1550: Jacopo Bonfadio, indiscreet

Add comment July 19th, 2018 George Bruce Malleson

(Thanks to George Bruce Malleson for the guest post on Italian humanist Jacopo Bonfadio (English Wikipedia entry | Italian). Although time’s ravages against the original legal paper trail has fogged the matter, it appears to be July 19 of 1550* that the Republic of Genoa took Bonfadio’s head for sodomy. In our more queer-friendly time, many scholars now believe (contra our Victorian guest author) that the scandalous charge might well have been accurate, although also one that most observers believe was invoked due to Bonfadio’s creditable disdain for protecting the secrets of the powerful. Malleson’s biographical vignette was originally published Studies from Genoese History. -ed.)

To possess genius — to have cultivated your talents to a degree which places you above the level of a prejudiced and half-educated community — to be incorruptible in a corrupt society — to have acquired, in virtue of your office, secrets which make you dreaded by the guilty — these are crimes which society, in a low state of morality, never has forgiven, never will forgive. They are, in fact, crimes which in every age have driven the perpetrator of them to exile, to proscription, and to death!

The truth of this statement has been illustrated by many noble examples, but of these there is not one more striking than that of Jacopo Bonfadio.

One of the most brilliant writers of the sixteenth century, a philosopher, a poet, and a historian, occupying one of the most important posts in the republic of Genoa, it was the fate of Bonfadio to be sentenced to be burnt alive for an offence which he had not committed, simply because, in his Annals of the Genoese, he had given certain indication of the possession of knowledge, which some influential families considered compromised themselves.

This was the sole crime of Jacopo. He was a self-made man; he had raised himself by his own abilities to the position he occupied; he was the intellectual life of Genoa; he possessed the confidence and affection of the learned; yet from this great position he was hurried to death by the machinations of the half-educated, corrupt, and demoralised amongst the influential families of the ‘proud city.’ [“la Superba”, the city’s nickname -ed.]

What he was, intellectually, may be gathered from the recorded opinions of his contemporaries, and of the great writers of subsequent ages. Thus, the French writer, Antoine Teissier, who flourished in the second half of the seventeenth century, pronounces him ‘l’un des plus beaux esprits d’ltalie;’ Menagio places him in the front rank amongst the poets of Italy; Bayle, in his dictionary, speaks of him as one of the best writers of the sixteenth century. ‘His private letters in particular,’ writes Mazzuchelli, ‘are held in the greatest esteem, so that not only are they considered equal to those of our best masters, such as Caro, Tasso, and Tolomei, but they are preferred by the soundest critics to the choicest productions of all the others. I do not propose to prove this by the sole authority of Octavio Rossi, who calls the style of his familiar letters “unique and inimitable,” for I can cite as strong supporters both Gianmatteo Toscano, who affirms without hesitation that Bonfadio might be regarded “in epistolis familiaribus Etrusca lingua tenui stylo, ac presso compositis, omnium Princeps;” and Scipione Ammirato, a judge not less competent, who frankly asserts that “he knows not what there is of polish in the art and manner of writing letters which is not to be found in the letters of Bonfadio.” Many other authorities are cited; but I need only name one, that of Ludovico Dolce, who, writing to Count Fortunate Martineiigo, thus expresses himself: ‘I have a liking for many men, but an especial liking for Bonfadio. I often see his letters, and I adore them.’

To his most famous work, The Annals of Genoa from 1528 to 1550, intended as the continuation of the history of Uberto Foglietta, it would be difficult to ascribe too much praise. The style is admittedly clear, elegant, and precise. But there belongs to it a greater praise — a praise the greatest of all — but which, by a strange contradiction of right, was earned by a quality which caused the death of the author. This quality, so rare, has thus been described in the concluding lines of a sonnet addressed to him by Alessandro Piccolomini, and which thus terminates:

Dunque direm de vostri scritti poi,
Quel che forse di rado in altro e detto;
Cosl series’ei, cosi fu fatto a punto.

And which may thus be imperfectly rendered:

In your writings we feel most acutely
A virtue so rarely conferred;
The events you describe so minutely
Are just the events which occurred.

It was because these annals were so true — I may say, so uncompromising in their truth — that they drew upon the author an anger, born of a lax perception of moral duties, which could only be satiated by his death. Written by Bonfadio in Latin, and translated into Italian by Paschetti, in 1586, they constitute to the present day the most valuable history of the events of the administration of the country after the recovery of its liberty by Andrea Doria, including the account of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fiesco.

I will but briefly refer to the other writings of Bonfadio. They may, including those specially mentioned, be comprised under the following headings: I. His ‘Carmina,’ or Latin elegies; II. His rhymes. III. His letters. IV. His translation into Italian of the oration of Cicero in defence of Milo. V. The Annals of Genoa. VI. Poems translated from the Greek.

Regarding these I will extract only one criticism, and that will be on his elegies. Of these Antonio Abate Sambuca writes: ‘To all who examine them they appear a chef-d’oeuvre, whether for the perfection and regularity of the language, for the strength and novelty of the sentences, for the expression of the affections and manners, for the nobleness of the figures, for the clearness and sweetness of the style, and for the happiness and vividness of the rhyme.’ Of his poetry I shall give specimens at the end of the story, which I propose now to narrate, of his career.

The precise date of the birth of Jacopo Bonfadio has not been traced, but it is certain that he came into the world about the year 1500. He was born in Gazano, a small property in the Riviera di Said, in the province of Brescia. This property was situated between Salo and the river Clisi. He always believed that his family was of German origin, of noble race, and that his ancestors, settling on the banks of the river Clisi, had pursued there the vocation of blacksmiths. Such was the family tradition; but there seems reason to believe that he may have been mistaken, and that his ancestors were mountaineers of Brescia. This, however, is of little consequence.

Jacopo early displayed a happy disposition, and his natural genius was fostered by a careful education. At an early age he was sent to Verona and placed under the care of Signor Niccolo Pellegrini. Thence he migrated to Padua, to finish his studies at the university of that famous city. Here he so distinguished himself as to be accounted one of the most promising scholars of the university, from which he in after years received the degree of doctor of law.

His education completed, he set out for Rome — then the arena for the debut of a young man of ambition and of education. His first step seemed to promise success, for he was almost immediately appointed secretary to Cardinal di Bari. In this office he remained till the death of the cardinal, three years later. His life at this period he thus describes, in a letter written subsequently to his friend, Francesco della Torre: ‘For three years at Rome I served Cardinal di Bari in a very honourable position — that of secretary to himself — and I received from that Signor all the kindnesses which can be desired, without my asking for even one. And, besides presents, which he gave me every year, he promised to obtain for me a good position, in the most obliging manner, for he said I should not hope for it as emanating from his courtesy, but from my deserts. But when the time came he died, and all my hopes vanished.’

The loss thus sustained by Bonfadio was a great one. Again was he on the world. The new cardinal, Girolamo Ghinucci, did indeed appoint him as secretary, but he found himself on a footing very different to that he had occupied under his predecessor. ‘I served then,’ wrote he in the same letter to della Torre, ‘in the same office, Cardinal Ghinucci; and although one of his ministers, a man born in the country and brought up in the mountains, who had come smoke-dried and starved to Rome, with the old fierceness of soul and thenew avidity for office — although, I say, this man, who could do much, persecuted me with bitter hatred, in order to give my place to one of his friends, yet I might have hoped to obtain from the cardinal the post which Messer Giacomo Gallo, who succeeded to me, had afterwards, but, for my misfortune, a serious and long illness deprived me of my secretaryship.’

It was probably a little after this time, when at Venice, on his way to his native place, that Bonfadio incurred the temporary displeasure of two famous men of letters, his friends Paolo Manuzio and the Padre Ottavio Pantagato. It would appear that some four years previously the padre had made certain corrections in translations made by Bonfadio from the orations of Cicero. The translations as originally made Bonfadio had given to Manuzio, but he had refused to send him the emendations. Nevertheless, he did give or sell these to a printer named Giunta. The story is chiefly interesting from the insight afforded into his character by the letters of excuse he wrote on the subject to Manuzio: ‘Tramentino,’ he wrote, ‘gave me your letter. You can conceive how agreeable it was to me, and I thank you from my heart. I shall reply confusedly, for my mind is now agitated by pleasure and displeasure. I shall begin with that which weighs most upon it.

‘It is true that on the departure from Venice of the friend to whom I owed my life, it being necessary for him, in a matter concerning his honour, to go to Rome — he having no money even for his journey I was assailed by him with the most earnest and ardent prayers I ever heard, and, having no other means of succouring him, I did give to Giunta those corrections made four years ago by Padre Ottavio in certain orations of Cicero which you had from me in the Casa Colonna. … And although the cause which induced me to do this was one of humanity and duty, as you see, I am nevertheless liable to be blamed by the other side because I have disobliged you.’ He proceeds then to enter more fully, and with great feeling and eloquence into the case. The letter is a masterpiece of pleading, and of successful pleading, for it removed all anger from the mind of Manuzio.

Shortly after this correspondence Bonfadio received an offer to proceed to Spain in the suite of the Signor Guido Bagno, envoy of the Duke of Mantua. He accepted the appointment, in every respect very desirable, but he arrived at Rome to take it up only to find that Guido Bagno had just died. Full of sad thoughts Bonfadio at once quitted Rome for the kingdom of Naples. In this he passed many months travelling. He visited the places most famous for their beauty, their antiquity, and their historical recollections,. reaping much enjoyment, though, he adds very feelingly in a letter, no profit. In fact, his means at this period appear to have been extremely restricted. Having explored Naples, and found it intellectually barren, Bonfadio had resolved to proceed by sea to Venice, thence by land to Padua — the city of his education. But at this juncture he received a letter from his friend Marcantonio Flaminio, strongly urging him to return by way of Rome, as he would find in that city a patron in the person of Cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. He followed the advice, was well received by the cardinal, and assigned a stipend. Still retaining this he set out for Padua, where he had determined to fix his abode. He proceeded thither by way of Florence and Ferrara, renewing his acquaintance with valued friends at both those places. Arrived at Padua, fortified by his five years’ experience of the shallowness and instability of a courtier’s life, Bonfadio applied himself steadily to the study of the fine arts and of philosophy. He lodged in the house of Cardinal Bembo, who had for him so great an esteem that he appointed him one of the tutors to his son Torquato. He devoted likewise a considerable portion of his time to the education of the youth of the city, earning thereby their gratitude — for his name had become already established.

During his stay of from four to five years in Padua it was the custom of Bonfadio to make autumnal visits to various parts of the country. Thus, in the month of September, 1541, we find him at Verona; in October at Colognola, enjoying the society of his distinguished friend, Marcantonio Flaminio. More than once, too, he visited his native Gazano. The good effect on him of the re-opening of ties which exist between a man and the place in which he is born he thus recounts in one of his letters: ‘You know well,’ he writes, ‘that in Padua I was often tormented by a cloud of black thoughts, and that I came here to recover my serenity. That which I could not do myself by myself; that which you could not do by faithful reminders, by sweet reprovals, nor by efficacious prayers — for you are indeed a true friend to me; that which time could not do, although it is generally accustomed to do it — to be the only author of joy — that did in a moment the sight of this Riviera; for at the very first glance a deep sigh issued from my heart, and seemed to take away from me a mountain of humours, which till then had weighed me down.’

In a letter to another friend he thus expresses himself: ‘I am longing for the time to come when I may be there. Oh, happy time! I shall be in Gazano with the mountains and the rivers near me. Every eight days I shall descend to the lake, free from those thoughts which have kept my mind withered and burnt up. Carrying in my heart a lake of perfect joy, I shall go diverting myself, living a pure life, an Arcadian life with shepherds, shepherdesses, and the muses.’

It is not difficult to divine the cause of the sad thoughts to which Bonfadio alludes in these letters. He had, since his arrival in Padua, been mainly dependent for his livelihood upon the stipend granted him by cardinal Ridolfo Pio di Carpi. This stipend the cardinal suddenly, and without given reason, stopped. It became then difficult for Bonfadio to live in Padua in a style suited to his position and increasing fame. On this subject he thus wrote to his friend Francesco della Torre: ‘You know the conditions on which I now live in Padua; and it is because the maintenance I enjoy is not very secure, — not, indeed, because the Signor who keeps me here, Cardinal Bembo, is not very liberal, — I am always fearful lest it should diminish, — and the doubt which I feel regarding the future is the reason why I do not enjoy the present.’

Many thoughts of how to better his position appear to have crossed his mind at this period. At one time he endeavours to obtain the position of tutor in a well-to-do family; at another he strives to establish an academy for instruction in moral philosophy and ethics; at another he asks for an ecclesiastical benefice. But, if all these efforts were unsuccessful, a very long time did not elapse before he reaped the fruit of his studies. Just after he had learned that his application for the benefice was not likely to prove successful, there came to him from Genoa the offer of the Chair of Philosophy in that city. He promptly accepted it, and repaired without delay to his post some time in the year 1545.

Bonfadio went to his new labours with a light and cheerful heart. Nothing could have whispered to him that he was about to take up his abode amongst a people by whom his erudition, his honesty, his want of sympathy with every kind of corruption, would be imputed to him as the most heinous of all crimes. There was no cloud on- his brow now. In the other parts of Italy in which he had lived, he had been esteemed, honoured, and loved. The voice of envy and jealousy had never been raised against him. Enjoying at Rome, at Naples, and at Padua, the society of the most cultivated and intellectual men of the day, he might well have hoped to find some members of that class in the city still virtually governed by Andrea Doria. At all events there could be no suspicion in his mind that the very virtues which had caused him to be selected for the post to which he had been called, would prove, in the eyes of an influential portion of the Genoese society, defects so great as to necessitate his death.

We find recorded in his own letters his first impression of Genoa and its society. ‘I like Genoa,’ wrote he, after his arrival, to his friend Count Fortunate Martinengo. ‘I like Genoa, both for its position, and for all those peculiarities about it which you have seen. I have some friends, amongst them Messer Azzolino Sauli, a well-educated and refined young man. This winter I read the first of the Politica of Aristotle to an elderly audience, rather merchants than scholars. I am, then, up to a certain point happy, but am not without some annoyances. Towards the end of July I shall come to Brescia on my way to the lake.’ It is clear from this extract that he was little satisfied with the quality of his scholars. The same dissatisfaction may be traced in another of his letters. He writes: ‘The country is beautiful, the air good, the conversation agreeable; and if the intellects here were as fond of letters as they are of traffic in sea matters, I should be still better pleased.’ Still he never hesitated to declare himself quite satisfied with his lot, and ambitious of nothing beyond it.

To the duty of reading philosophy there soon became joined another. This was no less than to take up the history of the Republic at the point where it had been left by Uberto Foglietta, and to continue it. Bonfadio willingly applied himself to the task thus thrust upon him by the Republic. It was a noble undertaking. In 1528 Andrea Doria had restored to Genoa her liberty, and from that date Bonfadio started his annals. He had to write, in fact, the history of Genoa under the constitution which had been the first to secure her against the constant contests for authority amongst the great families — contests which up to that time had filled so large a part of her domestic history. The work was executed in a manner that may be pronounced perfect, whether with respect to the happy style or the accuracy of statement which characterised it. But it happened that amongst the events recorded in the twenty-two years, the story of the conspiracy of Gianluigi Fieschi occupied a very prominent place. Now all the archives of the State had been open to the inspection of Bonfadio. Either by their means, or by others to which, from his position, he was allowed to have recourse, he had become acquainted with a heap of secrets compromising many members of the aristocratic families. The reader who has accompanied me so far will probably recollect that many families belonging to the Portico Nuovo had given their adhesion to Fiesco; that even after the conspiracy had failed the Senate had actually treated with the elder surviving brother of the drowned Gianluigi; and that it was due, solely and entirely, to the personal influence of Andrea Doria, that that august body had consented to pursue ‘to the bitter end’ hostilities against the members of the family. It is very evident that the Fieschi had been supported openly by many, secretly by a considerable number, of the members of the Senate. It may even be inferred that their adherents were not to be counted in the Portico Nuovo alone.

In the Centuria No. 35, Trajano Boccalini gives the following figurative account of the appearance in Parnassus before the King of Heaven of Jacopo Bonfadio, after he had undergone the sentence pronounced against him, that of being burnt alive. ‘Hardly,’ he writes, ‘had the stoic youth been dismissed when there appeared in the hall of audience, all singed by the fire, Jacopo Bonfadio. He informed His Majesty that having been invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, — solely because some of them had found him most resolved to write it with the dignity befitting an historian, without respect of persons, obeying only the voice of truth, — he had been terribly persecuted and accused of vice; that he thus had lost at the same time his reputation and his life. Apollo,’ pursues Boccalini, ‘contrary to the opinion of the rest, not only showed no compassion for the learned man, but informed Bonfadio in severe language that although the charge on which he had been tried might be entirely false, he did not the less deserve to be so treated by the Genoese by reason of his shameful imprudence. Because the writing of matters prejudicial to the honour of influential people during their lifetime and that of their sons, however true the matters might be, displayed rather imprudence or rashness than an uncorrupted mind and a love of truth; that a man must be a fool who should think he could preserve his life from the anger of an influential man whose reputation and perhaps even, whose honour he had attacked and soiled with his pen.’

There may possibly be some who would agree with Apollo.

-One of Malleson’s footnotes

Now, in writing the annals of that conspiracy, two courses were open to Bonfadio, — the honest and the dishonest course. He might tell the truth or he might disguise it. There was no middle way. The object of the compilation of the annals was to ensure for posterity an authentic record of the events of each year, without favour or affection for any man or any body of men. It was probably to ensure this result that the task had been entrusted to a distinguished foreigner, — though an Italian, — rather than to a born Genoese. Truth and impartiality were even more essential than a good style. Bonfadio possessed this peculiar qualification for the task, in that, whilst a distinguished writer, he had apparently no interest to conceal the truth. Obliged to speak, his inner conscience forced him to speak all he knew.

For such a man there could be but one course. Yet in Genoa — the city in which the educated people were money-making rather than intellectual — it was a course fraught with danger. The stern old man whose vigilance and caution had received so terrible a blow from Gianluigi Fiesco, and whose fiat was still supreme in Genoa, had not yet satiated his vengeance. The publication of all the secrets Bonfadio had acquired would, besides, induce the inference that he possessed others which he had not as yet divulged. The secrets of half the nobility of the city would thus be dependent on his forbearance. Yet Bonfadio did not hesitate. His Annals were found to contain such an account of the baffled conspiracy as could be acquired only by one who had acquainted himself with its most secret springs.

Then occurred one of those resolutions which most surely mark a low temperature of morality in a society. Bonfadio, it was evident, possessed certain secrets which many members of both Portici knew to be compromising to themselves. It was not as if each of those members had made a confidant of his fellow. Bonfadio, by the knowledge he had displayed in his annals, showed that he knew the secrets of each. Not one was sure that he might not at any moment be denounced. Without confiding in each other, all the secret conspirators knew instinctively that Jacopo Bonfadio was the common enemy of all.

Instinctively, too, each man simultaneously felt that Bonfadio must be got rid of. Not simply banished, for then he might tell his tale in other lands, but so dealt with that his tongue might be for ever silenced. Bonfadio, in fact, must die.

But how to accomplish his death. His life had been blameless. He was unmarried. They could not strike him through a wife. But he must be got rid of. The lie which could alone effect this must be a good one; it must have something in it of probability; something which was associated with the previous habits of the man. To unscrupulous Spirits of the baser sort the fabrication of such a lie was easy. It was produced. An infamous crime was manufactured, and Jacopo Bonfadio was Condemned to be burnt alive.

It is curious that of the process of this illustrious man no records are now to be found in the archives of Genoa. To an enquiry made on the subject by the author of the history of his life, Count Giainmaria Mazzuchelli, the following answer was returned: ‘The process of Bonfadio is not in the archives, nor are there any of his writings but the annals. I will search, in other places, but I cannot flatter myself that I shall be able to throw any light on the subject.’ Subsequently: ‘After having diligently searched in three different archives, in which it was possible something might be found, I have discovered nothing regarding Bonfadio, by which I conclude the process has either been taken away or burnt.’

Through the intercession and interest of his friends the sentence of burning was commuted into one of beheading, and this was duly carried into execution in the course of the year 1550. Bonfadio betrayed to the last all the consciousness of innocence. The following letter, the last of his on record, was written to his friend, Signor Giambattista Grimaldi, some short time before the sad event: ‘I am sorry to die, because it does not seem to me that I deserve so great a punishment; but I submit myself to the will of God. I am sorry, too, because I die ungrateful, not being able to thank so many honoured gentlemen who have toiled and laboured for me, and especially yourself. I give you, from the bottom of my heart, infinite thanks, and I consign to you and to Signor Domenico Grillo, and to Signor Cipriano Pallavicino, my nephew Bonfadino. My body will be buried in San Lorenzo; and if, from the world beyond, it shall be possible for me to convey to any friend a sign without terrifying him, I will give it. May all of you remain happy!’

Such was the end of Jacopo Bonfadio, a man who received death as the reward for exposing, in the course of duty, the crimes of the society of which he was a noble member. I have adopted the view that he was innocent of the crime attributed to him — that that crime was invented to screen delinquents from his censure — because that view is supported by the best authorities. Thus, Ghilini, in his ‘Teatro d’Uomini litterati,’ attributes the death of Bonfadio to ‘his having too freely, and perhaps more freely than became a historian, written severely of some families of Genoa.’ So, likewise, Carlo Caporali affirms that ‘Bonfadio, invited by the Genoese to write the history of their country, for speaking too freely, was, under other pretexts, condemned to the flames ;’ and in the’ Biblioteca Natiana’ it is stated that ‘Bonfadio was badly paid for his Annals, since, having spoken ill of some member of a noble family, he was accused, although innocent, of a shameful crime, and condemned to be burnt.’

The same sentiment was expressed by the celebrated poet Gianillateo Toscano, in the following lines:

Non mimis intumuit nuper Benaeus alumni.
Bonfadii, ac Musis, docte Catulle, tuis,
Bis tamen infelix: rapuit nam Roma Catullum
Bonfadium Letho das scolerate Ligur.
Historia teternum eujus, fera Genua, vivis
Immeritum sseva lege neoare potcs?
Mitius est, quod te spumanti vortice marmor
Pundit; et es scopulis durior ipsa tuis.

Trajano Boccalini, again, takes occasion to warn all writers of history, by the example of Bonfadio, against writing anything prejudicial to the honour of powerful members of a community; whilst Garuffi, in ‘Italia Academica,’ expressly asserts that ‘the capital crime of Bonfadio was his having described, with the freedom which is the duty of an historian, the conspiracy of the Fieschi.’ Finally Ottavio Rossi declares that’Bonfadio was really doomed to death for secret reasons of State, and not for the crime imputed to him.’ It is true that the historian, Mazzuchelli, summing up the various opinions which he cites, thinks it not impossible that he may have appeared guilty of having incurred the hatred of certain families, and also of the crime; but whilst he rests the evidence of his guilt of the crime solely upon some Latin verses written at the time by Bonfadio’s friend, Manuzio, who, in his turn, accepted the sentence as proof of guilt, Mazzuchelli proceeds to indicate that he may have made enemies not only by the freedom of his Annals, but by the honest freedom of his tongue, one example of which he cites. The opinion, then, of Mazzuchelli is certainly not borne out by the concurrent testimony I have cited, nor would it appear to be endorsed by later writers. Of these I will cite only one, Giunio Carbone whose work, the ‘Compendium of the History of Liguria,’ appeared in 1837.
Carbone thus sums up the case:

To write history, a mind resolute and impervious to fear is necessary. To expose nakedly the facts of a case is but a small thing; but to reveal the causes, to point to the consequences, and to assign to each actor his proper part, is the proper office of an historian. When this is done with respect to men of a past era, no danger is incurred; but, when men still living are referred to, it becomes necessary to offend either truth or the wrong-doers. For the first fault posterity will punish us; for the second, the offended wrong-doers will fabricate vengeance. It is never difficult for human malignity to paint its charges with the colour of reason. Jacopo Bonfadio had lived the greater part of his life wandering and unhappy. Nature had endowed him with a mind never satisfied with itself. After many wanderings he settled in Genoa, the life in which pleased him. To him was then allotted the duty of writing the annals of the Republic, and all the grandees of Liguria emulated with each other to do him honour. He wrote his work with great spirit and elegance, though not altogether with prudence, especially in his account of the conspiracy of the Fieschi. As an eyewitness of the event, and possibly aware of the part taken in it by certain grandees, he could neither suppress nor soften certain light allusions and certain pointed indications, which, in our days, may, indeed, have lost their significance, but at that time were as knives and spears piercing the hearts of many powerful nobles.

‘Now, those who were pricked in their own consciences, and who knew that Bonfadio was acquainted with their many secrets, terrified lest he should make still more important and damaging disclosures, tortured their ingenuity how they might rid themselves of him. Examining, then, very minutely his habits and mode of life, and finding therein no fault, not even a pretext, whereby they might convict him of a State crime, they thought they might compass his destruction by accusing him of some grave outrage against religion or morality … A process having been instituted against him, and he having been declared guilty, he was condemned to be decapitated and then burnt. The sentence was executed. But I do not believe, nor is it possible for me to believe, that he suffered so severe a penalty for a crime of that nature; nor can I conceive how the Ligurian Senate would have been so severe and ferocious in an age when Pierluigi Farnese boasted of greater atrocities, the indecent accounts of which were circulated in every country. No! the death of Bonfadio is attributable to far more potent causes — to the terror of that hypocrisy which veils the deadliest vengeance with professions of religion and of virtue, to the necessity of applying discipline to one who speaks about the most important affairs of the age in which he lives.

I cannot conclude this sketch of the life of this famous man, ‘whose writings,’ wrote Mazzuchelli, with great truth, ‘will live for ever immortal in the memory of the learned,’ without giving a few quotations from his letters and poems. It cannot but be interesting to know the opinion which such a man had formed of himself, the account which he has left of his habits and mode of life. These details, fortunately, still exist recorded in his letters to his most intimate friends. Thus, in a letter written in Genoa to his friend and patron, Signor Giovanibatista Grimaldi, he says: ‘Your Lordship having inquired about me from Messer Stefano Penello, it appears to me that I am bound to give you some information about myself. As to literature, it is true that I know less of it than I should like to know, and of the little I do know I don’t care to vaunt, for I detest arrogance, and am by nature inclined to its opposite. As to my life and habits, I would rather be accounted sincere and modest than a man of learning and letters. Above all, I love truth and honesty, nor can I change in this respect. … I am a man of few words, neither very cheerful nor melancholy, but very thoughtful, even more so than is good for me. In Rome I exhausted what I had of ambition, and I have learned to bear every inconvenience. I do not care for it when it comes, nor does it seem to me very strange when it does come, and I accommodate myself without ceremony to whatever may happen. I avoid the proud, but to .whoever shows me the smallest sign of courtesy I am the humble servant; nor do I ever insult anyone.’ Again, in a letter to a friend, dated Genoa, December 26, 1547, Bonfadio thus writes: ‘You deceive yourself if you think that I am other than I am. I am poor, alike with respect to nature, to fortune, and to virtue. Regarding the first I have not been able to increase my store, but I have lived very closely on that with which she endowed me at my birth. To the second, I have never been able to find out the road, although I have sought it in many places at the cost of great inconvenience. To the third, I do not deny that I have equally endeavoured to discover the way; but having seen that it was long, and rough, and steep, I have often been discouraged. Besides that, many times hard shocks of adverse fortune have struck me. And the syrens, still, have often sung in my ears, too open to their voices, so that I have remained at the foot of the mountain, whence only I have been able to see the summit of virtue. Yet I have had this happy fortune, that modesty having once descended from the peak I embraced her, and have since kept her with me.’

I shall conclude these extracts with one to his friend, Paolo Manuzio, written from Padua. ‘Your life,’ he writes, ‘is too much occupied and too much given to labour. Nor do I know for what end you are labouring; to enrich yourself? I do not believe it, for you do not measure riches with the crooked rule of the vulgar; and you have sufficient of the goods of fortune for your desires. Perhaps to have ecclesiastical honours? I do not believe that, because I know that you always held in higher esteem the being worthy of the honour than the honour itself; and already every honour is due to you. I see the stimulus that spurs you on, and that the desire for glory keeps you awake day and night. … Yet, although you may decrease, your labours, for which you are always striving to obtain new materials, you must not fear that the esteem of the world will decrease in the least, for your fame is already so high that it will always be recognised; Be content with that, and do not allow a love of glory to do that which may injure your health.’

I now proceed to give a few specimens of his imagination, as indicated in his lighter pieces of poetry. The first is a short extract from one of his longer odes. It may thus be rendered1: —

What men call Life, is like a meadow fair
Wherein some serpent makes his trench.rous lair:
And thus uneasy fears perturb each breast,
No heart finds happiness, no bosom rest.
‘Would as a child my life had passed away
‘Ere carking care began his cruel sway.’
Thus some. Whilst others nought but sorrow feel,
And sighs and wailings form their only meal:
And e’en if pain or death to vex forbear,
Still on their bosom lies the sleepless care,
Their pleasures finish ere they well commence,
Most brief those hours in which they.re most intense.

The next piece is addressed to his first love. The first four verses may be translated as follows: —

When the buds burst forth and blossom
In the month which heralds May,
And the scent of a thousand flowers
Is wafted from each spray,
I rise from my couch at daybreak,
And I seek my lattice and gaze,
And I list to the trills the nightingales
Pour forth as their song of praise,
And I see the glad sea peacefully
Smile its greeting to the morn,
And I feel my heart a glad captive led,
Yet I do not feel forlorn;
For I mind those days in my childhood,
When the crystal wave so dear
I stemmed, and sought from bank to rock
Delights in the water clear.
And I wrap myself in the memories
Of the past, and descend to the sea,
And I feel the soft air and all Nature
Seem, Laura, to murmur but thee!
Might it please the Fates that my heart.s desire
Should at last be granted to me,
Sweet Laura, then, I would supplicate
No sweeter boon than thee.
Then all Nature would seem more lovely
And the Graces and Loves, as a prey
Having yielded their charms, should follow
And grace thy triumphal day;
And I, who in thy absence
Feel all things dark and drear,
Should revel and bask in the light which shines
From those eyes so soft and clear.
And I, — What am I, dearest? None other than you see,
Whilst thou, in the wealth of thy beauty,
Art more than a goddess to me.
In the wealth of the youth of thy sweet spring-life
I could lie beside thee and gaze
On thy perfect form, and my lips should tell
Their tale of love and of praise.
I would tell thee what man men think me to be
Since the childhood of the past,
When I gave my heart to thy keeping, —
Oh! Love! shall I win thee at last?

I conclude with a short extract in the original from one of his Latin Carmina, on the subject of Villa Coloniola, the favourite resort for his autumn holidays: —

Nunc vivo: et vita est multo mihi carior, in me
Quum memini de quo venerit ilia loco.
Salve, o terra beata, mihi gratissima terra
Diis superis: salve dia Coloniola.
Nomen fama tuum immortalibus in monimentis
Protendat; nec te deruat ilia dies.
Haec lingua ante meis haerebit faucibus, ante
Haec dextra attractis concidet articulis,
Quam memori exanimo, et nostro de pectore migret
Saepe vocanda mihi cara Coloniola.

I should be glad to give a specimen of the clear and vigorous style of the Annals, but I refrain. It is possible I may some day be tempted to translate them into our language. I have met no Italian writings which would so well adapt themselves to the robustness and vigour of the English tongue.

For the present, I leave, and leave with regret, the name of Jacopo Bonfadio. He was not the first, and probably has not been the last, victim to the malignity of inferior natures, alarmed by the dread of the discovery of their own evil deeds. But to a noble nature his fate, sad as it was, possesses an element which reassures. It is true his enemies killed him. But, after a lapse of three hundred and thirty years, his name still lives, clothed with honour, veneration, and respect. But for those who killed him! A too kind Providence has preserved them, by the annihilation of their very names, from the execration of posterity!

* Even the year is a matter of dispute among various sources.

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1555: Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, Oxford martyrs

1 comment October 16th, 2016 Headsman

The Anglican Church memorializes the feast of the Oxford Martyrs on October 16 — which also happens to be the date in 1555 that the first and second of those Reformation prelates went to the stake in that city.

The Oxford Martyrs are three in all, a proper trilogy;* the last in chronology if not in precedence was the Anglican Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who sanctified King Henry’s putting aside his first wife, and was burned at the pleasure of that scorned Catholic’s daughter in 1556. By that time he outlived by seven months the men whose execution we mark here, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a woodcut illustration of Latimer’s and Ridley’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs.

Given a different set of breaks and perhaps a Y chromosome in the royal offspring, Latimer might easily have been martyred a generation prior under a King Henry who stuck to his papist “defender of the faith” credentials. Latimer was a rising reformer in the late 1520s whose subversive preaching had already got him slapped down by Cardinal Wolsey.

Wolsey’s fall and Henry’s departure from the Roman communion arrived just in time to ramp Latimer from prospective heresiarch to the master pulpit rhetorician of a new order. (He’s particularly remembered for some metaphorical sermons about playing cards.) In 1535, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester in which capacity he did not disdain the office of exhorting Catholic martyrs themselves on the foot of the pyre. Even in Henry’s last years, when militant Protestants could be put to death as readily as recusant Catholics, Latimer courted principled danger by refusing to sign on to Henry’s “six articles” asserting Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. Latimer resigned his bishopric and went to the Tower of London rather than endorse them.

Nicholas Ridley at this period was a reformist priest in Cranmer’s more cautious orbit, who advanced him rank by rank — and with no dungeon interim — to the Bishop of London and Westminster.** Ridley had the honor of being a primary antagonist to the radical John Hooper in the “vestments controversy”, Ridley defending the status quo of clergy bedizened with suspiciously Romish priestly attire despite the poverty of Christ.

Ridley basically won this dispute in the short term, but had scant leisure to celebrate before the sickly young king’s death set the realm up for a contested succession. Under his gilded robes Bishop Ridley spent the brief ascendancy of Lady Jane Grey thundering against the bastard rival who intended to — and very soon did — supplant her.

Tried together in your basic case of victor’s justice, Ridley and Latimer were burned with Cranmer brought out as a witness in an attempt to intimidate him. Cranmer’s vacillating recantations before his own execution do him little credit, but considering how the Ridley died it would require a hard heart not to empathize. Protestant martyrologist John Foxe made purple prose or a very black scene:

Then they brought a faggot, kindled with fire, and laid the same down at Dr. Ridley’s feet. To whom Master Latimer spake in this manner “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

And so the fire being given unto them, when Dr. Ridley saw the fire flaming up towards him. he cried with a wonderful loud voice, In manus teas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum: Domine recipe spiritum meum. And after, repeated this latter part often in English, “Lord, Lord, receive my spirit;” Master Latimer crying as vehemently on the other side, “O Father of heaven, receive my soul!” who received the flame as it were embracing of it. After that he had stroked his face with his hands, and as it were bathed them a little in the fire, he soon died (as it appeareth) with very little pain or none. And thus much concerning the end of this old and blessed servant of God, Master Latimer, for whose laborious travails, fruitful life, and constant death, the whole realm hath cause to give great thanks to Almighty God.

But Master Ridley, by reason of the evil making of the fire unto him, because the wooden faggots were laid about the gorse, and over-high built, the fire burned first beneath, being kept down by the wood; which when he felt, he desired them for Christ’s sake to let the fire come unto him. Which when his brother-in-law heard, but not well understood, intending to rid him out of his pain, (for the which cause he gave attendance,) as one in such sorrow not well advised what he did, heaped faggots upon him, so that he clean covered him, which made the fire more vehement beneath, that it burned clean all his nether parts, before it once touched the upper; and that made him leap up and down under the faggots, and often desire them to let the fire come unto him, saying, “I cannot burn.” Which indeed appeared well; for, after his legs were consumed by reason of his struggling through the pain, (whereof he had no release, but only his contentation in God,) he showed that side toward us clean, shirt and all untouched with flame. Yet in all this torment he forgot not to call unto God still, having in his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” intermingling his cry, “Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.” In which pangs he laboured till one of the standers-by with his bill pulled off the faggots above, and where he saw the fire flame up, he wrested himself unto that side. And when the flame touched the gunpowder, he was seen to stir no more, but burned on the other side, falling down at Master Latimer’s feet; which, some said, happened by reason that the chain loosed; others said, that he fell over the chain by reason of the poise of his body, and the weakness of the nether limbs.

* There’s a just-so story backed by little to no concrete evidence that the three Oxford Martyrs are metaphorically represented as the three blind mice (pursued by a female antagonist!) in the nursery rhyme.

** Barstool trivia: Ridley is the only person who has ever held this title.

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1554: A false coiner and a masked dummy

Add comment September 29th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France. It is not completely evident from context (“afterwards …”) whether the masked dummy was “executed” on the same occasion as the coiner, or whether that effigy was punished on a different day.

On the next day [after a September 28 execution] a false coiner was hanged in the same place. The gibbet was not vety high and had only one arm.

Afterwards a masked dummy was brought on a hurdle, and was laid on the cross and its limbs broken, as I have described. This dummy represented a Greek who had studied at Montpellier and had been accounted one of the keenest blades of the town. He had married Gillette d’Andrieu, a girl of doubtful reputation, who had neither beauty nor fortune. She had a very long nose, and her lover could scarcely manage to kiss her on the lips, especially since he too had a nose of respectable size.

The Greek was insulted by a canon, Pierre Saint-Ravy, who taunted him, at the moment when he was about to relieve himself, of having had intercourse with his wife. The husband at once stabbed the canon and fled; he could therefore be executed only in effigy. His wife continued to live in Montpellier, and was often in Rondelet’s house she was a relative of his.*

She often came there to dance, and one day I danced with her, all booted and spurred, on my return from Vendargues. As I turned, my spurs entangled themselves in her dress, and I fell full length on the floor. Some tablets I had in a breast pocket were broken into pieces, and I was so stunned that I had to be helped up.

* Guillaume Rondelet was one of Platter’s instructors, a professor of medicine. He had been friends with Rabelais and has the distinction of appearing in Gargantua and Pantagruel under the name Rondibilis.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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1554: A handsome young man from Montpellier

Add comment September 28th, 2016 Headsman

From the diary of Felix Platter, a Swiss youth studying in Montpellier, France:

On the 28th [of September, 1554] the Provost came to Montpellier, and there were several executions.

On the first day he appeared on horseback, preceded by several horsemen and followed by the town trumpeter sounding his trumpet. Behind him walked a criminal, with some monks. He was a handsome young man and had been an accomplice in a murder He was brought to a scaffold that had been erected in front of the Hotel de Ville. There a Saint Andrew’s cross had been made with two hollowed-out balks of timber; in this his limbs were to be broken.

The condemned man stood and recounted in rhyme the crime he had committed, and at the end he added: ‘Pray to Holy Mary that she may intercede with her Son to take me into Paradise.’

The executioner then undressed him and tied him by the limbs to the cross, as those are tied, with us, who are to be broken on the wheel. Then he took a heavy bar of iron, called a massa, sharpened a little on one side, and broke the man’s limbs with it. This punishment resembles our punishment of the wheel, and is called here massarrer. The last blow was struck on the chest, and this killed the victim.

Part of the Daily Double: Felix Platter’s Diary.

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1553: Giovanni Mollio, Italian reformer

Add comment September 5th, 2016 Headsman

Franciscan reformer and theologian Giovanni Mollio was burned in Rome as a heretic on this date in 1553.

We have a tricky job to get a fix on Protestants in Italy during the 16th century, but it’s still peculiar that Mollio enjoys a lengthy entry on the German Wikipedia page and none whatsoever on its Italian sister.

A professor most recently at Bologna, Mollio appears to have taken interest in reforming ideas from his earliest appointments in the 1520s at Brescia and Milan — which makes the fact that he survived so long in the environs of Catholicism’s Caput Mundi a remarkable circumstance in itself. He spurned friends’ entreaties to flee into exile in the 1530s and instead obeyed a summons to Rome to justify the dangerous doctrines he espoused, like justification by good works and not venerating holy images.

“I am ready and willing to suffer not only torment and torture, but also for my Lord Jesus Christ’s sake to be burnt alive,” he declared on that occasion. Fortunately for Mollio, Pope Paul III was at this point only beginning to feel out the Vatican’s response to Luther and Calvin, and the Counter-Reformation had not yet begun in earnest; Mollio was gave an erudite defense to much curial chin-stroking, was admonished on some points, and booted from the Bolognese faculty. He retired to Naples where he joined the circles of heretical elites orbiting Juan de Valdes, whose number would in time contribute several martyrs.

Valdes was more a humanist interested in reforming the Church than a schismatic looking to break for it but the space for such distinctions was rapidly narrowing. Valdes died (no martyrdom) in 1541, and tolerance for his friends’ subversive salons did not long outlive him.

By 1543 Mollio really did go on the run. But he never made it out of Italy, which would probably have been the necessary condition for dying in bed at an advanced age.

Florence clapped him in its castle dungeon for four years until influential friends finally got him released to the custody of a Ravenna abbot; once that sanctuary lapsed he was detained by the papal legate for a time, although again released and watchfully permitted to continue teaching and preaching.

This outsized toleration came to an abrupt end with the death of Pope Paul III in 1549. Paul’s successor Julius III meant to be the hammer of the heretics, and soon had Mollio brought in chains to Rome. He could not be moved to recant during many months’ imprisonment.

On September 5, 1553, Mollio, a Perugian named Giovanni Teodori (also known as Tisserano), and a number of others accused of heresy faced public trial by the Inquisition in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Only Mollio and Teodori refused to recant.

Permitted to defend himself, Mollio scalded the cardinals seated to judge him — and in Italian, so that everyone present would understand it.

As for you, cardinals and bishops, if I were satisfied that you justly obtained that power which you assume to yourselves, and that you had risen to your eminence by virtuous deeds, and not by blind ambition and the arts of profligacy, I would not say a word to you.

But since I see and know on the best grounds, that you have set moderation, and honesty, and honour, and virtue at defiance, I am constrained to treat you without ceremony, and to declare that your power is not from God but the devil.

If it were apostolical, as you would make the poor world believe, then your doctrine and life would resemble those of the apostles. When I perceive the filth and falsehood and profaneness with which it is overspread, what can I think or say of your church, but that it is a receptacle of thieves and a den of robbers?

What is your doctrine but a dream, — a lie forged by hypocrites?

Your very countenances prolaim that your belly is your god. Your great object is to seize and amass wealth by every species of injustice and cruelty. You thirst without ceasing for the blood of the saints.

Can you be the successors of the holy apostles, and vicars of Jesus Christ — you who despise Christ and his word, who act a if you did not believe that there is a God in heaven, who persecute to the death his faithful ministers, make his commandments of no effect, and tyrannize over the consciences of his saints?

Wherefore I appeal from your sentence, and summon you, O cruel tyrants and murderers, to answer before the judgment seat of Christ at the last day, where your pompous titles and gorgeous trappings will not dazzle, nor your guards and torturing apparatus terrify us. And in testimony of this, take back that which you have given me!

And so saying, Mollio flung across the flagstones the penitential candle that he had been made to bear with the rest of the accused.

The furious judges ordered Mollio and Teodori too put to immediate death, and they were promptly dragged from the church to the Campo de’ Fiori and consumed at the stake.

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1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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1558: Three reformers at Norwich

Add comment May 19th, 2016 Headsman

From the 16th century tome of Protestant martyrology, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs — with evocative original Early Modern English from the 1570 edition.

The Martyrdome of William Seaman, Thomas Carman, and Thomas Hudson, put to death by the persecuting papistes at Norwich in the county of Norfolke.

Immediatly after William Nicole, succeded in that honorable and glorious vocation of Martyrdome three constant godly me[n] at Norwich in Norfolke, who were cruelly and tyrannically put to death for thee true testimony of Iesus Christ, the 19. of May an. 1558. Whose names be these.

William Seaman.
Thomas Carman.
Thomas Hudson.

The sayd William Seaman was an husbandman, of the age of xxvj. yeares, dwelling in Mendlesham in the county of Suffolke, who was sought for sundry tymes by the commaundement of Syr Iohn Tirrell Knight, and at last hee hym selfe in the night searched hys house and other places for hym: notwithstanding, hee somewhat mist of his purpose, God be thanked. Then he gaue charge to his seruantes, Robert Baulding, and Iames Clarke with others, to seeke for hym. Who hauing no officer, went in the euening to hys house, where he beyng at home, they tooke hym and caryed hym to their master Syr Iohn Tirrell. This Baulding beyng Seamans nigh neighbour, and whom the sayd Seaman greatly trusted as a speciall frend, notwithstandyng to do his Master a pleasure, now became enemy to his chief frend, and was one of the busiest in the takyng of him. Now as they were goyng to cary him to their Master Syr Iohn Tyrrel in the night, it is credibly reported that there fell a light betwene them out of the element and parted them. This Bauldyng beyng in company with the rest whe[n] the light fell, albeit he was then in hys best age, yet after that tyme neuer enioyed good day, but pined away euen vnto the death.

Well, for all that straunge sight (as I sayd) they caried hym to their master. Who when he came, asked hym why he would not go to masse, and receaue the sacrament, and so to worship it? Vnto which William Seaman aunswered, denying it to be a sacrament, but sayde it was an Idoll, and therefore would not receaue it. After which wordes spoken, Syr Iohn Tirrell shortly sent hym to Norwich to Hopton then Byshop, and there, after conference and examination had with him, the Byshop red hys bloudy sentence of condemnation against hym, and afterward deliuered hym to the secular power, who kept hym vnto the day of Martyrdome.

Thys sayd William Seaman left behind him when he dyed, a wife and three children very yonge: and with the sayd younge children, hys wife was persecuted out of the sayd towne also of Mendlesham, because that she would not go to heare Masse, and all her corne & goods seased and taken away by master Christopher Coles officers, he beyng Lord of the sayd towne.

Thomas Carman (who, as is said, pledged Richard Crashfield at hys burning, and thereupon was apprehended) beyng in prison in Norwich, was about one tyme with the rest examined & brought before the sayd Byshop, who aunswered no lesse in hys masters cause then the other, and therefore had the like reward that the other had, which was the Byshops bloudy blessing of condemnation, and deliuered also to the secular power, who kept him with the other vntill the day of slaughter, which hasted on and was not long after.

Thomas Hudson was of Ailesham in Norfolke, by his occupatio[n] a Glouer, a very honest poore ma[n], hauing a wyfe and three children, and laboured alwayes truely and diligently in his vocation, being of thirty yeares of age, and bearing so good a will to the Gospell, that he in the dayes of king Edward thee sixt, two yeares before Queene Maryes raigne, learned to read Englishe of Anthony and Thomas Norgate of the same Towne, wherein he greatly profited about the tyme of alteration of religion. For when Queene Mary came to raigne, and had chaunged the seruice in the church, putting in for wheate, draffe and darnyll, and for good preaching, blasphemous crying out agaynst truth and godlines, he then auoyding all their beggerly Ceremonies of superstition, absented him selfe from his house, and went into Suffolke a long tyme, and there remayned, traueling from one place to an other, as occasion was offered. At the last, he returned backe agayne to Norfolke, to his house at Ailesham, to comfort his wife & hys childre[n], being heauy & troubled with his absence.

Now when he came home, and perceaued his continuaunce there would be daungerous, he and his wife deuised to make hym a place among hys fagots to hyde himselfe in, where he remained all the day (in stede of hys chamber) reading and praying continually, for the space of halfe a yeare, and hys wife like an honest woman being carefull for hym, vsed her self faythfully and diligently towardes him.

In the meane tyme came the Vicar of the towne, named Berry (who was one of the Byshops Commissaryes, a very euill man) and inquired of thys sayd Thomas Hudsons wife for her husband. Vnto whom she aunswered, as not knowing were he was. Then the sayd Berry rated her, & threatned to burne her, for that she would not bewray her husband where he was.

After that, when Hudson vnderstoode it, he waxed euery day more zealous then other, and continually red and sang Psalmes, to the wonder of many, the people openly resorting to hym to heare his exhortations and vehement prayers.

At the last he walked abroad for certayne dayes openly in the Towne, crying out continually agaynst the Masse and all their trompery, and in the end, commyng home in his house, he sat him downe vppon hys knees, hauyng his booke by him, readyng and singyng Psalmes continually without ceassing. for. iij. dayes and iij. nightes together, refusing meate & other talke, to the great wonder of many.

The one Iohn Crouch his next neighbour, went to the Constables Robert Marsham and Robert Lawes in the night, to certifie them therof: for Berry comaunded openly to watch for hym: and þe Constables vnderstadyng the same, went cruelly to catch him in the breake of the day, the., xxij. of the moneth of Aprill. an. 1558.

Now when Hudson saw the come in, he sayd: Now mine houre is come. Welcome frendes welcome: you be they that shall lead me to lyfe in Christ, I thanke God therfore, and the Lord enhable me thereto for his mercies sake. For his desire was, and euer he prayed (if it were the Lordes wil) that he might suffer for the Gospell of Christ. Then they tooke hym, and lead hym to Berry the Commissary, which was Vicare of the Towne, and the sayd Berry asked hym first, where he kept his Church for iiij. yeares before. To the which the sayd Hudson aunswered thus: where soeuer he was, there was the Church.

Doest thou not beleue, saith Berry, in the Sacrame[n]t of the altar? What is it?

Hudson. It is wormes meate: my beliefe (saith he) is in Christ crucified.

Berry. Doest thou not beleue the Masse to put away sinnes?

Hudson. No, God forbid: it is a patched monstre, and a disguised Puppet, more longer a pecing then euer was Salomons temple.

At which wordes Berry stamped, fumed, and shewed him selfe as a mad man, and sayd: well thou villayne, thou: I will write to the byshop my good Lord, and trust vnto it, thou shalt be handled according to thy desertes. Oh syr, sayd Hudson: there is no Lorde but God, though there bee many Lordes and many Gods. With that, Berry thrust him backe with hys hand. And one Richard Cliffar standing by, sayd: I pray you syr, be good to the poore man. At which wordes Berry was more mad then before, and would haue had Cliffar bound in a recognisance of 40. poundes for his good abearing, both in worde and deede: which hys desire tooke no effecte. Then he asked the sayd Hudson whether he would recant or no. Vnto which wordes Hudson sayd: the Lord forbid: I had rather dye many deathes, then to doo so.

Then after long talke, the sayd Berry seing it booted not to perswade with him, tooke his pen and yncke, and wrote letters to the byshop therof, and sent thys Hudson to Norwich bound like a theefe to hym, which was viij. miles from thence, who with ioye and singing chere went thether, as mery as euer he was at any time before. In prison he was a moneth, where he did continually read and inuocate the name of God.


Original illustration via JohnFoxe.org, which notes that depictions of several triple burnings attest to the certainty that the printer had no block to illustrate three men in a fire.

These three christians and constant Martyrs, William Seaman, Thomas Carman, and Tho. Hudson, after they were (as ye haue heard) condemned, the xix. day of May. 1558. were caryed out of prison to þe place where they should suffer, which was without Bishops gate at Norwich, called Lollards pit.

And being all there, they made theyr humble prayers vnto the Lord. That being done, they rose and went to the stake, and standing all there with chaynes about them, immediately thys sayd Thomas Hudson commeth fourth from them vnder the chayne, to the great wonder of many: wherby diuers feared and greatly doubted of him. For some thought he would haue recanted: other iudged rather that hee went to aske a further day, and to desire conference: and some thought he came forth to aske some of hys parentes blessing: So some thought one thing and some an other: but hys two companions at the stake cryed out to hym to comforte hym what they could, exhorting hym in the bowels of Christ to be of good chere. &c. But thys sweete Hudson, felt more in his hart and conscience, then they could conceaue in hym. For (alas good soule) he was compassed (God knoweth) with great dolour and griefe of mind, not for his death, but for lacke of feeling of hys Christ, and therfore beyng very carefull he humbly fell downe vppon his knees, and prayed vehemently and earnestly vnto the Lord, who at the last, according to hys olde mercyes, sent hym comfort, and then rose he with great ioy, as a man new chaunged euen from death to life, and sayd:

Now I thanke God I am strong, and passe not what man can doo vnto me.

So going to the stake to his fellowes agayne, in the end they all suffered most ioyfully, constantly, and manfully the death together, and were consumed in fire, to the terror of the wicked, the comforte of Gods Children, & the magnifiing of the Lords name, who be praysed therfore for euer, Amen.

After thys, the fore named Commissary Berry, made great styrre about other which were suspected within the sayd towne of Aylesham, and caused two hundred to creepe to the Crosse at Penticost, besides other punishmentes which they susteyned.

On a time this Berry gaue a poore man of his parish of Marsham, a blow with the swingell of a flayle, for a word speaking, that presently theron he dyed, and the sayd Berry (as is sayd) held vp his hand at the barre therefore.

Then, after that in his parish of Aylesham also, an. 1557. there was one Alice Oxes came to his house, and going into the Hall, he meting her (being before moued) smote her with his fist, whereby she was fayne to be caryed home, and the next day was found dead in her chamber.

To write how many concubines & whores he had, none would beleue it, but such as knewe him in the countrey he dwelt in. He was rich and of great autoritie, a great swearer, altogether geuen to wemen, and persecuting of the Gospell, & compelling men to idolatry.

One Iohn Norgate a man learned, godly, and zealous, who would not go to theyr trash, but rather dye, being sore hunted by the sayd Berry, prayed hartely to God, and the Lord shortly after in a consumption deliuered hym. Notwithstanding, the rage of this wicked man waxed more fiercer and fiercer. He troubled sundry men, burnt all good bookes that he could get, and diuorsed many men and wemen for religion.

When he heard say that Queene Mary was dead, and the glory of theyr triumph quailed, the sonday after, being the xx. of Nouember, an. 1558. he made a great feast, and had one of his concubines there, with whom he was in his chamber after diner vntill Euensong. Then went he to church, where he had ministred baptisme, and in going from church homeward, after Euensong, betwene the churchyarde and hys house, being but a litle space (as it were a churchyard bredeth asunder) he fell downe sodeinly to the ground with a heauy grone, & neuer stirred after, neither shewed any one token of repentance. This hapned hys neyghbors being by, to the example of all other. The Lord graunt we may obserue his iudgementes.

And those that had his great riches, since his death haue so consumed with them, that they be poorer now then they were before they had his goodes, such iudgement hath the Lord executed to the eyes of all men.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1554: A cat dressed as a prelate

Add comment April 8th, 2016 Headsman

Whatever might be said, from a state’s perspective, for the virtues of making a public spectacle of capital punishment, the scaffold could also double as a subversive rostrum.

Religious martyrs, vaunting outlaws, courageous dissidents — all these sometimes sought to speak their own dangerous voices through the sermon of their deaths. If most such displays are usually better remembered by rhetoricians than historians, it is still true that public executions carried the potential to whipsaw against the authorities conducting them. In these pages, we have seen the commoners who are supposed to be the spectacle’s audience force their way into proceedings by rescuing a woman at the block (murdering the executioner), tearing down the breaking-wheel and carrying away its prospective victim in triumph, rampaging through Edinburgh and lynching a brutal gendarme in the hanging party, and eerily refusing to attend a Italian execution in a show of silent menace.

And apart from high drama when the place of execution is put to its usual function, the site itself has underappreciated potential for popular expropriation.

That brings us to this date’s subject, courtesy of the Anne Boleyn Files: a grisly and caustic comment left on the gallows by some unknown Protestant in the first year of Queen Mary‘s Catholic reign. To situate this event in time and context, the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt had been crushed just two months before, leading to the precautionary beheading of potential Protestant rival Lady Jane Grey. Three days after the events here, on April 11, 1554, Wyatt himself went to the block.

The same 8. of April, being then Sunday, a cat with hir head shorn and the likenes of a vestment cast ouer hir, with hir fore feet tied togither, and a round peece of paper like a singing cake [communion wafer] betwirt them, was hanged on a gallowes in Cheape, neere to the crosse, in the parish of S. Mathew, which cat being taken downe, was caried to the Bish. of London, and he caused the same to be shewed at Pauls crosse, by the preacher D. Pendleton.

There’s no no record that the heretical “executioner” was ever outed, despite publication of a reward.

The xiij day of Aprell was a proclamasyon was made that what so mever he where that could bryng forth hym that dyd hang the catt on the galaus, he shuld have XX marke for y labur.

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1558: Cuthbert Simson

Add comment March 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1558, Protestant Cuthbert Simson or Simpson was burned at Smithfield — having withstood harrowing torture in the Tower of London.

As deacon of a secret congregation during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, Simson bore the dangerous responsibility of keeping membership rolls. When he was arrested as a heretic and a traitor, he was subjected to “enhanced interrogation” in an effort to obtain the identities of the whole coterie.

He resisted.

Protestant hagiographer John Foxe recorded an alleged last letter that Simson sent to his friends from captivity (updated to present-day English from the glorious original), describing what happened after he, Simson, refused interrogators’ demand that he begin naming names.

I was set in an engine of iron, for the space of three hours as I judged. After that, they asked me if I would tell them. I answered as before. Then I was loosed, and carried to my lodging again. On the Sunday after, I was brought into the same place again before the lieutenant, being also constable, and the recorder of London, and they examined me. As before I had said I answered. Then the lieutenant sware by God, I should tell. Then did they bind my two forefingers together, and put a small arrow betwixt them, and drew it through so fast that the blood followed, and the arrow brake.


1563 woodcut of Cuthbert Simson’s torture. (Source)

Then they racked me twice. After that was I carried to my lodging again; and ten days after, the lieutenant asked me if I would not confess that which before they had asked me. I said I had said as much as I would. Then five weeks after, he sent me unto the high priest, where I was greatly assaulted; and at whose hand I received the pope’s curse, for bearing witness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And thus I commend you unto God, and to the word of His grace with all them that unfeignedly call upon the name of Jesus; desiring God, or His endless mercy, through the merits of His dear Son Jesus Christ, to bring us all to His everylasting kingdom. Amen. I praise God for His great mercy shewed upon us. Sing Hosanna unto the Highest, with me Cuthbert Simson. God forgive me my sins. I ask all the world forgiveness, and I do forgive all the world; and thus I leave this world, in hope of a joyful resurrection.

Two associates, Hugh Fox and John Davenish, suffered at Smithfield with Simson.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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