Archive for May 28th, 2014

1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle

Add comment May 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1213, the hermit Peter of Pontefract (or Peter of Wakefield) was hanged by King John.

Reluctant Magna Carta signer and ridiculous Robin Hood villain, John has never been the most highly regarded sovereign. (A recent BBC poll saluted him as the 13th century’s very worst Briton.)

The papacy ranked among John’s many irritants. A 1205 dispute with Pope Innocent III over the successor to the late Archbishop of Canterbury — John wanted control of ecclesiastical appointments in his own realm, a little preview of coming attractions in English history. This dispute extended so far as Innocent’s excommunicating John, and laying England under a papal interdict prohibiting administration of any sacraments save baptism and last rites. There’s no bargaining chip quite like “do what I say or everyone goes to hell.”

John didn’t sweat the eternal damnation stuff much but in 1212 the specter of war with France — gleefully justified by Philip II on grounds of the English king’s impiety — started twisting the screws a little. Philip had already seized English holdings in Normandy; now, he was gathering force for an invasion of Albion’s own shores.

With discontent already afoot among the domestic nobility, some of whom were extending feelers to King Philip, the Yorkshire hermit Peter ran out a prophecy that John’s crown would pass to other hands by the next Ascension Day — which happened to be Thursday, May 23, 1213.

Peter’s prophecy gained no little folk following, prompting John to take him into custody.

And here a prophet, that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your highness should deliver up your crown.

-Shakespeare’s King John

But days before the momentous date arrived, John resolved the crisis and saved himself from potential deposition with a timely submission to the papal legate Pandulf, before whom he dramatically laid the crown and resumed it pledging an annual tribute of 1,000 marks from the throne of England to that of St. Peter.*

This was either — take your pick — a deft political masterstroke instantly neutralizing the threats to John’s throne, or else it was a craven surrender to the Vatican.

Peter of Pontefract gives us a hint of a judgment on that question.

John held Peter past the May 23 date — and then, just for good measure, past May 27, for that had been the calendar date of John’s coronation in 1199, which was also Ascension Thursday that year, and had been floated as a fallback interpretation of the prophecy — the seer had been duly discredited and, being made ridiculous, could now be made an example of.

Or had he been?

For,

the wise and the foolish alike began to see that John had prevented a literal fulfilment of the prophecy by lending himself to a figurative one. He had ‘ceased to be king’ by laying his crown at the feet of Pandulf, to take it back again on conditions which unquestionably helped to fix it, for the time at least, more securely than ever on his brow. The scapegoat of all parties was the unlucky prophet himself. Next day he and his son, who had been imprisoned with him, were tied each to a horse’s tail, dragged thus from Corfe to Wareham, and there hanged. (Source)

* John stopped paying in 1214, and Innocent left well enough alone.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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