The Axe and the Head

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections, tries not to lose her head in the mystery of the heading axe…

Recently I received an enquiry regarding an axe; could we identify it as a heading axe? Well if anyone could, you’d think the Tower of London could. However, identifying a heading axe is a lot more difficult than you would think.

Indeed, the shape of an axe head can tell you a lot about what an axe was used for. From Coachmaker Axes (clue’s in the name) to Blocking Axes (often used in shipbuilding), axes were often designed as tools of trade rather than weapons. To discover their uses we often turned to trade directories or the handy Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodwork Tools.

Nevertheless, cutting heads off isn’t normally named as a particular use and ‘Executioner’ isn’t generally the sort of trade these works are discussing. Depictions of public executions aren’t always reliable either. Artistic impressions are sometimes made long after the execution with no way of knowing if the artist attended any public executions. The image below of Lady Jane Grey’s execution was actually created in the 19th century. Furthermore written descriptions don’t tend to focus on the design of the axe when describing a public figure’s last few moments.

Engraving by George Cruikshank showing the execution of Lady Jane Grey on Tower Green in 1554. From The Tower of London / by W.H. Ainsworth (1845)
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

Consequently, provenance is our best indication. Beheading was an execution preserved for the rich and (previously) powerful. The average execution involved hanging and if you were particularly treacherous you were hung, drawn and quartered. Moreover, it was primarily the English who favoured an axe beheading, whereas the executioners on the continent preferred the sword. Not trusting the axe, and perhaps an English executioner, Anne Boleyn requested a swordsman and sword to be shipped over from France especially for her execution.

Heading axe. Probably English, 16th century
Copyright: Board of Trustees of the Armouries

The Tower of London’s heading axe is traditionally believed to be one of four that we know were stored here in the 17th century, but we don’t have details about its use. We actually know more about the block it is displayed with, which was used for the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, but that is a different story. So in conclusion, to know if you have a heading axe you need to know where your axe head comes from.

Blogger: Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections