This blade is a relic of the French Revolution (1789-1799). During this struggle, French revolutionaries first deposed, then executed the King Louis XVI. In this period of intense internal upheaval, such was the hatred of the ‘enemies of the state’ that harsh punishments were carried out on the French upper classes, members of the ‘ancien regime’ (old order) and anyone supporting the royalist cause. To dispatch these victims, a common method of execution was death by decapitation, using the guillotine.
This particular guillotine blade is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum. It was captured by the Royal Navy in 1794, during the British war against the French Revolutionary forces in the Caribbean. The blade was taken to the West Indian island of Guadeloupe by French republicans , and was used there to execute more than 50 royalists. In 1794 the British occupied Guadeloupe and Captain Matthew Scott of HMS Rose brought back the guillotine blade as a war trophy.
The machine was introduced around 1791, after a committee had considered proposals for capital punishment by Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Another French physician, Dr Antoine Louis, headed the committee, which was influenced by the use of similar instruments in Italy, Scotland and Halifax (UK). The first execution by guillotine, in France, was carried out on a highwayman in 1792. During the ‘Reign of Terror’ (June 1793-94) anything from 15,000 to 40,000 victims were executed by ‘Madame Guillotine’. Most were executed in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris but guillotines were used throughout France and her colonies.
The machine consisted of a tall upright frame, with a suspended weighted blade (about 40kg). The blade, when released, fell in a groove to sever the victim’s head. The condemned person was bound and placed on a tilting board called a ‘bascule’ which was lowered to place the person face up or down on the board. The victim’s neck lay on one half of a wooden block, with a crescent cut out of it, and the other half, with a similar crescent, was lowered to fix the neck. The weighted blade, which was angled at about 45 degrees, then fell, cutting one side of the block and ‘slicing’ the victim’s neck. This was likely to cause instantaneous death, although there are anecdotal accounts of movements of expression after beheading. Certainly loss of consciousness and death would have occurred in seconds after decapitation.
The guillotine remained an official method of execution up until 1981 in France. The last person was guillotined in 1977. In Germany, Adolf Hitler’s regime executed around 17,000 people by this method.
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This object is in the collection of Royal Museums Greenwich