The Tyburn Tree

‘The fact is that the past is everywhere; when we are in public, our senses are constantly responding to stimuli that are gorged with history, whether we are aware of it or not’.[1]

In the Heritage sector, we often talk about places[2] as being receptacles for past emotions, where previous actions and experiences are described as having seeped into their very stonework and woodwork. We describe heritage sites as ‘holding’ or ‘containing’ a ‘spirit of place’ and how these places hold echoes of emotions such as fear, love, power, greed, pain and other emotions. Is this just a narrative hook we use to engage and draw in audiences to connect with the narratives of our sites or is there something more in terms of seeing emotional heritage as akin to other types of intangible heritage? In UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage, intangible heritage is defined as the ‘…means, practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated in addition to that – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage’.[3] Taking this definition as a starting point, I would like to propose that along with other forms of intangible heritage such as music, food and performance culture we can also describe emotional heritage as being a type of ‘expression’ or ‘practice’ and therefore a form of intangible heritage. And if this is true, how does the emotional heritage in our contemporary landscape affect us today, consciously or subconsciously as we journey through the streets, buildings, pathways where we live? How do we learn from the places around us in a world that’s ever-changing and connect with their emotional history? And how do we employ this knowledge and experience to find our place in society, build empathy, create a connection between the past and present and make heritage relevant to us today?

The thrill of the past

In this article, I will use as a case study, a site that has a strong emotional history connected to it, the former site of public execution at Tyburn. The site is located in modern-day Marble Arch, in central London on the corner of Oxford Street and Edgeware Road. I will explore Tyburn as a site of emotional heritage and, through its position as an ancient spring, crossroads and later a place where criminals were hanged on the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’. I am interested in Tyburn as it is a site where people felt and experienced intense and extreme emotions. Does anything of the pain, suffering, torment and fear of the history of the site remain today?  I will go on to discuss this idea and also present my new research findings on how the nuns of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre at the nearby Tyburn convent continue to pray for the souls of the martyrs executed for their faith on the gallows. I will discuss how how, although no physical evidence of the gallows remain, the emotional heritage of the site is still encountered and experienced daily by the nuns and the religious community at the convent and what this can tell us about how examples of historic emotional experience live on and are re-enacted and re-encountered in the present.

I am approaching this subject matter through my research as a PhD Candidate in the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University London. The title of my thesis is ‘The thrill of the past: encounters with historical narratives of emotional experience at heritage sites from 1895 to the present’?’ The etymology of the word ‘thrill’ comes from Middle English meaning to ‘pierce or penetrate’ and is later used as a metaphor to describe someone as being ‘pierced with emotion’.[4] It is this idea that I’m interested in, the affective nature of places and how their historical narratives can shape our emotions and penetrate or pierce our consciousness.

My background is as a museum and heritage educator, and I have over 15 years’ experience of working in museums and heritage sites. I am fascinated by the idea of how we access, present, interpret and elicit responses to emotional history in the museums and heritage sector. My thesis critically explores how throughout the 20th-century people have visited heritage sites such as stately homes, castles, battlefields, memorials and recounted having emotional experiences there. There are many reports of people seeing and sensing ghostly apparitions, getting shivers down the back of their neck, experiencing a feeling of sadness or despair when in a particular place, in essence, experiencing a long-lost emotional expression or echo from the past, now in the present. I will uncover, pick apart and put in a broader context how people have expressed and represented this idea of having a ‘thrilling’ encounter at a heritage site throughout the 20th century. For now, I will 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 experiencing emotional heritage.

A Spirit of Place

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. These protective spirits would inhabit certain natural places such as streams, mounds, woods, mountains and natural crossroads. This idea of a mystical ‘spirit’ residing in a site can be seen to be translated in contemporary heritage practice in the way the United Kingdom’s heritage organisation; the National Trust communicates the stories and narratives of its heritage sites. For example, the National Trust has 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 and park they manage.[5] This contemporary way of describing a place having an ‘aura’ or ‘feeling’ attached to it, draws on this historical idea of places being haunted or possessed by a spirit or emotional energy. To take this idea further, we can see how in the 20th century, the psychogeographic paradigm (how different places and spaces make us feel and behave) explains and propagates the idea of how we, as individuals can tap into the ‘spirit of a place’ and a sites ‘emotional history’. In Michel De Certeau’s ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ and his chapter ‘Walking the City’ he moves the idea of a ‘genius locus’ inhabiting a place 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 onespeople can live in’.[6] De Certeau is drawing on the theories and ideas of the psychogeographic movement here and the work of Guy Debord, the person credited with founding the movement in Paris in the 1950s. 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.’[7] Psychogeography builds on the idea that some places have a particular ‘spirit’ or ‘effect’ on us as we journey about our everyday lives and that we can experience this if we walk, observe and connect with our environment on a deeper level. Because one of the geographical focus’ for my thesis in London, I have been looking at some of the progenitors of psychogeographic writing centred on London such as the ‘London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries’, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and William Blake amongst others who advocated this deep dive into the spiritual heart of the city.[8] Later in the 1980s and ’90s, psychogeography experienced a renaissance, and contemporary writers such as Ian Sinclair, Will Self, Rachel Lichtenstein and Janet Cardiff echoed the writings of these ‘cockney visionaries’ in their work through their interest in the liminal parts of the city and their own visceral and sentimental connections with particular places.

Real or imagined emotions

Humans have a flair for attributing intentions, traits, agency, emotions and mental states to beings or things, either real or imagined. As a result, in my research, I am also looking at the history of the worship and mystical status of emotionally infused objects such as relics. I will discuss this later on in the article with particular reference to the relics on display at the Tyburn Convent. In his work on the history of the 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?’.[9] I want to explore this question by asking how we can learn about the emotional heritage of a place like Tyburn, where very little physical evidence remains, and what reflections of the emotions experienced at this site can we discover or sense?

A concrete crossroads

2017-10-02
Image: the traffic island on the corner of Oxford Street and Edgware Road in London where the plaque to mark the spot of the place and execution and gallows of the Tyburn Tree once stood. Photo by Jenny Pistella

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 and emotions left there. I am not going to give you any secondary information about the place, no text, maps, images. I am asking you to experience it in its singular reality. I am 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?

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 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 residues of the emotional life of this site, encased in concrete but very much alive and tingling with echoes of its dark emotional history.[10] 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. [11] She argues that it is all about encountering people and objects in context; without the background, emotions do not exist or remain on their own.

To find out more about the site, I recently went to visit the nuns at the Tyburn Convent, the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre at Hyde Park Place, about 50 meters down the road from the site of the gallows. 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 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.

An endless labyrinth of woe

the-people-hogarth_-_industry_and_idleness_plate_11_the_idle_prentice_executed_at_tyburn
Image: The execution of the idle apprentice at Tyburn. Engraving by T. Cook, 1795, after W. Hogarth, 1747

For now, let’s 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
‘.
[12]

William Blake alludes to the sacred nature of Tyburn in this poem ‘The Human Abstract, Songs of Experience’ from 1794. Can we describe Tyburn as a site of ‘genius loci’, an inherently sacred place with its own organic and natural energy attached to it? Blake certainly referenced this in the 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 which flows into the River Thames. The site of the brook and village of Tyburn was forever transformed when it was chosen, because of its liminal position outside of London proper, in the 12th century as one of the city’s main sites for execution. The eight Tyburn execution days a year were a fixture in the calendar, and Tyburn Fair, the day of execution and the customs surrounding it, was a popular spectacle and gruesome wake. William Hogarth depicted the carnival nature of the experience at Tyburn in his print ‘The idle apprentice at Tyburn’ in1747. His image shows a crowd of people waiting for an execution to take place with the condemned in a cart on his way to the gallows, which loom in the distance. The sacred procession of condemned prisoners on a pilgrimage to their deaths along a route from Newgate Prison to Holborn and St Giles and then up what is now Oxford Street was a popular public spectacle. According to contemporary accounts, one of the largest crowds ever gathered at Tyburn was estimated at around 200,000 to see the infamous jailbird and highway robber Jack Sheppard hanged in 1724. Michel Foucault, in his work ‘Discipline and Punish’ explores the idea of punishment as a spectacle and a ceremony of punishment. Tyburn, as a site, represents this: a shared emotional experience with the express purpose of educating and shaping the moral lives of the populace, transforming them.[13]

An emotional pilgrimage

Psychogeographers use walking as the method to observe and consume the world around them, and 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 transformation. Just as people had lined the route to Tyburn to watch Jack Shepherd on his way to execution in 1724, in the 1900’s Catholic worshipers connected with the emotional history of the Catholic Martyrs at Tyburn through creating their own pilgrimage.

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
Image: 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 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. Getty Images.

Father Fletcher started the first ‘Walk’ to glorify the Martyrs by following the ‘via sacra’ from Newgate to the execution ground at Tyburn in the early 1900s. 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.’[14]

Praying for the souls of the martyrs

IMG_9437
Image: The shrine of the Martyrs of Tyburn, on the ground floor in the monastery of the Tyburn Nuns – the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, London. Photo by Jenny Pistella

In total, 105 Catholic martyrs, including Saints Oliver Plunkett and 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 prophesied that ‘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.’[15] It seems like there was a project to construct a national shrine at Tyburn from around 1901. The foundress of the present 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’.[16]  The nuns moved into 6 Hyde Park Place in March 1903 and have kept vigil there ever since.

 The oratory on the ground floor of the convent contains numerous relics of Catholic Martyrs from the site of the gallows but also other sites of execution in London. Displayed on the walls, in glass cases are, the forearm of the Blessed Thomas Maxfield, secular priest, martyred on 1 July 1616, a piece of wood said to come from the authentic gallows and the bloodstained shirt of Viscount Stafford, martyred on Tower Hill, 29 December 1680 amongst others. In his work the ‘Metamorphoses of the Body,’ Jose Gil writes that relics ‘hold tamed energies inside them.’ These ‘little things’, literally storages 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’.[17] If we can talk about objects exhibiting these qualities, can places too, can they also be vessels and containers of emotion and meaning?

To conclude, as a site, Tyburn provides an interesting case study to think about how 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 and later pilgrims venerating the martyrs and the nuns praying for their souls, it’s a place where the emotional history of the site is kept alive, the emotion of the site is kept current, present and continually re-inscribed.

Footnotes

[1] Jordanova, L. J., History in Practice, 2nd ed (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006)

[2] for the purposes of this article I will define place, as a space that has meaning attached to it either within the parameters of architecture, shared public spaces which has a historical narrative attached to it.

[3] UNESCO Convention 2003, ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Article 2, https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention#art2 [accessed on 22 August 2019]

[4] Oxford English Dictionary 2013 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)

[5] The Museums Association, journal article on ‘The National Trust’s guiding spirit’ https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01052016-national-trusts-guiding-spirit [accessed on 18 August 2018]

[6] Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life. Chapter 7 Walking the City, print (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2013)

[7] Reprinted with permission from Ken Knabb. Translation available in Situationist International Anthology (revised and expanded edition), Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, and http://www.- bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm [accessed 18 August 2019]

[8] The LWT London lecture, ‘London luminaries and Cockney visionaries’, 1993 [accessed 20 August 2019]

[9] Boddice, Rob, The History of Emotions, Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), p.182

[10] Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets (Cheltenham: Skylight, 2012)

[11] Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[12] Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience., (London: Penguin 2017)

[13] Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)

[14] The Nuns of Tyburn Convent, Tyburn Hill of Glory by The Nuns of Tyburn Convent (Burns Oates, 1952)

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Gil, José, Metamorphoses of the Body, Theory out of Bounds, v. 12 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)

Works cited

  • Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004)
  • Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience., (London: Penguin 2017)
  • Boddice, Rob, The History of Emotions, Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), p.182
  • Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life. Chapter 7 Walking the City, print (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2013)
  • Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)
  • Gil, José, Metamorphoses of the Body, Theory out of Bounds, v. 12 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)
  • Jordanova, L. J., History in Practice, 2nd ed (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006)
  • Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets (Cheltenham: Skylight, 2012)
  • UNESCO Convention 2003, ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Article 2, https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention#art2 [accessed on 22 August 2019]
  • Oxford English Dictionary 2013 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)
  • The Museums Association, journal article on ‘The National Trust’s guiding spirit’ https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01052016-national-trusts-guiding-spirit [accessed on 18 August 2018]
  • Reprinted with permission from Ken Knabb. Translation available in Situationist International Anthology (Revised and expanded edition), Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, and http://www.- bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm [accessed 18 August 2019]
  • The LWT London lecture, ‘London luminaries and Cockney visionaries’, 1993 [accessed 20 August 2019]
  • The Nuns of Tyburn Convent, Tyburn Hill of Glory by The Nuns of Tyburn Convent (Burns Oates, 1952)

 

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