1388: Sir Simon Burley

Add comment May 5th, 2019 Headsman

Sir Simon Burley lost his head on this date in 1388 to the fury of the Lords Appellant.

The childhood tutor of the young King Richard II, Burley had come up in the world as a bosom friend and comrade in arms to Richard’s uncle, Edward the Black Prince. A few years prior it had been entrusted to Burley to sojourn on the continent and arrange Richard’s wife, Anne of Bohemia — and a good job it was for him too since he was away when his head might have wound up on a pike during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

Instead, it would be peers in the court who dished out that treatment.

Over the course of the 1380s, Richard’s relationship with the top nobility progressively worsened and finally came to civil war in 1386-1388. The king’s foes, the Lords Appellant prevailed in that fight and with the young king in their power forced him to seat a parliament at which the Lords Appellant would scourge the king’s former allies. It’s called the Merciless Parliament; the reader may judge the reason.

We have already in these pages met several casualties of this purge; even within the context of the bloody intra-elite purge, Burley’s persecution struck a painful chord; two of the Lords Appellants’ junior affiliates, Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and Henry Bolingbroke, who in time would depose Richard and seat himself on the throne as King Henry IV, both opposed killing Burley.* The queen, as powerless as her husband, prostrated herself before the implacable senior magnates on behalf of the old man who had escorted her from Bohemia.


Nineteenth century illustration of Queen Anne begging the Earl of Arundel to spare Simon Burley. Arundel refused her entreaties; a decade later, it was he who got no mercy.

All was for naught. Chronicler Jean Froissart, confesses himself “exceedingly vexed” at Burley’s execution, “and personally much grieved; for in my youth I had found him a gentle knight, and, according to my understanding, of great good sense.”

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1388: Three evil counselors of Richard II

Add comment May 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1388, James Berners, John Beauchamp, and John Salisbury were convicted by the “Merciless Parliament” of treason, and put to immediate death.

You could say that relations between the branches of government were a bit on the frayed side, since crown and parliament had civil war for political primacy. Parliament won.

It just wasn’t quite one of those all-out, kill-you-when-we’re-done wars to depose the king outright. (That would come later.) “We do not rebel or arm ourselves against the King except in order to instruct him,” one of the rebelling Lord Appellant told His Majesty.

“Instructing” Richard II meant politically isolating him and then mercilessly — hence the resulting parliament’s name — attainting his aides and allies for treason.

So all that spring, young Richard II helplessly “presided” over a parliament where his supporters were condemned on trumped-up charges.

This date was the turn for Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and Sir James Berners (or Barnes), two guys noble enough to suffer “merely” beheading, plus Sir John Salisbury, who was far enough down England’s class hierarchy that he got to endure the full drawing and quartering treatment.


Berners may have been the father of a 15th century prioress and author, Juliana Berners.

This woman wasn’t the type to keep to her cloister and meditate: Berners wrote books on her vigorous pastimes of heraldry, hunting, and hawking. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle remains one of the seminal books for the sport of angling.

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1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London

1 comment February 20th, 2010 Headsman

One day after Nicholas Brembre’s treason trial was interrupted for the sudden capture and summary execution of his political ally Robert Tresilian, the former Mayor of London was back in the dock of the Merciless Parliament this day to receive (and immediately suffer) the Lords’ judgment that he be hanged.

Like Robert Tresilian, Brembre had backed the young Richard II’s bid to throw off the influence of a circle of advisors during the dangerous 1380s.

Brembre spent the early part of the decade bursting his ample coffers with a plum customs-collection gig (in which capacity he employed Geoffrey Chaucer), with a couple of stints as London mayor mixed in.

He earned a reputation for corruption and election-rigging (“on the day of the election … Sir Nicholas and others of his faction ordered to the Guildhall of London certain persons, ‘foreigns’ and others in great numbers, who were armed, to make the election”).

A wiser fellow than myself once said, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A rough customer to the last, Brembre tried (pdf) to mount a defense by right of single combat. It was not taken up.

He was drawn from the Tower through the city on a hurdle to Tyburn, resting at furlong intervals he gave great penance, beseeching mercy from God and men against whom he had sinned in past times, and many commiserating prayed for him. And when the noose was put on him so that he might be hanged, the son of Northampton* asked him whether the aforesaid things done elsewhere to his father by Brembre were legally done. For Northampton was formerly a mayor of the city of London, a richer and more powerful citizen among all those who were in the city, and through certain ones, associates who were death-bearing plagues, namely Brembre, Tresilian and others, was enormously vexed by certain nefarious conspiracies and confederacies then condemned to death, and with all his goods stripped hardly escaped alive. And concerning those things Brembre confessed that neither piously nor justly but with a violent heart for the sake of destroying Northampton he had infelicitously committed those things. And seeking forgiveness, hanging by the rope, he died when his throat was cut. Behold how good and pleasant it is to be raised up to honors! It seems to me better to carry out business at home among paupers than be thus lordly among kings, and at the end climb the ladder among thieves; since it is more a matter of onerousness than honor to assume the name of honor. You who are reading, look down to regard him, and you might be able to consider by their ends how their works receive results. For in every work be mindful of the end. (Source)

Richard II subsequently outmaneuvered the foes whose ascendance in 1388 forced Brembre’s execution; in 1399, the attainder was posthumously reversed … just before his royal patron Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV.

* “Northampton” here refers to former London Mayor John of Northampton, not to be confused with the ennobled Earl of Northampton — which latter title was actually held at this time by Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV and a member of the anti-Ricardian Lords Appellant party that engineered Brembre’s downfall. (Got all that?)

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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1388: Robert Tresilian, former Chief Justice

2 comments February 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1388, England’s former Chief Justice was executed for his executive-friendly jurisprudence.

For some reason, this illustration of Tresilian’s execution from Froissart‘s chronicles shows him receiving a dignified beheading, rather than a nude hanging.

The ambitious Robert Tresilian (or Tresillian) had shimmied his way up the 14th century legal ranks for his dutiful service to the monarch, including presiding over a “bloody assize” after Wat Tyler’s revolt.

Despite stringing up 500 rebels, Tresilian couldn’t have been too upset about the disturbance: it also killed off the sitting Chief Justice and opened the seat for a man of Tresilian’s talents and loyalty.

A few years later, Richard would require of this position a legal opinion vindicating his personal authority as against the council his rivals had foisted upon him. Tresilian duly produced a writ affirming the unitary executive authority.

The upshot of this opinion was to put that council at risk of life and limb. It turned out to be more dangerous to its author.

When the Lords Appellant defeated the Ricardian party, Tresilian was among the royal retainers attainted for treason by the vengeful “Merciless Parliament”.

The lords thereupon announced that in matters of such high concern the rules of civil law oculd not be observed; the parliament was itself the supreme judge; it was not to be bound by the forms which guided inferior courts, that were merely the executors of the ancient laws and customs of the realm, and of the ordinances and establishments of parliament.

In a characteristically judge-like juxtaposition of wit, naivete and arrogance, Tresilian was somehow smart enough to go into hiding but dumb enough to hide by disguising himself and hanging around the parliament where his associate, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre, was putting on a theatrically futile defense. Since Tresilian had absconded, he was already judged guilty in absentia and liable to suffer execution immediately upon capture.

This date in 1388, that’s exactly what happened: capture, and summary hanging.

Before they had argued to the finish the end of the trial against Nicholas Brembre, the hapless Tresilian occupied their attention. He had been located above the gutter of a certain house annexed to the wall of the palace, hiding among the roofs the sake of watching the lords coming and going from parliament. However, when resolute soldiers had entered that house and looking around found no one, a certain knight with intent expression strode to the father of the house and pulled his head up by the hair, drawing his dagger, saying, “Show us where Tresilian is or your days are numbered.” Immediately, the terrified father of the household said, “Behold the place where that man is positioned at this moment,” and under a certain round table which was covered for deception with a tablecloth, the unfortunate Tresilian, disguised as usual, was miraculously discovered. His tunic was made out of old russet, extending down to mid-shin, as if he were an old man, and he had a wiry and thick beard, and wore red boots with the soles of Joseph, looking more like a pilgrim or beggar than a king’s justice. This event was immediately made clear to the lords’ ears, and when, quicker than a word, the aforesaid five appellants under a hasty pretext left the parliament without explaining the reason for their departure, all who remain in parliament were stunned, and many others followed them with passionate zeal. And when at the palace gate they had seized Tresilian, leading him toward the parliament, they proclaimed in a universal voice, “We havet hym! We havet hym!” Meanwhile, interrogated in the parliament how he would excuse himself concerning the false treachery of this kind and other things done by him, he remained nonetheless stock-still and mute, his heart hardened even in the face of death, and he would not confess to the things committed. Immediately parliament was broken for the sake of this matter, and on the grounds of dealing with Tresilian they sent away for the day Brembre, who had remained present. And at once Tresilian was led to the Tower of London so that execution of his sentence might be carried out on his person. His wife and daughters, moaning and imploring weepingly, were present at hand there in that place, and with voiceless requests, kissing him first from one side then the other, they forgave him for one or another of the crimes he had committed. But she, overwhelmed with sorrow in her heart, fell to the ground as if dead. At length Tresilian was bound hand and foot to a hurdle, and along with a vast multitude of lords and commoners, horsemen and pedestrians, he was dragged from the back of horses through the city squares, resting at intervals of about the length of a furlong out of considerations of charity, to see if he wanted to repent anything. But alas, he did not publicly confess, and indeed it is not known what he would say to his friar confessor, nor has it been ours to discover: the friars well treated Tresilian, preserving him from his transgression. And when he had come to the place of Calvary that he might be made defunct, he did not want to climb the stairs but goaded by sticks and whips that he might ascend, he said, “While I carry a certain something around me, I am not able to die.” Immediately they stripped him and found particular instructions with particular signs depicted in them, in the manner of astronomical characters; and one depicted a demon’s head, many others were inscribed with demons’ names. With these taken away, he was hanged nude, and for greater certainty of his death his throat was cut.

“His fate,” wrote Baron John Campbell, “seems to have excited little compassion, for he had shown himself ready to mete out like injustice to others, and he had extra-judicially pronounced opinions which, if acted upon, would have been for ever fatal to public liberty.”

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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