The terrible truth behind those torture scenes in BBC’s gory Gunpowder

Kit Harington and Liv Tyler watch the torture in Gunpowder (BBC1)
Kit Harington and Liv Tyler watch the torture in Gunpowder (BBC1)

In the Kit Harington drama, special torture were reserved for those who harboured Catholics. But is there historical fact behind those bloody scenes?

In BBC’s gory new drama Gunpowder, Sir William Wade, the Machiavellian Macgyver of Catholic hunters, surveyed an impressive arsenal of torture at his disposal in front of a baying crowd.

There was the routine gallows, axes and knives, a flame. Back in the locker there was the rack (which stretches) and the “scavenger’s daughter” (which compresses). The labour-intensive “hung, drawn and quartered” routine – the punishment for treason – was reserved for the young priest Father Daniel Smith.

But for Lady Dorothy, in the Kit Harrington dramatisation of the Guy Fawkes plot, a pointy stone was placed centre stage and everyone thought “alien egg maybe?”.

No, this was princess and the pea medieval style. Sir William had opted to torture sunny Lady D by crushing. She was tied, naked, on the stone, a wooden platform placed on top of her and then heavier and heavier weights added until she asphyxiated or the stone broke her back.

The technique was called “peine forte et sure” which means “forceful and hard punishment”, burying the bad news beneath the French.

The martyrdom of St Margaret Clitherow
The martyrdom of St Margaret Clitherow

Lady D was gone in a few moments. In reality, the best death was about 15 minutes but slow application of the stones could take several days.

In which case, as witness Guy Miege wrote: “His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day; and if he lives beyond it, he has nothing daily, but as much foul Water as he can drink three several Time, and that without any Bread.”

Most often, people were dispatched in about half an hour under the weight equivalent of four men. John Weekes, under 400lbs, refused to plead and bystanders helped him on his way by sitting on him.

Catholic martyr crushed to death

Roman Catholic martyr St Margaret Clitherow, was Lady Dorothy’s equivalent refusing to plead for harbouring Catholic priests. She died after 15 minutes under the weight equivalent of nine men.

Read more: Can you see the secret symbols?

The reason for the slow torture was to produce a plea from the suspect. A plea was crucial because only then could common law courts have jurisdiction. As Lady Dorothy stated, refusal to plead – standing mute – meant there was no jurisdiction, no forfeiture of property and Liv Tyler could safely inherit.

So crushing wasn’t an execution, but death was clearly an occupational hazard. Indeed, from the 1275 “Standing Mute Act” the peine consisted merely of imprisonment or starvations. The “forte et dure” element began in 1406. 

The technique was abolished in 1772. After that, refusing to plead was deemed the equivalent of pleading guilty until 1827 when a plea of “not guilty” was to be entered against any prisoner refusing to plead.


  1. Excellent explanation. Although Lady Dorothy was not real, she represented those women who did suffer thus, Elizabeth and Jane Huddleston and Saint Margaret Clitherow and many others. The execution of Father Garnet in 1606 was realistic and the conspirators who did not die by gunfire were indeed brutally hung, drawn, disemboweled and their bodies beheaded and quartered in public. This happened to every Catholic priest arrested in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the time of Elizabeth, James and later under Parliament and Charles ii, who revived the laws for a brief time. The plotters may have been going to kill King James and everyone in Parliament, but they were desperate men and we know all too well today how dangerous people can become in the face of oppression. This was a dangerous and violent times and most executions were show cased in front of baying crowds. Many people also showed empathetic compassion and were moved by the faith of many who died for their faith, whether Protestant or Catholic. The BBC may have taken some liberties in order to stress a valid point but they have given an authentic account of the events around the Gunpowder Plot, its background and the men and women at its heart. You can’t keep showing the fluffy bunny version of history. This is on after the watershed, so good, the true nature of horror and terror can be shown and the drama realistic. Well done and about time as well.


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