1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

10 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

26 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

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1793: The Girondists

9 comments October 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, in a revolutionary Paris where the machinery of the Terror was clattering to life, five tumbrils bore to the guillotine twenty former Girondist ministers to the National Convention — plus the corpse of their late colleague Dufriche de Valazé, who had cheated the executioner by killing himself.

Named for the region of Aquitaine from which their leading lights hailed, the Girondists (or Girondins) had in the compressed history of the Revolution ascended from fringe democratic party to governing party even as the political facts shifted under their feet. Finding themselves the conservative party in an assembly increasingly dominated by radical Montagnards and the Paris mob, the Girondists’ tactlessness and stubborn refusal to deal with Georges Danton after his (still historically murky) involvement in the riotous slaughter of prisoners during the September Massacre eroded their position.

As the terrible year of 1793 unfolded, the Girondins discovered themselves successively overthrown, expelled from the Convention, proscribed, and hunted. Though many more — Girondists and others — were to follow in their steps, the trial of these 21 before the Revolutionary Tribunal and subsequent guillotining, the first notable mass-execution of the Revolution, raised the curtain on the Terror.


L’ultime adieu des Girondins le 31 Octobre 1793, by Paul Delaroche

Decades later, the English historian Lord Acton remembered the faction’s doomed heroism.

[The Girondins] stood four months before their fall. During that memorable struggle, the question was whether France should be ruled by violence and blood, or by men who knew the passion for freedom. The Girondins at once raised the real issue by demanding inquiry into the massacres of September. It was a valid but a perilous weapon. There could be no doubt as to what those who had committed a thousand murders to obtain power would be capable of doing in their own defence.

Almost to the last moment Danton wished to avoid the conflict. Again and again they rejected his offers. Open war, said Vergniaud, is better than a hollow truce. Their rejection of the hand that bore the crimson stain is the cause of their ruin, but also of their renown. They were always impolitic, disunited, and undecided; but they rose, at times, to the level of honest men.

They were easily beaten and mercilessly destroyed, and no man stirred to save them. At their fall liberty perished; but it had become a feeble remnant in their hands, and a spark almost extinguished. Although they were not only weak but bad, no nation ever suffered a greater misfortune than that which befell France in their defeat and destruction.

That Pierre Vergniaud who scorned the hollow truce was the last to mount the scaffold this day — a shining orator of the Revolution who captured the calamity engulfing his nation in another well-remembered aphorism, “the Revolution devours its own children.”

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

On this day..

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