita, help me!’ ” Cecco later told authorities that a figure of a lady had appeared to him and supported his feet, keeping him from dying. When the guards left, she broke the rope “and said to him ‘Go! Go!’ ” He said that “for fear of God and Saint Zita,” he was released and sent on pilgrimage to Zita’s shrine in Lucca. He went on pilgrimage with the noose around his neck, legs black and swollen with blood, a testament to the intervention of the saint.

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Iberia, too, had execution survivals that resolved in freedom for the executed. A collection of the miracles of Our Lady of Montserrat dated to 1323 includes an account of a young man of Girona. Captured by the Genoese, the young man was first hanged for hours from the ship’s mast, then thrown into the sea. Shocked to find him still alive after all that, and hearing that he had made a vow to the Virgin, his captors let him go.

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This medieval Christian reluctance to execute, and its eagerness to pardon and absolve those who survive execution attempts, offers a striking contrast to the pro-execution rulings from the five conservative Christian Supreme Court justices (Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, and Barrett; Gorsuch is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic). There are, of course, within both medieval and modern Christianity, a wide-ranging set of views about legitimate violence and when the state and its agents may, must, or must not use force. Pope Francis, for example, has explicitly changed the catechism to say that capital punishment is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and is “inadmissible” in all cases.

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Justice Barrett seems to be trying for a sort of complicated middle ground. She has written that while Catholic judges should not sentence defendants to death, they can rule on all related motions, even those that allow executions to go forward. In another kind of approach to Christian governance, Ivey, who attends a Southern Baptist church (First Montgomery) and deploys her Christianity on a routine basis as governor, might seek to justify her decision to press on with the use of lethal injection on the grounds that it is “humane,” since the Southern Baptist Convention has explicitly approved of humane equitable execution since at least 2000. There’s no evidence to assume that these judges, or Ivey, will shift position due to the horrors of botched executions, secure in their rationale that they are just ruling on procedure, or being “humane” and “equitable.”

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But for the rest of us, like the medieval rulers confronting botched executions in their own moment, the brutal reality of these scenes seems far from fair or humane. When Bruenig writes of the prison doctors stabbing Smith again and again with needles, the scene feels reminiscent of medieval tales about the torture of martyrs by cruel pagan rulers. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, about 55 percent of Americans still support capital punishment in the abstract, but strong majorities reject the death penalty as it is actually enacted in the United States. Americans see the injustice implicit in a failed execution as surely as any medieval ruler did.

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