5. Spectator at Tyburn

Warning: this chapter contains description of human death by hanging.

London, England
April, 1667

As dawn’s light crept into the small house, William became able to see out into the churchyard. His son was sweeping the threshold of the church, a small cloud of dust swirling around his ankles. It was a warm morning, and the younger Cullen worked without his shirt, his golden hair spilling down between his shoulder blades.

The boy’s hair was too long again. The Dissenter men increasingly felt that a length of hair on a man was unsightly; he should be distinguishable from the women to identify him for the work for which he was uniquely called. In Geneva, it was almost unheard of for a man to wear his hair long. William’s own hair was cut reasonably short, just under his ears, and he liked it.

His son, however, wore a veritable mane at times, particularly if it had been some time since William had last been able to convince his younger part to get to a barber. It had now again been several months, and the hair, which had once been appropriately short, was now almost girlishly long, glistening with sweat as he worked.

Making the boy the church sexton had been a good idea. It kept him close to the church, even though he resented the work. William sometimes wondered if he had educated his son beyond his station. He was read in Latin and Greek, and could recite chapters of scripture from memory. He wanted to study the law. William wasn’t opposed to this, at least on principle. His parents had wanted him to reach beyond his station by becoming clergy—he was the first in their family and the only one of his father’s three sons truly attain any sort of education. Drive magnified by generations—it made sense that the younger Cullen wanted to move beyond where his father was as well.

But the work of the church needed doing. Leaning back in his chair, William gazed in the other direction, to where he could already see merchants moving up and down the street, ready to hawk their wares. Pots jangled as tinkers moved up the lane, wooden wagon wheels creaked and thumped in the street. Most of the passersby were on foot, a few traveled by horse cart. Some were Englishmen, clearly, in coats and ruffs. But increasingly, their section of the town, blessed by the Lord in having avoided the fire, was becoming cursed by outsiders. Immigrants, traders, all those who made this place less desirable. They didn’t come to church, they often failed to pay tithes, and among them slunk the very forms of evil: thieves, murderers, adulterers.

He turned his attention back to the paper on which he had been writing his thoughts on exactly this matter. Most Mondays, the wicked were brought to justice at Tyburn, and today, as many days, there would be one from his own parish. Trials were short when it was a clergyman who brought the accusations, and so those whom William prosecuted ended up in Newgate, and without any further pardon, hanged. The man in question was a branded thief—some other, more lenient pastor had given him clemency once before. When he had been caught in the act of taking money from the taverns, William had been asked to bring trial against him. Today the man would plead for clemency again, and William would deny it.

The words that William would give had to be thought through ahead of time, almost as much as a sermon. To look down into the eyes of a man on his way to the gallows was unnerving; to commend that man to his death was near impossible. Yet protecting others from the criminals was his duty to his country, his parishioners, his God…and his family.

He gazed out into the churchyard again. His son was now moving toward the small barn, his broom hefted over his shoulder. He would put the broom away and then tend to the sanctuary, clearing dust and cobwebs, polishing the collection plates, baiting mice. There was a calmness about the way Young William worked, an ease in his gait as he moved from house to church to barn. He was content to work alone on these chilly mornings, rising before his father and slipping out into the pre-dawn with a broom, a shovel, whatever tool he needed for the day. His son had always been hardworking and diligent—William could hardly remember times that he’d needed to cajole the boy or remind him to work as he had come of age.

The week before, the younger Cullen had presented William with a chair, a handsome one of pine and holly, to replace the worn one in the sanctuary. That one had been removed to the rectory study, and the study chair moved here to the table. As with all things, his son worked hard at his carpentry. He would become a master of it if William let him. But it seemed a trade ill-befitting his son—they were called as a family to the work of the Lord. Making furniture for the sanctuary was one thing; spending the rest of his life making tables and chairs for commoners was quite another. His son was meant for greater things.

And then there was the other problem. As though to remind him, the cup of beer in his hands trembled a bit, the brew sloshing back and forth against the sides and a few drops spattering the table, thankfully missing the paper on which he wrote. Slowly, he put the cup down, but the hand which held it did not cease its shaking. It was happening more and more lately. He had ordered his son to begin taking care of the altar candles, not because he felt that the boy’s duties needed expanding, as he had explained, but because holding a flame still enough against the wick had begun to require a finesse that he could no longer manage.

William was fading; the Lord was calling him back in increments. Someone would have to take over the church. Someone William trusted.

But was he guiding his son, or stifling him?

The door to the house swung open and his son’s figure appeared, looking sanguine. The warmer weather agreed with Young William; his face and shoulders had become handsomely tanned. His son’s skin had the tendency to freckle as had Sarah’s—looking into his face, it was as though she were reminding them she still stood sentinel over them both.

“Good morning, William,” he said, and the other winced. It was a topic on which they fought more than was necessary. In his haste, William had christened the boy with a name he less preferred, and the boy had been called this by his nurse until he’d been breeched. He had never taken well to being called by the name William preferred for him.

It was probably for this reason that the younger one turned a moment later and said brightly, “Good morning, Father. It appears the Lord has blessed thee with lovely weather for killing people.”

Blood rushed to William’s face, making him suddenly dizzy. This prevented him from standing up and confronting his son, and so he glowered from across the table.

“I will not tolerate thy dishonor,” he snapped back, and the boy spun, his eyes on fire. For a moment, they stood, appraising each other as though they were wild animals and either might spring. If the boy had been younger, smaller, or weaker, William might have considered taking his hand to his son’s cheek. Instead he took a deep breath and growled, “The commandment is to honor thy father and mother.”

The boy’s shoulders tensed, and the blue eyes clouded. His lips pressed together so firmly that they turned white. It took only a moment, however, for this expression to pass from his son’s face, to be replaced by the same feigned politeness.

“Then I shall ready for the day,” Young William said quietly, and moved toward the staircase that lead to the small bedroom. William watched him tensely; his son moved with a deliberate slowness, and his footsteps seemed to echo their way across the floor. For a moment, William thought that perhaps they were finished, and he breathed a short sigh of relief that the boy was willing to let the matter drop so quickly. But when he reached the stairs, he turned again, his brow furrowing as he seemed to search for words. When he finally spoke, his voice was icy.

“Tell me, Father, for you know better than I. The commandment says to honor thy father and thy mother. Do your actions honor her?”

And as William fought to regain his voice, his son disappeared.


The streets were full, as they always were on a hanging day. The poor and the wealthier merged in mobs, barely leaving enough room for the carts to pass. It hadn’t been so long ago that the threat of plague had thinned these crowds—many too ill to leave their homes, and others too afraid of becoming ill to do so, either. But people feared death less now, and the crowd had grown again, curious faces pressing against windows as the carts rattled their way westward.

For the sake of simplicity, the guilty were transported sitting atop their coffins, their hanging ropes twisted around their bodies, and their hands bound before them as though they were praying. It was sickening, really. Many of the men were repentant enough without the need for forcing them to do so. Carlisle walked with his head turned away from the spectacle as much as he could manage.

As a boy, Carlisle had not been permitted to come to Tyburn. He’d heard reference to the place, of course—he knew what it meant to ‘go west’ and he knew that the ‘Tyburn jig’ was no ordinary dance. But for some reason he had always pictured the tree as a real tree—a stalwart creation of the Almighty Himself, on which the wicked were brought to justice for their sins. A holly tree, perhaps, or a pine—his thoughts on this matter were unspecific and he hadn’t known the proper names for the trees anyway—but something massive, befitting the way the world and the Lord had passed judgment on the wrongdoers.

He had been thirteen when curiosity had finally gotten the better of him. Carlisle had felt himself old enough to learn what was happening, and he’d been indignant that his father was keeping him locked out from this part of his world. So instead of staying safely in the churchyard, he’d slunk from the house a few minutes after William, burying himself in the crowds. He was careful to take a different route than he knew his father took, but stayed within earshot of the carts’ jangling tack so that he would not lose his way.

The square at Tyburn wasn’t so much a square as it was egg-shaped, with tall grandstands on either side in which those of higher station sat in their finery. The air was filled with the stench of rotten fruit, brought to be hurled at the prisoners as they passed by in the beds of wooden prison carts.

And then there had been the tree.

It wasn’t a real tree, not as Carlisle had pictured it. There was no trunk and no branches, just six hulking pieces of roughly hewn lumber; as though it were a set of triangular legs that awaited some massive tabletop to be dropped upon it from the heavens. From it in places hung a few feet of leftover rope, swaying ominously in the summer afternoon breeze.

He hid himself in the crowd, being careful to stay away from the throng of neighbors he recognized from his own parish. Carlisle wasn’t tall for his age, and for once he was thankful for this as it meant he could move virtually unseen. He watched as though he were a student, taking in every detail of the spectacle. The bystanders jeered, the prisoners sobbed, the ministers prayed for mercy on long-since-forsaken souls. And then the carts rattled their way under the hulking beams, and nine heads were fitted with dark hoods.

One man refused.

Carlisle learned later that the man was being hanged for the murder of a woman’s husband; a woman on whom he had fathered a child. But he looked young and innocent, maybe ten years older than Carlisle himself. There was a childish stubbornness in his expression as the hangman rearranged the noose on his collarbone as gently as though it were a necklace.

He would imagine for years after that the man had locked eyes with him as he stood there, transfixed. Ropes flew into the air like swiftly uncoiling snakes, caught by men on ladders twelve feet overhead who tied off the slack quickly and without fanfare. The roar of the crowd surged with each one, washing over him like the tide. Some of the prisoners crossed themselves; more rotten fruit was thrown. The young man looked briefly skyward, perhaps offering some prayer of penitence, or maybe just judging how much give his own rope might have.

Abruptly came the crack of a whip against the flanks of the mules, and the cart jerked from beneath the young man and his companions.

It was over too quickly and too slowly. The bodies hurtled toward the ground for a foot or so, but then jerked like rabbits suddenly caught in a snare. Arms and legs went slack; heads wrenched to the side at freakish angles. The rapid sucking of air as the men strangled seemed to echo over the roar of the crowd. And the young man stared at Carlisle as his legs struggled a moment, scrabbling for purchase on an invisible floor, before the steely eyes went half-closed, and the tongue lolled from the opened mouth.

Carlisle remembered screaming, crying, and running, perhaps in that order or perhaps all at once. The crowd had crushed forward, still jeering, and he had twisted away from them, tears streaking down his cheeks and phlegm dribbling over his lips from his nose. He’d run far enough from the crowd that their sound dulled in his ears before he stopped, his breath heaving as he stood doubled over in a narrow alleyway. By the time he’d finished sobbing, dusk was falling, and he’d run as much of the rest of the way as his body would allow him. He didn’t manage to get there before his father, however.

William Cullen didn’t have need to punish Carlisle often, and the boy had learned to remain stoic when he did. But that night he hadn’t been able to contain himself, and the table became wet with his tears and slobber as the belt in his father’s hands whistled down onto his backside. Five welts from seven strikes—three landed true to the same mark and opened the skin.

The bleeding had been nothing compared to the nightmares.

The young man’s face had haunted him for years, tearing him from dreams into pitch darkness. Flat gray eyes disturbed him in wakefulness and in sleep, and this was more than punishment enough to keep him away from Tyburn for half of a decade. It would have been longer had William not decided that it was an important part of Carlisle’s clerical education for him to attend the hanging days.

Sometimes he made excuses—repairs that needed doing in the sanctuary, windows dirty with the chimney smoke produced by the ever-growing number of homes in the neighborhood. But his father wasn’t a stupid man, and it wasn’t long before the expectation had been made clear that Carlisle would tend to the church in the predawn hours, so that he could accompany William to Tyburn later in the day.

His father walked at his side now, his eyes darting from the crowd, to the carts, to his son. William wore his clergy attire to the hangings, which afforded him a few nods of respect as he and Carlisle moved through the throngs. Carlisle was no longer the scrawny child who had sneaked his way to the gallows a decade before. He stood a head and shoulders above his father, and his body easily cut a path through the eager spectators.

The tree loomed ahead of them, its three horizontal beams stark against the brilliant blue sky. It was ironic the way the most beautiful weather often seemed to accompany the hanging days—London was nothing if not gloomy and overcast, except, it seemed, on the days when the whole city was possessed with this fervor to kill its wrongdoers. The weather seemed to sit well with the higher class who were arranged in some of their best clothes in Mother Proctor’s Pews, anxiously awaiting the hangings as though they were a fanciful sporting match. Around them moved vendors selling food, newspapers, and souvenir pamphlets purported to contain the last statements of those to be hanged today. As most criminals were unable to write, Carlisle highly doubted the accuracy of these.

At any rate, it was all quite disgusting.

As they reached the opening to the square, William tapped his son’s flank. “We could meet at Fen Tavern,” he said, searching behind them for the approaching carts.

Carlisle frowned. “You wish us to separate?”

His father’s jaw set, but he looked across the crowd with tired eyes. “Thou hast seen the mantle which awaits thee, William,” he answered, gesturing toward the gallows. “When thou shalt choose it.” Beneath the tree, a small knot of other clergymen stood, awaiting the final requests of the dying. William locked eyes with Carlisle for a moment, then turned away—whether in anger or defeat, Carlisle wasn’t sure.

Carlisle stood in shock as his father moved quickly through the crowd toward the gallows. Those who had brought the charges against the accused always stood closest, and Carlisle had been forced to endure dozens of executions at his father’s side as William continued on his singular crusade to purge the world of all its evil. He had not stood on the grounds of Tyburn alone since that scarring first time he had come here as a boy.

Had it been what he’d said? The two of them kept an uneasy peace in the tiny house, and Carlisle spent as much time out of it as he was able to these days. Yet his comment this morning had been unusual, even given the general unease of their relationship. But if such statements meant he would be left alone…

Free to roam, Carlisle began to pick his way through the crowd, hoping duck to the tavern right away. There was little sense in staying. Moving across the field of bodies, he avoided the vendors’ calls, and kept his head low.

It wasn’t quite enough to escape notice, however.

“Mister Cullen!”

He spun at once in the direction of the sound, but saw no one he recognized. Then his eyes noticed a gloved hand waving in his direction. The hand’s owner smiled at him, and from beneath the dark blue coif she wore, Carlisle recognized the chestnut hair that had so captivated him a week ago.

She beckoned.

He gulped, but before he had time to walk away, she moved toward him, and he moved toward her, much to his own surprise. They reached each other momentarily, becoming a tiny island around which the crowd flowed.

For a moment neither said anything.

“This is no place for a woman,” he blurted, and as soon as the words left his lips, he at once felt foolish and rude for having said them. Thankfully, Elizabeth Bradshawe’s face broke at once into a wide grin.

“Come, Carlisle, this is no place for anyone,” she replied, laughing. “The carnival over this; the spectacle—it is depraved.”

Carlisle. His heart made a little leap sideways. “How do you know what I am called?”

She smiled again. “I might have thought you would have known,” she answered. “The way you stared at me that night I retrieved my brother from the coffee house. You looked as though you had seen a ghost.”

He remembered at once Thomas’s gentle chiding as he had stood, transfixed on the place where Christopher Bradshawe and his sister had met in the street. It was little wonder that the object of his attention had noticed as well.

“I give thee my apology for that unbecoming behavior,” he muttered, and she laughed.

“It is nothing. I was flattered. But I thought you had certainly recognized me.” She paused again and studied him for a moment before continuing. “My mother’s sister is Katherine Hall. She always referred to you as Carlisle; that was how she knew you.”

Carlisle’s breath caught. Had that not been his exact thought? The dark hair, the form—she had reminded him at once of his late nurse. He had nearly forgotten this in the intervening week; but of course it made sense. It had been Katherine who had been responsible for his even using this name in the first place; this name given to him at an emergency christening and later course-corrected by his father’s cramped handwriting in the church register: the letters W-I-L-L-I-A-M squeezed before the name that had been entered there in haste years before.

“Mister Cullen?”

Pulling himself back to the attention of the woman who stood before him, he shook his head.

“I am terribly sorry for the loss of your aunt,” he said firmly.

“Thank you,” she answered quietly, “but in her I lost only my aunt. You lost your mother…for the second time.”

“It was nothing,” he began to say, but all that came out was a half-strangled squeak. He fell silent at once, remembering. Katherine had not been a great part of his life after his breeching—he had been maybe five or six years old? But he had seen her from time to time, and her presence in his life had always been comforting. He remembered wishing fervently that his father would marry her, even though he knew her to be already married to another man. Her husband, too, had been lost to the plague; Carlisle had lost track of their children, who were older than he.

His silence did not go unnoticed. When he met her eyes again, he found Elizabeth was looking on him with an expression of mixed pity and sadness. He looked away.

“Your brother escorts you today?” His voice was gruffer than he intended, and Elizabeth looked shocked for a moment, but regained herself quickly and nodded.

“He tries to.” She gestured in the direction of the surging crowd. A young boy of maybe twelve or so stood hawking cheese and fresh bread, but Carlisle didn’t see Christopher in that vicinity. “He loses me often—or perhaps it is I who lose him.” She smiled again. “And you? You are here with your father, are you not?”

Carlisle shrugged, cocking his head toward the gallows, beneath which two carts were finally parked. He could see, even from this distance, the dark hoods being taken from the hands of the condemned, which the hangmen pulled over their heads to cover their faces a final time.

His lip twitched as he turned back toward Elizabeth. “My father takes his place of honor—one of the accusers, next to the accused.”

“And you do not join him?”

“His business is not mine.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “It seems we are alike in that respect. Both here not by our own doing ”

Carlisle frowned. Was he? He supposed he was old enough, now, to defy his father if he wished to. He wouldn’t be turned over the kitchen table and subjected to a belt-lashing at twenty-three. He’d made excuses often, about work that needed to be done around the church, to keep himself from needing to come to the hangings at all, but in the end, he had succumbed to his father’s demands that he finish his work in the mornings and come with him. Did that mean that he had chosen to come?

The question was somewhat disturbing, and so he chose to probe Elizabeth further instead. “Why does your brother have you accompany him?”

She laughed, but it was far from genuine. “Our mother does not know the places my chaperone prefers to take me. I needed to visit some shops, and she insisted Christopher accompany me. He, of course, delights in this.” Her hand waved in the direction of the crowd. Cheers rose and fell one by one, and Carlisle could see in his minds’ eye the ropes unfurling themselves as they were thrown upward to the waiting assistants to be tied. His lip curled.

“But I would admit,” Elizabeth went on, “that I had the slightest suspicion that you might be here also.”

“I am nearly always here,” he answered her dumbly, and she laughed.

Her head whipped around suddenly as they both heard the call of “Betsy!” from a familiar voice. Christopher was winding his way through the crowd toward them.

Elizabeth looked at Carlisle expectantly.

“Your brother,” he said.

“I see him.” She made no move toward her brother, which Carlisle found bewildering. It was obvious Christopher was trying to call her back, but she still stood before him, looking expectant. His eyes darted nervously to the other man as the crowd continued to yell and jeer, and he could just make out in the distance the shout of the hangman.

His gaze did not go unnoticed. “If I didn’t know better, Mister Cullen, I would suspect you wished to be rid of me.”

“No!” he blurted, eliciting a wide grin from Elizabeth. His face grew hot at once. “My apologies,” he mumbled.

“Not needed.” She was still grinning.

“Forgive my impertinence. I—I rarely have another to talk to at these awful events.”

Elizabeth nodded. Over her shoulder, he could see Christopher drawing nearer. “It is a pleasure talking with you also, Carlisle.”

He looked nervously up at Christopher, who had seen him, and was looking perplexed. When he said nothing to answer Elizabeth, however, she continued, her voice lower in pitch as though she might be overheard in the crowd. “Some men in this instance might ask if they would be permitted to call on me.”

Carlisle’s eyebrows shot up. The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind, but now that she suggested it, he realized he wanted nothing more. His heart sped, but he found he couldn’t put the words to his lips. When Christopher was almost upon them but still out of earshot, Carlisle managed a voice just above a whisper: “Might I be permitted to call on you?”

Elizabeth grinned, and for a flash of a second, she took his hand and squeezed it, then dropped it quickly before anyone could notice. “You’ll have to ask my brother,” she answered. And with a second smile and a nod, she danced away. Christopher threw him a glance, to which Carlisle nodded his own greeting, and then led his sister away.

Carlisle watched them until the dark blue of Elizabeth’s coif became lost in the drab clothing around them. Satisfied that he could not catch her without causing a scene, he turned away: away from the crowd, away from the tree, away from his father. The crowd roared suddenly, and he knew that one of the carts had moved. Screams—equal parts horror and delight—erupted from the gallery as the men began to struggle against the ropes.

But Carlisle wasn’t watching. “You’ll have to ask my brother,” he repeated quietly to himself.

Where Elizabeth had touched his palm, it tingled.

Chapter notes

§ 3 Responses to 5. Spectator at Tyburn"

  • Tina says:

    It’s easy to see where Carlisle’s compassion comes from after reading this. He was everything his father was not.

    The interaction with Elizabeth is charming. I’m quite fond of her.

    You never disappoint.

    • giselle says:

      Aww, thank you. And…we’ll get a little more of William in Ch. 7. He and C have more in common than either of them would like to admit, I think. Glad you liked Eilzabeth. She’s one of the most fun to write.

  • jenny says:

    she’s wearing gloves. then she touches his palm & it tingles.
    the touching & tingling is fine. it’s the gloves i have a slight niggling in my noggin over. they’re barely middle class. or do i have that wrong? gloves are rather dear for the time, aren’t they?
    bless topless carlisle on graveyard duty, even if it’s just sweeping in dawn’s early light.

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