1592: Thomas Pormort, prey of Richard Topcliffe

Add comment February 20th, 2017 Headsman

Thomas Pormort (or Pormant) was hanged on this date in 1592 on a gibbet erected adjacent to a Paul’s Churchyard haberdashery whose proprietor had once entrusted the condemned Catholic priest with his confession.

Pormort was a priest trained on the continent who returned to native soil about the beginning of 1591 to brave the Elizabethan persecution, but managed only a few months in the field before his arrest.

He had the misfortune to face the personal interrogation of the vindictive inquisitor Richard Topcliffe, notorious even in his own day for his gleeful sadism. Topcliffe seems not to have even feigned a politic distaste for the breaking of bones and and of men and made a point to attend the executions his offices effected, including Pormort’s.

Now, back in the day such grim ministers of state could be empowered to toy with their prey in their very own lairs. Even the sainted Thomas More had kept a personal torture chamber at his own home.

So it was with Topcliffe, who inflicted his hospitality on Pormort in the intimacy of his own place, where he apparently had the facilities necessary to put a prisoner to the rack. According to Portmort, the torturer had another intimacy besides during their pain-wracked discourse, taunting or boasting to his victim of carnal indulgences he enjoyed from the queen herself. Pormort would allege at the bar that

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

This Penthouse letter for the queen has no factual plausibility, and nobody thought so in 1592. Whether the priest’s report of its utterance is an actual glimpse into a seditious perversion of the torturer, or a desperate attempt by a doomed man to smear his persecutor, Topcliffe took the matter seriously enough that he made Pormort stand on the ladder under his noose in freezing cold for two hours on execution day while Topcliffe browbeat him to withdraw the allegation. (Pormort didn’t budge.)

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1592: Roger Ashton

Add comment June 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1592, Roger Ashton was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Ashton is a minor martyr on the Catholic rolls, one of many in the age who (as Edmund Campion put it) were called by determinedly Protestant English crown to “enjoy your Tyburn.”

We’ll let the Catholic Encyclopedia take it from here.

He was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, 23 June, 1592. His indictment is not preserved. Challoner says it was for procuring a dispensation from Rome to marry his second cousin. Later evidence, while confirming this, shows that it was not the only cause.

In 1585 he had gone to serve in the under the Earl of Leicester against the Spaniards. Sir William Stanley having been placed on guard over the town of Deventer, which had revolted from the Spaniards, he, with the assistance of Ashton, gave the town back to Spain and went over to their side (29 January, 1587).*

Cardinal Allen published a “Defence” of this act** in the form of a letter addressed to one “R.A.”, whose letter to the Cardinal prefixed and under these initials it seems natural to recognize our martyr. Stanley next entrusted to Ashton the difficult task of bringing over his wife from Ireland, but she was already under arrest, and he is said to have been sent Ashton to Rome. At the close of the year 1587 he returned to England and was apprehended in Kent with the marriage dispensation already mentioned. In January, 1588, he was in the Tower, where he lay ill towards the close of the year, when he was transferred to easier confinement in the Marshalsea. From this he managed to escape and fled to his brothers in Lancashire.

He was seized later, at Shields near Newcastle, while trying to escape over the seas. Transferred thence to Durham and York, he was tried and sentenced at Canterbury, and died “very resolute”, making profession of his faith and “… pitied of the people”, though the infamous Topcliffe tried to stir up ill-feeling against him by enlarging on his services to Spain.


Executions at Tyburn in the time of Elizabeth. From Tyburn Tree.

* This event — an English commander betraying a city to the enemy during wartime (in fact, two English commanders, as Rowland York (or Yorke) handed the Spanish the fortress of Zutphen on the same day) — naturally raised a scandal in 1587.

Although this treacherous William Stanley is not to be confused with the contemporaneous fellow-noble of the same name who has a horse in the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” race, Lily Bess Campbell argues that the imprint of events in Deventer and the subsequent volley of pamphleteering informs a discourse of royal prerogative in the Bard’s Henry V, when the disguised monarch goes slumming with the common soldiery on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

BATES

… wee
know enough, if wee know wee are the Kings Subiects:
if his Cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes
the Cryme of it out of vs

WILLIAMS

But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe
hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those
Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile,
shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed
at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean;
some vpon their Wiues, left poore behind them;
some vpon the Debts they owe, some vpon their Children
rawly left: I am afear’d, there are few dye well, that dye
in a Battaile: for how can they charitably dispose of any
thing, when Blood is their argument? Now, if these men
doe not dye well, it will be a black matter for the King,
that led them to it; who to disobey, were against all proportion
of subiection

Henry replies that soldiers should look after their conscience on their own time and obey the prince of the realm in wartime. No doubt Queen Elizabeth approved.

if they dye vnprouided, no more
is the King guiltie of their damnation, then hee was before
guiltie of those Impieties, for the which they are
now visited. Euery Subiects Dutie is the Kings, but
euery Subiects Soule is his owne.

(As long as we’re digressing with Shakespeare and anti-Stratfordian candidates, here’s an argument that the jittery national mood post-Deventer and pre-routing the Spanish Armada — the time when Mary, Queen of Scots lost her head — makes a case for dating the Henry plays to that period, which in turn makes a case for Edward de Vere as their true author. Make of that what you will.)

** The obedience due a sovereign as opposed to the obedience due to an abstract standard of Right is a lasting modern question, so it’s no surprise that Cardinal Allen’s justification has a modern ring.

For that to revolt, is of itselfe, lawful or unlawful, honorable or otherwise, according to the justice, or injustice of the cause, or difference of the person, from or to whom the revolt is made … Whensoever thou art armed, & in readinesse for battayle, let this be thy first cogitation, that thy very corporal streingth itselfe, is the gift of God: whereby thou shalt stil be put in minde, never to use the gift of God, against God him selfe, that gave it thee.

Presumably he wouldn’t have supported the “only following orders” defense.

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