1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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1540: The Botolph Plotters of Calais, the last English Carthusian, and Thomas More’s son-in-law

Add comment August 4th, 2018 Headsman

The 4. of August, Thomas Empson sometime a monke of Westminster, which had beene prisoner in Newgate more than three yeares, was brought before the Justices of goale deliverie at Newgate, and for that he would not aske the king pardon for denying his supremacie, nor be sworne thereto, his monkes cowle was plucked from his backe, and his body repried till the king were informed of his obstinacie. The same 4. of August were brawen to Tiborne 6. persons, and one led betwixt twaine, to wit, Laurence Cooke, prior of Dancaster, William Horne a lay brother of the Charterhouse of London, Giles Horne gentleman, Clement Phillip gentleman of Caleis, and servant to the lord Lisle, Edmond Bromholme priest, chaplaine to the said lord Lisley, Darby Gening, Robert Bird, all hanged and quartered, and had beene attainted by parliament, for deniall of the kings supremacie.

John Stow, Annals of England to 1603 (see page 977 of this archive.org version)*

Tyburn hosted a mass execution on this date mingling several different offenders with a Catholic bent from Henrician England’s religion/politics bloodsport.

The most politically intriguing are Clement Phillip (or Philpott) and Edmund Brindholme, two members of the retinue of the Viscount Lisle. Lord Lisle governed Calais, Henry VIII’s vital French bridgehead.

Phillip and Brindholme were part of the “Botolph Plot”, so named for a fellow-servant called Gregory Botolf or Botolph.

Botolph was an energetic conspirator and/or trumped-up con man who represented to his mates that he was shuttling mash notes with the exiled Cardinal Reginald Pole, Henry VIII’s once-loved, now-despised nemesis noted for his noisy denunciations of the king’s break with Rome. Botolph’s declared objective was to “get the towne of Calais into the hands of the Pope and Cardynal Pole; this was the matter that I went to Rome for; and I have consulted with the Holy Father the Pope and with the Reverent Father Cardynall Pole.”

The implausibility of these fanciful pretensions — one chronicle calls this guy “Gregory Sweetlips” which gives you an idea of his credibility — stood in inverse relationship to the damage such a plot’s execution would inflict: Calais was a commercially and strategically important port that had been in English hands for nearly 200 years; for a dynasty perpetually nervous of its prestige, fumbling it away could have proven catastrophic.** So once a plan to betray it from the very governor’s household was exposed, the crown prosecuted it ferociously, although as best I can determine Botolph himself appears to have successfully escaped the royal vengeance.

Lord Lisle himself was also clapped in the Tower† for his servants’ misbehavior but no attainder was ever proceeded upon. In 1542, Henry cut him a break and released him; Lisle would already have been near or past the age of 70 by this point, which we mention as context in reporting that news of his intended release caused the poor ex-governor to keel over dead of a heart attack. “Henry VIII’s Mercy was as fatal as his Judgments,” one waggish historian would later remark.‡

Things might have gone less mercifully for Lisle had not his situation happened to overlap with the fall of Thomas Cromwell, which unfolded that same summer of 1540.

Cromwell was beheaded on July 28, significantly upstaging this August 4 coterie, and events in Calais might have played a part in that unhappy end. Politically weakened by his authorship of the failed Anne of Cleves marriage, Cromwell’s defeat is sometimes read in the light of excessive reformation zeal unleashed in Calais. (Like most theses about Tudor England, the Calais-reformers line has its detractors.) One possible way to read the Botolph Plot stuff is as one of Cromwell’s very last, desperate gambits: threatened by the conservative Duke of Norfolk, who had the whip hand during this brief interval thanks to his kinship to incoming queen Catherine Howard, Cromwell struck back against his persecutors “with the concentrated energy of a desperate gambler” (Source) … by going hard after the papist plot in Calais and implicating in the treason Howard’s ally, the aforementioned Lisle.


In William Horn(e) the crown completed the destruction of the Carthusian order, which had been violently suppressed several years previous — with 18 executions into the bargain. Eleven more Carthusians had avoided the scaffold only to be consigned to the dungeons where pestilence and neglect took their toll, until only Horn survived.

Nobody seems quite able to put a finger on why Horn was kept alive all that time: was he just hardier or “luckier” than the rest, or was he being intentionally saved as an accent upon an occasion such as this? With him went Friar Lawrence Cook, the last Carmelite executed in the king’s suppression of that order: he hailed from Yorkshire and had once countenanced that region’s subversive (in Henry’s eyes) Pilgrimage of Grace.

In a similar vein, we also find among this batch Giles Heron, a son-in-law of the first name in Catholic obstinacy, Sir/Saint Thomas More. Heron had kept his head about him and even sat on the Middlesex grand jury that recommended proceedings against Anne Boleyn, which is the sort of thing a Thomas More client wouldn’t mind doing at all.

Alas, he was in the judgment of a contemporary “wise in words, but foolish in deeds” during such dangerous times. Comfortably situated as a rentier landlord, Heron appears to have fallen into a ferocious tiff with a tenant who revenged an eviction by informing to Cromwell’s spies about Heron’s divergences from the new orthodoxy. The evidence of this tenant, one Lyons, eventually led Parliament to attaint Heron. The confiscated estates would be restored to Heron descendants under Queen Mary.

Darby Gynnyng — to use a more Gaelic rendering of his name — was a bit more forceful about his dissidence, for he came “late of Dublin,” where he “has maintained divers of the King’s enemies in Ireland, especially Fitz Garrard whom he succoured and accompanied.”

* A somewhat different roster for the same date is supplied by Wriothesley’s Chronicle (p. 121 of this archive.org version) which might be double-counting his “six persons more” to suggest so many as 13.

This yeare, the fowerth daie of Awgust, were drawen from the Tower of London to Tiburne, Giles Heron, gentleman, Clement Philpott, gentleman, late of Callis, and servant to the Lord Lile, Darbie Gynning, Edmonde Bryndholme, priest, William Horn, late a lay brother of the Charter Howse of London, and another, with six persons more, were there hanged drawn, and quartered, and one Charles Carow, gentleman, was that daie hanged for robbing of my Ladie Carowe, all which persons were attaynted by the whole Parliament for treason.

** The Tudors actually did lose Calais to French siege in 1558. These were the last months of the ailing Queen Mary’s rule; she’s reported to have wailed on her deathbed that “When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip [her husband] and Calais inscribed on my heart.”

† Seized upon Lord Lisle’s arrest were seven years of correspondence comprising more than 3,000 distinct documents. This trove has survived to present times and become an invaluable resource for historians’ exploration of Tudor life. It’s known as the Lisle Papers; there are published collections and commentaries on them available by the late Muriel St. Clare Byrne.

‡ Still, this was a better fate than that enjoyed by the next Viscount Lisle, John Dudley, who briefly exercised de facto rulership of England only to have his head cut off after the fall of Lady Jane Grey.

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1540: Three Papists and Three Anti-Papists

3 comments July 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1540, two days after disposing of his former Vicegerent of Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, the just-wedded Henry VIII wrote a terrifying message of religious conformity in blood and smoke at Smithfield.

Edward Hall (as he did with Cromwell) records the scene.

The thirtie daie of July, were drawen on herdelles out of the Tower to Smithfield, Robert Barnes Doctor in Diuinitee, Thomas Garard, and Wyllyam Jerome Bachelers in Diuinitee, Powell, Fetherston and Abell. The firste three were drawen to a stake, there before set up, and were hanged, hedded, and quartered. Here ye must note, that the first three, wer menne that professed the Gospell of Jesu Christ, and were Preachers thereof … [the first three] were detestable and abhominable Heretickes, and … had taught many heresies, the nomber whereof was to greate in the atteindor to be recited, so that there is not one alleged … in deede at their deathe, they asked the Sherifes, wherefore they were condempned, who answered, thei could not tell: but if I maie saie the truthe, moste menne said it was for Preachyng, against the Doctryne of Stephen Gardiner Bishoppe of Wynchester, who chiefly procured this their death … but greate pitie it was, that suche learned menne should bee cast awaie, without examinaction, neither knowyng what was laied to their charge, nor never called to answere.

The laste three … were put to death for Treason, and in their attaindor, is speciall mencion made of their offences, whiche was for the deniyng of the kynge ssupremacie, and affirmyng that his Mariage with the Lady Katheryne was good: These with other were the treasons, that thei wer attainted of, and suffered death for.

Terrifying and confusing: here were burnt three Protestants (Barnes, Gerrard and Jerome) for heresy under the Six Articles, essentially for excess radicalism; beside them were hanged, drawn and quartered three Catholics (Powell, Fetherston and Abel) for treasonably refusing the Oath of Succession, that is, for refusing to admit the King of England as the head of the Church of England. It was that old dispute about Anne Boleyn, who was three queens ago by now. (All three Catholic theologians were advisors to Anne’s predecessor and rival Catherine of Aragon, back in the day.)

The one thing that couldn’t possibly be confused in the day’s proceedings was that matters of the faith were matters of state, and in them Henry would brook heterodoxy of neither the liberal nor conservative variety.

“Good Lord! How do these people live?” exclaimed a foreign observer (cited here). “Here are the papists hanged, there are the anti-papists burnt!”

Good for the martyr industry all-around, and fodder for contemporaries to imagine their respective hereafters, as in “The metynge of Doctor Barons and Doctor Powell at Paradise gate”. (pdf)

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1540: Thomas Cromwell

14 comments July 28th, 2009 Headsman

“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …

If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writing to King Henry VIII upon news of the arrest of Thomas Cromwell

It was on this date in 1540 that the Machiavellian minister of Henry VIII fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others.

While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England.

In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)

Every matter of importance in 1530’s England concerned Cromwell. He raised and then destroyed Anne Boleyn; he managed the realm’s religious turmoil so fearsomely that his ouster was one of the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace; he did what he had to do in the matter of Sir Thomas More.

Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Man-Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall humanizes Cromwell’s side of his clash with Thomas More. (Review)

Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power — “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” — the reasons for it are murky enough to invite recourse to the royal person’s irrationality.

The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.

Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas — and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant — seems to beggar belief.

Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?

In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.

Oh, and by the by: with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.

Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) — alongside a distinctly undercard attraction, Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.

Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.

I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.

And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.

If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king.

* Cromwell’s bit about the “Catholic faith” in his dying confession is to be carefully handled; it’s sometimes rendered “the traditional faith,” and occasionally treated by later Protestant polemicists as a phony addition made by Roman apologists. It’s not, appearances aside, walking back the Reformation; according to Charles Carlton’s “Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation” (Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973)) our day’s victim “did not see himself as a Catholic separate from the Church, but as a Christian, who, with his King, had escaped the Pope’s usurped authority.” Cromwell is also explicit in this passage about rejecting sacramentarianism, which was part of the heresy accusation against him.

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