Archive for October 28th, 2011

1628: John Felton, assassin of the Duke of Buckingham

2 comments October 28th, 2011 Headsman

The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature: this being only used to compel a man to put himself upon his trial; that being a species of trial in itself. And the trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England; though once when the dukes of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI, had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as the rule of government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture; which was called in derision the duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the tower of London: where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of queen Elizabeth but when, upon the assassination of Villiers duke of Buckingham by Felton, it was proposed in the privy council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices; the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. iv (via Harper’s)

Although the jurisprudence of 17th century England with its proscription of legal torture* still stacks up favorably next to that of Berkeley law professors, it certainly did not stand in the way of assassin John Felton‘s execution on this date in 1628.

Felton, an army officer passed over for promotion, stabbed to death nobby royal favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham at Portsmouth — a private grievance fused to a widespread public one. Reams of laudatory verse churned out in the two months between crime and punishment suggest the popular opprobrium for the duke.**

Or you, late tongue-ty’d judges of the land,
Passe sentence on his act, whose valiant hand
Wrencht off your muzzels, and infranchiz’d all
Your shakl’d consciences from one man’s thrall?
But O! his countrie! what can you verdict on?
If guiltie; ’tis of your redemption.

Felton’s victim, the Duke of Buckingham — portrayed in 1625 by Rubens.

Villiers, “handsomest-bodied” scion of the minor gentry, had parlayed his comeliness into power as the favorite (and possibly the lover) of King James I. He had, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers (in which adventure Buckingham is an important character) “lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.”†

Buckingham latched himself to the king’s 20-something son and heir Charles I and became a dominant influence in foreign policy as well as wildly unpopular in England. He raised Protestant hackles with Machiavellian statecraft like angling for a Spanish queen and aiding the French against the Huguenots, and since he exercised a share of the royal power he vigorously upheld the rights of the crown as against those of the commons. An opponent once compared him to Sejanus.

Indeed, Buckingham helped the youthful Charles, king since March of 1625, set the tetchy tone for his relationship with Parliament that would define his rule and ultimately cost the monarch his own head. When Parliament demanded Buckingham “be removed from intermeddling with the great affairs of State” as a condition for coughing up any more money, Charles haughtily dissolved Parliament rather than give up his favorite.

That forced the king into sketchy expedients like the “forced loan” and, when the money disputes continued after Buckingham’s death, the king’s eventual legislature-free Personal Rule that set up the Civil War.

So one can see how the sudden 1628 murder of this resented courtier, to whom was imputed every fault and abuse of Charles himself, would have been celebrated. “Honest Jack” — the assassin’s widely-honored nickname — was likewise credited with every perceived virtue of the Parliamentarian party. Juridically, the man was doomed — but in the popular eye,

[t]he passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans.

In fact, the man who had recently tutored future literary giant (and future Cromwellian agent) John Milton was sentenced by the Star Chamber have an ear cut off for drinking Felton’s health. (The sentence was remitted thanks to some pull with Archbishop William Laud.)

While he’s sometimes described — or dismissed — as merely a disgruntled careerist, the assassin’s own ideological commitment ought not be downplayed. Whatever Felton’s personal pique, the assassination was unambiguously political: our killer had returned from war wounded and melancholy and proceeded to marinate in the era’s anti-monarchical currents. In time, Felton came to understand — surely in concert with many of his countrymen now forgotten by time — that there was a greater good to be served by the sin of murder.

He had left behind in his trunk a few propositions that underscored his state of mind: “There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country” and “No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.” He justified himself at trial in similar terms, and did so without desiring to escape the extremities of the law that his crime demanded.

Felton had really expected to be killed in the act of the assassination himself. To that end, he had left a note pinned in his hat that is as good an elegy for him as any a republican ballad. “That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his king, and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as to the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he would not have gone so long unpunished.”

While Felton played his part in the generations-long struggle to subordinate king to parliament, the most immediate beneficiary of this affair was not so much the Commons as it was the noble rival who usurped the late Buckingham’s power — the Earl of Strafford.

* Certain though we are of the human rights commitment of Felton’s prosecutors, the man himself made sure of it by dint of a deft bit of interrogatory jujitsu. Menaced with the prospect of torture, he cheerfully resigned himself to it — “Yet this I must tell you by the way,” he added. “That if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”

That’s the way to convince judges not to torture you.

** An entirely less negative remembrance commemorates Buckingham and “accursed” Felton at the Portsmouth Cathedral.

† Felton also appears in The Three Musketeers, committing the murder of Buckingham at the instigation of the seductive fictional villain Milady de Winter just days before the musketeers execute Milady herself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Soldiers

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