1621: John Rowse, unnatural father

Add comment June 2nd, 2017 John Taylor

(Thanks for the guest post to Thames boatman and picaresque pamphleteer John Taylor, the self-described “Water Poet”. Taylor has a minor cottage industry of social historians devoted to his varied output, like one of the first credited palindromes, “Lewd did I live, & evil I did dwel” … which would exactly suit John Rowse, the early modern sybarite turned murderer whom the Water Poet favored with the prose below, under the original title of “The Unnatural Father.” We’ve filled in wiktionary links to some of the more interesting archaic usages here; for the writer’s rich supply of loose-women synonyms please consult the Dungeons & Dragons random harlot table. — ed.)

As a chain consists of divers links, and every link depends, and is invoked upon one another, even so our sins, being the chain wherewith Satan doth bind and manacle us, are so knit, twisted, and soldered together, that without our firm faith ascending, and God’s grace descending, we can never be freed from those infernal fetters; for sloth is linked with drunkenness, drunkenness with fornication and adultery, and adultery with murder, and so of all the rest of the temptations, suggestions, and actions, wherewith miserable men and women are insnared and led captive into perpetual perdition, except the mercy of our gracious God be our defence and safeguard.

For a lamentable example of the devil’s malice, and man’s misery; this party, of whom I treat at this time, was a wretch, not to be matched, a fellow not to be fellowed, and one that scarce hath an equal, for matchless misery, and unnatural murder. But to the matter.

This John Rowse being a fishmonger in London, gave over his trade and lived altogether in the town of Ewell, near Nonsuch, in the county of Surrey, ten miles from London, where he had land of his own for himself and his heirs for ever to the valne of fifty pounds a year, with which he lived in good and honest fashion, being well reputed of all his neighbours, and in good estimation with gentlemen and others that dwelt in the adjoining villages.

Until at the last he married a very honest and comely woman, with whom he lived quietly and in good fashion some six months, till the devil sent an instrument of his to disturb their matrimonial happiness; for they wanting a maidservant, did entertain into their house a wench, whose name was Jane Blundell, who in short time was better acquainted with her master’s bed than honesty required, which in time was found out and known by her mistress, and brake the peace, in such sort, between the said Rowse and his wife, that in the end, after two year’s continuance, it brake the poor woman’s heart, that she died and left her husband a widower, where he and his whore were the more free to use their cursed contentments, and ungodly embracements.

Yet that estate of being unmarried, was displeasing to him, so that he took to wife another woman, who for her outward feature, and inward qualities was every way fit for a very honest man, although it were her hard fortune to match otherwise.

With this last wife of his he lived much discontented, by reason of his keeping his lewd trull in his house, so that by his daily riot, excessive drinking and unproportionable spending, his estate began to be much impoverished, much of his land mortgaged and forfeited, himself above two hundred pounds indebted, and in process of time to be, as a lewd liver, of all his honest neighbours rejected and contemned.

His estate and credit being almost past recovery wasted and impaired, he forsook his wife, came up to London with his wench, where he fell into a new league with a corrupted friend; who, as he said, did most courteously cozen him of all that ever he had, and whom at this time I forbear to name, because it was John Rowse his request before his execution, that he should not be named in any book or ballad, but yet upon a die his name may be picked out betwixt a Cinq and a Trois. This false friend of his, as he said, did persuade him to leave his wife for altogether, and did lodge and board him and his paramour certain weeks in his house, and afterward caused him and her to be lodged, having changed his name, as man and wife in an honest man’s house near Bishops-gate, at Bevis Marks.

Where they continued so long, till his money was gone, as indeed he never had much; but now and then small petty sums from his secret friend aforesaid, and he being fearful to be smooked out by his creditors, was counselled to leave his country and depart for Ireland. And before his going over sea, his friend wrought so, that all his land was made over in trust to him, and bonds, covenants, and leases made, as fully bought and sold for a sum of two hundred and threescore pounds. Of all which money the said Rowse did take the Sacrament at his death, that he never did receive one penny, but he said now and then he had five or ten shillings at a time from his said friend, and never above twenty shillings. And all that ever he had of him, being summed together, was not above three and twenty pounds, the which moneys his friend did pay himself out of his rents. But some more friend to him, than he was to himself, did doubt that he was cheated of his land; whereupon, to make all sure, he said that his false friend did so far prevail with him, that he the said Rowse took an oath in the open court at Westminster Hall, that he had lawfully sold his land, and had received the sum above said, in full satisfaction and payment, and his said friend did vow and protest many times unto him, with such oaths, and vehement curses, that he never would deceive his trust, but that at any time when he would command all those forged bonds and leases, that he would surrender them unto him, and that he should never be damnified by them or him, to the value of one half penny. Upon which protestations, he said, he was enticed to undo himself out of all his earthly possessions, and by a false oath to make hazard of his inheritance in heaven.

In Ireland he staid not long, but came over again, and was by his friend persuaded to go into the low countries; which he did, never minding his wife and two small children which he had by her, having likewise a brace of bastards by his whore, as some say, but he said that but one of them was of his begetting. But he, after some stay in Holland, saw that he could not fadge there, according to his desire and withal, suspecting that he was cheated of his land, and above all, much perplexed in his conscience for the false oath that he had taken, pondering his miserable estate, and rueing his unkindness to his wife, and unnatural dealing to his children, thinking with himself what course were best to take to help himself out of so many miseries which did incompass him, he came over again into England to his too dear friend, demanding of him his bonds and leases of his land which he had put him in trust withal. But then his friend did manifest himself what he was, and told him plainly, that he had no writings, nor any land of his, but what he had dearly bought and paid for. All which, Rowse replied unto him, was false, as his own conscience knew. Then said the other, have I not here in my custody your hand and seal to confirm my lawful possession of your land? and moreover, have I not a record of an oath in open court, which you took concerning the truth of all our bargain? And seeing that I have all these especial points of the law, as an oath, indentures, and a sure possession, take what course you will, for I am resolved to hold what I have.

These, or the like words, in effect passed betwixt Rowse and his friend, trusty Roger, which entering at his ears, pierced his heart like daggers; and being out of money and credit, a man much infamous for his bad life, indebted beyond all possible means of payment, a perjured wretch to cozen himself, having no place or means to feed or lodge, and fearful of being arrested, having so much abused his wife, and so little regarded his children, being now brought to the pit’s brim of desperation, not knowing amongst these calamities which way to turn himself, he resolved at last to go home to Ewell again to his much wronged wife for his last refuge in extremity.

The poor woman received him with joy, and his children with all gladness welcomed home the prodigal father, with whom he remained in much discontentment and perplexity of mind. The devil still tempting him to mischief and despair, putting him in mind of his former better estate, comparing pleasures past with present miseries; and he revolving that he had been a man in that town, had been a gentleman’s companion of good reputation and calling, that he had friends, lands, money, apparel, and credit, with means sufficient to have left for the maintenance of his family, and that now he had nothing left him but poverty and beggary, and that his two children were like to be left to go from door to door for their living.

Being thus tormented and tossed with restless imaginations, he seeing daily to his further grief, the poor case of his children, and fearing that worse would befall them hereafter, he resolved to work some means to take away their languishing lives by a speedy and untimely death, the which practice of his, by the devil’s instigation and assistance, he effected as followeth.

To be sure that nobody should stop or prevent his devilish enterprise, he sent his wife to London on a frivolous errand for a riding coat; and she being gone somewhat timely and too soon in the morning, both her children being in bed and fast asleep, being two very pretty girls, one of the age of six years, and the other four years old, none being in the house but themselves, their unfortunate father and his ghostly counsellor, the doors being fast locked; he having an excellent spring of water in the cellar of his house, which to a good mind that would have employed it well would have been a blessing, for the water is that of crystalline purity and clearness, that Queen Elizabeth of famous memory would daily send for it for her own use, in which he purposed to drown his poor innocent children sleeping. For he going into the chamber where they lay, took the youngest of them named Elizabeth forth of her bed and carried her down the stairs into his cellar, and there put her in the spring of water, holding down her head under that pure element with his hands, till at last the poor harmless soul and body parted one from another.

Which first act of this his inhuman tragedy being ended, he carried the dead corpse up three pair of stairs, and laying it down on the floor, left it, and went down into the chamber where his other daughter named Mary was in bed; being newly awakened, and seeing her father, demanded of him where her sister was? To whom he made answer that he would bring her where she was. So taking her in his arms he carried her down towards the cellar, and as he was on the cellar stairs she asked him what he would do, and whither he would carry her? Fear nothing, my child, quoth he, I will bring thee up again presently; and being come to the spring, as before he had done with the other, so he performed the last unfatherly deed upon her; and to be as good as his word, carried her up the stairs and laid her by her sister. That done, he laid them out and covered them both with a sheet, walking up and down his house weeping and lamenting his own misery and his friend’s treachery, that was the main ground of all his misfortunes and the death of his children; and though there was time and opportunity enough for him to fly, and to seek for safety, yet the burthen and guilt of his conscience was so heavy to him, and his desperate case was so extreme, that he never offered to depart, but as a man weary of his life, would, and did stay, till such time as ho was apprehended and sent to prison, where he lay till he was rewarded with a just deserved death.

What his other intents were after be had drowned his children is uncertain, for he drew his sword and laid it naked on a table, and after he gat a poor woman down into the cellar, and in the same place where the two infants lost their lives, he did help the woman to wring a buck of his clothes, and then he requested her to help to convey his goods out of his house, for he said that be feared that the sheriff of Surrey would come and seize upon all. But the woman not thinking of any of the harm that was done, imagined that he had meant that his goods would be seized for debt and not for murder.

But to return to the miserable mother of the murdered children, she said that her heart throbbed all the day, as fore-boding some heavy mischance to come; and having done her business that she came about to London, as soon as she came home she asked for her children, to whom her husband answered that they were at a neighbour’s house in the town. Then said she, I will go thither to fetch them home. No, quoth he, I will go myself presently for them. Then said his wife, let the poor woman that is here go and bring them home. But at last she saw such delay was used, she was going herself, then her husband told her that he had sent them to a kinsman’s of his at a village called Sutton, four miles from Ewell, and that he provided well for them, and prayed her to be contented and fear nothing for they were well. These double tales of his made her to doubt somewhat was amiss, therefore she entreated him for God’s sake to tell her truly where they were. Whereupon he said, “If you will needs know where they are, go but up the stairs into such a chamber and there you shall find them. But in what a lamentable perplexity of mind the poor woman was when she perceived how and which way they lost their lives, any Christian that hath an heart of flesh may imagine. Presently the constable was sent for, who took him into his custody, who amongst other talk, demanded of him why and how he could commit so unnatural a fact as to murder his children? To whom he answered that he did it because he was not able to keep them, and that he was loth they should go about the town a begging; and moreover, that they were his own, and being so, that he might do what he would with them, and that they had their lives from him, and therefore he had taken their lives from them, and was contented to lose his life for them; for he was sure that their miseries were past, and for his part, he had an assured hope to go to them, though they could not come to him.

So being had before justice his examination was very brief, for he confessed all the whole circumstances of the matter freely, so that he was sent to the common prison of Surrey called the White Lion, where he remained fourteen or fifteen weeks a wonderful penitent prisoner, never, or very seldom, being without a bible or some other good book meditating upon; and when any one did but mention his children, he would fetch a deep sigh and weep, desiring every one to pray for him; and upon his own earnest request, he was prayed for at Paul’s Cross, and at most of the churches in London, and at many in the country, and at the Sessions holden at Croydon the latter end of June last. He made such free confession at the bar, declaring the manner of his life, his odious drinking, his abominable whoring, his cruel murder, and the false dealing of his deceitful friend, which was the cause of his final wreck, with which relations of his pronounced with such vehemency and protestations, he moved all that heard him to commiseration and pity.

So according to law and justice, he was there condemned and judged for the murdering of his two children to be hanged; which judgment was executed on him at the common gallows at Croydon, on Monday the second day of June, 1621, where he died with great penitency and remorse of conscience.

This was the lamentable end of John Rowse, a man of the age of fifty years, and one that might have lived and died in better fashion, if he had laid hold on the grace of heaven, and craved God’s protection and fatherly assistance. But of all that herein is declared, this one thing which I now declare, is most lamentable and remarkable, which is that Ewell being a market town not much above ten miles from London, in a Christian kingdom, and such a kingdom where the all-saving Word of the ever-living God is most diligently, sincerely, and plentifully preached; and yet amidst this diligence, as it were in the circle or centre of his sincerity, and in the flood of this plenty, the town of Ewell hath neither preacher nor pastor. For although the parsonage be able to maintain a sufficient preacher, yet the living being in a layman’s hand, is rented out to another for a great sum, and yet no preacher maintained there. Now the chief landlord out of his portion doth allow but seven pounds yearly for a reader, and the other that doth hire the parsonage at a great rent doth give the said reader four pounds the year more out of his means and courtesy. And by this means the town is served with a poor old man that is half blind, and by reason of his age can scarcely read. For all the world knows that so small a stipend cannot find a good preacher, books, and very hardly bread to live on; so that the poor souls dwelling there are in danger of famishing for want of a good preacher to break the Bread of Life unto them. For a sermon amongst them is as rare as warm weather in December or ice in July; both which I have seen in England though but seldom.

And as the wolf is most bold with the sheep when there is either no shepherd or an impotent, insufficient one, so the devil perhaps took his advantage of this wretched man, seeing he was so badly guarded and so weakly guided to withstand his force and malice; for where God is least known and called upon, there Satan hath most power and domination. But howsoever, I wish with all my heart, that that town and many more were better provided than they are, and then such numbers of souls would not be in hazard to perish; nor so many sufficient scholars that can preach and teach well, live in penury through want of maintenance. I could run further upon this point, but that I shortly purpose to touch it more to the quick in another book.

By this man’s fall we may see an example of God’s justice against drunkenness, whoredom and murder. The devil being the first author, who was a murderer from the beginning; who filled Cain with envy that he murdered his brother Abel; who tempted David first to adultery and afterwards to murder; who provoked Herod to cause the blessed servant of God, John Baptist, to lose his head, because he told him it was not lawful for him to marry his brother Philip’s wife; and who was the provoker of the aforesaid Herod to murder all the innocent male children in his kingdom. And let us but mark and consider the plagues and punishments that God hath inflicted upon murderers, adulterers, and incestuous persons. First Cain, although by his birth he was the first man that ever was born, a prince by his birth, and heir apparent to all the world, yet for the murder by him committed on his brother, he was the first vagabond and runagate on the face of the earth, almost fearful of his own shadow; and after he had lived a long time terrified in conscience, was himself slain, as is supposed, by Lamech, Simeon, and Levi. The sons of Jacob were accursed of their Father for the slaughter of the Sichemites; Joab, the captain of David’s host, was slain for the murdering of Abner; David himself, for the death of Urias and the adultery committed with Bethsheba, was continually plagued and vexed with the sword of war, with the rebellion of his own sons, and with the untimely deaths of Amnon and Absalom. Banuah and Rechab, for the slaying of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, they were both by David’s commandment put to death, who had both their hands and feet cut off, and were afterwards hanged over the Pool in Hebron, (Samuel 2. 4.) The examples are infinite out of divine and human histories, that God did never suffer murder to go unrewarded; and this miserable man, of whom I have here related, is a most manifest spectacle of God’s revenging vengeance for that crying and heinous sin.

As concerning lust and incontinency, it is a short pleasure bought with long pain, a honeyed poison, a gul of shame, a pickpurse, a breeder of diseases, a gall to the conscience, a corrosive to the heart, turning man’s wit into foolish madness, the body’s bane and the soul’s perdition. It is excessive in youth and odious in age, besides God himself doth denounce most fearful threats against fornicators and adulterers, as the apostle saith, that whoremongers and adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven, (1 Cor. 6. 9). And God himself saith, that he will be a swift witness against adulterers, (Mal. 3. 5). And the wise man saith, that because of the whorish woman, a man is brought to a morsel of bread, and a woman will hunt for the precious life of a man; for saith he, can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burnt 1 or can a man go up on hot coals, and his feet not be burnt? So he that goeth into his neighbour’s wife, shall not be innocent, (Prov. 6, 27, 28, 29). Abimeleoh, one of the sons of Gideon, murdered three-score and ten of his brethren, and in reward thereof, by the just judgment of God, a woman with a piece of a millstone beat out his brains, after he had usurped the kmgdom three years (Judges 9th). Our English chronicles make mention that Roger Mortimer, Lord Baron of Wallingford, murdered his master, King Edward the second, and caused the King’s uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, causelessly to be beheaded; but God’s justice overtook him at last, so that for the said murders he was shamefully executed. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was murdered in the Abbey of Bury by William de la Poole, Duke of Suffolk, who afterwards was beheaded himself on the sea by a pirate. Arden of Faversham, and Page of Plymouth, both their murders are fresh in memory, and the fearful ends of their wives and their aiders in those bloody actions will never be forgotten.

It is too manifestly known what a number of stepmothers and strumpets have most inhumanly murdered their children, and for the same have most deservedly been executed. But in the memory of man, nor scarcely in any history, it is not to be found, that a father did ever take two innocent children out of their beds, and with weeping tears of pitiless pity and unmerciful mercy, to drown them, showing such compassionate cruelty and sorrowful sighing, remorseless remorse in that most unfatherly and unnatural deed.

All which may be attributed to the malice of the devil, whose will and endeavour is that none should be saved who lays out his traps and snares, entangling some with lust, some with covetousness, some with ambition, drunkenness, envy, murder, sloth or any vice whereto he sees a man or a woman most inclined unto, as he did by this wretched man lulling him, as it were, in the cradle of sensuality and ungodly delight, until such time as all his means, reputation, and credit was gone, and nothing left him but misery and reproach. Then he leads him along through doubts and fears to have no hope in God’s providence, persuading his conscience that his sins were unpardonable, and his estate and credit unrecoverable.

With these suggestions he led him on to despair, and in desperation to kill his children and make shipwreck of his own soul, in which the diligence of the devil appeareth, that he labours and travels incessantly; and as Saint Bernard saith, in the last day shall rise in condemnation against us, because he hath ever been more diligent to destroy souls than we have been to save them. And for a conclusion, let us beseech God of his infinite mercy to defend us from all the subtle temptations of Satan.


JOHN ROWSE his prayer for pardon of his lewd life, which he used to pray in the time of his imprisonment.

God of my soul and body, have mercy upon me; the one I have cast away by my folly, and the other is likely to perish in thy fury, unless in thy great mercy thou save it. Sly sins are deep seas to drown me; I am swallowed up in the bottomless gulf of my own transgressions. With Cain I have been a murderer, and with Judas a betrayer of the innocent. My body is a slave to Satan, and my wretched soul is devoured up by hell. Black have been my thoughts, and blacker are my deeds. I have been the devil’s instrument, and am now become the scorn of men; a serpent upon earth, and an outcast from heaven. What therefore can become of me, miserable caitiff? If I look to my Redeemer, to him I am an arch-traitor, if upon earth, it is drowned with blood of my shedding, if into hell, there I see my conscience burning in the brimstone lake. God of my soul and body have mercy therefore upon; save me, O save me, or else I perish for ever. I die for ever in the world to come, unless, sweet Lord, thou catchest my repentant soul in thine arms. O save me, save me, save me.


JOHN ROWSE of Ewell, his own arraignment, confession, condemnation, and judgment of himself whilst he lay prisoner in the White Lion, for drowning of his two children.

I am arraign’d at the black dreadful bar,
Where sins, so red as scarlet, judges are;
All my indictments are my horrid crimes,
Whose story will affright succeeding times,
As, now, they drive the present into wonder,
Making men tremble as trees struck with thunder.

If any asks what evidence comes in?
O ’tis my conscience, which hath ever been
A thousand witnesses: and now it tells
A tale, to cast me to ten thousand hells.

The jury are my thoughts, upright in this,
They sentence me to death for doing amiss:
Examinations more there need not then,
Than what’s confess’d here both to God and men.

That crier of the court is my black shame,
Which when it calls my jury doth proclaim,
Unless, as they are summon’d, they appear,
To give true verdict of the prisoner,
They shall have heavy fines upon them set,

Such, as may make them die deep in heaven’s debt;
About me round sit and innocence and truth,
As clerks to this high court; and little Ruth
From peoples eyes is cast upon my face,
Because my facts are barbarous, damn’d and base.

The officers that ’bout me, thick, are plac’d,
To guard me to my death, when I am cast,
Are the black stings my speckled soul now feels,
Which like to furies dog me, close at heels.
The hangman that attends me, is despair,
And gnawing worms my fellow-prisoners are.

His Indictment for Murder of his Children.

The first who, at this Sessions, loud doth call me
Is murder, whose grim visage doth appal me;
His eyes are fires, his voice rough wind out-roars,
And on my head the Divine vengeance scores;
So fast and fearfully I sink to ground,
And wish I were in twenty oceans drownd.

He says, I have a bloody villain been,
And, to prove this, ripe evidence steps in,
Brow’d like myself, justice so brings about,
That black sins still hunt one another out;
‘Tis like a rotten frame ready to fall,
For one main post being shaken, pulls down all.

To this indictment, holding up my hand,
Fettered with terrors more than irons stand,
And being asked what to the bill I say,
Guilty, I cry. O dreadful Sessions day!

His Judgment

For these thick Stygian streams in which th’ast sworn,
Thy guilt hath on thee laid this bitter doom;
Thy loath’d life on a tree of shame must take
A leave compelled by law, e’er old age make
Her signed pass-port ready. Thy offence
No longer can for days on earth dispense.
Time blot thy name out of this bloody roll,
And so the Lord have mercy on my soul.

His speech what he could say for himself.

O wretched caitiff! what persuasive breath,
Can call back this just sentence of quick death?
I beg no boon, but mercy at God’s hands,
The King of Kings, the Sovereign that commands
Both soul and body, O let him forgive
My treason to his throne, and whilst I live,
Jibbets and racks shall torture limb by limb,
Through worlds of deaths I’ll break to fly to him.
My birth-day gave not to my mother’s womb,
More ease, than this shall joys, whene’er it come.
My body mould to earth, sins sink to hell,
My penitent soul win heaven, vain world farewell.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Public Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1621: Christenze Kruckow, philanthropic witch

2 comments June 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.

Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.

From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.

On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.

But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.

Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.

In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.

* Or 17. Sources vary, but you’d lose count too.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Milestones,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself and the succession of a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — the younger Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Spain,The Worm Turns

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1621: Bohemia’s “Day of Blood”

5 comments June 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1621, the Habsburg crown took 27 nobles’ heads in Prague’s Old Town Square for attempting to lead Bohemia to independence.

A century into the Protestant Reformation, the many conflicts between the prerogatives of princes and prelates were about to spawn the Thirty Years’ War — a settling of accounts eventually to lay the cornerstone of modern national sovereignty.

And it all got started in the mother of cities.

Predominantly Protestant Bohemia was at loggerheads with the doctrinaire Catholic slated to become the next Holy Roman Emperor, and as rising tensions in Prague between the faiths took on a patriotic tone, a mob chucked a couple of imperial representatives out the window of Prague Castle.

The Defenestration of Prague. It’s a great word for a great political tradition — there are multiple Defenestrations of Prague in Czech history.

The royal retainers survived the plunge, thanks to miraculous angelic intervention [Catholic version], or to fortuitously landing on a dunghill [Protestant version]. (Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.)

Either way, it was game on. The Protestant nobility refused to recognize the Habsburg heir and offered the crown to a Calvinist toff instead.

This Frederick V, Elector Palatine answers to the nickname “the winter king” — because by the next winter, the Catholics had overrun Bohemia and driven Frederick off to the dissolute life of exiled nobility, where he anonymously knocked around the Low Countries and accidentally sired the modern line of British royalty.

Good choice: the Czech lands soon felt the monarch’s wrath.

J.E. Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church — which treats especially a distinctive strain of local Christianity with roots in the pre-Lutheran Hussite movement, and which although shattered by the failed revolt still persists today — narrates the result for the 27 unluckiest nobles:

There fell the flower of the Bohemian nobility … Among these were various shades of faith — Lutherans, Calvinists, Utraquists, Brethren; but now all differences were laid aside, for all was nearly over …


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bohemian nobles’ execution. Note the block on the scaffold foreground for chopping off hands.

Swiftly, in order, and without much cruelty the gory work was done. The morning’s programme had all been carefully arranged. At each corner of the square was a squad of soldiers to hold the people in awe, and to prevent an attempt at rescue. One man, named Mydlar, was the executioner; and, being a Protestant, he performed his duties with as much decency and humanity as possible. He used four different swords … The first of these swords is still to be seen at Prague, and has the names of its eleven victims engraven upon it. … In every instance Mydlar seems to have done his duty at one blow. At his side stood an assistant, and six masked men in black. As soon as Mydlar had severed the neck, the assistant placed the dead man’s right hand on the block; the sword fell again; the hand dropped at the wrist; and the men in black, as silent as night, gathered up the bleeding members …

Much more general reprisals were in store, too. One of Europe’s most liberal writs of religious toleration was swiftly revoked. Catholicism was imposed from above, with Marian columns thrown up in every town. German became the official language. Books were burned by the thousand. Protestants fled or were expelled over the years to come in such numbers that (combined with the general devastation of a war that wrought famine on Europe), modern Czechia’s population had dropped by a third by the Peace of Westphalia.

And while the war the Bohemians helped touch off would win recognition for several small polities breaking away from dynastic imperial formations and cement the principle for other such states to follow, Bohemia itself would remain yoked to the Habsburgs until World War I.

Nobody’s nursing any grudges against the headless nobles for all this, however. Now that the Czech Republic has finally got a place to hang its hat in the community of nations, it keeps 27 white crosses in the Old Town Square bricks as homage to the Day of Blood.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

August 2019
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!