Gallows in Medieval Frisia
J.A. Mol


Gallows as landmarks

Gallows were a familiar sight in the landscape of fifteenth-century Frisia. I am not thinking here primarily of temporary installations erected for executions in the town square to be dismantled afterwards, but rather of permanent constructions of wood or iron upon which the corpses of miscreants were exhibited after the execution, until they decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles nearby the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. [ Berents 1991, 1984; Van Caenegem 1954 ]

Frisia between the Vlie and the Lauwers, the area on which my research is focussed in particular, counted at least forty such gallows-and-wheel constructions prior to 1515. Set high upon natural elevations, beside busy thoroughfares and waterways or beyond the dyke, these structures stood out conspicuously in the landscape and were intended to be seen from afar.

Despite their emphatic position in public spaces and the significance which they thus acquired for the general public, little attention has been paid to the history of the gallows, neither in the Low Countries nor elsewhere in Western Europe. General histories of crime and criminal law devote only marginal attention to this phenomenon; studies of state building entirely pass it by. This neglect has nothing to do with the morbid nature of the subject.

After all, there is plenty of literature on the hangman and his job. [1] The most likely reason for this dearth of studies would seem to be a lack of source material regarding the construction, distribution and function of the gallows in the Middle Ages. Localisable illustrations on maps, prints and paintings begin to appear only in the sixteenth century; few reports and administrative documents are extant which predate 1500, and the gallows themselves have perished. Hardly any foundations survive of even the sturdiest structures from early modern times. At most, archaeologists may now and then come across a skull and some bones of the hanged, self-buried as it were at the place of execution.

The central gibbet of Leeuwarden (serving the whole province since 1515) along the Harlingen ship-canal, seen from the west. Drawing by Pieter Idserts Portier (1774), Leeuwarden, Fries Museum.

The gibbet of Leeuwarden in the Album Studiosorum Leovardiensis (1660), Leeuwarden, Historisch Centrum Leeuwarden.

What is in a name

Gallows are often memorialised in the names of fields, water courses and other landscape features, such as in:

These names have retained their gallows component after the eponymous construction had fallen into disuse and had subsequently decayed or been demolished. These names can be inventoried and localised, after which it can be concluded whether they indeed refer to the former presence of a gallows.

Such names represent the primary material for this essay. I have assembled them with the help of the huge collection of names of fields and water bodies [2] put together at the Frisian Academy in the 1940s and 1950s. Important in this connection is the institute's historical Geographic Information System (GIS), because it allows us not only to locate the physical position of gallows but also their owners, thereby giving some indication of who may have been involved in the setting up and maintenance of the gallows.

Try HISGIS yourself and find out how to locate gallows and other landmarks.

Gallows as recorded in the historical geographis information system HISGIS.


The number, distribution and function of gallows in Frisia are particularly worthy of study in relation to the extraordinary social and political developments of this region in the Middle Ages. It is known that gallows were built not only to instil fear and trembling and to act as a deterrent; they also served as a reminder of a ruler's power and authority. In this way the holder of high jurisdiction, i.e. he who held the right to condemn to death, made it clear to his own subjects and to visitors alike that they found themselves in an independent jurisdiction. The object, then, of my essay is to establish how the application of the death penalty, the erection of such penal sites and the exhibition of punished miscreants relates to the decentralised communal government as found everywhere in Frisia between the Vlie and the Lauwers during the late Middle Ages.

Given these circumstances, the question arises as to why the (possible) application of the death penalty by using gallows-and-wheel constructions ever found favour amongst these independent mini-territories, and what purpose they served.

Frisia west of the Lauwers and its political division in the fifteenth century: the terrae, the grietenien and the cities. Map by A.P. Versloot, Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden.

Click om image for larger version with details.

Compensation versus the death penalty in Old Frisian law

The question is the more pressing in regard to the Frisian lands precisely because the Frisians are known to have clung so tenaciously to the Germanic system of compensation. Many crimes, including manslaughter, which elsewhere had long become liable to the death penalty, were dealt with in Frisia by paying compensation.

This custom does not imply that Old Frisian law texts fail to mention hanging or beheading. They certainly do. But these texts emphatically radiate the sense that the legal order, once violated, may be restored through pecuniary reparation. I have chosen the year 1515 for the end date of my investigation. This is the year in which Duke George of Saxony passed his authority over the Frisian lands to the west of the Lauwers to Charles V of Habsburg. [3]

Eloquent and programmatic for the strongly compensation-based character of the medieval Frisian judicial system is found in the Seventeen Statutes , which contains a collection of legal regulations possibly dating back to the twelfth century and in force for all of Frisia, from the Vlie in the west to the Weser in the east. The sixteenth statute states in so many words 'that all Frisians may compensate their (violation of the) peace with their money and goods'.

On account of this statute, allegedly granted by Charlemagne, the Frisians remained exempt from imprisonment, rod, fetters and other painful punishments not only in their own lands but also throughout the Saxon duchy. This right immediately makes clear that the Frisian system had resisted the application of corporal punishment long after its neighbouring regions had accepted it. This is not to say that Old Frisian Law is lacking in clauses that allow for the death penalty for serious misdeeds. In short, murder for robbery, theft and nightly arson were capital since the twelfth century capital offences under Old Frisian law; a perpetrator could no longer compensate these crimes with money and goods.

Text on the compensation for the violation of peace in the sixteenth of the Seventeen Statutes:
Thet is thiu sextende kest, thet alle Fresa hira frethe mith fia bete. Thruch thet skelen hia wesa a Sixina merkum uter stoc and uter stupa, uter besma and uter skera and uter alle pinum.
This it the sixteenth statute, that all Frisians may compensate their (violations of) peace with money. Through that they shall be exempt of imprisonment, rod, fetters and other painful punishments in Saxonian territory.
(2nd Hunsingoër Codex, Tresoar, Leeuwarden)

Text on the paying of wergeld for manslaughter in the Statutes of Hunsingo (1252):
This send tha keran thera ebbetena and Thera wisesta fo Hunesgena londe 1. Hwasa enne mon felle, thet hine gelde mithe sextene merkum hwittes selueres.
These are the statutes of the abbots and wisest men from the land of Hunsingo 1. Wenn someone kills a man, he has to pay a fine of sixteen marks in white silver.
(2nd Hunsingoër Codex, Tresoar, Leeuwarden)

Execution and exhibition: town and country

Execution and exhibition gallows

The execution did not end with the hanging, beheading or breaking on the wheel. The corpse had to be exhibited, partly as an additional punishment or revenge on behalf of the community and partly as a deterrent. In other words, were the gallows-and-wheel used in Frisia for both execution and exhibition or were they constructions that served first the one and then the other purpose?

From the judicial-historical literature it appears that almost all the large towns of the Middle Ages and Early Modern era in fact had a separate exhibition gallows which were situated on a clearly visible spot beyond the city wall, embankment or moat. Such exhibition structures are often referred to in Dutch sources as the gerecht ( justice , compare German Hochgericht ).

Thither the criminals' corpses were brought after execution, usually in a ritual and humiliating manner, to be hung up or otherwise exposed, prey to rats and ravens until they had decomposed.

Frisian, like Dutch and German, has just one technical term for both structures: galge (gallows). In French and English the two may be discriminated through the use of two separate terms:

See also the remnants of the gallows at Nimes.

Remnants of the gallows at Nimes

The three pillars of the originally four pillar gibbet of Nimes, broken down in 1959, here shown on a postcard from the early 20th century.

Execution gallows on a town square. Brussels, Royal Library, Ms. 9231, fol. 90v, ca. 1450; (see also DBNL ).

Exposition gallows used to be more permanent constructions. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2771, fol. 332, ca. 1460; (see also DBNL ).

Urban and rural gallows

Some of the seventeenth-century city gibbets in the Netherlands are well known. That of Utrecht, for instance, was situated on the Vaartse Rijn, a good distance south of the city moat. Still better known, thanks to drawings made by Rembrandt, Reinier Vinkeles and others, is the Amsterdam gerecht, located in the Volewijk on the north bank of the river IJ. [Jelgersma 1978]

As for the north of the Netherlands, the Groningen exhibition gallows, situated on the south-side of the town during the sixteenth century, certainly deserves to be mentioned. [4]

By implication, and in contrast to urban gallows, the rural constructions also served as a place of execution. Separation of function was not only unnecessary but also too costly for the often much less prosperous country districts. [5] Consequently, when drawing up an inventory of gallows in medieval Frisia, we can take it for granted that, some town gallows excluded, by far the majority was intended for execution and exhibition alike.

Statistics gallows towns-countryside
All locations (interactive table) - data (CSV)

Triumph of Death (detail with gallows), by Pieter Breugel the Elder, c. 1562; oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Gallows near Kampen: summer view 1620-1625, by Hendrick Avercamp; Fondation Custodia, Collection Frits Lugt, Paris.

Gallows in or near towns and grietenien

Misleading names

Care must be taken when tracking down gallows through toponyms. Not every name with galg(e) need point to a former place of execution or exhibition. It may occasionally concern a nick-name or some memorial event, as is the case with Galgenhuis (Gallows House) in the village of Stiens, where around 1870 someone was said to have hanged himself.

More often, however, the galg- element in a placename appears to derive not from the penal apparatus but rather from Dutch gagel 'gale, bog-myrtle' (Myrica gale), an aromatic plant in great demand in the Middle Ages for making gruit (or grut ), a herb mixture used for bittering and flavouring beer.

When identifying sites, it is important therefore constantly to check whether the toponym under review might refer to a site that might have been a habitat of this plant. In view of the damp habitat of the plant, such a confusion is less likely in toponyms compounded with wier 'clay mound', berg 'hill', and words indicating 'high'.

Taking into account these and other uncertainties, I have been able to compile a file of about thirty 'gallows' place-names for the present-day Dutch province of Fryslân. [6] The list may be split into various categories, of which the two that are devoted to towns and to grietenien, respectively, are the most significant.

In addition to these two is a category covering the remainder of the 'other high seignories' that includes not only the islands of Terschelling and Ameland, but also the parish of Burum near the river Lauwers that enjoyed judicial exemption since all the landed property within its borders belonged to Cistercian Jerusalem Abbey, also know as Gerkesklooster.

A few examples of misleading names resembling 'galg'-toponymes, but not related to 'gallows'.

Visible locations

It appears that the scaffold-builders selected a combination of good visibility within a spacious expanse and a spot on the outermost edge of the district, in addition to exhibition on a relatively busy route for through traffic, or even a crossroads.

This was obviously done to demonstrate justice. All the other gallows-places that I have been able to localise score equally well for visibility along major thoroughfares. However, they do not appear in the margin but precisely in the middle of the district.

For anyone who approached or left the towns it was simply impossible to miss the gallows. It is remarkable that not only in Workum but also in Bolswerd, IJlst and Hindelopen the gallows were less than a hundred metres from the town centre, again beside the main road, whether by land or water. Apparently, the intention was that the citizens in particular should be confronted daily with the stringency of the law.

See details of the location of some more gallows on an interactive map .

The gallows of the isle of Ameland on the open marsh between the villages Hollum and Ballum, and on the main road between the two villages (source: HISGIS).

Map of Ameland (1731) by Piter de la Rive, showing the gallows.

The owners of gallows and gallows lands

Who were the owners and hence also the probable builders of the gallows? It would seem obvious to point to the administrators of towns and gritenien. The grietman was responsible for the construction of the gallows, while the grietenie defrayed the costs. In the Ommelanden, where the rural courts held on to the right to exercise capital punishment until 1795, the land upon which the scaffold stood was also bought by the districts. It is hard to establish whether both the gallows and the land upon which it stood were in the possession of the Frisian grietenien prior to 1515. As for the gallows situated beyond the dyke, it is known that the open land of the mud flats beyond the dyke belonged of old to the one whose farm bordered on the inside of the dyke. His was the right, so to speak, of reclamation and expansion into the newly accreted land.

However, this right did not go entirely undisputed. It was overturned when The Bildt was enclosed by dykes around 1500, and the new landlord, Duke Albert of Saxony, claimed this land. But the majority of newly cultivated polders along the Frisian sea coast would seem to have ended up belonging to the owners of land immediately behind the dyke. In other words, potential gallows-land originally lay in private hands. One may imagine, however, that so long as the salt marshes remained unsuitable for arable land and fit only for grazing sheep, the councils of lands or grietenien would have had no objection to a piece of it being used for the general public weal.

On land within the dykes we find two types of owner. Around 1500, the majority of gallows-plots of which the owners can be traced were in the possession of either church funds, or of descendants of chieftains (haedlingen) or rich freeholding peasants who at some time had possibly participated in administrating the district. Freeholders and chieftains in their office of grietman had to provide the means of execution and demonstration in order to support their authority. What would have been simpler for them but to build these constructions on their own property? From circa 1500 onwards, as I have briefly remarked, gallows-land may also be found in the possession of church funds.

The gallows of Sneek was outside the town, but within the dikes.

The gallows of Sloten stood on the land of the lord of Sloten (from the Harinxma family), near the Sloter Lake, at the entrance of the Sloter canal.

When and why

In the period when counts still reigned over Frisia, exercise of the death penalty lay in the hands of the count who, as a servant of the king, practised this right with the help of prominent judicial officials recruited from within his region.

In the course of the thirteenth century the count’s rule was set aside in Frisia and responsibility was assumed collectively by the administrations of county districts, now independent. These districts called themselves universitates terrae ('land communities'), of which Westergo and Oostergo were the most important. Since they had no overlord anymore, it was up to their governing boards to exercise capital punishment. But they gradually transferred the right to pronounce sentences on 'neck and head' to the towns and sub-districts that came into being within their lands

It is not easy to establish in what period these transfers took place. We cannot take as a starting point the data when cities obtained their municipal rights, because for many a Frisian town it is unclear when they acquired their independent status. I am inclined - leaving aside the two oldest Frisian cities Staveren and Leeuwarden - to date the building of gallows in or near the Frisian towns not earlier than the second quarter of the fifteenth century. As for the sub-districts, they seem to have begun to erect gallows in the following decades.

The process of transferring high judicial power and other rights from the overarching level of lands to towns and districts points to nothing more than a fragmentation and erosion of the power of the lands and their councils. This process indisputably led to a weakening in the structure of communal administration, which in turn resulted in instability.

The gallows, then, are also indicators of a self-timing political and judicial fragmentation process whereby both grietenie and town, whether or not under the leadership of dominant chieftains, demanded their self-evident autonomy.

There is, finally, another indication that signalling of autonomy was as much, or even more so, the purpose of these instruments than deterrence, containment and prevention of crime. This indication lies in the relatively high number of gallows in proportion to the number of wrongdoers actually sentenced to death and the size of the population. It is useful in this connection to know that after 1515 only one gallows was available for the whole of Frisia (the one to the south-west of Leeuwarden).

During the sixteenth century no more than four or five people were executed for the entire province, and not even every one of these was exhibited after the execution. There is no reason to assume that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries more people were hanged, beheaded or broken on the wheel than during the sixteenth century. On the contrary, research into the frequency of death sentencing in Europe in this period teaches us that strict punishment came into its own only after 1500. There are, it is true, few statistics available, but what figures we have confirm the trend sketched above. Things will not have been much different in many other grietenien and towns.

Gallow with shepherd (fragment). Jan Sadeler and Hans Bol, engraving, 1500/1600. Prentenkabinet Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.


What is the result of my inquiry into the function, number and distribution of exhibition scaffolds in Frisia west of the Lauwers?

First of all, I have made clear that the death sentence was indeed carried out in this part of late-medieval Frisia despite the fundamental principle of traditional Frisian Law that the Free Frisian had the right to compensate with money even the gravest misdeeds, including manslaughter.

It is impossible to say how often death sentences were executed. There must have been practical procedures and supporting actions for which the lands were the responsible authority charged with the execution.

Secondly, my investigation has shown that by the end of the fifteenth century pretty well every town and grietenie had its own gallows-and-wheel. The gallows stood without fail in a prominent, eye-catching position; for the towns this would be near the outer town wall or moat, beside a thoroughfare; for the grietenien in the middle or precisely on the edge of the judicial area, but always visible from afar.

It is difficult to date the erection of gallows in the individual towns and grietenien detached from the interrelation between the lands and their earliest sub-districts. This can be characterised as the transference of an extraordinarily essential right from overarching to regional and even to local level, it seems that we are dealing with a process of communal decentralisation.

The available data suggests to me that the majority of Frisian towns were unable to exercise capital punishment and consequently build gallows much before the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It may be taken that the grietenien were not lagging far behind in acquiring this right. The implication of this late date is that the gallows identified in my paper were in actual use for only a relatively short period of time.

As far as their general function is concerned, in Frisia as in other towns and rural districts throughout the Europe of those days the gallows served both as a deterrent for the prevention of crime and as a demonstration to subjects and strangers alike that the town or the grietenie was completely independent in judicial matters.

In this respect, Frisia west of the Lauwers is exceptional for its large number of gallows. If we may assume that no more criminals were sentenced to death on average in Frisia than elsewhere during the fifteenth century, then given the size of population we have reason enough to infer that corpses hung relatively infrequently upon the Frisian gallows-and-wheels.

Therefore, in as far as both functions may be separated, their symbolic function in spreading an aura of judicial and political independence was more important than their warning function.

The sparse number of datable facts, however, forces us to be circumspect. Further research into the distribution and chronology of gallows in the Frisian lands east of the Lauwers, especially in the Ommelanden and Ostfriesland, may offer some clarification here.



  • See the detailed bibliography in G.Wilbertz, Scharfrichter und Abdecker im Hochstift Osnabrück: Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte zweier 'unehrlicher' Berufe im nordwestdeutschen Raum vom 16. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert (Osnabrück, 1979)
  • P. Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering. Executions and the Evolution of Repression: from a Pre-industrial Metropolis to the European Experience (Cambridge, 1984)
  • H. Klemetillä, Epitomes of Evil. Representations of Executioners in Northern France and the Low Countries in the Late Middle Ages (Leiden, 2005).
  • For the Netherlands, cf. F. de Wit Huberts, De beul en z’n werk (Amsterdam, 1937).

See also: Berents 1991

[2] The collection contains both archival and 'living' toponyms. The former category refers to field names from various administrative sources and also, for example, from newspaper advertisements for the sale of land. Such names may be mapped by linking them with those appearing in the earliest land registers. The names in the latter category were orally collected from farmers, farm hands and others;

cf. J. J. Spahr van der Hoek, 'Stân fan saken oangeande de toponymesamlingen', Fryske Nammen 1 (1976), 111–13 (with map).

[3] See: J.S. Theissen, Centraal gezag en Friesche vrijheid. Friesland onder Karel V, (Groningen, 1907), p. 40

[4] The historiographer Sicke Benninge records its demolition by German troops on the occasion of the siege of Groningen by Albert, duke of Saxony, in 1500. It was reputed to have been an expensive construction of heavy iron beams on pillars of costly Bentheim stone.

See: Sicke Benninghe, Chronickel der Vriescher landen en der stadt Groningen, ed. M. Brouerius van Nidek, Analecta Medii Aevi (Amsterdam and Middelburg, 1725), p. 59–60.

[5] See: J. Frima, Het strafproces in de Ommelanden tusschen Eems en Lauwers van 1602–1749 (Amersfoort, 1920), p. 390.

[6] The internal inventory is available on in a separate layer 'galgen'.

Selection of literature

For a complete literature reference, see PDF-file

Berents, D. A., Misdaad in de Middeleeuwen, 2nd ed. (Utrecht, 1984).

Berents, D. A., Het werk van de vos. Samenleving en criminaliteit in de late middeleeuwen (Zutphen, 1985).

Berents, D. A., 'Galg en rad: "wrede straffen" in laat-middeleeuws Utrecht', Misdaad, zoen en straf. Aspekten van demiddeleeuwse strafrechtsgeschiedenis in de Nederlanden, ed. H. A. Diederiks and H. W. Roodenburg (Hilversum, 1991), p. 85–101.

Caenegem, R. C. van, Geschiedenis van het strafrecht in Vlaanderen van de XIe tot de XIVe eeuw (Brussels, 1954).

Frima, J., Het strafproces in de Ommelanden tusschen Eems en Lauwers van 1602–1749 (Amersfoort, 1920).

Jelgersma, H. G., Galgebergen en galgevelden (Zutphen, 1978).

Theissen, J.S., Centraal gezag en Friesche vrijheid. Friesland onder Karel V (Groningen, 1907).

Vries, O., Het Heilige Roomse Rijk en de Friese vrijheid (Leeuwarden, 1986).

Table of contents

Image gallery

- Gallows as landmarks

What is in a name


Compensation versus the death penalty in Old Frisian law

Execution and exhibition: towns and country
- Execution and exhibition gallows

Urban and rural gallows

Gallows in or near towns and grietenien

Misleading names

The right to set up gallows

Visible locations

The owners of gallows and gallow lands

When and why



Selection of literature


This Rich Internet Application could be made thanks to the cooperation of the following persons and institutions:

Fondation Custodia, Paris

Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden
- S. Strating
- prof. dr. A.P. Versloot

Fries Museum, Leeuwarden

Historisch Centrum, Leeuwarden

Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussel

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien

Ostfriesische Landschaft, Aurich

Tresoar, Leeuwarden


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