Is it just me, or is there something a bit off about the English staging their public executions across the square from the oldest and largest wholesale butcher’s market in London? Admittedly, Smithfield boasted one of the larger open spaces in town, and executions were one of the more popular forms of entertainment available to the masses, so the huge crowds needed accommodation. But still, it seems a bit tacky.
For the 200-plus Protestant Marian Martyrs burned at the stake here by Bloody Mary Tudor in the 1550s, the point seems to have been to focus their final cries of agony on the nearby gate of Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great. For the swindlers and forgers boiled in oil and the poisoners and thieves hanged and burned over the next several centuries, religious spite seems to have been less of a factor.
One of the strangest deaths occurred in 1381 when the 14-year-old King Richard II and a handful of courtiers confronted thousands of the rebels then overrunning London as part of the Peasants Revolt. The king beckoned forward the insurgent leader Watt Tyler, who insulted His Majesty, demanded refreshment, then got into a tussle with the courtiers. William Walworth, the Mayor of London, stepped forward and stabbed Tyler to death. Somehow, the boy King got control of the situation and led the mob off-stage, adding to his very brief reputation for wisdom and bravery.
The most famous execution on the site featured William Wallace, the rebel patriot (if you’re Scottish) or marauding killer (if you’re English). The English King Edward I, known as Longshanks, seems to have developed a particular venom for Wallace. He pardoned and negotiated with virtually every other Scot who ever rebelled against him, but insisted on hanging, drawing, and quartering the unrepentant Wallace. The English crowds in attendance were overcome with a delirious joy.
By the 19th century, Smithfield Market had descended into debauchery and mayhem. A man could sell his unwanted wife (seriously!) in the morning and use the proceeds that night to wade through the throngs of prostitutes in Cock Lane. As one observer noted: “Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world.”
Today, more than 150,000 tons of meat pass through the market doors, all of it classified as ‘dead’ (as opposed to ‘live’). One of the more grotesque features is a butcher shop that will sell you ‘Human Meat’—beef trimmed and cut up to resemble human body parts. Everything for your dinner party from fingers and penises to entire torsos. Fitting as it sounds, given the area’s history, it all seems just a bit tacky.