Tag Archives: james i

1643: The Book of Sports

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.

1437: Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl

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).