Posts filed under '16th Century'

1594: Ishikawa Goemon, bandit

Add comment August 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1594, legendary Japanese outlaw and folk hero Ishikawa Goemon was boiled to death in oil for attempting to assassinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

And he’s supposed to have had his son thrown into the kettle* with him, and, boiling to death himself, to have held the boy aloft out of harm’s way.

A 19th-century image painted by Toyokuni III of Goemon in one of the several kabuki plays he features in.

Ishikawa is a sort of Japanese Robin Hood figure, and the (very much) that isn’t offered by the documentary record is helpfully expanded in folklore.

Trained in forbidden ninja ways? Check.

Or maybe a samurai? Why not?

Henchman named “rat boy”? Oh, yes.

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.

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1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors

3 comments August 17th, 2011 Headsman

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.

-Francis Bacon‘s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh

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.

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1523: Jean Valliere, the first Protestant burnt in France

1 comment August 8th, 2011 Headsman

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.

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1573: William Kirkcaldy of Grange, former king’s man

4 comments August 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1573, William Kirkcaldy of Grange was hanged at Edinburgh. A marker at Edinburgh Castle honors the man who “held this castle for Queen Mary from May 1568 to May 1573 and after its honourable surrender suffered death for devotion to her cause.”

It’s a surprising epitaph.

The fellow’s father, James Kirkcaldy, was one of the realm’s prominent Protestants, and young William worked in France as an English secret agent in the 1550’s while that same Queen Mary held court there as the consort of crown prince turned underprepared child-king Francis II.

After Francis died in 1560, his widow returned to Scotland — not only as Mary, Queen of Scots but as a potential Catholic champion for the throne of England itself.

Kirkcaldy was a natural enemy in a confusing political situation. Scotland in the 1560s slid into civil war between the “Marian” party and the (more Protestant, more pro-English) “king’s men” supporting the regents governing in the name of Mary’s son, James VI.*

As one might expect, Kirkcaldy was a king’s man. He beat Mary in battle in 1567 and took her prisoner, helping force her abdication; after she escaped and had another go at it, he beat her again, and Mary fled to England, never to see Scotland again.

But a funny thing happened to Kirkcaldy on his way to the winner’s circle. In the jockeying that followed Mary’s flight, a fellow pol pulled him over to the Marian party.

Kirkcaldy’s considerable talents now strained themselves for the return of the monarch and the curtailment of the regents. He lost.

When it came again to open conflict, the king’s men (backed by aid from England) trapped Kirkcaldy in Edinburgh Castle and besieged it until the man was forced to surrender to the scanty mercy of his captors and the immortality of that latter-day plaque.


(cc) image from Roblz Hurt.

* James is notable in these pages for his adulthood penchant for witch hunting.

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1588: Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam, and Richard Simpson

Add comment July 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1588, three Catholic priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered at St. Mary’s Bridge in Derbyshire.

Though we find Catholic proselytizers at risk of their lives throughout the Elizabethan period, at few moments was the profession of the Old Faith more fraught than during the summer of 1588.

Elizabeth’s Catholic rival Mary, Queen of Scots had lost her head just the year before, having been the focal point of one too many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth. England’s support for Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain had drawn the Spanish Armada, a feared invasion force even at this moment beginning to engage the English navy a couple of weeks ahead of its ultimate defeat. Even the French Wars of Religion were running white-hot, with an ultra-Catholic pogrom in Paris that spring.

If ever the wrong religion constituted treason, this was the time.

This also made it a great moment for zealous local authorities to crack down on suspected Catholics. When that happened in Derbyshire, a raid of a recusant‘s property (prompted by a tip from the target’s nephew) turned up two Popish clerics living in the lovely medieval manor house on-site, Padley Chapel.


Padley Chapel. (cc) image from kev747.

Fathers Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam were condemned within days to a traitor’s death for endeavoring to “seduce” the Queen’s subjects to Catholicism.* Their few hours left in this vale of tears were sufficient to firm the resolve of a wavering fellow-priest, Richard Simpson, who joined Garlick and Ludlam on the scaffold.

A hagiography of these men — they have all since been beatified — notes that the less steely Simpson “suffered with great constancy, though not with such (remarkable) signs of joy and alacrity as the other two.” But considering he was out there getting disemboweled for God and you’re just sitting around reading some blog, you probably ought to cut him a little slack.

When Garlick did the ladder kiss,
And Sympson after hie,
Methought that there St. Andrew was
Desirous for to die.

When Ludlam lookèd smilingly,
And joyful did remain,
It seemed St. Stephen was standing by,
For to be stoned again.

And what if Sympson seemed to yield,
For doubt and dread to die;
He rose again, and won the field
And died most constantly.

His watching, fasting, shirt of hair;
His speech, his death, and all,
Do record give, do witness bear,
He wailed his former fall.

There are still pilgrimages made in honor of the “Padley Martyrs” every year on the anniversary of the priests’ arrest, July 12.

* Garlick, at least, had been a specific target of priest-hunters for some time; he appears in reports to Francis Walsingham‘s spy network, where he is once accursed as “the demonite,” presumably for taking part in some well-publicized exorcisms in 1585-1586. (These exorcisms seem to be reflected in Shakespeare’s King Lear.) There’s a very large pdf touching the “demonite” reference: a scan of the public-domain 19th century tome The Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers.

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1569: Three Huguenot Parisians

Add comment July 1st, 2011 Headsman

France during its intractable 16th century Wars of Religion was a scary place to be on the wrong team at the wrong time — nowhere more so than Catholic Paris, for its Protestant Huguenot minority. This, after all, is the city that Henri IV had to capture by conversion, with that quotable bow to temporal expediency, “Paris is worth a mass.”*

On this date in 1569, that settlement lay decades in the future … but looming around the corner was the era’s signature atrocity, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

But Paris was already on tenterhooks in the 1560s as an abortive peace gave way to another installment of armed conflict, the “third war”, and the city girded itself against Huguenots without and within.


The state of the discourse: Catholic anti-Huguenot propaganda (click for larger image) from 1562 shows the heretics mounting a Catholic priest on the cross and shooting him. (Hey, don’t say it could never happen)

The September, 1568 Edict of Saint-Maur deprived Protestants of religious freedom, and municipal regulations confined most Huguenots to their homes — one part religious discrimination, one part pre-emptive crowd control in a city liable to pop out an anti-Huguenot pogrom at any moment. That happened in January to our day’s victims, Philippe and Richard de Gastines (father and son, respectively) and their in-law Nicolas Croquet, when a crowd attacked their home on suspicion of celebrating a Protestant Last Supper.

the seizure of the Gastines, along with several of their relatives and neighbors, took place amid widespread public disturbances … “The Huguenots were so hated by the Parisian populace that, if the king and authorities had let them have their way, there would not have been one [Huguenot] in the whole city who was not attacked.” De Thou added that crowds of people followed after the magistrates of Parlement when they left the Palais de Justice and so threatened them that they eventually pronounced a death sentence against the Gastines for a crime that would ordinarily have warranted banishment or a mere fine.**

The crowd also destroyed the subversive house. Upon the site of the former residence, the Parisian parliament erected a pyramid surmounted by a crucifix — the “Croix de Gastines”. This popular monument of religious chauvinism was maintained against a royal demand to demolish it for two-plus years, until the Marshall of France finally did so by force.†

But the Gastines were remembered by the Huguenot party, too.

The Protestant French poet Agrippa d’Aubigne, who grew up during this delirious age, retrieved the story of their martyrdom — and the somewhat incidental fact that Richard de Gastines had also been (non-capitally) convicted for a minor incident of supposed heretical evangelizing while languishing in prison — and made Gastines the eloquent exponent of Protestant fidelity in d’Aubigne’s poetical magnum opus, Les Tragiques. The relevant bit, rousing other prisoners to embrace the torments of martyrdom, is available in French here. (There’s a bit more about d’Aubigne’s martyr-making in this book.)

* And also the city where a Catholic assassin murdered that monarch.

** Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec., 1985

† The Marshal literally had to shed blood to repel the throng attempting to defend the Croix. Frustrated of its public monument, the mob proceeded to sack two neighboring homes believed occupied by Protestant fellow-travelers. Both those domiciles were again of mob violence during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (Diefendorf)

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1535: Cardinal John Fisher

1 comment June 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Catholic prelate John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill for refusing to endorse Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

The longtime Bishop of Rochester had only been elevated to the cardinalate weeks before by the new Pope Paul III, in the vain hope that the sublimity of the position would induce King Henry to ease the prelate’s imprisonment.

Henry eased it, all right. Permanently.*

Forbidding the official hat to be delivered to Albion, Henry declared he would dispatch its owner’s head to Rome instead.

A jury including the father of the usurping queen who had occasioned all this trouble — Anne Boleyn, of course, bound for the block herself in less than a year — condemned the aged ecclesiastic to death for treason.

He was hustled to the scaffold on this date to beat the June 24 feast day of his patron and namesake Saint John the Baptist, Christ‘s Biblical precursor who was … beheaded by a ruthless king whose marriage the Baptist had denounced. Struck a little too close to home, that.

Fisher’s friend and fellow-traveler both spiritual and temporal, Sir Thomas More, followed the cardinal’s footsteps to Calvary a fortnight later.

Both men are considered saints not only by Catholics (for obvious reasons) but also by Anglicans. June 22 is their feast day on the Catholic calendar of saints.

* It’s possible Henry had been out for Fisher’s blood for some time. As a foe of the king in his so-called Great Matter of many years’ standing, Fisher was the presumed target of a 1531 assassination-by-poison attempt that resulted in a horrific execution by boiling alive.

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1516 and 1530: Autos de fe in the Spanish Canary Islands

Add comment June 4th, 2011 Headsman

From The Inquisition in Spanish Dependencies, available free from Google books here:

That Columbus, on his first voyage, took his departure from Gomera indicates the importance assumed by the Canaries in the development of trade with the New World and this, conjoined with their productiveness, as they became settled and cultivated, rendered them a centre of commerce frequented by the ships of all maritime nations, as well as an object of buccaneering raids, in an age when trade and piracy were sometimes indistinguishable. Their proximity to Morocco and the Guinea coast moreover exposed them to attacks from the Moors and gave them an opportunity of accumulating Moorish and negro slaves, whom the piety of the age sought to convert to Christians by the water of baptism. In various ways, therefore, there came to be abundant material for inquisitorial activity, although the Judaizing New Christians, who furnished the Spanish tribunals with their principal business, appear to have been singularly few.

There was no haste in extending the Spanish Inquisition to the Canaries … It is not until the time of Diego de Muros [Spanish link], who was consecrated in 1496, that we have any evidence of such action … [and even then] every act, from the preliminary arrest to the final decision, was regulated from Seville …

Irregular and imperfect as may have been the organization of the tribunal, it yet managed to accomplish some convictions. In 1510 there was held an auto de fe in which there were three reconciliations for Judaism and one, of a Moorish slave, for reincidence in Mahometan error, while a fifth culprit was penanced for Judaism. Then in 1513 occurred the first relaxation, that of Alonso Fatima, a native Morisco, who had fled to Barbary. This was always deemed sufficient evidence of relapse to former errors, and he was duly burned in effigy. It was probably also to 1516* that may be attributed the first relaxation in person — that of Juan de Xeres of Seville, for Judaism. It shows that the tribunal was indifferently equipped that, when he was sentenced to torture, the physician whose presence was obligatory on such occasions, Doctor Juan Meneses de Gallegas, was required personally to administer it. It was exceedingly severe, extending to eleven jars of water; the accused was unable to endure it; he confessed his faith, was sentenced to relaxation as a relapsed and for fictitious confession, and was executed on Wednesday, June 4th. …

on June 4, 1530, another oblation was offered to God, in an auto celebrated with the same ostentation as the previous one [in 1526, with seven executions]. This time there were no relaxations in person, but there were six effigies burnt of as many Moorish slaves, who had escaped and were drowned in their infidelity while on their way to Africa and liberty. There were also the effigy and bones of Juan de Tarifa, the husband of the Ynes de Tarifa who had denounced herself in 1524; he was of Converso descent and had committed suicide in prison, which was equivalent to self-condemnation. There were three reconciliations, of which two were for Judaism and one for Islam and five penitents for minor offences.

This use of religious terror in service of slavery — the burning of those effigies who had been “drowned in their infidelity on their way to Africa and liberty” — was an overt policy of the tribunal.

Pious zeal for the salvation of these poor savages led to their baptism after capture; they could not be intelligent converts or throw off their native superstitions, and no one seemed able to realize the grim absurdity of adding the terrors of the Inquisition to the horrors of their enslaved existence. When a negro slave-girl was bemoaning her condition, she was kindly consoled with the assurance that baptism preserved her and her children from hell, to which she innocently replied that doing evil and not lack of baptism led to hell. This was heresy, for which she was duly prosecuted.

Under the inquisitorial code the attempt to escape from slavery thus was apostasy, punishable as such if unsuccessful, and expiated if successful by concremation in effigy. This is illustrated in an auto, held by Zayas and Funez, June 24, 1576, in which among sixteen effigies of absentees were those of eight slaves, seven negroes and one Moor. They had undergone baptism, had been bougt by Dona Catalina de la Cuevas and were worked on her sugar plantation. They seized a boat at Orotava and escaped to Morocco, for which they were duly prosecuted as apostates and their effigies were delivered to the flames — a ghastly mockery which does not seem to have produced the desired impression in preventing other misguided beings from flying from their salvation.

Related: Jews in the Canary Islands: Being a calendar of Jewish Cases extracted from the records of the Canariote inquisition in the collection of the Marquess of Bute.

* A footnote in the text of our source notes that “in the record concerning Juan de Xeres, the year is omitted, but as Wednesday fell on June 4 in 1511, 1516, 1533 and 1539, the probable date is 1516.”

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1572: Thomas Howard, Ridolfi plotter

5 comments June 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1572, the Duke of Norfolk lost his head for a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.

Thomas Howard was a born plotter. Literally.

The fourth Duke of Norfolk, he inherited the title from the third Duke of Norfolk — his eponymous grandfather, the scheming courtier who had maneuvered nieces Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard into disastrous matrimony with Henry VIII.

Having run afoul of his ruthless sovereign, this elder Howard then had the distinction of dodging execution only because the king himself dropped dead the very day before Howard was to have been beheaded.

The Norfolk title, however, did skip a generation, because grandpa Howard’s son Henry Howard was not so lucky, and abdicated his birthright at the block.*

That left our day’s principal, a mere boy of 10 when his father got axed, as his lucky grandfather’s heir apparent — to carry on the Howard scheming against his second cousin, Anne Boleyn’s lucky daughter Queen Elizabeth.

And young Thomas Howard would prove to be a chop off the old block.

Howard’s sympathies for Catholicism and for swinging an ever-bigger dick led him into a machination to wed Elizabeth’s northern rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lucky to get off with just a slap on the codpiece, Howard went right back at it with an unabashed Spanish-supported conspiracy to depose Elizabeth, again in favor of Mary — the Ridolfi Plot.

This chicanery was sniffed out by Elizabeth’s pervasive spy network, and while Mary’s royal status enabled her to survive the revelation, Norfolk had already got down to his last chance.

The conflict between Elizabeth and Norfolk, heavily fictionalized and climaxing in the Ridolfi Plot, is essentially the plot of of the 1998 movie Elizabeth.

Having endured so much trouble from these nettlesome Howards, the crown left the Duke of Norfolk title vacant for nearly a century after this date’s beheading. It was finally restored to a mentally deficient Howard descendant with the post-Cromwell Stuart restoration.

* And that’s just on the dad’s side. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather from the Stafford family also met their ends on the scaffold.

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1534: Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent

2 comments April 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1534, Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn with her “conspirators” for having prophesied the death of Henry VIII and (in the words of the parliamentary attainder against them) “traterously attempted many notable actes intendyng therbye the disturbaunce of the pease and tranquyllytie of this Realm.”

A country servant-girl, this Elizabeth Barton had begun having divine visions around Easter 1525, and developed a popular following for her gift of prophecy, generally delivered during spooky (perhaps epileptic) fits and trances.

This was all just fine with everyone, since King Henry was still a good Catholic at the time; Barton took orders in the St. Sepulchre Nunnery and continued her career in the seer business.

Elizabeth Barton wasn’t going to leave her place in Henrician England … but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Henrician England was about to leave her.

And like so many entries that age has given this site, it all went back to Henry’s leaving his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.

If one likes to see in the prophetic tradition a refracted expression of popular sentiment, speaking a religious rather than a political language, Elizabeth Barton’s divine gift set her up to be the mystical exponent of the English populace’s visceral reaction against Henry’s ascending paramour, Anne Boleyn.

Rather rashly, Barton began publicly warning her sovereign against his bedchamber gambit, threatening that if the proposed Boleyn union should come to pass, he “should no longer be King of this realm…and should die a villain’s death.”

That would be compassing the death of the king — which is treason.

Barton articulated a fear of Henry’s policies which was shared by many of his subjects. The anticipated breach with Rome made the citizens of England insecure about the future stability of the realm, and prognostications concerning the state of the country abounded. Barton was not alone in foretelling that wars and plagues would soon rack the country; or in prophesying that the King would be overthrown, that his death was imminent, that he would die as a villain. Many people were discussing such prophecies, by means of which they could “objectify their fears and hopes” in an age of change and disruption.

-Diane Watt, “Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)”, Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1997

So it’s probably only fitting that this creature of her times would be devoured by the Tudor state which made its Reformation from the top.

Devoured, not only bodily.

As the Tudor king breaks with Rome, Barton becomes almost totally obscure to us, the real person who dared to stand openly against her king subsumed entirely by the edifice of state propaganda. As Watt observes, “as a result of her fate … almost all the first-hand evidence concerning Barton’s life and revelations has been destroyed” and “the surviving image of her has therefore been shaped by those who suppressed her visions and prophecies.”

We have her mystical utterances mostly indirectly, through the interlocutors charged with refuting her, and we have the expedient charges against her of fraud, contumacy, and (of course) sexual indiscretion leveled by her foes.


“The Imposture of the Holy Maid of Kent”

Arrested with a circle of supporters, Barton was forced into a public recantation in November 1533 by her persecutors. One supposes such a recantation was in any event obtained under some duress; undoubtedly it was, as the disgusted Spanish ambassador recorded, staged “to blot out from people’s minds the impression they have that the Nun is a saint and a prophet.” (Cited by Watt)

If said duress included an easing of the charges against herself or her associates, Barton was to be disappointed.

She was attainted for treason* in January (the evidence against her being insufficient for a judicial verdict of treason); the bill of attainder also required the public to hand over any writings about her alleged prophecies or revelations, like the popular pamphlets that had circulated with official approval in the 1520’s: there would be nothing to nurture a people’s cult for this exponent of resistance. Over the decades to come, the early writings sympathetic (and proximate) to Barton would be almost completely annihilated, supplanted by Protestant works that rendered Barton a trickster, a puppet, a sham — magnified her retraction into the definitive statement. It was a propaganda victory almost as chilling as Barton’s corporeal fate: even her potentially sympathetic Catholic audiences can latterly make no reliable judgment about her.

And so Barton moulders.

In April 1534, the usurping consort once more apparently pregnant with Henry’s long-sought heir, the once-popular, now-deflated prophetess of the old queen and the old faith was emblematically put to death with her former adherents on a most significant day in the city of London.

[T]his day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observant, two monks and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the king and his legitimate issue by the Queen’s Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner.

-Letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle, April 20, 1534 (Source)

We trust everybody got the message.

But in case anyone missed the point, there would be plentiful reminders still to come.

* Chancellor Thomas More had some traffic with Barton — very cautious, as befits a skeptical elite’s approach to a loose cannon commoner — and was briefly in some danger of being named in the indictment against her. When his loyal daughter Meg joyously reported to him that he’d been cleared, he’s supposed to have replied, “In faith, Meg, ‘quod differtur non aufertur’, what is put off is not put away.” But it probably didn’t require heavenly foresight for More to perceive the wheel of fortune about to turn on him, too. By the time of Barton’s actual execution, More had already been clapped in the Tower himself.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Women

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