On this date in 1593, a Welsh divine with a poor impression of the Church of England was hustled off from dinner to be strung up for sedition.
Dismayed by the poor quality of pastors in his native Wales — men of poor character, poor education, and poor command of Welsh — John Penry was one of many calling for a reformed Episcopal clergy. Critiques of his type formed the germ of the Puritan movement already underway, which would blossom after his death.
Penry would have been around to see all that if he hadn’t hacked off the realm’s chief vicar by running a salty underground press, most notably publishing the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate.
(These satiric treats can be savored here. The identity of their author(s) has always been debated — Penry himself is one candidate, though not a fashionable one today, as his attributed writing seems too earnest to have come from the same pen as Martin Marprelate.)
Hold the Dessert
The Oxford man dodged the law for a good three years in the Scottish reaches, until he couldn’t resist moving to London, where (fittingly) a local clergyman recognized him.
The mere draft — nasty, but uncirculated — of a petition sufficed for the condemnation on grounds of sedition, and the annoyed Archbishop had the pleasure of inking his John Hancock on the Welshman’s death warrant.
Penry seems to have had a few friends in high places and some hope of cheating the executioner; he must have been taken by surprise when the sheriff burst in during the late afternoon this day to haul him immediately to a gallows at St. Thomas a Watering — unannounced, the better to keep attendance down,* with the prisoner denied the customary parting speech.
“Hang him with his pen”
But was Penry’s ill turn a boon to the world of literature?
The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious.
Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.
The Welsh Martyr
Shakespeare aside, Penry remains “the Welsh martyr” to this day, reckoned the greatest Protestant martyr of his land. (For more about him, a sympathetic 19th century tract, John Penry, the Pilgrim Martyr, is available free from Google books.)
The injury of his draconian sentence is so far from forgotten in Wales that — hot off the presses — the 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked for a mea culpa on behalf of his 16th century predecessor.
Coincidentally, John Penry is also the name of a murderer and longtime death row prisoner in the USA, once the subject of a landmark decision** permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. That modern Penry is now serving a life sentence.
* Penry’s family and friends didn’t know about the hanging until it had already happened.
** Since reversed.