Halifax Gibbet: The Infamous Forerunner to The Guillotine

Nov 27, 2018 0 comments

Standing inconspicuously in the middle of an empty plot behind some trees, in the small English town of Halifax, in West Yorkshire, is a fearful mediaeval instrument of torture. It’s called a gibbet, and for more than three hundred fifty years it beheaded people for crimes as minor as stealing.

The Halifax Gibbet is a tall wooden structure with a sharp blade at the top, held up by a rope. The condemned prisoner was positioned below the hanging blade and securely fastened. When the executioner cut the rope, the blade, which was weighted down by a large block of wood, crashed down on the prisoner’s neck separating his head from his body. You may identify this device as a guillotine, famously used against members of the monarchy during the French Revolution, but the Halifax Gibbet predates the French guillotine by more than five centuries.


Photo credit: Robert Lennon/Flickr

While decapitation was a fairly common method of execution in England, it was mostly carried out by swords. Halifax is believed to be the first place where a machine was used to carry out the punishment.

The first recorded execution at Halifax by the Gibbet took place in 1286. At that time the Lord of the Manor possessed the authority to summarily execute by decapitation any thief who was caught stealing goods worth more than thirteen pence and a half. This was known as the Halifax Gibbet Law, and it was a rather harsh punishment even in those days.

Historians believe that the Gibbet Law may have been a last vestige of the Anglo-Saxon custom of infangtheof, which allowed landowners to enforce summary justice, including capital punishment, on thieves captured within the boundaries of their estates. The law remained a standard right of local lords and did not finally fall into disuse until the time of Edward III. But in Halifax, it lingered for far too long. Execution was so common in Yorkshire that a commission appointed by the King in 1278 reported that were at that time 94 privately owned gibbets and gallows across the county.

So notorious was Halifax’s reputation for strict law enforcement, that the English poet John Taylor, who called himself “The Water Poet”, penned a poem titled Beggar's Litany in 1622 that goes like this:

There is a proverb, and a prayer withal.
That we may not to three strange places fall:
From Hull, from Halifax, from hell, 'tis thus,
From all these three, good Lord deliver us.

Similar to Halifax, Hull too was very unwelcoming to thieves and beggars. While felons were decapitated in Halifax, in Hull they were tied to gibbets (not the Halifax type, but rather cages that restrict movement) in the Humber estuary at low tide and left to drown as the sea returned.


The Halifax Gibbet was used on market days to ensure as many spectators as possible. Before the execution, a convicted felon was detained in custody for three market days, and on each day he was displayed on the town’s square bounded in chains, along with the goods he stole. On the day of the execution, the convicted was taken to the gibbet located about half a kilometer away from the boundary that defined the area of jurisdiction. The rule was that punishment could be meted out to only those within the confines of this area, the Forest of Hardwick, of which Halifax was a part. If a prisoner escaped and crossed the boundary, there was nothing the bailiff could do to bring him or her back. On two occasions men did escape, one named Dinnis who ran the five hundred meters to the other side and thus escaped execution. Another one named Lacey also escaped, but made the mistake of returning to Halifax seven years later, and was caught and beheaded in 1623. Twenty seven years later, the Halifax Gibbet was used for the last time when it beheaded Abraham Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchell—one for stealing 16 yards of cloth, and the other for stealing and selling two horses. Both were executed on the same day.

By the time the exercise of Halifax Gibbet Law was ended, the Gibbet had claimed nearly one hundred victims.

It was Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, who outlawed the barbaric practice. Ironically, Cromwell was himself executed by beheading —but three years after his death.

The Gibbet that stands at Halifax today is a replica erected on the original stone base in 1974. The original wooden frame was dismantled shortly after the last execution in 1650, but the blade was preserved and is still visible at the Bankfield Museum in Boothtown on the outskirts of Halifax. A commemorative plaque nearby lists the names of the 52 people known to have been executed by the device.


The replica blade was cast from the original. Photo credit: August Schwerdfeger/Wikimedia

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