1537: John and Margaret Bulmer, Bigod’s rebels

Add comment May 25th, 2020 Headsman

And on the 25 day of May, being the Friday in Whitsun week, Sir John Bulmer, Sir Stephen Hamerton, knights, were hanged and headed; Nicholas Tempest, esquire; Doctor Cockerell, priest; Abbot quondam of Fountains; and Doctor Pickering, friar, were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered, and their heads set on London Bridge and divers gates in London.

And the same day Margaret Cheney, ‘other wife to Bulmer called’, was drawn after them from the Tower of London into Smithfield, and there burned according to her judgment, God pardon her soul, being the Friday in Whitsun week; she was a very fair creature, and a beautiful.

Wriothesley’s Chronicle

This date’s prey were casualties of Bigod’s Rebellion, the lesser-known sister rising to the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The Pilgrimage, a rising of the northern Commons against Henry VIII’s dissolution of Catholic monasteries, had indeed been settled rather bloodlessly by the end of 1536, with the king hosting its leader, Robert Aske, for Christmas at Greenwich Palace where holiday sweetmeats mingled with insincere concessions.

The naive Aske was probably doomed no matter what for seeking the overthrow of the mighty Thomas Cromwell, but his nearly direct path from the royal apartments to Tyburn was directed by the onset of Bigod’s Rebellion in January 1537. Aske strove in vain to dissuade this rising as ruinous to the arrangement he thought he had negotiated, which indeed it was: Bigod was crushed in a matter of days, and the disturbance furnished Henry with his pretext for arresting Pilgrimage leaders like Aske.

We’re drawn in particular here to a power couple implicated in both risings, Sir John Bulmer and his wife Margaret Bulmer (formerly or also Margaret Cheyne*).

These executions had, on the whole, a settling effect on the country. The reformers [i.e., English Reformation enthusiasts, like Cromwell] were delighted. The large and powerful class who desired peace above everything were reassured. Most of the conservatives were frightened into silence …

Lady Bulmer, or Margaret Cheyne as she was called, was drawn after the other prisoners from the Tower to Smithfield and there burnt. Burning was the ancient penalty for treason in the case of a woman, but it was seldom exacted. The poor women in Somersetshire, for instance, suffered the same fate as the men. The death of Margaret caused some sensation at the time … At Thame in Oxfordshire her fate was discussed on the Sunday before she died. Robert Jons said that it was a pity she should suffer. John Strebilhill, the informer, answered, “It is no pity, if she be a traitor to her prince, but that she should have after her deserving.” This warned Jons to be careful, and he merely replied, “Let us speak no more of this matter, for men may be blamed for speaking the truth.”

Froude says, “Lady Bulmer seems from the depositions to have deserved as serious punishment as any woman for the crime of high treason can be said to have deserved.” The depositions show only that she believed the commons were ready to rebel again, and that the Duke of Norfolk alone could prevent the new rebellion. In addition to this she kept her husband’s secrets and tried to save his life. She committed no overt act of treason; her offences were merely words and silence. The reason for her execution does not lie in the heinous nature of her offence, but Henry was not gratuitously cruel, and her punishment had an object. It was intended as an example to others. There can be no doubt that many women were ardent supporters of the Pilgrimage. Lady Hussey and the dowager Countess of Northumberland were both more guilty than Lady Bulmer. Other names have occurred from time to time, Mistress Stapleton, old Sir Marmaduke Constable’s wife, who sheltered Levening, and young Lady Evers. But these were all ladies of blameless character and of respectable, sometimes powerful, families. Henry knew that in the excited state of public opinion it would be dangerous to meddle with them. His reign was not by any means an age of chivalry, but there still remained a good deal of the old tribal feeling about women, that they were the most valuable possessions of the clan, and that if any stranger, even the King, touched them all the men of the clan were disgraced. An illustration of this occurred in Scotland during the same year (1537). James V brought to trial, condemned, and burnt Lady Glamis on a charge of high treason. She was a lady of great family and James brought upon himself and his descendants a feud which lasted for more than sixty years.

James’ uncle Henry VIII was more politic. He selected as the demonstration of his object-lesson to husbands, which should teach them to distrust their wives, and to wives, which should teach them to dread their husbands’ confidence, a woman of no family and irregular life, dependent on the head of a falling house. This insignificance, which might have saved a man, was in her case an additional danger. She had no avenger but her baby son, and we only hear of one friendly voice raised to pity her death. The King’s object-lesson was most satisfactorily accomplished.

-Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace, 1526-1537, and The Exeter Conspiracy, 1538: Volume 2

* She’d been passed from her first husband, William Cheyne, via a wife sale to John Bulmer. This odd and sub-legal custom was exactly what it sounded like, and while that sounds horrible, in practice wife sales negotiated the effective impossibility of securing a regular divorce. They were often — as it seems to have been true here, given the reported comity of the Bulmer household — an arrangement in which all three parties were willing participants. However, in the context of the post-Bigod crackdown, prosecutors did not fail to bludgeon the Bulmers, especially the wife, with moral turpitude for this illicit remarriage business, and they made sure to call her “Margaret Cheyne” for that reason.

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1537: Baccio Valori, Michelangelo patron

Add comment August 20th, 2019 Headsman

The Michelangelo sculpture variously known as Apollo, Apollo-David, or Apollino* was commissioned by Baccio Valori, who met his end on the scaffold on this date in 1537.

Photo of the sculpture at Florence’s Bargello.

By way of background, Florence in 1530 had succumbed to the joint siege of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII.**

The republican Michelangelo directed Florence’s fortifications during the siege, and maybe in some alternate timeline he enjoys his own entry on this very execution site: it seems that the papal governor, our guy Baccio Valori, had him on an enemies list once città Gigliata fell into his hands. In the words of Michelangelo’s contemporary and biographer Ascanio Condivi:

But then after the enemy were let in by consent and many citizens were seized and killed, the court sent to Michelangelo’s house to have him seized as well; and all the rooms and chests were searched, including even the chimney and the privy. However, fearing what was to happen, Michelangelo had fled to the house of a great friend of his where he stayed hidden for many days, without anyone except his friend knowing he was there. So he saved himself; for when the fury passed Pope Clement wrote to Florence that Michelangelo should be sought for …

Those last words elide a period of several years, when Michelangelo made a peace offering to the new regime by forming the melancholy Apollo-David for Valori — a side project for the genius while he also worked on the New Sacristy of Florence’s Medici Chapel.

Both projects gave way to papal prerogatives before their completion. Valori was reduced from preeminence in the city when the young Alessandro de’Medici became duke, and Michelangelo was summoned to Rome to paint The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

And he was still working on that in 1537, when Alessandro de’ Medici was assassinated by his republican cousin. Alessandro’s murder brought 17-year-old Cosimo de’ Medici to power in Florence, a moment of political uncertainty that stoked the ambitions of the various anti-Medici factions. Thus,

[o]n learning the death of Alessandro and the election of Cosimo, the exiles appreciated the necessity for prompt action, as all delay would be fatal to the overthrow of Medicean rule. They had received money and promises from France; they were strengthened by the adhesion of Filippo Strozzi and Baccio Valori, who had both become hostile to the Medici through the infamous conduct and mad tyranny of Alessandro … The exiles accordingly met, and assembled their forces at Mirandola. They had about four thousand infantry and three hundred horse; among them were members of all the principal Florentine families … They marched rapidly, and entered Tuscany towards the end of July 1537.

The young Cosimo “displayed signal capacity and presence of mind,” infiltrating the rebel army with spies and smashing it in battle at the start of August.

All the prisoners, who were members of great families, were brought before Cosimo, and were received by him with courteous coldness. Soon, however, a scaffold was erected in the Piazza, and on four mornings in succession four of the prisoners were beheaded. Then the duke saw fit to stay the executions. Baccio Valori, however, and his son and nephew were beheaded on the 20th of August in the courtyard of the Bargello. Filippo Strozzi still survived, confined in the Fortezza da Basso, that had been built at his expense … On December 18th he was found dead in his prison, with a blood-stained sword by his side, and a slip of paper bearing these words: exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor. It was believed that, having renounced all hope of his life being spared, Strozzi had preferred suicide to death at the hands of the executioner.

* As to the subject of the male nude, there’s a difference of opinion between Michelangelo catalogues of the 1550s — one calling it “an Apollo who draws an arrow from his quiver” and another “an incomplete David.”

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1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis

Add comment July 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, a Scottish noblewoman suffered the fate decreed for her treason — in the terse entry of the judicial record, combusta.

Knocking around Glamis Castle — where Shakespeare’s great villain Macbeth got his start, as Thane of Glamis* — Janet Douglas had the going enmity of Scottish king James V on the substantial grounds that Janet’s father had held the teen-king his virtual prisoner for a few years in the 1520s. Once James got free, he proscribed the lady’s brother, the Earl of Angus (whom Janet continued to shelter when occasioned), confiscated properties, forbade Douglases from approaching his person, and all that sort of thing.

Presumably according to this same anti-Douglas animus, an abortive attempt was made in 1531 to try our Lady Glamis for poisoning her late first husband, Lord Glamis. However, the charge foundered on the refusal of her peers to participate: “the lairds of Ardoch, Braco, Fingask, Abernethy, Piferran, Lawers, Carnock, Moncreiff, Anstruther, Lord Ruthven, Lord Oliphant, and many others, were fined for absenting themselves from the jury.”

Six years later she was more successfully returned to the dock, this time on a charge of plotting to poison the king himself. There seems to remain very little detail that would trace the precise unfolding of those years and offer later interlocutors a clear interpretation; while “innocent noble railroaded” is the most conventional read — Henry VIII’s agent reported that the conviction was secured “without any substanciall ground or proyf of mattir” — this book gives it a “maybe she did, maybe she didn’t” spin. That whole embittered proscription thing cuts both ways, as motives go.

At any rate, torture induced Janet Douglas’s own 16-year-old son John to testify that she had procured a potion intended to resolve that feud, and despite reported doubts and a spirited defense, the judges found her “committit art and part of the tressonabill Conspiratioune and ymaginatioune of the slauchter and destructioune of our soverane lordis” and therefore to “be had to Castell hill of Edinburghe, and thair brynt in ane fyre to the deid as ane Traytour.” (John was reprieved of this fate, but he still had to watch.)

King Jamie took over Glamis Castle and hung his spurs there until his own death in 1542 … whereupon his crown passed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the castle reverted to that young John, the new Lord Glamis.

Glamis Castle still stands, picturesquely, and legend has it that the visitor there might encounter the burned woman’s ghost haunting the place as the Grey Lady.**

* Not actually true of the historical man Macbeth.

** Not to be confused with the New York Times. Actually, there are several ghosts who go by this colorless title.

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1537: “Silken Thomas” FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare

Add comment February 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, an Irish lord and his five uncles were hanged and beheaded at Tyburn for revolting against Henry VIII: the last act in an entire cycle of executions.

The Rumored Execution

Thomas FitzGerald‘s father, the king’s Lord-Deputy of Ireland, had been summoned to London to answer the complaints of his rivals and there committed to the Tower.

Said rivals then cunningly circulated reports that dad had been beheaded, inducing the hot-headed (and finely-appareled) heir Thomas to renounce his allegiance and rebel with a dramatic retinue of 140 silk-bedizened gentlemen.

The Summary Execution

The Earl of Kildare hadn’t really been executed at all: he just died of shock and grief upon reading the reports of what his son had got up to in his absence.

Stuff like, besieging Dublin Castle where he hunted down the fleeing Archbishop (a longtime enemy of the Kildares) and had him instantly put to death.

(This might have been more pardonable had he at least managed to take Dublin Castle.)

The Maynooth Pardon
(Euphemism for Execution)

Instead, Silken Tom holed up in Maynooth Castle where he soon found himself on the receiving end of a siege.


Maynooth Castle in its present, romantically ruined state. (cc) image from Bart Busschots.

Thomas and his silk went off to find some allies to relieve it, hoping to play a Catholic-resentment card against Henry VIII’s rift with Rome.

But the local response was desultory and while the new Earl of Kildare was busy beating the bushes, the English took the castle — issuing to its garrison the “Maynooth Pardon”, the ironical sobriquet for executing most of the lot.

Silken Thomas’s Execution

His rebellion having been all downhill since the big silken resignation, Thomas was eventually induced by promises of safekeeping to surrender himself to the royal mercy.

But said mercy was not forthcoming, and he endured a year-plus locked up in something less than his trademark finery — “I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown … so I have gone wolward, and barefoot and barelegged,” he complained in a letter — until, attainted by the Irish Parliament, he was executed with his kinsmen.

Although the Kildare title disappeared for a time, Thomas FitzGerald’s young but hunted half-brother escaped to the continent, bounced all over Europe for a decade, picked up an education, fought the Turks, and returned to receive his family’s peerage re-granted so he could practice alchemy in his castle as “the Wizard Earl”.

When next in Kildare Town, stand a drink or two for these hearty bygone Geraldines at the Silken Thomas pub.

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1537: Robert Aske, for the Pilgrimage of Grace

2 comments July 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Robert Aske was hanged for leading the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The year preceding had been among the most wrenching in British history, and when Henry VIII began shuttering Catholic monasteries, many an egg that would comprise the English Reformation‘s omelette would be shattered.

In the conservative and Catholic-leaning north, Thomas Cromwell‘s reforms (combined with various political and economic grievances) triggered an uprising that soon controlled York.

This fraught situation ended much easier for the English crown than it might have, with a royal negotiating strategy of nominally accepting the Pilgrimage’s terms inducing the massive rebel force to disband, allowing its leaders to be seized thereafter on the first pretext of renewed trouble.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Pilgrimage_of_Grace.flv 440 330]

Robert Aske, the barrister who had come to the fore of the Pilgrimage movement and had personally negotiated terms with Henry, was among about 200 to suffer death for their part in the affair. In Aske’s case, it was against the will of Jane Seymour, Henry’s demure third queen and also a Catholic-inclined traditionalist; she made an uncharacteristic foray into state policy by ask(e)ing for Aske’s life, summarily vetoed by the king’s reminding her the fate of her politically-minded predecessor.*

Here’s Aske hanged at York Castle in The Tudors:

And here’s an inscription on a Yorkshire church reminding one of Aske’s surviving brothers of the events of those pivotal months.

* In other wives-of-the-king developments, Henry’s future (sixth, and final) wife Katherine Parr was taken a hostage by the rebels during the Pilgrimage.

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