On this date in 1570, the English Catholic martyr John Felton suffered hanging, disemboweling, and quartering at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London for the Old Faith.
Not to be confused with the 17th century assassin of the same name, our John Felton was reported by the biography from his daughter’s hand to be a wealthy Southwark gentleman whose wife had gamboled in her own childhood with the future Queen Elizabeth.
John’s crime was to hang up publicly in the dark of night before Corpus Christi the papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth — an act not merely of religious dissidence but of overt political rebellion, inasmuch as the bull released English subjects from their obedience to “the pretended Queen of England” and exhorted them on pain of damnation to ignore her edicts. This directive from Rome was to prove so taxing for Catholics that it was soon modified to permit outward obedience in civil matters, pending the overthrow of the heresiarchess.
Following a decade of uneasy religious tolerance — in which, not coincidentally, Elizabeth entertained the suits of assorted continental royalty, some of them Catholic — Regnans in Excelsis marked the onset of open hostilities. The Catholic “Ridolfi plot” would be hatched this very year, for instance, and lead the Duke of Norfolk to the scaffold by 1572.
And then he said, O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, in English; and as he was saying it in Latin, In munus tuas Domine, he was turned off the ladder; and hanging there six turns, he was cut down, and carried to the block, and there his head was smitten off, and held up, that the people might see it: whereat the people gave a shout, wishing that all Traitors were so served. Then he was quartered, and carried to Newgate to be parboiled, and so set up as the other rebels were. — God save the Queen.
John Felton’s son Thomas Felton was also martyred, in 1588. Both have since been beatified.
On this date in 1746,* the English Jacobite Francis Towneley was hanged, drawn and quartered at London’s Kennington Park.
This Lancashire Catholic had relocated residence and loyalty to France at age 19 in 1728, and fought in that country’s army. He was right at the sweet spot of veteran seasoning and youthful enterprise by the time “the Forty-Five” rolled around: the last great Jacobite rising to reverse the Glorious Revolution and re-enthrone the dispossessed heirs of King James.
With British armies deployed around Europe and the colonies in the 1740s during the War of Austrian Succession, the French decided to back a Jacobite bid to restore the exiled Stuart pretender, using the customary geopolitical strategem of teaming up with the Scottish. Being a Lancashire local, Towneley was commissioned a colonel and dispatched as an advance party to Manchester to scare up a regiment of Stuart loyalists there who would join up with Highlanders on the march from points north.
Towneley’s Manchester Regiment turned out to number just 300 hardscrabble souls. Discouraged by the thin show of public support — and by reports of a large loyalist army that turned out to be pure bluff — the Jacobites retreated, dropping off Col. Towneley’s regiment on the way to garrison Carlisle. Just days later, this small rearguard was overrun and forced into unconditional surrender by a guy named William the Butcher. This wasn’t destined to end well.
Towneley’s legal defense made the case that he was a commissioned officer of France, and not of the Stuarts themselves, which made him a prisoner of war rather than a traitor, an interesting debating point for barstool barristers but the sort of jurisprudence that will inevitably be determined in the breach by policy instead of principle. Policy in this instance was not to go easy on the Jacobites.
After he had hung for six minutes, he was cut down, and, having life in him, as he lay on the block to be quartered, the executioner gave him several blows on the breast, which not having the effect designed, he immediately cut his throat: after which he took his head off then ripped him open, and took out his bowels and threw them into the fire which consumed them, then he slashed his four quarters, put them with the head into a coffin, and they were deposited till Saturday, August 2nd, when his head was put on Temple Bar, and his body and limbs suffered to be buried.
Towneley’s family still had his severed, spike-holed head into the 20th century, when they finally interred the macabre mememto.
* We’re sticking with the local date in England here. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point (though for just a few years more). You’ll also see August 10 cites out there: that’s the equivalent date on the Gregorian calendar, which was current in France and throughout Europe’s Catholic realms.
On this date in history, the French spy Francois Henri de la Motte was hanged at Tyburn — and, only after hanging, his head was cut off and his heart carved out. Old Blighty was going a bit soft: it didn’t do actual drawings and quarterings at this late enlightened date. (Well, just one.)
Those old enemies Britain and France had renewed hostilities over the American Revolution, which France backed to twist the neighboring lion’s tail.
De la Motte was a French expat living in England, in which capacity he supported the statecraft of his native realm by coyly picking up British army and naval dispositions and sending word home of who was going where, when. His intelligence allegedly enabled the French navy to turn an unusually aggressive gambit against the British in an engagement in the East Indies, with the loss of 207 souls.
“In the whole history of mankind, an instance was not to be produced of a more ingenious, able, and industrious spy than Mr. De La Motte,” his prosecutors charged. (There’s an account of the trial here.)
Perhaps this was flattery, since the operation was not defeated by counterintelligence except de la Motte’s own counter-intelligence. The guy dropped a bunch of incriminating notes he had taken on naval movements in a staircase, and they were there snatched up by King George’s true subjects and forthwith sent their owner to Newgate. His English accomplice quickly turned Crown’s evidence
Days after the spy’s ignominious end, General Cornwallis’s army in the American south arrived from Charleston at Yorktown, Va., a deep-water port from which he meant to command the Chesapeake. There, Cornwallis was surrounded by an overwhelming force of both American rebels and their French armies. The British defeat at Yorktown that October clinched independence for the colonies.
De la Motte’s trial — accused perfidious Frenchman in danger of barbaric old-timey punishment — appears to be the model for the London trial against Charles Darnay depicted at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. See if this sketch by noted death penalty skeptic (but also death penalty obsessive) Charles Dickens doesn’t essentially depict Francois de la Motte’s situation:
“What’s coming on?”
“The Treason case.”
“The quartering one, eh?”
“Ah!” returned the man, with a relish; “he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”
“If he’s found Guilty, you mean to say?” Jerry added, by way of proviso.
“Oh! they’ll find him guilty,” said the other.
Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going, between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.
Darnay is acquitted, obviously, as Dickens was only three chapters in and being paid for a novel-length serial.
After 4 days of torture, on this date in 1584, Balthasar Gérard (Geeraerts) finally met his end by beheading on the wheel.
Gérard managed to be both historically important and wholly forgettable: an assassin working for Spain against the Netherlands, his regicide was met with a predictably stiff punishment. Then, no fault of his own, the subsequent course of history** pushed the assassin into obscurity while elevating his prey.
A lawyer by trade, Gérard was a fervent Catholic and supporter of the Spanish crown, which controlled the territory up the coast through the present-day Netherlands. At the peak of its power, Spain’s monarchy — led by King Philip II — had significant cause for concern at the rise in Protestantism.
The Spanish were Europe’s paladins of staunch Catholicism, and the sight of her troops did little to endear Spain to her colonized neighbors to the North.
For both religious reasons and political ones, the Dutch were looking for a way out from under the Spanish thumb, and a former noble named William, Duke of Orange, was a major instigator in the struggle. In his collected letters and addresses from the period, An apology or defence of William the First of Nassau, William states that, starting in 1559, he became increasingly concerned with plans against Protestants by the Spanish monarchy.
That also happens to be the year William was bestowed with stadtholdership of Holland, Zeeland, and Utrecht; in effect, he controlled the Dutch coast.
Though he was known as William the Silent, the Duke was endowed with both financial resources and widespread popularity, and he didn’t keep his mouth shut when it came to Inquisition courts in his realms.†
When the head enforcer of that policy, Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, left town, William got even noisier — declaring before the Council of State that Spanish policies were squelching religious freedom.
In 1566, the nobleman signed onto the Compromise of Nobles and began funding insurgencies across the northern provinces. As religious unrest grew, Calvinists and Protestants in the French and Germanic portions of Spain’s holdings quickly formed up behind William. An early attempt in 1568 to invade the Netherlands using German mercenaries and French Huguenots failed, but the resultant executions of Egmont and Hoorn put Spain on a long and winding road toward defeat.
The Dutch War was afoot, with William leading the way.
It would take and dozens of small-scale military victories over the next 15 years (during which William declared himself a Calvinist and fully broke his Spanish ties) for the Dutch to move to independence. The 1580 Union of Utrecht and 1581 Act of Abjuration officially ousted King Phillip II from the Netherlands and installed a new government.
Needless to say, Phillip reciprocated William’s love.
In 1580, Spain’s top man put a price on William’s head. Juan de Jáuregui tried to collect two years later by shooting the stadtholder, but the man holding the new title of Prince William I of Nassau recovered, while de Jáuregui was killed on the spot.
With 25,000 crowns at stake, there were bound to be other takers.
Our man Balthasar Gérard started looking for a close encounter with William the Target. At first, he joined the army in Luxembourg, which didn’t get him very far. It was time to gin up a real plot, which Gérard shopped to the Duke of Parma, Alessandro Farnese, in April 1584. Though the Duke offered no funding for the operation — Gérard ponied up the startup money he needed for the trip — and held out little hope that the lawyer would be successful, he gave Gérard assurances that his family would be taken care of in case of disaster.
Gérard first presented himself to William in June as the son of a martyred Calvinist from France. On 8 July, he returned and, badly in need of new clothes, managed to beg 50 crowns for a new set.
Instead, he bought a pair of pistols and, on 10 July, made history with a point-blank shot to William’s chest.
Detail view (click for the full image) of William the Silent’s 1585 assassination at the hands of Balthasar Gerard.
This assassination attempt didn’t fail. William became the second head of state to be killed by an assassin’s bullet,† — and his shooter the first such man to be juridically punished for the deed.
And, oh, how he was punished.
The regicide was beaten immediately after his capture, then subjected to a variety of cruelties, from wet leather boots which, when heated, both crushed and burned the feet, to daily floggings while hanging on a post outside the jail.
But on this day, his time of torture was up, and Gérard was finally put to death. You know, the usual:
It was decreed the right hand of Gerard should be burned off with a red-hot iron, that his flesh should be torn from his bones with pincers in six different places, that he should be quartered and disembowelled alive, that his heart should be torn from his bosom and flung in his face, and that, finally, his head should be taken off.
For all that he suffered as a regicide, Gérard left his family an impressive inheritance. Making good Parma’s assurances, King Phillip II gave them William’s former lands in three French provinces and took his siblings and their issue into his peerage.
Gérard’s cause carried on for another 60 years, until it was finally extinguished by the signing of the Peace of Münster by the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands and Spain.
* Foucault mistakenly identifies the torture as lasting 18 days, and the additional details he lays down for Gérard’s time on death row may be less-than-believable. However, all sources indicate that the tortures Gérard endured were quite spectacular, even by the standards of the day.
** See Dissident identities in the early modern Low Countries for a complete treatment of this period in The Netherlands and Belgium.
† For example, the city of Antwerp (Belgium), then under possession of the Spanish crown and considered the mercantile center of Europe for its vast sugar trade, featured over 100 executions for heresy from 1557-1562, twice as many as in all of Spain during that time.
‡ The first was James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, then Regent of Scotland. Stewart’s shooter, James Hamilton, escaped into exile, though others of the Hamilton clan answered for the murder.
Thomas, too — then about 30 years old — was arrested during this same backlash, and put to torture for evidence against uncle Henry. Thomas had been exercising his covert ministry in England since 1599, after slipping English custody once before.
As a result of the Gunpowder Plot hubbub, Thomas Garnet was among 47 Catholic clerics shipped across the English Channel to Flanders in July 1606, where they were warned that they faced execution should they ever again be caught in England.
Thomas Garnet returned, of course. He was betrayed within weeks by another priest named Rouse — whom Garnet publicly forgave while being drawn, hanged, and quartered on this date in 1608. (His faith was treasonable because he refused to swear an oath of allegiance demanded of Catholics post-5.11.)
Garnet’s remains were translated back to his Catholic school on the continent. In more tolerant times, long after Garnet’s death, this English Jesuit school finally had liberty to relocate back to England proper. While Garnet’s relics were destroyed in the French Revolution, he remains the protomartyr (the first martyr associated with a place) of the venerable Stonyhurst College, now in Lancashire.
If the grievances of the latter are still well-remembered, English and Scottish Protestants had their own bill of particulars from the Irish Rebellion over Catholic-perpetrated slaughters like the Portadown Massacre. (Irish Catholics had their grievances from spending the preceding decade suffering land grabs for English settlers under the authoritarian rule of Thomas Wentworth. And on it goes.)
Actually, in the wake of the Irish Rebellion, there was a systematic project to collect witness testimony (not all of it reliable) about Catholic-on-Protestant violence. This codex would come in handy for Cromwell’s subsequent statecraft; it’s freely available online in an enormous searchable database.
Such beyond-the-pale doings took place literally beyond “the Pale” around Dublin, and outside similar fortified spots where the English holed themselves up.
These outposts gave the foreign heretics quite a bit of leverage, which Macguire and some other lords contrived to reverse via a plot to seize Dublin castle, kill its English lords, “and to put all the Protestants there likewise to the sword.” It was the lynchpin of an audacious coup that involved similar actions at English strongholds all around the island.
While some other fortresses did succumb, the plot against Dublin failed when Macguire’s co-conspirator Hugh “the Stereotype” MacMahon got drunk the night before and blabbed about it to his Presbyterian brother-in-law. Thus narrowly preserved, Dublin authorities arrested MacMahon and Macguire. (MacMahon was drawn and quartered in November 1644.)
The personal was very much political here, with the loss of lands and revenues under Wentworth stoking national and religious resentments against the English lords and settlers. Macguire described the recruiting pitch made by one of the rebellion’s leading spirits, Rory O’Mo(o)re: “[O'More] began to lay down to me the case that I was in then, overwhelmed in debt, the smallness of my estate, and the greatness of the estate my ancestors had, and how I should be sure to get it again, or at least a good part thereof.” (Source)
Whatever rank greed held in Conor Macguire’s motivations, however, he was constant to his horrific end. This interesting account of the scene on the scaffold will hardly fail to move the most ardent Orangeman to a bit of pity for the poor bastard enduring in his last moments on earth an endless badgering by the London sheriff to endorse a policy statement on intersectional strife.
On Thursday, February 20th, he was drawn on a sledge from the Tower, through London, and so to Tyburn; when being removed into a cart, he kneeled and prayed awhile; after which Sheriff Gibbs spake to him, representing the heinousness of his crime, and the vast numbers who had been murdered by that conspiracy, for which he was to suffer, and, therefore, exhorted him to express his sorrow for it: to which he answered, ‘I desire Almighty God to forgive me my sins.’
Sheriff Gibbs.—Do you believe you did well in those wicked actions?
Macg.—I have but a short time, do not trouble me.
Sher.—Sir, it is but just I should trouble you, that you may not be troubled for ever.
Macg.—I beseech you, Sir, trouble me not; I have but a little time to spend.
Sher.—I shall give you as much time after as you shall spend to give satisfaction to the people; I do require you, as an instrument set in God’s hands here, to make an acknowledgment to the people, whether you are sorry for what you have done or no; whether it be good or no.
Macg.—I beseech you do not trouble me; I am not disposed to give you an account. Pray give .me leave to pray.
Dr. Sibbald.—Give glory to God, that your soul may not be presented to God with the blood of so many thousand people.
Sher.—You are either to go to heaven or hell. If you make not an ingenuous confession your case is desperate. Had you any commission or not?
Macg.—I tell you there was no commission that ever I saw.
Sher.—Who were actors or plotters with you? or, who gave you any commission?
Macg.—For God’s sake give mo leave to depart in peace. They then asked him if he had not some pardon or bull from the Pope for what he did? to which he only answered, ‘I am not of the same religion with you.’ And being further urged about a bull, or pardon, said, ‘I saw none of it; all that I knew I delivered on my examinations; all that I said on my examinations are true; all that I said is right. I beseech you let me depart in peace.’ And so not returning them any answer to their question, he continued mumbling over a paper, which he had in his hand, as he had done from his first coming. The sheriffs commanded his pockets to be searched, whether ho had no bull or pardon about him, but they found in his pocket only some beads and a crucifix, which were taken from him. And then Dr. Sibbald said to him, ‘Come, my Lord, leave these, and acknowledge your fault to God and the world: one drop of the blood of Jesus Christ is able to purge you of all the heavy load that is upon you; it is not your Ave Marias nor these things will do you any good, but it is Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata Mundi.’ The Lord Macguire seemed not to regard his discourse, but read out of his paper to the people as followeth:
Since I am here to die, I desire to depart with a quiet mind, and with the marks of a good Christian; that is, asking forgiveness first of God, and next of the world. And I do forgive, from the bottom of my heart, all my enemies and offenders, even those that have a hand in my death. I die a Roman Catholick, and although I have been a great sinner, yet I am now, by God’s grace, heartily sorry for all my sins; and I do most confidently trust to be saved, not by my own works, but only by the passion, merits, and mercy of my dear Saviour Jesus Christ, into whose hand I commend my soul.
And then added, ‘I beseech you, gentlemen, let me have a little time to say my prayers.’
Sher.—Sir, if you answer ingenuously to those questions we shall ask you, you shall have time afterwards; whether do you account the shedding of Protestant blood to be a sin or not, and whether do you desire pardon of God for that sin?
Macg.—I do desire pardon of God for all my sins: I cannot resolve you in anything for my part.
Sher.—You can tell what your conscience dictates to you. Do you think it was a sin or not?
Macg.—For my part I cannot determine it.
Sher.—Then now it seems nothing to you to kill so many.
Macg.—How do you mean killing of them? to tell you my mind directly, for the killing, I do not know that, but I think, the Irish had a great cause for their wars.
Sher.—Was there any assault made upon you? Had you not entered into a covenant? Had you not engaged yourselves by oath to the king?
Macg.—For Jesus Christ’s sake, I beseech you, give me a little time to prepare myself.
Sher.—Have pity on your own soul.
Macg.—For God’s sake have pity on me, and let me say my prayers.
Sher.—I say the like to you, in relation to your own soul, whether do you think the massacre of so many thousand Protestants was a good act? For Jesus Christ’s sake have pity on your soul.
Macg.—Pray let me have a little time to say my prayers.
All this time his eye was mostly on his papers, mumbling something out of them to himself. Whereupon one of the sheriffs demanded these papers from him; he flung them down; they were taken up and given to the sheriff. They asked him further, whether they were not some agreement with the recusants in England? Whereunto he answered, ‘I take it upon my death, I do not know that any man knew of it;’ and after some other such like talk, the sheriff bidding him prepare for death, he said: ‘I beseech all the Catholics here to pray for me. I beseech God to have mercy on my soul:’ and so was executed.
On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.
A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.
Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.
[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.
Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.
After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”
The chronicles supply an unusually graphic and detailed description (pdf) of this horrible manner of death. (Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)
The King [Henry IV] commanded his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to have justice executed upon the lords who were taken prisoners, and to put them all to death, except a young knight whom he had dubbed the Saturday before his coronation, whom the King pardoned for rising in arms against him, on account of his youth and noble lineage.
Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benet [Shelley] were drawn from Oxford unto the place of execution, a long league or more, and there they were hung; they then cut them down and made them speak, and placed them before a long fire. Then came the executioner with a razor in his hand, and kneeling down before Sir Thomas Blount, who had his hands tied, begged his foregiveness [sic] for putting him to death, for he was obliged to perform his office.
‘Are you he,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘who will deliver me from this world?’
The executioner replied, ‘Yes, my lord; I beg you to pardon me.’
The lord then kissed him and forgave him.
The executioner had with him a small basin and a razor, and kneeling between the fire and the lords, unbuttoned Sir Thomas Blount, and ripped open his stomach and tied the bowels with a piece of whipcord that the breath of the heart might not escape, and cast the bowels into the fire.
As Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him, Sir Thomas Erpingham said, ‘Now go and seek a master who will cure you.’
Sir Thomas Blount placed his hands together, saying, ‘Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the hour when I was born, and blessed be this day, for I die this day in the service of my sovereign lord King Richard.’
After he had thus spoken, Sir Thomas Erpingham asked him, ‘Who are the lords, knights, and esquires who are of your accord, and treason?’
To which the good knight replied, suffering as he was, ‘Art thou the traitor Erpingham? Thou art more false than I am or ever was; and thou liest, false knight as thou art; for, by the death which I must suffer, I never spake ill of any knight, lord, or esquire, nor of anybody in the world; but thou utteredst thy false spleen like a false and disloyal traitor; for by thee, and by the false traitor the Earl of Rutland [who ratted out the conspiracy], the noble knighthood of England is destroyed.
‘Cursed be the hour when thou and he were born! I pray to God to pardon my sins: and thou traitor Rutland, and thou false Erpingham, I call you both to answer before the face of Jesus Christ for the great treason that you two have committed against our sovereign lord noble King Richard, and against his noble knighthood.’
The executioner then asked him if he would drink.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘you have taken away wherein to put it, thank God’! and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors.
The executioner kneeled down, and, Sir Thomas having kissed him, the executioner cut off his head and quartered him; and he did the same to the other lords, and parboiled the quarters. And in Oxford castle many other knights and esquires were beheaded.
Thomas Erpingham doesn’t exactly exude charm in this account, going out of his way to bust on a guy having his entrails ripped out. But good guys and bad guys are a matter of perspective: Erpingham’s loyal service to the new dynasty got him a complimentary bit part in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Erpingham fought at Agincourt). Shakespeare’s young King Harry calls him his “Good old Knight”.
David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, 
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.
-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place
On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.
This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.
With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.
In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.
Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.
There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.
It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.
Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?
This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.
The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.
Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.
Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.
With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.
After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”
If you didn’t get August 5 off, your jurisdiction is ignoring the Scottish parliament’s 1600 decree: “in all times and ages to come the fifth of August should be solemnly kept with prayers, preachings, and thanksgiving for the benefit, discharging all work, labour, and other occupations upon the said day.”*
They didn’t mean to keep it out of excess reverence for St. Emygdius: rather, August 5 was the date of the Gowrie conspiracy, a sketchy supposed assassination attempt on King James VI of Scotland (soon also to become King James I of England). John Ruthven, Earl of Gowrie and his brother Alexander Ruthven were both slain on the spot during that event … but not until 15 weeks later did Parliament rule that “the said bodies of the said Traitors shall be carried, upon Monday next [i.e., November 17], to the publick cross of Edinburgh: and there to be hangd, quarter’d, and drawn, in presence of the hail People: and thereafter, the heads, quarters, and carcasses, to be affix’d upon the most patent parts and places of the Burroughs of Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee and Stirling.”
Did they deserve it?
Scottish writer John Prebble considered the Gowrie conspiracy one of his realm’s best mysteries. It’s a maddeningly perplexing sequence of ambiguous (or altogether dubious) events related by interested, partisan sources.
I am murtherit!
The summary official version — and we’re skipping over such writerly red herrings as a mystery man in the turret, a still-stabled horse, and a wild fable about a pot of foreign gold — is that while staying at the Ruthven estates, James’s courtiers saw him shouting out the window, “I am murtherit! Treassoun! My Lord of Mar, help! help!”
While Lord Mar and others spent half an hour (!) trying to batter down a locked entrance to the regicidal turret, a page named John Ramsay found another staircase in, where he came upon the king and Alexander Ruthven grappling. Ramsay stabbed Ruthven about the head and neck, and Ruthven fled down Ramsay’s same staircase: there he careened headlong into more arriving royal retainers who killed him flat. Ruthven died exclaiming “Allace! I had na wyte [blame] of it!”
Meanwhile, the Lord Gowrie — quite possibly knowing nothing but that there was a commotion involving the king in his home — had rallied outside the courtyard with his own household and marched in swords drawn, passing the fresh-slain body of his little brother on the way. He must have been in an evil temper when he burst into the chamber, there to discover Ramsay and friends, and only them: the king had been locked in another room for his protection. Ramsay demanded Gowrie’s submission and the two crossed swords, with Ramsay running the elder Ruthven through, too.
(Small wonder Ramsay went on to become a royal favorite.**)
“… if it be true”
“A very wonderful story, your Majesty, if it be true,” one lord is supposed to have replied to James upon hearing this amazing tale.
Suspicion was immediately rife that this “treason” stuff was a cover for the king to take out a rival noble. The Ruthvens had often been at odds with King Jamie’s own family; John and Alexander’s own father was beheaded in 1584 for trying to kidnap the then-teenaged king, and their grandfather had helped a gang of nobles destabilize James’s mother Mary by murdering her favorite courtier David Rizzio right before her eyes. And of course, the crown would be able to seize all the “traitors’” estates, nicely flipping around a significant cash debt owed to the Ruthven clan.
Edinburgh Presbyterian ministers openly disputed the Ruthvens’ guilt, refusing to thank God for James’s “deliverance”.† James found it necessary to forcibly quash this talk, and he would insist upon the Ruthvens’ guilt all his days. But those outside the reach of Scottish royal power had looser tongues.
French nobles who had met Gowrie on the latter’s recent return from his continental studies, and Queen Elizabeth, who had received Gowrie warmly at court, openly doubted the official account: it was thought wildly at odds with the young man’s character. The nature of the interaction between the king and Alexander Ruthven prior to the intervention of John Ramsay depends upon the account of the king himself — that account, and no other. The other witnesses were dead. And the object of the plot seems unclear: sure, maybe Alexander Ruthven could have killed the king mano a mano, but then what? There was no indication at all of confederates (even Alexander’s brother reacted in confusion), nor coherent design for some next step like massacring James’s courtiers or toppling the government or even escaping. These were scheming aristocrats, not deranged lone assassins. And both James and Gowrie had behaved for all the world before this incident as if the unpleasantness with the father was water under the bridge.
“The assassination of the Gowries was the most indefensible act that has ever appeared on the pages of Scottish history,” avers mildy a 1912 volume of the Ruthven family papers. It was “a cunning conspiracy that has disgraced the historical record for more than three hundred years.”
The jury’s still out
Still, the hypothetical account of a royal anti-Gowrie conspiracy seems if anything even less satisfying than the official story. Most of the happenings besides what passed between Alexander and James were witnessed by others, so … the king falsely yelled “treason” counting on the handful of his guys staying in the Ruthvens’ own place to kill the Ruthvens instead of the other way around? Events played out so chaotically that this convenient outcome seems mere [mis]chance. What was the plan if John Ramsay hadn’t found the unlocked second entrance?
And yet some 350 witnesses were examined without turning up any concrete design, and three Ruthven retainers hanged on August 23 insisting upon their innocence of any treasonable intent.
One can go a lot of ways from here, and it’s hard to spin any one story that satisfyingly accounts for all the evidence. A scheme to kidnap (and extract policy change from) the king, rather than murder him? Alexander an unwilling pawn, forced into it by his brother? Or, as one English envoy supposed, a destructive spiral of events proceeding from a silly misunderstanding wherein a chance reference to the Ruthvens’ executed father led Alexander to defend the family a little too hotly and the king to start shouting in panic when he realized he was unarmed in the company of an excited, and much larger, man?‡
We’ll never really know. Light a candle for epistemological uncertainty next August 5.
Much help drawn from a two-parter review of the contradictory evidence in The Scottish Historical Review, nos. 121 and 122 (April and October 1957) by W.F. Arbuckle.
* August 5 was indeed “solemnly kept” during the reign of James, according to F.C. Eeles in “The English Thanksgiving Service for King James’ Delivery from the Gowrie Conspiracy” from the July 1911 Scottish Historical Review. As the title of that piece suggests, there was even a service promulgated (though never incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer), beseeching God that James “may bee kept as the apple of thine eye, and thy kindnesse and mercy may follow him all the dayes of his life, with abundance of all thy blessings both heavenly and earthly upon his Majesty, our gracious Queene, the Prince …”
** Ramsay would be supplanted in the royal sun come the 1620s, by George Villiers.
† Religion affords another potential motivation here, although perhaps only retrospectively. James was working a long-term project to reintroduce episcopacy — crown-appointed bishops — to control the loose canons of Scotch Presbyterianism. “No bishop, no king,” in the aphorism attributed him.
With the Gowrie plot as backdrop, James was able to force radical ministers and their tin-foil hats out of Edinburgh and obtain the consent of the rest to James’s own hand-picked bishops — the camel’s nose under the tent, if you like. (See Maurice Lee, Jr., “James VI and the Revival of Episcopacy in Scotland: 1596-1600,” Church History, 43 (1974).) The Ruthven family papers volume also sets great stock by the idea that a Catholic party was out to get Lord Gowrie.
‡ “by occasion of a picture (as is sayde) or otherwise, speech happening of Earle Gourie his father executed, the k. angrelie sayde he was a traitour. Whereat the youth showing a greived and expostulatorie countenance and happilie Scot-like woords, the k. seeing hymself alone and wythout weapon cryed, ‘Treason, Treason’. The Mr [i.e., Alexander Ruthven], abashed much to see the k. to apprehend yt so … putt his hand with earnest deprecations to staie the k. showing his countenance to them with out in that moode, immediatlie falling on his knees to entreat the k.” Ramsay did say that when he entered the room he saw Alexander’s head under James’s arm, which might be consistent with this supplicatory pose … especially given that accounts of the men’s respective physiques suggest Alexander should have had the clear advantage in an actual scrap.