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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1539: St. John Stone

1 comment December 27th, 2015 Headsman

Though it is not certain, it is thought that December 27, 1539 might have been the execution date of Catholic martyr St. John Stone in England.

An Augustinian whose friary was closed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stone at his expulsion “rudely and traitorously” refused to endorse Henry VIII’s authority over the church. He maintained his obstinacy even under the personal interrogation of Thomas Cromwell.

Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.

Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

The Vatican rates John Stone as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and canonized him in 1970.

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1483: Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Add comment November 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded at Salisbury for rebelling against Richard III.


Shakespeare’s treatment of Buckingham’s death in Richard III:

“Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday.
This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies

Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”

Buckingham — Henry Stafford by name — resided firmly in the 1% of the 1% for 15th century England: a dangerous neighborhood since the War of the Roses was afoot, felling noblemen hither and yon. (Henry Stafford became the Duke of Buckingham as a toddler when his father was mortally wounded at the Battle of St. Albans.)

Our Buckingham could count five Kings of England among his close relations; he himself was married right into Edward IV‘s household when he was wed at age 10 to Catherine Woodville, the seven-year-old sister of the commoner-queen Elizabeth Woodville. That made Buckingham uncle to the two sons and possible heirs of Edward IV.

But every family has its black sheep. Buckingham wasn’t keen on the Woodvilles despite his presence on their Christmas card list, and when King Edward died relatively young in 1483, Buckingham backed the succession in power not of the Woodvilles, but of Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester — the man who indeed became king as Richard III.

Technically, Richard started out as Lord Protector on behalf of the boy-king Edward V and his little brother Richard, before he had the twerps declared illegitimate and disappeared them in 1483 into the Tower of London. Buckingham himself is one of the lead suspects for the man who urged or even carried out the murder of these Princes in the Tower.

The prospect that Buckingham’s alliance with Richard III extended all the way to regicide makes quite curious the former’s turn later that same year to rebellion — for as Thomas More would write, “hereupon sone after [the murder of the princes] began the conspiracy or rather good confederacion, between ye Duke of Buckingham and many other gentlemen against [Richard III]. Thoccasion wheruppon the king and the Duke fell out, is of divers folks diverse wyse pretended.”

Buckingham’s right to the marquee of the autumn 1483 “Buckingham’s Rebellion” has been doubted, for leadership of the various uprisings in southern England and Wales appears to belong to those “other gentlemen” of the gentry.

“Buckingham’s” rebellion was easily defeated but it augured a much deeper threat to Richard’s crown than one peer’s enmity — for the rebellion declared in favor of Henry Tudor, a last-gasp, exiled Lancastrian claimant descended from a Welsh courtier.

Buckingham himself was captured, condemned as a traitor, and publicly beheaded at Salisbury on November 2, 1483. He was one of numerous principals in the rising to go to the scaffold, but Henry’s cause continued to accumulate adherents — until not two years later, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In Shakespeare’s treatment, the ghost of the executed Buckingham aptly appears to Richard III on the eve of this climactic moment of English history to prophesy his former ally’s defeat:

The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!

Buckingham left a five-year-old heir, Edward Stafford, who was spirited into hiding, away from the vengeful King Richard. This third Duke of Buckingham would in the fullness of time grow to to be executed by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII.

The History of England podcast covers this gentleman in detail in episode 189.

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1529: Adolf Clarenbach, Lower Rhine evangelist

Add comment September 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1529, the city of Cologne burnt Protestant evangelist Adolf Clarenbach at the stake.

Clarenbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a humanist-trained teacher who caught the Reformation spirit when he read Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian in about 1523.

The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers, that, so soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed …

-Luther in the dedicatory preface* to On the Freedom of a Christian (Source)

Adolf Clarenbach in statuary on present-day Cologne’s city hall. (cc) image from Raimond Spekking

Luther’s words would kindle many a fagot in the years to come. Clarenbach got an early start assailing orthodox delicacies; he was dismissed from teaching posts and harried from city to city (German link, a handy little biography). Munster ran him out for agitating against idolatrous images of saints in 1523; Duke Johann III** personally ordered his expulsion from Jülich-Cleves-Berg; Osnabrück, Büderich and Elberfeld all gave him the boot before Cologne finally arrested him in April 1528.

Clarenbach’s condemnation would only be secured by an arduous process stretching well over a year and contested by the heretic and his friends not only in theology but in law (Clarenbach, a layperson, disputed the ecclesiastical court’s right to try him and appealed successfully to an Imperial court against Cologne, dragging out the process) and in public opinion (Clarenbach’s supporters in Cologne published defenses of him). Even the actual death sentence took half a year to enact after it was issued in March 1529 while authorities loath to conduct it negotiated with their prisoner to moderate his heresy.

He was finally put to death together with another Lutheran, Peter Fliesteden; they are among the first Protestants to die for their confession in the Lower Rhine.

Given the Lutheran movement’s strong run in Germany, it’s no surprise to find this seminal martyr honored in many places in present-day Germany — and his name ornamenting a street in his hometown, a seminary, and a primary school.

* On the Freedom of a Christian was dedicated to the sitting pope. While Luther’s dedication inveighed furiously against the Roman curia, it took the politic and preposterous rhetorical angle that the Medici Leo X was a helpless ingenue undone by his scheming court, “like Daniel in the midst of lions”: “I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made Pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.”

Luther signed that dedication on September 6, 1520. He had not been excommunicated at that point.

Just a few weeks later, he received the papacy’s official (and none too polite) rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Luther answered this missive much less temperately, and his breach with Rome was complete by January 1521.

† Cologne at this time was under the bishopric of Hermann of Wied, a humanist with the germ of reform curiosity. Many years later, he would actually convert to Lutheranism which naturally led to his excommunication and deposition. (But not execution.)

** That’s Duke Johann of Cleves, the father of the Anne of Cleves whose unsatisfactory betrothal to Henry VIII precipitated the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

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1521: Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

6 comments May 17th, 2013 Nancy Bilyeau

Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.

On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.

Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.

When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.

He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.

Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”

Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.

But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.

In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.

What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?

For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.

Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?

On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.

Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.

Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”

Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.

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1513: Edmund de la Pole, rearguard pretender

1 comment April 30th, 2013 Headsman

Today we wish a happy 500th deathday to Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk.

Poor Suffolk’s head was born for the chop: alas, the poor House of York.

Just like the Princes in the Tower, Edmund was a nephew to hunchbacked Shakespeare villain Richard III.


Richard III in better days, before he wound up under a car park.

At the time Richard came to grief at Bosworth Field, Edmund’s older brother John was the official (as designated by Richard) heir to the throne. John instead submitted to the victorious Henry VII, only to try his hand at Lambert Simnel’s ill-fated 1487 rebellion. John de la Pole died in battle.

Edmund de la Pole was about 15 years old at that point … and he had just become the potential leading Yorkist claimant.

Many years of on-again, off-again civil strife over the English throne had preceded this, and nobody in 1487 could say with confidence that many more such years might not lie ahead. Henry VII was proceeding cautiously, trying to keep former Yorkists in the tent.

But although the king permitted Edmund to succeed to his brother’s attainted Dukedom, the title was later stripped — leading Edmund to flee for the continent in 1501, and the fate of the knockabout pretender.

Sadly, his exile would end not in a tragically glorious failed invasion, nor a dastardly conspiracy foiled at the last moment. No, Edmund de la Pole wound up on the scaffold this way:

  1. He was riding shotgun on the boat of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, en route to Spain on a journey having nothing to do with the Yorkist cause;
  2. A gale forced the boat into an English port;
  3. Henry VII forced Maximilian to give up Edmund de la Pole as his exit fee from that English port, although Maximilian extracted the promise that the Yorkist pretender would not be harmed, only confined;
  4. Henry VII died and his hotheaded young successor Henry VIII decided that he wasn’t bound by dad’s promises.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

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1537: “Silken Thomas” FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare

Add comment February 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1537, an Irish lord and his five uncles were hanged and beheaded at Tyburn for revolting against Henry VIII: the last act in an entire cycle of executions.

The Rumored Execution

Thomas FitzGerald‘s father, the king’s Lord-Deputy of Ireland, had been summoned to London to answer the complaints of his rivals and there committed to the Tower.

Said rivals then cunningly circulated reports that dad had been beheaded, inducing the hot-headed (and finely-appareled) heir Thomas to renounce his allegiance and rebel with a dramatic retinue of 140 silk-bedizened gentlemen.

The Summary Execution

The Earl of Kildare hadn’t really been executed at all: he just died of shock and grief upon reading the reports of what his son had got up to in his absence.

Stuff like, besieging Dublin Castle where he hunted down the fleeing Archbishop (a longtime enemy of the Kildares) and had him instantly put to death.

(This might have been more pardonable had he at least managed to take Dublin Castle.)

The Maynooth Pardon
(Euphemism for Execution)

Instead, Silken Tom holed up in Maynooth Castle where he soon found himself on the receiving end of a siege.


Maynooth Castle in its present, romantically ruined state. (cc) image from Bart Busschots.

Thomas and his silk went off to find some allies to relieve it, hoping to play a Catholic-resentment card against Henry VIII’s rift with Rome.

But the local response was desultory and while the new Earl of Kildare was busy beating the bushes, the English took the castle — issuing to its garrison the “Maynooth Pardon”, the ironical sobriquet for executing most of the lot.

Silken Thomas’s Execution

His rebellion having been all downhill since the big silken resignation, Thomas was eventually induced by promises of safekeeping to surrender himself to the royal mercy.

But said mercy was not forthcoming, and he endured a year-plus locked up in something less than his trademark finery — “I have had neither hosen, doublet, nor shoes, nor shirt but one; nor any other garment but a single frieze gown … so I have gone wolward, and barefoot and barelegged,” he complained in a letter — until, attainted by the Irish Parliament, he was executed with his kinsmen.

Although the Kildare title disappeared for a time, Thomas FitzGerald’s young but hunted half-brother escaped to the continent, bounced all over Europe for a decade, picked up an education, fought the Turks, and returned to receive his family’s peerage re-granted so he could practice alchemy in his castle as “the Wizard Earl”.

When next in Kildare Town, stand a drink or two for these hearty bygone Geraldines at the Silken Thomas pub.

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1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors

4 comments August 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1510, the new king Henry VIII had his dad’s most hated tax collectors beheaded on Tower Hill.

Better days: Empson (on the left) and Dudley (on the right) pal around with Henry VII.

When Henry Tudor conquered Bosworth Field to emerge from the War of the Roses as King Henry VII, he brought the baggage of being the son of some Welsh squire.

His shaky legitimacy exposed the newborn Tudor dynasty to existential threats from every quarter; even putative allies proved liable to turn against him.

Henry consequently looked for every opportunity to centralize power away from institutions that could check or threaten him and into his own hands — nowhere more notoriously so than in the realm of taxation.* Aggressive tax collection would not only regenerate the crown’s blasted treasury; it would widen his own scope of action.

Whether Henry’s historical repute for cupidity is well-deserved is a topic beyond the scope of this site, but the fact that he does have such a reputation can be attributed in no small degree to this date’s featured players.

These two persons, being lawyers in science, and privy councillors in authority, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, turned law and justice into wormwood and rapine. … Neither did they, toward the end, observe so much as the half-face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convent them before themselves, and some others, at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and in controversies civil. Then did they also use to inthral and charge the subjects’ lands with tenure in capite, by finding false offices, and thereby to work upon them for wardships, liveries, premier seisin, and alienations … When men were outlawed in personal actions, they would not permit them to purchase their charters of pardon, except they paid great and intolerable sums; standing upon the strict point of law, which upon outlawries giveth forfeiture of goods; nay, contrary to all law and colour, they maintained the king ought to have the half of men’s lands and rents, during the space of full two years, for a pain in case of outlawry. They would also raffle with jurors, and enforce them to find as they would direct, and if they did not, convent [summon] them, imprison them, and fine them. These and many other courses, fitter to be buried than repeated, they had of preyig upon the people; both like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves; insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance.

-Francis Bacon‘s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh

Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were two powerful parliamentarians of less than lordly stature who had been elevated to this bad-cop role for their loyalty and aptitude. There, they became lightning rods for public resentment. It’s a path that had once taken a French counterpart from the common stock to the robes of state to (once his patron monarch died) the scaffold. Empson and Dudley trod it exactly.

Even in Henry’s lifetime, his newly intrusive taxes risked fearful public reaction.

The pretender Perkin Warbeck knocked Henry for the “robberies, extortions, the daily pilling of the people by dismes [tithes], taskes [contributions], tallages [tolls], benevolences, and other unlawful impositions and grievous exactions” he imposed, “agreeable to the meanness of his birth.” Tax backlash helped generate at least some of Warbeck’s popular support.

By the twilight of Henry’s rule in the first decade of the 1500’s, he had mastered these threats and could take advantage of political tranquility to really focus on his accounting. And he’d figured out that by ratcheting up enforcement of already-existing levies, he could avoid the dangerous confrontations that might result from summoning Parliament to ask it for money. It’s from this period most of all that he gets his historical Ebenezer Scrooge image, and the tool he employed for it, the Council Learned in the Law, got its extreme unpopularity.

Henry died in April of 1509 at the age of 52, leaving his son Henry VIII an overflowing treasury and countless grievances against the tax collectors who made it happen.

As the Council Learned’s leading lights, Empson and Dudley — “the king’s long arms with which … he took what was his” — immediately became targets once their royal protector was in the ground. They were hailed before the greenhorn king and the Privy Council to justify themselves within days of Henry VII’s death.

Interestingly, because a royal pardon amnestied all crimes except “felony, murder, and treason,” the malfeasance of these two councilors — whose real offense was unimpeachable loyalty to the last sovereign — had to be exaggerated into rather fantastical charges of treason in order to satisfy petitioners against them while avoiding undue embarrassment for the late king or the other aides who had served him.

In the year or so he lay in the dungeon awaiting his fate, “a pson most ignorant, and being in wordlie vexacon and trowble, also wth the sorrowfull and bitter remembrance of death,” Edmund Dudley wrote a treatise on the right arrangement of a society dedicated to the young new master who held Dudley’s life in his hands. The Tree of Commonwealth can be read here.

Yale professor Keith Wrightson introduces an interesting lecture — “Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts” — with Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth social schema.

Remember both, since now each thrive,
on perquisite ill gotten,
Empson & Dudleys case survives,
when they’re hang’d, dead, & rotten;

-From an 18th century colonial Virginia ballad titled “Remonstrance”, comparing this date’s centuries-old executed to a contemporary politician (Richard Beale Davis, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1967))

Update: The History of England podcast covers these two blokes here.

* The phrase “Morton’s fork” comes from Henry’s extractive machinations. Named for his Lord Chancellor John Morton, the original dilemma was a “fork” the crown used to stick taxpayers: those living high on the hog were made to pay up, since they obviously had enough to spare … and those living modestly were also made to pay, since they perforce must have saved enough to spare.

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1535: Cardinal John Fisher

1 comment June 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Catholic prelate John Fisher was beheaded on Tower Hill for refusing to endorse Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.

The longtime Bishop of Rochester had only been elevated to the cardinalate weeks before by the new Pope Paul III, in the vain hope that the sublimity of the position would induce King Henry to ease the prelate’s imprisonment.

Henry eased it, all right. Permanently.*

Forbidding the official hat to be delivered to Albion, Henry declared he would dispatch its owner’s head to Rome instead.

A jury including the father of the usurping queen who had occasioned all this trouble — Anne Boleyn, of course, bound for the block herself in less than a year — condemned the aged ecclesiastic to death for treason.

He was hustled to the scaffold on this date to beat the June 24 feast day of his patron and namesake Saint John the Baptist, Christ‘s Biblical precursor who was … beheaded by a ruthless king whose marriage the Baptist had denounced. Struck a little too close to home, that.

Fisher’s friend and fellow-traveler both spiritual and temporal, Sir Thomas More, followed the cardinal’s footsteps to Calvary a fortnight later.

Both men are considered saints not only by Catholics (for obvious reasons) but also by Anglicans. June 22 is their feast day on the Catholic calendar of saints.

* It’s possible Henry had been out for Fisher’s blood for some time. As a foe of the king in his so-called Great Matter of many years’ standing, Fisher was the presumed target of a 1531 assassination-by-poison attempt that resulted in a horrific execution by boiling alive.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,God,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,Treason

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1534: Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent

2 comments April 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1534, Elizabeth Barton was hanged at Tyburn with her “conspirators” for having prophesied the death of Henry VIII and (in the words of the parliamentary attainder against them) “traterously attempted many notable actes intendyng therbye the disturbaunce of the pease and tranquyllytie of this Realm.”

A country servant-girl, this Elizabeth Barton had begun having divine visions around Easter 1525, and developed a popular following for her gift of prophecy, generally delivered during spooky (perhaps epileptic) fits and trances.

This was all just fine with everyone, since King Henry was still a good Catholic at the time; Barton took orders in the St. Sepulchre Nunnery and continued her career in the seer business.

Elizabeth Barton wasn’t going to leave her place in Henrician England … but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Henrician England was about to leave her.

And like so many entries that age has given this site, it all went back to Henry’s leaving his first queen, Catherine of Aragon.

If one likes to see in the prophetic tradition a refracted expression of popular sentiment, speaking a religious rather than a political language, Elizabeth Barton’s divine gift set her up to be the mystical exponent of the English populace’s visceral reaction against Henry’s ascending paramour, Anne Boleyn.

Rather rashly, Barton began publicly warning her sovereign against his bedchamber gambit, threatening that if the proposed Boleyn union should come to pass, he “should no longer be King of this realm…and should die a villain’s death.”

That would be compassing the death of the king — which is treason.

Barton articulated a fear of Henry’s policies which was shared by many of his subjects. The anticipated breach with Rome made the citizens of England insecure about the future stability of the realm, and prognostications concerning the state of the country abounded. Barton was not alone in foretelling that wars and plagues would soon rack the country; or in prophesying that the King would be overthrown, that his death was imminent, that he would die as a villain. Many people were discussing such prophecies, by means of which they could “objectify their fears and hopes” in an age of change and disruption.

-Diane Watt, “Reconstructing the Word: the Political Prophecies of Elizabeth Barton (1506-1534)”, Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1997

So it’s probably only fitting that this creature of her times would be devoured by the Tudor state which made its Reformation from the top.

Devoured, not only bodily.

As the Tudor king breaks with Rome, Barton becomes almost totally obscure to us, the real person who dared to stand openly against her king subsumed entirely by the edifice of state propaganda. As Watt observes, “as a result of her fate … almost all the first-hand evidence concerning Barton’s life and revelations has been destroyed” and “the surviving image of her has therefore been shaped by those who suppressed her visions and prophecies.”

We have her mystical utterances mostly indirectly, through the interlocutors charged with refuting her, and we have the expedient charges against her of fraud, contumacy, and (of course) sexual indiscretion leveled by her foes.


“The Imposture of the Holy Maid of Kent”

Arrested with a circle of supporters, Barton was forced into a public recantation in November 1533 by her persecutors. One supposes such a recantation was in any event obtained under some duress; undoubtedly it was, as the disgusted Spanish ambassador recorded, staged “to blot out from people’s minds the impression they have that the Nun is a saint and a prophet.” (Cited by Watt)

If said duress included an easing of the charges against herself or her associates, Barton was to be disappointed.

She was attainted for treason* in January (the evidence against her being insufficient for a judicial verdict of treason); the bill of attainder also required the public to hand over any writings about her alleged prophecies or revelations, like the popular pamphlets that had circulated with official approval in the 1520’s: there would be nothing to nurture a people’s cult for this exponent of resistance. Over the decades to come, the early writings sympathetic (and proximate) to Barton would be almost completely annihilated, supplanted by Protestant works that rendered Barton a trickster, a puppet, a sham — magnified her retraction into the definitive statement. It was a propaganda victory almost as chilling as Barton’s corporeal fate: even her potentially sympathetic Catholic audiences can latterly make no reliable judgment about her.

And so Barton moulders.

In April 1534, the usurping consort once more apparently pregnant with Henry’s long-sought heir, the once-popular, now-deflated prophetess of the old queen and the old faith was emblematically put to death with her former adherents on a most significant day in the city of London.

[T]his day the Nun of Kent, with two Friars Observant, two monks and one secular priest, were drawn from the Tower to Tyburn, and there hanged and headed. God, if it be his pleasure, have mercy on their souls. Also this day the most part of this City are sworn to the king and his legitimate issue by the Queen’s Grace now had and hereafter to come, and so shall all the realm over be sworn in like manner.

-Letter from John Husee to Lord Lisle, April 20, 1534 (Source)

We trust everybody got the message.

But in case anyone missed the point, there would be plentiful reminders still to come.

* Chancellor Thomas More had some traffic with Barton — very cautious, as befits a skeptical elite’s approach to a loose cannon commoner — and was briefly in some danger of being named in the indictment against her. When his loyal daughter Meg joyously reported to him that he’d been cleared, he’s supposed to have replied, “In faith, Meg, ‘quod differtur non aufertur’, what is put off is not put away.” But it probably didn’t require heavenly foresight for More to perceive the wheel of fortune about to turn on him, too. By the time of Barton’s actual execution, More had already been clapped in the Tower himself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Women

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