People were decapitated in Anglo-Saxon England crudely, study finds

If just being executed in Anglo-Saxon England was not bad enough, it seems that those unlucky victims of beheading would also have to deal with an executioner that was not very good at his job. These are some of the findings from a recent article that examined the archaeological evidence of executions in the early Middle Ages.

The study, led by Alyxandra Mattison with colleagues from the United Kingdom and South Africa, was published in Bioarchaeology of Injuries and Violence in Early Medieval Europe. It examines research on ten so-called ‘execution cemeteries’ from Anglo-Saxon England. By the seventh century there is evidence that special unconsecrated burial grounds are being used – these differ from traditional cemeteries in that the bodies are often buried in careless ways, with sometimes multiple people in a single grave or obvious signs of execution. Not all people buried there would have been executed, but these sites offer a chance to understand how executions were carried out.


Using modern osteological analysis, researchers can now do microscopic inspections of bones which can help determine what kinds of injuries are inflicted on people. The skeletal remains had been investigated previously, sometimes decades earlier, but this has often led to errors in explaining how they died. For example, many early reports on executed people claim that they were hanged, but this cannot be verified as during this period the victims would have died by strangulation instead of having their necks broken.

The researchers found dozens of cases where it seems the victim was decapitated, but there seems to have been much variety in how this was done (and how good the executioner was at his job). Many of the people who were killed seemed to have been struck multiple times during their execution.


At Walkington Wold, in northeast England, there was found the skeletal remains of 13 individuals, most without skulls, while eleven skulls were found nearby. One of the skulls, belonging to a person aged 18 to 25, was revealed to have been struck at least three times:

A glancing blow which had exposed an area of diploic bone on the right parietal and occipital, crossing the lambdoid suture; a shallow blow, which had just cut into the occipital to the right of the midline; and a deep blow, which had exposed diploic bone and was associated with two radiating fractures in the centre of the occipital. The blows had all been delivered in an upward direction, indicating the victim was probably bent over with their chin resting on their chest. None of these had resulted in decapitation, although there are consistent with attempts at decapitation, which presumably must have been achieved by a further blow (or blows).

Meanwhile, at Roche Court Downs in southern England, there was found between 16 and 18 skeletal remains. In the article, the researchers explain what happened to one victim, who was aged 40 to 45 years old:

The skull of skeleton 18 was placed under the right knee. The axis and one other, unspecified, cervical vertebra were found on the pelvis. It was suggested this was the result of animal disturbance. It probably took two blows to fully sever the head of this individual. a fatal blow removed the spinous process of the atlas and the posterior arch of the axis but would not have decapitated the individual as the blade seems to become fixed in the base of the skull. Further blows removed a fragment of the inferior right edge of the mandible and impacted the right ramus breaking off the condyle in the process. The hands were crossed at the wrists behind the back.


The findings have led the researchers to believe that decapitation was not widely practised in Anglo-Saxon England. Among their other conclusions:

It has also revealed that decapitation was not undertaken in a uniform manner, as the resultant skeleton trauma is diverse. Moreover, in some cases, there were evidently multiple attempts made to achieve the decapitation and the work of an unskilled executioner may be inferred. Together, this may suggest that decapitation was a deterrent to wrongdoing, used occasionally, with heads sometimes displayed as visible manifestations of the fate that might befall others if they transgress.

The article also mentions that while laws from early medieval England do mention other methods of capital punishment – hanging, drowning, stoning, burning, and being thrown off a cliff – it is difficult for archaeologists to determine that this happened to a person. Drowning and hanging, for instance, would rarely cause damage to bones.


The article, “The Osteological Evidence for Execution in Anglo-Saxon England,” by Alyxandra Mattison, Michelle Williams-Ward, Jo Buckberry, Dawn Hadley, and Rachel Holgate, is published in Bioarchaeology of Injuries and Violence in Early Medieval Europe, which includes seven other articles that focus on traumatic violence from Gaul to Greece. Learn more about this book from the publisher’s website.

You can also read Alyxandra Mattison’s Ph.D. dissertation on The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150.

Top Image: Skeletons at Walkington Wold – photo by Rod Mackey / Wikimedia Commons