Tyburn was a village in the county of Middlesex close to the current location of Marble Arch in present-day London. It took its name from the Tyburn or Teo Bourne ‘boundary stream’, a tributary of the River Thames which is now completely covered over between its source and its outfall into the Thames.
The name was almost universally used in literature to refer to the notorious and uniquely designed gallows (A gallows is a frame, typically wooden, used for execution by hanging, or by means to torture before execution, as was used when being hanged, drawn and quartered. The gallows took its form from the Roman Furca when Constantine abolished crucifixion), used for centuries as the primary location of the execution of London criminals.
Tyburn was recorded in the Domesday Book and stood approximately at the west end of what is now Oxford Street at the junction of two Roman roads. The predecessors of Oxford Street and Park Lane were roads leading to the village, then called Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane respectively.
Executions took place at Tyburn until the 18th century (with the prisoners processed from Newgate Prison in the City, via St Giles in the Fields and Oxford Street), after which they were carried out at Newgate itself and at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark.
The first recorded execution took place at a site next to the stream in 1196. William Fitz Osbern, the populist leader of the poor of London was cornered in the church of St Mary le Bow. He was dragged naked behind a horse to Tyburn, where he was hanged. In 1537, Henry VIII used Tyburn to execute the ringleaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, including Nicholas Tempest, one of the northern leaders of the Pilgrimage and the King’s own Bowbearer of the Forest of Bowland.
In 1571, the “Tyburn Tree” was erected near the modern Marble Arch. The “Tree” or “Triple Tree” was a novel form of gallows, comprising a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three legs (an arrangement known as a “three legged mare” or “three legged stool”). Several felons could thus be hanged at once, and so the gallows were used for mass executions, such as on 23 June 1649 when 24 prisoners – 23 men and one woman – were hanged simultaneously, having been conveyed there in eight carts.
The Tree stood in the middle of the roadway, providing a major landmark in west London and presenting a very obvious symbol of the law to travellers. After executions, the bodies would be buried nearby or in later times removed for dissection by anatomists.
The first victim of the “Tyburn Tree” was Dr John Story, a Roman Catholic who refused to recognize Elizabeth I. Among the more notable individuals suspended from the “Tree” in the following centuries were John Bradshaw, Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell, who were already dead; they were disinterred and hanged at Tyburn in January 1661 on the orders of Charles II in an act of posthumous revenge for their part in the beheading of his father.