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Throughout the series we see different people get executed via different means. For example:

  1. Lord Ned Stark gets decapitated by Ser Illyn Payne on orders for King Joffrey Baratheon.

  2. Mance Rayder and Shireen Baratheon get burnt at the stake.

  3. Alliser Thorne and Co. get hanged till death.

The question is, how is execution method determined? I know that GRRM is a fan of medieval times and in those times Lords were often decapitated while peasants were hanged.

Are there different execution methods for different crimes? What does Westerosi custom dictate regarding executions of a commoner vs a highborn?

  • 1
    Shireen was a sacrifice, and she is alive and well in the books. I would move her out of this list :) – C.Koca Apr 7 at 8:38
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    Burning appears to not be a Westerosi form of execution at all, but part of the imported R'hllor religion. – melboiko Apr 7 at 8:57
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I would say that it is now necessarily who you are executing or the crime, but why they are being executed.

  • Decapitation makes for a quick clean death typically preferred by those "with honor" (i.e. soldiers) and this preference goes both way because neither executioner or executed wants to suffer. Ned's case was a little different, Joff was acting (semi) impulsively so he put on a show using what was available to him and also enabled the head to be put on a spike for display.
  • Hanging is slower, more painful, and typically for those "without honor" (i.e. criminals). They don't deserve the quick clean death. Typically their bodies are going to be used as a display at a city entrance or along a well traveled route as a warning.
  • Burning at the stake has been reserved those being offered as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light as an offering.
  • Other ways we have seen are House specific. Flaying is a Bolton thing. Flying out the Moon Door is an Arryn thing. Dragonfire (or other burning) is a Targaryen thing. Etc. Etc.
  • It's not necessarily the case that hanging is slower or more painful— if done with a long enough drop, it's thought that the breaking of the neck causes more or less immediate unconsciousness (though of course no one really knows). But it does allow the body to be left hanging, as you say, as a warning or a form of disrespect. I don't think this is spelled out in the books, except that when Jon decides to execute Janos Slynt, he at first plans to hang him—which is how we see other traitors to the Night's Watch executed—but then beheads him instead, possibly because Slynt is (was) a lord. – E. Bishop Apr 14 at 19:11
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Much depends on the whim of the person who orders the execution. But there are some generalizations:

  • Nobles get decapitated with a sword.
  • Commoners get hanged.
  • Nobles may be insulted by executing them like a commoner.
  • Commoners may be shown respect (for their fighting skills or courage) by executing them like a noble.

A noble who orders different methods (e.g. skinned, burned by wildfire, thrown into a pit with a bear, thrown out of a cliff-edge castle) would tend to be characterized as depraved or cruel.

  • A noble is probably going to be much more offended by getting executed at all than by what method. Who cares if the person you're about to hang is offended by your methodology? I sure wouldn't care if I were the hangman or the person ordering it. Additionally, a random member of the Night's Watch (a commoner by all interpretations) was beheaded by the Warden of the North himself in the 1st episode of the show. – TylerH Apr 8 at 14:53
  • @TylerH, neither of us is a medieval noble, but I think those guys did things for honor and 'face' that few modern men would do. Or the chroniclers slanted it that way. Re the deserter, he was a deserter but he was 'warrior' class. The South might despise the Watch recruits, the North was grateful. I thought of the incident when I wrote my 4th bullet point. – o.m. Apr 8 at 15:37

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