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.

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1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

4 comments September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

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1554: Thomas Wyatt the Younger, with the Queen’s life in his hands

2 comments April 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1554, rebel leader Thomas Wyatt the Younger tied on his own blindfold and laid his head on the block, having declared that not “any other now in your durance [i.e., the Tower] was privy to my rising”.

That remark exculpated the Princess Elizabeth, who just days before had been ominously rowed to the Tower on suspicion of having known of or involved herself in Wyatt‘s abortive revolt.

And Wyatt had had to do more than talk the talk to keep the future Queen Elizabeth I out of the executioner’s way.

Sore afraid that Wyatt’s rebellion had been engineered with the connivance of her Protestant half-sister, the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor had had Wyatt tortured to implicate her.

Wyatt held firm to Elizabeth’s innocence.

Had he not, the princess might have followed her mother to the scaffold, instead of becoming one of the realm’s most illustrious monarchs* — a fraught situation aptly portrayed at the outset of the 1998 Cate Blanchett flick Elizabeth.

It wasn’t only religion that made the political situation in 1550s England so perilous.

Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain had roused fears of Spanish political domination. This, much more than theology, triggered the plot that took Thomas Wyatt’s head off his shoulders.

Against this specter of Iberian influence, Wyatt and some fellow-nobles attempted to raise coordinated insurrections in early 1554. Most fizzled or were busted by authorities before they could get going. Wyatt’s alone, in quarrelsome Kent, ignited: he marched 4,000 men on the city of London and for a moment seemed to have a real prospect of capturing it before the crown rallied the city.

A paroxysm of vengeful executions in February 1554 claimed nearly 100 participants in the rebellion, their mutilated bodies demonstratively hung up around town. (It also claimed Lady Jane Grey, the lately defeated rival contender for Mary’s throne, whom the latter now realized was too dangerous to be left alive.)

It could have been uglier, though.

Despite her “Bloody Mary” reputation, the Queen went fairly easy on this dangerous challenge to her authority, making some high-profile examples but paroling most of the rank-and-file traitors in a hearts-and-minds clemency campaign.

The namesake rebel, however, was never going to be in that bunch. He was kept on a bit in the Tower while Mary’s goons “laboured to make Sir Thomas Wyatt confess concerning the Lady Elizabeth … but unsuccessfully, though torture had been applied.”

“Much suspected by me, nothing proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth prisoner”

Having kept his head under torture, Wyatt lost it on this date — and readied Elizabeth’s to wear the crown.


If you find the Elizabethan age worth celebrating, spare an extra thought this date for Thomas Wyatt the Younger’s eponymous old man.**

This Henrician poet is supposed to have been Anne Boleyn‘s last lover before Henry VIII.

In Henry’s snakepit, youthful frolics could come back to bite you; Wyatt the elder was actually imprisoned for adultery with the queen, only ducking the fatal charge thanks to some pull with Thomas Cromwell.

Wyatt pere wrote a melancholy poem about this depressing turn of his fortunes, but considering his times, you’d have to say he was born under a good sign.

A few years later, he was again on the hook for treason, and (Cromwell having been beheaded in the interim) saved by the fortuitous influence of Queen Catherine Howard, who was herself not long before a fall and a chop. (After that, Lady Wyatt, famous for her gallantries, was supposed to be in the running to become King Henry’s sixth wife even though she was still married to Thomas.)

The elder Wyatt managed to die naturally before trying his luck with a third treason charge.

* Many a slip ‘twixt a cup and a lip, but that turn of ill fate for Elizabeth could have set Mary, Queen of Scots on her way to becoming one of England’s most illustrious monarchs, instead of going to the scaffold.

** The illustrious family ties go the other direction, too. Thomas Wyatt the Younger was the grandfather of Francis Wyatt, the first English royal governor of the New World territory named for Queen Elizabeth: Virginia.

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1585: William Parry, Vile and Base

2 comments March 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1585, a Welsh doctor convicted of attempting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I paid the penalty of treason at Westminster.

Not to be confused with William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

Whether William Parry really did so plot is a bit obscure, but as a spy and double agent who made the bread to service his considerable debts by informing on supposed Catholic plots against Her Majesty, he’d been walking a dangerous line for several years.

(Actually, Parry had done well to win a royal pardon — and then a seat in Parliament! — after receiving a death sentence for assaulting one of his creditors several years earlier.)

Parry seemingly attempted to entrap one Sir Edmund Neville* into a proposed “plot” to assassinate the Queen, perhaps intending to then inform upon him. Instead, it seems, Neville ratted out Parry. (Some versions of the tale have Parry actually making the attempt, and losing his nerve at the last moment.)

If the extensive account of the trial given in the public-domain The Lives and Criminal Trials of Celebrated Men is to be credited, Parry remarkably pled guilty to treason — portraying himself as a sort of off-the-wagon Catholic, continually plagued by and resisting the temptation to plant a blade in the queen — and played for clemency.

Death I do confess to have deserved; life I do with all humility crave, if it may stand with the Queen’s honour and policy of the time … Pardon poor Parry and relieve him [of his troubled conscience].

He then embarked on a strange hair-splitting dispute with the judges over whether he had ever really meant to kill Elizabeth.

He was hung, drawn and quartered at Westminster within a fortnight, now maintaining his total innocence — notwithstanding his epigram in doggerel.

It was pittie
One so wittie
Malcontent:
Leaving reason
Should to treason
So be bent.
But his gifts
Were but shifts
Void of grace:
And his braverie
Was but knaverie
Vile and base.

* Possibly a relative of fugitive Catholic noble Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland.

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1618: Walter Raleigh, age of exploration adventurer

3 comments October 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1618, schemer, explorer, and lover Walter Raleigh fell permanently out of favor.

One of the biggest wheels of Elizabethan England, Raleigh (who also rendered his name Rawleigh, Rawley, and most commonly, Ralegh) charmed his way into the Queen’s inner circle, and possibly her pants, and was even thought to be a contender for her hand.

In between gorging on royal monopolies, scribbling poetry, popularizing tobacco, and introducing the potato to Ireland [allegedly], Raleigh got his New World on by attempting to colonize Virginia,* helping fund it with privateering operations against England’s rivals in the land-grab game. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina — present-day North Carolina was part of the Virginia Colony back in the day — is named for him.

Proud, powerful, and the queenie’s pet. Just the sort of courtier other noble suckups loved to hate.

When the palace fave secretly dallied with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, he went on the royal outs and got real familiar with the Tower of London. Though he managed to patch up with Elizabeth, things were never quite the same for Sir Walter. Elizabeth’s successor James I put him back in prison (suspending a death sentence) for supposedly participating in the Main Plot.

Raleigh passed the time under lock and key burnishing his Renaissance man rep by writing various poetry and treatises, including an account of his voyage to Guyana. Convinced the legendary city of El Dorado was in the vicinity, Raleigh eventually prevailed upon James to release him to make another run at it.

But a dust-up with a Spanish outpost in South America left his son dead, and the Spanish ambassador hopping mad. Raleigh was arrested upon his return, and the death sentence reinstated.

At 66 years of age or so, Walter Raleigh had had a pretty good run.

He took his punishment with equanimity, writing tenderly to his wife, and examining the blade that would take off his head on the scaffold with the observation,

“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.”

His wife creepily kept the severed head for the remaining 29 years of her life.

There’s a more detailed tour of Raleigh’s life here, and a site linking many works by and about Raleigh here.

* As Governor of Virginia, Raleigh forbade injuring Indians on pain of death, according to Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth. Raleigh’s “imperialism with a human face” policy had exchange programs of Indians visiting England, most notably Pocahontas.

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1594: Rodrigo Lopez, Shylock inspiration?

2 comments June 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1594, a 70-year-old Portuguese physician was torn apart at Tyburn before a jeering London mob for attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth I.

Born around 1525 to a family of conversos — Jewish converts forcibly converted to Christianity — Rodrigo Lopez (alternatively, Lopes) went abroad because the Spanish Inquisition menacingly suspected him of secretly maintaining the faith of Abraham.*

For us, the man’s true doctrines might be a matter for his god. In the 16th century, Lopez never could outrun his Jewishness.

Establishing himself in London in 1559, nearly the precise midpoint of his life, Lopez built a thriving medical practice, eventually rising in 1586 to the attendance of Her Majesty herself. England in those days was scrapping with the mighty Spanish empire, one front of which was endlessly byzantine diplomatic intrigue. It happened that Elizabeth gave harbor to a Portuguese pretender (Lopez had attended him, too), whose circles the Spanish were naturally endeavoring to infiltrate.

Some nefarious machinations in this ambit that came to light in 1593 opened an investigation characteristically heavy on the torture, and Lopez’s name came up. Allegedly, the doctor was negotiating to take Spanish gold for slipping the Queen a mickey.

Image from the Internet History Sourcebook Project

Lopez doesn’t seem to be any less capable of greed or intrigue than anyone else at court, but poison? It was doubted at the time, the prosecution itself a product of the courtly rivalry between Essex and Cecil.** Despite a confession (extracted by torture, like the accusations), even Elizabeth never seems to have really bought the charge: she held Lopez more than three months after his sentence before finally permitting the punishment to go forward, and pensioned his family when the treason conviction entitled her to confiscate their property.

The London mob entertained no such nuance. When Lopez was hauled to the scaffold this day for his public butchery — still protesting that he “loved the Queen as he loved Jesus Christ,” derisively taken as a backhanded confession by spectators who didn’t doubt the practicing Protestant was really a Jew — it elevated popular anti-Semitism to fever pitch.

Hath not a Jew eyes?

Lopez, or at least the popular mood of Jew-baiting current after his trial, is thought to have helped inspire William Shakespeare’s use of the Shylock character in The Merchant of Venice — one of the most controversial and captivating of all the Bard’s creations, a villain far more compelling (and sympathetic) than the play’s lightweight good guys and one whose place in the Shakespeare canon and the fabric of Elizabethan England is still vigorously debated.

Is Shylock a vicious caricature? A sublimely three-dimensional human? Both? Wherever the “real” William Shakespeare stood on the matter of religious equality, he put one of literature’s great apologias for it in Shylock’s mouth:

* Insincerely converted Muslims and Jews were a choice target of the Inquisition in the 16th century; many thousands were driven to emigrate. For the fate of some other crypto-Jews who fled to Spain’s possessions in the New World, see here.

** Lopez’s Javert, the Earl of Essex, lost the power struggle a few years later … and with it, his own head.

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1581: Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant

11 comments December 1st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1581, three English Catholic martyrs were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, casualties of the bloody confrontation between religious and secular power of the English Reformation.

Edmund Campion — later sainted — was the towering figure among them and the great attraction for those that thronged the Tyburn scaffold on a rain-drenched Friday.

A brilliant Oxford scholar once tipped as a possible future Archibishop of Canterbury, Campion abjured his Anglican holy orders in favor of Rome — a mortal peril in Elizabethan England.

He slipped away to Ireland, then to the continent and safety. But at age 40, after nearly a decade abroad, the missionary zeal of the converted called him back to Albion as part of a secret Jesuit mission. Hunted from the day he set foot back in Britain, he survived a year on the run, an underground minister to an illicit faith.

Though priestly investiture alone technically made him capitally liable, a government with millions of Catholic citizens grappled for some firmer ground upon which to condemn the renowned intellectual. Since Campion succumbed neither to torture nor to blandishments, nor to the surreal interludes when he was hauled out of his dungeon and made to debate with the Crown’s theologians, he was finally convicted on the strength of made-to-order witness testimony to the effect that his mission had some vague upshot of undermining Queen Elizabeth’s hold on her subjects.

In effect, it was very much like convicting him for his faith: the Anglican-Catholic conflict had crystallized, and dozens of priests would follow the route of Campion in the years to come. Between a mutually implacable state and church, either flesh or soul must burn.

Not a few of those who trod the martyr’s path would take inspiration from the beatific Jesuit — as young Henry Walpole, whose own route to Calvary is said to have begun when he was spattered by Campion’s blood this day and come full circle to his own execution 15 years later. Walpole’s embrace of martyrdom fairly glows from his proscribed tribute to Campion:

Hys fare was hard, yet mylde & sweete his cheere,
his pryson close, yet free & loose his mynde,
his torture great, yet small or none his feare,
his offers lardge, yet nothing coulde him blynde.
O constant man, oh mynde, oh vyrtue straunge,
whome want, nor woe, nor feare, nor hope coulde chaunge.

Yee thought perhapps, when learned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred townge be still.
But yow forget how lowd his deathe yt cryes,
how farre beyond the sownd of tounge or quill.
yow did not know how rare and great a good
yt was to write those precious guiftes in bloode.

That famous eloquence was Campion’s legacy, so overwhelmingly so that he presents in the lineup of men who might have written Shakespeare.

His best-know work was “Campion’s Brag”, the scornful nickname his foes gave to an apologia he produced while underground in England … and to whose steady words Edmund Campion proved true this day:

[B]e it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery [to Catholicism], while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.

But Protestant England did withstand the enterprise. The generation to come saw Catholic ideas and writing put to withering siege, Campion’s not least among them. For all the tribute of history to the man of Christlike fortitude, it is by no means apparent that the enjoyments of Tyburn and the kindred “practices of England” did not, after all, lay a cross heavier than English Catholics could bear.

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