1681: Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr in Great Britain

Add comment July 1st, 2018 Headsman

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett earned the last Catholic martyr’s crown in Britain on this date in 1681.*

Product of County Meath blood and Italian seminary, Plunkett had been back floating around Ireland as its chief prelate since 1670. In this decade, the English-imposed laws burdening Catholics had been relaxed; Plunkett was able to minister his flock, openly at first and after 1673 as a fugitive whom Irish authorities did not much wish to pursue.

Plunkett’s safety speedily expired with the emergence in England of the Popish Plot, a security panic catalyzed like its modern-day analogues by equal parts bad faith and malice.

The concoctions of an opportunistic fabulist caused the English populace to become convinced in 1678 that a vast and treasonable Catholic conspiracy menaced the land; in its day, it was a delusion held so widely and deeply as to cow into silence and compliance all skeptics, even King Charles himself. Charles’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, cynically leaned into the hysteria by whipping fears of a Plunkett-hatched invasion of Ireland by the French, although he well knew that Plunkett was “of a … peaceable temper & … comforable to ye Government.”

Plunkett spent months in hiding, refusing to flee Ireland, until he was finally arrested in December 1679. After proceedings in Ireland collapsed, the prelate was moved to London for a more manageable show trial, the entire transcript of which can be perused here.

In it, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton chastises Plunkett for soliciting time to collect his witnesses, and concludes with a denunciation of the enemy religion that would not look far out fo place in many a present-day comments section.

truly yours is Treason of the highest Nature, ’tis a Treason in truth against God and your King, and the Country where you lived. You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this Case; for the Bottom of your Treason was, your setting up your false Religion, than which there is not any Thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to Mankind in the World. A Religion that is ten Times worse than all the Heathenish Superstitions; the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and his Glory, of all Religions or pretended Religions whatsoever, for it undertakes to dispense with God’s Laws, and to pardon the Breach of them. So that certainly a greater Crime there cannot be committed against God, than for a Man to endeavour the Propagation of that Religion; but you to effect this, have designed the Death of our lawful Prince and King: And then your design of Blood in the Kingdom where you lived, to set all together by the Ears, to destroy poor innocent People, to prostitute their Lives and Liberties, and all that is dear to them, to the Tyranny of Rome and France.

Now tormented that his opportunistic fear-mongering was actually going to lay the archbishop in his grave, Essex implored the Catholic-sympathetic King Charles to spare Plunkett. “Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience,” snapped Charles, politically constrained from a beneficence he would have dearly loved to grant. “You could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On the first of July, he was drawn to Tyburn (a stained glass depiction of it can be found in this post), where he was hanged and quartered. (The strange Anglo-Irish plotter Edward Fitzharris preceded Plunkett on the scaffold, as an undercard attraction.) “He won more credit and repute, as well for himself as for his country, by one hour of suffering, than he could have acquired perhaps by hundreds of years of life,” one observer wrote.

This might very well be so. Aside from being the last Catholic martyr in the Isles, Plunkett is among the most warmly remembered, as evidenced by his recent remit as the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in post-Troubles Ireland — not to mention the loving preservation of his relics at St. Peter’s cathedral in Drogheda.

Readers might enjoy this 68-minute lecture on Plunkett’s life and times.


St. Oliver Plunkett’s head preserved in a shrine at Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

* July 1 by the Julian calendar still then employed in England; by the Gregorian calendar adopted in most Catholic countries at this point, the date was July 11 — and some Catholic primary sources use the latter date.

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1680: William Howard, Viscount Stafford

Add comment December 29th, 2017 David Hume

(Thanks to Scottish Enlightenment titan David Hume for the guest post on William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford — a Catholic peer who fell victim to the hysteria of Titus Oates‘s “Popish Plot”. It takes some time to build into the execution itself, since Hume in his History of England narratively locates it in the proto-Whig party’s frustrated parliamentary efforts to exclude from the succession the king’s Roman Catholic brother, the eventual King James II who at this time was the Duke of York. -ed.)

Besides friendship for his brother, and a regard to the right of succession, there were many strong reasons which had determined Charles to persevere in opposing the exclusion. All the royalists and the devotees to the church, that party by which alone monarchy was supported, regarded the right of succession as inviolable; and if abandoned by the king in so capital an article, it was to be feared that they would, in their turn, desert his cause, and deliver him over to the pretensions and usurpations of the country party. The country party, or the whigs, as they were called, if they did not still retain some propensity towards a republic, were at least affected with a violent jealousy of regal power; and it was equally to be dreaded that, being enraged with past opposition, and animated by present success, they would, if they prevailed in this pretension, be willing, as well as able, to reduce the prerogative within very narrow limits.

All menaces, therefore, all promises were again employed against the king’s resolution: he never would be prevailed on to desert his friends, and put himself into the hands of his enemies. And having voluntarily made such important concessions, and tendered, over and over again, such strong limitations, he was well pleased to find them rejected by the obstinacy of the Commons; and hoped that, after the spirit of opposition had spent itself in fruitless violence, the time would come, when he might safely appeal against his Parliament to his people.

So much were the popular leaders determined to carry matters to extremities, that in less than a week after the commencement of the session, a motion was made for bringing in an exclusion bill, and a committee was appointed for that purpose. This bill differed in nothing from the former, but in two articles, which showed still an increase of zeal in the Commons: the bill was to be read to the people twice a year in all the churches of the kingdom, and every one who should support the duke’s title was rendered incapable of receiving a pardon but by act of Parliament.

The debates were carried on with great violence on both sides. The bill was defended by Sir William Jones, who had now resigned his office of attorney-general, by Lord Russel, by Sir Francis Winnington, Sir Harry Capel, Sir William Pulteney, by Colonel Titus, Treby, Hambden, Montague. It was opposed by Sir Leoline Jenkins, secretary of state, Sir John Ernley, chancellor of the exchequer, by Hyde, Seymour, Temple. The arguments transmitted to us may be reduced to the following topics.

In every government, said the exclusionists, there is somewhere an authority absolute and supreme; nor can any determination, how unusual soever, which receives the sanction of the legislature, admit afterwards of dispute or control. The liberty of a constitution, so far from diminishing this absolute power, seems rather to add force to it, and to give it greater influence over the people. The more members of the state concur in any legislative decision, and the more free their voice, the less likelihood is there that any opposition will be made to those measures which receive the final sanction of their authority. In England, the legislative power is lodged in King, Lords, and Commons, which comprehend every order of the community: and there is no pretext for exempting any circumstance of government, not even the succession of the crown, from so full and decisive a jurisdiction. Even express declarations have, in this particular, been made of parliamentary authority: instances have occurred where it has been exerted: and though prudential reasons may justly be alleged why such innovations should not be attempted but on extraordinary occasions, the power and right are for ever vested in the community. But if any occasion can be deemed extraordinary, if any emergence can require unusual expedients, it is the present; when the heir to the crown has renounced the religion of the state, and has zealously embraced a faith totally hostile and incompatible. A prince of that communion can never put trust in a people so prejudiced against him: the people must be equally diffident of such a prince: foreign and destructive alliances will seem to one the only protection of his throne: perpetual jealousy, opposition, faction, even insurrections will be employed by the other as the sole securities for their liberty and religion. Though theological principles, when set in opposition to passions, have often small influence on mankind in general, still less on princes; yet when they become symbols of faction, and marks of party distinctions, they concur with one of the strongest passions in the human frame, and are then capable of carrying men to the greatest extremities. Notwithstanding the better judgment and milder disposition of the king, how much has the influence of the duke already disturbed the tenor of government? how often engaged the nation into meaures totally destructive of their foreign interests and honour, of their domestic repose and tranquillity? The more the absurdity and incredibility of the popish plot are insisted on, the stronger reason it affords for the exclusion of the duke; since the universal belief of it discovers the extreme antipathy of the nation to his religion, and the utter impossibility of ever bringing them to acquiesce peaceably under the dominion of such a sovereign. The prince, finding himself in so perilous a situation, must seek for security by desperate remedies, and by totally subduing the privileges of a nation which had betrayed such hostile dispositions towards himself, and towards every thing which he deems the most sacred. It is in vain to propose limitations and expedients. Whatever share of authority is left in the duke’s hands, will be employed to the destruction of the nation; and even the additional restraints, by discovering the public diffidence and aversion, will serve him as incitements to put himself in a condition entirely superior and independent. And as the laws of England still make resistance treason, and neither do nor can admit of any positive exceptions; what folly to leave the kingdom in so perilous and absurd a situation, where the greatest virtue will be exposed to the most severe proscription, and where the laws can only be saved by expedients, which these same laws have declared the highest crime and enormity.

The court party reasoned in an opposite manner. An authority, they said, wholly absolute and uncontrollable is a mere chimera, and is nowhere to be found in any human institutions. All government is founded on opinion and a sense of duty; and wherever the supreme magistrate, by any law or positive prescription, shocks an opinion regarded as fundamental, and established with a firmness equal to that of his own authority, he subverts the principle by which he himself is established, and can no longer hope for obedience. In European monarchies, the right of succession is justly esteemed a fundamental; and even though the whole legislature be vested in a single person, it would never be permitted him, by an edict, to disinherit his lawful heir, and call a stranger or more distant relation to the throne. Abuses in other parts of government are capable of redress, from more dispassionate inquiry or better information of the sovereign, and till then ought patiently to be endured: but violations of the right of succession draw such terrible consequences after them as are not to be paralleled by any other grievance or inconvenience. Vainly is it pleaded that England is a mixed monarchy; and that a law assented to by King, Lords, and Commons, is enacted by the concurrence of every part of the state: it is plain that there remains a very powerful party, who may indeed be outvoted, but who never will deem a law, subversive of hereditary right, any wise valid or obligatory. Limitations, such as are proposed by the king, give no shock to the constitution, which, in many particulars, is already limited; and they may be so calculated as to serve every purpose sought for by an exclusion. If the ancient barriers against regal authority have been able, during so many ages, to remain impregnable; how much more those additional ones, which, by depriving the monarch of power, tend so far to their own security? The same jealousy too of religion, which has engaged the people to lay these restraints upon the successor, will extremely lessen the number of his partisans, and make it utterly impracticable for him, either by force or artifice, to break the fetters imposed upon him. The king’s age and vigorous state of health promise him a long life: and can it be prudent to tear in pieces the whole state, in order to provide against a contingency which, it is very likely, may never happen? No human schemes can secure the public in all possible imaginable events; and the bill of exclusion itself, however accurately framed, leaves room for obvious and natural suppositions, to which it pretends not to provide any remedy. Should the duke have a son, after the king’s death, must that son, without any default of his own, forfeit his title? or must the Princess of Orange descend from the throne, in order to give place to the lawful successor? But were all these reasons false, it still remains to be considered that, in public deliberations, we seek not the expedient which is best in itself, but the best of such as are practicable. The king willingly consents to limitations, and has already offered some which are of the utmost importance: but he is determined to endure any extremity rather than allow the right of succession to be invaded. Let us beware of that factious violence, which leads to demand more than will be granted; lest we lose the advantage of those beneficial concessions, and leave the nation, on the king’s demise, at the mercy of a zealous prince, irritated with the ill usage which he imagines he has already met with.

In the House of Commons, the reasoning of the exclusionists appeared the more convincing; and the bill passed by a great majority. It was in the House of Peers that the king expected to oppose it with success. The court party was there so prevalent, that it was carried only by a majority of two, to pay so much regard to the bill as even to commit it. When it came to be debated the contest was violent. Shaftesbury, Sunderland, and Essex argued for it; Halifax chiefly conducted the debate against it, and displayed an extent of capacity, and a force of eloquence, which had never been surpassed in that assembly. He was animated, as well by the greatness of the occasion, as by a rivalship with his uncle Shaftesbury; whom, during that day’s debate, he seemed in the judgment of all to have totally eclipsed. The king was present during the whole debate, which was prolonged till eleven at night. The bill was thrown out by a considerable majority. All the bishops, except three, voted against it. Besides the influence of the court over them; the church of England, they imagined, or pretended, was in greater danger from the prevalence of presbyterianism than of popery, which, though favoured by the duke, and even by the king, was extremely repugnant to the genius of the nation.

The Commons discovered much ill humour upon this disappointment. They immediately voted an address for the removal of Halifax from the king’s councils and presence for ever. Though the pretended cause was his advising the late frequent prorogations of Parliament, the real reason was apparently his vigorous opposition to the exclusion bill. When the king applied for money to enable him to maintain Tangiers, which he declared his present revenues totally unable to defend; instead of complying, they voted such an address as was in reality a remonstrance, and one little less violent than that famous remonstrance, which ushered in the civil wars.

All the abuses of government, from the beginning almost of the reign, are there insisted on; the Dutch war, the alliance with France, the prorogations and dissolutions of Parliament; and as all these measures, as well as the damnable and hellish plot, are there ascribed to the machinations of Papists, it was plainly insinuated that the king had, all along, lain under the influence of that party, and was in reality the chief conspirator against the religion and liberties of his people.

Portait of William Howard as a young man by Anthony van Dyck, ~1638-1640. Howard was born in 1614, and beheaded at the age of 66.

The Commons, though they conducted the great business of the exclusion with extreme violence and even imprudence, had yet much reason for the jealousy which gave rise to it: but their vehement prosecution of the popish plot, even after so long an interval, discovers such a spirit, either of credulity or injustice, as admits of no apology. The impeachment of the Catholic lords in the Tower was revived; and as Viscount Stafford, from his age, infirmities, and narrow capacity, was deemed the least capable of defending himself, it was determined to make him the first victim, that his condemnation might pave the way for a sentence against the rest. The chancellor, now created Earl of Nottingham, was appointed high steward for conducting the trial.

Three witnesses were produced against the prisoner; [Titus] Oates [conjurer of the Popish Plot panic -ed.], [Stephen] Dugdale, and [Edward] Turberville.* Oates swore, that he saw Fenwick, the Jesuit, deliver to Stafford a commission signed by De Oliva, general of the Jesuits, appointing him paymaster to the papal army, which was to be levied for the subduing of England: for this ridiculous imposture still maintained its credit with the Commons. Dugdale gave testimony, that the prisoner at Tixal, a seat of Lord Aston‘s, had endeavoured to engage him in the design of murdering the king; and had promised him, besides the honour of being sainted by the church, a reward of five hundred pounds for that service. Turberville deposed, that the prisoner, in his own house at Paris, had made him a like proposal. To offer money for murdering a king, without laying down any scheme by which the assassin may ensure some probability or possibility of escape, is so incredible in itself, and may so easily be maintained by any prostitute evidence, that an accusation of that nature, not accompanied with circumstances, ought very little to be attended to by any court of judicature. But notwithstanding the small hold which the witnesses afforded, the prisoner was able, in many material particulars, to discredit their testimony. It was sworn by Dugdale, that Stafford had assisted in a great consult of the Catholics held at Tixal; but Stafford proved, by undoubted testimony, that at the time assigned he was in Bath, and in that neighbourhood. Turberville had served a noviciate among the Dominicans; but, having deserted the convent, he had enlisted as a trooper in the French army; and being dismissed that service, he now lived in London, abandoned by all his relations, and exposed to great poverty. Stafford proved, by the evidence of his gentleman and his page, that Turberville had never, either at Paris or at London, been seen in his company; and it might justly appear strange that a person, who had so important a secret in his keeping, was so long entirely neglected by him.

The clamour and outrage of the populace during the trial were extreme: great abilities and eloquence were displayed by the managers, Sir William Jones, Sir Francis Winnington, and Serjeant Maynard. Yet did the prisoner, under all these disadvantages, make a better defence than was expected, either by his friends or his enemies: the unequal contest in which he was engaged was a plentiful source of compassion to every mind seasoned with humanity. He represented, that during a course of forty years, from the very commencement of the civil wars, he had, through many dangers, difficulties, and losses, still maintained his loyalty: and was it credible that now, in his old age, easy in his circumstances, but dispirited by infirmities, he would belie the whole course of his life, and engage against his royal master, from whom he had ever received kind treatment, in the most desperate and most bloody of all conspiracies: He remarked the infamy of the witnesses; the contradictions and absurdities of their testimony; the extreme indigence in which they had lived, though engaged, as they pretended, in a conspiracy with kings, princes, and nobles; the credit and opulence to which they were at present raised. With a simplicity and tenderness more persuasive than the greatest oratory, he still made protestations of his innocence, and could not forbear, every moment, expressing the most lively surprise and indignation at the audacious impudence of the witnesses.

It will appear astonishing to us, as it did to Stafford himself, that the Peers, after a solemn trial of six days, should, by a majority of twenty-four voices, give sentence against him. He received, however, with resignation the fatal verdict. God’s holy name be praised! was the only exclamation which he uttered. When the high steward told him, that the Peers would intercede with the king for remitting the more cruel and ignominious parts of the sentence, hanging and quartering, he burst into tears: but he told the Lords that he was moved to this weakness by a sense of their goodness, not by any terror of that fate which he was doomed to suffer.

It is remarkable that, after Charles, as is usual in such cases, had remitted to Stafford the hanging and quartering, the two sheriffs, Bethel and Cornish, indulging their own republican humour, and complying with the prevalent spirit of their party, ever jealous of monarchy, started a doubt with regard to the king’s power of exercising even this small degree of lenity. “Since he cannot pardon the whole,” said they, “how can he have power to remit any part of the sentence?” They proposed the doubt to both Houses: the Peers pronounced it superfluous; and even the Commons, apprehensive lest a question of this nature might make way for Stafford’s escape, gave this singular answer: “This House is content that the sheriffs do execute William, late Viscount Stafford, by severing his head from his body only.” Nothing can be a stronger proof of the fury of the times than that Lord Russel, notwithstanding the virtue and humanity of his character, seconded in the House this barbarous scruple of the sheriffs.

In the interval between the sentence and execution, many efforts were made to shake the resolution of the infirm and aged prisoner, and to bring him to some confession of the treason for which he was condemned. It was even rumoured that he had confessed; and the zealous party-men, who, no doubt, had secretly, notwithstanding their credulity, entertained some doubts with regard to the reality of the popish conspiracy, expressed great triumph on the occasion. But Stafford, when again called before the House of Peers, discovered many schemes, which had been laid by himself and others for procuring a toleration to the Catholics, at least a mitigation of the penal laws enacted against them: and he protested that this was the sole treason of which he had ever been guilty.

Stafford now prepared himself for death with the intrepidity which became his birth and station, and which was the natural result of the innocence and integrity which, during the course of a long life, he had ever maintained: his mind seemed even to collect new force from the violence and oppression under which he laboured.

When going to execution, he called for a cloak to defend him against the rigour of the season: “Perhaps,” said he, “I may shake with cold; but I trust in God, not for fear.” On the scaffold he continued, with reiterated and earnest asseverations, to make protestations of his innocence: all his fervour was exercised on that point: when he mentioned the witnesses, whose perjuries had bereaved him of life, his expressions were full of mildness and of charity. He solemnly disavowed all those immoral principles, which over-zealous Protestants had ascribed, without distinction, to the church of Rome: and he hoped, he said, that the time was now approaching, when the present delusion would be dissipated; and when the force of truth, though late, would engage the whole world to make reparation to his injured honour.

The populace, who had exulted at Stafford’s trial and condemnation, were now melted into tears at the sight of that tender fortitude which shone forth in each feature, and motion, and accent of this aged noble. Their profound silence was only interrupted by sighs and groans. With difficulty they found speech to assent to those protestations of innocence which he frequently repeated: “We believe you, my lord! God bless you, my lord!” These expressions, with a faltering accent, flowed from them. The executioner himself was touched with sympathy. Twice he lifted up the axe, with an intent to strike the fatal blow; and as often felt his resolution to fail him. A deep sigh was heard to accompany his last effort, which laid Stafford for ever at rest. All the spectators seemed to feel the blow. And when the head was held up to them with the usual cry, This is the head of a traitor! no clamour of assent was uttered. Pity, remorse, and astonishment, had taken possession of every heart, and displayed itself in every countenance.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving of the trial and execution of Viscount Stafford. (via the British Museum).

This is the last blood which was shed on account of the popish plot: an incident which, for the credit of the nation, it were better to bury in eternal oblivion; but which it is necessary to perpetuate, as well to maintain the truth of history, as to warn, if possible, their posterity and all mankind ever again to fall into so shameful, so barbarous a delusion.

The execution of Stafford gratified the prejudices of the country party; but it contributed nothing to their power and security: on the contrary, by exciting commiseration, it tended still farther to increase that disbelief of the whole plot, which began now to prevail.

* Channeling Jacques de Molay, Stafford prophesied that Turberville, the perjured witness against him, would not outlive him by so much as a year. Turberville obligingly dropped dead of smallpox late in 1681, after falling out with his former Popish Plot conspirator Titus Oates.

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1678: Edward Colman, Popish Plot victim

Add comment December 3rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1678, Catholic courtier Edward Col(e)man was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn — the second victim of Titus Oates’s “Popish Plot” concotion.

Colman was a Catholic convert whose zeal for the old faith led him into a variety of treacherous intrigues with the French court — although Colman’s eager and fruitless offices more annoyed than profited his allies.

His behavior was sufficiently indiscreet that fabulist Titus Oates had Colman queued up by name* as a Catholic plotter in the first round of 1678 Catholic terrorism allegations that would roil the realm for the next three years.

That indiscretion was very real, however, and extended to a careless presumption of his own safety. He seems to have been tipped to his danger by the judge who first took Oates’s evidence, a friend named Sir Edmund Godfrey, but he failed to use this advance intelligence to destroy his own correspondence. Godfrey in his own turn went on to a starring role in the Popish Plot debacle when he turned up murdered in October of 1678, a crime whose immediate attribution to the Catholic conspiracy that Oates had unfolded for him sent England clear round the bend.**

Colman’s case had already begun and half-fizzled by that point but with the apparent assassination of the judge a cry for his own blood now shook Parliament — “Colman’s letters!” alluding to that correspondence he surely wished he had burned: its volumes unfolded intelligence leaks, offers to exert French influence in the government even so far as dissolving Parliament, and applications for King Louis’s gold.

There are some incriminating examples in the trial transcript that, Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs charged, show “That your Design was to bring in Popery into England, and to promote the interest of the French King in this place, for which you hoped to have a Pension.” While Oates was a legendary perjurer and his fables destined to take the lives of 20-odd innocent souls in the months to come, the fact was that Colman really was caught out. His scheming ought not have merited such spectacular punishment under less extraordinary circumstances, but the things Colman really did do made it easy for Oates to position him as a paymaster in the fictitious regicidal conspiracy. “Mr. Colman, your own papers are enough to condemn you,” Scroggs said when his prisoner asserted innocence.

Nor could he protect himself with position. (Men even higher than Colman would succumb to the panic in time.) As detestably elevated as Colman looked to the average commoner, he was not himself a lord and was already (pre-Oates) regarded by King Charles II and many members of the court as a loose cannon. Everything pointed to sacrificing him … and they did. But as events would prove, the popular rage was not quenched on Colman’s bones alone.

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Popish Plot in its May 12, 2016 episode.

* By name — not by face: Oates would be embarrassed at Colman’s eventual trial by the prisoner pointing out that Oates, who now claimed to have been personally paid out by Colman for various seditious errands, had utterly failed to recognize his “conspirator” when Oates appeared before the Privy Council to lay his charges in September.

** Godfrey’s murder has never been satisfactorily explained. There’s a good chance that it was a wholly unrelated affair with amazing bad timing; the revenge of the truculent Earl of Pembroke, whom Godfrey had prosecuted for murder a few months previous, is one leading possibility.

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1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

1 comment November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1678, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.


Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Notable for their Victims,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1679: St. David Lewis, the last Welsh martyr

Add comment August 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the Jesuit David Lewis was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Lewis suffered just days after a fellow priest and fellow victim of Titus Oates’ “Popish Plot” concoctions, John Kemble.

Lewis was arrested at the Wales town of Llantarnam where he was Tad y Tlodion, “father of the poor”; hauled to London’s Newgate Prison, he was returned to Usk, also in Wales, for execution.

As with Kemble, Lewis “discover the plot I could not, as I knew of none; and conform I would not, for it was against my conscience.” Where terroristic plotting could not be established, taking Holy Orders in the church would do just as well.

Lewis is not actually the last Catholic martyr in Britain* — Oliver Plunkett earned that distinction in 1681 — but at this late date he goes down as the last Welsh martyr, which is also the title of an energetic Catholic blog all about the man and his milieu.

Seems that site has a virtual pilgrimage to go along with the annual meatspace tradition that takes place this year on Sunday, August 29. The faithful might also enjoy friendsofsaintdavidlewis.co.uk.

* An inventory of martyrs for the faith in the Isles is here.

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1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest

2 comments August 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, 80-year-old Catholic priest John Kemble was martyred for the faith at Hereford.

Kemble had been discreetly performing the offices of his faith — still illicit, but less liable to get you killed at this late date — for over five decades since ordination.

Unhappily, Titus Oates and his tall tales of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II came along at the end of that run. In the ensuing anti-Catholic spasm, Kemble was one of the unlucky ones rousted.

Even in the hysteria of the times, nobody could make an actual conspiracy charge stick against this ancient cleric, but in the hands of a sufficiently hostile judiciary, his demonstrable exercise of the priesthood could be enough to make him a traitor. And at his age, the opportunity to buy his life at the cost of his conscience didn’t look the bargain:

According to the course of nature I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and therefore I will not abscond.

He got the mild consolation of hanging to death before the unpleasant drawing-and-quartering bits were executed upon him, and calmly puffed a pipe and shared a bowl of wine with the sympathetic representatives of the law before it all happened. As a result, Herefordshire long called the comforts enjoyed before a parting a “Kemble pipe” and “Kemble cup”.

He’s been elevated to sainthood on the strength of his posthumous miracles, like healing the jailer’s daughter of throat cancer; the holy man’s severed hand, held at St. Francis Xavier’s in Hereford, is supposed to have saved a man from death as recently as 1995.

(The rest of St. John Kemble reposes at Welsh Newton, and is venerated at an annual pilgrimage.)

Kemble was among the last of the Forty Martyrs of England to die for the Catholic faith; a fellow-inmate, David Lewis, paid his own penalty just five days later.

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1666: Robert Hubert for the Great Fire of London

5 comments October 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1666, a hapless French watchmaker was hanged at Tyburn for starting the Great Fire of London — his obstinate confession in the face of all other evidence making him the convenient fall guy for an accidental cataclysm.

Of Robert Hubert Lord Clarendon would write,

though the Chief Justice told the King, ‘that all his discourse was so disjointed that he did not believe him guilty;’ nor was there one man who prosecuted or accused him: yet upon his own confession … the jury found him guilty, and he was executed accordingly. And though no man could imagine any reason why a man should so desperately throw away his life, which he might have saved, though he had been guilty, since he was only accused upon his own confession; yet neither the judges, nor any present at the trial, did believe him guilty, but that he was a poor distracted wretch weary of his life, and chose to part with it this way. Certain it is, that upon the strictest examination that could be afterwards made by the King’s command, and then by the diligence of Parliament, that upon the jealousy and rumour made a Committee, who were very diligent and solicitous to make that discovery, there was never any probable evidence, (that poor creature’s only excepted,) that there was any other cause of that woeful Fire, than the displeasure of God Almighty.

Executed Today is pleased to interview Meriel Jeater, curator of the “London’s Burning” exhibit now on display at the Museum of London, on what the Great Fire wrought.


More Great Fire images, including a map of the destroyed area, here.

Was London lucky to have the Great Fire?

Yes, I suppose so. Lots of people have sort of argued that London missed an opportunity to make more changes, but they just didn’t have the money to do them at the time.

There were a lot of improvements made. They widened the streets. The city was rebuilt in brick instead of wood, although that rule was in place from before 1666. The regulations were restated and extra ones were added in; a lot of people think that it was because of the Great Fire that people started building in brick, but that regulation already existed from earlier in the 17th century.

You’ve got acres and acres and acres of land that have been reduced to rubble during the Great Fire, and en masse, all these new buildings are going up. But yes, it made life more healthy & more pleasant in the city. You had pavement put in for the first time. All these little things you wouldn’t think of, like the houses had to have gassers for the first time, as opposed to just spouts that would spray water on you if you walked down the street. The Great Fire gave people the opportunity to get rid of all those inconveniences.

And they were able to do other things, like the slope down to the River Thames was quite steep, and they were able because of all the rubble to ease the slope.

How did it reshape London? What might have been different about the subsequent life of the city if it had never occurred?

Within days of the fire going out, various architects like Christopher Wren were supplying architectural plans to rebuild London, perhaps around an American grid plan, or European-looking piazzas.

What they really wanted to do was get people moving back into London and rebuilding their houses as quickly as possible, so they kept the medieval street plan and instituted new regulations, like the streets had to be widened, and they could no longer build the houses hanging into the street. The size of the house you could build was proportional to the size of the street you were on, so if you lived on a main boulevard instead of a small lane

Where’s the best place in London to catch a glimpse of that world, as it looked then?

It’s kind of a hidden thing because of course we were bombed in the Second World War, but there are places, like behind St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Amen Court.

So who is Robert Hubert?

He’s a French watchmaker from Rouen, and he was seized in Essex apparently attempting to flee the country. There were various other foreign people who were seized as well, but Hubert confessed to starting the fire.

But his evidence* was very conflicting; he kept changing his mind of what he’d done. He said he’d been part of 23 conspirators and put a fireball through the window of the bakery where the fire started. The baker himself said there wasn’t a window there.

The jury really thought that Robert Hubert was mad, but he was so insistent that he’d done it.

The following year, they discovered that he hadn’t actually arrived in London until two days after the fire started.

Lucky for the baker! He didn’t end up catching any blame for burning down the city?

Hubert was a very convenient scapegoat, and Thomas Farynor** of the bakery was incredibly relieved. Right from the start, Farynor had said “I put my oven out that night, it can’t possibly be me, it must be arson.”

I’ve had a little look at the records of Pudding Lane to see whether he rebuilt his house, and he did.

One of the interesting resources on your site deals with the going fear of “Catholic incendiarism” (pdf), and the use of the Great Fire as a touchstone for the succession conflicts of the 1680’s. Would it have been conventional wisdom by that time, a generation or so after the event, that the Great Fire was a Catholic plot?

It becomes all caught up in the contemporary politics of the time, so it’s really got nothing to do with the fire. It’s people not liking James II for being a Catholic. It’s the fictional Popish Plot, completely fabricated. It’s probably not a coincidence that at the height of the Popish plot that they put up the plaque on the side of the bakery saying that the Fire came from “the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists.”

Given the combustible material all about, why wasn’t something like the Great Fire a more regular occurrence?

There were six serious fires in the 17th century before the Great Fire happened; one of them was a great explosion of gunpowder.

Fires were sort of a common hazard. The thing about the Great Fire was that there was sort of a whole load of circumstances. There was a drought, so it was dry; there were storm winds coming in from the east, so it blew the fire on faster than it would have; it started at 1 o’clock in the morning, so people were in bed. I think the problem is that it’s all these circumstances combining together. Maybe if it happened at 3 o’clock on Monday when it was raining, it wouldn’t have gone beyond the block.

Logistically, how did the society and the state handle the mass homelessness and unemployment that followed? Where did all these people live right after the fire, and how smoothly were they reintegrated?

People were camping out in the fields outside of London; others were moving into areas that were unburnt but having to pay hugely inflated rents. Some people had to move into other towns. There was evidence that people were still living in shantytown tented accommodations up to eight years after the fire, because there’s another rebuilding regulation in the 1670s that addresses that.

In the first year after the fire, only 150 houses are rebuilt; the rebuilding happens over 10 years, though some houses took up to 30 years. Some people were in very desperate circumstances, so formerly very wealthy people who had lived off their rents might now be working as servants. People coped, a lot of times in reduced circumstances from what they were used to.

There was a particular man you can read about in Samuel Pepys’ diary, and he threw himself into a pond in an attempt to commit suicide because he was so indebted.‡

As curator of an exhibit, what do you hope visitors take away from London’s Burning?

One thing that I really wanted people to understand as they go around the exhibition is the effect on people. You learn about it at school, but you don’t really focus on how people cope and how they rebuild.

There’s also a lot of urban myths about the Great Fire, like the ‘fact’ that the fire is supposed to have ended the Great Plague, which is not the case (pdf); those are things we wanted to dispel.


* There’s some original documentation from the examination of Hubert and others after the Fire here.

** Also spelled Thomas Farriner — or Faryner, or Farryner.

Christopher Wren’s monument to the Great Fire of London.

† An inscription on the base of the Great Fire monument itself (only chiseled out in 1830), once read:

This pillar was set up in perpetual remembrance of the most dreadful burning of this protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the popish faction, in the beginning of September, in the year of our Lord, 1666, in order to the carrying on their horrid plot for extirpating the protestant religion, and old English liberty, and introducing popery and slavery. (Source)

Alexander Pope savaged this civic pamphleteering with the couplet,

Where London’s column, pointing at the skies,
Like a tall bully, lifts the head and lies.

Poets and elites might think what they like, but Lord Clarendon recorded a popular anti-foreigner freakout as England reached

a universal conclusion, that this Fire came not by chance … the wicked authors … were concluded to be all the Dutch and all the French in the town, though they had inhabited the same places above twenty years. All of that kind, or, if they were strangers, of what nation soever, were laid hold of; and after all the ill usage that can consist in words, and some blows and kicks, they were thrown into prison. And shortly after, the same conclusion comprehended all the Roman Catholics, who were in the same predicament of guilt and danger … In the mean time, even they [the King’s Privy Councilors], or any other person, thought it not safe to declare ‘that they believed that the Fire came by accident, or that it was not a plot of the Dutch and the French and Papists, to burn the City;’ which was so generally believed, and in the best company, that he who said the contrary was suspected for a conspirator, or at best a favourer of them. (Source)

‡ Pepys’ diary, January 21, 1668.

the story is that it seems on Thursday last he went sober and quiet out of doors in the morning to Islington, and behind one of the inns, the White Lion, did fling himself into a pond, was spied by a poor woman and got out by some people binding up hay in a barn there, and set on his head and got to life, and known by a woman coming that way; and so his wife and friends sent for. He confessed his doing the thing, being led by the Devil; and do declare his reason to be, his trouble that he found in having forgot to serve God as he ought, since he come to this new employment: and I believe that, and the sense of his great loss by the fire, did bring him to it, and so everybody concludes.

Although the man survived the drowning, he caught his death from the attempt and died in bed; Pepys intervened to see that the desperate suicide’s remaining estate would not be confiscated from his widow for his “self-murder.”

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