1538: John Lambert, “none but Christ”

3 comments November 22nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date 470 years ago, John Lambert was burned to death at London’s Smithfield market for heresy.

One possible way to read the early progress of the English Reformation is as an initial flowering of Protestantism followed — after the execution of Anne Boleyn — by a reactionary crackdown by the monarch.

In this telling, John Lambert (born John Nicolson or Nicholson) marks the turning point, the man in whose blood Henry VIII etched his warning against doctrinal liberality.

John Lambert cooked his goose by picking a theological dispute with a pastor in London. He didn’t buy into transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine (still extant today) that the bread blessed on the altar became the literal body of Christ.

Though the Anglican church would ditch this belief soon thereafter, it came down hard on Lambert in a show trial attended by Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and all the Tudor big wheels whose heads were at that point attached to their shoulders.

The king himself — who here reminds one of the the stout defense of the sacraments that in his early Catholic period had earned him the papal honorific “defender of the faith” — debated theology with the accused, though mostly he left it to his august councilors.


John Lambert disputing before Henry VIII. Early 19th c. illustration.

But the crowned head made his doctrine as plain to the audience as the consequences of crossing it.

The pro-Lambert account from which this extract is drawn is available free on Google books:

At length [Lambert] was worn out with fatigue, having been kept five hours standing …

Night coming on, the King being desirous to break up this pretended disputation, said to Lambert, “What sayest thou now, after all this pains taken with thee, and all the reasons and instructions of these learned men? Art thou not yet satisfied? Wilt thou live or die? What sayest thou? Thou has yet free choice.” Lambert answered, “I yield and submit myself wholly unto the will of your Majesty.” Then said the King, “Commit thyself into the hands of God, and not unto mine.” Lambert replied, “I commend my soul unto the hands of God, but my body I wholly yield and submit unto your clemency.” Then said the King, “If you do commit yourself unto my judgment, you must die, for I will not be a Patron unto heretics.” And then turning to Lord Cromwell he said, “Cromwell, read the sentence of condemnation against him:” which was accordingly done.

A few months later, Henry induced Parliament to pass the Act of the Six Articles, essentially establishing Catholic doctrine — sans Pope, obviously — as the basis for the Church of England and criminalizing dissent.

What to make of this trial and the policy it represented is open to dispute. In a simple telling, Henry realizes his Reformation is running away from him, or becomes wise to discomfiting reforms that Cranmer or Cromwell are pushing. Too, the ebb and flow of Henry’s “Reformation” has sometimes been seen as a product of the shifting balance between reformers and conservatives advising the crown; Protestant martyrologist John Foxe favored this approach since it enabled him to celebrate a John Lambert without indicting the monarch by blaming advisors.

Lambert’s death is also sometimes interpreted in light of the international situation, as the Catholic powers of France and the Holy Roman Empire had made peace, potentially (along with Scotland) encircling England with Popish foes who might conceivably be less belligerent with a move towards traditional doctrine.*

But maybe that’s all a good deal more explanation than is needed for the old defender of the faith. G.W. Bernard’s consideration of The King’s Reformation argues that Lambert isn’t so pivotal after all:

[H]istorians who see … the trial of Lambert as some sort of turning point are greatly mistaken. There was absolutely nothing new in Henry’s policy in November 1538. Ever since radical — Zwinglian — notions on the mass had come to influence some within England, Henry had reacted firmly and boldly. This was not something that only came late in the 1530s, when he supposedly woke up to what Cromwell and Cranmer had been doing in his name but without his knowledge. It was there from the start. As early as March 1535 a proclamation fiercely denounced strangers who had presumptuously rebaptised themselves and who denied that the blessed and most holy sacrament of the altar was really the body of Christ. If there was a novelty in autumn 1538, it was the perception that such heresies were spreading through the realm and that heretics with a high profile, such as Lambert, needed to be dealt with publicly so that others might learn from their unhappy example. … Henry surely blasted against sacramentarians for the straightforward reason that he sincerely believed them to be wicked.

As for Lambert himself, he met an especially cruel version of the none-too-pleasant sentence of burning alive, allegedly being lifted by pikestaffs from the flame when his legs were burned off to prolong his suffering. He is said to have continued to call out the inspirational last words, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

* It was against this alliance that Cromwell would arrange the king’s ill-fated marriage to German princess Anne of Cleves, a debacle that helped Cromwell lose his own head.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1573: Wigbolt Ripperda, Haarlem city governor

2 comments July 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Wigbolt Ripperda was beheaded in Haarlem’s Grote Markt for having led a stubborn seven-month resistance to a Spanish siege.

Ripperda had been a Calvinist with a hand in the iconoclastic spasm against Catholic churches that had led to the beheadings of Counts Egmont and Hoorn a few years prior.

In the intervening years, relations between the Low Countries and the Spanish crown that ruled them had deteriorated into outright revolt — the germ of the decades-long struggle that would result in Dutch independence.

Haarlem had initially tried to keep its head down in the conflict, but had declared against Spain in 1572. That brought it into the sights of a vengeful Spanish army that greatly outnumbered Haarlem’s 4,000 defenders. Spurning any talk of compromise or capitulation, city governor Ripperda rallied his garrison and held out against the Spanish siege throughout the winter and spring.

In the end, starvation did the work that engines of war could not. Haarlem fell on July 12, 1573.*

Ripperda was beheaded with a lieutenant a few days later, but in winning the battle, Spain had suffered a setback in the war: besides the seven-month delay, other Calvinist strongholds took heart from the effective resistance and got a lot less cowed by the royal army.

While this day’s martyrdom made “Ripperda” a fixture in Haarlem place names, and despite a somewhat illustrious family tree that also includes a signatory of the Peace of Munster and a fascinatingly disreputable 18th century politician, actual Ripperdas are apparently hard to find in present-day Holland. According to American Tom Ripperda, who runs the family site ripperda.org, the name lives on only in the U.S. and Germany.

“In the 1830s the last of the Dutch Ripperdas died,” Ripperda told me. “There are no Ripperdas in the Netherlands since they moved to Germany (about 200 or so) and on to America (about 600 or so).”

* As to the vengeful mass executions visited on Haarlem, John Lothrop Motley conveys this anecdote.

Instead of Peter Hasselaer, a young officer who had displayed remarkable bravery throughout the siege, the Spaniards by mistake arrested his cousin Nicholas. The prisoner was suffering himself to be led away to the inevitable scaffold without remonstrance, when Peter Hasselaer pushed his way violently through the ranks of the captors. “If you want Ensign Hasselaer, I am the man. Let this innocent person depart,” he cried. Before the sun set his head had fallen.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,God,History,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain

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1684: Baillie of Jerviswood

Add comment December 24th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1684, the Scottish patriot Baillie of Jerviswood was convicted of treason and immediately executed, for his part in the Rye House Plot against the Stuart King Charles II.

Baillie was a lesser player in the Protestant scheme — whose nature and extent, or even existence, are matters of historical debate — supposedly to do away with the Catholic-leaning ruler and his outright catechumen brother and heir James. Baillie was implicated under torture, and while disowning any part of a conspiracy declined — “with striking truthfulness” — to deny a design on Scottish rebellion.

His summary hanging would enter the pantheon of English depravities in the north country, but he achieved another sort of immortality as well.

During an earlier stint in prison, a proscribed fellow patriot’s 12-year-old daughter had smuggled him messages — becoming acquainted with Baillie’s own son, whom she would eventually wed. The girl gained fame in adulthood as Lady Grizel (or Grisel, or Griselle) Baillie.

“Werena my Heart’s licht I wad dee”
-Lady Baillie

THERE ance was a may, and she lo’ed na men;
She biggit her bonnie bow’r doun in yon glen;
But now she cries, Dool and a well-a-day!
Come doun the green gait and come here away!

When bonnie young Johnnie cam owre the sea,
He said he saw naething sae lovely as me;
He hecht me baith rings and mony braw things—
And werena my heart’s licht, I wad dee.

The legendary tableau of intrigue between Baillie and his future daughter-in-law was itself fruit for literature, given time enough to ripen into legend. Kinswoman Joanna Baillie, one of the great litterateurs of the early 19th century, made use of the episode to open a lengthy ballad to Lady Grizel in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters:

I.
Within a prison’s hateful cell,
Where, from the lofty window fell,
Thro’ grated bars, the sloping beam,
Defin’d, but faint, on couch of stone,
There sat a pris’ner sad and lone,
Like the dim tenant of a dismal dream.
Deep in the shade, by low-arch’d door,
With iron nails thick studded o’er,
Whose threshold black is cross’d by those
Who here their earthly being close,
Or issue to the light again
A scaffold with their blood to stain,–
Moved something softly. Wistful ears
Are quick of sense, and from his book
The pris’ner rais’d his eyes with eager look,–
“Is it a real form that thro’ the gloom appears?”

II
It was indeed of flesh and blood,
The form that quickly by him stood;
Of stature low, of figure light,
In motion like some happy sprite;
Yet meaning eyes and varying cheek,
Now red, now pale, seem’d to bespeak
Of riper years the cares and feeling
Which with a gentle heart were dealing.
“Such sense in eyes so simply mild!
“Is it a woman or a child?
“Who art thou, damsel sweet? are not mine eyes beguiled?”

III
“No; from the Redbraes’ tower I come;
“My father is Sir Patrick Hume;
“And he has sent me for thy good,
“His dearly honour’d Jerviswood.
“Long have I round these walls been straying,
“As if with other children playing;
“Long near the gate have kept my watch
“The sentry’s changing-time to catch.
“With stealthy steps I gain’d the shade
“By the close-winding staircase made,
“And when the surly turnkey enter’d,
“But little dreaming in his mind
“Who follow’d him so close behind,
“Into this darken’d cell, with beating heart, I ventured.”

IV
Then from the simple vest that braced
Her gentle breast, a letter traced
With well-known characters, she took,
And with an eager, joyful look,
Her eyes up to his visage cast,
His changing countenance to scan,
As o’er the lines his keen glance past.
She saw a faint glow tinge the sicky wan;
She saw his eyes thro’ tear-drops raise
To heaven their look of silent praise,
And hope’s fresh touch undoing lines of care
Which stress of evil times had deeply graven there.
Meanwhile, the joy of sympathy to trace
Upon her innocent and lovely face
Had to the sternest, darkest sceptic given
Some love of human kind, some faith in righteous Heaven.

V
What blessings on her youthful head
Were by the grateful patriot shed,
(For such he was, good and devoted,
And had at risk of life promoted
His country’s freedom and her faith,
Nor reck’ning made of worldly skathe)
How warm, confiding, and sincere,
He gave to her attentive ear
The answer which her cautious sire
Did to his secret note require;–
How after this with ‘quiries kind,
He ask’d for all she left behind
In Redbraes’ tower, her native dwelling,
And set her artless tongue a-telling,
Which urchin dear had tallest grown,
And which the greatest learning shown,
Of lesson, sermon, psalm, and note,
And Sabbath questions learnt by rote,
And merry tricks and gambols play’d
By ev’ning fire, and forfeits paid,–
I will not here rehears, nor will I say,
How, on that bless’d and long-remember’d day,
The pris’ner’s son, deserving such a sire,
First saw the tiny maid, and did admire,
That one so young and wise and good and fair
Should be an earthly thing that breath’d this nether air.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,England,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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