1679: Five Jesuits, for the Popish Plot

Add comment June 20th, 2020 Headsman

Five Jesuits were hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1679, in the largest single mass execution of England’s “Popish Plot” hysteria.

This club of five is the five of clubs in a Popish Plot-themed deck of cards. Here are more images from the same series.

During this 1678-1681 outbreak of anti-Catholic paranoia, according to the French priest Claude La Colombiere, “the name of the Jesuit [became] hated above all else, even by priests both secular and regular, and by the Catholic laity as well, because it is said that the Jesuits have caused this raging storm, which is likely to overthrow the whole Catholic religion.”

This clique of course had a long tradition on the Isles of positioning as treasonable foreign agents dating to the Elizabethan age.

The five Jesuits of concern to us today, Thomas White aka Thomas Whitebread, John Fenwick, William Harcourt aka William Harrison, John Gavan, and Anthony Turner, were accused by Popish Plot confabulator Titus Oates of having “consulted together and agreed to put the said Lord the King [i.e., the reigning king, Charles II] to death and final destruction, and to change the lawful established religion of this kingdom to the superstition of the Roman Church.”

The prisoners made a deft and eloquent defense, impugning the credibility of the embittered ex-priest Oates who could produce no evidence to support his conspiratorial charges — all the stuff that would become the common perception a few years later when a disgraced Oates stood in the pillory for the bloodbath unleashed by his fabulisms.

But in 1679 — what with being hated above all else — the trial was a foregone conclusion. They were hanged to death, then quartered posthumously.

In common with almost all the victims of the Popish Plot persecutions, all five denied their guilt at their executions.

I am come now to the last scene of mortality, to the hour of my death, an hour which is the horizon between time and eternity, an hour which must either make me a star to shine for ever in the empire above, or a firebrand to burn everlastingly amongst the damned souls in hell below; an hour in which, if I deal sincerely, and with a hearty sorrow acknowledge my crimes, I may hope for mercy; but if I falsely deny them, I must expect nothing but eternal damnation; and therefore, what I shall say in this great hour, I hope you will believe. And now in this hour, I do solemnly swear, protest and vow, by all that is sacred in heaven and on earth, and as I hope to see the face of God in glory, that I am as innocent as the child unborn of those treasonable crimes, which Mr. Oates, and Mr. Dugdale have sworn against me in my trial … [if I] palliate or hide the truth, I wish with all my soul that God may exclude me from his heavenly glory, and condemn me to the lowest place of hell-fire.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1697: John Fenwick, bitter

2 comments January 28th, 2012 Headsman

The Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s lifted to power the young stadtholder William of Orange, and made him a couple of noteworthy lifelong enemies.

One was the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose decades-long rivalry with William tracked William’s interesting career all the way to the throne of England.

William III, equestrian. Consider yourself foreshadowed.

Another was Sir John Fenwick, an English nobleman whom William supposedly slagged* when they were fighting together in the Low Countries — and who likewise still carried the enmity when William had become his sovereign.

On this date in 1697, the latter rivalry came to a fatal end for John Fenwick on the headsman’s block. The funny thing was that the stroke turned out to cost King William III his own life as well.

You couldn’t say that Fenwick came late to the Jacobite cause; he’d been a strong adherent of the beleaguered Catholic-esque Stuart dynasty, and signed off on the 1685 execution of its previous Protestant challenger Monmouth.

But if it prosper, none dare call it treason. In 1688, the Low Countries prince with the low estimation of Baronet Fenwick hopped the channel and successfully overthrew the last Stuart monarchking James II.

With the Glorious Revolution, Fenwick’s personal and political were very conveniently aligned in loyalty to the exiled James … except that his formerly patriotic loyalty to James was now the traitorous cause of Jacobitism.

Fenwick kept up his Jacobiting in the 1690s, got arrested and released once, and then finally found himself implicated in a plot to murder William. Though his allies managed to spirit one of the potential witnesses against him away to the continent, Parliament passed — ever so narrowly — a bill of attainder to condemn Fenwick to death. (There’s a more detailed account of the legal and political maneuverings here and here.)

The State his Head did from his Body sever,
Because when living ’twas his chief Endeavour
To set the Nation and its Head together.

That’s politics. Even kings themselves are in mortal peril around here.

A failed assassin in life, Fenwick would blunder Gavrilo Princip-like into accidental success … but only after his own execution.

As a condemned traitor, Fenwick’s estate was seized by the crown, and the king personally claimed his prey’s equine ride (either a horse with a sorrel coat, or a horse named Sorrel, or both).** Not long after Fenwick’s death, this horse stumbled on a molehill, throwing its royal rider. William broke his collarbone in the accident, developed pneumonia, and died — leading Jacobite sympathizers to dote on the animals (both horse and mole) who had authored their enemy’s misfortune.

Illustrious steed, doubtless most worthy of the sky,
To whom the lion, bull, and bear would give place;
What happy meadows bore thee happily?
What happy mother gave you her nutritious teats?
Is it from the land of Erin you are come to oblige your country,
Or is it Glenco or the Fenwick race which produced you?
Whoever thou art, mayst thou prosper, I pray memorable one: and
May saddle never more press thy back, nor bit thy mouth.
Avenger of the human race, when the tyrant dies,
Mayst thou thyself enjoy the liberty thou wilt give to others.


A lovely sorrel enjoys the liberty of a happy meadow. (Nutritious teats not pictured.) (cc) image from SMALLORBIGOFMEN.

* During the Dutch campaign, William “had reflected very severely upon his [Fenwick’s] courage, which occasioned his making returns that provoked the Prince to say, that if he had been a private person he must have cut Sir John’s throat.” Just your basic primate poo-flinging.

** Leaving aside his ultimate fate, quite an understandable move by William: the Fenwicks were famous for their horse husbandry.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Netherlands,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Power,Soldiers,Treason

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