On this date in 1579, young Catholic layman Thomas Sherwood was hanged at Tyburn, cut down while still alive, disemboweled, and quartered.
This casualty of the Elizabethan era’s dangerous struggle for the soul of Britain had popped across to the continent to begin his studies under the church’s auspices.
He had not yet completed them when, on a return trip, a Protestant recognized him and got him locked up in the Tower, where Sherwood was tortured for information about the whereabouts of the underground Catholic Mass — but “he was brave beyond his years, no racking, no cross-examination could make him name any one.”
Sherwood had the distinction during his confinement of being one of the last earthly creatures to receive the (attempted) aid of octogenarian fellow-Catholic William Roper, Sir Thomas More‘s son-in-law and first biographer. (Roper’s attempts to send money to the imprisoned Sherwood were intercepted, however.)
He was of small learning, scarcely understanding the Latin tongue, but had much read books of controversies and devotion, and had used much to converse among Catholic priests, and by reason thereof, having a good wit and judgment, and withal being very devout and religious, he was able to give good counsel, as he did to many of the more ignorant sort, being much esteemed for his virtuous life and humble and modest behaviour: besides God did give a special grace in his [conversation] , whereby together with his good example of life, he much moved and edified others. He was a man of little stature of body, yet of a healthful and good constitution, and very temperate in his diet.
After his first racking in the Tower (which was said to be rigorous), being visited by a Catholic gentlewoman, he showed himself of that joyful and comfortable spirit as she was astonished thereat. As also his keeper with compassion giving him warning that he was to be racked again, he was so little moved therewith, as merrily and with a cheerful countenance he said these words: ‘ I am very little, and you are very tall; you may hide me in your great hose and so they shall not find me; ‘ which the keeper did afterwards report to divers, much marvelling at his great fortitude and courage. He was about the age of twenty-seven years when he was martyred.
On this date in 1537, an Irish lord and his five uncles were hanged and beheaded at Tyburn for revolting against Henry VIII: the last act in an entire cycle of executions.
The Rumored Execution
Thomas FitzGerald‘s father, the king’s Lord-Deputy of Ireland, had been summoned to London to answer the complaints of his rivals and there committed to the Tower.
Said rivals then cunningly circulated reports that dad had been beheaded, inducing the hot-headed (and finely-appareled) heir Thomas to renounce his allegiance and rebel with a dramatic retinue of 140 silk-bedizened gentlemen.
The Summary Execution
The Earl of Kildare hadn’t really been executed at all: he just died of shock and grief upon reading the reports of what his son had got up to in his absence.
Thomas and his silk went off to find some allies to relieve it, hoping to play a Catholic-resentment card against Henry VIII’s riftwithRome.
But the local response was desultory and while the new Earl of Kildare was busy beating the bushes, the English took the castle — issuing to its garrison the “Maynooth Pardon”, the ironical sobriquet for executing most of the lot.
Silken Thomas’s Execution
His rebellion having been all downhill since the big silken resignation, Thomas was eventually induced by promises of safekeeping to surrender himself to the royal mercy.
But said mercy was not forthcoming, and he endured a year-plus locked up in something less than his trademark finery — “I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown … so I have gone wolward, and barefoot and barelegged,” he complained in a letter — until, attainted by the Irish Parliament, he was executed with his kinsmen.
Although the Kildare title disappeared for a time, Thomas FitzGerald’s young but hunted half-brother escaped to the continent, bounced all over Europe for a decade, picked up an education, fought the Turks, and returned to receive his family’s peerage re-granted so he could practice alchemy in his castle as “the Wizard Earl”.
When next in Kildare Town, stand a drink or two for these hearty bygone Geraldines at the Silken Thomas pub.
On this date in 1536, Bernhard Krechting, Bernhard Knipperdolling, and Jan van Leiden were chained to stakes in the Münster public square, tortured with flesh-ripping tongs for more than an hour, killed with daggers thrust into their hearts, and their remains hoisted in cages in the city cathedral as a warning against any kindred misbehavior in the future.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Jan van Leiden et al being put to death in Münster. In the background, the Lambertuskirche spire shows the three cages in which the victims’ remains were gibbeted.
And the point was taken: the appalling deaths of these men also marked the death of early Anabaptism’s pretensions to secular political power.
These three unfortunates were the top surviving leaders of the Münster Rebellion, a revolution that turned that city into an Anabaptist commune for more than a year.
Just a few years before, southern Germany had been shaken by an apocalyptic peasant rebellion led by Thomas Muntzer, a sort of proto-Anabaptist.*
Though northern Germany was spared that particular maelstrom, that same religious tension and social discontent soon blew a hyperborean wind.
In the early 1530s, “Melchiorites” — Anabaptist followers of radical preacher Melchior Hoffman — proliferated rapidly among workers of the long-prosperous but now-waning Hanseatic territories in northern Germany and the Low Countries.
And these converts did not intend the meek example of evangelical martyrdom. They meant to rule.
In 1535, Democratic-Anabaptist types stormed the Amsterdam city hall; in a separate action, others seized and fortified a Friesland monastery before being overrun. An allied movement, less theologically distinct, won temporary control of Lübeck in 1533, before being expelled by force of arms.
Only in Münster did the Anabaptists realize the full flower of their project, albeit for a very brief period of time. Winning power over the course of the year 1533 by dint of internal politicking, energetic recruitment, and fortuitous imperial distraction, Münster Anabaptists booted out the 1% and started turning the place into a visionary “New Jerusalem.”
Among those visions, the most notorious was polygamy (pdf), introduced by Jan van Leiden when he inherited leadership after the charismatic firebrand Jan Matthys died in a sortie against a siege in April 1534. The story has it that van Leiden wanted to marry Matthys’s attractive widow Divara, though whether motivated by considerations of the loins or legitimacy is up to the reader’s good conscience.
There’s quite a controversial historiography surrounding their polygamous turn: while contemporary enemies were pleased to ascribe it to libertine devilries, German Communist intellectual Karl Kautsky vociferously defended the Münster Anabaptists — arguing that they resorted to polygamy for social stability when the gender disparity in the city had fallen past 3:1 owing to the vicissitudes of war.
And war, as Kautsky noted, was the commune of Münster’s essential condition, just like that of Paris.
Community of goods was the basis of the whole Baptist movement. For its sake the great fight was waged at Münster. It was not, however, the chief factor in determining the character of the Münster Baptist government, that factor being the siege. The town was a great war-camp; the demands of war took precedence of all other matters, and sentiments of freedom and equality were active only in so far as they were compatible with military dictatorship.
Jan van Leiden, by this time dignified the “King of Jerusalem”, was taken along with two of his chief aides and designated for this superlative punishment (many others less exalted faced less exalted executions, too).
For decades after the execution, the Anabaptists’ remains rotted publicly in cages on the tower of St. Lambert’s — like these still displayed there to this day. (cc) image from Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.
For Anabaptists as a whole this catastrophe commenced a long period of persecution and reckoning. But from such travails would the movement leave its mark. Indeed, it was also in January 1536 that a young Dutch priest named Menno Simons accepted adult baptism … and began a religious career that would make him the founding namesake of the Mennonites.
Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast treats the Münster rebellion here.
On December 29, 1543, Ivan the Terriblearrived — with the summary execution of hated boyar Andrei Shuisky (Shuysky).
Call it Ivan’s rite of passage.
The 13-year-old Ivan IV had technically “ruled” Russia since toddlerhood, when his father died suddenly in the prime of life.
But in reality, the “ruler” was not the master of his domain.
The powerful boyar nobles ran roughshod during his minority, scrapping for power, poisoning off his mother,* and behind the Kremlin’s closed doors overtly treating the kiddo’s regal person like a redheaded stepchild.
“What evil did I suffer at [the boyars’] hands!” Ivan later remembered of these years in his hostile correspondence with the exiled noble Kurbsky.
we and our brother … remained as orphans, [having lost] our parents and receiving no human care from any quarter; and hoping only for the mercy of God … our subjects had achieved their desire, namely, to have a kingdom without a ruler, then did they not deem us, their sovereigns, worthy of any loving care, but themselves ran after wealth and glory … they began to feed us as though we were foreigners or the most wretched menials. What sufferings did I endure through [lack of] clothing and through hunger! For in all things my will was not my own; everything was contrary to my will and unbefitting my tender years. (Source)
Ivan’s indomitable personality and mercilessness, later the stuff of legend, make their first appearance in these formative years. Biding his time, nurturing his hatred, he survived his humiliations and designed a show-stopping vengenace. “Then,” remembers Ivan, “did we take it upon ourselves to put our kingdom in order.”
In the span of a single feast on this date in 1543 the young prince elevated himself from abused orphan to feared sovereign when he unexpectedly accused the attending boyars of mismanagement and had the greatest man among them — Andrei, of the mighty Shuisky family, the de facto head of state** — arrested and brutally put to death.
(The most colorful versions of this have it that Shuisky was thrown to the dogs to be devoured; I’m inclined to suspect this is embroidery upon the chronicler’s report that it was mean little Ivan’s kennel-keepers who were the men tasked with arresting and beating to death the nobleman.)
With his terrible blow, Ivan — still only an (unusually warped) adolescent after all this time — freed his hands and truly began the strange and cruel reign that would earn him the awestruck sobriquet Grozny, “terrible”. He got the ball rolling by purging a couple dozen other Shuisky loyalists.
While Ivan Grozny had his way in his reign’s political conflicts with Russia’s nobility, the violent monarch also shockingly killed his own son during a fit of rage — effectively destroying his own lineage. In the Time of Troubles invited by the resulting power vacuum, Andrei Shuisky’s grandson briefly claimed the throne as Tsar Vasily IV.
Though this power grab didn’t work out any better than had his grandfather’s, Vasily was the last [legitimate] product of the Rurik dynasty† dignified as Tsar of Russia, before the Romanovs were elevated to that station.
* Allegedly. Ivan certainly thought so.
** Andrei’s brother Ivan, equally loathesome to the tsar, had passed on the Big Man in Russia mantle to Andrei when he died a couple of years before.
† The Shuiskies were merely a junior branch, but they were a branch.
“In 1529, the Inquisitor General of Besancori, a Dominican friar named Jean Boin, visited incognito the village of Anjeux in the bailiwick of Luxeuil, Franche-Comte, and noted down the gossip of the villagers, which centered on 27-year-old Desle la Mansenee,” begins this vignette in the only part of Nigel Cawthorne’s Witches: History of Persecution that Google books preview will cough up.
You know this isn’t going to end well.
Our incognito Inquisitor swiftly decloaked and transformed Desle la Mansenee from grist for the neighbors’ grapevine into ash for their garden plots by torturing her into confessing to — oh, you know, the usual stuff. Dancing at witches’ sabbats and flying on broomsticks and banging the devil. That sort of thing.
People, these are infernal agents. It doesn’t get any worse than that. You’ve got to use tough tactics to get information, not just start salacious rumors and hope they’ll come clean.
This was the culmination of Japan’s bloody process of national unification.
The preceding ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had more or less unified Japan under central authority to end a century of civil war. But when Hideyoshi shuffled off leaving a five-year-old heir, a squabbling coterie of regents began elbowing for position.
The political scene eventually crystallized into one of those regents — the said Tokugawa Ieyasu — against all the others. Give yourself a gold star if you guessed that the guys who had their heads lopped off by the Tokugawa Shogunate played for the “all others” team.
Ishida Mitsunari, a daimyo who served the late national unifier Hideyoshi, became the focal point of the opposition to Ieyasu.*
Mitsunari failed in a 1599 assassination bid on Ieyasu, and so the two came to outright warfare the following year — a war that Ieyasu economically won by routing Mitsunari at the Battle of Sekigahara.
That, in turn, cleared the way for Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually to take the title of shogun and found his eponymous dynasty — a dynasty whose intellectuals circled that decisive battle as the keystone in the arch.
“Evildoers and bandits were vanquished and the entire realm submitted to Lord Ieyasu, praising the establishment of peace and extolling his martial virtue. That this glorious era that he founded may continue for ten thousands upon ten thousands of generations, coeval with heaven and earth!”
Young Cristovao would be ground up in this conflict whose mixture of geopolitics and sectarianism overtly smacked of those old-time Crusades.
After a jaunt to India in the train of his older brother, appointed the Portuguese governor of India, Cristavao was sidetracked on a return voyage for an intervention on the Christian side in a raging local war. For Europeans who for generations had trafficked in the vague and fantastical rumors of mythical Abyssinian ruler “Prester John”, putting a thumb on the scale for Ethiopian Christians against the rampant Arabs must have been nigh irresistible.
Joao III and his government, faced with mounting debts as the costs of military operations in the East steadily grew, were now forced to re-evaluate their global commitments … the new viceroy, Estevao da Gama, was ordered to destroy the Turkish fleet in Suez …
Estevao da Gama’s raid into the Red Sea became one of the best remembered episodes in the history of the Portuguese Estado da India. The fleet assembled at Massawa on the African shore and then proceeded to Suakin which was burnt and plundered. Part of the fleet then returned to Massawa while the rest sailed on to Suez where the Turkish ships proved to be securely based and inaccessible. On the shore of Sinai, as close to Jerusalem as the Portuguese were ever to come, Estevao da Gama enacted some of the rituals of crusading chivalary and made a number of knights before returning to Massawa. Meanwhile, Dom Joao de Castro, who accompanied the expedition, used the time to produce his famous guide to the Red Sea, the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, complete with the meticulous drawings of the ports and anchorages, a masterpiece of Portuguese Renaissance geography and science.
One of Joao de Castro’s drawings. (Source, a Portuguese pdf)
Meanwhile the Portuguese at Massawa had suffered extreme privations and a hundred of them had deserted, having been persuaded by [untrustworthy Potuguese-descended Ethiopian ambassador Joao] Bermudes of the richness and wealth of the interior. Their fate was to be captured and massacred by Ahmed Gran. Estevao da Gama now dispatched a force of four hundred soldiers under the command of his brother, Cristovao da Gama, into the interior to assist the Ethiopian king. Cristovao da Gama advanced from the coast with a force much the same size as that which Cortez had led into Mexico in 1519. He had with him horses, arquebuses and eight small cannon. His first objective was to link up with the fugitive Ethiopian king and his followers, but da Gama got separated from his supplies and was forced to fight a superior Somali force supported by Turkish mercenaries. The result was catastrophe. The small Portuguese army was badly mauled and da Gama himself fled wounded from the battlefield and was taken prisoner.
The capture of the viceroy’s brother, son of the great admiral, carried with it huge importance for the Turks. After being ritually humiliated (his beard being set on fire and his face buffeted with the shoes of his negro servant) Cristovao da Gama was beheaded.* For the Portuguese this was a disaster, the symbolic significance of which far transcended the military consequences of the defeat. However, the Christian church had long experience of turning catastrophe into triumph and, soon after the news of Cristovao da Gama’s death reached the outside world, rumours of miracles began to circulate.** Da Gama became one of the first martyrs of the new church overseas which in a hundred years of expansion had had all too few heroic deeds to celebrate.
After the death of their commander fewer than two hundred of the original army survived, but they were able to meet up with the Christian Ethiopian forces and, when the next campaigning season started in 1542, the combined army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslims, a defeat which took on a decisive complexion when it was realised that the leader of the jihad, Ahmed Gran, had been killed in the battle.
Da Gama’s expedition had been mounted from the resources of the official empire and had been commanded by one of the leading fidalgos of the Estado da India. However, few of da Gama’s soldiers returned to India Instead they settled in Ethiopia and married Ethiopian women, establishing a ‘Portuguese’ community that mirrored the ‘Portuguese’ communities in Aythia, Bengal, Kongo and elsewhere where soldiers had offered their military expertise to local rulers an had been content to settle and make their fortures far removed from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Crown.
Although da Gama’s own end was unfortunate, his surviving force’s exploits on a side badly pressed could arguably be considered the decisive factor enabling Christianity to survive in Ethiopia’s highlands interior. Prester John would have been proud.
* “I write what I heard, it may well be that it was thus, for all that is barbarous and cruel about the Moorish king can be believed. The body, after death, was dismembered and sent to various places … because once when Granha was speaking with Dom Christovao, he asked him: ‘If you had me in your power, as I have you, what would you do to me?’ Dom Christovao, with great resolution and freedom replied, ‘If I had you in my power, I would have you killed, the head I would send to one place and the quarters I would distribute to other places’ (naming them, but I do not recall them). And Granha, they say that it was because he heard this, scattered the body to various places.”
** “Directly they cut off his head, God worked a great and manifest miracle through it, which was, that in the place where they slew him a fountain of running water gushed out, which had never been seen before: its water, through the goodness and power of God, gives sight to the blind, and cures those ill of other diseases. It appears that this miracle is like the one that God did in Rome for His Apostle St. Paul. The remains of the body of D. Christovao smell sweetly, giving forth so delightful an odour, that it seems rather of heaven than of earth.”
Just what his beef with national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi might have been is also subject to the exigencies of the story at hand. Let it be oppression or something, good enough for one of those classic outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold retorts against condemnation for his thieving career.
It is you who are the robber who stole the whole country!
He gets to be the title character of the 2009 film Goemon:
Thanks to the inevitable marketing tie-ins, the world also has a Goemon action figure.
Personally, and especially because I would lose all these nifty accessories, I much prefer the adorable Goemon Cosbaby series.
* As a result of this famous exit, a Goeomon-buro (Goemon bath) in Japanese refers to a large iron kettle-shaped bathtub.
On this date in 1510, the new king Henry VIII had his dad’s most hated tax collectors beheaded on Tower Hill.
Better days: Empson (on the left) and Dudley (on the right) pal around with Henry VII.
When Henry Tudor conquered Bosworth Field to emerge from the War of the Roses as King Henry VII, he brought the baggage of being the son of some Welsh squire.
His shaky legitimacy exposed the newborn Tudor dynasty to existential threats from every quarter; even putative allies proved liable to turn against him.
Henry consequently looked for every opportunity to centralize power away from institutions that could check or threaten him and into his own hands — nowhere more notoriously so than in the realm of taxation.* Aggressive tax collection would not only regenerate the crown’s blasted treasury; it would widen his own scope of action.
Whether Henry’s historical repute for cupidity is well-deserved is a topic beyond the scope of this site, but the fact that he does have such a reputation can be attributed in no small degree to this date’s featured players.
These two persons, being lawyers in science, and privy councillors in authority, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, turned law and justice into wormwood and rapine. … Neither did they, toward the end, observe so much as the half-face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convent them before themselves, and some others, at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and in controversies civil. Then did they also use to inthral and charge the subjects’ lands with tenure in capite, by finding false offices, and thereby to work upon them for wardships, liveries, premier seisin, and alienations … When men were outlawed in personal actions, they would not permit them to purchase their charters of pardon, except they paid great and intolerable sums; standing upon the strict point of law, which upon outlawries giveth forfeiture of goods; nay, contrary to all law and colour, they maintained the king ought to have the half of men’s lands and rents, during the space of full two years, for a pain in case of outlawry. They would also raffle with jurors, and enforce them to find as they would direct, and if they did not, convent [summon] them, imprison them, and fine them. These and many other courses, fitter to be buried than repeated, they had of preyig upon the people; both like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves; insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance.
Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were two powerful parliamentarians of less than lordly stature who had been elevated to this bad-cop role for their loyalty and aptitude. There, they became lightning rods for public resentment. It’s a path that had once taken a French counterpart from the common stock to the robes of state to (once his patron monarch died) the scaffold. Empson and Dudley trod it exactly.
Even in Henry’s lifetime, his newly intrusive taxes risked fearful public reaction.
The pretender Perkin Warbeck knocked Henry for the “robberies, extortions, the daily pilling of the people by dismes [tithes], taskes [contributions], tallages [tolls], benevolences, and other unlawful impositions and grievous exactions” he imposed, “agreeable to the meanness of his birth.” Tax backlash helped generate at least some of Warbeck’s popular support.
By the twilight of Henry’s rule in the first decade of the 1500’s, he had mastered these threats and could take advantage of political tranquility to really focus on his accounting. And he’d figured out that by ratcheting up enforcement of already-existing levies, he could avoid the dangerous confrontations that might result from summoning Parliament to ask it for money. It’s from this period most of all that he gets his historical Ebenezer Scrooge image, and the tool he employed for it, the Council Learned in the Law, got its extreme unpopularity.
Henry died in April of 1509 at the age of 52, leaving his son Henry VIII an overflowing treasury and countless grievances against the tax collectors who made it happen.
As the Council Learned’s leading lights, Empson and Dudley — “the king’s long arms with which … he took what was his” — immediately became targets once their royal protector was in the ground. They were hailed before the greenhorn king and the Privy Council to justify themselves within days of Henry VII’s death.
Interestingly, because a royal pardon amnestied all crimes except “felony, murder, and treason,” the malfeasance of these two councilors — whose real offense was unimpeachable loyalty to the last sovereign — had to be exaggerated into rather fantastical charges of treason in order to satisfy petitioners against them while avoiding undue embarrassment for the late king or the other aides who had served him.
In the year or so he lay in the dungeon awaiting his fate, “a pson most ignorant, and being in wordlie vexacon and trowble, also wth the sorrowfull and bitter remembrance of death,” Edmund Dudley wrote a treatise on the right arrangement of a society dedicated to the young new master who held Dudley’s life in his hands. The Tree of Commonwealth can be read here.
Yale professor Keith Wrightson introduces an interesting lecture — “Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts” — with Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth social schema.
Remember both, since now each thrive,
on perquisite ill gotten,
Empson & Dudleys case survives,
when they’re hang’d, dead, & rotten;
-From an 18th century colonial Virginia ballad titled “Remonstrance”, comparing this date’s centuries-old executed to a contemporary politician (Richard Beale Davis, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1967))
* The phrase “Morton’s fork” comes from Henry’s extractive machinations. Named for his Lord Chancellor John Morton, the original dilemma was a “fork” the crown used to stick taxpayers: those living high on the hog were made to pay up, since they obviously had enough to spare … and those living modestly were also made to pay, since they perforce must have saved enough to spare.
On this date in 1523, a Norman hermit named Jean Vallière was burned at the stake at a Paris pig market, while the books of the humanistic nobleman Louis de Berquin were burned in front of Notre Dame by the Paris parlement.
Berquin would follow Valliere’s fate ere that first decade of Lutheranism was out, but the obscurity who died on this date seems to have been an Augustinian preacher whose zany idea that Jesus was the son of Joseph and not God would have been no more welcomed by Luther than by Rome.
Friend and foe alike tended to project onto Luther any old subversive project that wanted either the imprimatur of theological credibility or the brand of the heresiarch and his “pestilential doctrine full of execrable errors.” (That’s how the Sorbonne condemned Luther in 1521.)
In this case, guilt by association was intended to intimidate with Valliere’s example scholars like Berquin. A most particular threat was a clique of reform-oriented intellectuals at Meaux under the leadership of Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples; d’Etaples that very year of 1523 completed a French translation of the New Testament.
These folk in Meaux persisted only under the personal protection of the French King Francis I and his reformist sister Marguerite of Navarre. Their project of reform within the church never really took, and neither did the Meaux circle commit itself to martyrdom for the new faith(s). But Marguerite of Navarre’s grandson would be the man to settle this century’s French Wars of Religion by conquering as a Huguenot, converting to Catholicism, and ruling illustriously as Henri IV.