1312: Piers Gaveston

3 comments June 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston is commonly believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,History,Homosexuals,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,The Worm Turns

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1593: John Penry, Shakespeare’s midwife?

4 comments May 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a Welsh divine with a poor impression of the Church of England was hustled off from dinner to be strung up for sedition.

Dismayed by the poor quality of pastors in his native Wales — men of poor character, poor education, and poor command of Welsh — John Penry was one of many calling for a reformed Episcopal clergy. Critiques of his type formed the germ of the Puritan movement already underway, which would blossom after his death.

Penry would have been around to see all that if he hadn’t hacked off the realm’s chief vicar by running a salty underground press, most notably publishing the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate.

(These satiric treats can be savored here. The identity of their author(s) has always been debated — Penry himself is one candidate, though not a fashionable one today, as his attributed writing seems too earnest to have come from the same pen as Martin Marprelate.)

Hold the Dessert

The Oxford man dodged the law for a good three years in the Scottish reaches, until he couldn’t resist moving to London, where (fittingly) a local clergyman recognized him.

The mere draft — nasty, but uncirculated — of a petition sufficed for the condemnation on grounds of sedition, and the annoyed Archbishop had the pleasure of inking his John Hancock on the Welshman’s death warrant.

Penry seems to have had a few friends in high places and some hope of cheating the executioner; he must have been taken by surprise when the sheriff burst in during the late afternoon this day to haul him immediately to a gallows at St. Thomas a Watering — unannounced, the better to keep attendance down,* with the prisoner denied the customary parting speech.

“Hang him with his pen”

But was Penry’s ill turn a boon to the world of literature?

The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious.

Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.

The Welsh Martyr

Shakespeare aside, Penry remains “the Welsh martyr” to this day, reckoned the greatest Protestant martyr of his land. (For more about him, a sympathetic 19th century tract, John Penry, the Pilgrim Martyr, is available free from Google books.)

The injury of his draconian sentence is so far from forgotten in Wales that — hot off the presses — the 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked for a mea culpa on behalf of his 16th century predecessor.

Coincidentally, John Penry is also the name of a murderer and longtime death row prisoner in the USA, once the subject of a landmark decision** permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. That modern Penry is now serving a life sentence.

* Penry’s family and friends didn’t know about the hanging until it had already happened.

** Since reversed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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