1549: Thomas Seymour, more wit than judgment

Add comment March 20th, 2018 Headsman

Having been elevated to the shadow of the throne by one sibling, Thomas Seymour on this date in 1549 was seen to the block by another sibling.

The brother of Henry VIII’s favorite queen, Jane Seymour, our Thomas was when that burly king kicked the bucket beautifully positioned for a share of power, being named to the regency council that would govern for his nephew, nine-year-old heir Edward VI.

What dreams may come!

But Thomas Seymour would find like many a Tudor courtier before and after him, that around the throne it thunders.

His vaunting ambitions were blocked by the oldest ogre of all, big brother: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who surpassed our Thomas in ability and seniority alike, was the man who rose to the top of the regency and as Lord Protector exercised sovereignty in the child-king’s name. “As the Duke was elder in Years, so was he more staid in Behaviour,” one history has it, observing that Thomas Seymour “was fierce in Courage, courtly in Fashion, in Personage stately, in Voice magnificent, but somewhat empty of Matter.”

Courageous, empty Thomas — whom we shall call Sudeley for the sake of his barony* and our clarity — took a more generous estimate of his own talents and the boys soon festered a sibling rivalry of uncommon consequence. Our man connived to attract the favor of young Edward, inveigling and cajoling him to exercise his kingly prerogatives to lever Somerset out and Sudeley in. This campaign found little traction among fellow regents and finally came to the desperate strait of Sudeley skulking on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace one night in January 1549 in a possible adventure to kidnap the king. Instead, it landed him in the Tower with treason charges pending after he gave away the game by shooting one of the king’s barking dogs. It would afterwards emerge that he had conspired with a corrupted official of the mint to coin him a sum sufficient to furnish the rebellious army he had allegedly already begun recruiting.

King Edward wasn’t the only underage royal to labor under Sudeley’s excessive attentions.

This chancer had married the former queen, Catherine Parr, and in early 1548 they had the young princess ElizabethAnne Boleyn‘s daughter, the future queen, who was here all of 14 years old** — living with them at Chelsea. Pushing 40, the cocksure Sudeley got far too friendly with Elizabeth, repeatedly entering her chambers early in the morning despite the reprimands of Elizabeth’s governess and playing a lot of slap and tickle. It’s ambiguous just how far this frolic went and what Elizabeth thought about it but despite Catherine Parr’s occasional participation in such romps(!) Sudeley did eventually cross his wife’s boundary for good, giving, and game. As that governess explained,

the Admiral [Sudeley] had loved the Princess but too well, and had so done for a long while … [until] the Queen [Catherine Parr], suspecting too often access of the Admiral to the lady Elizabeth’s Grace, came suddenly upon them, when they were all alone (he having her in his arms). Whereupon the Queen fell out both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also … And this was not long before they parted asunder their families [households].

By the time Sudeley fell, he had resumed his suit of Elizabeth, Catherine Parr having died late in 1548 from childbirth — or, as was rumored, poison. It wasn’t merely that Sudeley was on the perv; he had married Catherine Parr secretly, against the will of the council, and that he now intended the princess should succeed the queen in his bed augured a seditious intent. The regents found out about it and swiped left, and their cockblock might have been the spur for Sudeley’s desperate attempt to grab the king’s own person; certainly his efforts to wed the princess featured among the many charges laid by the bill of attainder that claimed Sudeley’s head.

Her stalker’s attentions also put Elizabeth under close questioning and had she not the sangfroid to deny resolutely any part in the man’s schemes her history, and ours, might have gone very differently. It’s not the last time that Elizabeth proved her mettle under interrogation.

As for Thomas Seymour himself, a delicate proceedings unfolded in the winter of 1549 with the Lord Protector and the King ultimately both assenting to a fatal prosecution of their kinsman, and perhaps also to a convenient magnification of his faults. For example, it was said that he went scheming literally all the way to the block, having prepared secret revengeful letters for posthumous delivery intended to set the princesses Mary and Elizabeth against his brother; this detail would lead Hugh Latimer to preach about the Lord Admiral — “a covetous man … an ambitious man … a seditious man, a contemner of common prayer”:

As touching the kind of his death, whether he be saved or no, I refer that to God only. What God can do, I can tell. I will not deny, but that he may in the twinkling of an eye save a man, and turn his heart. What he did, I cannot tell. And when a man hath two strokes with an axe, who can tell but that between two strokes he doth repent? It is very hard to judge. Well, I will not go so nigh to work; but this I will say, if they ask me what I think of his death, that he died very dangerously, irksomely, horribly.

Edward Seymour himself set his own hand to his brother’s death warrant in concert with the rest of the regency council. In a fine case study for parents who might wish to impress quarreling children with their interest in finding common purpose, Edward met the same fate inside of three years.

As for the savvy young Elizabeth, this early brush with reckless sexuality, political intrigue, and the perpetual proximity of the headsman’s axe, was perhaps an instructive event that would help to see her to her own glory. Her would-be lover had admirable qualities but she perceived well enough how they weighed as compared to his incontinence, and she quipped the definitive epitaph upon receiving news of his destruction: “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement.”

* Sudeley Castle still stands today, and is open to tourists.

** Also crashing at the maison Sudeley in 1548: Lady Jane Grey. One of Sudeley’s numerous vain machinations was to orchestrate a Jane Grey-Edward VI marriage.

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1584: Five Catholic priests

Add comment February 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Hungerford Pollen collected and translated this document in Unpublished Documents Relating to the English Martyrs. It comprises the testimony of a friendly Catholic witness to the martyrdom of five priests at Tyburn on this date in 1584, as conveyed to another priest, the future martyr Robert Southwell. The historical moment for these martyrdoms was the weeks following the exposure of the Catholic Throckmorton Plot; most of the priests had been in prison many months, but appear to have their martyrdoms catalyzed by a seemingly perilous security situation.

The Martyrdome of Mr Haddock, Emerford, Fenn, Mutter, priests.

The 6 day of February Mr Heywood and five other priests were brought to the Kings-bench barre, indited of high treason for conspiring at Rhemes and Rome, as it was surmised against F. Campian. They all pleaded not guilty and so were conveyed to the Tower. F. Haywood was in Jesuit’s weed, so grave a man as ever I sett my eyes upon, he wore a coate of black very low and upon the same a cloke of black, downe almost to the grownde. He had in his hand a black staff and upon his head a velvet coyfe and there upon a broade seemly black felt.

The 9 [sic] of February the five priests were brought againe to the barre, and arrained upon the former endightment: they pleaded and protested innocency. Their old friend [Charles] Sledd [an informer noted, like George Eliot, for turning in Catholic priests -ed.] gave in evidence against them: The Jury found them out of hand Guilty, and the Judge gave sentence of death. Whereupon the priests soung Te Deum and such like godly verses.

Upon Wednesday being the last day of the Terme, these five priests were drawen from the Tower to Tyborne upon hurdles; the first that was brought into the cart under the gibbet was Mr Haddock, a man in complexion fayre, of countenance milde, and in professing of his faith passing stoute. One of the Sherifs called Spencer much incensed against them, together with certaine ministers bad Mr Haddock confesse the fact and ask the Queen forgivenesse. Whereupon Mr Haddock calling God to witnesse, protested upon his soule that he was not guilty of the treason, and therfore would not aske the Queen forgivenesse: and further sayd, ‘I take her for my lawfull Queen, I have seyd this morning these many paternosters for her, and I pray God she may raigne long Queene. If I had her in the wildernesse I would not for all the world putt a pinn towards her with intent to hurt her.’

Then seyd the Sherif Spenser, ‘There is since thy arrainment worse matter found against thee [by Munday the spye]': Whereunto answered Mr Haddock, ‘You have found nothing since; and soe belyke I was wrongfully arrained.’

Then Antony Munday was brought in, who uttered these speeches, ‘Upon a time you and I, with another whose name I have forgotten, walking together at Rome, the other wished the harts [Munday actually said ‘heads’ -ed.] of 3 of the nobility being of her counsell. Whereupon you sayd, M. Haddock, To make up a masse, I would we had the hart [head] of the Queen.’

Then sayd Spenser and other of his officers, ‘Away with the villaine traytor.’

But Mr Haddock, moved with these foresaid talke and speeches sayd as followeth. ‘I am presently to give an account [of all that I have done during life before the tribunal of God]; and as before God I shal answer, I never spake nor intended any such thing. And Munday, if thou didst heare me speak any such thing, how chanced it thou camest not to the barre to give this in against me upon thy othe.’ ‘Why,’ sayd Munday, ‘I never heard of your arraingement.’

Then said Spencer, ‘Didst not thou call the Queen heretick?’ ‘I confesse,’ sayd Haddock, ‘I did.’ Whereupon Spencer together with the ministers and other of his officers used the aforesaid speeches of treason, traytor, and villaine.

Mr Haddock sayd secretly a hymne in latin and that within my hearing, for I stood under the gibbet. A minister being on the cart with him, requested him to pray in English that the people might pray with him. Where upon Mr Haddock put the minister away with his hand, saying, ‘Away, away, I wil have nothing to doe with thee.’ But he requested all Catholics to pray with him and for his country. Where upon sayd one of the standers-by, ‘Here be noe Catholicks': ‘Yes,’ sayd another, ‘we be all Catholics.’ Then sayd Mr Haddock, ‘I meane Catholicks of the Catholick Roman Church, and I pray God that my bloud may encrease the Catholick faith in England': whereunto sayd Spenser: ‘The Catholic faith, the devel’s faith. Away with the traytor Drive away the cartel’ And so Mr Haddock ended his life, as constantly as could be required.

When the cart was dryven away, this Spenser presently commanded the rope to be cut, but notwithstanding the officer strock at the rope sundry times before he fell downe; and the reporte of them that stood by the block was that at what time the tormenter was in pulling out of his bowells, Mr Haddock was in life. By his own confession he was 28 yeares of age.

After Mr Haddock was taken to the block Mr Hemerford was brought unto the cart; he was very milde, and sometime a scholler of St John’s College in Oxford. Spenser bad him confesse and aske forgivenesse as before: but he protested innocency as Mr Haddock had done; yet sayd, ‘Where in I have offended her, I ask her forgivenesse, but in this fact of treason alleaged against me, I never offended.’

Then sayd a minister, master of art of St John’s College of Oxford, ‘You and I ware of old acquaintance in Oxford, by which I request you to pray openly and in English, that the people may pray with you.’ Then said M Hemerford, ‘I understand latin well enough, and am not to be taught of you. I request only Catholicks to pray with me.’ Where upon answered the minister, ‘I acknowledge that in Oxford you were alwaies by farre my better. Yet many times it pleaseth God, that the learned should be taught by the simple.’ One Risse termed a Doctor of Divinity, asked Mr Hemerford whither he would hold with the Pope or the Queen, in case the Pope should send an army into England. Whereunto Mr Hemerford answered, That in case they were sent in respect of the Pope’s own person, then he would holde with the Queen; but if it were sent to suppresse heresy or to restore the land to the catholick faith, then he would holde with the Pope. His speech was short being not permitted to speak much, and in substance the rest of his speech, not here sett down verbatim, was to the same effect that Mr [Haddock’s] was. He was cutt downe half dead: when the tormentor did cutt off his membres, he did cry ‘Oh! A!’ I heard my self standing under the gibbet.

Mr Fenn was the third that suffred, being bidd to doe as before, answered as his fellows did & sayd. ‘I am condemned for that I with Ms Haddock at Rome did conspire, & at which time Mr Haddock was a student at Rome and I a prisoner in the Marshalsea, or at the lest I am sure that I was in England, but to my remembrance, I was a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Therefore good people judge you whether I am guilty of this fact or noe.’

A minister called Hene avouched a place of St Paul whereunto Mr Fenn said: ‘I am not to be taught my duty by you.’

The rest of his speeches were to the same effect his fellows were. Before the cart was driven away, he was stripped of all his apparell saving his shirt only and presently after the cart was driven away his shirt was pulled of his back, so that he hung stark naked, where at the people muttered greatly, and the other sherif, called Massam, sayd to the officers, ‘You play the knaves. They be men. Let them be used like men,’ and alwaies commanded that they should hang until they were dead. Notwithstanding the other sherif commanded that they should be cut downe presently, and soe was Mo Fenn, but his companions following him were permitted to hang longer.

Mr Nutter was the 4th man, sometime schollar of St John’s College in Cambridge, and Mr Munden was the fifth & last: they denyed the fact, acknowledged the Queen Majesty to be their Queene and prayed for her, as the former had done, and soe in most milde and constant manner ended their life. Many a one in my hearing sayd, ‘God be with their sweet soules.’

What I have putt downe I hard myself, and therefore I may boldly speake it. If you please, you may shew it to your friends, provyded alwaies you tell not my name.


Plaque honoring George Haddock/Haydock at St. Andrew’s & Blessed George Haydock’s Catholic Church, Cottam, Lancashire. (cc) image by Skodoway.

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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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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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1572: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and rebel

Add comment August 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, lost his head for treason.

The latest patriarch of a northern family illustrious in rebellion, little Tom was all of nine years old when his father the 6th Earl of Northumberland got his own head lopped off for rising in support of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

That was back in 1537, but the ensuing decades had scarcely settled the realm’s religious strife … much to the profit of these here morbid annals.

Like his father, Thomas Percy was a chip off the Old Religion’s block. That suited everyone just fine as the young man earned his spurs in war during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. Everything got awkward again when Mary died childless and left England to the Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Catholic hopes accordingly attached themselves to Mary, Queen of Scots, who soon became mired in — and then defeated by — a civil war. While Mary still fought her corner there was at least a Catholic monarch afoot in the land; when she was beaten she had to surrender herself to the English.

Rightly supposing that Elizabeth would prove extremely reluctant ever to set Mary loose ever again,* Percy teamed up with another discontented northern Catholic, the Earl of Westmoreland, to launch the aptly-named Northern Rebellion. The object of this revolt was to liberate the Catholic queen and if possible restore Briain to the Church

Forasmuch as divers disordered and well-disposed persons about the Queen’s Majesty, have, by their subtle and crafty dealings to advance themselves, overcome in this Realm, the true and Catholic Religion towards God, and by the same abused the Queen, disordered the Realm, and now lastly seek and procure the destruction of the Nobility; We, therefore, have gathered ourselves together to resist by force, and the rather by the help of God and you good people, to see redress of these things amiss, with the restoring of all ancient customs and liberties to God’s Church, and this noble Realm. (Soure)

This rebellion was handily defeated and not a few of the couple thousand followers cobbled together by the aristocrats faced summary nooses for their treachery (for instance, 66 of the garrison that the rebel lords made bold to plant at Durham were executed when that city was recaptured). The lords, however, escaped to Scotland and sought passage out of England. Westmoreland made it;** his partner was caught in Scotland in 1572 by Regent Moray and turned over to English justice.

Herafter, hopes of Catholic restoration reposed not in civil war but in conspiracy … where they fared just as poorly.

* She never did: Mary made her exit from prison courtesy of the scaffold.

** Westmoreland died in the end the penniless — but never-executed — exile dependent of the King of Spain. Westmoreland’s wife, however, would live to see her brother Thomas Howard executed for the 1572 Ridolfi Plot, another Catholic conspiracy.

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1584: Francis Throckmorton, plotter

Add comment July 10th, 2015 Headsman

Francis Throckmorton (Throgmorton), was executed at Tyburn on this date in 1584 for his plot to make Mary, Queen of Scots the Queen of England, too.

The son of a prominent Warwickshire family — his father’s monumental tomb still adorns the church at Coughton, while London’s Throgmorton Street is named for our guy’s uncle NicholasFrancis was a staunch Catholic who as a 20-something man on the make did a continental tour where he huddled with papist exiles cogitating how to win England back for the faith.

Naturally many a plot centered on the Catholic Queen of Scotland Mary, who as Henry VIII’s great-niece stood well within the scope of consanguinity necessary to rule England with legitimacy. (Mary’s son James VI of Scotland and James I of England would do justice that.)

On his return to London in 1583, the subtle agents of Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham sniffed out his project to establish a line of communication from Mary to the Duke of Guise who contemplated a pro-Mary invasion.

“I have seen as resolute men as Throckmorton stoop, notwithstanding the great shew he hath made of a Roman resolution,” Walsingham prophesied of the obdurate young man whose fidelity to his project was to be tested by torture in the Tower. “I suppose the grief of the last torture will suffice, without anye extremity of racking, to make him more comformable than he hath hitherto showed himself.”

Indeed Throckmorton did succumb.

The ensuing bust-up of his plot forms a station on Queen Mary’s own path to Calvary: the treasonable design empowered Walsingham successfully to impel creation of the Bond of Association, a sort of legal pledge to execute anyone who attempted to usurp Elizabeth. That “bond” was called in two years later by Mary’s connection to the Babington Plot, leading directly to the Scots queen’s own trial and execution.

* Throckmorton’s plot also resulted in the expulsion of Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza, an energetic spy for the Catholics’ overseas allies.

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1570: John Felton, papal bull promulgator

Add comment August 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1570, the English Catholic martyr John Felton suffered hanging, disemboweling, and quartering at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London for the Old Faith.

Not to be confused with the 17th century assassin of the same name, our John Felton was reported by the biography from his daughter’s hand to be a wealthy Southwark gentleman whose wife had gamboled in her own childhood with the future Queen Elizabeth.

John’s crime was to hang up publicly in the dark of night before Corpus Christi the papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth — an act not merely of religious dissidence but of overt political rebellion, inasmuch as the bull released English subjects from their obedience to “the pretended Queen of England” and exhorted them on pain of damnation to ignore her edicts. This directive from Rome was to prove so taxing for Catholics that it was soon modified to permit outward obedience in civil matters, pending the overthrow of the heresiarchess.

Following a decade of uneasy religious tolerance — in which, not coincidentally, Elizabeth entertained the suits of assorted continental royalty, some of them Catholic — Regnans in Excelsis marked the onset of open hostilities. The Catholic “Ridolfi plot” would be hatched this very year, for instance, and lead the Duke of Norfolk to the scaffold by 1572.

And then he said, O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, in English; and as he was saying it in Latin, In munus tuas Domine, he was turned off the ladder; and hanging there six turns, he was cut down, and carried to the block, and there his head was smitten off, and held up, that the people might see it: whereat the people gave a shout, wishing that all Traitors were so served. Then he was quartered, and carried to Newgate to be parboiled, and so set up as the other rebels were. — God save the Queen.

John Felton’s son Thomas Felton was also martyred, in 1588. Both have since been beatified.

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1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

2 comments March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Crushed,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Peine forte et dure,Religious Figures,Torture,Women

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

2 comments February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1572: Thomas Howard, Ridolfi plotter

5 comments June 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1572, the Duke of Norfolk lost his head for a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth.

Thomas Howard was a born plotter. Literally.

The fourth Duke of Norfolk, he inherited the title from the third Duke of Norfolk — his eponymous grandfather, the scheming courtier who had maneuvered nieces Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard into disastrous matrimony with Henry VIII.

Having run afoul of his ruthless sovereign, this elder Howard then had the distinction of dodging execution only because the king himself dropped dead the very day before Howard was to have been beheaded.

The Norfolk title, however, did skip a generation, because grandpa Howard’s son Henry Howard was not so lucky, and abdicated his birthright at the block.*

That left our day’s principal, a mere boy of 10 when his father got axed, as his lucky grandfather’s heir apparent — to carry on the Howard scheming against his second cousin, Anne Boleyn’s lucky daughter Queen Elizabeth.

And young Thomas Howard would prove to be a chop off the old block.

Howard’s sympathies for Catholicism and for swinging an ever-bigger dick led him into a machination to wed Elizabeth’s northern rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

Lucky to get off with just a slap on the codpiece, Howard went right back at it with an unabashed Spanish-supported conspiracy to depose Elizabeth, again in favor of Mary — the Ridolfi Plot.

This chicanery was sniffed out by Elizabeth’s pervasive spy network, and while Mary’s royal status enabled her to survive the revelation, Norfolk had already got down to his last chance.

The conflict between Elizabeth and Norfolk, heavily fictionalized and climaxing in the Ridolfi Plot, is essentially the plot of of the 1998 movie Elizabeth.

Having endured so much trouble from these nettlesome Howards, the crown left the Duke of Norfolk title vacant for nearly a century after this date’s beheading. It was finally restored to a mentally deficient Howard descendant with the post-Cromwell Stuart restoration.

* And that’s just on the dad’s side. His maternal grandfather and great-grandfather from the Stafford family also met their ends on the scaffold.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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