Your cheeky guide to the dynasty

Scary Little Secret

A torture rack, photographed in the Tower of L...

Image via Wikipedia

One probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am fascinated by torture chambers and such. I don’t condone torture, of course, and I’m horrified that it went on. It still does in some cases and places, I’m afraid. But there is just some forbidden pull (no pun intended) from those twisted instruments and their history. Thumbscrews, the iron maiden, the Catherine wheel, the coffin: they are horrific and amazing all at once — perhaps in a “How could humans do such dreadful things to fellow humans?” kind of way.

The torture tools on the Tudor-era menu could simply extract a confession or humiliate the victim, or instead be just the opening act to certain death. (That last bit was against the formal “rules.” Whatever. ) A sampling of some of these include manacles, the dunking stool, and the rack.  

Manacles (above) were handcuff-like gadgets hanging from the ceiling, which would then be clamped around the wrists and hands of the accused so that they too would be hanging from said ceiling. Which doesn’t sound like that big a deal when compared to, say, being stretched from here to kingdom come.            

But Father John Gerard described his 1597 experience with manacles as such: “It seemed to me that all the blood in my body rushed up my arms into my hands; and I was under the impression at the time that the blood actually burst forth from my fingers and at the back of my hands. This was, however, a mistake; the sensation was caused by the swelling of the flesh over the iron that bound it.”  So, not quite the field trip you’d think.  

The dunking stool (above), as you can imagine from the name, would dunk the victim into water repeatedly until they drowned. Its cousin is waterboarding, and I’m not going to go there. 

The rack (main photo, at top of this post) was also called the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter, after a 15th-century constable of the Tower, John Holland, 2nd Duke of Exeter. You may recall that one Anne Askew took a ride on the rack before being burned at the stakeMark Smeaton supposedly spent four hours on the darn thing.

I suppose I can’t be the only person morbidly fascinated by this subject, not when there is The Big Book of Pain on Amazon. At least I’m in good (??) company.



  Diana wrote @

Love the article thanks for sharing.
London Dungeon is fabulous when it comes
to torture 🙂 One of my favorite places 🙂

  barbalexander wrote @

I love the London Dungeon! Cheesy but fabulous.

  Lisa davis wrote @

I must admit that this would not be on my list of sight seeing attractions. Yes, I know it is a part of history but it just gives me the creeps. When I was 18, I went on a tour of Europe and we visited a concentration camp. I am glad that I had that experience but it was very disturbing and was scared me most was how beautiful the country was and how awful was this place. I felt like I should have brought flowers or something as a way of telling the people that they were not forgotten.

  barbalexander wrote @

I understand what you’re saying, Lisa. Maybe it is because these instruments and their history are so far behind us that I get that sense of “wow” when seeing them, although I also get the sense of “eeesh.” I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. (which I think *everyone* should see) and it is so powerfully moving. When we finally got to the “shoes” room (anyone who has been there knows what I mean) I had to sit on the nearby bench and just cry.

  A Different Lara wrote @

Being a bit squeamish, I have to squint my eyes through torture scenes in movies. I own a copy of “Public Executions” by Nigel Cawthorne” because I have always been slightly fascinated with them, but the whole “behind-the-scenes” torture has always been a bit too much for me to stomach. What gets me is all the devices invented to inflict pain–I mean, who sits and thinks up stuff like this? I wonder if inventing torture devices was a lucrative business back then? It had to be, with all the use they got out of them. 😦

  bethanyx wrote @

I have to admit that the guillotine is my guilty little obsession… I find the device absolutely horrifying as well as fascinating.

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