(Notably, it was under Balta’s administration that unprincipled American railroad speculator Henry Meiggs got his prolific track-building operations going in Peru. Basically, the government took all the capital it raised on its guano-export contract — appropriate source — and plowed it into Meiggs’ well-hyped railroads, whose returns rarely justified the outlay to construct them. Wealthy and influential at his zenith, this adventurer was widely considered culpable for the disastrous state of the Peruvian economy by the time of his 1877 death, since in the interim the guano market had crashed and Peru found itself buried in debt it would ultimately default on. Oh, and: reason Meiggs was in Peru? He had to flee California after perpetrating a real estate scheme.)
Back to Balta. The soldier-President was adamant about an orderly departure from office (with a handover to an opposition party*) when his term came up in 1872, but others around him were less keen on constitutional precedents when there was power to be kept or lost.
On July 22, 1872, War Minister Tomas Gutierrez and his brother, Col. Silvestre Gutierrez, arrested the president. Tomas Gutierrez proclaimed himself dictator.
He was surely expecting a more appropriately cowed reaction from the country than he got: the President-elect got away on a warship, whose crew declared for him; the Peruvian Congress passed a resolution outlawing the Gutierrez coup; and the public reaction against him was chilly enough that someone gunned down Silvestre Gutierrez in a railway station on July 26.
News of this turn for the worse reached brother Marcelino, who had (ex-)President Balta in his charge at Callao … and Marcelino had Jose Balta immediately shot. This event meets the definition of an execution better by its circumstances than by its ceremony, since there was none of the latter; Balta was simply blasted while lying sick in bed, perhaps even still asleep, and not with the least sense of occasion.
And by no standard did it meet the usurpers’ definition of utility.
Neither of the remaining two Gutierrezes would outlive Jose Balta by so much as a day, and news of Balta’s murder only helped fan the incipient uprising: both were killed by mobs as the would-be dictatorial party collapsed in the hours ahead. All three of Tomas, Silvestre and Marcelino wound up on lampposts in Lima (and then burned to ashes in a public square) as recompense for their four days’ sovereignty.
The events of the past week will forever be remembered in Peruvian history. The spectacle of a Constitutional President deposed and imprisoned by a military usurper; of a Congress dispersed at the point of the bayonet, after the members, irrespective of partisan feeling, had united in signing a solemn protest, declaring the new officers of the so-called Government criminals and outlaws; of an entire country gathering together its strength to repel the attack made upon its liberties and legal rights; of the rising of the people when their indignation could no longer be restrained on the news of the cowardly assassination of Balta by the Dictator; of the triumph of moral force and justice over bayonets and a bastard cause; of the terrible vengeance of the populace on their tyrants; of the final re-establishment of peace, order and good government. This wonderful series of events has been witnessed by Lima in the space of five days. The Peruvian people have nobly vindicated their name and their national honor; the country is now on a firmer basis, and presents greater hopes for prolonged tranquility, prosperity and progress than it has for many years past.
(Not exactly. The economy, as mentioned, crashed in the 1870s, and there was a successful coup in 1879.)
* The guy set to succeed Balta was Manuel Pardo — not to be confused with Mariano Prado, whom Balta had supplanted.
For the conservative royalist general, heir himself to a Basque noble lineage, the potential collapse of Bourbon authority in Spain raised the frightening specter of social upheaval.
All Iturbide’s work killing guerrillas for the sake of public order could come to naught if the Spanish monarchy collapsed or ceased projecting its power overseas … and then who knew what would emerge from the resulting power vacuum in Mexico?
So Iturbide cut a deal with Guerrero to consummate the Mexican War of Independence by separating from Madrid on an essentially conservative basis — a political breakaway without a social revolution. Independent Mexico would make nice with the Spaniards already living there, keep Catholicism as the official state religion, and get itself a constitutional monarchy of its own to insulate itself from the chance outcomes of continental politics across the ocean.
And when Iturbide marched into Mexico City and encountered a crowd conveniently imploring him to take the throne, well, who was he to deny them?
And so Iturbide transitioned smoothly from scourge of the revolution to its man on horseback,** immediately splintering the coalition that lifted him to power.
Contrary to this allegorical take on Iturbide’s coronation, he crowned himself — Bonaparte-like.
Only months after his July 1822 coronation, Iturbide shuttered Congress and began arresting the opposition. Meanwhile, Ferdinand VII had emerged from the Spanish fray as the (momentary) winner, leaving his upstart former subjects without international support.
A general that the freshly-minted emperor had himself had promoted, one Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — yes, the Alamo guy — declared against Iturbide by the end of 1822, and come the following spring, Agustin I was a European exile, in the paradoxical position of drawing a pension from Mexico while also officially considered a traitor and outlaw.
Founded on vainglory, this expedition was destined for fiasco; within five days of touching Mexican soil, Iturbide was serenading a firing squad with the last words, “Mexicans! I die with honor, not as a traitor; do not leave this stain on my children and my legacy. I am not a traitor, no.” Apparently they were serious about that injunction never to return.
When in Mexico City, relive happier times for our day’s subject at the Palace of Iturbide where he briefly maintained himself in the purple.
This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.
In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:
The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.
He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.
The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.
The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.
His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.
He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.
He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.
“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”
(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)
Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!
Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.
But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.
There are some succinct German biographies of this falsche Friedrichhere and here.
* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)
On this date in 1979, former Ghanaian military strongman Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was shot in the aftermath of Jerry Rawlings’ successful coup d’etat.
Acheampong had executed a coup of his own in 1972 and run the unsteady West African state for most of the 1970s — a period of economic and political crisis — until he himself was toppled by another General, Fred Akuffo.
Acheampong was retired to his home village by the new regime, but he would not enjoy such satisfactory treatment when a national revolution ended Akuffo’s reign and brought junior officer Jerry Rawlings to power.
Less than two weeks after Rawlings was installed as Ghana’s new head of state, Acheampong was executed on a charge of corruption. This would not sate the considerable popular anger at the outgoing military clique, which went on to gorge itself on Akuffo and five others later that same month.
As the proper captain of an Italian city-state in the 15th century, Trinci had taken a few spins around the wheel of fortune in battle with his neighbors. He kicked off his reign in operatically sanguinary style when a neighboring town‘s castellan murdered Trinci’s brothers, suspecting one of them of adultery with his wife. Trinci revenged himself by sacking Nocera Umbra, which still holds a civic relay race (Italian link) commemorating the occasion.
Trinci didn’t fare as well when it came to picking on someone his own size.
For the next generation, Trinci would do the Machiavellian dance characteristic of his time and station — by turns allied with, at war with, or plotting with the papacy, CondottieroFrancesco Sforza, the archbishop of Florence, and miscellaneous other peninsular neighbors and rivals. He was down. He was back up. He was beaten. He fought back. Etc.
Trinci pushed the wheel of fortune one turn too far by rebelling (again) against papal authority in the mid-1430s. His march on the Vatican-controlled Duchy of Spoleto was an initial success —
Corrado brought to Foligno four hundred youths of Spoleto, the standard of Spoleto, the chains, the locks from the city gates, the seal, and the clapper from the great bell of the commune.
That was in 1436. By 1439, Foligno itself (with Trinci inside it) had capitulated to a papal siege. Spoleto really wanted its clapper back.
Trinci was imprisoned with his family, and after a couple years’ languishing, put to death on this date. While both the English and Italian Wikipedia entries currently assert that he was strangled, the principal source for this gentleman’s biography, the freely-available Istoria della Famiglia Trinci by Durante Dorio, flatly asserts that the washed-up brawler was dispatched by decapitato.
By whatever method Corrado laid down his life, he retired with it not only the fame of his family but its Lordship of Foligno. The title fell extinct: Foligno became part of the Papal States and remain so right up to Italy’s 19th century unification.
* When next in central Italy, be sure to visit the lovely Palazzo Trinci. Corrado commissioned the Ottaviano Nelli frescoes in the chapel.
On this date in 1395, Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman was beheaded in Nikopol by the Ottoman Empire then engaged in absorbing his crumbling empire.
Ivan is the little guy in the middle; the towering figures are his parents.
The mythical (though not quite literal) last emperor of Bulgaria, Shishman is ungenerously judged by Wikipedia “a vacillating politician whose inopportune choices speedily guided him to his violent end and the subjugation of the country by the enemy.”
The guy ruled a waning state under the shadow of a neighboring expansionist superpower. Only inopportune choices were available.
Shishman’s sister, Maria Thamara Hatun, had been married off to the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in a token of Bulgaria’s vassalage.
In 1389, said Murad smashed the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo. Even though Murad died in combat, the Turks left the Field of Blackbirds with the Balkans by the throat and the Bulgarian Empire (or rather, Empires: Shishman and his brother had split the kingdom) nicely encircled.
On this date in 193, Didius Julianus lost the rulership of Rome for which he had paid so dearly.
And his life.
Julianus‘s path to these doleful pages begins with the assassination of the notorious Emperor Commodus at the end of 192.
That man’s successor, Pertinax, was a notable bust with the Praetorian Guard, the elite imperial bodyguard whose status as the only military unit in Rome made it potential — and here, actual — kingmakers.
The Praetorians expected the payoff that had become customary for new executives, and when Pertinax proved less than liberal on that particular budget item, they turned right around and overthrew him.
To see that there would be no mistake the next time around, the Praetorians dispensed with the pretense and brazenly auctioned the purple.
Roman aristocrat and historian Cassius Dio was a witness to this hot mess.
Didius Julianus, at once an insatiate money-getter and a wanton spendthrift, who was always eager for revolution and hence had been exiled by Commodus to his native city of Mediolanum, now, when he heard of the death of Pertinax, hastily made his way to the camp, and, standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans. Then ensued a most disgraceful business and one unworthy of Rome. For, just as if it had been in some market or auction-room, both the City and its entire empire were auctioned off. The sellers were the ones who had slain their emperor, and the would-be buyers were Sulpicianus and Julianus, who vied to outbid each other, one from the inside, the other from the outside. They gradually raised their bids up to twenty thousand sesterces per soldier. Some of the soldiers would carry word to Julianus, “Sulpicianus offers so much; how much more do you make it?” And to Sulpicianus in turn, “Julianus promises so much; how much do you raise him?” Sulpicianus would have won the day, being inside and being prefect of the city and also the first to name the figure twenty thousand, had not Julianus raised his bid no longer by a small amount but by five thousand at one time, both shouting it in a loud voice and also indicating the amount with his fingers. So the soldiers, captivated by this excessive bid and at the same time fearing that Sulpicianus might avenge Pertinax (an idea that Julianus put into their heads), received Julianus inside and declared him emperor.
The ignoble achievement is the only thing Didius Julianus is now remembered for.
While Julianus and the Praetorian guard were conducting their damnable business in the capital, three Roman generals in the provinces claimed the throne for themselves.
For centuries the Roman legions had been scattered beyond the Italian peninsula as a hedge against military coups. But after decades of relative stability at the top,* Rome was about to get a bracing reminder of what civil war looked like.
Praetorians — a few cohorts worth of men not in fighting trim — were fine for bullying Senators, but in an outright civil war, they were no match for the legions. The Praetorian Guard’s power to arbitrate the succession was contingent upon the beneficiary’s capacity to cement his own legitimacy by commanding the loyalty of (most of) the state apparatus.
And it turned out that buying the sceptre on spqrBay was not the way to get folks to bend their knees to it.
Septimius Severus, the imperial claimant nearest to the capital, commenced a relentless and virtually unresisted march on Rome, co-opting the troop garrisons and towns as he swept down the peninsula and spurning Julianus’s desperate diplomatic entreaties.
Cassius Dio’s record of Julianus scrambling to defend Rome against Severus is full of black humor.
Julianus … caused the senate to declare Severus a public enemy, and proceeded to prepare against him. In the suburbs he constructed a rampart, provided with gates, so that he might take up a position out there and fight from that base. The city during these days became nothing more nor less than a camp, in the enemy’s country, as it were. Great was the turmoil on the part of the various forces that were encamped and drilling, — men, horses, and elephants, — and great, also, was the fear inspired in the rest of the population by the armed troops, because the latter hated them. Yet at times we would be overcome by laughter; for the Praetorians did nothing worthy of their name and of their promise, for they had learned to live delicately;** the sailors summoned from the fleet stationed at Misenum did not even know how to drill; and the elephants found their towers burdensome and would not even carry their drivers any longer, but threw them off, too. But what caused us the greatest amusement was his fortifying of the palace with latticed gates and strong doors. For, inasmuch as it seemed probable that the soldiers would never have slain Pertinax so easily if the doors had been securely locked, Julianus believed that in case of defeat he would be able to shut himself up there and survive.
In the end, Severus took Rome without striking a blow: the Praetorians switched sides again, and the Eternal City delivered itself from the one usurper to the other. Cassius Dio, again, in media res
the soldiers, convinced by letters of Severus that if they surrendered the slayers of Pertinax and themselves kept the peace they would suffer no harm, arrested the men who had killed Pertinax … We [the Senate] thereupon sentenced Julianus to death, named Severus emperor, and bestowed divine honours on Pertinax. And so it came about that Julianus was slain as he was reclining in the palace itself; his only words were, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?” He had lived sixty years, four months, and the same number of days, out of which he had reigned sixty-six days.
(Actually, Julianus had killed someone: foreseeing that the Praetorians were liable to turn coat yet again, Julianus had the Praetorian prefect who sold him this lemon of an empire put to death for trying to cut a deal with Severus. Despite this negative feedback, the transaction took place on a strict no-refunds, no-exchanges basis.)
A harsh deal for Didius Julianus was a pretty good one for the Roman Empire. Septimius Severus cleaned up his other rival claimants, and ran the empire capably for the next generation.
Kick back with this review of the the dreadful interlude of Didius Julianus with episodes 98 and 99 of the enjoyable History of Rome podcast.
* “The period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,” in the judgment of Edward Gibbon.
As the Ilkhanate broke up in 1335, a guy like Yazd governor Mubariz al-Din Muhammad ibn Muzaffar could bloodily carve out a state of his own.*
Renowned for his cruelties, Mubariz al-Din ended his life blinded by his heir, Shah Shuja (or Shah Shujaa).
And in this generation, the House Muzaffar rapidly became a house divided, with brothers and cousins vying with each other (and with neighboring princelings). They were easy pickings for the rising Timurid Empire and its eponymous founder.
Exploiting a letter** sent by the aging Shuja (after a lifetime warring with his fellow Muzaffarids) recommending Shuja’s son to Timur’s protection, Timur rolled in and set up his own puppet Muzaffar. (It wasn’t the recommended son. C’est la vie.)
No sooner had Timur decamped for his next conquest than yet another of the Muzaffar clan — a brother of Timur’s puppet by the name of Shah Mansur† — revolted and set himself up as king.
It didn’t work, but Edward Gibbon was moved to pay tribute to Mansur’s intrepidity as he surveyed the Timurid annexations:
[P]etty tyrants might have opposed him with confederate arms: they separately stood, and successively fell; and the difference of their fate was only marked by the promptitude of submission or the obstinacy of resistance. Ibrahim, prince of Shirwan, or Albania, kissed the footstool of the Imperial throne. His peace-offerings of silks, horses, and jewels, were composed, according to the Tartar fashion, each article of nine pieces; but a critical spectator observed, that there were only eight slaves. “I myself am the ninth,” replied Ibrahim, who was prepared for the remark; and his flattery was rewarded by the smile of Timour. Shah Mansour, prince of Fars, or the proper Persia, was one of the least powerful, but most dangerous, of his enemies. In a battle under the walls of Shiraz, he broke, with three or four thousand soldiers, the coul or main body of thirty thousand horse, where the emperor fought in person. No more than fourteen or fifteen guards remained near the standard of Timour: he stood firm as a rock, and received on his helmet two weighty strokes of a cimeter: the Moguls rallied; the head of Mansour was thrown at his feet; and he declared his esteem of the valor of a foe, by extirpating all the males of so intrepid a race.
* The Muzaffarids’ most famous subject was the Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), whose lifetime was roughly paralleled the dynasty’s own. Hafez was patronized by the powers that be, though his favor waxed and waned.
** Timur himself would not think of empire-building; he accrued a mighty central Asian realm strictly by happenstance. “God is my witness that in all my wars I have never been the aggressor, and that my enemies have always been the authors of their own calamity.”
“For every war,” observes Gibbon of Timur and his ilk, “a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors.”
† The Muzaffarid family tree is unnecessarily confusing, but a genealogy here may clarify matters.
Mayan history has thus far been difficult to examine due to a major communication gap. Much of the Western world’s understanding of its own history comes from the written word, such that the deciphering of ancient scripts is not only a linguistic triumph, but it also pushes aside centuries of debris to expose a new corner of human culture.
By any name, he was one of the greatest rulers of the Mayan Classical Era, reigning from the Rio Copan Valley in today’s Honduras, near the present border with Guatemala. His life is preserved in several sets of stelae on temples around Copan and describes a man intent on advancing the culture of Copan.
In the city itself, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil greatly contributed to the design of the Great Plaza, which housed one of the great ball courts in the region. More obviously, though, his reign was marked by a drastic sculptural shift away from the angular designs of the Early Classical period and straight into the more complete and rounded designs that persisted through the remainder of the Mayan era.
Reliefs from: the preceding 12th Ruler period (left); and, from 18 Rabbit’s period (right).
In spite of these major cultural moves, little about Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is known directly. However, for the 20th anniversary of his ascension to the throne — on March 27, 715 AD** — Temple 22 was dedicated to the ruler, with a rare inscription ascribed to the ruler himself etched thereon.
It would be another 23 years before Ruler 13 was, as his conquering neighbor put it, “axed”. In 738, the Quirigua region — now in southeastern Guatemala — was considered part of the Copan empire. The Quirigua are now mostly known only for the size of their sculptures, which eclipse others in the region. But in 738, the Quiriga were mostly known for their fearsome king, Kawak Sky, or K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat, occupied the city just 50 km away and executed (or sacrificed) its former ruler.
That move ended a span of Copan dominance in the area and briefly put the Quirigua on top. Strangely, Yopaat was not apparently responsible for overseeing a particularly fruitful Quiriga culture. Almost nothing was built in his honor until after Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s death, after which several monuments to Yopaat’s glory were erected. It has been suggested that Yopaat was a brother or cousin of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, as Kawak Sky’s biography indicates that he both took the throne under Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil’s authority and executed his predecessor; this suggests that the move was not a full-on coup.
Regardless of their relationship, in the aftermath of the execution, Copan declined rapidly, presumably as their new Quirigua ruler exploited its labor and material resources to build up his own name. As one Copan scribe later lamented, “[There are] no altars, no pyramids, no places.” But the Copan would rise again: Ruler 15, or Smoke Shell, polished off the unfinished Temple 26 and built up its heiroglyphic staircase to highlight the dynastic history of Copan and its connection to its northerly neighbor, Teotihuacan. His son, Yax Pak Chan Yat, would be the last of the 16 rulers of Copan in the Yax K’uk’ Mo’ line.
* Because of his place in the dynastic sequence of Copan, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil is sometimes referred to simply as Ruler 13.
** Mayan dates are surprisingly easy to nail down once the system is understood. While Europeans moved from Roman to Julian to Gregorian calendars — with the Eastern Orthodox Church and several traditionally Orthodox nations hanging onto the Julian one into the 20th Century — the Mayans had a consistent system that advanced day-to-day and was tied to verifiable events. Hence the ability to date Dec 21, 2012 as the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which began on Aug 11, 3114 BCE.
In a way, the MLC is the precursor to the astronomical system of Julian Dates (which are not the same as the Julian calendar).
February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.
The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.
On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.
ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?
JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.
I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.
In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.
Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.
Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.
Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?
Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.
If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”
Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.
Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)
I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.
All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.
Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.
In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.
How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?
This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.
As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?
Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.
With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.
How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?
Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”
The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.
She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]
On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.
Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.
There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.
Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.
Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.
Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.
After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)
Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)
According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”
The guy sure had a thingforexecutions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.
Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.
There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.
My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.
Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.