Most of the many rivers and streams and brooks of London have now gone underground, been buried in culverts, perhaps in some cases been driven to extinction altogether. For the most part, you won’t know that a course of water ever flowed past that point unless it is marked by some monument or momentary emergence. Two such are named Tyburn: one of them is purported to flow briefly in a conduit down the middle of the lower floor of an antiques shop; the other, smaller one’s persistent presence can be suspected thanks to a monument marking an eponymous location near Marble Arch.
Well. Monument. Have a look at this Google Street View if you wish: there are three young trees, still so spindly as to need support in tripod arrangements. The trees themselves form a triangle. Inside the triangle is a circle on the ground, barely noticeable to those passing, its metal letters not legible in Street View. Have a closer look, courtesy of Wikipedia, if you want. It says THE SITE OF TYBURN TREE.
This must have been an important tree, this tree sited by a brook, yes? Perhaps it is the tree by a brook where there’s a songbird who sings, and sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven, as Robert Plant once sang?
It was not exactly a usual tree, and such singing as there may have been was always abruptly strangled. Here is another picture, if you wish to see it. If you prefer not to look, I will tell you: it was just three tall posts in a triangle, with crossbeams between their tops. It stood on that site, in the area named after the passing brook, from 1571 to 1783 (it was rebuilt several times). From its crossbeams were suspended, by the neck, until dead, humans.
Yes. Felons (including some political and religious prisoners) were carried there by cart from Newgate Prison, a three-mile trip that took up to three hours due to the surrounding throng and a possible stop at the Bowl Inn to partake of drink (I don’t know about you, but I would want at least a half pint of strong liquor, undilute), and then the cart was parked below the beam, the rope – already noosed around the prisoner’s neck – was tied to a crossbeam, and the cart was driven away while its passenger hung behind and the assembled crowd – whoever wanted to come and look – could enjoy it in real life, not just on iPhone-sized YouTube videos.
And for longer than a viral video, too: this was not the more modern version of hanging, where there is a calculated drop that breaks the prisoner’s neck at the bottom and death is usually quite quick; this was an asphyxiation, a fording of the divide between life and death that took rather longer than fording Tyburn Brook or, for that matter, swimming the Thames. But whereas you could always swim or ford back across the water, once the suspense was over at Tyburn you were in the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.
Bourn? That’s the word from the Hamlet soliloquy. We would say boundary now. But the older word shows up (perhaps a little changed) in place names. Such as Tyburn. Which, in its original form, meant ‘boundary stream’.
And by that brook stood the robber plant, the triple gallows pole for people whose thoughts were misgiven. Sometimes people (such as Oliver Cromwell) were exhumed and hanged as posthumous punishment. The display was important, especially when the stakes were high. The stakes at Tyburn were always high, of course, high enough to keep the feet off the ground. But though they were stakes, the executioners did not tie and burn the prisoners; Tyburn was always a gallows.
But even as the place name Tyburn became a more worldwide byword for a site of execution, the famed original tree was fated to be driven underground and behind walls just as its brook was. Executions were moved to Newgate Prison. More recently, they were halted altogether – at least for people in England; deaths in other lands due to bellicose excursions are not officially considered to be executions, since they’re not, you know, personal. Usually. At least in England, though, as in Canada and many other places, death has moved largely out of sight, and the public and pre-appointed ferrying of people across the final bourn is, we think, a purely antique notion from the dark basements of the past.