Posts filed under '17th Century'

1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten but the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1691: Sylvester Medvedev, bread-worshipper

Add comment February 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1691, Russian Orthodox priest Sylvester Medvedev was beheaded on Red Square.

Medvedev was a protege of the great progressive clergyman, poet, and educator Symeon of Polotsk, one of the intellectual champions of the reforming faction of Orthodoxy’s Great Schism.

The Schism in question was the widespread disaffection of the faithful (now known as “Old Believers”) for changes dictated from on high whose effect was to centralize the Russian Orthodox church and to alter its services.


Patriarch Nikon and Epifany Slavinetsky revising service-books.

The Patriarch of Moscow had underaken to revise the liturgy, the prayer-books, and the church services in Russian Orthodoxy in order to bring them in line (so he said) with their proper Greek antecedents. It provoked a furious reaction by Russian traditionalists. Perhaps the most vividly symbolic flashpoint of the Schism was the simple-seeming distinction between making the sign of the cross with three fingers (as the Patriarch demanded), or with two. It was all down to what Nikon said was a mistranslation of the original Greek when the rite had first been established hundreds of years before.

That reform and others were enforced, and opposed, violently: floggings, executions, and desecrations of now-outlaw icons were met by Old Believers willing to mutilate their own hands, or kill themselves, or go to the stake rather than bend. Some 20,000 people are said to have self-immolated in resistance.

“Come, Orthodox People,” thundered Protopope and soon-to-be Old Believer martyr Avvakum Petrov. “Suffer tortures for the two-finger sign of the cross … Although I have not much understanding I am not a learned man yet I know that the Church which we have received from our Holy Fathers is pure and sacred. As it came to me, so shall I uphold my faith until the end.”


Boyarina Feodosia Morozova concurred with Avvakum Petrov (who was her confessor): in this famous painting of her by Vasily Surikov, she makes a defiant two-fingered blessing to onlookers as she the authorities drag her away.

Meanwhile, after the death of Symeon’s patron Tsar Alexis, a tense contest for royal political played out during the 1680s. Finally, in 1689, the 17-year-old Peter the Great overthrew the authority long wielded by his elder half-sister, the Regent Sophia.

Peter, of course, was not yet “the Great”: he was just a vulnerable kid with a potential legitimacy problem. As one consequence, his mother, Natalyz Naryshkina, was able to dictate the appointment of a very conservative patriarch when that post opened in 1690.

That man, Adrian, would be the last Moscow patriarch until the Bolshevik Revolution in large measure due to his conflicts with the grown Peter over the latter’s blasphemously western orientation.

Adrian was no Old Believer but he bitterly opposed Peter’s attempts to get Russians to dress like Europeans and shave off their beards. And given the ferocity of religious feeling when the stakes are a matter of a single finger, it will go without saying that an inveterate liberalizer like Sylvester Medvedev would have no purchase with the patriarch.

This is indeed a strange interim in Russian history; Russian’s great westernizing and secularizing autocrat has reached the throne but with him ascends, just for a moment, the staunchest conservatives ecclesiastics.

What was Medvedev up to that got the new patriarch in a twist? If you liked the three-finger thing, you’ll love this: Medvedev maintained that the transubstantiation/metousiosis of ceremonial bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was accomplished during liturgy by the Words of Institution (“Take, eat, this is my body …”), which was also the Catholic perspective — in contrast to the orthodox Orthodox position that this was achieved by the Epiclesis invoking the Holy Spirit.

That made Medvedev a heretic — or more vituperatively, a “Latinizer” or even a “bread-worshipper”. (See The Church Reform of Peter the Great)

His real crime might well have been to align himself politically with the lately deposed Sophia, for Medvedev inherited his mentor’s place as court poet and education paladin when Symeon of Polotsk died in 1680. Sycophantish verse like this, written in Medvedev’s unuccessful attempt to gain leadership of an academy to promulgate western learning, can’t have done him any favors in the end:

You have been given the name of wisdom,
For Sophia was named wisdom by God.
It befits you to begin the sciences,
To pursue them, most wise one!

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1601: Starina Novak, hajduk

Add comment February 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Serbian-Romanian hajduk Starina Novak was slow-roasted in Cluj with two of his captains.

The hajduk in the Balkans was a romantic figure who mixed traits of the “social bandit” outlaw with those of anti-Ottoman guerrilla. Colorful characters answering the archetype persisted into the 20th century.

Novak, who was around 70 by the time of his death, is still celebrated for his feats of arms on the soldiering side of the ledger in a running conflict with the Ottomans. Most of the sites about Starina Novak are in Serbian, like this one.

He emerges as a commander of Serbian and Bulgarian auxiliaries fighting with Michael the Brave in the 1590s to carve out of the Ottoman realm a kingdom of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia — roughly, present-day Romania plus Moldova. The enterprise was as glorious as its destiny was tragic.

By 1601 an Italian officer aptly christened Giorgio Basta had had enough of his erstwhile allies and double-crossed hajduk and upstart king alike.

The former he shopped as a traitor to Michael’s Hungarian allies, who put him to the stake in Cluj and made sure to throw water on the burning partisan throughout in order to prolong the ordeal. (The charred corpses of Novak and his associates were then impaled.) A few months later, Basta had Michael the Brave assassinated, and placed himself at the head of Michael’s hard-won kingdom.


A statue of Starina Novak keeps vigil in the city where he died. (cc) image from Bogdan Pop.

Being a national hero means your prior career in brigandage gets a little Robin Hood elbow grease.

In the Serbian epic “Starina Novak and Knez Bogosava” — translated here by polyglot friend of the site Sonechka — Novak attributes his turn to banditry to the impositions of his rulers, specifically (and ahistorically) blaming the 15th century despot’s wife Jerina for overtaxing him.

Novak and Radivoj are imbibing wine
By the brisk waters of Bosna,
At a certain Prince Bogosav’s.
And having sated themselves with wine,
Prince Bogosav began to talk:
“Brother, Old Novak,
Tell me straight, as if confessing,
Why did you, brother, become a hajduk?
What compels you
To break your neck, to wander the forest
As a brigand, pursuing your ignoble employ,
Unto your senescence, when your time has passed?”

Replies Old Novak:
“Brother, Prince Bogosav,
When you ask, I answer in earnest —
It was truly not my wish.
If you could recollect
The time when Jerina was building Smederevo
And ordered me to toil.
I labored for three years,
I pulled the trees and carried stones,
All on my own cart and oxen.
And in three years term,
I gained not a dinar,
Not even opanci to put on my feet.
But that, brother, I would have forgiven!
Having built Smederevo,
She began to mount towers,
To engild the gates and windows,
And imposed the duty on the vilayet,
For each house – three measures of gold,
Which is three hundred ducats, brother!
Those who had, gave her the treasure;
Those who gave, stayed.
I was a pauper,
With nothing to give,
I took my pickax, which I toiled with,
And with this pickax I turned to banditry,
No longer could I linger anywhere
In the domain of cursed Jerina,
But ran away to the icy Drina,
Then reached stony Bosnia.
And when I neared Romania,
I met a Turkish wedding party –
Escorting a noble girl,
All passed in peace,
Save for the Turkish groom.
On the great dark brown steed,
He did not want to pass in peace.
He pulls his three-tail whip
(encumbered with three bolts of weight)
And lashes me across my shoulders.
I begged him thrice in the God’s name:
‘I beg you, Turk,
So blessed you with fortune and heroism,
And happy joviality,
Go on, proceed along your way with peace —
Do you see that I am a poor man!’
Withal the Turk would not budge.
And ache had grasped me,
And the anger grew,
I pulled my pickax from my shoulder
And struck the Turk, mounting on his brown steed.
The blow was so light
That it threw him off his horse,
I came upon him,
Hit him twice, and then again three times
While rending him asunder.
I rummaged through his pockets,
And found there three bags of treasure;
I stashed them in my bosom;
Untied his sword,
Having untied it from his belt, I have attached it to my own;
In place I left the pickax,
So that the Turks will have a tool with which to bury,
And thenceforth I mounted his brown steed,
And headed straight to the Romanian forest.
This all was witnessed by the wedding party
That dared not pursue me.
They wanted not or dared not.
It happened forty years back.
I grew more fond of my Romanian forest
Than, brother, of a palace;
Because I guard the mountenous road,
I wait for young Sarajevans
And take their gold, and silver,
And finer cloth, and satin;
I dress myself and the gang;
So I can come and flee,
And stay in horrid places —
I fear nothing but God.”

For Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian speakers with a lot of time on their hands, here’s a reading of the original:

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1612: Bishop Conor O’Devany and Father Patrick O’Loughran

Add comment February 1st, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1612,* Bishop Conor O’Devan(e)y and Father Patrick O’Loughran were hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors at George’s Hill outside of Dublin.

In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot, Ireland’s Catholics found things increasingly uncomfortable under King James.

In 1607, reacting to a squeeze on their incomes and prerogatives, two native noblemen fled to the continent hoping to make arrangements with the Spanish for a reconquest that would never come. This Flight of the Earls spelled the end of Ireland’s homegrown Gaelic aristocracy and set the stage for the Plantation of Ulster, the settler statelet that formed the germ of present-day Northern Ireland.

O’Loughran’s crime was very simple: already on the continent himself, he had administered the sacraments to those attainted fugitives, later having the boldness to return to Ireland.

There, the charge of collaborating with Bishop O’Devany was also laid to his shoulders.

While O’Loughran was in the summer of his natural life, O’Devany was around eighty years old. Consecrated a bishop in Rome in 1582, he had returned to the north of Ireland and been briefly detained in the post-Spanish Armada security scare.

In the 1600s, O’Devany’s protector had been Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyronne, and unfortunately this man was one of the earls in the aforementioned Flight.

He wasn’t a difficult man to target, but the somewhat gratuitous decision by England’s viceroy to do so was not widely supported even by the English and Protestant factions. O’Loughran’s conduct could perhaps be stretched to resemble treason; O’Devany was just an old man being persecuted for his faith. Going to his glory, the bishop did not fail to play that angle up under the eyes of a sympathetic Gaelic crowd.

Far from being cowed by the bishop’s butchery, those onlookers swarmed the gallows, touching the spilled blood and the quartered flesh as holy relics. “Some cut away all the hair from the head, which they preserved for a relic; some others gave practice to steal the head away … the body being dissevered into four quarters, they neither left finger or toe, but they cut them off and carried them away … with their knives they shaed off chips from the hallowed gallows; neither could they omit the halter with which he was hanged, but it was rescued for holy uses.” (Barnabe Rich)

Days after the executions, that aforementioned aggressive viceroy, Lord Chichester, reported to London how “a titular Bishop and a priest being lately executed for treason merely are notwithstanding thought martyrs and adored for saints.”

Thanks to the counterproductive outcome, the British laid off the policy of martyring Catholic priests thereafter (at least until Cromwell, but that’s another story).

Both men were beatified in 1992 among the Irish Catholic Martyrs.

* The date was February 1 according to the Julian calendar still in use by England at the time; it was February 12 according to the Gregorian calendar. England occupied Ireland through the period of the new Gregorian calendar’s initial 16th century adoption by Europe’s Catholic countries, so the official date in Ireland was February 1 … even though the padres’ boss in Rome would have considered it February 12.

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1679: Robert Foulkes, adulterous minister

Add comment January 31st, 2015 Headsman

From the Newgate Calendar:

This unhappy gentleman was a divine of the Church of England, and had been very much esteemed for his learning and abilities. Few men were more capable of shining in a church, or had a greater share of that sacred eloquence so requisite in a preacher. He was minister of Stanton-Lacy, in the county of Salop, where he was exceedingly followed and admired till his crimes came to be known, and where he might have been beloved till death in a natural way had taken him hence, and then universally lamented, if his heart had been as well furnished with grace as his head was with knowledge and his tongue with expressions.

A young gentlewoman of a considerable fortune, who had been left an infant by her parents, was committed to his care by her executors, as to a man who, they trusted, would not only deal justly by her, but also instruct her betimes in the principles of religion, and her several duties as a Christian. But, alas! how weak is human nature, and how soon are we tempted aside from the ways of piety! Mr. Foulkes, instead of answering the purpose of the young woman’s friends, was soon smitten with her charms, and took an opportunity of discovering a criminal passion for her, though he had at that time a virtuous wife and two children living. The young lady too easily consented to gratify his lust, and they continued their conversation together till she became pregnant.

All the means he could think of to procure abortion were now tried, and they all proved ineffectual; so that they must be both exposed to scandal, unless she could be removed to some convenient place, remote from the eyes of the world, and from the jealousies of Mrs. Foulkes, where she might be delivered of her burden, which was not yet perceived. A plausible excuse for his going up to London was soon formed, and for his taking Miss along with him, who at that time was under twenty years of age. When they arrived in town they took a lodging in York Buildings in the Strand, where she lay in, and where (shocking to think of!) the child was privately murdered, to prevent the infamy that might follow.

But divine vengeance would not suffer this horrible deed to remain long concealed, for before Mr. Foulkes went out of town the girl was examined upon the suspicion of some women, when she confessed the whole, and charged Mr. Foulkes with the murder, who was thereupon apprehended and committed to Newgate; in a short time after which he was condemned at the sessions house in the Old Bailey, upon the evidence of the young woman. On the 31st of January, 1679, he was executed at Tyburn.

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1679: “A number of poor people for the crime of witchcraft”

1 comment December 23rd, 2014 Headsman

From the Domestic Annals of Scotland (see here or here):

A commission composed of country gentlemen and advocates sat in the Tolbooth of Borrowstounness to try a number of poor people for the crime of witchcraft. There was Annaple Thomson, who had had a meeting with the devil in the time of her widowhood, before she was married to her last husband, on her coming betwixt Linlithgow and Borrowstounness, when he, ‘in the likeness of ane black man, told you, that you was ane poor puddled body, and had an evil life, and difficulty to win through the world, and promised if you would follow him, and go alongst with him, you should never want, but have ane better life; and about five weeks thereafter the devil appeared to ye when you was going to the coal-hill about seven o’clock in the morning. Having renewed his former tentation, you did condescend thereto, and declared yourself content to follow him and become his servant.’ There were also women called Margaret Pringle, Margaret Hamilton (two of the name), and Bessie Vicker, besides a man called William Craw. ‘Ye and each person of you was at several meetings with the devil in the links of Borrowstounness, and in the house of you Bessie Vicker, and ye did eat and drink with the devil, and with one another, and with witches in her house in the night-time; and the devil and the said William Craw brought the ale which ye drank, extending to about seven gallons, from the house of Elizabeth Hamilton, and you, the said Annaple, had ane other meeting about five weeks ago, when you was going to the coal-hill of Grange, and he invited you to go along with him and drink with him in the Grange-pans.’ Two of the other accused women were said to have in like manner sworn themselves into the devil’s service and become his paramours, one eight years, the other thirty years ago. It was charged against Margaret Pringle, that ‘the devil took you by the right hand, whereby it was for eight years grievously pained, but [he] having touched it of new again, it immediately became hail;’ against Margaret Hamilton — ‘the devil gave you ane five-merk piece of gold, whilk a little after becam ane sklaitt stane.’ And finally, ‘you and ilk ane of you was at ane meeting with the devil and other witches at the cross of Muirstane, above Kinneil, upon the thretteen of October last, where you all danced, and the devil acted the piper.’

These poor people were solemnly tried by the commissioners before an assize of fifty persons, and, notwithstanding that the indictment charges scarcely any hurtful attempts against individuals, the whole were adjudged to be taken four days after to the west end of the town, and there worried at a stake and burnt.

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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

2 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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1700: Jamie Macpherson, Highlander

4 comments November 16th, 2014 Headsman

The legendary Highlands freebooter Jamie Macpherson was hanged on this date in 1700 in Banff.

Macpherson is said to be an illegitimate half-Gypsy child with every talent necessary to live larger than life — and if gigantism can be inferred from the size of his enormous alleged sword, that would be extremely large indeed.

Besides his elite SPARQ score, Macpherson was blessed with complementary gifts for making music and sweet sweet love, and plundered livestock and merchandise and maidenheads as he sprang through the vicinities of Banff and Aberdeen. Despite living by his prowess with the sword every source concurs that he never used it to harm anyone that the audience would sympathize with.

But he outraged the local grandees, and at length he was apprehended (as befits his outsized tale) by a fellow with the improbable name “Duff of Braco” — then was duly condemned to hang on market-day (“Forasmeikle as you James McPherson, pannal are found guilty by ane verdict of ane assyse, to be knoun, holden, and repute to be Egiptian and a wagabond” etc.).

In the week before his hanging, Macpherson reportedly composed an air variously described as “Macpherson’s Lament” or “Rant” or “Farewell” which he then performed on the gallows.

In the most picturuesque version, he played his own fiddle in this exit performance, then dramatically smashed the instrument. As Chambers’s Journal observes, it seems hard to accept that the sheriff would have given this veritable Goliath the free use of his hands at such a desperate moment. Indeed, local legend has it that the authorities were so afraid that a reprieve might arrive that upon catching sight of an approaching rider on the horizon, they put the town’s clocks 15 minutes forward.

At any rate, several versions of the Lament/Rant/Farewell survive and one can follow its evolution in this open-source Annals of Banff. Robert Burns’s eventually immortalized the verse with this gloss on it from the late 18th century:

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1674: Guru Tegh Bahadur

Add comment November 11th, 2014 Headsman

The early religion of Sikhism was led by a succession of 10 Gurus.*

The Mughals executed the ninth of those Gurus on this date in 1674.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (the name means “Hero of the Sword” and was earned in youthful battles against those same Mughals) was acclaimed above 20-odd other aspirants after the previous Guru died saying only that the next guy was in the village of Bakala.

Guru from 1664, he’s noted for founding the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. And it was his lot to lead a minority faith during the reign of the Aurangzeb, an emperor notorious to posterity for religious dogmatism.

He’s known best as a persecutor of Hindus: knocking over temples to throw up mosques, forcing conversions, and implementing sharia. But Aurangzeb knew how to get after all kinds.

Considering the going sectarian tension between Hindu and Muslim in the environs, there’s a good deal of touchy historical debate over just how to characterize Aurangzeb’s policies. This site is entirely unqualified to contribute to that conversation but suffice to say it was not an ideal moment to adhere to an alternate faith.

The circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s capture, and his subsequent execution in Delhi, are similarly obscured by hagiography. Aurangzeb, who spent his reign at virtually continual war, must surely have seen in the Guru’s capital city — which also welcomed Hindu refugees fleeing the Mughals’ abrogation of their rites — a nest of rebellion. Putting its leader to death when he too refused conversion would have been right in character; no less understandable is the Guru’s remembrance as a martyr to religious liberty, and not only the liberty of Sikhs but Hindus, Buddhists, and any other comers.

Tegh Bahadur’s nine-year-old son Gobind Singh succeeded as the tenth and last Guru. It was he who laid down the “Five Ks” — five articles that a faithful Sikh should wear at all times. Thanks to the parlous state of security vis-a-vis the Mughals, one of those items is the Kirpan, a dagger or small sword that continues to vex airline security agents down to the present day.

* Ten human Gurus: the tenth passed succession to the perpetual “Guru Panth” (the entire community of Sikhs) and “Guru Granth Sahib” (a sacred text).

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1697: Three duty stamp counterfeiters

Add comment November 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1697, nine men hanged at Tyburn — all for property crimes.

Three were highway robbers. A fourth was a coiner. A fifth was a pickpocket. A sixth was a husbandman who stole a gelding.

The remaining three men, Thomas Houghton, Francis Cook and Francis Salisbury, operated a ring selling vellum paper bearing counterfeit sixpenny impressed duty stamps.

Their offense was against a 1694 levy titled “An act for granting to Their Majesties several duties on Vellum, Parchment and Paper for 10 years, towards carrying on the war against France”. This statute (full text here) imposed taxes of varying amounts for any number of a huge variety of officially-registered business. Routine commercial transactions now almost universally came with a rake for the taxman: “every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet of paper, upon which shall be ingrossed or written any indenture, lease, or deed-poll” had to be executed with a sixpenny stamp.

As a practical matter, such skins or pieces of vellum or parchment were sold pre-stamped, the stamp to be canceled by the parties in question when they signed on the line which is dotted. And it was this market that Houghton, Cook, and Salisbury exploited.

While counterfeiting the specie could be held to imperil the kingdom so dangerously to rate as treason, this trio’s “counterfeiting” was just everyday white-collar siphoning. By forging a bogus sixpenny stamp and applying it to sheafs of contract-ready vellum that they could sell at market rates, they got the revenue-agent’s cut — not the crown. (The scam is described in their Newgate Calendar entry, which inexplicably gives short shrift to Francis Cook.)

Though the “war against France” named by the stamp bill — the War of the League of Augsburg or the Nine Years’ War — had ended weeks before even the hangings we mark on this date, the lucrative levy long outlasted it. In the following century, England revived this type of tax often, notably in 1712 expanding it to encompass printed publications like newspapers and pamphlets. Hey, just require anything printed on paper to have a royal stamp on it — easy! This habit would eventually create the 1765 Stamp Act so obnoxious to North American colonists in the run-up to the American Revolution.

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