1531: John Tewkesbury, Thomas More’s unwilling guest

Add comment December 20th, 2016 Headsman

The honor posterity pays to Sir Thomas More‘s valor for his own eventual martyrdom has always been attenuated by More’s own keenness to visit that martyrdom on others. Six men were put to death as Protestant heretics during the Catholic More’s 30 months as Lord Chancellor and several of them — including John Tewkesbury, who burned at Smithfield five days before the sad Christmas of 1531 — were even held and tortured by More himself, at his personal estate.

More, famous for subjecting his own flesh to the hairshirt, was not ashamed to have his porter’s house outfitted as a personal torture chamber complete with his own set of stocks. When another wrongthinker, George Constantine, managed to break out of More’s cage and flee to the continent, the future saint joked in the Apology how humanely that showed Constantine was treated, that he proved “strong enough to break the stocks, nor waxen so lame of his legs with lying but that he was light enough to leap the walls.” LOL!

Others like Tewkesbury were not so robust after More got through with them.

This leather merchant had found his way to reform ideas after coming into possession of a contraband Tyndale English Bible, and was also found in possession of Tyndale’s subversive Parable of the Wicked Mammon.

“If Paul were now alive, and would defend his own learning, he should be tried through fire; not through fire of the judgment of scripture, (for that light men now utterly refuse,) but by the pope’s law, and with fire of fagots,” Tyndale thunders in Wicked Mammon.

Tewkesbury failed his first trial by fagot: after repelling the personal interrogation of Bishop Cuthberg Tunstall,* Tewkesbury

was sent from the Lollards’ tower to my lord chancellor’s, called sir Thomas More, to Chelsea, with all his articles; to see whether he might accuse others. There he lay in the porter’s lodge, hand, foot, and head in the stocks, six days without release: then was he carried to Jesu’s tree, in his [More’s] privy garden, where he was whipped, and also twisted in the brows with small ropes, so that the blood started out of his eyes … after this, he was sent to be racked in the Tower, till he was almost lame, and there he promised to recant. (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

Recanting entailed public penitence meant to underscore the consequences of backsliding: carrying to St. Paul’s Cross a fagot of the sort that would be lit under the feet of a repeat heretic.


John Tewkesbury carrying his fagot in penance. Illustration from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

It seems, however, that Tewkesbury’s courage, once sapped by More’s persecution, was soon reinvigorated by the same. Foxe claims that he took heart from the example of Richard Bayfield, arrested at Easter for smuggling Tyndale Bibles into England from the Low Countries and returned to his heresies, fagot or no.

And here More’s vigorous escapee George Constantine enters the narrative in earnest, for before Constantine slipped More’s shackles the Lord Chancellor wrung from him the names of several Protestants, including Tewkesbury’s. Our repeat heretic was again imprisoned at More’s servants’ quarters where he received his sentence —

Imprimis, That he confessed that he was baptized, and intended to keep the catholic faith.

Secondly, That he affirmeth, that the abjuration oath and subscription that he made before Cuthbert, late bishop of London, was done by compulsion.

Thirdly, That he had the books of the Obedience of a Christian Man, and of The Wicked Mammon, in his custody, and hath read them since his abjuration.

Fourthly, That he affirmeth that he suffered the two faggots that were embroidered on his sleeve, to be taken from him, for that he deserved not to wear them.

Fifthly, He saith, that faith only justifieth, which lacketh not charity.

Sixthly, He saith, that Christ is a sufficient Mediator for us, and therefore no prayer is to be made unto saints. Whereupon they laid unto him this verse of the anthem: ‘Hail Queen our advocate,’ &c.; to which he answered, that he knew none other advocate but Christ alone.

Seventhly, He affirmeth that there is no purgatory after this life, but that Christ our Saviour is a sufficient purgation for us.

Eighthly, He affirmeth, that the souls of the faithful, departing this life, rest with Christ.

Ninthly, He affirmeth, that a priest, by receiving of orders, receiveth more grace, if his faith be increased; or else not.

Tenthly, and last of all, he believeth that the sacrament of the flesh and blood of Christ is not the very body of Christ, in flesh and blood, as it was born of the Virgin Mary.

Whereupon the bishop’s chancellor asked the said Tewkesbury, if he could show any cause why he should not be taken for a heretic, falling into his heresy again, and receive the punishment of a heretic. Whereunto he answered that he had wrong before, and if he be condemned now, he reckoneth that he hath wrong again.

“For which thynges and dyvers other horryble heresyes, he was delyvered at laste unto the secular handes and burned, as there was never wretche I wene better worthy,” More concluded with a satisfied dusting of hands. (Source)

* Tunstall submitted to Henry VIII’s authority over the Church of England and navigated the frightening Tudor years keeping his head down in preference to having it lopped off — although when he died in 1559 at age 85, it was while in prison for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy to Queen Elizabeth.

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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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1529: Adolf Clarenbach, Lower Rhine evangelist

Add comment September 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1529, the city of Cologne burnt Protestant evangelist Adolf Clarenbach at the stake.

Clarenbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a humanist-trained teacher who caught the Reformation spirit when he read Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian in about 1523.

The ears of our generation have been made so delicate by the senseless multitude of flatterers, that, so soon as we perceive that anything of ours is not approved of, we cry out that we are being bitterly assailed …

-Luther in the dedicatory preface* to On the Freedom of a Christian (Source)

Adolf Clarenbach in statuary on present-day Cologne’s city hall. (cc) image from Raimond Spekking

Luther’s words would kindle many a fagot in the years to come. Clarenbach got an early start assailing orthodox delicacies; he was dismissed from teaching posts and harried from city to city (German link, a handy little biography). Munster ran him out for agitating against idolatrous images of saints in 1523; Duke Johann III** personally ordered his expulsion from Jülich-Cleves-Berg; Osnabrück, Büderich and Elberfeld all gave him the boot before Cologne finally arrested him in April 1528.

Clarenbach’s condemnation would only be secured by an arduous process stretching well over a year and contested by the heretic and his friends not only in theology but in law (Clarenbach, a layperson, disputed the ecclesiastical court’s right to try him and appealed successfully to an Imperial court against Cologne, dragging out the process) and in public opinion (Clarenbach’s supporters in Cologne published defenses of him). Even the actual death sentence took half a year to enact after it was issued in March 1529 while authorities loath to conduct it negotiated with their prisoner to moderate his heresy.

He was finally put to death together with another Lutheran, Peter Fliesteden; they are among the first Protestants to die for their confession in the Lower Rhine.

Given the Lutheran movement’s strong run in Germany, it’s no surprise to find this seminal martyr honored in many places in present-day Germany — and his name ornamenting a street in his hometown, a seminary, and a primary school.

* On the Freedom of a Christian was dedicated to the sitting pope. While Luther’s dedication inveighed furiously against the Roman curia, it took the politic and preposterous rhetorical angle that the Medici Leo X was a helpless ingenue undone by his scheming court, “like Daniel in the midst of lions”: “I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made Pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.”

Luther signed that dedication on September 6, 1520. He had not been excommunicated at that point.

Just a few weeks later, he received the papacy’s official (and none too polite) rebuttal to Luther’s 95 theses. Luther answered this missive much less temperately, and his breach with Rome was complete by January 1521.

† Cologne at this time was under the bishopric of Hermann of Wied, a humanist with the germ of reform curiosity. Many years later, he would actually convert to Lutheranism which naturally led to his excommunication and deposition. (But not execution.)

** That’s Duke Johann of Cleves, the father of the Anne of Cleves whose unsatisfactory betrothal to Henry VIII precipitated the downfall of Thomas Cromwell.

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1548: Seraphin d’Argences

Add comment August 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1548, the Calvinist evangelist Robert de Lievre — better known by his nom de prosélytisme Seraphin d’Argences, or as Antoine Deschamps — was burned at Paris’s Place Maubert.

According to their hagiographies, the martyrs’ steadiness caused their assigned Catholic hector Francois Le Picart to lay off the browbeating and comfort them in their last pains.

This neat trick was achieved by the dread Chambre Ardente, really earning its name in this instance, which wanted the example made of this itinerant preacher to match the scope of his roving heresy. Seraphin d’Argences had even had the temerity to administer reformed Lord’s Suppers, leading the judgment against them to cite not only the obvious heresy stuff but “acts repugnant to the holy Catholic faith and the sight of the Holy Church, outraging the Blessed Sacrament of the altar.”

The show began with the minister’s collaborators, Jean Thuillier, Michel Mareschal and Jean Camus, piled into a cart for the ride to the stakes. Seraphin d’Argences trailed right behind them, drug on a sledge pulled by the tumbril.

At the Place Maubert, they all burned the same, but the heresiarch’s stake was consciously elevated above the other three — a sure nod to the developing age of spectacular capital punishment.

Following his bodily execution, Seraphin d’Argences was re-executed in effigy in various towns where he had been active: Langres, Sens, Blois, Bourges, Angers, and others all hosted ceremonial “executions” of lifelike likenesses of the lifeless schismatic.

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1554: Guillaume Dalencon, defrocked priest

Add comment January 6th, 2014 Headsman

Felix Platter is our narrator for Guillaume Dalencon’s death at the stake on this date in 1554.

This book portrays the 16th century through the remarkable Platter family.

Platter (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a 16-year-old Swiss student, and we find him on the midpoint of his family’s upward arc in the world. His father, Thomas, had as a child been put out of the house by his impoverished mother and made his way for a time as a beggar; by dint of lifelong struggle and application, he had gained a precarious foothold among the bourgeoisie of Basel. Thomas Platter nurtured still greater ambitions for his son.

Accordingly, the very genial Felix, who had never before traveled, set out in 1552 on the 400-mile journey to the city of Montpellier in southern France. Young Platter was an energetic diarist, and his impressions of the journey and of Montpellier were published in English as Beloved Son Felix. (That’s how Felix’s father addressed him in letters.) Though the book is out of print, it’s available online at archive.org.

One of its immediately striking features is the omnipresence of danger and death. Platter luckily left Basel just ahead of a plague outbreak, but he nearly lost his life in the frightening Jurthen forest. Taking shelter from the rain there in “a wretched inn” at a squalid hamlet called Mezieres, Platter and his companion found the place full of aggressive Savoyard peasants, and having no choice but to stay overnight they blockaded their door with a bed and kept a waking vigil all night with weapons at the ready. Three hours before dawn, they crept through the snoring mass of drunken thugs and slipped away, and a good thing it was too: the boys’ French guide told them as they set out that he had overheard the brutes plotting to murder the hapless travelers that morning.

The bandit “Long Peter”, who was then active in this forest, was eventually caught and executed on the breaking-wheel in Berne. Only in his old age did Platter learn that the brigand’s confession included a declaration that he had planned, but failed, to kill some students in Mezieres.

They had escaped by the skin of the teeth, but seemingly every page of the journal finds others who succumbed to the many paths to abrupt death the 16th century had to offer. (Not a few of them are corpses that Platter stole from their graves with fellow-students in order to anatomize.) This was, too, the age of spectacular public execution: the travelers’ road on October 18th, 1552, passed numerous “bodies of men hanging from the trees” and as darkness fell Platter gave himself a fright when he nearly rode into one. By the 20th they approached Lyons, where they beheld “several men hanging from gibbets and others exposed on wheels.” As they entered that city, they passed a Protestant “being led out to be burnt outside the gate; he was in his shirt with a truss of straw fastened on his back.”

Platter makes no further comment on this sight, but it must have touched him with pity — if not fear. Platter had been born in Basel about the same time that John Calvin, fleeing French persecution, arrived there; it was in Basel that Calvin first published his seminal theology Institutio Christianae religionis. To this faith, predominant in Swiss cities but illicit in France, Platter too subscribed. The French Wars of Religion loomed around the corner in the next decade, and Montpellier would become a Huguenot stronghold during that conflict. While Platter was there, an uneasy peace prevailed between growing ranks of Protestants and the official religion. The University of Montpellier attracted numerous Protestant students (the city lay in the heart of the Languedoc, a center of resistance to the papacy from long before the Reformation), and Platter’s own mentor, the brilliant doctor Guillaume Rondelet, had ambiguous religious affiliations.

Day to day, these students kept their heads down in matters religious and went about mostly unmolested. Taking a vocal stand on theological controversies here would be to embark upon a different path than Thomas Platter had in mind for his son, for heretics were among the many executions Platter recounts in his journal.

Guillaume Dalencon, the boy learned, was a former priest of Mountauban, “unfrocked on the 16th of October” when it was discovered that he had gone Protestant and brought back heretical books from Geneva. “Dressed in his priestly robes, he was brought on to a platform before the bishop” for his defrocking. “After protracted ceremonies in Latin he was divested of his chasuble and the rest, and given secular clothing. Hishead was then shaved, and two fingers were cut off his hand. After this he was delivered to the civil justice and once more thrown into prison.” The secular power took it from there.

On the 6th of January Guillaume Dalencon, unfrocked eleven weeks before, and since then held in prison, was condemned to death. In the afternoon a man carried him on his shoulders out of the town towards the monastery, to the place of execution. A pyre had already been built there. Beind the condemned man two other prisoners walked, one a cloth shearer, in his shirt, with a bale of straw fastened to his back; the other of good appearance, and well dressed. Both of them had recanted and denied the true faith. [i.e., both had recanted Protestantism under the threat of execution. -ed.] Dalencon, however, sang psalms all the way. At he pyre, he sat down on a log and himself took off his clothes as far as his shirt, and arranged them beside him tidily, as though he would be putting them on again. He exhorted the other two, who were about to apostasize, so touchingly that the sweat stood out in great drops, as big as peas, on the forehead of the man in the shirt. When the monks, formed in a curve around him, and mounted on horseback, told him that it was time to make an end, he leapt joyously on to the pyre and sat down at the foot of the stake that rose in the center of it. This stake was pierced by a hole, through which ran a cord with a running noose. The executioner put the cord round Dalencon’s neck, tied his hands across his breast, and placed near him the religious books he had brought from Geneva. Then he set fire to the pyre. The martyr remained seated, calm and resigned, with his eyes raised towards heaven. When the fire reached the books the executioner pulled on the cord and strangled him; his head dropped to his breast and he made no further movement. Little by little the body was reduced to cinders. His two companions stood at the foot of the fire, where they were made to watch his sufferings, and could feel the heat of the flame.

After the execution they were both taken to the Hotel de Ville. Near there, in front of the church of Notre-Dame, a platform had been set up, with a statue of the Virgin on it, before which they would have to recant. The crowd had to wait for them for a long time. At last only one of the two men was brought out. The cloth shearer had refused to abjure and demanded that he should be executed without mercy for having failed his beliefs. He was therefore taken back to prison. The other man, who seemed to be a man of substance, was placed on his knees before the statue of the Virgin, with a lighted candle in his hand. A clerk read out various charges, to which he had to reply. In this way he saved his life, but he was sent to the galleys and there put in chains.

On the following Tuesday, the 9th of January, it was the turn of the cloth shearer again. He was strangled and burnt as the priest had been. He showed great courage, and no less repentance for having come so near to denying his faith. It had rained on that day, and the fire would not burn. The victim, who was not completely strangled, endured great suffering. At last the monks of the neighbouring monastery brought some straw, and the executioner took it and sent for oil of terebinth from my master’s pharmacy to ignite the fire. Afterwards I reproached the assistants who had given it to him, but they advised me to hold my tongue, for the same fate could befall me also, as a heretic.

During these affairs an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. On the 6th of January, immediately after the execution of the first man, it began to thunder violently. I heard it plainly and so did many others with me; but the priests deried us and said that it was the smoke from the burning of heretics that produced that effect.

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1554: David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius, Anabaptist martyrs

Add comment February 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Anabaptists David van der Leyen and Levina Ghyselius were burned at the stake in Ghent.*

Looks like it hurt.


In the year 1554, there was imprisoned at Ghent, in Flanders, for following Christ and living according to God’s commandments, a young brother named David, who, when examined, freely confessed his faith. Being asked what he thought of the sacrament, David said, that he considered it nothing else than idolatry. Then a priest said to him, “Friend, you err greatly, that you so readily confess your faith, for it will cost you your life, if you do not change your mind in time.” Thereupon David sweetly replied, “I am ready to shed my blood for the name of Christ, even though it should be here in this place; for God is my salvation, who will keep me, and preserve me from all evil.” The priest said, “It will not be as good as though you were put to death secretly here in this place; but you will be burnt publicly at the stake, for an everlasting reproach.” He was then brought into the court, where he was condemned to death, and his sentence was read, namely, that he had fallen from the true faith into heresy, and was therefore, according to the imperial edict, sentenced to be strangled and burned. David said, “No one will ever be able to prove by the Scriptures, that the faith for which I must now die is heresy.”

There was also sentenced to death with him a woman named Levina, who rather forsook, not only her six dear children, but also her temporal life, than her dear Lord and Bridegroom Jesus Christ. Arriving on the scaffold, David attempted to kneel down in order to offer up his prayer to God, but he was prevented, and they were immediately driven away to the stakes, standing at which, David said to Levina, “Rejoice, dear sister; for what we suffer here is not to be compared with the eternal good that awaits us.” (Rom. 8:18) When about to offer up their sacrifice, both exclaimed, “Father, into thy hands do we commend our spirits.” A little bag of gunpowder was tied to each of them, whereupon they were strangled and burned. But there happened a manifest miracle of God; for though they were completely burned, and the fire was as good as extinguished, David was seen to move his head, so that the people exclaimed, “He still lives.” The executioner seized the fork, and thrust it three times into his bowels, so that the blood flowed out; yet even after this he was still seen to move, hence, the executioner threw a chain around his neck, and bound him to the stake, and thus broke his neck.

Thus these two valiantly fought their way through, firmly trusting in God, who did not let them be confounded, since they had firmly built their building upon the only foundation; wherefore they shall never perish, but abide forever.

-Martyrs Mirror

* The very birthplace of the then-sitting Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

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1764: The Sirven family, in effigy

1 comment September 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1764, Pierre-Paul Sirven and his wife — who lay beyond the reach of the law, in Switzerland — were burned in effigy at Mazamet, France, for murdering their daughter.

The Sirvens actually had three daughters; the purported victim, Elisabeth, was mentally unbalanced. The Protestant Pierre-Paul Sirven had had a recent run-in with the Catholic hierarchy in his native Castres, when Elisabeth was shanghaied to a convent for Catholic indoctrination under a lettre de cachet.

The Sirvens moved away to Saint Alby, near Mazamet, but when Elisabeth turned up dead in a well there early in 1762, the official presumption was that her schismatic parents had done her in to prevent her returning to the true church. It could have been that she just fell down the well accidentally, or went and committed suicide; as often in such cases, investigations commencing from a suspicion of foul play are liable to find that suspicion self-affirming.

To make matters worse, all this transpired during the dangerous run-up to the execution of Jean Calas in Toulouse, another instance where a doubtful criminal case was pursued against a Protestant.

Wisely, the Sirvens (parents and two remaining daughters) blew town.

They made it to Switzerland, where they holed up with Voltaire. Back in Mamazet, the parents were condemned to death and the other two children to exile for participating in the purported murder of Elisabeth. “This judgment was equally absurd and abominable,” Voltaire wrote.

If the father, in concert with his wife, had strangled his daughter, he ought to have been broken on the wheel, like Calas, and the mother to have been burned — at least, after having been strangled — because the practice of breaking women on the wheel is not yet the custom in the country of this judge. To limit the punishment to hanging in such a case, was an acknowledgment that the crime was not proved, and that in the doubt the halter was adopted to compromise for want of evidence.

The death sentences — further compromised by the absence of their objects — were nevertheless carried out in effigy on September 11, 1764.

Meanwhile, Voltaire turned his pen to the service of the Sirven cause; a French pamphlet he wrote vindicating both the Sirvens and Calas can be perused here. (Deadly religious persecution in France kept Voltaire quite preoccupied in the 1760s.)

After spending the decade trying to clear the family name from abroad, Pierre-Paul Sirven sensed an opening to return and gave himself up in 1769. The anti-Protestant hostility of the early 1760s had cooled by this time; the Calas execution was widely regretted.

Pierre-Paul Sirven was officially tried and exonerated in 1771, leading Voltaire to remark,

It only took two hours to sentence a virtuous family to death and it took us nine years to give them justice.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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1533: John Frith and Andrew Hewet, Protestants

2 comments July 4th, 2010 Headsman

Life is all about timing.

Death too.

This date in 1533 saw John Frith and Andrew Hewet burned to ashes at Smithfield for Protestantism … just a week before Henry VIII himself was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

A Cambridge man who’d picked up some heresy in Lutheran Germany, Frith was a friend of William Tyndale and did a couple of turns in English prisons for his various transgressions of orthodoxy.

He was finally nabbed by a warrant of then-Chancellor Thomas More before he could escape to the continent, and hailed before a doctrinal court for sacramentarianism.

During his examination by the bishops, Frith stated that he could not agree with them that it was an article of faith that he must believe, under pain of damnation, that when a priest prayed during the mass, the substance of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, even though their appearance remained the same. And even if this was so, which he did not believe it was, it should not be an article of faith.

-Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

(Said transubstantiation hypothesis remains Catholic doctrine to this day, but at least it’s no longer worth your life to dispute it.)

All the pieces were in place for this radical theology to become orthodoxy over the succeeding generation. The newly-designated Archbishop of Canterbury — still for the moment within the Catholic fold — was reformer Thomas Cranmer. Despite his sympathy for a shared evangelical cause, Cranmer passed a guilty verdict after trying to talk Frith out of his belief. In the event, however, it was the Inquisitor who was converted: Cranmer over the course of the 1530s adopted Frith’s own view. He would eventually enshrine it in the Book of Common Prayer.

All of which, of course, was made possible by Henry’s insistence on ditching his first wife in favor of Anne Boleyn, and Cranmer’s support for that action. On July 11, both the king and his pliant prelate were excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.

Still, it must be allowed that this fact scarcely gave carte blanche to Protestant reformers in England. Maybe Frith was made for the flames regardless: as timing goes, the 1530s were great for religious martyrdom.

Andrew Hewet, our poor footnote, had no part in these august affairs save the victim’s. Hewet was a tailor’s apprentice who was just caught up with an anti-heretical accusation at the wrong time. In prison, he too refused to acknowledge transubstantiation — saying, “I believe as John Frith believes.” For so believing, he burned as Frith burned.

On this day..

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1535: Etienne de la Forge, John Calvin’s friend

Add comment February 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1535, as a 25-year-old religious dissident named John Calvin fled Paris, the merchant who had hosted his circle’s Protestant salons was reduced to ashes in Paris.

Though France would ultimately remain Catholic, the Protestant Reformation found rich soil and enjoyed a measure of early official tolerance for reasons of statecraft.

But a sharp crackdown was provoked when Protestants engineered the placement of anti-Catholic posters in several towns during a single night in October 1534 — the so-called Affair of the Placards.

This spelled the end of the circle of dissidents who met at the Rue Saint-Martin.* Young Calvin high-tailed it out of town — a period of wandering and living incognito that would wash him up on the shores of Lake Geneva — but the owner of that Rue Saint-Martin house, Etienne de la Forge (aka Stephanus Forgeus) was denounced to the authorities.

The date for this execution comes from The Century of the Renaissance, a public domain book available free from Google. It’s also backed in the roster of execution dates from Michelet’s Histoire de France. This looks to me as if it comes from primary documentation, but Feb. 15 is sometimes also reported.

* Calvin apparently had an appointment during this period in Paris to meet a scholar he would later execute, Michael Servetus, but the tete-a-tete never came off.

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

9 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

On this day..

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