1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

Add comment January 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

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1397: Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel

Add comment September 21st, 2017 Headsman

“Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow”

-supposed last words of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to his executioner

On this date in 1397, the Earl of Arundel was condemned and immediately beheaded in London’s Cheapside.

Not to be confused with his grandfather, the Earl of Arundel* beheaded 71 years earlier for loyalty to his deposed king, our man Richard FitzAlan earned the chop for being a thorn in his king’s backside.

As one of England’s great magnates, Arundel had played a principal role for many years in the bloody struggle with King Richard II over power and prerogatives; he was one of the three original Lords Appellant whose rebellion against Richard brought about their “Merciless Parliament” in 1388, and its cruel purge of royal loyalists.

Powerless at that time to impede the Lords Appellant, then-21-year-old King Richard quietly nurtured hatred of his foes for many years until he was in a position to really strike them. This was a delicate and a long-term business, but Richard’s bitterness proved equal to the revenge. In 1397, Richard finally — per Froissart — “decided upon a bold and daring move. He had reflected that it was better to destroy than to be destroyed and that speedy action could prevent his uncle from ever being a threat to him again.”

Said uncle was the Duke of Gloucester, another one (the senior one) of those difficult Lords Appellant. To conquer Gloucester required daring indeed: Richard lured him away from the considerable protection of his own retinue on the pretext of a hunting trip, and led him into an ambush where the Earl Marshal could arrest him undefended.

Needing now to stay ahead of the news, Richard flew for London to complete his counter-coup and the next day had Arundel arrested along with the other of the three original Lords Appellant, the Earl of Warwick. Mighty Gloucester had been spirited secretly to Calais to be murdered in prison; a more formal version of the same fate awaited Arundel.**

It may be said that the Duchess of Gloucester, with her son Humphrey and her two daughters, were naturally deeply distressed when their husband and father was brought home dead, and the Duchess had to suffer another blow when the King had her uncle. Earl Richard of Arundel, publicly beheaded in Cheapside, London. None of the great barons dared to thwart the King or dissuade him from doing this. King Richard was present at the execution and it was carried out by the Earl Marshal, who was married to Lord Arundel’s daughter and who himself blindfolded him. (Froissart, again)

* The Earl of Arundel rank still exists today as a courtesy title held by the Duke of Norfolk’s heir; it has existed nearly continuously since it was created in 1138 for a Norman nobleman.

** Warwick got enough political pull on his behalf to survive in captivity; he’d eventually be released when one of his Lords Appellant allies deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV … a feat that he accomplished with the aid of our Arundel’s younger brother, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!

Piers Plowman’s Creed*

Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.

Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.

“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”

Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**

But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.

This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.

Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.

divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …

the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…

[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.

Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.

[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.

With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.

Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”

Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.

The History of England podcast covers Sawtre and Lollardy in episode 141.

* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.

** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.

† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)

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1400: Sir Thomas Blount, “bowels burning before him”

2 comments January 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1400, Sir Thomas Blount was drawn and quartered at Oxford.

He was a loyalist of the latterly deposed (and soon to be murdered) Richard II. Blount took part in the Epiphany Rising plot against the usurper Henry IV.

The chronicles supply an unusually graphic and detailed description (pdf) of this horrible manner of death. (Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

The King [Henry IV] commanded his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to have justice executed upon the lords who were taken prisoners, and to put them all to death, except a young knight whom he had dubbed the Saturday before his coronation, whom the King pardoned for rising in arms against him, on account of his youth and noble lineage.

Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benet [Shelley] were drawn from Oxford unto the place of execution, a long league or more, and there they were hung; they then cut them down and made them speak, and placed them before a long fire. Then came the executioner with a razor in his hand, and kneeling down before Sir Thomas Blount, who had his hands tied, begged his foregiveness [sic] for putting him to death, for he was obliged to perform his office.

‘Are you he,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘who will deliver me from this world?’

The executioner replied, ‘Yes, my lord; I beg you to pardon me.’

The lord then kissed him and forgave him.

The executioner had with him a small basin and a razor, and kneeling between the fire and the lords, unbuttoned Sir Thomas Blount, and ripped open his stomach and tied the bowels with a piece of whipcord that the breath of the heart might not escape, and cast the bowels into the fire.

As Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him, Sir Thomas Erpingham said, ‘Now go and seek a master who will cure you.’

Sir Thomas Blount placed his hands together, saying, ‘Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the hour when I was born, and blessed be this day, for I die this day in the service of my sovereign lord King Richard.’

After he had thus spoken, Sir Thomas Erpingham asked him, ‘Who are the lords, knights, and esquires who are of your accord, and treason?’

To which the good knight replied, suffering as he was, ‘Art thou the traitor Erpingham? Thou art more false than I am or ever was; and thou liest, false knight as thou art; for, by the death which I must suffer, I never spake ill of any knight, lord, or esquire, nor of anybody in the world; but thou utteredst thy false spleen like a false and disloyal traitor; for by thee, and by the false traitor the Earl of Rutland [who ratted out the conspiracy], the noble knighthood of England is destroyed.

‘Cursed be the hour when thou and he were born! I pray to God to pardon my sins: and thou traitor Rutland, and thou false Erpingham, I call you both to answer before the face of Jesus Christ for the great treason that you two have committed against our sovereign lord noble King Richard, and against his noble knighthood.’

The executioner then asked him if he would drink.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you have taken away wherein to put it, thank God’! and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors.

The executioner kneeled down, and, Sir Thomas having kissed him, the executioner cut off his head and quartered him; and he did the same to the other lords, and parboiled the quarters. And in Oxford castle many other knights and esquires were beheaded.

Thomas Erpingham doesn’t exactly exude charm in this account, going out of his way to bust on a guy having his entrails ripped out. But good guys and bad guys are a matter of perspective: Erpingham’s loyal service to the new dynasty got him a complimentary bit part in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Erpingham fought at Agincourt). Shakespeare’s young King Harry calls him his “Good old Knight”.

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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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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

5 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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1400: John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon

4 comments January 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1400, English aristocrat John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon and (formerly) Duke of Exeter, lost his head for the Epiphany Rising.

John Holland’s coat of arms.

Half-brother to (and staunch ally of) Richard II, the violent John Holland prospered during the king’s acme in the 1390s. A variety of lucrative posts accumulated as honoraria for Holland’s exertions in the military and political fields.

Most memorably, Holland helped in 1397 to destroy the leaders of the Lords Appellant, who in 1388 had clipped the king’s wings with a successful revolt. Within days of the murder of Thomas of Woodstock and the execution of Richard FitzAlan, Holland was elevated to Duke of Exeter.

Nice work if you can get it.

Unfortunately for “Exeter”, a fellow Lord Appellant named Henry Bolingbroke was about to successfully depose Richard II, and style himself Henry IV.

Holland’s loyalty to the former King Richard, now held under lock and key, became distinctly impolitic.

Having been dispossessed of the Exeter title, earned by service the new sovereign did not consider meritorious, John Holland got in on a plot to kidnap Henry IV during a tournament at Windsor … which devolved, when Henry found out about it, into an abortive rising with a number of executions. Richard FitzAlan’s sister (also Henry IV’s mother-in-law) had the satisfaction of ordering Holland’s beheading at Pleshy Castle, Essex.

Holland’s loyalty to Richard II ultimately did them both in: because the Epiphany Rising so graphically illustrated the danger that a living rival claimant posed to Henry IV, the king had his imprisoned predecessor murdered behind dungeon walls that February.

And of course, while that act secured Henry’s throne, Bolingbroke could never entirely chop his way to uncontested legitimacy: the rival successions of Henry IV and Richard II came to blows decades later in the War of the Roses. (Much to the profit of this site.)

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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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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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wales,Wartime Executions

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notable Participants,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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