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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1780: John Gamble, anti-Wilmot

Add comment July 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.

These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.

Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.

Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.

“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”

This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.

The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.

“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”

London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:

the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.

Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.

(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)

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1654: Gerard the conspirator, and the Portuguese envoy’s brother

Add comment July 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1654, the gore-soaked annals of Tower Hill added the names of two of Protectorate England’s highest criminals.

John Gerard was only an ensign from the army of the late King Charles I, but he gave his name to a one of the great royalist conspiracies of the 1650s.

Gerard — alternately rendered Gerrard or Gerhard by his contemporaries — led a plot to assassinate Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. It would ultimately yield some 40 arrests, enough to arouse suspicion that the entire thing was a trap laid as part of the vigorous counterespionage game between the exiled royal heir and the Puritan government.

Initially condemned to hang — which was indeed the fate on this same date of one fellow conspirator, schoolteacher Peter Vowell — Gerard successfully petitioned for beheading instead, where he made a great show of courage and fidelity.

When he came to (or rather leap’d upon) the Scaffold (for he was so far from flagging when to tread that Tragical stage, that many observ’d hos sprightfully he seem’d to skip up the steps to it, as if he had gone to dance there rather than to die) his grim Executioner presented himself to him, to whom with a cheerful smile he said, “Welcom honest friend”; And desiring to see his Ax, he took it into his hands, and kissing it, with a pretty glance of his eye (which was a natural loveliness in him) towards the Minister, he said, “This will do the Deed I warrant it.”

The Sheriff stopped him delivering an address he had scribbled down, rightly expecting that it tended to the seditious. Nothing daunted, Gerard prayed with his minister, and

[t]hen turning himself to the people, and putting off his Hat, he told them, That he was not permitted to speak a few words according to his intention, yet he doubted not but what he would have said would come to their eyes, thought it must not come to their ears: “But this I desire all to take notice of,” and this he spoke (with a double vehemence) “that I die a faithful subject and servant to King Charles the second, whom I pray God to bless and restore to his Rights; and had I ten thousand thousand lives I would gladly lay them all down thus for his service.”

Execution ceremonies of the period tended to the elaborate, and the condemned could not easily be balked of their featured role. Although the Sheriff interrupted him here, and pressed him under a scorching sun to reveal more conspirators, Gerard put him off and “call’d for some small beer” to quench his thirst, which he did indeed receive. Oh for the days when a traitor could kick back with a frosty during his execution.

[Gerard] calls for the Block: and viewing it (as with delight) laid himself down upon it to see how it would fit, and was so far from sinking at the sight of it, that he almost play’d with it: and rising quickly pulls a little paper-book out of his pocket, which he gave to the Minister, willing him to find that particular Prayer which was proper for that occasion, but the crowd being great, he could not quickly find it, so that he kneeled down with the book open a while in his hand as if he had read; but quickly shut it, and prayed with great expressions of fervency by himself.

When he had done, the Lieutenant said something to him (as it seems) concerning his Brother Charles that had witnessed agianst him; (I know not what the Lieutenant said, for he spake low) but Mr. Gerrard spake aloud, and replyed passionately, “O Christ Sir! I love my poor Brother with all my heart, he is but a youth and was terrified, I know how he was dealt with; tell him I love him as well as ever I lov’d him in my life.”

forgiving the Executioner and saluting the Minister with his last embrace and kisses, he bow’d himself to the stroak of death, with as much Christian meekness and noble courage mix’d together, as I believe was ever seen in any that had bled upon that Altar.


Much less the pitied by the Tower Hill crowd was the executioner’s second act that date, don Pantaleon de Sa.

This Iberian noble, in town while his brother the Count of Penaguiao negotiated a treaty, got into a quarrel and escalated it egregiously, descending on the tony New Exchange shopping center on The Strand with a score of armed retainers looking to get his satisfaction.

This would be offense enough but don Pantaleon compounded matters by actually shooting dead some luckless sod who only happened to resemble his recent antagonist. Cromwell had his men invade the diplomatic residence where don Pantaleon tried to claim refuge, an act that perhaps would have been accomplished by an angry mob had he not done so.

International affairs proceeded apace, the commerce of nations proving very much thicker than blood for the Portuguese ambassador. On the very morning of his brother’s execution, the Count signed his treaty and set sail for home from Gravesend, leaving his belligerent brother to pay the forfeit of English justice.

The fruit of such costly statecraft was an English-Portuguese affinity to long outlast the pains of Tower Hill.

The trading relationship cemented in the 1654 treaty set the stage for a political arrangement as well when Gerard’s beloved Charles II was restored to the throne and made a Portuguese princess his queen.

So profitably were English merchants rewarded for moving Portuguese freight that by the next century, long after anyone could remember don Pantaleon or his marketplace quarrel, Portuguese wine displaced French as Britons’ libation of choice.

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1817: Two-fifths of the condemned in Valenciennes

Add comment July 3rd, 2014 Headsman

From the York Herald and General Advertiser (York, England) of Saturday, Aug. 16, 1817.

Five English soldiers being on guard, the 18th of June last, at one of the gates of Valenciennes, committed a robbery on the house of an individual, and were condemned to be hanged. They were conducted, by the orders of Lord Wellington, on the 3d of July, outside the walls of the town, to undergo their punishment.

The people followed the culprits, invoking, in accents of sorrow, the pity of their officers, and crying “Mercy! Mercy!”

Two of them were executed, and the other three received their pardon at the very moment they were about to part with life. At this news the joy of the numerous spectators was extreme, and the thanks they addressed to the English General were no doubt less eloquent than the joy from which they emanated.

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1612: Robert Crichton, Lord Sanquhar and mediocre swordsman

Add comment June 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1612, the Scottish noble Robert Crichton, Lord Crichton of Sanquhar, swung for revenge served very cold.

Sanquhar (alternatively, Sanquire) was a Scottish noble imported to the English court in the train of King James. Keeping up his swordsmanship in a practice bout with the fencing-master John Turner, Sanquhar had his eye put out by his opponent’s foil.

While this injury was the source of the tragedy that ensued for both men, it is said — perhaps it’s just literary license — that it was the illustrious French king Henri IV who turned the situation deadly with a passing remark when Sanquhar subsequently visited Henri’s duel-mad realm to the effect that it was a wonder that the author of such a horrible wound still lived. Already down one organ for his trouble, Sanquhar was stung to discover emasculation stacked on his woes; even though it was several years after* the duel, Sanquhar began plotting to vindicate eye and honor alike.

If this is so, it is not altogether clear to us that hiring a dependent to shoot the offending duellist unawares in a tavern quite comports with an offended dignity, but that’s chivalry for you. (Actually, the fact that Turner was not himself a gentleman made it socially problematic for Sanquhar to engage him in a proper affair of honor, per the queer codex of early modern masculinity.)

His Lordship had leaned on at least three underlings while engineering his belated revenge, and one of these wisely turned crown’s evidence against the rest of the quartet and hung the lot of his confederates. The headline case was of course the prosecution of the Baron Sanquhar handled personally by the king’s Solicitor-General, one Francis Bacon.

At trial on June 27 — 47 days after the murder; two days before the execution — Sanquhar mounted a better defense for his honor than for his neck.

After this loss of my eye and with the great hazard of the loss of life, I must confess that I ever kept a grudge of my soul against Turner, but had no purpose to take so high a revenge; yet in the course of my revenge I considered not my wrongs upon terms of Christianity — for then I should have sought for other satisfaction — but, being trained up in the courts of princes and in arms, I stood upon the terms of honour, and thence befell this act of dishonour, whereby I have offended — first, God; second, my prince; third, my native country; fourth, this country; fifth, the party murdered; sixth, his wife; seventh, posterity; eighth, Carlisle, now to be executed;** and lastly, ninth, my own soul, and I am now to die for my offence.

But, my lords, besides my own offence, which in its nature needs no aggravation, divers scandalous reports are given out which blemish my reputation, which is more dear to me than my life: first, that I made show of reconciliation with Turner, the which, I protest, is utterly untrue, for what I have formerly said I do again assure your good lordships, that ever after my hurt received I kept a grudge in my soul against him, and never made the least pretence of reconciliation with him. Yet this, my lords, I will say, that if he would have confessed and sworn he did it not of purpose, and withal would have foresworn arms, I would have pardoned him; for, my lords, I considered that it must be done either of set purpose or ignorantly. If the first, I had no occasion to pardon him; if the last, that is no excuse in a master, and therefore for revenge of such a wrong I thought him unworthy to bear arms.

Shorter Lord Sanquhar: I confess.

Needing not so much to contest the case at the bar as to narrate its intended moral, Bacon speculated that Sanquhar must have come by his egregious “affections of dwelling in malice, rather out of Italy … than out of any part of this island, England, or Scotland.” While this murder was not a duel, it sprang from a palpably similar place — and duels, just then taking on their recognizable ritual form, were furiously opposed by the state. Sanquhar had resided in Italy, but more than that, the term was code for the fencing experts who brought from the continent codes duello and mannerly rapiers and the prospect of destructive private vendettas. This was more than premeditated homicide; it was an arrogation of the king’s own prerogatives of justice and order.

“What the law abhorred was not cold-blooded premeditated duelling as such, but the attitudes manifested by that practice,” writes Jeremy Horder.† “The calculating duellist is an ‘isolent’ person acting with ‘arrogancy and rebellion’ in casting off the yoke of obedience, as if he had the power to set his own laws above those of the common law.”

Angling for a promotion to Attorney General (he would get it in 1613), Bacon also made a point to lavish praise on his Scotch-born sovereign for another lesson the trial was meant to underscore to his English subjects: “his majesty hath shewed himself God’s true lieutenant, and that he is no respecter of persons; but the English, Scottish, nobleman, fencer, are to him alike in respect of justice.”

Nobleman and subalterns alike died on different gallows this date: Lord Crichton of Sanquhar hanged before Westminster Hall, while his two assassin-henchmen dangled on gallows at Fleet Street.

* Sources propose various dates from 1604 to 1607 for the eye-foiling; Bacon in arraigning Sanquhar remarks that “it is now five years” since that happened.

** The man who actually shot John Turner.

† “The Duel and the English Law of Homicide,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Autumn 1992.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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1628: John Lambe murdered

Add comment June 13th, 2014 Headsman

Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the Prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe.

-Libel (one of many) on John Lambe’s murder

Friday the 13th of June in 1628 bore foul luck for John Lambe, an aged astrologer, magician, and folk healer so hated of Londoners that a mob fell on him as he returned from theater this evening and butchered him in the street.

While we hope to justify Lambe’s presence in these pages under our going interest in lynchings, his curious homicide transgresses the boundaries of Executed Today as surely as did Lambe transgress those of Stuart London.

North of 80 at the time of his death — although still vigorous enough at that age to defend himself with a sword — Lambe came to misfortunate public notoriety in the 1620s. These were crisis years when the crown sowed the dragon’s teeth that would in later years devour Charles I. Lambe’s slaughter was a little taste of worse to come.

Sources from the period view Lambe as both a shameless fraud and a vile wizard, with no consistency save between the propositions save for their vitriol. Lambe seems like he got the worst of both perceptions at once: he faced a 1619 complaint to the Royal College of Physicians that he was a “mountebank and impostor.” [sic] Three years after that, he was in the dock for witchcraft

What Lambe did do was beat two charges in as many years that could easily have hanged him: the aforementioned witchcraft case in 1622, and a rape charge in 1624. Evidence in either case was underwhelming, but the charges themselves were incendiary; Lambe’s knack for slithering out of the hangman’s grasp must have suggested for the man on the street a channel to sinister higher powers.

Commoners bestirred themselves about this time against the realm’s own higher powers — the politically ham-fisted new king Charles and his grapples with Parliament to secure sufficient tax revenue for his inept war with France and Spain.

In all this mess, the Duke of Buckingham — royal favorite and possible lover of Charles’s father — was the number two man in the kingdom, and the number one object of hate.

In the mid-1620s, Lambe became conjoined in the public eye with Buckingham — as Buckingham’s demon-summoning henchman, say. Was it the Duke’s pull that spared his familiar the noose? Was it Lambe’s necromancy that captured the king in the thrall of his detested aide?

Did it even matter?

From the distance of centuries the particulars of the supposed affiliation between the two seems difficult to establish,* but it sufficed for Lambe’s death (and Buckingham’s too) that they were analogues for one another, that their respective villainies could be multiplied one atop the other.

Despite all that tinder lying around, we don’t know the exact spark for Lambe’s murder on June 13, 1628. A few months before, Buckingham had fled a humiliating military defeat in France; Parliament and King were at loggerheads that June, forcing the reluctant Charles to accede to a Petition of Right on June 7 that remains to this day a bedrock document of Britons’ liberties.

On the 13th, Lambe was recognized by “the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people” attending a play at the Fortune Playhouse.

As he left it, some began to follow him. Maybe it was just one insult too tartly answered that multiplied these hooligans, or maybe there was a ready rabble that immediately took to his heels. The frightened Lamb picked his way to the city walls menaced all the way by his lynch mob, hired a few soldiers as an ad hoc bodyguard, and by the dark of night tried desperately to find some sort of shelter from the crowd growing in both number and hostility. Under the mob’s threat, a tavern put him out, and a barrister likewise; his guards fled their posts; and someone at last laid his hands on John Lambe. By the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s “skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all parties of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no part was left to receive a wound.” Many contemporaries must have understood it as the just punishment that courts could not manage to exact.


Woodcut of the assault on Lambe outside the Windmill Tavern, from the title page of A Briefe Description of the Notorious Life of Iohn Lambe (1628)

The libels now rejoiced openly in Lambe’s summary justice — nobody was ever prosecutor for his murder — and anticipated another one to follow it.

“Who rules the Kingdome? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devill,” one menacing placard announced. “And that the libellers there professe, Lett the Duke look to it; for they intend shortly to use him worse then they did his Doctor, and if thinges be not shortly reformed, they will work a reformation themselves.”

Their thirst for “reformation” was not long delayed.

Ten weeks after Lambe’s murder, a disaffected army officer named John Felton at last enacted the swelling popular sentiment and assassinated Buckingham.

“The Shepheards struck, The sheepe are fledd,” one unsympathetic doggerel taunted, recalling the dead wizard whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron. “For want of Lambe the Wolfe is dead.”

* So says Alastair Bellany, whose “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England” in Past and Present, vol. 200, no. 1 is a principal source for this post. (It’s here, but behind academic paywalls.)

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1715: Margaret Gaulacher, Cotton Mather ignorer

Add comment June 9th, 2014 Headsman

American poet Jill McDonough wrote this moving sonnet to the Irish servant Margaret Gaulacher (sometimes also called Margaret Callahan), who was hanged on this date in 1715 for the infanticide of her (ill-)concealed newborn.

June 4, 1715: Margaret Gaulacher
Boston, Massachusetts

The news that week includes a lyonefs
displayed, attacking Fowls and Catts. They watched
her feeding time, remarked on her mercilefs
cruelty. Meanwhile, Cotton Mather preached
against Hard-hearted Sinners, and Hardnefs of Heart.
He helped with her confession, which reflects
on attempts to destroy her unborn child, a part
of her Wicked crime, completed through Neglect.
Now hers is a Stony Heart, of Flint. Ah! Poor
Margaret, behold: the congregation calls
on your wondrous Industry, Agony, your death four
days off. Pray for a Clean, and a Soft Heart; don’t fall
from this fresh gallows to the Mouths of Dragons,
unconcerned, adamant, so little broken.

I believe the poet here may be getting “June 4″ here from the Espy file of historical U.S. executions. Unfortunately that date is not correct; it’s unequivocal in primary colonial news accounts that this hanging occurred on Thursday, June 9.*

But McDonough is spot on about the Cotton Mather vs. Hard-hearted Sinners theme of the execution. That vigorous gallows evangelist favored — he surely thought it was “favored” — the poor condemned wretch with every exertion private and public of his considerable rhetorical powers to save her soul ere she swung.

Gaulacher never quite submitted in the way Mather thought a proper condemned woman ought.

The illiterate woman signed off on an obviously Mather-written statement admitting the justice of her sentence and warning (as was standard scaffold fare) any hearers against her iniquities: “Swearing and Cursing … Profanations of His Holy Sabbaths … Rebellion against my Parents … the Sins of Unchastity.” But this pro forma gesture was the end of it; she obdurately refused to make a public show of Mather-friendly contrition and continued to show in private an unbecoming bitterness at her execution — in Mather’s eyes, clear evidence that she had not made a proper peace with her maker.

We have no access to the hanged woman’s inner life save via an interlocutor who obviously wasn’t on her same wavelength. Maybe she loved her unchaste carnal life too much to part with it in resignation. Likely, though she kept her Catholicism hidden from Mather, she didn’t feel right at home with the stridently Protestant settlement’s rituals and its congregationalist conversion milieu. Like them or not, however, she had to endure them: within a month of Margaret Gaulacher’s hanging, a book of two lengthy Cotton Mather sermons delivered to her in the presence of the entire congregation of Boston’s Second Church was being advertised for sale.

The text below consists of extracts from those two sermons — the parts where Rev. Mather gets personal and directly addresses his charge — surmounted by the explanatory introduction. Mather’s deep conviction that Gaulacher’s soul is in dreadful peril leaps from the page; so too does the silent prisoner’s rejection. The full publication can be perused in pdf form.


The OCCASION.

What gave Occasion to the Sermons here Exhibited, was an Amazing Instance of what the poor Chidlren of Men abandoned unto Ignorance and Wickedness may be left unto! A prodigious Instance of that Hardness of Heart, which especially the Sins of Unchastity, accompanied with Delays of Repentance, do lead unto.

Margaret Gaulacher, an Irish Woman, arrived the last Winter from Cork in Ireland, a Servant, that soon found a Place in a Family where she would not have wanted Opportunities and Encouragements for the Service of GOD.

She had been by her part in a Theft brought into Trouble in Ireland; and after her Transportation hither, it was not long before she was found in Thievish Practices.

Ere she had been long here, it was begun to be suspected, that she was with Child, by a Fornication; But she so Obstinately all along denied it, that at last she must feel the Effects of her Obstinacy.

She was delivered of her Illegitimate, when she was all alone; and she hid the Killed Infant out of the way; which was within a little while discovered.

Of her Behaviour in the Time of her Imprisonment, and of the Means used for her Good, there is an Account given in our Sermons.

The Woman was of a very Violent Spirit; and the Transports and Furies thereof, sometimes were with such Violence, as carried in them, one would have thought, an uncommon Degree of Satanic Energie.

By’nd by, she would bewail her Passions, and promise to indulge herself no more in such Passionate Outrages. One who owns himself to be a Roman-Catholick, affirms to me, that she privately Declared herself unto him, to be in her Heart, of his Religion; But she never would own any thing of that unto the Ministers who visited her with the Means of her Salvation.

A Gracious and Worthy Servant of God, Mr. Thomas Craighead, (a Faithful and Painful Minister of the Gospel, who came from Ireland, much about the same time that she did) having Instructed her, and used many Charitable Endeavours for her Good, was desired by her to be near her at her Execution; who accordingly Pray’d with her there, and continued his Instructions unto the Last.

She said little, but reff’d herself to the Paper which had been read Publickly in the Congregation just before.

And yet she Frowardly let fall one Word, which did not seem very consistent with it; For which fretful Strain of Impatience, being rebuked, she added, Then the Lord be Merciful unto me! and spoke no more.

All that remains for us to do, is to leave her in the Hands of a Sovereign GOD, whose Judgment, and not ours, has the Disposal of her; and make the best Improvement we can of such a Tragical Spectacle; for which the ensuing Sermons are some Essays.

But, I ought now if I can, to Refresh my Readers, with something that shall be more Agreeable, more Comfortable; have less to Trouble them; something that may be the Reverse of so shocking a Spectacle, as has here given Troublesome Idea’s unto them.

Of this we have a very Tragical Instance now before our Eyes. One who by hardening her Heart has brought herself into wonderful Mischief; and continues to harden her Heart, after the wondrous Mischief has come upon her like a Whirlwind from the Lord.

Ah, poor Creature; Thou hast been Guilty of many Sins, and Heinous ones. But, Oh! Don’t add this to all the rest, this Comprehensive one, this Atrocious one; To harden thy Heart after all, and so to bind all fast upon thy Soul forever.

God has done a dreadful Thing upon thee, in leaving thee to a Crime for which thou art now as one Wicked overmuch, to Dye before thy Time, and e’re twenty five Years have rolled over thee, the Sword of Justice with an untimely Stroak must cut thee off. But it will be a much more dreadful Thing, if thou art left after all unto an hard Heart, that will not Repent of thy Abominations, and of thy Bloodguiltiness.

f thou hadst not hardened thy own Heart exceedingly, Oh! what Things would be seen upon thee; other Things than are yet seen upon thee! Verily, A soft Heart would Mourn and Weep and Bleed, for a Life sweell’d away in Sin against the Glorious GOD. A soft Heart would soon Drown thee in Tears, from the View of the doleful Things thy Sin has brought upon thee. A soft Heart would make thee own the Justice of God and Man in what is now done unto thee; and would Silence thy Froward and Fretful and Furious Gnashing upon such as thou has no Cause to treat with so much transported Fury.

It breaks the Hearts of the Good People in the Place, to see thy Deplorable State: They are concerned, when they see thy Lamentable State: But above all, to see, that thou art thyself no more concerned for it; no more affected with it; so little Broken in Heart. And shall not thy own Heart at length be Broken, when thy own State comes into thy Consideration?

One once could say, God makes my Heart Soft, and the Almighty Troubles me. And will it not make thy Heart Soft, when thou thinkest on the amazing Trouble, which thou shalt feel from the Wrath of the Almighty GOD, if thou Dye in thy Sins? Verily, All the Sorrows thou seest here, are but the Beginning of Sorrows, if thou art not by a broken Heart prepared for the Salvation of God.

But then, What an Heart-breaking Thought is this? Margaret, There is yet Mercy for thee, if thou wilt not by an hard Heart refuse the Mercy; The Mercy, thro’ which Rahab the Harlot perished not; The Mercy, thro’ which Mary Magdalene had her many Sins forgiven her; This Mercy is ready to do Wonders for thee. A Merciful Saviour Invites thee; O come unto me, and I will do Wonders for thee.

Come and fall down before Him, and beg the Blessings of a soft Heart at His Gracious Hands. I know not of any Advice that can be so Proper, or so Needful for thee, as this; No Prayer of so much Importance to be made by thee as this.

The Ignorance which lays Chains of Darkness upon thee, is a sore Encumbrance on thy Essays for turning to God. Yet thou art not so Ignorant, but thou canst make this Petition to thy SAVIOUR. Lord, soften this hard Heart of mine! And, Lord, Bestow a New, and a Clean, and a Soft Heart upon me! And, God be Merciful to me a sinner; yea, an Hard-hearted Sinner!

Now, May the Gracious Lord accordingly look down upon thee.

of those who are sure of having the Arrest of Death presently served upon them, there is none that has a more affecting Assurance of it, than a poor Daughter of Death, who is this Afternoon to have her Soul Required of her. Ah! poor Creature! Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art under a Condemnation, to a Tragical Death which is to be this Afternoon executed on thee; and within three or four Hours, thy Soul will be Required of thee; within three or four Hours thy Soul must make its Appearance before a Terrible GOD! Oh! What, what will be the Condition of that Perishing Soul, if no Fear of God be found in it, when it Appears before him? –

There is indeed a vast Abundance even to a Profusion, of Instructions, bestow’d more Privately on such Malefactors as Dye among us: No Place upon Earth does equal this Place for that Exercise of Charity. And this poor Creature has had a very particular Share thereof: Not only have the Ministers of the Gospel done their Part, in Visiting of her, but also many Private Christians have done theirs, in a most Exemplary manner. As of old in Jersualem it was the Usage of the Ladies, to Prepare for the Dying Malefactors, that Potion which was called, The Wine of the Condemned, so the Young Gentlewomen here in their Turns, have Charitably gone to the Prison every Day for diverse Weeks together, and because of her not being able to Read, have spent the Afternoons in Reading Portions of the Scriptures, and other Books of Piety, to this Condemned Woman, and giving their Excellent Councils unto her. Nevertheless, we chuse in a more Publick way also to direct a few Words of our Sermons, unto such Persons, when we have them among our Hearers; Because, the Preaching of the Gospel, is the Grand Ordinance of our Saviour, for the Conversion of a Sinner from the Error of his way; an we would wait upon our Glorious LORD, in that way which he has Ordained, hoping, still hoping, to see a Soul saved from Death!

Wherefore once more, O miserable Woman, entering into an Eternity to be trembled at; Once more, thou shalt hear the Joyful Sound of the Gospel, inviting thee to the Fear of God, and the Faith of thy only Saviour. And if there be not in this Last Essay, a more saving Impression from the Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God made upon thee, than thou hast yet felt from any former ones, — Oh! the dreadful, dreadful Consequences! What will become of thee! — Can thy Hands be Strong, or can thy Heart endure, in the View of what a Terrible GOD will order for thee? — Behold, Ah! poor Margaret, Behold a mighty Congregation of People, with Hearts Bleeding for thee, and Wishing and Praying and Longing to see the fear of God making some Discoveries in thee. And shall thy Heart still remain unaffected with thy own Condition; discovering still a total Estrangement from the fear of God! No Tears are enough, Tears of Blood were not enough, to be employ’d on so prodigious a Spectacle!

I am sorry, I am sorry, that I find myself obliged so much to speak it. Even since thou hast been under Condemnation, thou hast not feared God. Not many Hours are passed, since I saw in thee, so much Rage, and so Unrighteously harboured, and so Indecently Vomited, against some Vertuous Children of God, that it was too Evident, this fear of God had not yet begun to soften thee.

But if the fear of God enter not into thy Soul, before thy Soul be driven out of thy Body, which will be now, — alas, before many Minutes more be expired, thy Desolate, Forsaken, Miserable Soul, can have no part in the Kingdom of God. My Soul cannot be safe, if I forbear to tell thee so!

Ah, poor Creature, Art thou wiling to Dye unreconciled unto the God, whom thou hast Affronted with infinite Provocations? To Dye, and all into the Mouths of Dragons, who have so long poisoned thee, and enslaved thee? To Dye and be cast into the Eternal Burnings, from whence the Smoak of the Torment will ascend forever and ever? What? Shall all the Means of Good, which in a Religious Place have been used for thee, with hopes that they might find out one of the Elect of God, serve only to aggravate thy Eternal Condemnation at the last? Oh! Dreadful Consideration!

But, Oh! Be Astonished at it! There is yet a Door of Hope set open for thee; It will for one Hour it may be, stand open yet! Oh! Be full of Astonishment at such an Heart-melting Declaration, as is now to be made unto thee. A Compassionate SAVIOUR, is yet willing, to Cleanse thy Soul with His Blood, from the Sins, which by casting off the fear of God thou hast fallen into; yet willing to create in thee a Clean Heart that shall be filled with the fear of God, if he be sought unto; yet calling to thee, O look unto me and be Saved! And yet affording unto thee that Encouragement, in Joh. VI. 37. He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.

And, Oh! What wilt thou now do under these Astonishing Invitations? Wilt thou not improve these few Minutes with a most wondrous Industry and Agony? Do so, and be no longer such an Hard-hearted Prodigy! Fall down before thy SAVIOUR, and cry out; O my Saviour, Take pitty on my Soul, and now at the Last, let Sovereign Grace break forth, with a good Work of thy fear in my Soul! Cry out, O my Saviour, Let my Sin be all pardoned, and let all Sin be as Abominable unto me, as it is unto all that fear thy Name! Let thy Outcries pierce the very Heavens.

But, be it known unto thee, If the fear of God be in thee, it will be a thing more Bitter than Death unto thee, that thou hast Sinned against His Glorious Majesty; Thy Malice against every Neighbour will be extinguished; Thou wilt submit with Patience, to the Punishment of thy Iniquity; And thou wilt be an Holy, Humble, Thankful Soul, and quite another Creature! — God of His Infinite Mercy make thee so!

* n.b. — a Julian calendar date, as were all British colonies until England herself transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

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1690: Old Mobb, witty highwayman

Add comment May 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, according to the Newgate Calendar,* the venerable gentleman rogue Thomas Sympson — better known as Old Mobb — was hanged for robbery.

Old Mobb — at least, the stylish and erudite version of the man given us in the Calendar — preyed the roads of late 17th century England for many a year, perhaps all the way back to the ill-fated reign of Charles I.

His rollicking adventures could have formed the fair corpus of a durable legend; in some alternate world Ainsworth chose Old Mobb as for Rookwood and it is he and not Dick Turpin who has the television serial and the pub nameplates.

A nobleman Sir Bartholomew Shower, whose name might also be the safeword at a leather masquerade, was apprehended by Old Mobb one day nearly penniless as to his person; taking exception at being shorted by such a wealthy grandee, Mobb forced him to write up a bill for 150 quid to draw on the goldsmith of nearby Exeter, leaving Shower trussed up under an obliging hedge “as security for the payment” while he went into town to cash the cheque.

The annals have next a widow, bound for Bath no less in tribute to the classics, and had a jolly battle of the sexes with her over her condition which of course Old Mobb won, since he had the gun. His target, you see,

wept very plentifully, in order to move him to pity; she told him she was a poor widow, who had lately lost her husband, and therefore she hoped he would have some compassion on her. “And is your losing your husband then,” says he, “an argument that I must lose my booty? I know your sex too well, madam, to suffer myself to be prevailed on by a woman’s tears. Those crocodile drops are always at your command; and no doubt but that dear cuckold of yours, whom you have lately buried, has frequently been persuaded out of his reason by their interposition in your domestic debates. Weeping is so customary to you, that everybody would be disappointed if a woman was to bury her husband and not weep for him; but you would be more disappointed if nobody was to take notice of your crying; for according to the old proverb, the end of a husband is a widow’s tears; and the end of those tears is another husband.”

The poor gentlewoman upon this ran out into an extravagant detail of her deceased husband’s virtues, solemnly protesting that she would never be married again to the best man that wore a head, for she should not expect a blessing to attend her afterwards; with a thousand other things of the same kind. Old Mobb at last interrupted her, and told her he would repeat a pleasant story in verse which he had learned by heart, so, first looking round him to see that the coast was clear on every side, he began as follows: —-

A widow prude had often swore
No bracelet should approach her more;
Had often proved that second marriage
Was ten times worse than maid’s miscarriage,
And always told them of their sin,
When widows would be wives agen:
Women who’d thus themselves abuse,
Should die, she thought, like honest Jews
Let her alone to throw the stones;
If ’twere but law, she’d make no bones.

Thus long she led a life demure;
But not with character secure:
For people said (what won’t folks say?)
That she with Edward went astray:
(This Edward was her servant-man)
The rumour through the parish ran,
She heard, she wept, she called up Ned,
Wiped her eyes dry, sighed, sobbed, and said:

‘Alas! what sland’rous times are these!
What shall we come to by degrees!
This wicked world! I quite abhor it!
The Lord give me a better for it!
On me this scandal do they fix?
On me? who, God knows, hate such tricks!
Have mercy, Heaven, upon mankind,
And grant us all a better mind!
My husband — Ah that dearest man!
Forget his love I never can;
He took such care of my good name,
And put all sland’rous tongues to shame. –
But, ah! he’s dead –’ Here grief amain,
Came bubbling up, and stopped the strain.

Ned was no fool; he saw his cue,
And how to use good fortune knew:
Old Opportunity at hand,
He seized the lock, and bid him stand;
Urged of what use a husband was
To vindicate a woman’s cause,
Exclaimed against the sland’rous age;
And swore he could his soul engage
That madam was so free from fault
She ne’er so much as sinned in thought;
Vowing he’d lose each drop of blood
To make that just assertion good.

This logic, which well pleased the dame,
At the same time eludes her shame:
A husband, for a husband’s sake,
Was what she’d ne’er consent to take.
Yet, as the age was so censorious,
And Ned’s proposals were so glorious,
She thought ’twas best to take upon her,
A second guardian of her honour.

“This,” says Old Mobb, “is an exact picture of woman-kind, and as such I committed it to memory; you are very much obliged to me for the recital, which has taken me up more time than I usually spend in taking a purse; let us now pass from the dead to the living, for it is these that I live by. I am in a pretty good humour, and so will not deal rudely by you. Be so kind, therefore, as to search yourself, and use me as honestly as you are able; you know I can examine afterwards, if I am not satisfied with what you give me.” The gentlewoman found he was resolute, and so thought it the best way to keep him in temper, which she did by pulling out forty guineas in a silk purse, and presented them to him. It is fifty to one but Old Mobb got more by repeating the verses above than the poor poet that wrote them ever made of his copy. Such is the fate of the sons of Apollo. [dear reader, why not take this opportunity to click on an ad? -ed.]

We certainly have in these puffed-up knaves torn down for our amusement a little window into the romance of the road where by means of Stand And Deliver one attains the liberty to put put hypocrites in their place whilst usurping the abundance that is the latter’s usual wages.

Old Mobb robs a famous astrologer whose constellations fail to predict the engagement; to a doctor who upbraids him, he retorts, “I only take [my victims'] money away from them; but you frequently take away their lives: and what makes it the worse you do it safely, under a pretence of restoring them to health.”

As pieces de resistance, Old Mobb gets the better of two of Restoration England’s most infamous grandees.

The Duchess of Portsmouth, the widely hated French Catholic mistress to Charles II,** Old Mobb improbably manages to trap her in a stagecoach giving him leave to excoriate her in words similar to those that real 17th century Britons must have muttered many times while in their cups. “I know you to be the greatest whore in the kingdom; and that you are maintained at the public charge. I know that all the courtiers depend on your smiles, and that even the K— himself is your slave,” Mobb says, rubbishing her sex and her nationality all at once. “That haughty French spirit will do you no good here. I am an English freebooter; and insist upon it as my native privilege to seize all foreign commodities. Your money indeed is English, and the prodigious sums that have been lavished on you will be a lasting proof of English folly; nevertheless, all you have is confiscated to me by being bestowed on such a worthless b—h. I am king here, madam, and I have a whore to keep on the public contributions as well as King Charles.”

The ruthless hanging judge Lord Jeffreys Old Mobb likewise pays in his own coin when Jeffreys threatens our marauder with potential damnation, speaking as it were through Jeffreys to the obsequious blackguards who afflict the public life of every time and place.

When justice has overtaken us both, I shall stand at least as good a chance as your Lordship; who have already written your name in indelible characters of blood, by putting to death so many hundred innocent men, for only standing up in defence of our common liberties, that you might secure the favour of your Prince. It is enough for you to preach morality upon the Bench, where nobody dares to contradict you; but your lessons can have no effect upon me at this time; for I know you too well not to see that they are only calculated to preserve money.

* The Newgate Calendar positively avers a hanging of Friday, May 30, 1690, but there are some complicating data points. There’s his purported campaign William “the Golden Farmer” Davis, who was supposed to have left a parting note for Old Mobb upon Davis’s December 1690 execution. (However, 1690 was the year when May 30 was on a Friday, not 1691.)

The invaluable Old Bailey Online has none of this, though the date range is a period of spotty recordkeeping. It does give us a nondescript and lamely apologetic “Old Mobb” hanged on the 18th of September 1691; although this guy had done some highway robbery, he doesn’t otherwise bear an obvious resemblance to the Newgate Calendar’s colorful character. He might be the same guy, or they might just share a cant alias. “Mob” — short for mobilevulgus, the “fickle crowd” — was just establishing itself in English at this point with a usage a bit more flexible than it has for us today; our criminals’ point of contact might be simply that each lasted unusually long in the profession, and therefore each received a nickname meaning something like “Old Man”. Jonathan Swift complained bitterly of this truncated neologism in 1710, writing that “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of Mobb and Banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.”

At any rate, I don’t know whether Old Mobb is one guy or two, nor am I fully confident of the best date of execution. These are the least of our difficulties when it comes to veracity, considering that the man’s attributed exploits likely comprise 100% shameless fabrication. It’s just that kind of post.

** Careful how you speak of her: she’s an ancestor (via the late Princess Diana) of the current royal princes.

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1213: Peter of Pontefract, oracle

Add comment May 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1213, the hermit Peter of Pontefract (or Peter of Wakefield) was hanged by King John.

Reluctant Magna Carta signer and ridiculous Robin Hood villain, John has never been the most highly regarded sovereign. (A recent BBC poll saluted him as the 13th century’s very worst Briton.)

The papacy ranked among John’s many irritants. A 1205 dispute with Pope Innocent III over the successor to the late Archbishop of Canterbury — John wanted control of ecclesiastical appointments in his own realm, a little preview of coming attractions in English history. This dispute extended so far as Innocent’s excommunicating John, and laying England under a papal interdict prohibiting administration of any sacraments save baptism and last rites. There’s no bargaining chip quite like “do what I say or everyone goes to hell.”

John didn’t sweat the eternal damnation stuff much but in 1212 the specter of war with France — gleefully justified by Philip II on grounds of the English king’s impiety — started twisting the screws a little. Philip had already seized English holdings in Normandy; now, he was gathering force for an invasion of Albion’s own shores.

With discontent already afoot among the domestic nobility, some of whom were extending feelers to King Philip, the Yorkshire hermit Peter ran out a prophecy that John’s crown would pass to other hands by the next Ascension Day — which happened to be Thursday, May 23, 1213.

Peter’s prophecy gained no little folk following, prompting John to take him into custody.

And here a prophet, that I brought with me
From forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found
With many hundreds treading on his heels;
To whom he sung, in rude harsh-sounding rhymes,
That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon,
Your highness should deliver up your crown.

-Shakespeare’s King John

But days before the momentous date arrived, John resolved the crisis and saved himself from potential deposition with a timely submission to the papal legate Pandulf, before whom he dramatically laid the crown and resumed it pledging an annual tribute of 1,000 marks from the throne of England to that of St. Peter.*

This was either — take your pick — a deft political masterstroke instantly neutralizing the threats to John’s throne, or else it was a craven surrender to the Vatican.

Peter of Pontefract gives us a hint of a judgment on that question.

John held Peter past the May 23 date — and then, just for good measure, past May 27, for that had been the calendar date of John’s coronation in 1199, which was also Ascension Thursday that year, and had been floated as a fallback interpretation of the prophecy — the seer had been duly discredited and, being made ridiculous, could now be made an example of.

Or had he been?

For,

the wise and the foolish alike began to see that John had prevented a literal fulfilment of the prophecy by lending himself to a figurative one. He had ‘ceased to be king’ by laying his crown at the feet of Pandulf, to take it back again on conditions which unquestionably helped to fix it, for the time at least, more securely than ever on his brow. The scapegoat of all parties was the unlucky prophet himself. Next day he and his son, who had been imprisoned with him, were tied each to a horse’s tail, dragged thus from Corfe to Wareham, and there hanged. (Source)

* John stopped paying in 1214, and Innocent left well enough alone.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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