On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik became a curious outlier of World War II: he was executed by firing squad by the U.S. Army for desertion. He is the only person to have been so punished for that crime since the Civil War.
Pvt Slovik was, by all accounts, quiet and helpful, by no means a coward, and more than willing to aid in the effort of World War II, traits which would have put him among a large class of that war’s veterans. Unfortunately, he was also immobilized by shelling. Equally unfortunately, he knew it, and he decided to do something about it.
Slovik and a friend, Pvt John F. Tankey, first separated from their detachment under artillery fire in late August 1944, shortly after being shipped to France. The pair hooked up with a Canadian unit and spent six weeks pitching in. Having recused themselves from the hard shelling others were experiencing on the front line, they opted to rejoin their regular U.S. unit: Slovik and Tankey sent a letter to their commanding officer explaining their absence and returned on Oct. 7.
But the front lines were not a place for Pvt Slovik.
After his assignment to the rifle unit, which would face imminent danger during shelling, Slovik asked to be placed in the rear guard, indicating he was too scared to remain in front. His request was refused. He then reportedly asked whether leaving the unit again would be considered desertion, was told it would be, and opted for the seemingly safer route of, well, deserting. One day later, Slovik was back at a U.S. camp, this time turning himself in to the camp cook. He had drafted a letter explaining his actions and indicating that he knowingly deserted, permanently recording his guilt on paper.
It’s not clear whether Pvt Slovik was acting on principles or out of an understanding of the U.S. military judicial system. He was by no means the only soldier without affinity for the conditions of war, particularly on the allied side. During the war, thousands of soldiers were tried and convicted in military courts for desertion, but up to then, all had received only time in the brig. What is clear is that Slovik was repeatedly offered opportunities to return to the line, and he equally repeatedly refused.
The case was adjudicated on Nov 11 by nine staff officers of the 28th Division, none of whom had yet been in battle. One of those judges, Benedict B. Kimmelman, wrote a stark and intriguing account of his role in the story of Pvt Slovik, capturing the scene thusly:
Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.
As with all court martial cases, Slovik’s was sent to a judge advocate for review. His criminal record, including everything from destruction of property to public intoxication to embezzlement, did not endear him to the reviewer. More importantly, though, the advocate felt Slovik could be made an example:
He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.
Strangely, Pvt Slovik was the only person who would be exemplified this way.
Though the military tried 21,000 desertion cases and passed down 49 death sentences for desertion during the war, it carried out only Slovik’s. And in the war’s final battles, with Germany collapsing, his execution seemed like a surreal throwback. As Kimmelman notes, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were strictly guilty of dereliction of duty and desertion in the waning days of 1944.
They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army — thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old. (Source)
Three weeks after his conviction and three weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, Slovik’s execution order was confirmed by the 28th Division’s commander, Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota. Cota was disturbed by Slovik’s forthrightness in confessing to the desertion, and, as a front line commander who had sustained severe casualty rates in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, had no sympathy for the crime.
After an appeal to the deaf ears of Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, Slovik was out of options. He was taken to the courtyard of an estate near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and shot by 11 Army marksmen* at 10 a.m. By 10:04, as they were reloading, he was declared dead. His body was interred at a French cemetery, and after decades of lobbying the U.S. government, his remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.
Because he was dishonorably discharged, Slovik was not entitled to a pension, and his wife, Antoinette, stopped receiving payments. Curiously, though the Army managed to communicate this to her, they omitted the bit about the execution. She found out in 1953 from William Bradford Huie.
Huie was a journalist who took immediate interest in Slovik’s story, popularizing it with his book The Execution of Private Slovik, which was released in 1954. Twenty years later, the book and title were requisitioned for a well-received TV movie starring Martin Sheen and funded by Frank Sinatra.
* The firing squad included 12 marksmen, but one was given a blank. Despite their skill, the 11 remaining shooters did not manage to kill him instantaneously.
The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.
“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”
The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”
The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.
Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.
When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**
In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.
* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.
** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.
On this date three years ago — or at least, so says the date in the camera’s viewfinder — a female spy was “tried” and “executed” in Iraq by al Qaeda affiliated terrorists for spying.
Warning: This is (by design) a graphic and chilling video. I have little information beyond the assertion of the video posters as to its veracity. Whether or not it may be relied upon factually or dated reliably, it’s a gut-twisting video of a woman being shot in the head.
In a welter of confusing evidence, the essential fact was that the two youths had engaged a criminal enterprise and thus became jointly liable for every consequence of the crime, regardless of who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, it rankled as a manifest injustice that the young man should hang for a murder that happened after he was in custody, while the triggerman should not. There was a sense that Bentley faced a maximal punishment in the state’s frustration that the shooter was too young to hang; and, that since the two boys’ ages were barely on either side of 18 and the 17-year-old Christopher Craig arguably the dominant member of the duo, the effect was a great injustice.
This morning’s hanging was hotly protested. Several hundred rallied outside the prison; 200 MPs presented a petition for Bentley’s clemency, and afterwards several were rebuffed attempting to debate the hanging in Parliament. The medical journal Lancet assayed the general disquietude at the situation and opined that
[W]e are obliged to ask ourselves whether in holding to the letter of justice we are letting the spirit escape … To the English, at any rate, revenge is seldom a fully satisfying experience; it carries too much guilt with it. In the case of Bentley the public sense of guilt seems to have been strong — far stronger than the desire for vengeance.*
Bentley’s 21-year-old sister Iris vowed to her brother the night before his death that she would clear his name, and she fought for the rest of her life to do so. She would win that fight in 1998 (one year after her own death) when the conviction was overturned.
In the meantime, Bentley’s fate entered the public conscience, generally but not universally in the capacity of miscarriage of justice.
Bentley is the subject of an Elvis Costello song, “Let Him Dangle”:
* Lancet also said that “in our view the perpetual public preoccupation with the condemned cell and the gallows is harmful to the mental health of society.” Executed Today does not endorse this position.
On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.
Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)
General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.
The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.
Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”
The mischief, however, extended.
The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.
Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.
Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.
A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.
That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.
The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)
As dawn broke over Sing Sing Prison, Beansy Zimmerman had every reason to think it would be his last day.
Zimmerman numbly went through the pre-execution rituals. The last meal (choose whatever you want), and music (you get to choose that, too) played on the wind-up phonograph. The barber shaves your scalp so the electrodes can fit snugly against your bare skin. The tailor slits one of your trouser legs for another electrode. Officials treat you with unaccustomed politeness. A final family visit — how do you say good-bye when you know it is forever? What should your last words be? Beansy’s mother stayed away, unable to face such finality.
Two hours before execution, Gov. Lehman commuted his sentence.
In this blog, we lay aside each story day by day, but for those affected, it’s rarely so easy — which is why the mothers of the five men condemned today put in their personal clemency appeals to the governor.
For Zimmerman and a fellow “accomplice” named Philip Chaleff whose respective roles in a robbery/murder were doubted, it had the desired effect. (Dominick Guariglia, Arthur Friedman and Joseph O’Loughlin weren’t so lucky.)
Chaleff, a diabetic being kept alive just for execution, soon succumbed. For Zimmerman, the execution that did not happen was to define the rest of his 66 years. He was alive, but to what end?
“I wasn’t dead, no,” he remembered. “But every day from now on they’d bury me a little more.”
Zimmerman fought, by becoming a skilled jailhouse lawyer and in 1962 finally winning exoneration from the New York Supreme Court, which held that the testimony against him had been perjured with the connivance of the prosecutor.
He’d spent nearly a quarter-century in prison. Now, he was just another ex-con scrabbling after dead-end employment.
For years thereafter, Zimmerman fought for a special bill that would allow him to sue the Empire State for wrongful imprisonment, finally winning approval in 1981.
His suit asked for $10 million. The judge reckoned Zimmerman’s time and trouble were worth a tenth of that.
Expenses deducted, Zimmerman walked away with $660,000 — that, and sweet vindication.
It transpires in an exchange between the two that the stranger’s own conscience is somehow troubled.
“Remember, my son, [said the abbe] that it is not enough to have taken no active part in the great crime; that fact does not absolve you. The men who might have defended the King and left their swords in their scabbards, will have a very heavy account to render to the King of Heaven — Ah! yes,” he added, with an eloquent shake of the head, “heavy indeed! — for by doing nothing they became accomplices in the awful wickedness—-”
“But do you think that an indirect participation will be punished?” the stranger asked with a bewildered look. “There is the private soldier commanded to fall into line — is he actually responsible?”
We have no more answer in the text than we have in life.
Spoiler (That You Saw Coming) Alert
The stranger returns on the anniversary of the king’s martyrdom, but he remains enigmatic, until the abbe is caught up in a crowd watching the procession to the guillotine.
“What is the matter?” [the abbe] asked Madame Ragon.
“Nothing,” she said; “it is only the tumbril cart and the executioner going to the Place Louis XV. Ah! we used to see it often enough last year; but to-day, four days after the anniversary of the twenty-first of January, one does not feel sorry to see the ghastly procession.”
“Why not?” asked the abbe. “That is not said like a Christian.”
“Eh! but it is the execution of Robespierre‘s accomplices. They defended themselves as long as they could, but now it is their turn to go where they sent so many innocent people.”
The crowd poured by like a flood. The abbe, yielding to an impulse of curiosity, looked up above the heads, and there in the tumbril stood the man who had heard mass in the garret three days ago.
Ted Bundy is obviously one of the most iconic, written-about serial killers in history. Why a book about Ted Bundy? What’s the untold story that you set out to uncover?
The desire, or drive, if you will, to write an article about Ted Bundy and then create a 120,000 plus word book about the murders, was born out of my crossing paths with his infamous murder kit. Had Jerry Thompson [a key detective on the Bundy case -ed.] left Bundy’s stuff in Utah that May of 2005, well, it would have been an enjoyable meeting with the former detective, but I’m certain it would have all ended quietly there. Indeed, I doubt if I’d even considered writing an article for Snitch [a now-defunct crime magazine -ed.], much less a book about the killings. But it was having all that stuff in my hands, and in my home, and then being given one of the Glad bags from Ted’s VW that made it very real (or surreal) to me, and from this, a hunger to find out more about the crimes led me forward.
Ted Bundy’s gear, right where you want it — image courtesy of Kevin M. Sullivan. (Check the 1975 police photo for confirmation.)
Believe me, in a thousand years, I never would have expected such a thing to ever come my way. I can’t think of anything more odd or surreal.
ET: You mentioned that you think you’ve been able to answer some longstanding questions about Bundy’s career. Can you give us some hints? What don’t people know about Ted Bundy that they ought to know?
I must admit, when I first decided to write a book about the crimes, I wasn’t sure what I’d find, so the first thing I had to do was read every book ever written about Bundy, which took the better portion of three or four months.
From this I took a trip to Utah to again meet with Thompson and check out the sites pertaining to Bundy and the murders in that state. Next came the acquisition of case files from the various states and the tracking down of those detectives who participated in the hunt for the elusive killer.
Now, no one could have been more surprised than me to begin discovering what I was discovering about some of these murders. But as I kept hunting down the right people and the right documents, I was able to confirm these “finds” at every turn. And while I cannot reveal everything here, It’s all in the book in great detail. Indeed, you could say that my book is not a biography in the truest sense, but rather an in-depth look at Bundy and the murders from a vantage point that is quite unique. I wish I could delve further into these things now , but I must wait until it’s published.
The Bundy story has a magnetic villain and a host of victims … was there a hero? Was there a lesson?
The real heroes in this story are the detectives who worked day and night for years to bring Ted Bundy to justice. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is this: It doesn’t matter how handsome or articulate a person might be, or how nicely they smile at you, for behind it all, there could reside the most diabolical person you’ll ever meet! We need to remember this.
But how can you act on that lesson without living in a continual state of terror? Bundy strikes me as so far outside our normal experience, even the normal experience of criminality, that I’m inclined to wonder how much can be generalized from him.
Actually, (and I might say, thank God here!) people as “successful” as Ted Bundy don’t come our way very often. I mean, the guy was a rising star in the Republican Party in Washington, had influential friends, a law student, and certainly appeared to be going places in life. Some were even quite envious of his ascension in life. However, it was all a well-placed mask that he wore to cover his true feelings and intentions. On the outside he was perfect, but on the inside a monster. He just didn’t fit the mold we’re used to when we think of a terrible killer, does he?
Now, there are those among us — sociopaths — who can kill or do all manner of terrible things in life and maintain the nicest smile upon their faces, but again, just beneath the surface ticks the heart of a monster, or predator, or what ever you might want to call them. Having said that, I’m not a suspicious person by nature, and so I personally judge people by their outward appearance until shown otherwise. Still, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to see the “real” individual behind the person they present to us on a daily basis.
You worked with case detectives in researching your book. How did the Ted Bundy case affect the way law enforcement has subsequently investigated serial killers? If they had it to do over again, what’s the thing you think they’d have done differently?
They all agree that today, DNA would play a part of the investigation that wasn’t available then. However, in the early portion of the murders, Bundy made few if any mistakes, as he had done his homework so as to avoid detection. As such, even this wouldn’t be a panacea when it came to a very mobile killer like Bundy who understood the very real limitations sometimes surrounding homicide investigations.
I can’t help but ask about these detectives as human beings, too. Clearly they’re in a position to deal with the heart of darkness in the human soul day in and day out and still lead normal lives … is a Ted Bundy the kind of killer that haunts or scars investigators years later, or is this something most can set aside as all in a day’s work?
They are, first of all, very nice people. And you can’t be around them (either in person, or through numerous phone calls or emails) for very long before you understand how dedicated they are (or were) in their careers as police officers. They are honorable people, with a clear sense of duty, and without such people, we, as a society, would be in dire circumstances indeed.
Even before Bundy came along, these men were veteran investigators who had seen many bad things in life, so they carried a toughness which allowed them to deal with the situations they came up against in a professional manner. That said, I remember Jerry Thompson telling me how he looked at Ted one day and thought how much he reminded him of a monster, or a vampire of sorts. And my book contains a number of exchanges between the two men (including a chilling telephone call) which demonstrate why he felt this way
How about for you, as a writer — was there a frightening, creepy, traumatic moment in your research that really shook you? Was there an emotional toll for you?
Absolutely. But the degree of “shock”, if you will, depends (at least for me) on what I know as I first delve into each murder. In the Bundy cases I had a general knowledge of how Bundy killed, so there wasn’t a great deal that caught me by surprise, as it were. Even so, as a writer, you tend to get to know the victims very well through the case files, their family members or friends, and so on. Hence, I’ll continue to carry with me many of the details of their lives and deaths for the remainder of my life. And so, lasting changes are a part of what we do.
However, I did a story a few years back about a 16 year old girl who was horribly murdered here in Kentucky, and this case did cause me to wake up in the night in a cold sweat. Perhaps it was because I have a daughter that was, at the time, only a few years younger than this girl, and that some of what transpired did catch me off guard, so to speak, as I began uncovering just what had happened to this very nice kid.
Watch for Kevin M. Sullivan’s forthcomingThe Bundy Murders: A Comprehensive History from McFarland in summer or fall of 2009.
* In fact, the term “serial killer” was coined in the 1970’s by FBI profiler Robert Ressler, as an improvement on the sometimes inaccurate category of “stranger killer”.
Additional Bundy resources from the enormous comment thread:
On this date in 1903, Irish MP Arthur Alfred Lynch waited 26 minutes for a jury to convict him, then heard the sentence of a British court for having fought against the British Empire in the Boer War.
[T]he jury have found you guilty of the crime of high treason, a crime happily so rare that in the present day a trial for treason seems to be almost an anachronism — a thing of the past. There can be no doubt that in times gone by there was great abuse, and many persons were indicted, convicted, and punished for matters which would not now be thought worthy of serious or, perhaps, any notice. There has been a kind of national reaction by which many persons have been disposed to treat serious crimes against the State as if the name of treason, and as if the thing, no longer existed. One moment of reflection will show you how erroneous is such a conception …
Yes, even if the black cap gave away the ending, the judge was going to take his time getting to it.
The misdeeds which have been done in this case, and which have brought you to the lamentable pass in which you stand, must surely convince the most sceptical and apathetic of the gravity and reality of the crime. What was your action in the darkest hour of your country’s fortunes, when she was engaged in the deadly struggle from which she has just emerged? You joined the ranks of your country’s foes. Born in Australia, a land which has nobly shown its devotion to its parent country, you have indeed taken a different course from that which was adopted by her sons. You have fought against your country, not with it. You have sought, as far as you could, to dethrone Great Britain from her place among the nations, to make her name a byword and a reproach, a synonym for weakness and irresolution. …
Even allowing that this sentence was pronounced before either of the coming century’s world wars, calling the Boer War to conquer South Africa for the crown England’s “darkest hour” only underscores how very long Britannia had stayed in the sun. Were the early shadows of empire’s twilight visible from here … or was it just standard issue judicial showboating?
[Y]ou thought it safe, no doubt, to lift the parricidal hand against your country. You thought she would shrink from the costly struggle wearied out by her gigantic efforts, and that, at the worst, a general peace would be made which would comprehend a general amnesty and cover up such acts as yours and save you from personal peril. You misjudged your country and failed to appreciate that though slow to enter into a quarrel, however slow to take up arms, it has yet been her wont that in the quarrel she shall bear herself so that the opposer may beware of her, and that she is seldom so dangerous to her enemies as when the hour of national calamity has raised the dormant energies of her people — knit together every nerve and fibre of the body politic and has made her sons determined to do all, to bear all, to sacrifice all on behalf of the country that gave them birth.
The only — I will not say excuse, but palliation that I can find for conduct like yours is that it has been for some years past the fashion to treat lightly matters of this kind, so that men have been perhaps encouraged to play with sedition and to toy with treason, wrapt in a certain proud consciousness of strength begotten of the deep-seated and well-founded conviction that the loyalty of her people is supreme, and true authority in this country has slumbered or has treated with contemptuous indifference speeches and acts of sedition.
There’s some relish here, the kind you’d hear if Antonin Scalia had an opportunity to pass sentence on Cynthia McKinney.
This ponderous bombast was the culmination of a highly-anticipated, highly-publicized trial of a man who had returned to London and arrest as an elected Irish parliamentarian after upholding the Boer cause in print throughout Europe, and enrolling an Irish unit in the fight.*
But had you and those with whom you associated yourself succeeded, what fatal mischief might have been done to … that inheritance of power which it must be our work to use nobly and for good things; an inheritance of influence which will be of little effect even for good unless backed by power, and of duty which cannot be effectually performed if our power be shattered and our influence impaired. He who has attempted to do his country such irreparable wrong must be prepared to submit to the sentence which it is now my duty to pronounce upon you … that you be taken hence to the place from which you came and from thence to a place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.
For all this sound and fury, one would hardly know that it was generally and publicly understood the sentence would be swiftly commuted — as it was, a few days later.
Arthur Lynch received a free pardon in 1907, and in 1909 was returned to parliament as an Irish nationalist delegate to resume his remarkable career as writer, physician, engineer and all-around polymath.
* Lynch’s part in the war is included in The Boer Fight for Freedom, another century-old tome in the public domain and available on Google Books.
The set of any given Tudor-era costume drama is a walking Who’s Who of scaffold superstars, most notably, of course, the wives of Henry VIII. That king’s bed did not cease exuding power and danger with Henry’s death.
With Henry’s demise, the crown fell to the only legitimate son the old man had produced in a lifetime of trying, the sickly 9-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry’s beloved* third wife Jane Seymour.
Jane’s brothers had leveraged their late sister’s favor into political muscle, and Edward Seymour smoothly outmaneuvered rival factions late in Henry’s life to set himself up as the true ruler of England during the boy king’s regency.
Created Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector,** Edward ran the country for going on three years, executing the other Seymour sibling as a rival along the way.
But the power of the king’s office without the attendant legitimacy turned out to be a double-edged blade.
That wearisome (and costly) military scenario could only exacerbate the enmities a somewhat tin-eared Somerset generated in the course of everyday politics at the treacherous Tudor court. Catholics resented his liberal religious policy (Thomas Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer on Edward Seymour’s watch); noble rivals wheedled and flattered the youthful king in his charge; and Edward Seymour’s populist political style rubbed stodgier nobles the wrong way without quite satisfying discontent among commoners† who rebelled widely in 1549, a year of terrible harvests and economic breakdown. By October of 1549, he had been politically isolated and was supplanted by John Dudley. (Guess what happened to him.)
Interestingly, that transition initially looked to be as bloodless a coup d’etat as 16th century England could enjoy: Seymour did a couple months in the Tower of London but accepted his place and not only rejoined the Privy Council but dynastically married his daughter to Dudley’s heir.
All it took, however, was an ounce of paranoia on Dudley’s part to suspect the former Lord Protector of plotting against him. The peers of the realm wouldn’t convict him of a trumped-up treason charge, but “compromised” with a felony conviction that had, for old man Somerset, the exact same result.
We have an account of the Duke’s oddly portentous end from diarist Henry Machyn, whose record of the scene in the original text of Early Modern English we present here beside its “translation” — courtesy of Machyn diaries here and here.
[The xxij of January, soon after eight of the clock in the morning, the duke of Somerset was beheaded on Tower hill. There was as] grett compeny as have bene syne . . the kynges gard behynge there with ther ha[lbards, and a] M1. [i.e., a thousand] mo with halbards of the prevelege of the Towre, [Ratcliffe,] Lymhowsse, Whyt-chapell, Sant Kateryn, and Strettford [Bow], as Hogston, Sordyche; and ther the ij shreyfs behyng th[ere present] seyng the execusyon of my lord, and ys hed to be [smitten] of, and after shortely ys body was putt in to a coffin, [and carried] in to the Towre, and ther bered in the chyrche, of [the north] syd of the qwyre of sant Peters, the wyche I beseeche [God] have mercy on ys sowlle, amen! And ther was [a sudden] rumbelyng a lytyll a-for he ded, as yt had byn [guns] shuttyng [i.e., shooting] and grett horsys commyng, that a M1. [i.e., a thousand] fell [to the] grond for fere, for thay that wher at the on syd [thought] no nodur butt that one was kyllyng odur, that [they fell] down to the grond on apon anodur with ther halb[ards], they thought no nodur butt that thay shuld . . . . . sum fell in to [the] dyche of the Towre and odur plasys, . . . and a C. [i.e., 100] in to the Towre-dyche, and sum ran a way for [fear.]
He [the Duke of Somerset] was beheaded soon after eight o’clock in the morning, being brought to his execution the sooner to prevent the concourse of the people, who would be forward to see the last end of one so well beloved by them. It was the greatest company as have been seen. The King’s guard being there with their arms, there were a thousand more with halberds of the privilege of the Tower, from Ratcliff, Limehouse, Whitechapel, St. Katherine, and Stratford Bow, as Hoxton, Shoreditch.
And there the two sheriffs being there present seeing the execution of my lord. And his head to be off. And after shortly his body was put into a coffin and carried into the Tower and there buried in the church of the north side of the choir of St. Peter. The which I beseech God have mercy on his soul. Amen.
And there was a sudden rumbling a little before he died as it had been guns shooting and great horses coming, that a thousand fell to the ground for fear. For they that were at the one side thought no other but that one was killing other. That they fell down to the ground, one upon another with their halberds. They thought no other but that they should flee. Some fell into the ditch of the Tower and other places, and a hundred into the Tower ditch, and some ran away.
* Henry was buried next to Jane, a meek spouse who had stayed out of politics, given him an heir, and died from the birth.
† Notably, Somerset ordered a commission to look into nobles enclosing common land, a burning issue throughout the century. Some think this raised hopes in the hoi polloi for a resolution to the great class conflict that the Duke didn’t have the juice to implement.