James, Duke of Monmouth, the owner of Moor Park mansion in Rickmansworth in the 17th century, suffered a horrific death after being sentenced to execution for treason.
Accounts of what happened vary, with some claiming it took eight blows of the axe to finally sever James’s head from his body, and others that at last a knife had to be used to finish the job.
James is far from the only historical figure to suffer an execution that would later become infamous.
In 1525, 19-year-old Elizabeth Barton, a domestic servant, claimed to have received divine revelations that predicted future events. Thousands believed in her prophecies and she was referred to as the Holy Maid of Kent.
At first she was treated favourably. However, Elizabeth took a step too far when she prophesied that, if Henry VIII divorced his wife – as he was attempting to do at the time – and remarried, he would die within a few months.
Elizabeth was arrested and forced to confess that her prophecies were lies.
She was hanged and beheaded for treason at Tyburn, and her head was put on a spike on London Bridge; she is the only woman in history accorded this dishonour.
However, Elizabeth is not the only woman who was punished in such extreme fashion.
Anne Askew was a devout Protestant. After being thrown out of her house by her Catholic husband, Anne moved to London, where she met with other Protestants and became a preacher. She even became acquainted with the Queen of England, Catherine Parr.
In 1546 she was arrested and tortured in the Tower of London. She is the only woman on record known to have been tortured at the Tower.
She was ordered to name like-minded women, but refused, even when she was subjected to the rack, which stretched the victim eventually causing the wrists, ankles, elbows, knees, shoulders and hips to dislocate.
The intention of her interrogators was probably to implicate Catherine Parr, who was suspected of harbouring Protestant beliefs.
Anne was convicted of heresy and condemned to be burned at the stake at Smithfield.
Due to the torture she had endured, she had to be carried to the stake on a chair.
Both Elizabeth and Anne were from the lower ranks of society, but it was not only ordinary men and women who faced the threat of execution. Even royalty could not consider themselves safe.
Edward VI’s Catholic half-sister Mary was heir to the throne. However, when 15-year-old Edward lay dying in 1553, he named his Protestant cousin Jane Grey as his successor.
After Edward’s death, Jane was officially proclaimed Queen. She was only 16 or 17-years-old.
Jane took up residence in the Tower of London, where English monarchs resided from the time of accession until coronation. She accepted the crown only with reluctance.
Many still supported Mary’s claim to the throne, however, and nine days after Jane’s accession the Privy Council proclaimed Mary queen.
Jane’s rooms in the Tower became her prison. She was charged with high treason.
When she was taken out to Tower Green to be beheaded, she blindfolded herself but could not find the block with her hands, and cried, ‘What shall I do? Where is it?’ The Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower stepped forward to help her.
Even those who died a natural death and were safely buried were not always at the end of their ordeal.
Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell died of septicaemia aged 59 in 1658.
In 1661, after Charles II had been invited back from exile to be king, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and subjected to a posthumous execution.
His body was hanged in chains at Tyburn, while his severed head was displayed outside Westminster Hall.
However, many questioned whether the body really was Cromwell’s, as rumour had it that, before the exhumation, Cromwell’s body had been reburied in a new location to protect it from vengeful royalists.