By Kris Waldherr
Of the many méthodes de la mort presented in my book Doomed Queens, it’s beheading which generates the most buzz. After all, thanks to Henry VIII and his infamous wives, it’s a rare person who hasn’t seen Hollywood footage of one of his queens losing her head. These cinematic scenes are usually acted with a trembling lower lip, defiant last statement, then cue birds flying away (no doubt symbolizing the flight of the soul to heaven).
Beheading has been utilized worldwide since ancient times. It’s considered a quick and effective way to end a life, provided the executioner is skilled. In the case of Mary Stuart, it took three blows to sever her head. During Henry’s era, the condemned were usually blindfolded after they made a pious last statement that included forgiveness of the executioner and praise for the monarch. Next, they placed their necks upon the block; in the case of women, sometimes someone held their hair to the front, to steady them for the blow to come. Though an ax was traditionally used, Henry sent for a French swordsman to execute Anne in 1536; it was rumored that he was so skilled that she would feel no pain. Anne quipped, “He shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck.” The queen was killed with a single sword stroke while kneeling upright mid-prayer.
The much-married king did not splurge for the French swordsman in 1542 for Catherine Howard, his fifth queen but second conjugal beheading; she was dispatched in the usual way. The story goes that poor little Queen Kitty was so nervous about her upcoming date with death that she requested the block to be brought to her. She spent the night before her execution rehearsing how to place her head on the block. Presumably these efforts left her exhausted; her legs gave way as she climbed the scaffold and she had to be helped up.
As for Marie Antoinette, she was beheaded with a guillotine in 1793, which was a la mode in France due to the efforts of Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The good doctor submitted a modest proposal in 1789 to an assembly evaluating changes to the French penal code. Within it, Guillotin made the audacious suggestion that all men be treated equal when executed—that is, without pain and without torture. He wrote, “In all cases where the law imposes the death penalty on an accused person, the punishment shall be the same. . . . The criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism.” Contrary to popular belief, Guillotin was not a fetishist fascinated by executions; he was a lapsed Jesuit who hoped that a more humane method would lead to the abolition of the death penalty. Nor did he design the “simple mechanism” that bore his name. Variations of the guillotine have been around since the fourteenth century. After nearly two years of debate, the Assembly approved his measure in time for the Reign of Terror’s communal bloodletting.
Did the guillotine really render its victims a painless, swift death? The jury is out on that, since no one can tell us. However, one story suggests that consciousness did not immediately cease after the blade fell. Charlotte Corday, the infamous murderess of Marat, was recorded to have blushed with “unequivocal indignation” after her severed head was slapped by her jubilant executioner. That written, a neuropsychologist recently informed me that it was likely that individual consciousness would end within four seconds, in response to the severing of the aorta during decapitation. More probably, Charlotte’s famed blush was in reaction to the slap itself. Since the guillotine operates so quickly, her blood would be caught still circulating toward her brain, leaving her skin responsive to physical force after consciousness ceased—unless that was one really fast slapper.
Kris Waldherr is the author of Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends From Cleopatra to Princess Di from Broadway Books. Image: Kris Waldherr