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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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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1557: Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius, already in their coffins

Add comment February 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1557,* the long-dead bones of the Protestant theologians Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius (Fagius) were sent to the stake during the Tudor era’s brief Catholic recrudescence under Mary I.


18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.

Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.

Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.

Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:

If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …

[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.

Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.

* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.

** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

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

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