On this date in 1535, the Protestant Guillaume Husson was burned for heresy.
The year before, Protestants had outraged the capital with a placarding campaign; maybe inspired by or in league with them, Husson turned up in early 1535 in Rouen and proceeded to flood the place with heretical tracts. Husson was identified by his hotelier and turned over to authorities before he could proceed to wreak his freaky doctrines on the next city.
The spectacle of public execution at this time followed a ceremonial script, although it was one that Protestants like Husson were going to rewrite with their behavior.
In an hours-long process, the condemned was first forced to perform amende honorable before a church, begging pardon of God with a rope about his neck and a heavy candle in his hands. For some offenses, this ritual penance could comprise the entirety of the punishment; for an execution, it was just the first act.
Its effect depended, of course, on the compliance of offenders who could usually be counted on to play the only part that held out hope of social redemption and everlasting salvation.
But as a Protestant, Husson wasn’t in a very compliant mood: he owed no plea to God for distributing correct religion, and he certainly rejected the Pope’s right to demand it of him. So Husson refused to perform the amende honorable, and even refused to hold the candle.
Catholic authorities would face in the years ahead the novel challenge of stage-managing many executions of reformers, ready to welcome execution, unreconciled with the Church, as their holy martyrdom. They would need strategies to deal with these obstinates. On Aug. 30, 1535, that strategy was “more violence”: for besmirching the ceremony, Husson had his tongue punitively torn from his mouth.* (Mutilation at this point could also sometimes be a formal part of the sentence.)
Following a long procession through the city to the place of execution, Husson was said (by his fellow Protestant propagandist Jean Crespin) to have died with such great firmness — thrusting his own head into the leaping flames to dramatize his embrace of the stake, and inspiring many onlookers (per Crespin) “to want to know more closely the true God of Israel.”
* David Nicholls, “The Theatre of Martyrdom in the French Reformation,” Past & Present, no. 121 (Nov. 1988)
On this date in 1556, Derby hosted the incineration of a young blind woman who refused to renounce her Protestantism.
The ascendance of Queen Mary briefly restored Catholicism as England’s official religion. The previous decades’ Protestant reforms, however, had been achieved with bloodshed and could only be undone with more bloodshed. (That’s why she’s “Bloody Mary”: because she executed a bunch of people, and because the Protestants who executed a bunch of people won out and got to do the naming.)
In the wrong place at the wrong time was Joan Waste, who though blind proved a deft hand at knitting ropes to support her poor family. Inspired by hearing Scripture in the Queen’s English during Anglican services shaped by Cranmer, Joan scrimped and saved the earnings of her poor profession until she could afford a Bible … specifically (and problematically for the new old faith), one printed in English rather than Latin. Being blind, she then had to recruit friends, townspeople, or other parishioners to read it to her.
This made her a pretty easy target when England reinstated Catholic heresy laws in 1555, although presumably not one selected by the public relations department. Pious Joan preferred the stake to renouncing her heresies.
After enduring an execution sermon from the Catholic churchman Anthony Draycot, Foxe’s martyrology describes the fate of “the poor, sightless object” — which doesn’t look the most felicitous build of a noun phrase — who “was taken to a place called Windmill Pit, near the town, where she for a time held her brother by the hand, and then prepared herself for the fire, calling upon the pitying multitude to pray with her, and upon Christ to have mercy upon her, until the glorious light of the everlasting Sun of righteousness beamed upon her departed spirit.”
The old Windmill Pit execution site can still be found in Derby today. There’s a local legend, of Victorian manufacture, that Joan cursed the location with the words: “never shall this pit, of which ye are about to make a pit of fire, hold drop of water more.”
During the Dutch Revolt — a proto-nationalist conflict pitting the Low Countries against the Habsburg Empire, overlaid with a religious conflict pitting Calvinist against Catholic — the Low Countries principals came to an expedient arrangement to lay off fighting with one another in order to concentrate on controlling their respective internal revolts.
As we’ve previously discussed, this truce helped set up now-unmolested local religious majorities to do some internal purging.
Whereas Calvinist Ghent went after some Catholic monks on accusations of homosexuality, Catholic Bruges (today in Belgium) … went after some not-Catholic-enough monks on accusations of homosexuality.
In [illustrator Franz] Hogenberg‘s Scenes an engraving dated May 18, 1578, shows a lengthy procession of monks being marched out of a monastery in Bruges under armed guard. The title and verses explain that two Franciscans of Calvinist leanings were whipped and then interrogated (probably on account of their Protestantism). But they revealed that many in their order were tained by sodomy (Sodomi). The other monks admitted this (under torture?), and “they were all taken prisoners and led away to the gate for their godlessness.” Presumably depicting a result of this … [is] Execution for Sodomitical Godlessness in the City of Bruges … Three monks are about to be burned in a public square while two are being beaten. Underneath, the verses state, “in well-known Bruges in Flanders three Franciscans (Minnenbroder) have been burned. Also two others were well beaten with switches and two had to be banished. For they were young and inexperienced and had been seduced by the old ones, so that they unjustly practiced sodomy (unzuchtt) upon their bodies.” Though the circumstances of the monks’ trial are as yet unclear, such sentences were carried out by secular authorities. Minnenbroder (Franciscans) may be a satiric pun on the word minne (which had come to mean debauchery), suggesting “brothers in lust” as opposed to brotherly love. Hogenberg connects sodomy with “godlessness,” as was common.
… The investigations, convictions, and punitive displays in these monastic cases [in Bruges and in Ghent] had special topicality for inclusion because they not only afforded titillations of sexual scandal, censure, and public punishment, but also added alleged religious transgression and appealed to Protestant-Catholic rivalries of the time. Although Hogenberg’s sodomites are ecclesiastics, his engravings indicate how these public spectacles were managed, while also providing us one contemporary view of the attitudes attendant crowds displayed.
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.
On this date in 1584, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded Anna Peihelsteinin (Peyelstainin) for “lewdness and harlotry.” (Despite the image above, Schmidt notes that she was beheaded standing, not sitting.)
The married woman had been intimate with 21 other men, even including a father and a son. But Anna’s own husband was more understanding of her than the cruel law of the time; as the executioner recorded in his diary, the lonely widower Jerome — whipped out of town for countenancing her whoredom — left behind a miserable reproach scrawled on the wall of a church:
Father and son should have been treated as she was, and the panderers also. In the other world I shall summon and appeal to emperor and king because justice has not been done. I, poor man, suffer though innocent. Farewell and good night.
On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.
“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.
Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.
Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.
But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.
ET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?
JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.
Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?
Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.
In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.
Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?
You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.
Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?
After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).
Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.
As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.
You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?
Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.
This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?
This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.
* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.
Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this date in 1541, 68-year-old Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, was beheaded within the confines of the Tower of London, as befitted her rank. She was cousin to Henry VIII’s mother, and well trusted by the king for years. Yet this intelligent and dignified aristocrat died without trial in a horribly botched execution that is considered a low point of Henry’s reign.
Margaret knew better than most how difficult it was to survive royal storms if your family was close to the throne. Yet despite all her efforts to stay out of danger, it was her family that doomed her to the axe in the end.
When Catherine of Aragon arrived in England to marry Prince Arthur, Margaret became one of her ladies and a deep friendship sprang up. Years later, when Margaret was a relatively young widow, tall and red-haired, and Catherine was married to Arthur’s brother, Henry VIII, Margaret was singled out for several great honors. In 1512, the king gave Margaret many of the lands of her Warwick grandfather and a family title. She became the countess of Salisbury in her own right.
Margaret was selected by king and queen to be the governor for the 9-year-old Princess Mary, their only child. In a separate, vast household, she would be the one to guide Mary toward her destiny as heir to the throne. Some of Margaret’s own children made excellent marriages, such as her daughter Ursula to the oldest son of the duke of Buckingham. Her son, Reginald, began to shine as a cleric and intellectual; Henry VIII paid for his studies at the University of Padua.
The Pole family fortunes crashed — as so many others did — after Anne Boleyn became the second wife of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, Margaret had sided with Catherine and Mary during the divorce struggle. When in 1533, the king’s men came to Mary’s household to claim her jewels as part of Henry’s move to bastardize his daughter, Margaret refused to hand them over. She was then discharged from her office by the king, who called her a “fool.”
Margaret did and said nothing else that was publicly critical of the king. She never saw Catherine of Aragon again and rarely saw Mary, to whom she had been a second mother. She spent her time in country retirement. She adhered to traditional Catholic doctrine, and priests lived in her homes. This was not illegal, but as religious reform gained steam, it brought her under scrutiny.
However, from the safety of France and Italy, her son, Reginald, chose to make public remarks sharply critical of Henry VIII. He published a treatise in 1536 attacking the king’s claim to superiority over the English church and calling on the princes of Europe to depose him. The king was enraged.
Margaret and her oldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, wrote Reginald letters pleading with him to cease his attacks. “Do your duty or you will be my undoing,” she warned — correctly.
In 1538 another of Margaret’s sons, Geoffrey, was questioned and then confined in the Tower of London. He eventually gave statements that his brother, Montagu, and their relations and friends sympathized with Reginald Pole and had privately criticized Henry VIII. Under law, this was treason, punishable by death. All the noblemen accused of being part of the “Exeter Conspiracy” were executed. But there was no proof that Margaret Pole ever wrote or said anything that fell under the definition of treason.
It didn’t matter. She was questioned, held under house arrest, and then imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. She suffered in the winters, and Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the teenage Catherine Howard, bravely sent her some warm clothes.
A minor rebellion broke out in England, led by a Neville, her mother’s family, but unconnected to Margaret. Nonetheless, it seems to have prompted Henry VIII to eliminate the woman whom he had once trusted and admired, who was his closest female relative after his daughters.
Early in the morning of May 27, the Constable of the Tower woke up Margaret to tell her she would die within the next few hours. The ailing countess replied she had never been charged with any crime.
Because of her royal descent, she was executed on the Tower grounds, on the same spot as Anne Boleyn five years earlier, before more than 100 spectators. There was not enough time to erect a scaffold; also, the executioner was not in residence, only his novice.
Margaret commended her soul to God and asked the spectators to pray for the king and queen, Prince Edward and of course the Princess Mary. Reports conflict on what happened next. Some say she refused to kneel before the block on the ground, or to stand still. The novice swung at her with his ax, hacking at her shoulders, before managing to kill her. It may have taken 10 chops.
Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.
On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.
In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.
Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.
He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.
Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”
Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.
But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.
In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.
What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?
For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.
Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?
On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.
Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.
Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”
Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.
Grumbach was a knight who’s invariably described as an “adventurer”. As a young man he fought in the Peasants War, but as he headed into middle age he became your basic penniless minor nobleman chafing at the failures and obstructed opportunities life threw at him.
The thing he could not abide losing was the disappearing right of the nobility to enter into a feud or vendetta. This scans to the modern like rank anarchy, but feuds were part of the tapestry of medieval German society, long codified in law — an obvious descendant of clan and tribal obligations out of which the muddle of feudal vassalage had formed. “The passion for liberty and rights,” says this volume, “ran amok in Germany. Churchmen, princes, burghers, and peasants all wanted their independence and readily resorted to declarations of feud to secure and defend their rights.”
The standing right for miscellaneous minor lords to start miscellaneous private wars was quite naturally one that princes were ever keen to restrict. After centuries of two-steps-forward, one-step-back efforts to deal with the feud, the 1495 Imperial Diet formally codified a ban on feuding known as the Ewiger Landfriede, or “perpetual peace”. In Poli Sci 101 terms, this is the state finally monopolizing legitimate violence.
As with dueling, however, official proscription did not end the practice. It was, indeed, Grumbach’s defeat and execution that would eventually be remembered as the decisive nail in the coffin for knightly feuds.
And so in Franconia where we lay our scene will civil blood make civil hands unclean …
Grumbach’s liege was Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt, the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg. (Still another confusing dimension of the political map, some princes of Germany’s many statelets were simultaneously ecclesiastical authorities. For purposes of this post, the “-Bishop” part doesn’t enter into it.)
Knights’ basic problem — the reason they were vulnerable to losing their wacky old-time rights — was poverty, and it was in money that Grumbach’s feud was rooted. Grumbach’s personal twist on this was being the sort of irascible, reckless coot who could carry a grudge so far as to get himself sawed into pieces over it.
Immediately upon assuming the Prince-Bishopric in 1544, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt forced Grumbach to return an unauthorized cash gift his predecessor had paid to the knight, and then stiffed said knight out of six villages whose revenues Grumbach sought by way of compensation.
He had to deal with Grumbach’s feud for the remainder of his term, which was also the remainder of his life … right up until Grumbach murdered him.
The disaffected knight hooked up with the margrave* Albert Alcibiades and started making a right mess in the middle of Europe with a 1552-54 mini-war. When Albert got thumped, Grumbach had to evacuate to France, and his holdings outside Wurzburg were plundered and/or destroyed by his foes.
So now the guy was even more aggrieved, and even more pfennigless.
He was downright vengeful about his feud at this point, although it’s noteworthy relative to that monopolization-of-violence trend that he was still the only one: in days of yore, intra-elite wars might have spawned multiple self-reproducing vendettas.
The grumpy Grumbach now hooked up with another patron,** the deposed elector of Saxony Johann Friedrich II — another dude who felt hard done by in the Holy Roman Empire.
Grumbach evened his score with Melchior von Zobel by having the Prince-Bishop killed in Wurzburg in April 1558. (In present-day Wurzburg, three Zobelsaulen markers commemorate the Prince-Bishop’s assassination, one on the very spot of the murder.)
But that still left the money, and we know Grumbach wasn’t the type to write off a debt. In 1563, he successfully invaded Wurzburg with 1,300 soldiers and at swordpoint forced from the city a concession restoring his property.
For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.
In principle, he had achieved a great vindication of the ancient right of the feud, and for the hard-pressed nobility against the realms’ many princes. If others of his station had rallied to that banner, what a whirlwind Germany would have reaped.
Grumbach was in fact hatching an extravagant scheme† to liberate the entire German nobility … from the yoke of the princes. It was a radical aristocratic utopia … nobles were not only to be protected by the [Holy Roman] emperor from the princes, but to help him subdue them once and for all and to establish an hereditary monarchy in Germany. But despite Grumbach’s best efforts to incite the Franconian nobility, they did not line up behind him. Guidied by the captain of the Franconian Circle (Kreis), Georg Ludwig von Seinsheim, who denounced Grumbach’s undertaking as ‘against God, law and the emperor’, they formally turned away from him in 1564. In the view of the majority of them, the Knighthood was to maintain its autonomy by respecting the equilibrium between emperor and princes, not by irresponsibly challenging the latter. And it was this view, reassuringly transmitted to the princes, which carried the day.
Grumbach was outlawed by the empire and in 1566-67 was overcome with his protector Johann Friedrich at Gotha. Both men spent he remainder of their lives as imperial prisoners, with the notable difference that Johann Friedrich had the pull to live out his natural ration of days while Grumbach went straight to the dungeon for torture and thence to the scaffold in the town that had lately been his last redoubt. There, Grumbach was ripped apart — his dying eyes beheld the executioner wrench the heart out of his very chest and taunt him: “Behold, Grumbach, thy false heart!” The late knight’s rotting quartered remains got nailed up around town to broadcast the unmistakable message:
The noble right to feud was dead.
* Hereditary military commander.
** Among their other capers, Grumbach and his patron Johann Friedrich conspired with Torben Oxe‘s nephew Peder Oxe to depose the Danish king Frederick II in favor of the king’s grand-niece, Christina. (Christina will be known to Tudor-philes as the young woman who scuttled Henry VIII’s post-Anne Boleyn suit with the sharp remark, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”) Nothing came of the plot. (Source)
† Christian Wieland writes that Grumbach deployed — unsuccessfully but still impressively — a 16th century multimedia propaganda campaign to state his case to the “common nobleman”: woodblock-illustrated printed leaflets, songs valorizing the attack on Wurzburg (sample verse: “Violence may be averted by violence / According to natural law”).
On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*
Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.
The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.
In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.
Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.
Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).
A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.
Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.
He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).
Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.
Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.
While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.
On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.
In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.
While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.
Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.
Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).
Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.
After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.
Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.
After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.
Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.
After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.
Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.
A few books about Margaret Clitherow
* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.