Posts filed under '16th Century'

1591: Euphane MacCalzean, witch

5 comments June 25th, 2010 Headsman

If there’s one thing King James VI of Scotland (eventually to also become James I of England) worried a lot about, it was witches.

The Al Qaeda of the 16th century imagination, those shadowy yet omnipresent necromancers were especially feared around this time for their powers of supernatural mayhem, and you can take your pick on the phenomenon’s psychosocial explanation. (It was hardly limited to Scotland.)

Whatever it was, King James had it in spades.

The son of one executed monarch and father of another, James kept head tightly fixed to shoulders all his own days, and he used it to write the (well, a) book on witch-hunting.

THE fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse / thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the damnable opinions … not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.

-Daemonologie

You couldn’t fault the guy for a lot of daylight between his principles and his practices.


With a deft political touch, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after James ascended the English throne as James I.

In 1589, Jamie sailed to Denmark to wed a Danish princess. When ferocious storms nearly wrecked the royal convoy on its return trip, there was only one possible explanation: witchcraft. And security theater for 16th century Scotland wasn’t taking your shoes off when ferrying across the nearby loch — it was publicly burning human beings to death for consorting with the devil.

So once the king made it back home, he initiated the North Berwick Witch Trials, the first notable witch-hunt of his reign.

It was what you’d expect. Seventy people accused, the doomed tortured into confessions like Jack Bauer would do, and a respectable harvest of souls, most famously (because interrogated by the king himself) Agnes Sampson. “Most of the winter of 1591,” writes one chronicler, “was spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers.”

Our day’s principal, whose name has various different renderings (such as Eufame Mackalzeane), was the last to suffer for some months.

Euphan McCalzeane was a lady possessed of a considerable estate in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas McCalzeane, lord Cliftenhall, one of the senators of the college of justice, whose death in the year 1581 spared him the disgrace and misery of seeing his daughter fall by the hands of the executioner. She was married to a gentleman of her own name, by whom she had three children. She was accused of treasonably conspiring of the king; of raising storms to hinder his return from Denmark; and of various other articles of witchcraft. She was heard by counsel in her defense; was found guilty by the jury, which consisted of landed gentlemen of note; and her punishment was still severer than that commonly inflicted on the weyward sisters; she was burned alive, and her estate confiscated. Her children, however, after being thus barbarously robbed of their mother, were restored by act of parliament against the forfeiture. The act does not say that the sentence was unjust, but that the king was touched in honour and conscience to restore the children. But to move the wheels of his majesty’s conscience, the children had to grease them, by a payment of five thousand merks to the donator of escheat, and by relinquishing the estate of Cliftonhall, which the king gave to sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno.

As a striking picture of the state of justice, humanity, and science, in those times, it may be remarked, that this sir James Sandilands, a favourite of the king’s, ex interiore principis familiaritate, who got this estate, which the daughter of one lord of session forfeited, on account of being a witch, did that very year murder another lord of session in the suburbs of Edinburgh, in the public street, without undergoing either trial or punishment. (Source

Like any number of other executed “witches,” this one professed innocence at the scaffold.

Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman “tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge.”

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1529: Jacob Kaiser, launching the First War of Kappel

1 comment May 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1529, Zwinglian missionary Jacob Kaiser was burnt at the stake in the Catholic Swiss canton of Schwyz.

His Protestant evangelizing was a violation of the unwritten Cuius regio, eius religio policy keeping peace among the cantons. (Later, it would become written.)

This otherwise routine Reformation martyrdom led Ulrich Zwingli, then Grossmünster of Zurich, to make war on the Catholic cantons, seeking to pry them open for further Protestant inroads.

Let us be firm and fear not to take up arms. This peace, which some desire so much, is not peace, but war; while the war that we call for, is not war, but peace. We thirst for no man’s blood, but we will cut the nerves of the oligarchy. If we shun it, the truth of the gospel and the ministers’ lives will never be secure among us.

-Zwingli, channeling Orwell

The short-lived Erster Kappelerkrieg — the First War of Kappel — was won within weeks, swiftly concluded by a truce favorable to Zwingli’s Protestant alliance.

(Legend has it that the treaty was concluded over a shared pot of milk soup picturesquely resting on the Catholic-Protestant border, the Kappeler Milchsuppe.)

Die Kappeler Milchsuppe (1869) by Gemälde von Albert Anker.

But this initially favorable return on poor Jacob Kaiser’s sacrifice was soon squandered.

Hostilities between the two camps continued, eventually flaring into the Second War of Kappel. Zwingli was again spoiling for the fight, but his under-prepared Protestants were trounced by a Catholic league in October 1531. Zwingli himself died on the battlefield.

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1591: John Dickson, “broken on ane rack”

3 comments April 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Scotsman John Dickson was condemned to death (which he immediately suffered) for murdering his father.

“The criminal record,” observes this volume of Scottish crime, “contains neither the particulars of the murder, nor the evidence against the prisoner.”

What is particular to this case is the method of execution: the breaking-wheel, or something very similar to it, a tortuous death used throughout continental Europe but that never caught on in the British Isles.

John Dickson, younger of Belchester, being apprehended, ta’en, and brought to Edinburgh, was put to the knawledge of ane assize for the slaughter of his awn natural father [in July 1588], and also for the lying for the said offence at the process of excommunication. [Being convicted, he was] brought to the scaffold, and at the Cross broken on ane rack, [and] worried—where he lay all that night, and on the morn [was] carried to the gallows of the Burgh-moor, where the rack was set up, and the corpse laid thereupon. (Passage from here or here.)

Dickson’s is the first of only two such “breaking” death sentences, in which the doomed is staked out spread-eagled and has his limbs shattered one by one, documented in Scotland. (The other is that of Robert Weir in 1604; an assassin in 1571 “is said, also” to have suffered such a fate, but actual documentation has been lost.)


Sort of like this. (Source)

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1597: Severyn Nalyvaiko

3 comments April 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1597, Cossack Severyn Nalyvaiko was publicly quartered in Warsaw.

Nalyvaiko organized “unregistered” Cossacks in Poland’s eastern realms, modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, into what became a significant rebellion. (Poland’s efforts to “register” and thereby control Cossacks would continue to cause tension in the years ahead.)

The Poles outmuscled him, and here he is.

However, because longer-term historical trends were not so favorable to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Nalyvaiko rates a place as an early independence martyr for (east) Slavic resistance to Warsaw’s Polish imperialism.

Not only does he get a spot on present-day Ukrainian coinage (as pictured); 19th century Russian poet Kondraty Ryleyev, who would himself be executed for his part in the Decembrist plot, lyricized Nalyvaiko’s death as heroic national sacrifice … and simultaneously elevated the poet’s own prophesied fate for himself.

“In Ryleyev’s poetry, fate — romantic fate — is not simply personal and individual,” writes Lauren Leighton. “The fate of his heroes, and so his own fate, is raised to the level of national-historical tragedy. By welcoming his fate and dying for his land, Nalivayko ennobles his people.”


“Nalyvaiko”

Say not, thou holy man, again
That this is sin, thy words are vain,
Be it a fearful mortal sin
Worse than all crimes that e’er have been,
I care not — for could I but see
My native land at liberty,
Could I but see my race restored
To freedom from the foreign horde,
All sins would I upon me take
Without one sigh for Russia’s sake. –
The crimes of all the Tartar race,
The apostates Uniates‘ treason base,
The sins of every Jew and Pole –
All would I take upon my soul.
Try not with threats my mind to shake,
Persuasive words no change can make,
For hell to me is to have viewed
My loved Ukraine in servitude;
To see my fatherland set free,
This, this alone, is heaven for me!

E’en from the cradle was my breast
With love of liberty possessed;
My mother sang me glorious lays
Of those long-past historic days,
Whose memory yet lives ‘mongst men,
For no fear seized on Russians then,
None cringed before the haughty Pole;
The iron of a foreign yoke
Weighed upon no free Russian’s soul,
None cowered beneath a stranger’s stroke;
Cossacks were then the Pole’s allies,
Bound each to each in equal ties,
Such as free men would well beseem –
Now all is vanished like a dream.
Cossacks long since had learned to know
How into tyrants friends may grow;
The Lithuanian, and the Jew,
The Pole, and all the Uniate crew,
Like ravening crows around their prey
Seize us, and tear our limbs away.
The voice of law no more is heard
In Warsaw’s city, none are stirred
At hearing all a nation’s wail,
Our mourning voices nought avail,
And now within me burns a flame
Of hatred for the Polish name –
A fierce hot flame of raging fire –
My look is wild with passion dire
And frenzied wrath; the soul in me
Sickens for love of liberty.
One thought have I by night and day,
Which like a shadow haunts my way,
E’en where the steppes lie silent, bare,
Unresting it pursues me there;
E’en in the soldier’s camp, and when
The battle’s whirl, and tramp of men,
Around me roar with maddening rush,
I hear it still, and in the hush
Of the still church’s vaulted gloom,
Sound in my ears the words of doom
“‘Tis time,” the holy accents say,
“‘Tis time to sweep the foes away,
“O’er the Ukraine who bear their sway.”
I know full well the direful fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate — but say
When, when has freedom won her way
Without the blood of martyrs shed,
When none for liberty have bled?
My coming doom I feel and know
And bless the stroke which lays me low
And, father, now with joy I meet
My death, to me such end is sweet.

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1525: Count Ludwig von Helfenstein

1 comment April 16th, 2010 Melabesq

At the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, conditions for peasants in what is now southern and central Germany were in decline. The cost of goods continued to increase while the ruling aristocracy, who owned the land rented by peasants to grow crops, declined to reduce rents or raise wages

In addition, the territorial sovereigns attempted to increase their income to accommodate the increase in prices by levying additional taxes and tithes on, and increase other obligations owed by, the peasants and serfs under their control.

Simultaneously, changes in the economic market due to increased international trade and industry affected the structure of society, putting into conflict the interests of the aristocracy and the growing merchant class, and giving rise to burghers and industrial workers. Growing awareness of the Reformation and changes in commerce and the social structure also put ecclesiastical society and its lifestyle into conflict with secular interests.

In 1524, a petition known as the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest was presented to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The majority of the Twelve Articles asked for relief from economic hardships, such as the cattle tithes and death tax, and for the preservation of “common” land for use by the peasants. The Emperor ignored the petition, which then became the definitive set of grievances of the lower class. The movement quickly splintered into three factions: Catholics who resisted any challenge to the Church’s supremacy; burghers and princes seeking autonomy from the Church through reforms proposed by Luther; and the lower classes.

Violence soon errupted, as these factions took up arms to preserve, or better, their way of life in an uprising known as the Peasant’s War (1524-1525).

Not surprisingly, sources differ on why the conflict came to a head when it did: the Catholic church blamed the revolting Lutherans; the peasants blamed the aristocracy; and the aristocrats blamed the church. Regardless of the reason, Count von Helfenstein was not in a favorable position.

Count Ludwig von Helfenstein fought against the peasants during this conflict. Occupying the town of Weinsberg on the orders of the Archduke, von Helfenstein freely slew peasants either when discovered in small bands or when they sought admission to the town.

On April 16, in revenge for these killings, an attack led by Florian Geyer and Jacklein Rohrbach (German link) and under the command of George Metzler captured the town and von Helfenstein.

Many aristocrats and knights were killed outright during the fight. Von Helfenstein, however, was forced by vengeful peasants to run (while his wife and child watched) a double gantlet of men with spears drawn.


Helfenstein is led to his messy fate, while his kneeling wife entreats in vain, in this 1844 painting by Gustav Metz. (More, in German.)

Like most peasant revolts, however, it got its licks in and then got crushed. The princes, connected to the Empire, were able to amass greater control over other nobility, while feudalism’s decline was accelerated in favor of commercialism and trade.

(See The Peasants War in Germany, 1525-152, by Ernest Belfort Bax for a florid description of Helfenstein’s end.)

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1554: Thomas Wyatt the Younger, with the Queen’s life in his hands

2 comments April 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1554, rebel leader Thomas Wyatt the Younger tied on his own blindfold and laid his head on the block, having declared that not “any other now in your durance [i.e., the Tower] was privy to my rising”.

That remark exculpated the Princess Elizabeth, who just days before had been ominously rowed to the Tower on suspicion of having known of or involved herself in Wyatt‘s abortive revolt.

And Wyatt had had to do more than talk the talk to keep the future Queen Elizabeth I out of the executioner’s way.

Sore afraid that Wyatt’s rebellion had been engineered with the connivance of her Protestant half-sister, the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor had had Wyatt tortured to implicate her.

Wyatt held firm to Elizabeth’s innocence.

Had he not, the princess might have followed her mother to the scaffold, instead of becoming one of the realm’s most illustrious monarchs* — a fraught situation aptly portrayed at the outset of the 1998 Cate Blanchett flick Elizabeth.

It wasn’t only religion that made the political situation in 1550s England so perilous.

Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain had roused fears of Spanish political domination. This, much more than theology, triggered the plot that took Thomas Wyatt’s head off his shoulders.

Against this specter of Iberian influence, Wyatt and some fellow-nobles attempted to raise coordinated insurrections in early 1554. Most fizzled or were busted by authorities before they could get going. Wyatt’s alone, in quarrelsome Kent, ignited: he marched 4,000 men on the city of London and for a moment seemed to have a real prospect of capturing it before the crown rallied the city.

A paroxysm of vengeful executions in February 1554 claimed nearly 100 participants in the rebellion, their mutilated bodies demonstratively hung up around town. (It also claimed Lady Jane Grey, the lately defeated rival contender for Mary’s throne, whom the latter now realized was too dangerous to be left alive.)

It could have been uglier, though.

Despite her “Bloody Mary” reputation, the Queen went fairly easy on this dangerous challenge to her authority, making some high-profile examples but paroling most of the rank-and-file traitors in a hearts-and-minds clemency campaign.

The namesake rebel, however, was never going to be in that bunch. He was kept on a bit in the Tower while Mary’s goons “laboured to make Sir Thomas Wyatt confess concerning the Lady Elizabeth … but unsuccessfully, though torture had been applied.”

“Much suspected by me, nothing proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth prisoner”

Having kept his head under torture, Wyatt lost it on this date — and readied Elizabeth’s to wear the crown.


If you find the Elizabethan age worth celebrating, spare an extra thought this date for Thomas Wyatt the Younger’s eponymous old man.**

This Henrician poet is supposed to have been Anne Boleyn‘s last lover before Henry VIII.

In Henry’s snakepit, youthful frolics could come back to bite you; Wyatt the elder was actually imprisoned for adultery with the queen, only ducking the fatal charge thanks to some pull with Thomas Cromwell.

Wyatt pere wrote a melancholy poem about this depressing turn of his fortunes, but considering his times, you’d have to say he was born under a good sign.

A few years later, he was again on the hook for treason, and (Cromwell having been beheaded in the interim) saved by the fortuitous influence of Queen Catherine Howard, who was herself not long before a fall and a chop. (After that, Lady Wyatt, famous for her gallantries, was supposed to be in the running to become King Henry’s sixth wife even though she was still married to Thomas.)

The elder Wyatt managed to die naturally before trying his luck with a third treason charge.

* Many a slip ‘twixt a cup and a lip, but that turn of ill fate for Elizabeth could have set Mary, Queen of Scots on her way to becoming one of England’s most illustrious monarchs, instead of going to the scaffold.

** The illustrious family ties go the other direction, too. Thomas Wyatt the Younger was the grandfather of Francis Wyatt, the first English royal governor of the New World territory named for Queen Elizabeth: Virginia.

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1520: Gaspar Quesada, Magellan’s expedition mutineer

2 comments April 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1520, on his famous voyage of circumnavigation, explorer Ferdinand Magellan ordered the immediate execution of a mutinous captain.

Not to be trifled with.

Having alit just days before at the natural harbor of Puerto San Julien on the Brazilian Argentine coast (Magellan named it) with plans to winter there, the overweening Portuguese explorer faced an uprising of grumpy Spanish officers.

Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepcion, along with Luis de Mendoza of the Victoria and recently displaced San Antonio skipper Juan de Cartagena, seized some of the expedition’s ships during the night of April 1-2.

Since you know Magellan’s name five centuries later, you already know he quashed it.

As the sovereign of this fragile floating world, Magellan had little choice but to treat a challenge to his authority mercilessly.**

Though accounts are inconsistent, it seems Mendoza was boldly slain by one of Magellan’s men meeting him under color of “negotiation”.


Mendoza’s assassination. From this site.

Mendoza was then posthumously beheaded and quartered along with Gaspar Quesada. Juan de Cartagena was either executed as well, or else caught a “break”: some sources relate that, instead of executing Cartagena, Magellan had him marooned.

the twentieth of June [1578], wee harboured ourselues againe in a very good harborough, called by Magellan Port S. Julian, where we found a gibbet standing upon the maine, which we supposed to be the place where Magellan did execution upon some of his disobedient and rebellious company.

-From a member of the Francis Drake expedition. Just 12 days later and at the very same place, Drake visited a similar penalty for a similar offense upon one of his own crew.

* “‘The authorities’ are divertingly divergent on the precise date of these events,” says O.H.K. Spate in The Spanish Lake, referring specifically to the dates of the mutiny. “Denucé puts them on Easter Sunday and Monday, 1–2 April; Merriman on Easter Sunday and Monday, 8–9 April; Nowell on Palm Sunday and the next day, with the trial verdict on 7 April. By the Julian calendar, in use until 1582, the dates would be 1–2 April; by the Gregorian, ten days later. Pigafetta and Maximilian, who slur over the whole affair, give no dates at all. It is not of vast moment.” Clearly, O.H.K. Spate never had to write an almanac blog.

Anyway, there’s some primary sourcing on this affair here.

** Though Magellan made an example of the leaders, he pragmatically spared about 40 others after keeping them in chains and working the pumps for three months. After all, the man still needed to crew his ships.

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1526: Antonio Osorio de Acuña

Add comment March 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1526, Spanish bishop Antonio Osorio de Acuña was beheaded in Simancas for supporting the revolt of the comuneros.

Acuna was in his sixties when the popular revolt rose in Castile.

Given his age and station, he might have been expected to exercise the bishopric of Zamora in the interests of the powers that be. Instead, he threw in with the rebels, even fearlessly leading men into battle.

If that sounds (rightly or wrongly) principled to you, you might be surprised that Acuna has generally been tarred as an opportunist.

Was it “opportunistic” to seize the vacant bishopric of Toledo when that city was under attack by royalists? Or was it a courageous and needful stroke to take the ecclesiastical power in hand and direct the church’s material resources to the cause?

It’s really all in how you look at it. Surely throwing dissenting priests into the dungeon was a little harsh, but then, it was wartime.

Acuna was caught fleeing for France after the revolt broke down, but his execution took four-plus years to arrange through the sluggardly church courts.

Still, he was executed — a fact which underscores the stakes he was playing for, and insured that he would never get the benefit of historiographic doubt.

This Spanish-language page summarizes Acuna’s pre-comuneros career of graft and careerism. This Castilian nationalist page likes him quite a lot better.

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1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

6 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Interviews,Martyrs,Nobility,Other Voices,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Treason,Women

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