1540: Three Papists and Three Anti-Papists

3 comments July 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1540, two days after disposing of his former Vicegerent of Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, the just-wedded Henry VIII wrote a terrifying message of religious conformity in blood and smoke at Smithfield.

Edward Hall (as he did with Cromwell) records the scene.

The thirtie daie of July, were drawen on herdelles out of the Tower to Smithfield, Robert Barnes Doctor in Diuinitee, Thomas Garard, and Wyllyam Jerome Bachelers in Diuinitee, Powell, Fetherston and Abell. The firste three were drawen to a stake, there before set up, and were hanged, hedded, and quartered. Here ye must note, that the first three, wer menne that professed the Gospell of Jesu Christ, and were Preachers thereof … [the first three] were detestable and abhominable Heretickes, and … had taught many heresies, the nomber whereof was to greate in the atteindor to be recited, so that there is not one alleged … in deede at their deathe, they asked the Sherifes, wherefore they were condempned, who answered, thei could not tell: but if I maie saie the truthe, moste menne said it was for Preachyng, against the Doctryne of Stephen Gardiner Bishoppe of Wynchester, who chiefly procured this their death … but greate pitie it was, that suche learned menne should bee cast awaie, without examinaction, neither knowyng what was laied to their charge, nor never called to answere.

The laste three … were put to death for Treason, and in their attaindor, is speciall mencion made of their offences, whiche was for the deniyng of the kynge ssupremacie, and affirmyng that his Mariage with the Lady Katheryne was good: These with other were the treasons, that thei wer attainted of, and suffered death for.

Terrifying and confusing: here were burnt three Protestants (Barnes, Gerrard and Jerome) for heresy under the Six Articles, essentially for excess radicalism; beside them were hanged, drawn and quartered three Catholics (Powell, Fetherston and Abel) for treasonably refusing the Oath of Succession, that is, for refusing to admit the King of England as the head of the Church of England. It was that old dispute about Anne Boleyn, who was three queens ago by now. (All three Catholic theologians were advisors to Anne’s predecessor and rival Catherine of Aragon, back in the day.)

The one thing that couldn’t possibly be confused in the day’s proceedings was that matters of the faith were matters of state, and in them Henry would brook heterodoxy of neither the liberal nor conservative variety.

“Good Lord! How do these people live?” exclaimed a foreign observer (cited here). “Here are the papists hanged, there are the anti-papists burnt!”

Good for the martyr industry all-around, and fodder for contemporaries to imagine their respective hereafters, as in “The metynge of Doctor Barons and Doctor Powell at Paradise gate”. (pdf)

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1540: Thomas Cromwell

14 comments July 28th, 2009 Headsman

“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …

If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writing to King Henry VIII upon news of the arrest of Thomas Cromwell

It was on this date in 1540 that the Machiavellian minister of Henry VIII fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others.

While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England.

In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)

Every matter of importance in 1530’s England concerned Cromwell. He raised and then destroyed Anne Boleyn; he managed the realm’s religious turmoil so fearsomely that his ouster was one of the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace; he did what he had to do in the matter of Sir Thomas More.

Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Man-Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall humanizes Cromwell’s side of his clash with Thomas More. (Review)

Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power — “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” — the reasons for it are murky enough to invite recourse to the royal person’s irrationality.

The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.

Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas — and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant — seems to beggar belief.

Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?

In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.

Oh, and by the by: with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.

Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) — alongside a distinctly undercard attraction, Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.

Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.

I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.

And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.

If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king.

* Cromwell’s bit about the “Catholic faith” in his dying confession is to be carefully handled; it’s sometimes rendered “the traditional faith,” and occasionally treated by later Protestant polemicists as a phony addition made by Roman apologists. It’s not, appearances aside, walking back the Reformation; according to Charles Carlton’s “Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation” (Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973)) our day’s victim “did not see himself as a Catholic separate from the Church, but as a Christian, who, with his King, had escaped the Pope’s usurped authority.” Cromwell is also explicit in this passage about rejecting sacramentarianism, which was part of the heresy accusation against him.

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1546: Anne Askew, the only woman tortured in the Tower

7 comments July 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1546, Protestant martyr Anne Askew was martyred for her Protestantism.

One of the more intriguing religious martyrs of Tudor England, Askew was a gentlewoman forced to take her older sister’s place in an arranged betrothal when said sister (as was the style in the 16th century) dropped dead young.

Askew’s adherence to Protestantism put her at loggerheads with her Catholic husband, a domestic prefiguring of the factional political dispute that would see her to a Smithfield stake: the Reformation that rent England was itself contested within, with more aggressively reformist Protestant types resisted by the more conservative Catholic-without-Rome faction. Taking the wrong line at the wrong time was taking your life in your hands, and in the treacherous Tudor court, religion became the stalking-horse of deadly politics.

A like conflict played out in townships and households throughout the realm.

Askew and her husband separated (but were not granted divorce) over her conversion to Protestantism; she moved to London and started preaching doctrines anathema to the doctrinaire. As a noblewoman herself, she was absorbed into social circles reaching Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr.

Askew’s outspoken heterodoxy soon brought her into conflict with anti-Protestants, and when the “send her back to hubbie” strategy didn’t take, they had her clapped in the Tower.

Here she evidently became a pawn in courtly politics; with the obese and aging king liable to drop dead any moment, religious and political authority during the succession was at stake.

Askew was therefore racked in the Tower in an effort to extract evidence against powerful women of known Protestant inclinations, possibly up to and including the queen herself.

Then came Rich and one of the council, charging me upon my obedience, to show unto them, if I knew any man or woman of my sect. My answer was, that I knew none. Then they asked me of my Lady of Suffolk, my Lady of Sussex, my Lady of Hertford, my Lady Denny, and my Lady Fitzwilliam. To whom I answered, if I should pronounce any thing against them, that I were not able to prove it. Then said they unto me, that the king was informed that I could name, if I would, a great number of my sect. I answered, that the king was as well deceived in that behalf, as dissembled with in other matters.

Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my lord chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.

Then the lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack. Incontinently I swooned, and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours reasoning with my lord chancellor upon the bare floor; where he, with many flattering words, persuaded me to leave my opinion.

Askew didn’t talk, and the act of torturing a woman shocked contemporaries so much that it has never been officially repeated. She was burned to death with three fellow-heretics in Smithfield, so crippled by torture that she had to be carried in a chair to the pyre.


Anne Askew’s executed, together with John Lascelles, John Adams and Nicholas Belenian. Preaching in the pulpit is Nicholas Shaxton, who avoided the fagots with a timely recantation.

Askew survives to us as a particularly consequential Protestant martyr not only for her what-might-have-been proximity to a court plot that might have altered the course of English history, but because she left her own testimony to the ordeal.

Her Examinations — firsthand accounts of her interrogations — were reportedly smuggled out of England where they were published by John Bale. Still, we come by Anne’s own voice in the mediated form of other (male) publishers with their own agendas.

One reading of Bale’s editions that has now become conventional envisions Askew’s narrative as an embattled text: an authentic narrative, the autobiography of a learned and valiant woman, onto which Bale has imposed an insensitive, misogynistic misreading.

Specifically, Bale has been dinged for shoehorning source material that reveals a contentious and tough-minded critic into the vanilla pattern of the meek woman suffering for the faith — a cardboard cutout martyr shorn of less consumer-friendly unfeminine behavior.

While both Bale and Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, who also published versions of the Examinations, stand in that sense between us and the “real” Anne Askew, their polemical needs are precisely the reason we are able to descry the woman standing behind the martyr-archetype.

while her body was consumed by the flames, her identity remains at least partially preserved. The Henrician Anglo-Catholics made Askew famous through the process of her trial and public execution. The Protestant reformers rhetorically retrieved Askew’s broken, tortured, criminalized body from the stake and restyled it as a saint and symbol of their cause. Her identity thus paradoxically emerges in a variety of ways from the tensions … that we find in all the scraps of surviving archival material relating to her. (Theresa D. Kemp, “Translating (Anne) Askew: The Textual Remains of a Sixteenth-Century Heretic and Saint,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter, 1999))

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1537: Robert Aske, for the Pilgrimage of Grace

3 comments July 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Robert Aske was hanged for leading the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The year preceding had been among the most wrenching in British history, and when Henry VIII began shuttering Catholic monasteries, many an egg that would comprise the English Reformation‘s omelette would be shattered.

In the conservative and Catholic-leaning north, Thomas Cromwell‘s reforms (combined with various political and economic grievances) triggered an uprising that soon controlled York.

This fraught situation ended much easier for the English crown than it might have, with a royal negotiating strategy of nominally accepting the Pilgrimage’s terms inducing the massive rebel force to disband, allowing its leaders to be seized thereafter on the first pretext of renewed trouble.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Pilgrimage_of_Grace.flv 440 330]

Robert Aske, the barrister who had come to the fore of the Pilgrimage movement and had personally negotiated terms with Henry, was among about 200 to suffer death for their part in the affair. In Aske’s case, it was against the will of Jane Seymour, Henry’s demure third queen and also a Catholic-inclined traditionalist; she made an uncharacteristic foray into state policy by ask(e)ing for Aske’s life, summarily vetoed by the king’s reminding her the fate of her politically-minded predecessor.*

Here’s Aske hanged at York Castle in The Tudors:

And here’s an inscription on a Yorkshire church reminding one of Aske’s surviving brothers of the events of those pivotal months.

* In other wives-of-the-king developments, Henry’s future (sixth, and final) wife Katherine Parr was taken a hostage by the rebels during the Pilgrimage.

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1542: Kathryn Howard, the rose without a thorn

19 comments February 13th, 2009 Lara Eakins

(Thanks to Lara Eakins of the TudorHistory.org Blog for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1542, Henry VIII’s fifth queen, Kathryn Howard, was beheaded in the Tower of London for high treason. She was the second of Henry’s queens to face this fate, the other being Kathryn’s first cousin Anne Boleyn.

This Hans Holbein miniature is generally thought to be Kathryn Howard, though the identification is uncertain. From the TudorHistory.org blog Kathryn Howard gallery.

Kathryn Howard* was born sometime between 1518 and 1524 to Lord Edmund Howard (a younger brother of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk) and his wife Joyce Culpepper. Joyce died while Kathryn was young and her father took a post in Calais, leaving Kathryn in the charge of her step-grandmother, Agnes Tilney the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess oversaw Kathryn’s education, but apparently didn’t keep as close an eye on other aspects of the girl’s life.

Kathryn’s first physical relationship that we know of occurred in around 1536 with her music teacher Henry Manox. In her later confession she told of “the fair and flattering persuasions of Mannock, being but a young girl, suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body…”. In late 1538, Kathryn began a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham, which was to become part of her downfall as Queen.

The next year, 1539, Kathryn took a position at court, becoming a maid of honor for Henry’s soon-to-be fourth Queen, Anne of Cleves. The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk later recalled that Henry first took notice of Kathryn at Greenwich in December of 1539 during the preparations for Anne’s arrival. Henry was famously disappointed by his new foreign bride and by early July 1540 the marriage was annulled. During the short marriage to Anne of Cleves, Henry had already begun to send gifts to Kathryn and took her as his fifth Queen on July 28th at Oatlands Palace.

Henry was 49 years old and Kathryn was no older than 22 (and more likely around 19). For all that can be said against this match, the vivacious young girl brought back some of Henry’s zest for life. The King lavished gifts on his young wife and called her his ‘rose without a thorn’ and the ‘very jewel of womanhood’.

Thomas Culpepper, a distant relation of Kathryn’s through her mother, sought favor from the Queen in early 1541 which was probably when their secret meetings began. Their rendezvous were aided by Kathryn’s lady of the privy chamber, Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to the late Queen Anne Boleyn through Jane’s marriage to Anne’s brother George.** Also at this time, Francis Dereham returned to England from Ireland and gained a position in Kathryn’s household, possibly arranged to keep his silence about their earlier relationship.

During the summer of 1541, Henry and his young queen went on progress to the north of England and returned to Hampton Court on October 29. Just a few days later everything would begin to unravel. On November 2, Archbishop Cranmer sent a letter to the King telling him of his wife’s previous lovers. Henry seemed reluctant to believe the charges at first, but upon the questioning of Dereham and Manox –- who confirmed the allegations –- Henry left Kathryn at Hampton Court and returned to London. He never saw her again.

During the interrogations of the men, Francis Dereham said that Thomas Culpepper had replaced him in the Queen’s affections. Kathryn was presented with these new allegations and admitted to secret meetings with Culpepper (as well as the relationships with Manox and Dereham before her marriage), but denied that a sexual relationship had existed between them. Culpepper was imprisoned in the Tower of London and Kathryn was moved to the former abbey at Syon and deprived of her queenship.

Dereham and Culpepper were found guilty of treason on December 1 and were executed on December 10. Dereham was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered at Tyburn. Culpepper fared better, owing to his status, and was only beheaded. The former queen and her lady Jane Boleyn never faced a trial for their actions but instead had acts of attainder passed against them. On February 10, 1542, the ladies entered the Tower of London to await their executions.

Kathryn was told on the 12th that her execution would be the next morning and according to Imperial Ambassador Chapuys, she rehearsed the execution for several hours and even requested that the block be brought to her so she would know how to place her head. A merchant named Ottwell Johnson was an eyewitness to the execution on the morning of the 13th and wrote in a letter to his brother that Kathryn and Jane both “made the most godly and Christian end” and that Kathryn, in her scaffold speech, said that her punishment was worthy and just. (The letter is among period correspondence printed in this public-domain book.)

Kathryn’s head was struck from her body with one stoke of the axe, as was Jane’s, a merciful outcome compared to other ladies who shared their fate, such as Margaret Pole and Mary Queen of Scots. Kathryn and Jane were both quickly buried in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower precincts, joining Henry’s other beheaded queen, Anne Boleyn and Jane’s husband, George.

[flv:http://www.executedtoday.com/video/Lynne_Frederick_as_Katherine_Howard.flv 440 330]

* Or Catherine Howard, or Katherine Howard, or Katheryn Howard. Spelling at the time, even of proper names, was fluid.

** Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, is popularly supposed to have supplied the explosive incest allegation against her husband, George Boleyn, and his sister Anne Boleyn. Being subsequently hoisted on her own petard in the game of courtly purging, she tends to get short shrift in the sympathy department — though the fact is that we really don’t know much about her.

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1552: Edward Seymour, deposed Lord Protector

5 comments January 22nd, 2009 Headsman

The set of any given Tudor-era costume drama is a walking Who’s Who of scaffold superstars, most notably, of course, the wives of Henry VIII. That king’s bed did not cease exuding power and danger with Henry’s death.

With Henry’s demise, the crown fell to the only legitimate son the old man had produced in a lifetime of trying, the sickly 9-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry’s beloved* third wife Jane Seymour.

Jane’s brothers had leveraged their late sister’s favor into political muscle, and Edward Seymour smoothly outmaneuvered rival factions late in Henry’s life to set himself up as the true ruler of England during the boy king’s regency.

Created Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector,** Edward ran the country for going on three years, executing the other Seymour sibling as a rival along the way.

But the power of the king’s office without the attendant legitimacy turned out to be a double-edged blade.

Edward inherited a campaign against Scotland (and France) to secure the betrothal of the king to the young Mary Queen of Scots, then just beginning her own lifetime as a political and matrimonial football.

That wearisome (and costly) military scenario could only exacerbate the enmities a somewhat tin-eared Somerset generated in the course of everyday politics at the treacherous Tudor court. Catholics resented his liberal religious policy (Thomas Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer on Edward Seymour’s watch); noble rivals wheedled and flattered the youthful king in his charge; and Edward Seymour’s populist political style rubbed stodgier nobles the wrong way without quite satisfying discontent among commoners† who rebelled widely in 1549, a year of terrible harvests and economic breakdown. By October of 1549, he had been politically isolated and was supplanted by John Dudley. (Guess what happened to him.)

Interestingly, that transition initially looked to be as bloodless a coup d’etat as 16th century England could enjoy: Seymour did a couple months in the Tower of London but accepted his place and not only rejoined the Privy Council but dynastically married his daughter to Dudley’s heir.

All it took, however, was an ounce of paranoia on Dudley’s part to suspect the former Lord Protector of plotting against him. The peers of the realm wouldn’t convict him of a trumped-up treason charge, but “compromised” with a felony conviction that had, for old man Somerset, the exact same result.

We have an account of the Duke’s oddly portentous end from diarist Henry Machyn, whose record of the scene in the original text of Early Modern English we present here beside its “translation” — courtesy of Machyn diaries here and here.

[The xxij of January, soon after eight of the clock in the morning, the duke of Somerset was beheaded on Tower hill. There was as] grett compeny as have bene syne . . the kynges gard behynge there with ther ha[lbards, and a] M1. [i.e., a thousand] mo with halbards of the prevelege of the Towre, [Ratcliffe,] Lymhowsse, Whyt-chapell, Sant Kateryn, and Strettford [Bow], as Hogston, Sordyche; and ther the ij shreyfs behyng th[ere present] seyng the execusyon of my lord, and ys hed to be [smitten] of, and after shortely ys body was putt in to a coffin, [and carried] in to the Towre, and ther bered in the chyrche, of [the north] syd of the qwyre of sant Peters, the wyche I beseeche [God] have mercy on ys sowlle, amen! And ther was [a sudden] rumbelyng a lytyll a-for he ded, as yt had byn [guns] shuttyng [i.e., shooting] and grett horsys commyng, that a M1. [i.e., a thousand] fell [to the] grond for fere, for thay that wher at the on syd [thought] no nodur butt that one was kyllyng odur, that [they fell] down to the grond on apon anodur with ther halb[ards], they thought no nodur butt that thay shuld . . . . . sum fell in to [the] dyche of the Towre and odur plasys, . . . and a C. [i.e., 100] in to the Towre-dyche, and sum ran a way for [fear.] He [the Duke of Somerset] was beheaded soon after eight o’clock in the morning, being brought to his execution the sooner to prevent the concourse of the people, who would be forward to see the last end of one so well beloved by them. It was the greatest company as have been seen. The King’s guard being there with their arms, there were a thousand more with halberds of the privilege of the Tower, from Ratcliff, Limehouse, Whitechapel, St. Katherine, and Stratford Bow, as Hoxton, Shoreditch.

And there the two sheriffs being there present seeing the execution of my lord. And his head to be off. And after shortly his body was put into a coffin and carried into the Tower and there buried in the church of the north side of the choir of St. Peter. The which I beseech God have mercy on his soul. Amen.

And there was a sudden rumbling a little before he died as it had been guns shooting and great horses coming, that a thousand fell to the ground for fear. For they that were at the one side thought no other but that one was killing other. That they fell down to the ground, one upon another with their halberds. They thought no other but that they should flee. Some fell into the ditch of the Tower and other places, and a hundred into the Tower ditch, and some ran away.

* Henry was buried next to Jane, a meek spouse who had stayed out of politics, given him an heir, and died from the birth.

** Not the realm’s most famous Lord Protector, of course, but the last to exercise the office as it had been traditionally understood, for the protection of an underage sovereign.

† Notably, Somerset ordered a commission to look into nobles enclosing common land, a burning issue throughout the century. Some think this raised hopes in the hoi polloi for a resolution to the great class conflict that the Duke didn’t have the juice to implement.

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1517: Torben Oxe

3 comments November 29th, 2008 dogboy

It was November 29, 1517, when the last Roman Catholic king of Denmark, the ambitious and possibly manic-depressive monarch Christian II, enforced the execution of a man whom he trusted for years. Torben Oxe was beheaded at St. Gertrude’s Hospital Cemetery for crimes against the throne.

Oxe was a subsidiary character during the tenure of one of the more intriguing Western European monarchs, and his hasty — and largely unsubstantiated — condemnation was a critical indicator in the governance of King Christian II.

Christian II of Denmark

Christian took the throne during a time of great disquiet in Scandanavia. His father, Hans of Denmark, fought for more than 30 years to restore the union across Norway, Sweden, and Denmark while harshly opposing the Hanseatic League. His efforts bore fruit in 1483 when Norway and Denmark came together to appoint him ruler of those two lands; 14 years later, he conquered Sweden and claimed kingship.

But his dominion over Sweden was short-lived: struggles to regain independent territory in Northern Germany resulted in a resounding defeat, and Sweden gave its new king the pink slip in 1501. Hans was eventually reinstated as an absentee ruler, awarded the title of king in 1509 but not allowed into Stockholm, nor re-crowned. His takeover was exclusively economic.

It was during this time that Christian stepped into his political future.

He took control of Norway as viceroy in 1506, and his rule was less than appreciated by the wealthy. The nobles in Norway maintained a sort of Privy Council called the Rigsraadet, which Christian was unwilling to cede any more power to than he felt was necessary.* Christian was known as a brutal man among the nobles even as he tried to cultivate a connection to the common people.

It was this connection that led to the downfall of Oxe. During his time in Norway, Viceroy Christian took a mistress named Dyveke Sigbritsdatter, a Norweigan peasant of Dutch descent.

At the death of Christian’s father early in 1513, the viceroy became King of Denmark and Norway and immediately set to bringing Sweden under heel. His father had made similar efforts which were supported by Eric Trolle, who was initially appointed regent to Sweden after Sten Sture (the elder) passed away; unfortunately for Christian II, in 1511, Sten Sture (the younger) convinced the high council to rescind its earlier appointment in his favor.

Sture was no friend to Christian II.

It is widely thought that the desires of Christian were eventually played out through Gustav Trolle, Eric’s son, who rose to the post of archbishop early in Christian II’s reign. Trolle threw his lot in with the Danish ruler and gained his ear, earning the promise that Trolle might rule over Sweden in Christian’s name. Trolle did everything he could to secure his place in history, demanding more autonomy for the church and, Sture claimed, attempting a backdoor coup. In 1515, Sture had Trolle imprisoned, the Catholic church condemned the Swedish government, and the Swedes and Danes squared off in a series of battles to decide its fate.

But Christian was obsessed with the expansion of his realm. He worked persistently to expand his power and reach, forming alliances that would help him gain control of what he considered the whole of Denmark. It was around this time that Christian II hitched the horse of the Holy Roman Empire to his team by marrying Isabella (Elizabeth I), granddaughter of Maximilian I.**

Which brings the story back to Torben Oxe.

Oxe was appointed Governor of Copenhagen Castle, a modest nobleman’s post that put him in close contact with the king’s court. Despite Christian’s marriage, he kept his mistress, openly housing her and her mother immediately adjacent to his residence. In summer 1517, Dyveke Sigbritsdatter fell ill and died; her mother pointed the finger at Oxe, who sent the girl a box of cherries two days earlier: apparently, Oxe was also enamored of Dyveke. Sigbrit alleged that Dyveke rebuked Oxe’s advances, and out of spite, he had murdered her.

History is awash with uncertainties, and there are plenty of those in the death of Dyveke. To begin, it’s not even clear that Dyveke was poisoned; she died suddenly and with severe stomach pain, so poisoning was assumed, but never really proven. In addition, it’s not clear whether Oxe was, indeed, courting Dyveke, as Sigbrit insisted. Last but not least, if Dyveke was murdered, there was nothing to suggest that the killer was not a member of the Rigsraad — the Privy Council in Denmark — or just someone seeking revenge on the king for one of his many cruel acts; instead of tracing these possibilities, Christian II condemned his friend Oxe on Sigbrit’s word alone.

But the farce was not complete without an equally farcical trial or two. Oxe’s post gave him a trial by the Council of the State: a dozen noblemen met, conferred, and delivered a rebuke to the king, declaring Oxe innocent of the crime. Christian was incensed at the verdict, allegedly asserting, “If I had as many kinsmen in the Rigsraad as he has, he would never have been acquitted.”

Not content with this form of justice, the king turned to the people, assembling a jury of peasants who were more than obliging in delivering the famed line, “We do not convict him, but his deeds convict him.” So, despite the pleadings of the king’s wife, Torben Oxe lost his head — and his corpse was burned for good measure.


Christian II underskriver Torben Oxes dødsdom, or Christian II Signs Torben Oxe’s Death Warrant (1874-76), by Eilif Peterssen. The queen sits at his side, imploring him not to do it.

In the great tradition of nepotism, Sigbrit was subsequently appointed chief adviser to the king and took over the role of management of the mercantile taxation system, the Sound Tolls; she was remarkably successful in these posts and formed a middle-class council which held far more sway over Christian than its “noble” counterpart, the Rigsraadet.

As he moved away from them, Christian’s rule became more and more unstable, and his desire to have Sweden almost insatiable. After a series of battles, he managed to claim the title of King of Sweden for a brief period around 1520, crowned by his friend Gustav Trolle shortly before putting on the Stockholm Bloodbath. It was this event which earned him the title in Sweden of Christian the Tyrant.

Peder Oxe

As if these connections weren’t enough, Oxe’s nephew, Peder Oxe (born in 1520), who was Steward of the Realm under Frederick II, became one of the players in an attempt to restore Christian II’s daughter, Christina, to the Danish throne — long after Christian himself was out of the picture. The attempt was unsuccessful.†

Dyveke’s story, and her impact on King Christian II, has been cast in a variety of literary formats.

* The Rigsraadet was the Norweigan instantiation of the Scandanavian sort of House of Lords, with members the noblemen of the time. New members could be appointed by kings and queens, or by other members of the council, and, until the Reformation, Roman Catholic bishops also maintained posts.

** This marriage also extended the reach of the Habsburgs into Denmark, a move that would have further consequences several hundred years hence.

Christina also has the distinction of turning down a marriage proposal by Henry VIII. According to legend, her witty response to the ambassador sent to arrange the marriage was, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”

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1538: John Lambert, “none but Christ”

3 comments November 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date 470 years ago, John Lambert was burned to death at London’s Smithfield market for heresy.

One possible way to read the early progress of the English Reformation is as an initial flowering of Protestantism followed — after the execution of Anne Boleyn — by a reactionary crackdown by the monarch.

In this telling, John Lambert (born John Nicolson or Nicholson) marks the turning point, the man in whose blood Henry VIII etched his warning against doctrinal liberality.

John Lambert cooked his goose by picking a theological dispute with a pastor in London. He didn’t buy into transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine (still extant today) that the bread blessed on the altar became the literal body of Christ.

Though the Anglican church would ditch this belief soon thereafter, it came down hard on Lambert in a show trial attended by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and all the Tudor big wheels whose heads were at that point attached to their shoulders.

The king himself — who here reminds one of the the stout defense of the sacraments that in his early Catholic period had earned him the papal honorific “defender of the faith” — debated theology with the accused, though mostly he left it to his august councilors.


John Lambert disputing before Henry VIII. Early 19th c. illustration.

But the crowned head made his doctrine as plain to the audience as the consequences of crossing it.

The pro-Lambert account from which this extract is drawn is available free on Google books:

At length [Lambert] was worn out with fatigue, having been kept five hours standing …

Night coming on, the King being desirous to break up this pretended disputation, said to Lambert, “What sayest thou now, after all this pains taken with thee, and all the reasons and instructions of these learned men? Art thou not yet satisfied? Wilt thou live or die? What sayest thou? Thou has yet free choice.” Lambert answered, “I yield and submit myself wholly unto the will of your Majesty.” Then said the King, “Commit thyself into the hands of God, and not unto mine.” Lambert replied, “I commend my soul unto the hands of God, but my body I wholly yield and submit unto your clemency.” Then said the King, “If you do commit yourself unto my judgment, you must die, for I will not be a Patron unto heretics.” And then turning to Lord Cromwell he said, “Cromwell, read the sentence of condemnation against him:” which was accordingly done.

A few months later, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Act of the Six Articles, essentially establishing Catholic doctrine — sans Pope, obviously — as the basis for the Church of England and criminalizing dissent.

What to make of this trial and the policy it represented is open to dispute. In a simple telling, Henry realizes his Reformation is running away from him, or becomes wise to discomfiting reforms that Cranmer or Cromwell are pushing. Too, the ebb and flow of Henry’s “Reformation” has sometimes been seen as a product of the shifting balance between reformers and conservatives advising the crown; Protestant martyrologist John Foxe favored this approach since it enabled him to celebrate a John Lambert without indicting the monarch by blaming advisors.

Lambert’s death is also sometimes interpreted in light of the international situation, as the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire had made peace, potentially (along with Scotland) encircling England with Popish foes who might conceivably be less belligerent with a move towards traditional doctrine.*

But maybe that’s all a good deal more explanation than is needed for the old defender of the faith. G.W. Bernard’s consideration of The King’s Reformation argues that Lambert isn’t so pivotal after all:

[H]istorians who see … the trial of Lambert as some sort of turning point are greatly mistaken. There was absolutely nothing new in Henry’s policy in November 1538. Ever since radical — Zwinglian — notions on the mass had come to influence some within England, Henry had reacted firmly and boldly. This was not something that only came late in the 1530s, when he supposedly woke up to what Cromwell and Cranmer had been doing in his name but without his knowledge. It was there from the start. As early as March 1535 a proclamation fiercely denounced strangers who had presumptuously rebaptised themselves and who denied that the blessed and most holy sacrament of the altar was really the body of Christ. If there was a novelty in autumn 1538, it was the perception that such heresies were spreading through the realm and that heretics with a high profile, such as Lambert, needed to be dealt with publicly so that others might learn from their unhappy example. … Henry surely blasted against sacramentarians for the straightforward reason that he sincerely believed them to be wicked.

As for Lambert himself, he met an especially cruel version of the none-too-pleasant sentence of burning alive, allegedly being lifted by pikestaffs from the flame when his legs were burned off to prolong his suffering. He is said to have continued to call out the inspirational last words, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

* It was against this alliance that Cromwell would arrange the king’s ill-fated marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves, a debacle that helped Cromwell lose his own head.

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1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

16 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

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1536: Anne Boleyn

22 comments May 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head.

Any queen decapitated by her king would of course rate an entry in these grim pages. But this does not quite explain Anne Boleyn‘s enduring appeal, relevance and recognizability for the most casual of modern observers, and her concomitant footprint in popular culture, even with the “Greek tragedy” quality of her life.

Anne stands at the fulcrum of England’s epochal leap into modernity. Whether she was that fulcrum might depend on the reader’s sympathy for the Great Man theory of history, but little more do we injure our headless queen to regard her as the woman for her time and place — the accidental hero (or villain) raised up and thrown down by the tectonic forces of her milieu.

Through Anne was born — for reasons of momentary political arrangements of long-forgotten dynasts, which seems a shockingly parochial proximate cause — the English Reformation, and through the Reformation was born the crown’s decisive triumph over the nobility, the broad middle class nurtured on the spoils of Catholic monasteries, the rising Britannia fit to rule. Most would take as an epitaph historical accidents of such magnitude.

Of course, by those same accidents, Anne was the instrument of thousands of deaths herself, and little did she appear troubled in life by the corpses upon which she ascended the throne.

Her own family maps the change wrought on England. An ancestor was beheaded in the Wars of the Roses, medieval England’s last great breakdown; her uncle Thomas Howard was one of the throwback scheming Dukes, mastered by his sovereign to the extent of issuing Anne’s capital sentence from his own lips;* the beheaded woman’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set a recognizably centralized English state on the path of empire.

Fitting tribute that, from the Tower where she met her end** to lands undreamt-of in her time, people still, like Henry, find her captivating.

[audio:http://www.bl.uk/whatson/podcasts/podcast95533.mp3]

* Anne’s father also declared for her guilt. Unprincipled as these men undoubtedly were, it cannot have been a pleasant responsibility; the question of whether she was actually guilty of adultery-cum-treason, the fatal charge extracted from a supposed lover by torture, has been hotly and inconclusively disputed by posterity.

** With a solemn speech submissive to Henry but not admitting any guilt — in an earlier moment of levity, she had famously remarked of the French swordsman hired to do the job, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

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