1417: The Falstaffian John Oldcastle

3 comments December 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1417, the heretical knight John Oldcastle was burned at St. Giles Fields.

Oldcastle was a country gentleman who helped King Henry IV put down the Welsh and married up, into the Cobham family. He became good friends on campaign with Henry’s heir, the future Henry V.

Though Oldcastle was a privileged member of medieval England’s 1%, he supported positively dangerous change.

In Oldcastle’s youth, the radical preacher John Wycliffe was abroad in the land, and Oldcastle at some point — nobody seems able to say exactly when — cottoned to the egalitarian movement Wycliffe spawned, Lollardy.

A century-plus ahead of the Protestant Reformation, Lollards challenged the corruption and impiety of the Catholic Church, urging adherents to look to the scriptures themselves.

Protestant writer John Bale later reclaimed Oldcastle as a proto-Protestant martyr.

The truth of it is, that after he had once throughly tasted the Christian doctrine of John Wicliffe and of his disciples, and perceived their livings agreeable to the same, he abhorred all the superstitious sorceries (ceremonies, I should say) of the proud Romish church … He tried all matters by the scriptures, and so proved their spirit whether they were of God or nay. He maintained such preachers in the dioceses of Canterbury, London, Rochester, and Hereford, as the bishops were sore offended with. He exhorted their priests to a better way by the gospel; and when that would not help, he gave them sharp rebukes.

This sort of thing gave right-thinking Christians the vapors. It was in response to this “perverse people of a certain new sect” that England instituted the law authorizing heretic-burning, which would in Tudor hands become such a prodigious maker of martyrs.

Fresh to the throne as a 27-year-old, Henry V didn’t want to consign his old buddy to the flames, and generally stalled prosecution and leaned on his friend as much as he could.

But his friend remained obstinate in his errors, and eventually delivered a confession squarely rejected the Church’s authority.

Doomed as a heretic, Oldcastle busted out of the Tower of London when his sentimental sovereign gave him a lengthy reprieve — whereupon the condemned fugitive began fomenting rebellion with his outlawed movement.

although the King by proclamation promised a thousand markes to him that could bring him forth, with greate liberties to the Cities or Townes, that woulde discouer where hee was: by this it maye appeare, howe greatly he was beloued, that there could not one he found, that for so great a reward would bring him to light.

Holinshed’s Chronicle

It did take some doing but Oldcastle — the Lord Cobham — was finally hunted to ground in November 1417. Upon his return to London in chains, the heresiarch was condemned on the basis of his previous conviction, and “consumed with fire, gallowes, and all.” (Holinshed)

As the late king’s notorious boon companion, John Oldcastle was queued up for immortality in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. But his part in this buddy play got rewritten at the last minute (and after the first draft) into the fellow we know as Falstaff.* It was reportedly the Lord Cobham of Shakespeare’s time who insisted upon the switch, squandering literary immortality for some passing family pride.** Traces of the original character remain in the text; in the play‘s opening dialogue, Prince Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle.”

(In part 2, Shakespeare’s epilogue goes out of the way to insist that “Falstaff shall die of a sweat … [while] Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man”. Hal does eventually execute his old buddy, Oldcastle-style, in Henry V: that buddy is not Falstaff, but their mutual drinking companion Bardolph.)


No actual John Oldcastle connection, but if Shakespeare gets to pun around with the name …

* Cadging the name from another Hundred Years’ War soldier, John Fastolf.

** The Lord Cobham whom Shakespeare wished to avoid offending was involved just a few years later in the anti-Stuart Main Plot — and only spared execution by a last-second pardon while he was literally standing on the scaffold.

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1403: Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester

1 comment July 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1403, Henry IV made sauce of the Earl of Worcester after the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Thomas Percy was the uncle of northern rebel Sir Henry Percy, evocatively known as “Hotspur”.*


Rampant: statue of Hotspur Harry Percy at Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle. (cc) image from Bootneck Photography.

This Northumberland lord, whose name hints at his reputation for for ferocity and impetuousness, was not necessarily incensed in principle at Henry Bolingbroke‘s usurpation of the English crown as Henry IV. In fact, he took an appointment to put down the anti-Lancastrian rebellion of Welsh troublemaker Owain Glyndwr. (Percy didn’t succeed.)

But this royal imposter didn’t pay off Percy richly enough in either coin or respect.

Hotspur left Wales to whomp the Scots at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, but King Henry’s demand that he turn over the big-name prisoners taken in that battle (instead of ransoming them for profit) — coupled with Henry’s own refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity — provoked a furious row between “king” and “subject”. Henry IV is supposed to have denounced Henry Percy a traitor and drawn a blade on him.

“Not here,” Hotspur raged, “but in the field!”

Alas: the field wasn’t kind to the Percies this time.

A revolt raised by a guy named Hotspur should hardly fail for want of ambition, and this one was the hottest of spurs: the Percies (with our day’s principal, Uncle Worcester) made a pact with Glyndwr (still going strong in Wales) and Glyndwr’s hostage-turned-son-in-law Edmund Mortimer (who was the uncle of the kid who should have been king) to give Bolingbroke the boot and carve up the realm between them.

Shakespeare represents this argument at the start of Henry IV, Part 1, and the conflict it engenders will drive that play’s story. This is Hotspur privately fuming after Henry has refused to help Mortimer (Act I, Scene 3):

let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him: [i.e., Mortimer]
Yea, on his part I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust,
But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer
As high in the air as this unthankful king,
As this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.

Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight abridges this and several other Shakespeare plays, and its opening action — after the Falstaff and credits — sets our stage. Worcester here is played by French Connection villain Fernando Rey.

Shrewbury was the result, a battle that up to the moment it commenced seemed amenable to mediation. Worcester himself negotiated face to face with King Henry, but refused to submit himself trusting the sovereign’s mercy. “On you must rest the blood shed this day,” Henry told him.

Some of that blood was Hotspur’s, as a result of a freak combat injury: he took a fatal arrow to the face when he raised his armor’s visor to get some air.**

Worcester didn’t outlive him by much — as depicted in Act V, Scene 4, he was summarily executed shortly after the battle:

KING HENRY IV

Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.
Ill-spirited Worcester! did not we send grace,
Pardon and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary?
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain to-day,
A noble earl and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.

EARL OF WORCESTER

What I have done my safety urged me to;
And I embrace this fortune patiently,
Since not to be avoided it falls on me.

KING HENRY IV

Bear Worcester to the death and Vernon too:
Other offenders we will pause upon.

(Vernon was one of two knights executed with Worcester in Shrewsbury.)

* Yes, the English football club Tottenham Hotspur is named for the dashing Henry Percy. “Audere Est Facere” is the team’s motto, “to dare is to do” … even though that totally didn’t work out for Hotspur himself.

** Oddly enough, Hotspur’s opposite number Prince Henry (the future victor of Agincourt, Henry V), also got shot in the face in this battle.

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1401: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, an army marching on his stomach

3 comments October 9th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

It was on this day that a Welsh squire, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, was gruesomely executed for thwarting the efforts of King Henry IV’s forces to squelch Welsh resistance to English rule.

First, the man’s stomach was cut out and cooked in front of him. Then, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

The torturous execution took several hours before he succumbed to death. Then, a grisly postscript: his salted remains were sent to other Welsh towns to deter Welshmen from opposing the king.

Rewind to October, 1399.

Henry IV has been crowned King of England after overcoming the unpopular Richard II. Henry had his predecessor imprisoned and killed, then displayed at St. Paul’s Cathedral to prove to his supporters that he was gone.

Little surprise much of Henry’s reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. One rebellion? That of Owain Glydwr, who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400.

This didn’t sit well with the new king. Armed men were sent out to find this treasonous Welshman. Found them they did, though perhaps they wished they hadn’t. In the summer of 1401, on the slopes of Pumlumon, Owain Glydwr crushed Henry’s army. This, too, did not sit well with the king.

Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp’d in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?

-Glendower (Glyndwr) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I

Henry then led a huge army, arriving in Llandovery, to capture this meddling countryman prince.

It was here that the English military met a 60-year-old man. A land owner from Caeo, his name was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan and the English army strongly suggested he assist them in helping locate Owain Glydwr. Llywelyn agreed.

Little did the English know, as they chased Glyndwr, that Llywelyn was taking them in the wrong direction.

He had two sons, did this Llywelyn, in Owain’s army. Though he knew he’d undoubtedly pay the ultimate sacrifice, he would not betray the Welsh people and his own family but leading the English king to the insurrectionists.

And so he led the English army on a wild goose chase.

For weeks Llywelyn lead the king and his forces through the uplands of Deheubarth. All the while Owain and his men made their escape the opposite direction to consolidate, grow, and fortify.

The king’s patience became taxed. He began to see that Llywelyn was not taking them to their man.

Angrily, the king drug Llywelyn to the town of Llandovery. In front of the castle gates, there in the town square, he was disemboweled and dismembered. Though Glyndwr’s war of liberation fizzled out, Owain was never captured nor betrayed.

Fast forward to the year 2001.

600 years after Llywelyn’s execution, a sculpture is erected. Standing 16 feet tall, erected by the castle he died in front of, is a statue of a cloaked figure, spear and shield in hand, atop a stone base inscribed with Welsh verse.

It is he, Llywelyn, commemorating his ultimate sacrifice.



Llywelyn’s striking steel statue stands watch over Llandovery. Images (c) Canis Major and stused with permission.

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1405: Richard le Scrope and Thomas de Mowbray, without color of law

Add comment June 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1405, Henry IV had two rebellious peers beheaded on his authority at York.


The lower panels of this stained glass in St. Andrew’s Church, Bishopthorpe, depict the trial of Archbishop Scrope. Image (c) Roger Walton and used with permission.

Richard le Scrope, Archbishop of York, and Thomas de Mowbray, Earl of Norfolk, had both become estranged from Henry Bolingbroke, the noble who had wrested control of the English crown as Henry IV.

Since Henry’s legitimacy was dubious, he faced even more than a monarch’s usual ration of plots and rebellions — most famously that of young Sir Henry Percy, remembered as “Hotspur” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1.

That particular enemy met his end in 1403, but old man Percy was soon back to fomenting from his expansive holdings in the north.

Mowbray, a disaffected teenager, and Scrope, a seasoned prelate who should have known better, were drawn into the next intrigue — by “the odor of French promises or rewards,” their enemies charged. A noble loyal to Henry intercepted their modest force and (so the story goes*) by representing to accept Scrope’s offer to parley induced the rebels to disband, whereupon the ringleaders were arrested.

Henry demanded their immediate condemnation; Chief Justice William Gascoigne insisted upon their right to be judged by other peers of the realm (and upon the inviolability of the archbishop**). The hot-blooded† Henry was inclined not to bother, and simply had their heads lopped off on his own authority.

Shakespeare treats this episode in Henry IV, part 2:

HASTINGS [another rebellious lord, who shared the same fate]

Our Army is dispers’d:
Like youthfull Steeres, unyoak’d, they tooke their course
East, West, North, South: or like a Schoole, broke up,
Each hurryes towards his home, and sporting place

WESTMORLAND

Good tidings (my Lord Hastings) for the which,
I doe arrest thee (Traytor) of high Treason:
And you Lord Arch-bishop, and you Lord Mowbray,
Of Capitall Treason, I attach you both

MOWBRAY

Is this proceeding just, and honorable?

WESTMORLAND

Is your Assembly so?

BISHOP SCROPE

Will you thus breake your faith?

JOHN

I pawn’d thee none:
I promis’d you redresse of these same Grievances
Whereof you did complaine; which, by mine Honor,
I will performe, with a most Christian care.
But for you (Rebels) looke to taste the due
Meet for Rebellion, and such Acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these Armes commence,
Fondly brought here, and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our Drummes, pursue the scatter’d stray,
Heaven, and not wee, have safely fought to day.
Some guard these Traitors to the Block of Death,
Treasons true Bed, and yeelder up of breath.

(See this scene played here.)

Scrope’s execution in particular played very badly as an arrogation of secular power over the ecclesiastical authorities. The pope was persuaded not to excommunicate Henry — that step would be reserved a later King Henry — but many contemporaries viewed the monarch’s subsequent (and ultimately fatal) bouts with disfiguring “leprosy” as a judgment from above St. Peter’s throne.

This Google books freebie has much more on the cast of characters at the center of this day’s action.

* This popular version has its opponents; the rebels may have simply surrendered when they recognized their hopeless military disadvantage.

** Interestingly, the very uncle of the noble who effected the arrest of Scrope and Mowbray had been implicated a traitor a generation before by the Merciless Parliament. Unlike many, Alexander Neville was spared a death sentence for his perceived proximity to Richard II … because he was, as Scrope would become, the Archbishop of York.

† Henry was making noises about destroying York altogether as punishment for its disloyalty as he rode there following the “Battle” of Shipton Moor. Residents of that northern city met him in poses of desperate submission — dressed in sackcloth, ropes about their necks, offering up their weapons.

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