Posts filed under 'Gruesome Methods'

1678: Edward Colman, Popish Plot victim

Add comment December 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.

Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.

His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.

That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**

Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.

There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.

Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Popish Plot in its May 12, 2016 episode.

* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.

** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Spies,Terrorists,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1738: False Tsarevich Alexei

1 comment November 14th, 2016 Headsman

From the memoirs of Cristof Hermann von Mannstein, a Prussian officer who served in Russia from 1727 to 1744. As Manstein has this report by second hand, he has no precise dates.

Execution of the false Czarewitz.

In the month of November, there was a terrible execution in the Ukrain[e]. The son of a peasant in that country had given himself out for the Czarewitz, son of Peter I deceased, in the year 1718.

He had come into a village on the frontiers, where he had declared himself as such to three soldiers, who were on guard near the pyramidal beacons fixed along the limits. These had done homage to him, as also the inhabitants of the village. The priest had caused the bells to be rung, and said a mass in his favor.

At length the people of the village assembled, and perhaps the matter would have gone farther, if it had not been for a Sotnick, or Cossack captain, who, hearing of it, acquainted general Romanzow, then in the neighbourhood.

This pretended Prince and his adherents, who were not very numerous, were easily seized, and conveyed to Petersburgh, where they had their trial in the secret chancery; after which they were sent back to the Ukrain[e]. There the major-general Schipow had an order to see them executed.

The self-made Prince was impaled; the priest and the three soldiers were put to different kids of deaths.

The Empress forgave the peasants, but the village was razed to the ground, and the inhabitants were removed to other places.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Impaled,Known But To God,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Uncertain Dates

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1591: Brian O’Rourke, Irish lord

Add comment November 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc — Brian O’Rourke to the English who killed him — was drawn and quartered as a rebel at Tyburn.

O’Rourke was a chieftain in a disappearing world, the Gaelic Ireland that the English had been engaged in reducing ever since King Henry VIII realized that he was King of Ireland back in 1542.

O’Rourke’s patrimony in this Tudor conquest was the kingdom of West Breifne, with a lineage going right back to its 12th century founder. As far as the Tudors were concerned he was just one more truculent local lord to subdue — even if the very “proudest man this day living on the earth.” (per Nicholas Maltby)

O’Rourke’s pride put him into oppositin against the English satrap and even to succor sailors taking refuge from the shattered Spanish Armada in 1588. But fighting in his environs and eventual outright occupation steadily constrained the scope of his autonomy.

In the end it was his brother-Celts in Scotland who finished him: when O’Rourke turned up there in 1591 seeking license to recruit sword-arms there from King James VI (James was not yet James I of England at this point), Queen Elizabeth successfully prevailed upon her Scottish counterpart to arrest and extradite the man — an incident that triggered a riot in Glasgow.

Tried on the highly dubious grounds of treason against England committed in Ireland — plus a lese-majeste incident of having the queen’s image dragged in the mud tossed into the indictment for good measure* — O’Rourke scornfully refused to plead, or to defend himself unless Elizabeth herself would deign to sit in judgment — sovereign to sovereign. The court required only O’Rourke’s body, not his assent, to proceed.

O’Rourke had a sharp enough tongue when minded to deploy it, however. On the scaffold, he witheringly abused the notoriously avaricious bishop Miler Magrath who had been sent to minister to him. Then …

Upon Wednesdaie the 3 of November, Bren O’Royrke was drawne to Tyborne, and there hanged, his members and bowels burned in the fire, his heart taken out, and holden up by the hangman, naming it to be the archtraytors heart, and then did he cast the same into the fire, then was the head stricken off, and his bodie quartered

-John Stowe, The Annales of England (1605) (via)

O’Rourke’s son Brian oge O’Rourke inherited his position, and his struggle, until younger brother Tadgh O’Rourke deposed him with English support. Tadgh died young in 1605 — and with him, West Breifne expired too.

* Enjoy an itemized list of the naughty O’Rourke’s many offenses against English sensibilities from page 144 of this public domain volume.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Heads of State,History,Ireland,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1783: Jacques Francois Paschal, rapist monk

Add comment October 10th, 2016 Headsman

For this date’s post, we are indebted to Rictor Norton, who maintains the invaluable Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Enland site. Norton wrote a book about England’s proto-gay “molly house” culture, and his site includes a nigh-comprehensive index of 18th century reportage touching same-sex activity.

Norton quotes these reports — luridly horrible, if slightly contradictory — here.


Wednesday 29 October 1783

A correspondent from Paris, who was present at the late execution of the Friar convicted of an unnatural crime, has favoured us with the following particulars: the monk who murdered a young boy that would not submit to his infernal solicitations, was tried at two o’clock in the afternoon, and sentenced to be broke alive on the cross, and then burnt to ashes at four the same day. He was allowed some time in a house to prepare himself for the awful moment, but did not remain there half an hour. He was then taken to the Grève, the place of execution, tied to the cross of St Andrew, and broke with amazing celerity. He had eight bones broken, and was thrown alive into the fire. It is usual for criminals on these occasions to receive the coup de grace, that is, the criminal being tied down on the cross, which is fixed upon a scaffold, the executioner sets a halter round the said criminal’s neck, and passing the ends of the rope through two holes made on purpose in a board of the scaffold, one of Jack Ketch’s* men, who attends underneath, joins the aforesaid ends in a kind of press, and takes care to strangle the malefactor at the very instant he receives the first stroke. The Friar in question was denied this extraordinary favour, though he begged it with many dreadful cries. Monsieur Jack Ketch made his appearance in his own coach, dressed in scarlet laced with gold, with three of his men behind. (Caledonian Mercury)

Thursday 30 October 1783

On Friday, the 10th inst. a friar was executed at Paris for an unnatural crime, and afterwards attempting to murder a young boy of 14, a commissionaire, a kind of porter to waits at the corner of the streets to run of errands. the sentences on criminals are published in France by the Courts of Justice in which they are passed; the present runs in the following manner: Jacques François Paschal, is condemned to the amende honorable, before the principal door of L’Eglise de Paris, where he shall be conducted by the executioner of haute justice, in a tumbril, in his shirt, his feet and head naked, holding in his hand a burning torch of yellow wax of two pounds weight, having a rope about his neck and a label before and behind, on which shall be written these words: Debauche contre nature & assassin: “The crime against nature, and murder”; and there, on his knees shall declare in a loud and intelligible voice that wickedly, rashly, and ill-advisedly, he had delivered himself up to an excess the most criminal towards a young commissionaire, aged fourteen, and had enticed him into his chamber, on the 3d of the present month of October, where, irritated by his resistence [sic], he had attempted to murder him, by giving him a great number of stabs with a knife on the head, reins, and in the back; of which he repents, and demands pardon of God, the King, and Justice: He shall then be taken in the same tumbril to the Place de Greve, to have his arms, legs, thighs, and reins, broken on a scaffold erected for that purpose in the said Place de Greve, and shall afterwards be cast into a burning fire, there to be consumed to ashes, and his ashes scattered in the wind, &c. The boy, though desperately wounded, we hear is not dead.

from Thursday 30 October to Thursday 6 November 1783

A Gentleman who arrived in Town a few Days ago from Paris, was present at the Execution of the Monk on the 10th Inst. for Murder, and an Attempt to commit a detestable Crime, says, the Particulars on the Subject, as stated in some of the English News-papers, are erreoneous; but the following may be depended on as a Fact. — The Monk, who belonged to the Convent of Montmartre, having formed a Design of gratifying his unnatural Passion on a Savoyard Boy, Commisionaire, or Messenger frequenting the Boulevards, Corner of Rue Poissoniere, enticed him to the Convent, and pretending to confess him, took him into his Cell, where, under the Mask of Religion, the Monster in Iniquity attempted to satisfy his brutal Desires, which the Boy resisting, he gagged, and bound him with Cords, to prevent his crying out, or making any Noise, and then stabbed him in several Parts of the Body, locked the Door and fled. Being missed in the Evening at Vespers, the Superior sent to his Cell, the Door of which remaining fastened, notwithstanding being repeatedly knocked at, was ordered to be broke open, when a most shocking Scene presented itself to View, the poor Boy weltering in his Blood, and near expiring. Every possible Assistance was immediately given, but in vain; for he survived no longer than just to be able to relate the dreadful Story, and to discover who was the nefarious Perpetrator of so inhuman a Deed; in pursuit of whom the Police instantly dispatched the Marrechausse, and he was apprehended the next Morning in the Forest of St. Germain, disguised as a Peasant. Being conveyed to the Prison of the Grand Chatelet at Paris, he was privately tried according to the Custom of that Country, though on this particular Occasion his Sentence was not announced so soon as is usual; for it was not till after the Expiration of twenty Days allotted for the Arrival of the Chief Executioners from the provincial Cities, summoned to give their personal Attendance at this Execution extraordinary, that his Sentence was read to him, that within forty-eight Hours he was to be broke on the Wheel, and his Body, whilst yet alive, burnt; at which he seemed very little affected. About one o’Clock on the Day mentioned, under strong Guard, and escorted by a very numerous Procession of Capuchin Friars, bareheaded, with lighted Torches in their Hands, chanting a Requiem for his departing soul, he was brought on Foot to the Church of Notre Dame, where, bare-footed, and stripped to his Shirt, with Labels behind and before, denoting, in Capital Letters, his Crimes, he made his final Confession, and asked Pardon from God, his King, and Country. He was, then, in the same Order, conducted to the Grève, the Place of Execution, where a large Scaffold, with the Apparatus of Death, was erected. At the same Time arrived the Executioner of the Capital, stiled Monsieur de Paris, who alighted from a most elegant Cabriolet, beautifully ornamented with his Arms and Crest on the Pannels, and two Servants in rich Liveries behind. He was a tall, handsome Man, between thirty and forty Years of Age, dressed in Scarlet and Gold, with the Insignia of his Order embroidered over the right Shoulder, a Sword by his Side, and from Head to Foot fashionably and well equipped. After bowing three Times to the Spectators, who were amazingly numerous, he ascended the Scaffold, whereon the Criminal had, in the Interim been placed, and accompanied by a large Body of provincial Executioners, and other Officers of Justice, his Confessor now took leave, and he being fastened to the Cross, Monsieur de Paris, by Means of an Iron Bar, which he used with both Hands, very expeditiously executed Part of the first of the Sentence; and then ordered the Body to be trussed on a Wheel, they were together thrown into a large Fire, kindled at a little Distance from the Scaffold. The poor Wretch mounted the Steps with seeming Composure; but from the Moment he received the first Blow, he continued to utter the most piercing Shrieks, till the Fire put a Period to his Life and Misery. (Derby Mercury)

* The reference here is to the notorious English hangman whose name became the metonym for an executioner. The high executioner of Paris by this point would have been Charles-Henri Sanson, the man who would eventually guillotine Louis XVI. (Sanson was 44 years old at this date, contrary to the estimate in the the excerpt quoted above.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Attempted Murder,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,Sex,Torture

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1554: A false coiner and a masked dummy

Add comment September 29th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.

On the next day [after a September 28 execution] a false coiner was hanged in the same place. The gibbet was not vety high and had only one arm.

Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.

The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*

She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.

* Guillaume Rondelet was one of Platter’s instructors, a professor of medicine. He had been friends with Rabelais and has the distinction of appearing in Gargantua and Pantagruel under the name Rondibilis.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions

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1554: A handsome young man from Montpellier

Add comment September 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France:

On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.

On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.

The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’

The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Murder,Public Executions

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1628: Edmund Arrowsmith, Catholic priest

Add comment August 28th, 2016 Headsman

Lancashire priest Edmund Arrowsmith was martyred on this date in 1628.

Actually named Bryan by his parents, Arrowsmith took the name of an uncle while matriculating at the English seminary in Douai.

He deployed for the old religion his “fervour, zeal and ready wit” in Lancaster from 1612 to 1622, withstood an arrest, then entered the Jesuit order and resumed his underground ministry — until, as the story has it, a man whom Fr. Arrowsmith had chastised for his adulteries petulantly shopped him.

Arrowsmith suffered the horrible public butchery of drawing and quartering, as well as posthumous burning. From the remans, someone retrieved as a relic a charred hand and sent it to Arrowsmith’s relations, who (per a 19th century relative) “keep it in a silver case, and honour it very much, and every Sunday all the crippled or diseased Catholic poor come to kiss it, and the priest touches them with it. It has performed many authentic cures, — some in our time, — so strong is faith.” It has since been transmitted to the Church of St. Oswald and St. Edmund Arrowsmith in Ashton. Look for the stained glass of Edmund and his Holy Hand in this beautiful Flickr album of the church.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.

A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)

Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.

Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.

Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)

Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.

A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.

* Notably, the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum had only just begun in 1748; Winckelmann visited the sites.

** It’s the present-day Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Habsburg Realm,History,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Public Executions,Theft

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1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

Add comment July 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.

After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”

By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.

But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.

So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.

A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Spain,Torture,Treason

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1381: John Ball, radical priest

1 comment July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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