PhD research

The Tyburn Tree

“I have heard sundry men oft times dispute
Of trees, that in one year will twice bear fruit.
But if a man note Tyburn, ’twill appear,
That that’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.
I muse it should so fruitful be, for why
I understand the root of it is dry,
It bears no leaf, no bloom, or no bud,
The rain that makes it fructify is blood.
I further note, the fruit which it produces,
Doth seldom serve for profitable uses:
Except the skilful surgeon’s industry
Do make dissection of anatomy.
It blooms, buds, and bears, all three together,
And in one hour, doth live, and die, and wither …”

John Taylor, the Water Poet (1578–1653)

My PhD thesis is called Heart of Stone: how do we learn from sites of emotional heritage? I am fascinated in the idea of how we access, present, interpret and illicit responses to emotional history in the museum and heritage sector. My background is as a museum and heritage educator and I have over 15 years’ experience of working in museums and heritage sites. In the Heritage sector we often talk about spaces and places being receptacles for past emotions, where past actions have seeped into the very stonework of a building or public space. My research is going to focus on sites of emotional heritage in London. Later on, in this talk I’m going to use the former site of the gallows and place of execution at Tyburn as a case study to illustrate some of the themes and theories around emotional heritage I’ll be exploring in my thesis research.

I will be referencing, using and critiquing various historic genealogies to explore the idea of how places and spaces represent emotional heritage. In classical Roman religion, a genius locus was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera bowl or a snake such as in this image here. These protective spirits would inhabit certain natural places such as streams, mounds, woods and mountains, natural cross-roads. This can be seen in contemporary heritage practice, the National Trust for example, have recently published internal documents which detail a ‘spirit of place’ descriptor for each of their sites, describing the unique, special aura of each house, garden, stately home, park they manage.

In terms of theory, one of the main areas I’m looking at is how the pyschogeographic paradigm explains and propagates the idea of how we, as individuals can tap into the emotional history of a place or space. In Michel De Certeau’s, ‘The Practice of Everyday Life and his chapter on ‘Walking the City’ he translates and moves this idea to the urban environment, saying,

there is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can “invoke” or not. Haunted places are the only ones’ people can live in”.

In addition to De Certeau, I am looking at writers such as Guy Debord, the person credited with founding the pyschogeographic movement in the 1950’s. In his 1955 essay ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ Debord describes psychogeography as

the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”.

Because my geographical focus for my thesis is London, I have also been looking at some of the progenitors of pyschogeographic writing centred on London the ‘London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries’, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and William Blake amongst others. Later, contemporary writers such as Ian Sinclair, Will Self, Rachel Lichtenstein and Janet Cardiff echo the writings of these cockney visionaries in their own work through their interest in the liminal parts of the city and their own visceral and sentimental connections with certain places. Humans have a flair for attributing intentions, traits, agency, emotions and mental states to beings or things – either real or imagined – and so I am also looking at genealogies of the concept of relics, pilgrimage and place memory which I will discussion later on with direct reference to the site of Tyburn.

In The History of Emotions, Rob Boddice poses the question,

can an object, in and of itself, carry an emotional weight? Or does the apparent emotion emanating from an object have to have been put there by the viewer who then receives the reflection of that emotion, as if it had come from the object itself?

I want to explore this question by asking how can we learn about the emotional heritage of a place, like Tyburn where very little physical evidence remains, what reflections of the emotions experienced at this site can we discover, sense?

Sensing history

Imagine, as an experiment, I took you to a specific traffic island in central London and asked you to stand in the middle to try and see if you could decipher any resonance of past events, feelings, emotions left there. I’m not going to give you any secondary information about the place, no text, maps, images. I’m asking you to experience it in its singular reality. I’m asking you to unleash your subconscious mind to tap into the psychogeography of the site. You can hear the noise of the traffic, the beep of the pedestrian crossing, an aeroplane passing overhead. But what can you pick up from this as a site of lost or emotional heritage?

Site of the gallows at Tyburn with a plaque in the centre of the traffic island, placed there and maintained by English heritage.

Would you be able to pick up by subconscious osmosis that this was the spot where, between 1196 and 1783, criminals were executed on the famous portable gallows, known colloquially as the ‘Tyburn Tree’? What other information would I need to give you to help you connect more with the site? Psychogeographers such as Ian Sinclair and Will Self might advocate that you would be able to pick up some of the residue of the emotional life of this site, encased in concrete but very much alive and tingling with echoes of its dark emotional history. Sara Ahmed, however, might challenge this idea as she does in her work on ‘The Cultural Politics of Emotions’ where she argues that emotions are sensed in a world of interactions with other beings and objects. She argues that it is all about encountering people and objects in context, without the context emotions do not exist or remain on their own.

English Heritage plaque to mark the location of the ‘Tyburn Tree’

A site of genius loci

I want to use the site of Tyburn, as a case study because it acts as a microcosm to help highlight some of the key themes around sites of emotional history and heritage that I will be grappling with in my thesis. To find out more about the site, I went, about a month ago to visit the nuns at the Tyburn Convent, the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre. I spent an afternoon with them on one of their monthly open days and was fascinated to find out more about the history of the monastery and the site as well as hear their own personal responses and reflections on praying for and keeping the memory of the Catholic Martyrs who died on the gallows at Tyburn alive. I met with them, drank tea, ate biscuits and now follow them on Twitter.

To start at the beginning.

“He [Albion] sat by Tyburn’s brook, and underneath his heel shot up
A deadly Tree: he nam’d its Moral Virtue, and the Law
Of God, who dwells in Chaos, hidden from the human sight.
The Tree spread over him its cold shadows (Albion groan’d),
They bent down, they felt the earth, and again enrooting
Shot into many a Tree, an endless labyrinth of woe.”

William Blake alludes to the sacred nature of Tyburn in this poem The Human Abstract, Songs of Experience in 1794. Can we describe Tyburn as a site of genius loci, an inherently sacred space with its own organic and natural energy attached to it? Blake certainly referenced this in his occult lyrics in the poem. Tyburn, originally meaning ‘place of the elms’, was a village close to the current location of Marble Arch and so-called for its position adjacent to the Tyburn Brook, a tributary of the lost Westbourne River. A place of genius loci, a crossroads, marked by an ancient stone, the stone of Oswulf. A place of genius loci?

The spectacle of death

The site of the brook and village of Tyburn was forever transformed when it was chosen in the 12th century as one of the principal sites for execution in London. The eight Tyburn execution days were a fixture in the calendar and Tyburn Fair – the day of execution and the customs surrounding it – was a popular spectacle, holiday and gruesome wake. William Hogarth depicted it in this way in his print ‘The idle apprentice at Tyburn’ from 1747. His image shows a throng of people awaiting execution, the condemned and the prison ordinary in the cart with the gallows looming in the distance. The sacred procession of condemned prisoners on a pilgrimage to their deaths along a route from Newgate, through Holborn and St Giles and then up what is now Oxford Street. According to contemporary accounts it is estimated that around 200,000 people thronged the route to see Jack Sheppard hanged in 1724. Michel Foucault, in his work ‘Discipline and Punish’ explores the idea of punishment as spectacle and the ceremony of punishment. Tyburn, as a site represents this. A shared emotional experience.

The execution of the idle apprentice at Tyburn. Engraving by T. Cook, 1795, after W. Hogarth, 1747

A sacred place

In total, 105 Catholic martyrs—including Saint Oliver Plunkett and Saint Edmund Campion—were executed at Tyburn during and following the English Reformation from 1535 to 1681. For example, in 1581, Confessor of the Faith, Gregory Gunne made a prophecy after witnessing the hanging, drawing and quartering of Edmond Campion, an English Catholic Jesuit Priest and said

the day would come, and he hoped to see it, when a religious house would be built for an offering on the place where Campion suffered”.

It seems like there was a project to construct a National Shrine at Tyburn from around 1901. The foundress of the convent, Mother Mary of St Peter’s expressed this desire to establish a shrine on the site saying that “the Martyrs are urging us forward, they are calling us” and the sisters moved into 6 Hyde Park Place in March 1903.

Tyburn Convent, 6 Hyde Park

Relics – objects holding emotion

The oratory on the ground floor of the convent at Tyburn contains numerous relics, the forearm of the Blessed Thomas Maxfield, secular priest, martyred on 1st July 1616, a piece of wood said to come from the authentic gallows, bloodstained shirt of Viscount Stafford, martyred on Tower Hill, 29th December 1680. In his book ‘Metamorphoses of the Body’ Jose Gil writes that relics

“hold tamed energies inside them”. These ‘little things’, literally stores of energy, are in themselves insignificant. Their potency is directly related to, and expressed through, the contrast between their absence of signification and the presence of a power hidden within”.

If we can talk about objects exhibiting these qualities, can places and spaces too?

Relics on display in the oratory at the Tyburn Convent

The via sacra

Whereas psychogeographers use walking as the method to observe and consume the world around them, the act of pilgrimage is another way to access the emotional history and heritage of places. In her work ‘Wunderlust’ Rebecca Solnit talks about pilgrimage as a historic act of intentional walking. She explains how,

pilgrimage is one of the fundamental structures a journey can take, the quest in search of something, if only one’s own transformation”.

This is reflected in the case of Tyburn. Just as people had lined the route to Tyburn to watch Jack Shepherd on his way to execution, in the 1900’s Catholic worshippers connected with the emotional history of the Catholic Martyrs through creating their own contemporary pilgrimage. Father Fletcher started the first ‘Walk’ to glorify the Martyrs by following the via sacra from Newgate to the execution ground at Tyburn. Once the pilgrims had reached Tyburn, a priest would then conduct singing from the balcony of the Convent. “The bell rings out, the blessing is given in silence; the procession re-forms and withdraws; the tinkle of the bell recedes in the distance and “Blessed be God” comes the roar from the thousands of Catholics in the street beneath’

Apr. 04, 1950 - Commemorating The Tyburn Martyrs: Many hundreds of Roman Catholics took part in the commemorative service for the Tyburn Martyrs, Roman Catholics who died for their Faith at the Tyburn Gallows in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a pi
4th  Apr 1950 – Commemorating The Tyburn Martyrs: Many hundreds of Roman Catholics took part in the commemorative service for the Tyburn Martyrs, Roman Catholics who died for their Faith at the Tyburn Gallows in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a pilgrimage from Old Bailey, site of Newgate Prison, to Marble Arch, where the Tyburn Gallows stood. Photo Shows: A scene during the service outside Tyburn Convent, close to the spot where once stood the Tyburn Gallows.


As a site, Tyburn provides an interesting case study to think about how spaces and places can be described as having an emotional history attached to them. From the pain, sorrow, fear and desperation of those who died there to the crowds gathering at execution days it is a site which was the location for heightened emotional experience extremes of dark and painful events but also of the mundane of the social. Later, pilgrims venerating the martyrs and the nuns praying for their souls keep these experiences alive by re-imagining, reenacting, reconnecting with the emotional experience of the Martyrs killed for their faith on the tree. But, if you were out doing your shopping on Oxford Street and walked across this spot in the middle of a busy road would you know about the emotional history of the site? Do places like Tyburn omit their own emotional heritage or do we need markers, context, vehicles to remember and access their history?

0 comments on “The Tyburn Tree

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: