In D&R Aislinn mentions a few times that executioners were a bit like rockstars in their day. I’ve never done a blog post on executioners and decided it was time. I’ll be discussing two of them. Charles-Henri Sanson Chief Executioner of Paris and the Swordsman of Calais. I picked these two because they were very good at their jobs, and they each have a very historically notable execution under their belt.
Chevalier Charles-Henri Sanson de Longval: Charles-Henri served as Chief Executioner of Paris, a position he served with distinction for more than 40 years. He is estimated to have executed more than 3,000 people during his time as executioner. He was handsomely paid for his position and the position brought him a touch of fame. As well as his family being of the nobility.
Near the end of his life, he wrote a memoir about his job as Chief Executioner of Paris and admitted the worst day of his job ever was the day he was forced to execute King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792. He was a big supporter of the guillotine, noting that the machine made death easier for the person being sentenced, it was hard to botch an execution using it, unlike hangings or beheadings that involved swords or axes.
Sanson had not planned to be an executioner. He began his formal career training as a doctor. However, in 1757, Sanson assisted his uncle (the Chief Executioner of Reims) in the execution of a man convicted of attempting to assassinate the King. Needing to ensure a future career that paid well so he could take care of his family, he gave up medicine to take the position of Executioner of Paris.
The Swordsman of Calais was a bit different than the Executioner of Paris. He tried to keep his identity a secret, which is where pictures of executioners wearing black hoods comes from. Although, it is believed he did like his job, he wasn’t interested in the publicity that came with it.
What we do know for sure is that this Frenchman was an excellent swordsman. He became famous for being able to deftly behead those sent to the chopping block with a single stroke, using a continental sword (slightly larger and heavier than a broadsword, but smaller in length and weight than a longsword or Claymore). The Swordsman of Calais had made such an impression with his skills that in May of 1536, King Henry VIII brought him from Calais to London to perform the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn.
It was reported that Anne Boleyn was thankful for the arrival of this expert swordsman. A few days earlier, an execution in London had required 8 – 10 whacks with a sword before killing the person being executed. Henry VIII even delayed her execution a few days to ensure that the Swordsman of Calais would arrive for it.
Botched executions were not uncommon, regardless of the manner of execution. Hangings took a long time, as the person struggled and kicked against being suffocated by the short drop of the rope. It would be the 1750s or so, before the long drop type of hanging would start, which is much faster as it usually breaks the neck of the person being hung. Swords and axes normally crushed the spine, if they even hit it at all. Many beheadings required multiple whacks with a sword or axe and often the hits weren’t well placed, resulting in maiming wounds to the shoulders or back of the head before the execution was successfully completed.
We even have reports of people being beheaded where after the first or second shot from the axe or sword, people would have to come hold them because their bodies would go limp, most believe these blows would result in paralysis, but still be painful.
We do know the Swordsman of Calais was paid 50 sovereigns for the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn which was a huge amount of money at the time. Interestingly, if an execution was botched, the price of it could be reduced. One would think this would lead to better executioners, but it didn’t. In England, the going rate was about half a sovereign per execution.
It is because executions were public and because one that went well was so rare, that good executioners were sought after and treated with something akin to hero worship. Those dedicated to their profession, such as the Swordsman of Calais and Charles-Henri Sanson, took pains to make it more efficient. Sanson didn’t invent the guillotine, but he did refine one area that made it problematic, he eventually began to rub the guillotine down with oil before an execution to ensure the blade slid quickly and evenly when hoisted up or dropped. Even during the Revolution, when Charles-Henri would be responsible for as many as 15 beheadings in a day, he always took the time to oil the machine before the prisoner was placed in it.