Places of torture, killing and execution can be cursed and dreaded locales associated with the grisly fates of the infamous and the unlucky. Sometimes, such places are rapidly erased from memory because of horrendous deeds committed there. Yet others can become enduring landmarks used and reused over decades and centuries for punishment and killing. One might think in this regard of London’s Tyburn from the 12th to the 18th century. Earlier still, we might consider the later Anglo-Saxon execution graves around Mound 5 and in the Eastern Cemetery at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. Here, what had formerly been pagan ‘princely’ burial mounds were re-cast and set aside for the especially cursed and infamous who were put to death.
Places of murder, corporal and capital punishment can also become enshrined as sacred and holy, especially if they are created for, or become associated with, the deaths of religious martyrs and those held in esteem for their deeds in life, the fashion of their death, and/or the cause for which the individual(s) died. This can take place on a variety of scales, whether we are thinking of the killing and burial place of St Alban or indeed modern locations of road-traffic accidents and murders.
Many gallows and gibbets might be a bit of both; places of ambivalence haunted by the ghosts of the dead, as well as symbols of political and religious authority linked to complex networks of hegemony and faith in the landscape. As such, killing places can become distinctive and powerful places of memory incorporating both fear and veneration. Sometimes killing places become tied to long-term monument/site biographies of use and reuse, moving from positive to negative in their associations, negative to positive, their different phases of use and reuse which inform the significance afforded to them in the past and in the present. They can become loci for a range of public activities and ceremonies long after their judicial function has ceased. Some can even become the foci for commemorative rituals and pilgrimage.
Hango Hill, Isle of Man
An example of such practices relates to an striking location on the Isle of Man. I encountered the site earlier this year during my first visit to the island. The site in question is known as Hango Hill (otherwise known as Mount Strange). This location is situated on the coast between Castletown and Derbyhaven near King William College and the Isle of Man Airport.
This is purportedly (but to my understanding not proven to be) a prehistoric and/or early Viking burial mound. It is later attributed a Norse place-name of hanga-haugr – the hill of hanging, suggesting a use as an execution place by, during or after the Viking Age.
The place-name implies a long duration of use for killing, but I haven’t learned from my superficial reading whether we have concrete historical evidence for its medieval use for execution. Whether following a long tradition or use, or as an exceptional reactivation of a site inspired by its place-name, it was famously used as an execution site in the depths of winter. Here on the 2nd January 1663, a man was killed who was to become a Manx national hero. Illiam Dhone (William Christian of Ronaldsway) was shot for his participation in the 1651 Manx Rising against the Royalist Derby family.
Seemingly not long after, this association was supplanted by the Derby earls themselves. Why? Did they do this to control the location and its landscape and prevent it becoming a site of further executions and the veneration of a secular martyr? It instead became re-named ‘Mount Strange’ by the Derby’s in honour of their heir Lord Strange. It was then surmounted a summer house/ banqueting hall, originally 10m long and crenellated. This was used by the first ‘Derby’ races along the dunes. There are records of it having been a gun battery in the late 17th century too.
Hango Hill Today
What survives today is a striking and forlorn feature.
It comprises a crudely rectangular mound beside, and eroded by, the sea on its southern side. This could quite readily be the traces of a prehistoric or Viking Age burial mound.
The summer house ruin is propped up by an iron girder, and there is a plaque asserting national protection of the ruins.
On the landward northern side, there is a commemorative plaque outlining the site’s association with Illiam. There was a wreath laid above it on the landward slope of the mound.
The site is now protected and framed on its seaward side by a retaining seawall. The wreath presumably relates to its modern use, since 1963, as a focus of Manx nationalists as reported here.
While the significances and associations of Hango Hill have changed over the centuries, from Viking, medieval and early modern execution place to a part of a landscape of elite entertainment, and now back as a focus of national cult for Manx sentiments of political, cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, there are strands one might suggest running through these changes. Its maritime proximity, association with horse racing and a location used by elites might suggest that the earls were drawing on deep-time connections of power and place in choosing it as a site to execute Dhone and then appropriate it with their banqueting hall. Hango Hill may be forlorn, but it has an enduring mnemonic power through its association with killing.