1643: The Book of Sports

Add comment May 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1643, all copies of the Book of Sports were publicly burned by the common hangman.

Product of the queer eddies of a century’s religious reformation, the 1617 edict commonly going under this winsome title was no athletes’ According to Hoyle; rather, it authorized for Sundays “any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used.”

The day of the week was the decisive thing here. These traditional pastimes had long multiplied upon the numerous feast-days speckling the Catholic medieval calendar, but with the English Reformation this clutch of Papist holidays had been collapsed into just … Sundays. And so sportive Englishmen took their May-poles and Morris-dances to the Sabbath.


The Sabbath Breakers, by J.C. Dollman (1895)

By the late 16th and early 17th century the burgeoning Puritan movement was burnishing its sourpuss bona fides by — among other things — espousing a strict Sabbatarianism requiring that on their one day of rest from holiday-less labor people be “taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His [God’s] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” No vaulting or any other such harmless recreation for you!

I allowe not of such excesse of ryot & superfluitie as is there used. I thinke, it convenient for one Friend to visite another (at sometimes) as oportunitie & occasion shall offer it selfe, but wherfore shuld the whole towne, parish, village and cuntrey, keepe one and the same day, and make such gluttonous feasts as they doo? And therfore, to conclude, they are to no end, except it be to draw a great frequencie of whores, drabbes, theives and verlets together, to maintai[n] […] whordome, bawdrie, gluttony, drunkennesse, thiefte, murther, swearing and all kind of mischief and abhomination. For, these be the ends wherto these feastes, and wakesses doo tende.

-Philip Stubbes, 1583

As one might well suppose from the eventual alliances in the English Civil War, the sports stuff was one of the fault lines between high church and low, and between crown and Parliament. Like any proper inbred royal, King James I loved himself a good hunt, and not only of witches — so he was nonplussed when passing through Lancashire to discover citizen grievances over killjoy blackrobes shutting down their Maypoles. He issued the Book of Sports explicitly in response, “to see that no man do trouble or molest any of our loyal and dutiful people, in or for their lawful recreations.”* This gave leisure-seeking commoners something to throw in the faces of their neighborhood nabobs, and Puritans another abomination to grow incensed about.

The Book of Sports remained law of the realm into the reign of James’s Puritan-allergic son Charles I but Puritan muscle grew stronger all the while,** eventually becoming irresistible when Parliament was recalled in 1640 and the high church bishop William Laud was ousted.

The outcome in 1643 was the rough impeachment of the sports book and I don’t mean Vegas.

It is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, that the Booke concerning the enjoyning and tollerating of Sports upon the Lord’s Day be forthwith burned by the hand of the common Hangman in Cheape-side, and other usuall places: and to this purpose, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex respectively are hereby required to be assistant to the effectuall execution of this order, and see the said Books burnt accordingly. And all persons who have any of the said Books in their hands, are hereby required forthwith to deliver them to one of the Sheriffes of London, to be burnt according to this Order.

John Browne, Cler. Parl.
Henry Elsynge, Cler. P.D. Com.

The Sheriffes of London and Middlesex have assigned Wednesday next the 10th of this instant May, at twelve of the clock, for the putting in execution of the foresaid Ordinance; and therefore doe require all persons that have any of the Bookes therein mentioned, to bring them in by that time, that they may be burned accordingly.

John Langham,
Thomas Andrewes

London

Printed for Thomas Underhill in Great Wood strete, May 9, 1643

Obviously this is not an “execution” even in the metaphorical sense of executions by effigy but part of the wider remit of the hangman, whose duties ran to all sorts of public law enforcement as well as to cajoling society’s untouchables.

Still, “purging by fire” of the printed word was extraordinary treatment reserved for blasphemous or seditious books, not uncommonly accompanied by corporal punishment or even death for their authors. It would not far stretch matters to see in the Puritan Parliament’s disdainful lese-majeste against the hand of the past king its imminent regicidal stroke upon the neck of the current one.

* The Book of Sports wasn’t all license; for the amusements it authorized, it prohibited them to those who “are not present in the church at the service of God, before their going to the said recreations.” Even for the godly it evinced explicit preference for “such exercises as may make [subjects’] bodies more able for war,” therefore excluding “all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.”

This was a man with a philosophy on exercise as rigorous as any personal fitness coach. James, who was a prolific scribbler, elsewhere “debarre[d] all rough and violent exercises, as the footeball; meeter for laming, than making able the users thereof.” In four centuries since James so pronounced, England have only ever won the football World Cup once.

** Numerous Puritans fled oppressively pleasurable off-days and took their dour Sabbaths to New England where their descendants could one day propound several of the world’s most obnoxious sporting concerns.

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1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

Add comment March 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.

When Atholl’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.

By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.

But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.

Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart by name, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.

Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.

In a 1992 article on events† historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.

Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?

If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.

And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.

Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.

The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.

After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.

But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.

‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.

-Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582)

* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.

† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).

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1612: The Pendle Witches

1 comment August 20th, 2012 Headsman

You have heard of mother Nottingham, who for her time was pretty well skilled in casting of waters: and after her, Mother Bombye; and there is one Hatfield in Pepper-Alley, hee doth prettie well for a thing that’s lost. There’s another in Coleharbour, that’s skilled in the Planets. Mother Sturton in Goulden-lane, is Fore-speaking: Mother Phillips of the Banke-side is for the weaknesse of the backe: and then there’s a very reverent Matron on Clarkenwell-Green, good at many things: Mistris Mary on the Banke-side is for recting a Figure: and one (what doe you call her) in Westminster, that practiseth the Booke and the Key, and the Sive and the Shears: and all doe well, according to their talent. For myselfe, let he world speake.

-Title character in Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hogsdon (1638)

This date marks the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witches‘ hanging — perhaps the most notorious witchcraft execution in English history.

Eight women and two men — Alizon Device, her brother James Device, and their mother Elizabeth Device of the Demdike family; Anne Whittle and her daughter Anne Redferne of the Chattox family; Jane Bulcock and her son John Bulcock; Alice Nutter; Katherine Hewitt; and Isabel Robey* — hanged together this date at Lancaster’s Gallows Hill after being tried over the preceding 48 hours; they, along with a woman named Jennet Preston hanged at York on July 29, comprise the Pendle Witches.

It’s an extraordinarily sad case.

The prosecution of the Pendle witches bubbled out of a witches’ brew of circumstances particular to early-17th century England. There was, to begin with, a new(ish) English king, James I and the guy had a major jones for hunting those early modern supernatural terrorists, witches.** The guy even wrote his own book, Daemonologie, to establish “that such divelish artes have bene and are … [and] what exact trial and severe punishment they merite.” A 1604 law had accordingly broadened the reach of the death penalty for supposed instances of sorcery.

Coming as this did in the aftermath of the Tudor Reformation, the nebulous concept of “witchcraft” was handy as well for clamping down on any excessively Catholic practices that might strike the right authorities as subversive, intransigent, or impious. Lancashire where we lay our scene was just such a Catholic-leaning zone.

Lancashire also had, as almost everywhere in the Isles, its share of “cunning folk” — workers of everyday folk magic whose widely tolerated practices could also be taken by a hostile viewer as Catholic superstition and/or hard-core infernal trafficking.

So, these are the brew’s ingredients. Add wool of bat and tongue of dog, stir vigorously … and serve with a length of hemp.

Curses

The Pendle witches brew started bubbling with a freak incident: a cunning woman named Alizon Device (you’ll recognize her name from the list of the hanged, above) tried to beg some needles from a passing peddler. The latter refusing her, Alizon cursed him, just like you do when you’re cut off in traffic.

Except in this case, the peddler promptly suffered a stroke.

Everyone was spooked at this apparent effusion of transmundane malevolence, nobody more so than Alizon herself. She became the first arrestee, and in the end would go the gallows convinced of her own sorcery.

She also started accusing others of occult involvement, either from a sense of panicked guilt or a blithe ignorance that the new legal regime would be interpreting folk spells as capital crimes. This led her bizarre instance of passing-peddler-popping to become a full-on witch hunt.

Alizon Device came from a whole family, the Demdykes or Demdikes, of cunning-women, and she implicated her own grandmother for having taught her the witchy ways. (Grandma would be spared the ignominy of hanging because she suffered the ignominy of dying in the filthy dungeon.) Alizon also accused a rival family, the Chattoxes, themselves well-known as “witches”, and she also implicated the matriarch of that family, Anne Whittle. The dreadful progress of the ensuing investigation, in which the feuding locals hanged each other with the aid of an ambitious local magistrate, is widely available — thanks to the record one lawyer witness to the proceedings set down in his credulous 1613 chapbook The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster.

Foiled Again

Once these initial arrests were in the books, Alizon’s mother Elizabeth apparently convened a solidarity meeting at a hut with the diabolically menacing name of Malkin† Tower. Dining on stolen mutton, and on Good Friday no less, they may have worked out a plan to liberate the prisoners from Lancaster Castle (at least, the Demdike prisoners). But the magistrate got wind of this confabulation and burst in to arrest those participants, too. As these secondary circles were pulled into the investigation, so too were past years of community gossip about these “witches”, of various folk who had died unexplained and various mishaps that befell people whom the witches didn’t like.

These superstitions seem to have been shared by the witches themselves, at least many of them. The Demdikes and Chattoxes used clay figures, human remains, and little effigies of victims with the intent of hurling evil at their enemies. Causality aside, Alizon Demdike did curse the peddler. “Witches think sometimes that they kill, when they do not, and are therefore as culpable, as if they did,” said their contemporary, pastor John Donne.

To augment the assorted confessions and counter-accusations among the accused, Elizabeth Device’s nine-year-old daughter Jennet Device (little sister of the original peddler-curser Alizon) was summoned up to provide coached testimony against her siblings Alizon and James, against her mother, and against those at the Malkin Tower meeting. Several of these latter would be convicted of non-capital crimes or even acquitted outright, but little Jennet’s testimony doomed her own family.

Although not the first time a child had provided evidence, it was a landmark in normalizing minors’ accusations — jurisprudence advocated by James’s Daemonologie. “Children, women and liars,” the sovereign announced, “can be witnesses over high treason against God.”

These witnesses would cast an evil pall well after Pendle.

In later life, Jennet appears to have been caught up in the same trap, when she was accused of witchcraft by a 10-year-old boy. A judiciary grown more cautious by then did not put her to death … but she (unless it was a different person also named Jennet Device) died in prison.

And the acceptability of this sort of children’s testimony, duly documented for country JP’s in Michael Dalton’s Country Justice, containing the Practice, Duty, and Power of Justices of the Peace, would be the lethal linchpin of the witch trials 80 years later across the Atlantic — in Salem, Massachusetts.

This miserable event has informed any number of artistic productions from the 17th century stage to the present day. Pendle and Lancashire, as bywords for witch superstitions, now trade handsomely on the unfortunate fame.

Many there have also pushed (thus far unsuccessfully) for an official posthumous pardon of the hanged witches.

And the nearby village of Roughlee even erected a statue in 2012 to the hanged Alice Nutter … a gentlewoman (i.e., of considerably higher class standing than her fellow condemned) whose reason for attending the Malkin Tower meeting remains mysterious.


Alice Nutter statue at Roughlee. Image (c) Burnley & Pendle Ramblers and used with permission.

* Isabel Robey is an outlier case; as of this writing, she’s not even named as one of the Pendle witches on the Wikipedia page as it seems she was not associated directly with the Malkin Tower crowd — merely a bystander who got caught up in the storm of denunciations. She was, however, hanged on Gallows Hill for witchcraft on August 20. There’s a lengthy attempt at reconstructing her story in the face of scant documentation here (pdf).

** All well and good for us moderns to pooh-pooh James’s supernatural obsessions, but the man’s security concerns were very real.

† The BBC documentary has Malkin as slang for “shit”; this page proposes that the word can signify a cat, a bindle, a scarecrow, or “an awkward woman.”

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1612: Refried Edward Wightman

4 comments April 11th, 2012 Headsman

“Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

-Edmund Blackadder, Ink and Incapability

On this date in 1612, Edward Wightman became the last person burnt for heresy in England.*

The clothier’s religious dissension had macerated in Puritanism — which was bad enough — and decanted into a heady potion of “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan.” Sort of a cafeteria heretic.

All this made a delectable smorgasbord when Wightman went on spectacular public trial late in 1611. Yet even this was not so much the direct outcome of a strict anti-heretic policy as of political rearrangements of the moment: essentially the Calvinist Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbott vs. anti-Calvinists like the future Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Laud was involved in Wightman’s prosecution.

As these worthies maneuvered for influence, our irrepressible preacher

was batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between the spring and autumn of 1611 … In the first ten weeks of his imprisonment, Wightman was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged uncondemned in mid-June 1611; after an initial burst of energy and concern, the court appears to have decided to take no immediate action against the accused heretic who remained imprisoned at the king’s pleasure.**

There had not been a person put to death for heresy since 1589. Elizabeth I — she who eschewed “windows into men’s souls” — rarely hunted citizens for doctrinal difference alone. (Catholicism was constructed, rightly or wrongly, as treason: a crime of the state, rather than of the conscience.)

Wightman made himself a target by publicly flaunting his strange beliefs,† and by late in 16121 the anti-Calvinists had control of the process and a perceived opportunity to score political points by prosecuting him. The trial was a cinch, since Wightman made no bones about his dissension.

One is almost so inured to the hagiographic style of the day, martyr unflinchingly thrusting flesh into flame, that one might well forget how very unpleasant burning alive must be.

Wightman, as the heat of the pyre warmed under him on March 9, shrieked out an agonized recantation, or maybe just something of animal pain that the crowd misinterpreted. Infernus interruptus ensued and the stake was actually doused, with the singed near-executee removed to convalesce and formalize his timely abjuration.

But reprieve recovered the recusant’s recalcitrance, and he soon resumed his error, “every day more blasphemous.” So on this date, Wightman

was caried agayne to the stake where feeling the heat of the fier again would have recanted, but for all his crieinge the sheriff tould hyme he showld cosen him no more and comanded faggottes to be sett to him whear roringe he was burned to ashes.

It was not until 1677 that England abolished the death penalty for all religious offenses.

There’s an alleged family connection from Wightman’s descendants to most of the Wightmans and Whitmans in North America. That would include the 19th century U.S. missionary Marcus Whitman, who pioneered the Oregon trail, triggered a notorious Native American massacre against his homestead, and is the namesake of Walla Walla’s Whitman College.

* Not to be confused with the last-ever burnt, which wasn’t until 1789.

** Ian Atherton and David Como, “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England,” English Historical Review, Dec. 2005. Recommended reading for anyone interested in really unpacking Wightman’s world and outlook.

† According to interrogators, Wightman “affirmed my selfe to be that prophet promised in the 18 of Deuteronomie. And that Elyas in the 4th of Malachie promised to be sent before the great and fearfull day of the Lord. And that comfortor in the 16th of John which should convince the world of sinne of righteousnes and of Judgment.”

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1628: John Felton, assassin of the Duke of Buckingham

2 comments October 28th, 2011 Headsman

The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature: this being only used to compel a man to put himself upon his trial; that being a species of trial in itself. And the trial by rack is utterly unknown to the law of England; though once when the dukes of Exeter and Suffolk, and other ministers of Henry VI, had laid a design to introduce the civil law into this kingdom as the rule of government, for a beginning thereof they erected a rack for torture; which was called in derision the duke of Exeter’s daughter, and still remains in the tower of London: where it was occasionally used as an engine of state, not of law, more than once in the reign of queen Elizabeth but when, upon the assassination of Villiers duke of Buckingham by Felton, it was proposed in the privy council to put the assassin to the rack, in order to discover his accomplices; the judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. iv (via Harper’s)

Although the jurisprudence of 17th century England with its proscription of legal torture* still stacks up favorably next to that of Berkeley law professors, it certainly did not stand in the way of assassin John Felton‘s execution on this date in 1628.

Felton, an army officer passed over for promotion, stabbed to death nobby royal favorite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham at Portsmouth — a private grievance fused to a widespread public one. Reams of laudatory verse churned out in the two months between crime and punishment suggest the popular opprobrium for the duke.**

Or you, late tongue-ty’d judges of the land,
Passe sentence on his act, whose valiant hand
Wrencht off your muzzels, and infranchiz’d all
Your shakl’d consciences from one man’s thrall?
But O! his countrie! what can you verdict on?
If guiltie; ’tis of your redemption.

Felton’s victim, the Duke of Buckingham — portrayed in 1625 by Rubens.

Villiers, “handsomest-bodied” scion of the minor gentry, had parlayed his comeliness into power as the favorite (and possibly the lover) of King James I. He had, as Alexandre Dumas put it in The Three Musketeers (in which adventure Buckingham is an important character) “lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.”†

Buckingham latched himself to the king’s 20-something son and heir Charles I and became a dominant influence in foreign policy as well as wildly unpopular in England. He raised Protestant hackles with Machiavellian statecraft like angling for a Spanish queen and aiding the French against the Huguenots, and since he exercised a share of the royal power he vigorously upheld the rights of the crown as against those of the commons. An opponent once compared him to Sejanus.

Indeed, Buckingham helped the youthful Charles, king since March of 1625, set the tetchy tone for his relationship with Parliament that would define his rule and ultimately cost the monarch his own head. When Parliament demanded Buckingham “be removed from intermeddling with the great affairs of State” as a condition for coughing up any more money, Charles haughtily dissolved Parliament rather than give up his favorite.

That forced the king into sketchy expedients like the “forced loan” and, when the money disputes continued after Buckingham’s death, the king’s eventual legislature-free Personal Rule that set up the Civil War.

So one can see how the sudden 1628 murder of this resented courtier, to whom was imputed every fault and abuse of Charles himself, would have been celebrated. “Honest Jack” — the assassin’s widely-honored nickname — was likewise credited with every perceived virtue of the Parliamentarian party. Juridically, the man was doomed — but in the popular eye,

[t]he passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans.

In fact, the man who had recently tutored future literary giant (and future Cromwellian agent) John Milton was sentenced by the Star Chamber have an ear cut off for drinking Felton’s health. (The sentence was remitted thanks to some pull with Archbishop William Laud.)

While he’s sometimes described — or dismissed — as merely a disgruntled careerist, the assassin’s own ideological commitment ought not be downplayed. Whatever Felton’s personal pique, the assassination was unambiguously political: our killer had returned from war wounded and melancholy and proceeded to marinate in the era’s anti-monarchical currents. In time, Felton came to understand — surely in concert with many of his countrymen now forgotten by time — that there was a greater good to be served by the sin of murder.

He had left behind in his trunk a few propositions that underscored his state of mind: “There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country” and “No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.” He justified himself at trial in similar terms, and did so without desiring to escape the extremities of the law that his crime demanded.

Felton had really expected to be killed in the act of the assassination himself. To that end, he had left a note pinned in his hat that is as good an elegy for him as any a republican ballad. “That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his king, and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as to the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins, he would not have gone so long unpunished.”

While Felton played his part in the generations-long struggle to subordinate king to parliament, the most immediate beneficiary of this affair was not so much the Commons as it was the noble rival who usurped the late Buckingham’s power — the Earl of Strafford.

* Certain though we are of the human rights commitment of Felton’s prosecutors, the man himself made sure of it by dint of a deft bit of interrogatory jujitsu. Menaced with the prospect of torture, he cheerfully resigned himself to it — “Yet this I must tell you by the way,” he added. “That if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my Lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”

That’s the way to convince judges not to torture you.

** An entirely less negative remembrance commemorates Buckingham and “accursed” Felton at the Portsmouth Cathedral.

† Felton also appears in The Three Musketeers, committing the murder of Buckingham at the instigation of the seductive fictional villain Milady de Winter just days before the musketeers execute Milady herself.

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1603: The men of the Bye Plot, but not those of the Main Plot

1 comment December 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1603, priests William Watson and William Clark were executed for a dramatic (that is, harebrained) plot “to take away ‘the KINGE and all his cubbes.'”

The year was 1603, the first in the reign of James I. (However, he’d been James VI of Scotland since the tender age of 13 months, when his mother Mary, Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate. He made himself quite a reputation for witch-hunting.)

With the death of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and all her schismatic Anne Boleyn mojo, hard-pressed English Catholics greeted Jamie’s ascension hopeful of relief from official persecution. Although raised Protestant, both his parents had been Catholic.

Watson was one of these hopeful adherents, and hastened himself to Scotland as Queen Elizabeth lay ailing to extract from the future English monarch the soothing blandishments of good favor that future monarchs make.

When toleration was not extended to Catholics upon the new king’s elevation in late March 1603, the disenchanted Watson almost immediately embarked on a preposterous scheme to

assemble force and strengthe, and on Midsommer-day last, in the night, to come to the Parke pale at Grenewich, to enter in by the gardein with a key, that should be borowed; and when the numbers were come in, there should be a watche set at the dores of principall persons, and at the passages; and then to goe up to the KING’S loding. And when they cam to the KING, they should surprise his person, and carry him to the Tower, and they would move him for 3 things: — 1, for there pardon; 2, for tolleration of relligion; 3, for assuraunce thereof, to preferre Catholiques to places of credit, as WATZON the priest to be Lord Keper; GREY, Erle Marshall; GEORGE BROOKE, Lord Treasorer; and MARCAM, Secretary. They concluded to cutt of many of the Privy Councill, and to have made a Proclamation, purporting howe the KING had bene misled, and to have had many things reformed. They determined to have possessed the principall ports of the realme, and to have kept the KING in the Towre a quarter of a yeare.

The Bye Plot was ironically busted by other Catholics — Jesuits, as distinct from “secular clergy” (clergy not affiliated with an order) like Watson. Jesuits and secular clergy were at loggerheads in this period over tactics, church structure … more or less everything. The need to steal the thunder of whatever restore-the-Church scheme the Jesuits might be cooking up might have helped precipitate Watson into such immediate and desperate disaffection.

At any rate, these other more respectable fathers of the church blew the whistle on the Bye Plot lest it provoke anti-Catholic pogroms, and you’d have to concur with their estimate that taking the king hostage is the sort of thing that would have prompted some blowback.

In the course of rolling up the now-exposed Bye Plot, investigators also caught wind of the parallel Main Plot, courtesy of one conspirator who was involved in both and unable to hold his tongue under torture.

The Main Plot was a sketchier affair to a similar end, allegedly among Catholic-sympathizing nobles to depose James for his cousin. As befits its title, the Main Plot implicated much bluer blood than Watson’s: Lord Cobham,* Baron Grey, and the knighted soldier Griffin Markham.

Oh, and a guy you might have heard of by the name of Walter Raleigh.

All these Main Plot gentlemen were likewise condemned to death. December 9, 1603 was the date appointed for Watson and Clark to expiate the Bye Plot in the grisly manner that commoner priests were wont to suffer in that age — they as the undercard to the beheadings of Cobham, Grey, and Markham. (Raleigh was on deck for a later date.)

The drama that unfolded on the Winchester scaffold that day was wonderfully narrated in the correspondence of Sir Dudley Carleton and well worth extracting at length.

The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were both cut down alive; and Clarke, to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. They died boldly both … Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first Tower of the castle.

Warrants were signed, and sent to Sir Benjamin Tichborne, on Wednesday last at night, for Markham, Grey, and Cobham, woh in this order were to take their turns … A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes and brought to that place unprepared. One might see in his face the very picture of sorrow; but he seemed not to want resolution … [and] prepared himself to the block. The sheriff, in the mean time, was secretly withdrawn … whereupon the execution was stayed, and Markham left upon the scaffold to entertain his own thoughts, which, no doubt, were as melancholy as his countenance, sad and heavy. The sheriff, at his return, told him, that since he was so ill prepared, he should yet have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort, and locked him into the great hall … The lord Grey, whose turn was next, was led to the scaffold by a troop of the young courtiers … and thereupon entered into a long prayer for the king’s good estate, which held us in the rain more than half an hour; but being come to a full point, the sheriff stayed him, and said, he had received orders from the king, to change the order of the execution, and that the lord Cobham was to go before him … he had no more hope given him, than of an hour’s respite; neither could any man yet dive into the mystery of this strange proceeding.

The lord Cobham, who was now to play his part, and by his former actions promised nothing but matiere pour rire, did much cozen the world; for he came to the scaffold with good assurance, and contempt of death. … [he] would have taken a short farewel of the world, with that constancy and boldness, that we might see by him, it is an easier matter to die well than live well.

He was stayed by the sheriff, and told, that there resteth yet somewhat else to be done; for that he was to be confronted with some other of the prisoners, but named none. So as Grey and Markham being brought back to the scaffold, as they then were, but nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers-on with what should follow, looked strange one upon the other like men beheaded, and met again in the other world. Now all the actors being together on the stage (as use is at the end of a play,) the sheriff made a short speech unto them, by way of the interrogatory of the heinousness of their offences, the justness of their trials, their lawful condemnation, and due execution there to be performed; to all which they assented; then, saith the sheriff, see the mercy of your prince, who, of himself, hath sent hither to countermand, and given you your lives. There was then no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries, that it went from the castle into the town, and there began afresh, as if there had been some such like accident. And this experience was made of the difference of examples of justice and mercy; that in this last, no man could cry loud enough, ‘God save the King;’ and at the holding up of [the previously executed] Brookes’s head, when the executioner began the same cry, he was not seconded by the voice of any one man, but the sheriff. You must think, if the spectators were so glad, the actors were not sorry; for even those that went best resolved to death, were glad of life … Raleigh, you must think (who had a window opened that way), had hammers working in his head, to beat out the meaning of this strategem. His turn was to come on Monday next; but the king has pardoned him with the rest, and confined him with the two lords to the Tower of London, there to remain during pleasure.

Turns out that James wanted to do only the minimum amount of butchery necessary to establish his bona fides, and it sure seems like the mercy play proved a public relations triumph.** Raleigh was left by this reprieve languishing in the Tower for years, before his own final adventure saw him to the block after all in 1618.

Would you like some bootless speculation that Raleigh’s being caught up in this mess led him to nurture during his imprisonment a decade-long grudge against William Shakespeare and eventually murder the playwright? Of course you would.

In the world of more demonstrable historical consequences, the failure of these plots and continuing frustration with Catholics’ lot under a new boss who seemed a lot like the old led two years later to the ne plus ultra of English sectarian terrorism, Guy Fawkes‘s Gunpowder Plot to blow King James and his court straight to kingdom come.

* Cobham was a descendant of John Oldcastle and is supposed to have forced Shakespeare to redact the family name in his Henry V plays — giving us, instead, the character of Falstaff.

** One is obliged to notice Carleton’s disquieting footnote indicating that the entire affair was staged so well that someone almost actually lost his head:

… there was another cross adventure; for John Gib could not get so near the scaffold, that he could speak to the sheriff, but was thrust out amongst the boys, and was fain to call out to sir James Hayes, or else Markham might have lost his neck.


Topical sourcing: Mark Nicholls, “Treason’s Reward: The Punishment of Conspirators in the Bye Plot of 1603″ The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 1995).

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1591: Euphane MacCalzean, witch

5 comments June 25th, 2010 Headsman

If there’s one thing King James VI of Scotland (eventually to also become James I of England) worried a lot about, it was witches.

The Al Qaeda of the 16th century imagination, those shadowy yet omnipresent necromancers were especially feared around this time for their powers of supernatural mayhem, and you can take your pick on the phenomenon’s psychosocial explanation. (It was hardly limited to Scotland.)

Whatever it was, King James had it in spades.

The son of one executed monarch and father of another, James kept head tightly fixed to shoulders all his own days, and he used it to write the (well, a) book on witch-hunting.

THE fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serue for a shew of my learning & ingine, but onely (mooued of conscience) to preasse / thereby, so farre as I can, to resolue the doubting harts of many; both that such assaultes of Sathan are most certainly practized, & that the instrumentes thereof, merits most severly to be punished: against the damnable opinions … not ashamed in publike print to deny, that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft.

-Daemonologie

You couldn’t fault the guy for a lot of daylight between his principles and his practices.


With a deft political touch, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth after James ascended the English throne as James I.

In 1589, Jamie sailed to Denmark to wed a Danish princess. When ferocious storms nearly wrecked the royal convoy on its return trip, there was only one possible explanation: witchcraft. And security theater for 16th century Scotland wasn’t taking your shoes off when ferrying across the nearby loch — it was publicly burning human beings to death for consorting with the devil.

So once the king made it back home, he initiated the North Berwick Witch Trials, the first notable witch-hunt of his reign.

It was what you’d expect. Seventy people accused, the doomed tortured into confessions like Jack Bauer would do, and a respectable harvest of souls, most famously (because interrogated by the king himself) Agnes Sampson. “Most of the winter of 1591,” writes one chronicler, “was spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers.”

Our day’s principal, whose name has various different renderings (such as Eufame Mackalzeane), was the last to suffer for some months.

Euphan McCalzeane was a lady possessed of a considerable estate in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas McCalzeane, lord Cliftenhall, one of the senators of the college of justice, whose death in the year 1581 spared him the disgrace and misery of seeing his daughter fall by the hands of the executioner. She was married to a gentleman of her own name, by whom she had three children. She was accused of treasonably conspiring of the king; of raising storms to hinder his return from Denmark; and of various other articles of witchcraft. She was heard by counsel in her defense; was found guilty by the jury, which consisted of landed gentlemen of note; and her punishment was still severer than that commonly inflicted on the weyward sisters; she was burned alive, and her estate confiscated. Her children, however, after being thus barbarously robbed of their mother, were restored by act of parliament against the forfeiture. The act does not say that the sentence was unjust, but that the king was touched in honour and conscience to restore the children. But to move the wheels of his majesty’s conscience, the children had to grease them, by a payment of five thousand merks to the donator of escheat, and by relinquishing the estate of Cliftonhall, which the king gave to sir James Sandilands, of Slamanno.

As a striking picture of the state of justice, humanity, and science, in those times, it may be remarked, that this sir James Sandilands, a favourite of the king’s, ex interiore principis familiaritate, who got this estate, which the daughter of one lord of session forfeited, on account of being a witch, did that very year murder another lord of session in the suburbs of Edinburgh, in the public street, without undergoing either trial or punishment. (Source

Like any number of other executed “witches,” this one professed innocence at the scaffold.

Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman “tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge.”

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1609: Vicente Turixi, King of the Moriscos

Add comment December 18th, 2009 Headsman

La Expulsión de los Moriscos, by Vincenzo Carducci (Vicente Carducho).

Having taken the trouble over the preceding century to eliminate (or force underground) its substantial Muslim population by forcibly converting it to Christianity, Spain in the early 1600s bethought itself to complete the operation upon its recently minted fellow-Christians by ejecting these Moriscos from Spain altogether.

When the edict for this radical act of expulsion first came down in the heavily Morisco area of Valencia, some of its victims reportedly embraced the prospect of deportation to a land where their dress, language, and religion were no longer forbidden.

Others were less sanguine.

Armed resistance broke out in two wilderness fastnesses, the mountainous Vall de Laguar (Spanish link) and — as narrated by Henry Charles Lea in his freely available The Moriscos of Spain; their conversion and expulsion

the Muela de Cortes (Spanish link), an almost inexpugnable spot, being a deep valley surrounded by precipitous heights, of which the passes were easily defensible. The Moriscoes of that region … were in a state of excitement and were readily persuaded to rise by an outlaw named Pablillo Ubcar. They elected as king Vicente Turixi, who sent a proclamation through the sierra for all to join him under pain of treason. From their strongholds they made raids on the surrounding country, gathering cattle and provisions, burning villages, and desecrating churches.

[Ethnic cleansing coordinator Don Agustin] Mexia, absorbed in the work of embarkation and fearing to interrupt it, for awhile paid no attention to these movements … who could readily be reduced when the time came.

His provisions were justified … those of the Muela de Cortes … lost heart when they heard of the defeat of those of Aguar, and were disappointed as to the appearance of the Moor Alfatami on his green horse, whom tradition reported to be concealed under the mountain since the days of King Jayme … It was agreed that they [the rebels, surrendering] should be safe in person and property, provided they would go to embark within three days.

The rapacious soldiery, who had promised themselves abundant plunder, in their disappointment threw off all discipline; they sacked the village of Royaya, outraged the women and seized numbers of children as slaves. Only three thousand Moriscoes were brought to the port of embarkation, the rest having scattered and taken to the mountains to escape the fury of the soldiers.

These, estimated at two thousand in number, for several years gave infinite trouble, killing all the Christians they met and committing constant depredations. At one time the Governor of Jativa induced many of them to come down, but finding that they were to be enslaved they fled back to the mountains.

A reward was offered for King Turixi, dead or alive; he was tracked to a cave, captured, and brought to the city, when he was sentenced to have hands and ears cut off, to be drawn, torn with pincers, hanged and quartered; but at the execution, December 18th, the cutting of hands and ears was omitted. He had been confessed twice and reconciled twice, and died as a good Christian, making a most edifying end, for we are told that he had been a liberal almsgiver and devoted to the Virgin and the religious Orders.

The miserable remnants were hunted down gradually, the viceroy paying twenty ducats a head for them as galley-slaves.

The armed resistance in Valencia — where Moriscos were most numerous, and the expulsion was first decreed — was actually much less than had been feared, which gave the Spanish authorities all the encouragement they would need to enforce it elsewhere, too.

“Seeing that the whole body of our nation is tainted and corrupt, he applies to it the cautery that burns rather than the salve that soothes; and thus, by prudence, sagacity, care and the fear he inspires, he has borne on his mighty shoulders the weight of this great policy and carried it into effect, all our schemes and plots, importunities and wiles, being ineffectual to blind his Argus eyes, ever on the watch lest one of us should remain behind in concealment, and like a hidden root come in course of time to sprout and bear poisonous fruit in Spain, now cleansed, and relieved of the fear in which our vast numbers kept it.”

-Cervantes, Don Quixote

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1618: Walter Raleigh, age of exploration adventurer

3 comments October 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1618, schemer, explorer, and lover Walter Raleigh fell permanently out of favor.

One of the biggest wheels of Elizabethan England, Raleigh (who also rendered his name Rawleigh, Rawley, and most commonly, Ralegh) charmed his way into the Queen’s inner circle, and possibly her pants, and was even thought to be a contender for her hand.

In between gorging on royal monopolies, scribbling poetry, popularizing tobacco, and introducing the potato to Ireland [allegedly], Raleigh got his New World on by attempting to colonize Virginia,* helping fund it with privateering operations against England’s rivals in the land-grab game. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina — present-day North Carolina was part of the Virginia Colony back in the day — is named for him.

Proud, powerful, and the queenie’s pet. Just the sort of courtier other noble suckups loved to hate.

When the palace fave secretly dallied with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, he went on the royal outs and got real familiar with the Tower of London. Though he managed to patch up with Elizabeth, things were never quite the same for Sir Walter. Elizabeth’s successor James I put him back in prison (suspending a death sentence) for supposedly participating in the Main Plot.

Raleigh passed the time under lock and key burnishing his Renaissance man rep by writing various poetry and treatises, including an account of his voyage to Guyana. Convinced the legendary city of El Dorado was in the vicinity, Raleigh eventually prevailed upon James to release him to make another run at it.

But a dust-up with a Spanish outpost in South America left his son dead, and the Spanish ambassador hopping mad. Raleigh was arrested upon his return, and the death sentence reinstated.

At 66 years of age or so, Walter Raleigh had had a pretty good run.

He took his punishment with equanimity, writing tenderly to his wife, and examining the blade that would take off his head on the scaffold with the observation,

“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.”

His wife creepily kept the severed head for the remaining 29 years of her life.

There’s a more detailed tour of Raleigh’s life here, and a site linking many works by and about Raleigh here.

* As Governor of Virginia, Raleigh forbade injuring Indians on pain of death, according to Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth. Raleigh’s “imperialism with a human face” policy had exchange programs of Indians visiting England, most notably Pocahontas.

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