1649: Three Banbury mutineers at Burford church

Add comment May 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.

The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.

This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.

Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.

Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.

In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,

the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.

Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.

Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.

The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.


(cc) image from Kaihsu Tai.

On month’s end, Cromwell was certifying to Parliament that mutinous Levellers had all been pacified … and come August, he was ravaging Ireland as planned.

The Saturday nearest May 17th is marked each year in Burford as Levellers Day. (The next one as of this writing is Saturday, 20 May 2017.)

* The Biblical allusion was current in the culture; Cromwell invoked the same phrase a few years later when he dismissed the Rump Parliament.

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1649: Saint Jean de Brébeuf, missionary to the Huron

2 comments March 16th, 2013 Headsman

It was on this date that the Jesuit missionary Saint Jean de Brébeuf was martyred by indigenous Iroquois near present-day Midland, Ontario.

(cc) image from Patrick Shanks

Brebeuf was of Norman stock, kin to poet Georges de Brebeuf.

Ordained in 1622, Brebeuf soon decamped to the New World to Christianize the natives.

There he teamed up with another Jesuit missionary named Gabriel Lalemant and established the Sainte-Marie among the Hurons mission.

As the name advertises, this outpost aimed to minister to the Hurons (Wyandot); to that end, Brebeuf — who learned the local tongue well enough to write a catechism and a dictionary — composed the still-beloved Christmas song “Huron Carol”.

Brebeuf’s own missives recording Huron established him an energetic chronicler who has been styled Canada’s first serious ethnographer. For instance, Brebeuf on the POW treatment he saw the Huron dish out:

when they seize some of their enemies, they treat them with all the cruelty they can devise. Five or six days will sometimes pass in assuaging their wrath, and in burning them at a slow fire; and they are not satisfied with seeing their skins entirely roasted, — they open the legs, the thighs, the arms, and the most fleshy parts, and thrust therein glowing brands, or red-hot hatchets … After having at last brained a victim, if he was a brave man, they tear out his heart, roast it on the coals, and distribute it in pieces to the young men; they think that this renders them courageous … we hope, with the assistance of Heaven, that the knowledge of the true God will entirely banish from this Country such barbarity. (From the Jesuit Relations, volume 10)

Well … not just yet.

Brebeuf regrettably foreshadowed his own ghastly fate, for during his ministry, the Huron and Iroquois went to war. No fewer than eight men posted to Brebeuf’s mission were martyred during 1640s Huron-Iroquois wars.

On March 16, 1649, Iroquois captured Brebeuf and Lalemant, and subjected them to a horrific death just like the sort of thing Brebeuf had seen inflicted by the Huron. Other Jesuit missionaries recorded the tortures from eyewitness accounts given in the subsequent weeks:

As soon as they were taken captive, they were stripped naked, and some of their nails were torn out; and the welcome which they received upon entering the village of St. Ignace was a hailstorm of blows with sticks upon their shoulders, their loins, their legs, their breasts, their bellies, and their faces, — there being no part of their bodies which did not then endure its torment.

Father Jean de Brebeuf, overwhelmed under the burden of these blows, did not on that account lose care for his flock; seeing himself surrounded with Christians whom he had instructed, and who were in captivity with him, he said to them: “My children, let us lift our eyes to Heaven at the height of our afflictions; let us remember that God is the witness of our sufferings, and will soon be our exceeding great reward. Let us die in this faith; and let us hope from his goodness the fulfillment of his promises. I have more pity for you than for myself; but sustain with courage the few remaining torments. They will end with our lives; the glory which follows them will never have an end.” “Echon,” they said to him (this is the name which the Hurons gave the Father), “our spirits will be in Heaven when our bodies shall be suffering on earth. Pray to God for us, that he may show us mercy; we will invoke him even until death.”

Some Huron Infidels — former captives of the Iroquois, naturalized among them, and former enemies of the Faith — were irritated by these words, and because our Fathers in their captivity had not their tongues captive. They cut off the hands of one, and pierce the other with sharp awls and iron points; they apply under their armpits and upon their loins hatchets heated red in the fire, and put a necklace of these about their necks in such a way that all the motions of their bodies gave them a new torture. For, if they attempted to lean forward, the red-hot hatchets which hung behind them burned the shoulders everywhere; and if they thought to avoid that pain, bending back a little, their stomachs and breasts experienced a similar torment; if they stood upright, without leaning to one side or the other, these glowing hatchets, touching them alike on all sides, were a double torture to them. They put about them belts of bark, filled with pitch and resin, to which they set fire, which scorched the whole of their bodies.

At the height of these torments, Father Gabriel Lallement lifted his eyes to Heaven, clasping his hands from time to time, and uttering sighs to God, whom he invoked to his aid. Father Jean de Brebeuf suffered like a rock, insensible to the fires and the flames, without uttering any cry, and keeping a profound silence, which astonished his executioners themselves: no doubt, his heart was then reposing in his God. Then, returning to himself, he preached to those Infidels, and still more to many good Christian captives, who had compassion on him.

Those butchers, indignant at his zeal, in order to hinder him from further speaking of God, girdled his mouth, cut off his nose, and tore off his lips; but his blood spoke much more loudly than his lips had done; and, his heart not being yet torn out, his tongue did not fail to render him service until the last sigh, for blessing God for these torments, and for animating the Christians more vigorously than he had ever done.

In derision of holy Baptism, — which these good Fathers had so charitably administered even at the breach, and in the hottest of the fight,—those wretches, enemies of the Faith, bethought themselves to baptize them with boiling water. Their bodies were entirely bathed with it, two or three times, and more, with biting gibes, which accompanied these torments. “We baptize thee,” said these wretches, “to the end that thou mayst be blessed in Heaven; for without proper Baptism one cannot be saved.” Others added, mocking, “we treat thee as a friend, since we shall be the cause of thy greatest happiness up in Heaven; thank us for so many good offices, — for, the more thou sufferest, the more thy God will reward thee.”

These were Infidel Hurons, former captives of the Iroquois, and, of old, enemies of the Faith, — who, having previously had sufficient instruction for their salvation, impiously abused it, — in reality, for the glory of the Fathers; but it is much to be feared that it was also for their own misfortune.

The more these torments were augmented, the more the Fathers entreated God that their sins should not be the cause of the reprobation of these poor blind ones, whom they pardoned with all their heart. It is surely now that they say in repose, Transivimus per ignem et aquam, et eduxisti nos in refrigerium.

When they were fastened to the post where they suffered these torments, and where they were to die, they knelt down, they embraced it with joy, and kissed it piously as the object of their desires and their love, and as a sure and final pledge of their salvation. They were there some time in prayers, and longer than those butchers were willing to permit them. They put out Father Gabriel Lallement’s eyes and applied burning coals in the hollows of the same.

Their tortures were not of the same duration. Father Jean de Brebeuf was at the height of his torments at about three o’clock on the same day of the capture, the 16th day of March, and rendered up his soul about four o ‘ clock in the evening. Father Gabriel Lallement endured longer, from six o’clock in the evening until about nine o’clock the next morning, the seventeenth of March.

Before their death, both their hearts were torn out, by means of an opening above the breast; and those Barbarians inhumanly feasted thereon, drinking their blood quite warm, which they drew from its source with sacrilegious hands. While still quite full of life, pieces of flesh were removed from their thighs, from the calves of the legs, and from their arms, — which those executioners placed on coals to roast, and ate in their sight.

They had slashed their bodies in various parts; and, in order to increase the feeling of pain, they had thrust into these wounds red-hot hatchets.

Father Jean de Brebeuf had had the skin which covered his skull torn away; they had cut off his feet and torn the flesh from his thighs, even to the bone, and had split, with the blow of a hatchet, one of his jaws in two.

Father Gabriel Lallement had received a hatchet- blow on the left ear, which they had driven into his brain, which appeared exposed; we saw no part of his body, from the feet even to the head, which had not been broiled, and in which he had not been burned alive,—even the eyes, into which those impious ones had thrust burning coals.

They had broiled their tongues, repeatedly putting into their mouths flaming brands, and burning pieces of bark, — not willing that they should invoke, in dying, him for whom they were suffering, and who could never die in their hearts. I have learned all this from persons worthy of credence, who have seen it, and reported it to me personally, and who were then captives with them, — but who having been reserved to be put to death at another time, found means to escape.

But let us leave these objects of horror, and these monsters of cruelty; since one day all those parts will be endowed with an immortal glory, the greatness of their torments will be the measure of their happiness, and, from now on, they live in the repose of the Saints, and will dwell in it forever.

Brebeuf’s intercultural legacy allegedly lives on in sport form. Though it’s unverifiable folklore, it is said that Brebeuf saw Iroquois tribesmen playing the game of baggataway and, reckoning the sticks used to manipulate the ball resembled bishops’ croziers, conferred upon the game the name lacrosse.

Europeanized versions of this game (“with a few genteel refinements”) remain wildly popular in Canada, and are growing throughout North America. Lax bros can be found especially in the environs of well-heeled private high schools … like Brebeuf Jesuit Prep School (Indianapolis, Indiana).

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1649: Robert Lockyer, Leveller

2 comments April 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Robert Lockyer (or Lockier) was shot before the scenic backdrop of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral* for the Leveller-inspired Bishopsgate mutiny.

These weeks following the epochal execution of the late king Charles I were also the climax of a pivotal intra-party conflict among the triumphant Parliamentarians … one whose class dimensions map a lot more readily to a modern template. Levellers were, “in a small way, the precursors of the ‘Socialists’ of 1849” in the words of this popular history.

The prosperous gentry represented by the Grandee faction were just fine with the whip hand they’d obtained in government by overturning the monarchy; against them were arrayed the more radical Levellers (or “Agitators”) who could not fail to notice that they had no say in electing the Parliament upheld by their victorious arms, and an oligarchy governing them that bore a suspicious resemblance to the supposedly defeated nobility.

So there was that.

Meanwhile, up in high statecraft, Oliver Cromwell was preparing to make his name accursed of Ireland by smashing up the island and the Grandees hit upon an arrangement as expedient for fiscal ambitions as for territorial: the soldiers assigned to this expedition would have the opportunity to opt out of it, for the low low price of forfeiting the substantial back pay they were due from those years of civil war — pay whose fulfillment was naturally a chief Leveller demand.

How did this cunning plan to pillage the soldiery’s pensions to conquer Ireland go over in the ranks? Reader, not well.

Since the same reason that shall subject them unto us in generall, or any of us singly, may subject us unto them or any other that shall subdue; now how contrary this is to the common interest of mankind let all the world judge, for a people that desire to live free, must almost equally with themselves, defend others from subjection, the reason is because the subjecting of others make(s) the subdued strive for Dominion over you, since that is the only way you have left them to acquire their common liberty.**

So there was that, on top of that.

Grumblings gave way to refusals to march, and the refusal by a regiment stationed in Bishopsgate to leave London lest it also leave its leverage soon became the eponymous mutiny of this post — the Bishopsgate Mutiny.

Grandees quelled this particular insubordination without need of bloodshed, but thought it meet to deliver a little anyway as proof in this fraught political environment against the next such affair. Six of the soldiers drew military death sentences; Cromwell pardoned five, but let known Leveller/Agitator firebrand Lockyer go to his death over the appeals of Leveller leaders like John Lilburne and Richard Overton.

The signal was unmistakable — certainly to the thousands who donned Leveller colors to follow Lockyer’s funeral procession through London.

In the days following Lockyer’s execution, several Leveller-inspired regiments would openly rise … what proved to be the movement’s last great stand, efficiently crushed by Cromwell.

*The Parliamentarians had twisted high church dogmatists by putting Old St. Paul’s Cathedral to profane use as a cavalry stable, which employment actually made it a sort-of suitable place for a military execution. (The current structure was rebuilt on the same site after the previous church succumbed to the Great Fire of London.)

** From Mercurius Militaris, quoted by Norah Carlin, “The Levellers and the Conquest of Ireland in 1649,” The Historical Journal, June 1987 — which, however, makes the case that while the Levellers were obviously not cool with the pay expropriation, their opinion on the Ireland conquest in the abstract was far from uniformly anti-imperial.

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1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner

5 comments April 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.

John Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil War.

But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**

Only with a painstaking siege was the imposing medieval fortress of Pembroke reduced. Poyer, his superior Rowland Laugharne, and Rice Powell were hauled to London and condemned to death.†

In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.

Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.

Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡

Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.

* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)

** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.

† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.

‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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