Posts filed under '14th Century'

1345: Giovanni Martinozzi, missionary Franciscan

Add comment April 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1345, Giovanni Martinozzi died for the faith in Cairo.

Martinozzi was a Franciscan who hailed from one of the prominent families of Siena. Like the famous founder of his order, Martinozzi undertook to convert the Saracens: part of a mmissionary ovement of Franciscans abroad from Europe which had been encouraged by the papacy as a means to discharge the troublesome ferment of the Franciscan movement. (As a reference point, Martinozzi would have died in the generation following the events of The Name of the Rose.)

Where Francis found the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil mild and welcomings, Martinozzi attained from the Mamluks the laurels of “missionary martyrdom” that had eluded the master.

After re-converting a Genoese merchant who had apostatized to Islam, Martinozzi was tortured and on April 15, 1345, immolated along with the inconstant entrepreneur.

According to S. Maureen Burke (“The ‘Martyrdom of the Franciscans’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 65 Bd., H. 4 (2002)), a fresco of Beato Martinozzi’s martyrdom once adorned the Basilica of San Francesco in Siena; the fresco either does not survive or has eluded my online peregrinations. Giotto’s thematically topical 1320s Ordeal by Fire before the Sultan of Egypt will have to serve: it alludes to an episode (perhaps apocryphal) during Saint Francis’s travels in Egypt a century before.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,God,History,Italy,Martyrs,Religious Figures,Torture

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1322: John de Mowbray, rebel lord

Add comment March 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1322, northern baron John de Mowbray was hanged at York as a traitor.

A member of the aristocratic opposition to Edward II and to Edward’s favorite Hugh Despenser.

Mowbray was with said opposition’s chief, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster when the latter was trapped and defeated by Andrew Harclay at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

The surrender of these rebel lords offered the king a chance to clear many of his rivals from the board, and he did not miss it: something like two dozen nobles were put to death in its aftermath, Mowbray among them.

According to The Washingtons: A Family History, Volume 3, which notes Mowbray as a paternal ancestor of the American protopresident,

His body was left to hang and rot for an extended period before the vengeful king and the Despensers finally permitted his family to take it down and bury it in the church of the Dominican friars at York. Well into the nineteenth century, a legend proclaimed that his armor had been hung on an oak tree near Thirsk, and that ‘at midnight it may yet be heard creaking, when the east wind comes soughing up the road from the heights of Black Hambleton.’

Mowbray’s wife and son were locked in the Tower of London and their estates redistributed to more loyal subjects. They’d be restored to both liberty and property after Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer overthrew Edward.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Nobility,Public Executions,Treason

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1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

Add comment January 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Treason

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1343: A dozen Breton nobles

Add comment November 29th, 2017 Headsman

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, concerning the rough handling the king deployed in an attempt to squelch the Breton War of Succession:

Not long after the executon of Olivier de Clisson a group of Breton nobles attacked Charles de Blois as he was on his way to Paris. Fourteen — among them the two Geoffroys de Malestroit, father and son, Alain de Cadillac, Jean de Montaubon, Fulk de Laval and Henri d’Avaugour — were captured and taken to Paris. Although Philippe VI formally turned the case over to the Parlement, he made sure that the court did as he wished. On 24 November 1343 he advised it that he was sending the prevot of Paris and Jean Richer, maitre de requetes de l’hotel, ‘for certain matters regarding the Breton prisoners. We instruct you accordingly,’ the king cautioned, ‘that you accept what they have to say on our behalf.’

On 29 November the accused appeared in the Parlement, confessed to their treason and were then sent back to the Chatelet without the court having passed sentence. In fact the decision in this case was taken away from the Parlement by the king. On that same day Philippe VI ordered the prevot of Paris to execute the prisoners forthwith, ‘because we condemn them as traitors’. Philippe’s determination in this matter was patent. In concluding his instructions he wrote: ‘take care that there is no slip-up if you do not want to incur our wrath’. Except for Laval and Avaugour, the Bretons were drawn and beheaded that same day; and their corpses were then drawn to the gibbet to be hanged there. These executions had the desired effect on at least some of Montfort‘s partisans: Jean, eldest son of the count of Vendome, for example, quickly made his peace with Philippe VI.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,History,Mass Executions,Nobility,Public Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1397: Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel

Add comment September 21st, 2017 Headsman

“Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow”

-supposed last words of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to his executioner

On this date in 1397, the Earl of Arundel was condemned and immediately beheaded in London’s Cheapside.

Not to be confused with his grandfather, the Earl of Arundel* beheaded 71 years earlier for loyalty to his deposed king, our man Richard FitzAlan earned the chop for being a thorn in his king’s backside.

As one of England’s great magnates, Arundel had played a principal role for many years in the bloody struggle with King Richard II over power and prerogatives; he was one of the three original Lords Appellant whose rebellion against Richard brought about their “Merciless Parliament” in 1388, and its purge of royal loyalists.

Powerless at that time to impede the Lords Appellant, then-21-year-old King Richard quietly nurtured hatred of his foes for many years until he was in a position to really strike them. This was a delicate and a long-term business, but Richard’s bitterness proved equal to the revenge. In 1397, Richard finally — per Froissart — “decided upon a bold and daring move. He had reflected that it was better to destroy than to be destroyed and that speedy action could prevent his uncle from ever being a threat to him again.”

Said uncle was the Duke of Gloucester, another one (the senior one) of those difficult Lords Appellant. To conquer Gloucester required daring indeed: Richard lured him away from the considerable protection of his own retinue on the pretext of a hunting trip, and led him into an ambush where the Earl Marshal could arrest him undefended.

Needing now to stay ahead of the news, Richard flew for London to complete his counter-coup and the next day had Arundel arrested along with the other of the three original Lords Appellant, the Earl of Warwick. Mighty Gloucester had been spirited secretly to Calais to be murdered in prison; a more formal version of the same fate awaited Arundel.**

It may be said that the Duchess of Gloucester, with her son Humphrey and her two daughters, were naturally deeply distressed when their husband and father was brought home dead, and the Duchess had to suffer another blow when the King had her uncle. Earl Richard of Arundel, publicly beheaded in Cheapside, London. None of the great barons dared to thwart the King or dissuade him from doing this. King Richard was present at the execution and it was carried out by the Earl Marshal, who was married to Lord Arundel’s daughter and who himself blindfolded him. (Froissart, again)

* The Earl of Arundel rank still exists today as a courtesy title held by the Duke of Norfolk’s heir; it has existed nearly continuously since it was created in 1138 for a Norman nobleman.

** Warwick got enough political pull on his behalf to survive in captivity; he’d eventually be released when one of his Lords Appellant allies deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV … a feat that he accomplished with the aid of our Arundel’s younger brother, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms

Add comment September 8th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1306, Scottish patriot Simon Fraser was drawn and quartered in London.

This Norman-descended lord was one of the side-switching nobles during the wars of William Wallace, but after completing the full circuit from Wallace to Edward I and back again, he unexpectedly decided to lash himself to St. Andrew‘s cross for good.

Perhaps he could tell where the wind was blowing, and not just for his historical reputation: Fraser’s former ally, “Red” Comyn, went down the other fork in the road, submitting himself to an irresistible English invasion the better to devote his energies to his longshot horse in the confusing Scottish regnal derby.

Comyn’s reward was to be personally daggered to death at the altar of Greyfriars Church by Robert the Bruce.


The murder of John Comyn.

But no amount of royal sacrilege could arrest the popular fad for cutting a deal, and as celebrated in this History of the Frasers,

Every man of influence in the Kingdom, except Sir Simon Fraser, Sir William Wallace, and the band of patriots who comprised the garrison of Stirling, followed the example of Cumming [Comyn] … The patriots were proclaimed outlaws and their estates forfeited, and they ultimately sacrificed their noble lives in the undying service of their country. The redoubted Sir William Wallace continued most deservedly to be the idol of his countrymen for the glorious part which he took in establishing the independence of his fatherland, but “if to him be due the glory of being the first to awaken Scotland from her ignominious slumber, his efforts were nobly seconded by Sir Simon Fraser, who alone of the aristocracy was disposed to view with envy the merit which called his hero to command.”

Fraser outlived Wallace by a year, persisting in the field “bold as Caesar” which supposedly led a couple of Scottish knights imprisoned in the Tower to cockily wager their heads that the English would never corral him.*

Fraser suffered the torment of being hanged and cut down still alive for beheading, the spectacle of a double death (with the disemboweling part mercifully saved for posthumous application). His head was set on a spike on London Bridge beside Wallace’s, and his mangled trunk hung in chains under guard lest any soul sensitive to Scotch nationalism or mephitis should undertake to cut it down.

For all that he’s not even the most famous Simon Fraser to be executed by the English.

* Edward collected his prize; you can read all about it as an aside in this ballad on the execution of Fraser.

Sire Herbert of Morham, feyr knyht ant bold,
For the love of Frysel ys lyf wes ysold.
A wajour he made, so hit wes ytold,
Ys heued of to smhyte yef me him brohte in hold,
Wat so bytyde.
Sory wes he thenne,
Tho he myhte him kenne
Thourh the toun ryde.

Thenne seide ys scwyer a word anon-ryht:
“Sire, we beth dede; ne helpeth hit no wyht!”
(Thomas de Boys the scwyer wes to nome.)
“Nou Ychot oure wajour turneth ous to grome,
So Y bate!”
Y do ou to wyte,
Here heued was ofsmyte
Byfore the Tour gate.

Sir Herbert of Morham, a fair and bold knight,
For the love of Fraser his life was sold.
A wager he made, as it was told,
To have his head cut off if they captured Fraser,
Whatever betide.
Sorry was he then,
When he might see him
Ride through the town.

Then his squire spoke a word immediately:
“Sir, we’re dead; there’s no creature to help us!”
(Thomas de Bois was the squire’s name.)
“Now I know that our wager brings us to harm,
So my courage ends!”
I give you to know,
Their heads were cut off
Before the Tower gate.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Scotland,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1374: Tile von Damm, Braunschweig mayor

Add comment April 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1374, mayor Tile von Damm was beheaded by rebel populares in his home city of Braunschweig (Brunswick).

One of northern Europe’s great Hanseatic merchant cities, Braunschweig enjoyed a rich history of civic unrest — the Braunschweiger Schichten. (Literally shift, but also carrying the sense of rebellion.)


The Great Rebellion in Braunschweig, by Alfred von Schüssler (mid-19th century).

One of its most outstanding installments — the one recalled as the Große Schicht — kicked off on April 17, 1374. (Most of the information about this incident is in German, as are most of the links in this post.) On that evening, a meeting of the ruling council of merchant magnates with its guild chiefs on how to deal with Braunschweig’s crippling debt turned tetchy and spilled into a popular protest. Within hours, as a chronicler would later put it, the devil was set loose in Braunschweig.

Guild protests carried to the “House of the Seven Towers” where Tile von Damm(e) resplended in the manner fitting the city’s mayor and its wealthiest patrician. That house still exists to this day, but the mayor’s thread was measured in mere hours: he was soon hauled out and beheaded on the Hagenmarkt.

Either eight or ten magnates (sources seem to be split on the figure) were slain during these April disturbances with others fleeing as guild rebels took full control of the city, not to be fully restored until 1386 — although in a show of transnational oligarch solidarity, Braunschweig was booted out of the Hanseatic League while the lower orders had the run of the place.


Allegory of the Great Rebellion (1514).

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1329: The effigy of Pope John XXII, by Antipope Nicholas V

1 comment February 19th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1329, as Wikipedia puts it, Antipope Nicholas V “presided at a bizarre ceremony in the Duomo of Pisa, at which a straw puppet representing Pope John XXII and dressed in pontifical robes was formally condemned, degraded, and handed over to the secular arm (to be ‘executed’).”

Despite the show of force, Nicholas V was on his last legs at this moment as antipope.

He’d been elevated to the putative papacy by Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV. In this, Nicholas was a throwback to an old rivalry between popes and emperors compassing both authority within the church, and authority on the Italian peninsula, a conflict which had generated several German-backed antipopes in centuries previous. Though not the last antipope in history, Nicholas has the distinction of being the last imperial antipope.

Louis (or Ludwig) had a pique of long standing with Pope John XXII dating back to John’s unwelcome intervention in his, Louis’s, disputed accession as emperor: back in 1314, a divided imperial electorate had wrought a “double election” of the Wittelsbach Louis and the Habsburg Frederick the Fair, a circumstance that resulted in civil war within the empire.

While officially neutral in the fight, the pontiff exploited the opportunity to claw back ecclesiastical authority by asserting that the imperial throne was vacant and its edicts null until the papacy had blessed the claimant. Louis told John to pound sand.

Certain persons, blinded by avarice and ambition, and totally ignorant of the Scriptures, have distorted the meanings of certain passages by false and wicked interpretations, and on this basis have attacked the imperial authority and the rights of the emperors, electors, and other princes and subjects of the empire. For they wrongfully assert that the emperor derives his position and authority from the Pope, and that the emperor elect is not the real emperor until his election is confirmed and approved, and he is crowned by the pope … We now declare … that the emperor holds his authority and position from God alone … he has full power … without the approval, confirmation, authorisation or consent of the pope or any other person.

-Sachsenhausen Appellation, 1324 (as translated here)

John excommunicated Louis, and Louis, well, he did the same to John — seizing on the pope’s hostility towards the movements for clerical poverty as excuse to declare put a Spiritual Franciscan into St. Peter’s Throne on his own say-so as imperial armies smashed through Italy.* If a pope was going to crown Louis, it was going to be his pope.


Antipope Nicholas V crowns Louis IV in May 1328.

Peter of Corbara (Pietro Rainalducci) had barely two years to deny himself the emoluments of antioffice before Louis’s withdrawal required his own submission to the man he had executed in effigy. John XXII didn’t go nearly that hard on the former “Nicholas V”: merely absolved him after confession and kept him comfortably imprisoned at the papal palace in Avignon until the would-be usurper’s peaceful death in 1333.

* This conflict forms the backdrop for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, set in late 1327. The narrator-monk Adso refers in his epilogue to having heard of the antipope’s elevation soon after leaving the monastery where the bulk of the novel’s action occurs.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Executed in Effigy,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Italy,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pisa,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1354: Fra Moriale, condottiero entrepreneur

1 comment August 29th, 2016 Headsman

On this date 1354, the Provencal mercenary Montreal d’Albarno was beheaded in Rome by order of the tribune Cola di Rienzi.

Known locally as Fra Moriale (English Wikipedia entry | Italian), our man was a former Knight Hospitaller who turned his knack for violence into an entrepreneurial career — for he led one of the very first of those condottiero companies whose profitable ravaging the peninsula would pave the way for generations of unscrupulous mercenaries.

It was really Moriale’s predecessor, a Swabian knight named Werner von Urslingen, who first perceived that Italy’s wars had potential for such lucrative disruption. Reputed to have rode into battle with a breastplate blazoned with his Thielesque motto “The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy”, Urslingen had about 1342 founded a swords-for-hire business known as “The Great Company”.

While not literally the first gang of condottieri, it was the gang that changed the way Italians fought. By 1385 one pact between city-states cursed Werner in its preamble as the man who “first devised this plague of societies.”*

Fielding a massive army of some 3,000 cavalrymen at the outset — its fighting strength was north of 10,000 by Moriale’s day — the Great Company could put more muscle in the field than Italy’s little principalities could readily deal with, and Werner et al were soon realizing dividends hand over mailed fist by alternately hiring themselves out to this or that city, or squeezing them for tributary payoffs by the threat of pillage.

As the inability of the squabbling communes to suppress this racket became manifest, mercenaries fast multiplied into “a multitude of villains of various nations associated in arms by the greed to appropriate the fruits of labor of innocent and unarmed people, let loose to every cruelty, to extort money, methodically devastating the countryside.”** Condottieri would plague, and often dominate, Italy into the 16th century, with some of their more illustrious number ascending ducal palaces and others the scaffold.

By the time we reach events in this post, Werner von Urslingen is several years into comfortable retirement. But like any successful startup, the firm he launched still thrived.

Indeed, the Great Company had a stable, nigh-professional organization to match its bottom-line objectives. “Structurally, [the Great Company] resembled a corporation,” according to William Caferro. It had “a well-articulated hierarchy” which a governing board comprised “of Werner and a council made up of the leaders (corporals) of the various contingents.”

The booty derived from pillage and plunder was carefully divided by the leader and the council among the company’s rank and file. The company drew to its service lawyers and notaries to deal with legal issues and make contracts (condotte), treasurers and bankers to handle money, priests and prostitutes to cater respectively to spiritual and carnal needs.

In the early 1350s, Moriale delighted all these vendors by banking record profits in central Italy. And in the freebooting business, the balance sheets pleasingly compounding the success: “Because of the enormous booty which the company was taking, many soldiers, having completed their terms of service, without wanting further pay, went off to join Fra Moriale,” the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani wrote in 1354. “Sometimes they had themselves dismissed in order to join him.” Matteo also notes that the businesslike Moriale “guaranteed safety to the purchasers [of his pillage] and treated them correctly in order to facilitate his commercial dealings [and] set up councillors and secretaries through whom he directed everything.” (Via Michael Mallett’s Mercenaries and their Masters: Warfare in Renaissance Italy)

A few books about the emergent mercenary business

In August of 1354, this captain of industry rode to Rome to collect on a debt: his brothers’ loan to Cola di Rienzi which had helped the latter re-establish his power in Rome after a spell in exile.

But Rienzi, who was short on cash himself (the exhausted treasury would in a few weeks’ time cost the tribune his life) resolved the debt and did a little opportunistic expropriation of his own by having his wealthy creditor seized and condemned to death. This strangely attracted the opprobrium of treachery among contemporaries, as if its victim were not a man who had founded his devastating career on infidelity. But the definitions of honor and knightly conduct at this juncture were flexible enough to admit the legitimacy of Moriale’s operation: indeed, Caferro even gives us the priceless scene of the buccaneering Hospitaller being dragged to his Roman executioner as he howls, “Don’t you see that I’m a knight? How can you be so despicable?”

After the beheading, a fighter named Konrad von Landau took leadership of the Great Company. The cutthroat business continued profitably shaking down city-states until 1363, when a burgeoning new rival startup, John Hawksood‘s White Company,† thrashed its predecessor into irrelevance at the Battle of Canturino.

* Cited in Caferro’s Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena; the book argues (pdf review) that its titular commune slipped into its spiral towards political irrelevance and eventual absorption due largely to the military and financial ravages imposed by the condottieri. From a historical perspective safely distant from the companies’ day-to-day predations, the condottieri arguably helped to drive the slow consolidation of Italy’s many micro-states into a handful of larger polities.

** The words are those of Pope Urban V in a 1364 bull, cited by Caferro’s “Italy and the Companies of Adventure in the Fourteenth Century” in The Historian, June 1996.

† The Englishman Hawkwood formed the core of his team out of veterans availing a pause in the Hundred Years’ War.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Italy,Mercenaries,Nobility,Soldiers,Wrongful Executions

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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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