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A traitor's death? The identity of a drawn, hanged and quartered man from Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire


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Analysis of a set of bones redeposited in a medieval abbey graveyard showed that the individual had been beheaded and chopped up, and this in turn suggested one of England's more gruesome I execution practices. Since quartering was generally reserved for the infamous, the author attempts to track down the victim and proposes him to be Hugh Despenser, the lover of King Edward II.
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A traitor’s death? The identity of a
drawn, hanged and quartered man from
Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire
Mary E. Lewis
Analysis of a set of bones redeposited in a medieval abbey graveyard showed that the individual
had been beheaded and chopped up, and this in turn suggested one of England’s more gruesome
execution practices. Since quartering was generally reserved for the infamous, the author attempts
to track down the victim and proposes him to be Hugh Despenser, the lover of King Edward II.
Keywords: Hulton Abbey, execution, quartering, perimortem trauma, Hugh Despenser the
Younger, Edward II
The disarticulated skeletal remains (HA16) of a mature adult male, around 5 feet 8 inches in
height (178cm), were uncovered during the 1970s excavation of the Cistercian monastery of
Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire (Figure 1a). The bones of this individual are remarkable because
they display numerous perimortem cut marks throughout. Browne (2004) has suggested
that the cut marks are battle injuries and that additional cut marks were added when the
body was ‘divided’ and boiled to allow for its transportation back to Hulton Abbey for
burial. A re-analysis of the remains suggests that in fact, the body had been quartered; a
brutal form of execution reserved for the most notorious of criminals. This has led to a new
investigation into the possible identity of the remains, and the first osteological description
of the lesions associated with this practice.
Hulton Abbey (AD 1219-1538) was a relatively poor estate owned by the Audleys of
Heleigh whose family rose to prominence in the courts of Edward I and Edward II. The
burial place suggests that the remains belonged to a wealthy member of the congregation,
and potentially, to one of the Audley family. However, it seemed that the skeleton had been
disturbed from an original coffin burial after the dissolution, and was re-deposited, along
with some bones of an adult female, near a post-medieval well in the Chancel area (Wise
1985) (Figure 1b).
Distribution of cut marks
The pathology of the skeleton is consistent with its having been cut up with a sharp blade.
The distribution of the cut-marks on HA16 can be seen in Figure 2. The skeleton comprised
Department of Archaeology, School of Human and Environmental Studies, University of Reading, Reading,
Berkshire RG6 6AB, UK (Email:
Received: 24 October 2006; Accepted: 18 January 2007; Revised: 25 June 2007
antiquity 82 (2008): 113–124
A traitor’s death
Figure 1a. Location of Hulton Abbey (from Klemperer &Boothroyd 2004: 3).
an almost complete set of spinal vertebrae, from the third cervical (neck) vertebra to the
second lumbar (L2), right and left arms and shoulders, right femur, left and right lower
legs. The ribs were poorly preserved and the sternum was not recovered. There were some
fragments of the ilium, and one pubic symphysis, suggesting that the pelvis had been
included in the burial. No hand or foot bones were linked to this skeleton. Although no
skull was present, cut marks on the third cervical vertebra (C3) of the neck indicate the
individual was beheaded (Figure 3). Additional cut marks on the right superior facet of C3
indicate that further slices were necessary to completely remove the head. Although badly
eroded postmortem, the next vertebrae (C4 to C6) appear normal. A smooth depression
on the superior aspect of the seventh cervical vertebra, triangular in shape and measuring
9.8mm by 5.9mm, indicates that the individual was stabbed in the throat (Figure 4). It
is not possible to know if this happened before or after the beheading, but the following
first thoracic vertebra (T1) is not affected. A further possible stab wound is located in the
right inferior margin of L2 suggesting that the victim had also been stabbed in the stomach
(Figures 5 and 6).
Sectioning of the body is indicated by the division of the second and third thoracic
vertebrae along the sagittal plane (vertically) which ceases at T4, with no further cut marks
Mary E. Lewis
Figure 1b. Detail of burials in the chancel of Hulton Abbey showing the location of HA16 (adapted from Wise 1985: 89).
until T11, with T11 to L2 again cleanly cut along the sagittal plane (Figure 7). Notably, the
first lumbar vertebra (L1), positioned just above the pelvis in life, also displays a horizontal
(transverse) cut, suggesting that after the vertical division, the body was chopped in half
(Figure 8) and the entire thorax treated as one section.
Both hands had been removed, with the left radius (lower arm bone) cut further up the
wrist than the right. The left radius also displays two small hesitation marks along the shaft,
which are in the wrong position to constitute parry or defence wounds, but may suggest an
attempt to remove flesh from the bones. The deliberate nature of the division of the body is
best demonstrated by the chop marks on the left shoulder. The clavicle (collar bone) bears
the marks of an old soft tissue injury that caused ossification of the trapezius muscle and the
formation of a new joint (pseudo-arthrosis). This mass of bone would have been unexpected
in a normal dissection, and so may account for the numerous chop marks. These cuts have
been made from right to left, running from the medial aspect to the lateral aspect of the
A traitor’s death
Figure 2. Distribution of perimortem cut marks in HA16.
The green arrows indicate stab wounds; red arrows indicate
cut marks on the anterior aspect of the skeleton; blue arrows
show horizontal cuts and the yellow arrows indicate cut marks
to the posterior aspect of the skeleton.
shaft. There is an additional sharper cut
at the acromial end, made in the opposite
direction, and overlies the second chop
mark (Figure 9). Other evidence for the
deliberate removal of the arm from the
shoulder is the removal of the humeral
head, cut marks on the shoulder blade
(scapula), and a chop mark at the position
of the coracoid process at the top of the
shoulder. These cuts are consistent with
someone attempting to cut around the
ligaments that hold the shoulder joint in
place (Figure 10).
On the lower body, the right hip
has been dissected below the greater
trochanter, which was not recovered. This
bone however, is the only part of the
proximal femur preserved on the left side,
suggesting a similar pattern of removal
for both legs. Chop marks to the back of
the right femur, along the linear aspera,
may be the result of trauma from a blade,
similar to that seen in battle injuries. On
the right lower leg, the fibula appears to
have been cut just below the midshaft,
with the blade injury following a line
through to the tibia.
Such systematic cutting of bones is
suggestive of a ritual exercise in dismem-
berment, such as quartering, an execution
practice prevalent in the English Middle
Ages (AD 1100-1500). No cases of
suspected quartering have ever been
described in the archaeological literature,
although Marfart et al. (2004) did report on an instance of postmortem heart ablation from
Ganagobie Priory in France. It is possible that the lesions seen on HA16 are the result of
medieval funerary practice (mos teutonicus), where nobles who died away from home were
dismembered and the pieces boiled in water or wine, with their viscera buried at their place of
death (Park 1995). This generally involved the disembowelment, dismembering and boiling
of the body, often with requests for the heart to be buried at home (Brown 1981). This
‘division of the body’ was outlawed by an outraged Boniface VIII in 1299. Heart ablation
Mary E. Lewis
Figure 3. Cut marks on the third cervical vertebra indicative
of beheading.
Figure 4. Close-up of stab wound on the seventh cervical
vertebra (C7).
(cutting out) may have occurred in the
case of HA16, but this involves the
sternum, which was not recovered. The
ribs are in poor condition, but none
of the fragments reveal evidence of cut
marks. The normal process of this type
of execution involved evisceration; where
the intestines were removed and burned
in front of the crowd. This would have
meant cutting through the soft tissue of
the belly, and is unlikely to have left any
cuts on the bone itself. The lesions to the
vertebral bodies are inconsistent with the
incidental and superficial cuts that might
result from evisceration, and they have not
been reported in the osteological literature
Drawing, hanging, and
quartering as a form
of execution
Fourteenth-century England was plagued
by political tension and turmoil (Phillips
2000) and treason was a crime which
deserved the worst torments and cruellest
death that could be devised (Finucane
1981). This form of public execution was
high theatre which aimed to demonstrate
the power of the government to the masses
(Cohen 1989). Before 1283, the common
punishment for treason was to be dragged
to the place of hanging by a horse’s tail
(hence ‘drawn’). The family of the accused
would lose their property and in some
cases the children would also be executed
(Bellamy 1970: 28). In the late thirteenth
century, Edward I added disembowelling, burning, beheading and quartering to the ritual,
specifically for the execution of Dayfd ap Gruffydd, leader of the Welsh rebellion (Royer
2003). High treason dictated that the perpetrator should suffer more than one death. Hence,
each part of ap Gruffydd’s execution ritual was designed to make a statement about each of
his crimes. Because he betrayed the king, he was drawn at the horse’s tail, he was hanged for
murder, disembowelled for sacrilege and his entrails burned, and because he had plotted the
king’s death in several different parts of the realm, his body was to be quartered and limbs
A traitor’s death
Figure 5. The second lumbar vertebra viewed from the
superior aspect, showing a knick on the anterior margin.
Figure 6. Close-up of knick on the margin of the second
lumbar vertebra, possibly indicating a stab wound to the
dispatched to where they could act as
a warning to others (Bellamy 1970: 26;
Pollock & Maitland 1968: 501).
By the time Edward I died in 1307,
several men had been executed in this
fashion. They were usually dragged to the
place of execution on a hurdle to ensure
that they would be alive when they were
hanged, before being disembowelled and
finally beheaded (Barron 1981). The head
and quarters of the body were parboiled,
and sent to locations where the traitor had
found support, or where treason had been
conspired, and hung on town gates, walls
and gibbets, using poles or chains. Relatives
would have to wait until they were officially
‘thrown down’ before they could retrieve
the remains for burial (Bellamy 1979: 208).
This form of execution reached its height
in the 1320s, and by the fifteenth century,
by beheading (Royer 2003).
Depictions of the actual mechanisms
behind quartering of the body do not
survive, and there was probably no call
constituted ‘quarters’ may be inferred from
the description of ap Gruffydd’s execution,
where his body was cut into four parts and sent to be displayed ‘. . . towit–therightarm
at Bristol; the right leg and hip at Northampton; the left leg at Hereford’ (Maxwell 1913: 35).
This does not suggest division of the torso, but evidence for that practice may be found
in medieval woodcuts, for example, that of the execution of Thomas Armstrong in 1683
(Figure 11).
Identity of the remains
Radiocarbon analysis carried out by the Oxford Laboratory in 1990 (Hedges et al. 1991)
dated the remains to AD 1215-1285 (one sigma, 68 per cent confidence) or AD 1050-1385
(two sigma, 95 per cent confidence). In her report on the Hulton Abbey skeletal remains,
Browne (2004) proposed Sir William Audley (AD 1254-1282) as a likely candidate for the
burial. William, aged 28, was killed in Anglesey on 6 November 1282 fighting for Edward I
during the rising of the Welsh Princes. William and his men crossed the Menai Straits on a
bridge of boats, but their return was cut off by the rising tide (Wrottesley 1887). The Welsh
attacked and 213 men were slaughtered. Browne went on to suggest that William may have
Mary E. Lewis
Figure 7. Horizontal cut through the first lumbar vertebra
suggesting separation of the thorax from the rest of the
been captured and mutilated by the Welsh
rebels, and his body later retrieved by
his brother Nicholas who performed mos
teutonicus on the body to allow for its
transport to Hulton Abbey.
Osteological analysis of the remains
identified the male to have been over 34
years of age (mean 61 years) based on the
morphology of the pubic symphyses, and
too old to be William. Hence, Tomkinson
(1997) has argued that Williams cousin, Sir
Hugh Audley was a more likely candidate.
He had been one of the nobles who
had sided with Thomas, Earl of Lancaster
against Edward II in 1322, and had been
imprisoned for treason at Wallingford in
1325. He would have been 65 years of age.
There is no evidence that Hugh Audley
was ever released from prison and it is
more likely that he died in Wallingford
Castle in 1326 (Cockayne 1919: 348). He
was never executed. Dating of the Hulton
Abbey skeleton indicates that he died no
later than AD 1385, when this very brutal
and public form of execution was handed
out only to the most notorious political
prisoners. This suggests that the skeleton
Figure 8. Sagittal cuts through T11 to L2.
A traitor’s death
Figure 9. Close-up of cut marks to the left clavicle, and pseudo-arthrosis.
Figure 10. Cut marks to the left shoulder. Note soft tissue
ossification on the clavicle and cut marks to the humeral
at Hulton Abbey was a well known political
figure during this period. There is one far
more notorious candidate for the identity
of the remains at Hulton Abbey: Sir Hugh
Despenser the Younger.
Hugh Despenser the Younger was the son
of Hugh Despenser, Earl of Winchester, and
an advisor to Edward II. Hugh was married
to Eleanor de Clare, niece of Edward
II who, with her two sisters Margaret
and Elizabeth, was heiress to one of the
largest fortunes in England. On the death
of Eleanor’s brother, Gilbert de Clare,
Despenser used his political influence to
appropriate the lands that should have been
divided equally between the sisters (Holmes
1955). In order to succeed in his plan, Despenser attacked his brothers-in-law, Roger
Damory, married to Elizabeth, and more importantly, Hugh Audley of Hulton Abbey, who
had married Margaret. In 1317, Despenser claimed that Audley was withholding his share
of the Welsh estates from him. Not wishing to wage war, Audley exchanged his Welsh estates
for poorer lands in England. Despenser next exerted similar pressure on Damory and later,
had them both falsely charged and convicted of treason.
Despenser’s influence in court came from his being a favourite of Edward II, and it was
rumoured that he was the king’s lover. When England was invaded in 1326 by Queen
Isabella and her consort Roger Mortimer, Despenser was captured and executed at Hereford
(Holmes 1955). He was 40 years of age. Edward II abdicated and was killed in 1327 (Valente
1998). The power that Despenser had wielded in the court, and perhaps his personal
relationship with the king, had outraged Isabella to such an extent that his execution was
Mary E. Lewis
Figure 11. Engraving depicting the execution of Sir Thomas
Armstrong in 1683. Note the vertical cuts through the spine
and detachment of the legs through the hip.
particularly public and brutal. His crimes
and their punishments are outlined thus: a thief therefore you shall
be hanged; as a shall
be drawn and quartered, and your
quarters dispersed throughout the
kingdom; and as you were outlawed,
by our Lord the King and by general
consent, and have come back to the
court...youshallbebeheaded; and
because at all times you have been
disloyal and a formenter of strife
between our Lord the King and our
most noble Lady the
shall be disembowelled, and after
that you bowels shall be burned.
Confess yourself a traitor and a
renegade! And so go to meet
your doom. Traitor! Evildoer!! and
Convicted!!!’ (Brigstocke Sheppard
1889: 413)
Hence, on the 16th November 1326, Despenser was publicly humiliated by being stripped
and dressed in reversed arms, with a crown of nettles placed on his head (Fryde 1979: 192).
He was then roped to four horses, rather than the usual two, and dragged through Hereford,
where he was hanged, or rather choked, on gallows at 50 feet with his body supported
by a ladder. Medieval chronicler Jean Froissart (c. 1337-1405) reported that Hugh was
castrated, with his testicles thrown into the fire below, because he was considered a heretic
and suspected of ‘unnatural’ practices with the king (Johnes 1808: 32). Still conscious,
Despenser was dragged from the gallows, a knife was plunged into his abdomen and his
entrails and heart were cut out and burned. The corpse was lowered to the ground and
decapitated. Figure 12 shows Froissart’s depiction of Despenser’s dramatic execution. On
4th December 1326 his head was displayed on London Bridge and the quarters of his body
were sent to be displayed above the gates of Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol (Cockayne
1919: 267-70; Viard & D´
eprez 1904-5).
A few years later, Despenser’s wife petitioned Westminster for his bones to be collected
and buried on his family estate at Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire (Cockayne 1919:
270). Eleanor is said to have recovered her husbands head, a ‘thigh bone’ and a few vertebrae
(N. Strawford, pers. comm. Tewkesbury Abbey Archivist), the very bones that are missing
from HA16 (see Figure 2). The date of his death in 1326 fits with the 14C dates (AD
1219-1385) and his age is more consistent with the osteological evidence than William
Audley’s. If the remains from Hulton Abbey are indeed those of Sir Hugh Despenser the
Younger, then this is the first time such an execution victim has been identified.
A traitor’s death
Figure 12. The disembowelment of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger. Reproduced with kind permission of the Biblioth`
nationale de France.
This case raises many interesting questions about how the remains came to be at Hulton
Abbey. Although the pledge to distribute the quarters to four corners of the realm is well
known, we do not know that this threat was actually carried out in this case, nor do we know
if the ‘quarters’ included the torso as well as the limbs. If Hugh’s remains were collected
from their several display locations, then who did this? As a relative of the Audleys it may
be expected that they would want to bury their disgraced relative in a quiet corner of their
estate, and Hulton Abbey would not have been of great significance to them. But, given
Despenser’s attempts to have his brother-in-law executed, is it likely they would go to such
an effort? Perhaps a monk from the monastery took it upon himself to gather the remains
and bury them in the Abbey, so that all of his remains rested in consecrated ground. The
Mary E. Lewis
Cistercians believed that during the resurrection, such scattered bones would be reunited to
form one complete body (Bynum 1995: 121). As for the remains themselves, the removal of
the hands is not a recorded part of the execution ritual. However, if this is Hugh then these
may have been amputated with reference to his being known as a pirate and a ‘thief ’. Equally,
the potential stab mark in the first lumbar vertebra is consistent with the stabbing in the
abdomen recorded in the historical accounts, so perhaps are the cut marks to the surviving
femur. It is possible that Despenser’s ‘drawing’ may have been used as an opportunity for
the angry spectators to strike him with their swords.
This paper has described the first known case of a skeleton displaying trauma associated
with the practice of quartering in medieval England. In addition, it attempts to identify the
remains and place them within their political and historical context. The distribution and
nature of the lesions is not consistent with battle trauma or evisceration during ‘division’ of
the body, but fits with the historical accounts surrounding the execution of Despenser. The
date of the remains, from the founding of the Abbey (AD 1219) to the end of the 95 per cent
confidence interval provided by the 14C dates (AD 1385), fits with the period of his death
and his age and sex is consistent with the osteological evidence. Probably most seductive in
the identification of this body is the account of the remains buried at Tewkesbury Abbey, as
these are precisely the skeletal elements missing from HA16.
However, such historical equations can never be completely proved. Despenser is said
to have been buried at Tewkesbury and the matter must remain open unless and until the
remains in the vault at Tewkesbury become available for analysis. Meanwhile we can say
with more confidence that this was the skeleton of an execution victim, and the death of
Hugh Despenser provides an analogy for the pathology observed.
I am grateful to Martin Carver and Malin Holst for their comments on the text and, in particular, James Bothwell
for providing invaluable advice and references on the treatment of the medieval corpse.
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Collections for the History of Staffordshire 8:
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Violence is common among small-scale societies and often stems from a combination of exogenous and endogenous factors. We suggest that socialization for violence and revenge as a motivation can encourage costly signaling by warriors and contribute to the creation of atypical burials in archaeological contexts. We characterize mortuary patterns among early irrigation communities in the Sonoran Desert of the southwest United States/northwest Mexico (Early Agricultural period: 2100 BC–AD 50) to define normative mortuary practices and identify atypical burials. One of the principle roles the performance of mortuary rituals fulfills is to publicly integrate a shared identity or reinforce social differences within a community. This postmortem negotiation of social identities was likely an important component to ease social tensions in early farming communities. However, atypical burials from these sites appear to represent acts of violence upon the corpse at, or after, the death of the individual that fall outside of the normative conformity to prescribed mortuary ritual. We propose that these cases represent perimortem signaling, a form of costly signaling conditioned as basal violent reactions, possibly stemming from socialization for violence. © 2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
... Skulls excavated from the perimeter of high-status medieval dwellings and from along the walls of cities such as Dublin many times bear evidence of decapita- tion and other trauma and are thought to have been displayed similarly on walls, gates, and towers (O'Donnabhain this volume). In England, beheading physically ended the link between traitorous speech and the treacherous body and was considered a more noble-and less painful-death than drawing and quartering, with some notable exceptions (e.g., Lewis 2008). The infamous deaths of Mary, Queen of Scots, by axe and the French royal family by guil- lotine are two examples in which perceived treachery-either to a queen or to a cause-was ended with a blade. ...
Building on the notion that human remains provide a window into the past, especially regarding identity, the contributors to this volume reflect on intentional and ritualized practices of manipulating the human head within ancient societies. These essays explore the human head's symbolic role in political, social, economic, and religious ritual over the centuries. By focusing on the various ways in which the head was treated at the time of death, as well as before and following, scholars uncover the significant social meaning of such treatment. This illuminating collection highlights biological and cultural manipulations of human heads, ultimately revealing whose skulls and heads were collected and why, whether as ancestors or enemies, as insiders or outsiders, as males, females, or children. Featuring a wealth of case studies from scholars across the globe, this volume emphasizes social identity and the use of the body in ritual, making it particularly helpful to all those interested in the cross-cultural handling of skulls and heads.
This chapter examines the specific crime of treason and the ways in which homosexuality in particular has long been understood as a security threat. We examine more closely the relationship between sexuality, secrecy, trust, and betrayal, as it has traditionally been understood within the intelligence community. We also consider another type of spy—specifically the double agent. We also consider the ways in which new attitudes within the United States about queer people, including the acceptance of queer employees at intelligence organizations like the CIA, have in some instances led to the cooptation of the queer within the national security apparatus. Drawing upon the work of Jasbir Puar, we consider what it means for this to occur. I also briefly introduce the debate about whether “passing” as queer helps one to “pass” as a spy or whether it is instead a factor which affects one’s productivity and serves as a distraction.
This introductory chapter discusses a wide variety of biological and cultural manipulations involving human heads and skulls recovered from archaeological and ethnographic contexts around the globe, notably, as they relate to early Neolithic modeled skulls from the Middle East. As a biological object subject to disease processes and patterns of physical activity, the skull is one of the most informative parts of the human body. Significant social meaning is revealed by focusing on the various ways in which the head was treated before and after a person's death. This chapter summarizes the case studies in the book and links the practices of decapitation, decoration and deformation with potential religious, economic and political motivations and questions of identity—namely whose skulls were thus treated and why.
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Le corps 1 et, de plus en plus, le corps du mort 2 , sont au coeur de nom‑ breuses études concernant la période du Moyen Âge, que cela soit à travers l'analyse de leurs représentations, leurs conceptions, ou des soins qui leur sont prodigués. De telles discussions sont ainsi enrichissantes dans le cadre de l'étude des pratiques funéraires puisque la conception du corps mort en est un élément constitutif essentiel 3. Si, d'après J.‑C. Schmitt, « le corps en chrétienté a acquis alors une dignité qu'il n'avait jamais eue jusque‑là 4 », il semble toutefois que la concep‑ tion du corps et, notamment du cadavre, soit ambivalente 5 durant le Moyen Âge. Dès le début de la période, on retrouve cette ambiguïté, par exemple chez Grégoire le Grand qui, tout en affirmant le principe de l'intangibilité des corps des défunts 6 , traite le corps d'« abominable vêtement de l'âme 7 ». Cette 1.
At that place he was to be bound upon a high scaffold, in order that he might be more easily seen by the people. First his private parts were cut off, because he was deemed a heretic and guilty of unnatural practices, even with the king, whose affections he had alienated from the queen by his wicked suggestions. His private parts were then cast into a large fire kindled close to him; afterwards his heart was thrown into the same fire because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable counsels so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded... The other parts of sir Hugh thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London.
Treason appears to have fascinated the middle ages. As the most fundamental felony, it struck at the rools of feudal society through a complex of crimes: compassing or plotting the death of the sovereign, betraying his realm to an enemy, counterfeiting his coinage or falsifying his signature, seducing his wife or the wife of his son and heir. The basis of the felony was the same — betrayal of trust by an attack upon the security of the state, its administrative or economic validity, or the legitimacy of the succession — whether directed against the king or some lesser liege lord, and the law made no absolute distinction between high and petty treason. Both demanded exemplary punishment and drawing, hanging, emasculation, disembowelling, beheading, and quartering were employed in various combinations. In rare and aggravated cases flaying alive seems to have been included. This paper, though surveying the legal, moral, and symbolic bases of the penalties for treason, concentrates on the evidence for flaying, which has largely been ignored. It reviews and analyses the legal, historical, and literary records of this exceptional penalty. The frequency with which it occurs in literature, and the varied thematic use made of it to express abhorrence of treason, illustrates the significance which that crime had for the middle ages.