Burned at the Stake

During medieval times many people were burned at the stake in both Catholic and Protestant lands. Various methods were employed for burning at the stake and the practice was particularly common during the middle and late medieval times when the institution of the Inquisition was in full force.

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Both men and women were burned at the stake during this era and a variety of charges were used to enforce the practice.  Under the inquisition, some of the common charges included heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft.

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The practice of publicly burning at the stake was known as ‘auto-de-fe’ which in Spanish means “act of faith”.

Burned at the Stake *Methods

People were burning at the stake even before the practice took roots in the Europe of medieval times. Various methods were used to kill people this way, but three of them were particularly common.

  1. The most common method was to pile burning wood around a stake driven into the ground, with the victim hanging from the stake with chained hands and feet.
  2. In the second method, which was generally used when witches were burned at the stake, the wood was piled close to the stake so that the plight of the burning victim was not visible to the surrounding public.
  3. In the third method, the victim was tied to a ladder which was then swung into the flames. This method was particularly common in Germany and the Nordic countries.

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Burned at the Stake *Medieval Period

The practice of burning at the stake became increasingly common during the middle and high medieval times in Europe.

Cases of burning at the stake were found before that but the practice of public burning or auto-da-fe was first recorded in 1242 when it was first practiced under Louis IX.

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The practice later emerged in the Crown of Castile when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were allowed by Pope Sixtus IV to initiate the institution of the Inquisition in order to protect the Catholic faith in 1478

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King Ferdinand then extended the practice to the Crown of Aragon too in 1483. During the brief period from 1487 to 1505, more than 900 people were burned at the stake just in the Barcelona chapter.

Heretics Burned at the stake

Why were Medieval People Burned at the Stake?

Various charges, mainly of religious nature, were used to burn people at the stake.  Originally, the practice was confined to women who were found guilty of treason, while the men convicted of the same crime were either hanged or quartered.

Medieval Witch

Medieval Witch

Eventually, however, the scope of crimes which resulted in people being burned at the stake became wider and both men and women were included. Later after the medieval period and during the 16th and 17th centuries, witch-hunting became widespread in Europe and the women who were found “guilty” of being a witch were burned at the stake.

Medieval Witchcraft

Medieval Witchcraft

During this era, some 200,000 people were burned at the stake for witchcraft. Other common reasons included heresy of various kinds and blasphemy.

Famous Medieval People Burned at the Stake

Many renowned people were also burned at the stake during the medieval times.

The most famous case is that of Joan of Arc who was in the army of Charles VII during the Hundred Year’s War.

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After her noteworthy victories at war, she was captured by the English authorities, and sentenced to be burned at the stake by Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on multiple charges. Thus at the young age of nineteen years, she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in Normandy France in ‘Rouen’ which was under English control at that time.


Joan of Arc

Famous Grandmasters of the Order were Hugues de Payens 1118-1119 who was also the founder of the organization and Jaques de Molay the last Grand Master and was famously burned at the stake in Paris on the Orders of King Phillip IV in 1314.

Jaques de Molay Last Grand Master *Burned at the Stake

Jaques de Molay Last Grand Master *Burned at Stake

Among other famous people burned at the stake, Giordano Bruno was burned on 17 February 1600.  He was a famous Italian philosopher, mathematician, and astrologer in addition to being a poet and a Dominican friar.

The charge brought against him was heresy which included denial of various core doctrines of the Catholic Church.

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Death Procession

The Death procession was an important part of auto-de-fe or public burning at the stake. The victim was generally taken to the final burning place amid a crowd of people before being burned at the stake.

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For instance, during medieval times in France, a barefoot victim with a rope around his or her neck was accompanied by the executioner to the determined spot.

It was also common for the victim to hold a wax taper with a weight of about three to four pounds and was required to prostrate at the door of the Church and seek forgiveness for his sins.

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Since most people were publicly burned at the stake, a death procession was a common occurrence as well.

Witch burned at the stake

Knights Templar *Burned at the Stake

Among other people burned at the stake, the trials of the Knights Templar are also famous.  The Knights Templar, after enjoying widespread popularity and mystery during the Crusades and middle medieval times, fell out of favour with the authorities and was charged with heresy in 1307.

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Knights Templar

The leaders of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, and Geoffroi de Charney were publicly burned at the stake in 1314 under the orders of King Phillip. Before that, in 1310, 54 Templars were burned at the stake and The Order of the Knights Templar was officially disbanded and suppressed.

Jaques de Molay Last Grand Master *Burned at the Stake

Jaques de Molay Last Grand Master

The Executioner

The role of the executioner was particularly important when people were burned at the stake. He was the one who overlooked the public burning and was sometimes assisted by some other men. His role too varied from case to case depending on various factors.

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For instance, it was common for the executioners to make sure that women were dead before being burnt.

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A specific amount of money was reserved for the executioner for carrying out his duties and it varied from case to case. Paying anything else to the executioner other than the stipulated fee was strictly forbidden.

Burned at the Stake Fast Facts

The practice of burning people at the stake existed before the medieval European period but more people were burned at the stake during the middle and high medieval times than any other era.

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After the official sanction of the auto-de-fe in 1478, permanent trials were established throughout Europe.

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The exact number of people who were killed by burning during medieval times is disputed.

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According to one estimate by Juan Antonio Llorente, an official of the Church’s Holy Office, 31,912 people were killed by burning under the Spanish Inquisition while another 17,696 were burned in effigy. However, the numbers are disputed and some modern scholars have placed the number of people burned at the stake at around 10,000.