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.