Drawing and quartering was part of the penalty anciently ordained in England for treason. It is the epitome of "cruel and unusual" punishment and was reserved for traitors because treason was deemed more heinous than murder and other capital crimes.

Until 1870 the full punishment for the crime was that the culprit be dragged on a hurdle to the place of execution; that he be hanged by the neck but not until he was dead; that he should be disembowelled and his entrails burned before his eyes; that his head be cut off and his body divided into four parts (quartered). Women were generally burned at the stake rather than being subjected to this punishment. There is confusion among modern historians about whether "drawing" referred to the dragging to the place of execution or the disembowelling.

This gruesome penalty was first used by King Edward I ('Longshanks') in his efforts to bring all of Great Britain under English rule. It was first inflicted in 1284 on the Welsh prince Dafyd ap Gruffydd, and on Sir William Wallace a few years later. Curiously, neither of these 'traitors' had violated an oath of fealty to Edward: Dafyd ap Gruffyd was a monarch and William Wallace was a knight and military leader of sovereign nations before Edward decided to add their realms to his own: they were more accurately described as patriots or even rebels than as traitors.

Shakespeare's play 'Henry V' features the discovery of a French plot to kill King Henry V before he sailed to France. Two of the conspirators (Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Richard, Earl of Cambridge) were nobles and were beheaded; Thomas Grey, Knight of Northumberland, was drawn and quartered.

Other notable victims of the punishment include Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot as well as Edward Marcus Despard and his six accomplices who were hanged, drawn and quartered in 1803 for conspiring to assassinate George III. The sentence was last carried out in 1820 (though it was passed as late as 1867). In Britain, this penalty was usually reserved for commoners, including knights; noble traitors were "merely" beheaded, at first by sword and later by axe. During the American Revolution, most captured colonists were treated as prisoners of war, rather than as traitors, and thus were spared this punishment.

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