Death by burning – Elizabeth Boardingham 1742-1776

Elizabeth Boardingham was one of the last women in England to be sentenced to death by burning, but was this really how her life came to an end?  Today, we’ll take a look at her life and discover a little more about its end.

Elizabeth, you would imagine, was happily married to her husband, John, with the couple living in the picturesque costal fishing village of Flamborough, Yorkshire. During their marriage the couple had five children, the eldest, Mary, born in 1766, followed by Ann, John, Robert and Thomas, the youngest, who was born early summer 1775.

However, life for Elizabeth was no bed of roses, as her husband sailed rather close to the wind and found himself in court on occasion, reputedly for smuggling, thereby leaving Elizabeth to run the home and care for their children.

Eventually Elizabeth had had enough, and despite having five children, all aged under 10, she took up with a man, some six years her senior, a Thomas Aikney of Thwing, Yorkshire, some 12 miles away from where she lived, according to the newspapers, although his correct surname was Hakeney.  Perhaps she was hoping for a better life with him, but the choice she made was to elope with him, leaving her young family and fleeing to Lincolnshire for about three months, but was this in reality everything she had hoped for? Elizabeth reputedly told Thomas that,

if her husband was dead, Tom and her would be married, and no longer live like a whore and rogue as they had done for some time.

According to Thomas’s account of events, he didn’t want to go through with such an horrendous act as killing Elizabeth’s husband, rather, it would be much better if they simply eloped to be free of him, which they did.

This elopement didn’t last long, and Elizabeth returned to John, who it seems welcomed her back into the marital home. Thomas however, remained in her life and Elizabeth could bear life with John no longer, and with those few words from Elizabeth about wishing her husband dead, ringing  Thomas’s ears, a plot was hatched.

Eight days after she returned home, on the 14 February 1776, about eleven at night, Elizabeth woke her husband, telling him that there was an intruder.  She had already persuaded Thomas to go along with her plan and had left the door unlock to make it easy for him to enter the house unnoticed.

Quickly dressing in his coat and waistcoat, John went downstairs after Elizabeth told him she could a noise at the door. Thomas was waiting for him and stabbed him, firstly in his thigh, then one of the left side, leaving the knife in the wound. Elizabeth headed outside crying ‘murder’ and a neighbour immediately came to her assistance, but of course, it was too late.

John's burial at Flamborough. 17 February 1776
John’s burial at Flamborough. 17 February 1776

Thomas and Elizabeth were captured and charged with the murder of John Boardingham and convicted on the clearest of evidence.

York Castle. York Museums Trust
York Castle. York Museums Trust

During the trial Elizabeth claimed that she knew nothing of Thomas’s plan to kill her husband. Thomas however, showed remorse for his actions and acknowledged that the sentence was just. Elizabeth it is reported, showed no remorse what so ever, declaring right until the very end that she knew nothing about his intention to kill her husband.

Thomas was ordered to be hanged, and his body was then taken to the surgeon for dissection, Elizabeth was to be ‘burnt with fire till you are dead‘.

The couple were transported from York castle to Tyburn, near the city, Thomas in a cart, Elizabeth drawn on a sledge, where they were executed amidst one of the largest crowds ever seen there.

The press also stated that during their time in York Castle gaol, the couple cohabited and that Elizabeth admitted that she liked Thomas and that she would like to be buried in the same grave as him, that that was never going to happen does not appear to have entered her head.

According to the newspapers, just before the unhappy couple died, they shook hands and saluted each other.

An account of the sentenced passed on the pair was recounted well over a century later, in 1909, which stated that the judge was Sir Henry Goulding, who, when sentencing Elizabeth to death for aiding and abetting in the murder of her husband, observed:

The sentence which the law obliges me to pass upon you is, that you, Elizabeth Boardingham, shall be led from here to the gaol, whence you came, and from thence upon Wednesday next, you shall be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution and there you are to be burnt with fire till you are dead, and your body consumed to ashes.

There is nevertheless such a spirit of lenity in the common law of this country, though this is the sentence you have received, and for my own part, do not believe that sentence could ever be more properly executed, in the strict letter thereof, than upon you, however severe the punishment is, that you would have been found guilty of a crime of the great magnitude, are condemned to undergo the law has allowed some mitigation.

You are first to be strangled at a stake and then burnt with fire. You have reason to admire the excellency of that consideration by which you have been tried and found guilty.

As we can see though, the judge showed leniency, so it appears that Elizabeth was strangled first, then her body then burned, not the other way around, as has been noted in other accounts, thereby making the first sentence of this account not strictly accurate.

John was buried in the graveyard of St Oswald’s church, Flamborough, Yorkshire, but as Elizabeth was burnt there appears to have been nothing to mark her grave.


Derby Mercury 22 March 1776

Leeds Intelligencer, 27 February 1776

Yorkshire Gazette 12 March 1887

Western Daily Press 15 May 1909

Featured Image

Richardson I, Thomas Miles; Off the Coast near Flamborough Head; National Trust, Cragside

12 thoughts on “Death by burning – Elizabeth Boardingham 1742-1776

  1. mistyfan

    Burning at the stake for both petty and high treason was a punishment for women until 1790 (they were not hung, drawn and quartered as men were because it involved nudity). However, I haven’t found any mention of a woman being executed in this way for high treason; it always seems to be petty treason, particularly the murder of husbands (and in earlier centuries, heresy).


    1. Sarah Murden

      I haven’t come across any either for high treason. Elizabeth’s end seems to have been based upon abetting her lover rather than instigating it and we’ll never know what the truth was. Either way, it was a gruesome end!


      1. mistyfan

        Strangling before burning was common by then. But in the case of Catherine Hayes a few months later, the strangling failed because the flames rose too fast, and she was burned alive. Now THAT was a gruesome end.


        1. Sarah Murden

          Hmm, have just read about Catherine’s demise – 1726, she tried to poison herself first apparently. The hanging failed and apparently someone threw a piece of wood at her head – how very gruesome 😦


  2. mistyfan

    The last such execution in England was in 1789 and the practice abolished the following year. The last burning at the stake for heresy in England was in 1612 but seemed to have fallen out of favour way before then after the infamous Bloody Mary burnings (only five in Elizabeth I’s reign).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      I wondered that too, and took a quick look for them, but didn’t find anything to conclusively say it was them, but I presume they would have been cared for by relatives, as was often the case.


      1. I hope they were lucky enough to have relatives, I shudder to think of how much unkindness they might have received in taunting by other kids if they went on the parish. And possibly from the ‘responsible adults’ over bad blood.


  3. mistyfan

    Elizabeth (and also Catherine Hayes) being dragged to the stake on a hurdle sounds very Tudor. It was how they brought traitors of common blood to the executioner. It must because the women were convicted of (petty) treason rather than murder for the killing of their husbands.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 15) |

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 )

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.