The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150
By Alyxandra Mattison
PhD Dissertation, University of Sheffield, 2016
Abstract: In later Anglo-Saxon England, executed offenders and, probably also, other social deviants were separated from the rest of the community in death. They were buried in cemeteries far from settlements but in raised landscapes which would have been visible from frequented areas – so-called ‘execution cemeteries’. However, from the second half of the eleventh century, these deviant cemeteries appear to have fallen out of use. This thesis seeks to discover where criminals where buried after the Norman Conquest and examines the influences behind the changes in funerary treatment of judicial offenders.
Numerous published excavation reports and databases were analysed for evidence of funerary deviance – i.e. any trait unusual for normative Christian burial – but with particular focus on evidence for decapitation or for individuals remaining bound at the wrists at the time of interment, both of which are the most direct indicators of potential execution. While 343 individuals were buried in Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries – sixty-two of these decapitated and seventy-three potentially bound – only three such deviants could be identified from the Anglo-Norman period. To inform on this transformation in burial tradition, historical evidence, particularly legislation and historical chronicles, were used to aid in an examination of capital punishment from c.850 to c.1150 to better understand the treatment of judicial offenders from conviction to execution.
Using both the written and funerary evidence, it is argued that that capital punishment was modified but did not cease to be used after the Conquest and that offenders executed under Norman rule were buried among and in the same manner as other members of the Christian community. The influences behind these changes in the treatment of criminals around the event of the Norman Conquest were not simply a result of the transition to Norman rule but were also a reaction to theological developments occurring in European Christianity.
Top Image: Medieval execution scene – from British Library MS Royal 20 C VII f. 203v