When I was a fairly ghoulish child, I developed an interest in queens–notably the ones who were executed. I read voraciously about Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, Marie Antoinette. I sorted them into categories: the innocent victim (Anne Boleyn); those I felt deserved their fate (Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine Howard); and those who were hapless women completely outmatched by circumstance (Lady Jane Grey and Marie Antoinette). I scoured the details of their executions for clues to their character, believing that how you behave when death is imminent is deeply revealing. Marie Antoinette behaved with quiet dignity, Anne Boleyn with grace. Poor Jane Grey acted like a frightened schoolgirl–and who can blame her?–while the less said about Catherine Howard, the better. (Weirdly, I recently discovered that I am related by shared ancestry to each of them–VERY distantly to Marie Antoinette and closest to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Makes you wonder about why we choose the subjects we obsess about. Or are they chosen for us?)
Not only were each of these queens executed, they were all decapitated by various methods. Marie Antoinette was taken to the guillotine, Anne Boleyn was given a swordsman from Calais, and the rest faced the axe. Each has its merit and reason for being chosen. The guillotine was supposed to be swift and clinical, offering a merciful and speedy release in line with Enlightenment values. The axe was the kindest of the variations on a traitor’s death which could include disembowelment while still alive along with a bit of hanging and some gratuitous castration for male victims. In Anne Boleyn’s case the sword was a gruesome last gift from Henry VIII to his second wife. Her sentence had been to be burnt or beheaded at the king’s pleasure, and Anne was fortunate that he opted for the latter. He might have chosen an English headsman with the traditional axe, but the choice of sword was symbolic. It was the first execution of an English queen, and the event was carried out with due ceremony.
The drawback to death by sword is that it requires a bit more cooperation on the part of the victim. The axe asks only that you put your head on the block–a gesture Catherine Howard is said to have practiced the night before so she would get it right on the day. The guillotine is easier still; you are strapped to a tilting board (bascule) and held in the correct position by the curved lunette until the blade drops. But the sword requires the victim to kneel upright, waiting for the blow WITHOUT MOVING. Flinching would result in nasty complications, and it is said that Anne Boleyn’s executioner was able to strike off her head in one swift motion by employing the kind deceit of asking his assistant to walk in front of her and distract her while he crept up from behind, swinging the sword overhead to gain enough momentum to do the job. It’s easy to see how simple it would be to get this wrong–to misjudge the angle or fail to gather the proper momentum. And Mary, Queen of Scots’ botched execution is enough to make a firm case against the axe under any circumstances.
Decapitation was considered to be a quick and virtually painless death, particularly via guillotine. (Contrary to popular myth, it wasn’t invented by a doctor named Guillotin; he was merely the fellow who pushed for the adoption of a clean, merciful killing machine to eliminate the hideous and painful complications of hanging and other torturous methods.) It was soon observed, however, that the guillotine was perhaps TOO quick. Stories began to circulate about disembodied heads which still showed signs of life, of lips and eyelids that moved after death. Famously, the head of Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Marat, was said to have blushed furiously when the executioner struck her.
The phenomenon of living heads predates the guillotine. Mary, Queen of Scots’ head was said to have moved its eyelids and lips for a full quarter of an hour after her death. Sir Everard Digby, executed for his part in the Gunpowder Plot, apparently took offense at being called a traitor by his executioner because his head was alleged to have said, “Thou liest.” With the advent of the guillotine and the thousands who perished under its blade, the stories of living heads accumulated. Doctors assured the public that the phenomenon was simply due to the lingering impulses of the nervous system and that consciousness was not possible after the head was severed from the body.
As it happens, they were wrong. According to the latest findings, lucid decapitation is entirely possible. The best estimate is that conscious awareness of one’s surroundings can exist for up to twenty-nine seconds after decapitation. TWENTY-NINE SECONDS. Just imagine that. Your head is not attached to your body and you know it–for almost half a minute. Granted, it is rare. Decapitation has to occur at an angle that does not cause unconsciousness and there has to be sufficient blood in the brain to sustain awareness. (This is why the position of the head after it lands is significant. If the head is angled down and the blood doesn’t immediately drain out, there is a much greater chance for lucid decapitation. I warned you this post was creepy.)
Surprisingly, many physicians who have studied the phenomenon say it is most likely not painful. (Of course, physicians were also the ones who first said it was impossible, so perhaps a grain of salt here?) The reasoning goes that with the nervous system severed, there are no intact transmitters to conduct pain. There is only feeling and awareness, the ability to move the eyes and take in information, to process emotion. One doctor proposed the idea that next would come the dimming of vision, with stars in front of the eyes, then consciousness would fade to black–a rather peaceful-sounding end after a hideously traumatic beginning of the process.
If all this talk of heads has you interested in botched executions, check out Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury–who refused to kneel and made the executioner CHASE HER, or the Duke of Monmouth, the handsome bastard son of Charles II who led a rebellion against his uncle and paid with his life. After his death, it was discovered there was no proper painting of him, so his head was stitched back on for the portrait sitting…