A Place of Execution

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Author(s): Horrell. Martin; Year published: 2020; Origin: Member-contributed; Pages: 
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In Latin the word “furcus” means a gibbet or a gallows; the English translation is “forches”.

Whilst reading recently the article about the origins of Barnstaple and Pilton in the recent excellent edition of the DA’s Transactions I was interested in a reference to Forches Field in Barnstaple and another to Forches Cross near Newton Abbot, both of which were known sites of execution.

Death by hanging was introduced to Britain by the Anglo-Saxons as early as the fifth century, gallows being an important part of Germanic culture. Executions were a very popular form of public entertainment, drawing large crowds including thieves and prostitutes.

“Executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don’t draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose.” Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

On the road between Whimple and Broadclyst there is a place called Forches Head and I wondered if this was a possible place of execution as it is on a spur of high ground overlooking a relatively flat area, ideal for a gibbet or a gallows

I have checked with John Allan, and he kindly confirms that it is highly probable that it was an execution site. There are several similarly named places throughout Devon associated with execution.

Gallows were used to hang the victim by the neck until death, whereas on a gibbet the victim was either hung in chains or a purpose made iron cage dying some days later mainly of thirst. The body would remain hanging in full view for several weeks or months to deter other possible criminals.

The last public hanging in England was in 1868.

As it was forbidden for the bodies of executed criminals to be buried in Consecrated ground, maybe there is a cemetery near Forches Head.

Martin Horrell.