On this date in 1570, the English Catholic martyr John Felton suffered hanging, disemboweling, and quartering at St. Paul’s Churchyard in London for the Old Faith.
Not to be confused with the 17th century assassin of the same name, our John Felton was reported by the biography from his daughter’s hand to be a wealthy Southwark gentleman whose wife had gamboled in her own childhood with the future Queen Elizabeth.
John’s crime was to hang up publicly in the dark of night before Corpus Christi the papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth — an act not merely of religious dissidence but of overt political rebellion, inasmuch as the bull released English subjects from their obedience to “the pretended Queen of England” and exhorted them on pain of damnation to ignore her edicts. This directive from Rome was to prove so taxing for Catholics that it was soon modified to permit outward obedience in civil matters, pending the overthrow of the heresiarchess.
Following a decade of uneasy religious tolerance — in which, not coincidentally, Elizabeth entertained the suits of assorted continental royalty, some of them Catholic — Regnans in Excelsis marked the onset of open hostilities. The Catholic “Ridolfi plot” would be hatched this very year, for instance, and lead the Duke of Norfolk to the scaffold by 1572.
And then he said, O Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit, in English; and as he was saying it in Latin, In munus tuas Domine, he was turned off the ladder; and hanging there six turns, he was cut down, and carried to the block, and there his head was smitten off, and held up, that the people might see it: whereat the people gave a shout, wishing that all Traitors were so served. Then he was quartered, and carried to Newgate to be parboiled, and so set up as the other rebels were. — God save the Queen.
John Felton’s son Thomas Felton was also martyred, in 1588. Both have since been beatified.
Late this night* in 1628 was the fictional execution of The Three Musketeers antagonist Milady de Winter.
Milady de Winter, as the heroine of Agnes Maupre’s revisionist French graphic novel series (Author interview | Another (Both in French)).
This conniving minx bears the fleur-de-lis brand of a teenage crime upon her shoulder — a very naughty beauty-mark indeed — but becomes a secret agent of Cardinal Richelieu. (Richelieu is a point of friction for the Musketeers right from the start.)
To skip to the end of things, Milady is portrayed as having orchestrated at Richelieu’s behest the (actual, historical) assassination of the Musketeers’ buddy the (actual, historical) Duke of Buckingham, which Milady accomplishes by seducing and manipulating his (actual, historical) assassin, John Felton. In reality, Felton was motivated by the stirring Republican sentiment that would soon generate a revolution; in Dumas, he’s a horny dupe who sees his seductress escaping by sea even as he’s placed under arrest.
Buckingham was (actually, historically) murdered on August 23.
The fictional narrative picks up on August 25, when the escaped Milady writes to Cardinal Richelieu from the safety of Boulogne. Unknown to her, her hours are numbered.
Milady proceeds the next morning to a convent in Bethune where she chances to encounter the mistress of her old foe d’Artagnan … and, by that night, to slay said mistress with poison just ahead of the arrival of the Musketeers.** But the Musketeers are able to track the escaping murderess down by the next evening. There, they subject her to a snap “trial”:
“We wish to judge you according to your crime,” said Athos; “you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first.”
“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening.”
He turned towards Porthos and Aramis.
“We bear witness to this,” said the two Musketeers, with one voice.
D’Artagnan continued: “Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place.”
“We bear witness to this,” said Porthos and Aramis, in the same manner as before.
“Before God and before men, I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done.” And d’Artagnan passed to the other side of the room with Porthos and Aramis.
“Your turn, my Lord,” said Athos.
The baron came forward.
“Before God and before men,” said he, “I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.”
“The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!” cried all present, with one voice.
“Yes,” said the baron, “assassinated. On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!”
And so forth.
Then these obviously impartial judges judge her guilty, and have the executioner of Lille — whom they have thoughtfully procured in advance — chop off her head and dump her in a river.
“The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin,” said the man in the red cloak [i.e., the executioner himself], rapping upon his immense sword. “This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans.”
Extrajudicial is as extrajudicial does. And in this case, Richelieu is just as happy to be rid of his duplicitous agent and, admiring the protagonist’s moxie, commissions d’Artagnan a lieutenant in the Musketeers. D’Artagnan is the fourth of the titular “three Musketeers”, so this denouement means that he’s finally made it … and he should stand by for duty in sequels continuing to mix-and-match Dumas’s fictional characters with actual, historical events.
This date’s captivating femme fatale has appropriately been portrayed by a ravishing host of silver screen sirens including Lana Turner, Mylene Demongeot, Antonella Lualdi, Faye Dunaway, Rebecca de Mornay, Emmanuelle Beart, and (most recently as of this writing), Milla Jovovich.
* August 27-28, right around midnight. Dumas isn’t specific as to pre- or post-midnight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
† 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.