The story of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder treason doesn’t end on the 5th of November. After famously failing to blow up the House of Lords and destroy British Parliament with a group of co-conspirators, Fawkes plotted a final act of revenge on January 31, 1606 by taking his own life at the Westminster gallows. In the aftermath his decapitated head was spiked on Traitor’s Gate at the London Bridge, becoming one of many cases in a gruesome and often overlooked tradition that lasted 355 years.
A judge ordered Fawkes and his comrades to be hanged, dismembered, genitals mutilated, and remains scattered throughout the kingdom. Following three days of torture Fawkes marched to the gibbet. While ascending the scaffold he turned from his would-be executioner and leapt, breaking his own neck with the fall. His sentence was complete after being drawn and quartered. This was a customary death penalty issued to many during Britain’s 17th century. Public head staking, however, was reserved for members of the aristocracy and high profile traitors like Fawkes.
Perfidious Fauks, whole hopes were lately high
By Treason to be rais’d to Dignity;
By Justice, finds Treason retaliated,
His Head upon a Pole high elevated:
That All may see Gods vengeance prosecuting,
The proudest Traitors, treason executing.
By Francis Herring and John Vicars in, The quintessence of cruelty, or, master-piece of treachery, the Popish pouder-plot, invented by hellish-malice, prevented by heavenly-mercy, 1652.
Various construction projects for the London Bridge were underway by at least 1066 utilizing wood and floating pontoons. In 1209 it was established as a permanent stone viaduct. The structure contained modern features such as a drawbridge, defensive gates on either side, multi-seated public latrines, and crowded retail shops. The north gatehouse was the first notorious site in 1305 when the skull of William “Braveheart” Wallace was affixed to the top of a looming spike. The southernmost gate was eventually selected to serve as the macabre scene because it was more visible to pedestrians.
The job of maintaining this gallery of horrors fell to the “Keeper of the Heads.” Said individual was responsible for boiling, bathing them in hot tar to stave off rot, and staking them atop the gate. Following 2-3 weeks of sufficient spectacle the Keeper removed weathered skulls from view. Unless an industrious family member paid a hefty bribe to retrieve their loved one’s cranium it was discarded into the Thames. There are surviving ghost tales of an infamous lute-playing Keeper who took his job a little too seriously and refuses to leave his post.
Guy Fawkes was one among many whose eviscerated remains were used to deter criminals from acting out against the Crown. These repressive tactics were effective for roughly four centuries of social control. As a German traveler to the city described in 1598, over 30 heads were on display during one visit alone. The cruel and unusual punishment finally fell out of favor around 1660, but heads were reported at the site as late as 1772 by John Timbs, author of Curiosities of London.