1397: Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel

Add comment September 21st, 2017 Headsman

“Torment me not long, strike off my head in one blow”

-supposed last words of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to his executioner

On this date in 1397, the Earl of Arundel was condemned and immediately beheaded in London’s Cheapside.

Not to be confused with his grandfather, the Earl of Arundel* beheaded 71 years earlier for loyalty to his deposed king, our man Richard FitzAlan earned the chop for being a thorn in his king’s backside.

As one of England’s great magnates, Arundel had played a principal role for many years in the bloody struggle with King Richard II over power and prerogatives; he was one of the three original Lords Appellant whose rebellion against Richard brought about their “Merciless Parliament” in 1388, and its purge of royal loyalists.

Powerless at that time to impede the Lords Appellant, then-21-year-old King Richard quietly nurtured hatred of his foes for many years until he was in a position to really strike them. This was a delicate and a long-term business, but Richard’s bitterness proved equal to the revenge. In 1397, Richard finally — per Froissart — “decided upon a bold and daring move. He had reflected that it was better to destroy than to be destroyed and that speedy action could prevent his uncle from ever being a threat to him again.”

Said uncle was the Duke of Gloucester, another one (the senior one) of those difficult Lords Appellant. To conquer Gloucester required daring indeed: Richard lured him away from the considerable protection of his own retinue on the pretext of a hunting trip, and led him into an ambush where the Earl Marshal could arrest him undefended.

Needing now to stay ahead of the news, Richard flew for London to complete his counter-coup and the next day had Arundel arrested along with the other of the three original Lords Appellant, the Earl of Warwick. Mighty Gloucester had been spirited secretly to Calais to be murdered in prison; a more formal version of the same fate awaited Arundel.**

It may be said that the Duchess of Gloucester, with her son Humphrey and her two daughters, were naturally deeply distressed when their husband and father was brought home dead, and the Duchess had to suffer another blow when the King had her uncle. Earl Richard of Arundel, publicly beheaded in Cheapside, London. None of the great barons dared to thwart the King or dissuade him from doing this. King Richard was present at the execution and it was carried out by the Earl Marshal, who was married to Lord Arundel’s daughter and who himself blindfolded him. (Froissart, again)

* The Earl of Arundel rank still exists today as a courtesy title held by the Duke of Norfolk’s heir; it has existed nearly continuously since it was created in 1138 for a Norman nobleman.

** Warwick got enough political pull on his behalf to survive in captivity; he’d eventually be released when one of his Lords Appellant allies deposed Richard II and made himself King Henry IV … a feat that he accomplished with the aid of our Arundel’s younger brother, who also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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1401: William Sawtre, Lollard heretic

March 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1401, Lollard priest William Sawtre(y) was burned at Smithfield for heresy — the first known heresy execution in England.

The highlight of late 14th century English literature, Piers Plowman, was a great favorite of Lollards. Though this lengthy allegorical poem is not itself a Lollard text, it spawned a Piers Plowman tradition with many spinoffs that are overtly Wycliffite.

Witness Wycliffe, who told them the truth;
For in good nature he greatly warned
To mend their wickedness and sinful works.
Who these sorry men damned his soul
And overall lolled him with heretics’ works!

-Piers Plowman’s Creed*

Sawtre was a follower of John Wycliffe, the Biblical translator and church reformer 16 years dead as we lay our scene.

Wycliffe anticipated much of Luther’s later critique of the Catholic Church. His call to study Scripture directly without the intercession of doctors in Rome touched a spiritual thirst; his summons to apostolic poverty for the wealthy vicars of Christ was a message with a ready audience.

“From about 1390 to 1425, we hear of the Lollards in all directions,” notes this public domain history, “so that the contemporary chronicler was ale to say that of every two men found on the roads, one was sure to be a Lollard.”

Lollardy did not immediately manifest as an outlaw movement; it had many adherents among England’s elites and even the royal household. Although the papacy had declared various Wycliffe doctrines heretical in that prelate’s time, England had shown little appetite for calling an Inquisition — a step that would project papal authority into the kingdom.**

But with a ferocious ecclesiastical pushback and a change in the occupancy of the throne,† the English state gradually shifted over the course of the 1390s and 1400s towards recognizing Wycliffe’s principles as heresy — and towards treating that heresy into a capital crime. Through spectacles like Sawtre’s burning, Lollards were gradually made to understand that the price of their scruples might run all the way to martyrdom.

This was novel territory for English jurisprudence, and part of a centuries-long European transition towards treating doctrinal dispute as capital crime. There are only a bare handful of alleged quasi-precedents in English history, sketchily documented — like the unnamed apostate deacon burnt to ashes for Judaizing. It was only as late as William Sawtre that Old Blighty clearly established the practice and legal machinery for putting men and women to death for heresy.

Many Lollards capitulated as they came under pressure. This was true of our man Sawtre, a humble parish vicar. When put to questioning by the bishop in 1399, Sawtre initially recanted his unorthodox skepticism as to the transubstantiation of communion bread into Christ’s own literal body — a doctrinal mystery that would be a tougher and tougher sell to dissidents yet to come.

But upon moving from Lynn to London where he served at St. Osyth’s, Sawtre relapsed — and some stirring moved his soul to vindicate himself in the face of mortal peril.

Charged before Parliament, Sawtre now defended his heresies under close questioning by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel. Arundel was even then pressuring this same Parliament for a statute, which he did indeed soon receive — one with the ominous title De Heretico Comburendo, at last elevating heresy to a death penalty offense and making the bishops themselves the decisive arbiters on the matter. It is overtly and all-but-explicitly aimed at the Lollards.

divers false and perverse people of a certain new sect, of the faith of the sacraments of the church, and the authority of the same damnably thinking and against the law of God and of the Church usurping the office of preaching, do perversely and maliciously in divers places within the said realm, under the color of dissembled holiness, preach and teach these days openly and privily divers new doctrines, and wicked heretical and erroneous opinions contrary to the same faith and blessed determinations of the Holy Church, and of such sect and wicked doctrine and opinions they make unlawful conventicles and confederacies, they hold and exercise schools, they make and write books, they do wickedly instruct and inform people, and as such they may excite and stir them to sedition and insurrection, and make great strife and division among the people, and other enormities horrible to be heard daily do perpetrate and commit subversion of the said catholic faith and doctrine of the Holy Church …

the diocesans of the said realm cannot by their jurisdiction spiritual, without aid of the said royal majesty, sufficiently correct the said false and perverse people, nor refrain their malice, because the said false and perverse people do go from diocese to diocese and will not appear before the said diocesans…

[let] none within the said realm or any other dominions subject to his Roval Majesty, presume to preach openly or privily, without the license of the diocesan of the same place first required and obtained, curates in their own churches and persons hitherto privileged, and other of the Canon Law granted, only except; nor that none from henceforth anything preach, hold, teach, or instruct openly or privily, or make or write any book contrary to the catholic faith or determination of the Holy Church, nor of such sect and wicked doctrines and opinions shall make any conventicles, or in any wise hold or exercise schools; and also [let] none from henceforth in any wise favor such preacher or maker of any such and like conventicles, or persons holding or exercising schools, or making or writing such books, or so teaching, informing, or exciting the people, nor any of them maintain or in any wise sustain, and that all and singular having such books or any writings of such wicked doctrine and opinions, shall really with effect deliver or cause to be delivered all such books and writings to the diocesan of the same place within forty days from the time of the proclamation of this ordinance and statute.

Any Lollard not so complying could be arrested on the say-so of the diocesan bishop and tried for the offending heterodoxy; if convicted, the clergy was then empowered to hand the unfortunate fellow over to the civil authorities who were obliged to carry out an execution without any further inquiry or say-so. Judge, jury, and (virtually) executioner … the same as the guy waiting for you in the confessional.

[I]f any person … do refuse duly to abjure, or by the diocesan of the same place or his commissaries, after the abjuration made by the same person be pronounced relapsed, so that according to the holy canons he ought to be left to the secular court … [then] after such sentence promulgate shall receive, and them before the people in an high place cause to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others, whereby, nosuch wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions, nor their authors … be sustained or in any way suffered.

With such wicked doctrine and heretical and erroneous opinions afoot Sawtre was not suffered to live even the enactment of the law that killed him: De Heretico Comburendo was passed only on March 10, but Sawtre was eight days’ dead by that point. It’s a bit unclear how the sentence was legally effected, but it would seemingly have proceeded under canon, not civil, law.

Both the law and the execution were great victories for the Church. “The king and the archbishop hurried to burn their victim to show that they could send a heretic to the stake whenever they wished, without relying on statute” Leonard Williams Levy writes. “Parliament could neither give nor take the authority to burn a heretic. If the scepter supported the miter, canon law prevailed.”

Be that as it may, the victims of the Lollard-burning period were not nearly so numerous as the chilling language of De Heretico Comburendo might lead one to anticipate. The next Lollard to go to the stake was John Badby in 1410; two merchants were executed in 1415, and the Lollard rebel John Oldcastle was burnt “gallows and all” in 1417. Another handful suffered in the 1420s. It’s thought that about 50 people overall (Lollards and otherwise) were executed as heretics from the enactment of De Heretico Comburendo until Henry VIII broke with Rome 133 years later — an occasion that made heresy-hunting a whole different animal.

* My artless rendering from the Middle English version given in D.A. Lawton in “Lollardy and the ‘Piers Plowman’ Tradition”, The Modern Language Review, Oct. 1981.

** Despite overall caution about the authority of Rome onto Albion’s soil, the English had no overall principled rejection of Inquisitors as such: they convoked such a tribunal to deal with Joan of Arc.

† The political situation in the realm was also been a factor: the usurper Henry IV had taken the crown only in 1399 by deposing, and later murdering, King Richard II. One readily supposes Henry’s keen interest in shoring up the loyalty of the church and keeping tabs on itinerant rabble-rousers, the latter of whom appear to have disproportionately skewed towards Richard’s faction. (All those heretics in the king’s household were in Richard’s household.)

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1330: Edmund of Woodstock, family man

Add comment March 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1330, the king’s half-brother Edmund of Woodstock lost his head for treason.

Edmund was the youngest son of Edward I. That patrimony didn’t come with a throne attached, but hey, you could do a lot worse than Earl of Kent.

You could do a lot better too, though, if you had royal blood.

According to the chronicle Vita Edwardi Secundi, Edmund (or possibly the middle brother Thomas) was intended by his father for the more august and lucrative earldom of Cornwall.* But Edward I died when Edmund and Thomas were young boys, and “his sad death prevented what would have been appropriate from being consummated.” Instead, the heir-turned-king Edward II stiffed flesh and blood to hand Cornwall to his notorious favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Edmund seemed to get over the slight and generally had the king’s back during the turbulent 1320s.

However, after fighting for his brother’s interests in France, he found himself there in Paris in 1325-26 with Edward’s French Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer just as that couple set about plotting their rebellion.

Edmund joined their circle, took part in their invasion of England, and sat on the tribunal that condemned the deposed king’s new notorious favorite, Hugh Despenser, to death. As the price for his support, Isabella and Mortimer fulfilled the cash pledges Edward I had long ago made to the boy.

His attitudes and allegiances appear ambiguous during the unsteady years of Isabella and Mortimer. Whatever his acquiescence — whatever his payoff — he had little real affection for the new master and mistress of the realm.


Edmund’s end in 1330 touches a sensitive historical controversy.

Of a sudden, the Earl of Kent became convinced that his brother Edward II was being held at Corfe Castle and resolved to liberate him. He attempted to pass a letter to the captive king — a letter that proved quite enough to incriminate him when it was intercepted by Roger Mortimer. (Mortimer might have baited him into writing it in the first place.)

Worships and reverence, with a brother’s liegeance and subjection. Sir knight, worshipful and dear brother, if you please, I pray heartily that you are of good comfort, for I shall ordain for you, that you shall soon come out of prison, and be delivered of that disease in which you find yourself. Your lordship should know that I have the assent of almost all the great lords of England, with all their apparel, that is to say with armour, and with treasure without limit, in order to maintain and help you in your quarrel so you shall be king again as you were before, and that they all – prelates, earls and barons – have sworn to me upon a book.

What’s really queer about this isn’t so much the volte-face on whether Edward ought to rule: it was the fact that Kent had actually attended Edward II’s funeral in 1327.

How could Edmund think a guy he saw buried would read his letter three years later? Was the funeral a sham? Did Edward survive his (conventionally accepted) 1327 death/murder in captivity? Edward II blogger Kathryn Warner, who calls Edmund “a brave man who tried to do the right thing”, thinks so. She makes the case in a four-part series on the Earl of Kent’s conspiracy here:

Fortunately for your humble narrator, mere headsmen are not called upon to adjudicate such controversies. Our job is just to cut whose head we’re told. Although in Edmund’s case, even that couldn’t go to plan: the poor guy was parked outside the walls of Winchester for the whole day of March 19th before someone could finally be found to give him the chop. It was a condemned prisoner who obtained his own release by turning executioner. (Source)

Later that same year of 1330, Edmund’s 17-year-old nephew Edward III — in whose name the usurpers Isabella and Mortimer ruled — mounted a palace coup to take his reign into his own hands.

With that turn of fortune, Mortimer found himself in the executioner’s clutches, and Edmund was posthumously rehabilitated. Edmund’s daughter Princess Joan — the “Fair Maid of Kent”, and in Froissart’s estimation, “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving” — married Hundred Years War hero Edward, the Black Prince. Among the children Joan bore Edward was the eventual King Richard II.

* Infinitely more lucrative: the Earldom of Kent was a newly re-created title that had last been used 50 years before. It came initially with no estates or income at all.

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1400: Sir Thomas Blount, “bowels burning before him”

2 comments January 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1400, Sir Thomas Blount was drawn and quartered at Oxford.

He was a loyalist of the latterly deposed (and soon to be murdered) Richard II. Blount took part in the Epiphany Rising plot against the usurper Henry IV.

The chronicles supply an unusually graphic and detailed description (pdf) of this horrible manner of death. (Paragraph breaks have been added for readability.)

The King [Henry IV] commanded his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Erpingham, to have justice executed upon the lords who were taken prisoners, and to put them all to death, except a young knight whom he had dubbed the Saturday before his coronation, whom the King pardoned for rising in arms against him, on account of his youth and noble lineage.

Sir Thomas Blount and Sir Benet [Shelley] were drawn from Oxford unto the place of execution, a long league or more, and there they were hung; they then cut them down and made them speak, and placed them before a long fire. Then came the executioner with a razor in his hand, and kneeling down before Sir Thomas Blount, who had his hands tied, begged his foregiveness [sic] for putting him to death, for he was obliged to perform his office.

‘Are you he,’ said Sir Thomas, ‘who will deliver me from this world?’

The executioner replied, ‘Yes, my lord; I beg you to pardon me.’

The lord then kissed him and forgave him.

The executioner had with him a small basin and a razor, and kneeling between the fire and the lords, unbuttoned Sir Thomas Blount, and ripped open his stomach and tied the bowels with a piece of whipcord that the breath of the heart might not escape, and cast the bowels into the fire.

As Sir Thomas was thus seated before the fire, his bowels burning before him, Sir Thomas Erpingham said, ‘Now go and seek a master who will cure you.’

Sir Thomas Blount placed his hands together, saying, ‘Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the hour when I was born, and blessed be this day, for I die this day in the service of my sovereign lord King Richard.’

After he had thus spoken, Sir Thomas Erpingham asked him, ‘Who are the lords, knights, and esquires who are of your accord, and treason?’

To which the good knight replied, suffering as he was, ‘Art thou the traitor Erpingham? Thou art more false than I am or ever was; and thou liest, false knight as thou art; for, by the death which I must suffer, I never spake ill of any knight, lord, or esquire, nor of anybody in the world; but thou utteredst thy false spleen like a false and disloyal traitor; for by thee, and by the false traitor the Earl of Rutland [who ratted out the conspiracy], the noble knighthood of England is destroyed.

‘Cursed be the hour when thou and he were born! I pray to God to pardon my sins: and thou traitor Rutland, and thou false Erpingham, I call you both to answer before the face of Jesus Christ for the great treason that you two have committed against our sovereign lord noble King Richard, and against his noble knighthood.’

The executioner then asked him if he would drink.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you have taken away wherein to put it, thank God’! and then he begged the executioner to deliver him from this world, for it did him harm to see the traitors.

The executioner kneeled down, and, Sir Thomas having kissed him, the executioner cut off his head and quartered him; and he did the same to the other lords, and parboiled the quarters. And in Oxford castle many other knights and esquires were beheaded.

Thomas Erpingham doesn’t exactly exude charm in this account, going out of his way to bust on a guy having his entrails ripped out. But good guys and bad guys are a matter of perspective: Erpingham’s loyal service to the new dynasty got him a complimentary bit part in Shakespeare’s Henry V (Erpingham fought at Agincourt). Shakespeare’s young King Harry calls him his “Good old Knight”.

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1388: Three evil counselors of Richard II

Add comment May 12th, 2012 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

5 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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1400: John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon

4 comments January 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1400, English aristocrat John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon and (formerly) Duke of Exeter, lost his head for the Epiphany Rising.

John Holland’s coat of arms.

Half-brother to (and staunch ally of) Richard II, the violent John Holland prospered during the king’s acme in the 1390s. A variety of lucrative posts accumulated as honoraria for Holland’s exertions in the military and political fields.

Most memorably, Holland helped in 1397 to destroy the leaders of the Lords Appellant, who in 1388 had clipped the king’s wings with a successful revolt. Within days of the murder of Thomas of Woodstock and the execution of Richard FitzAlan, Holland was elevated to Duke of Exeter.

Nice work if you can get it.

Unfortunately for “Exeter”, a fellow Lord Appellant named Henry Bolingbroke was about to successfully depose Richard II, and style himself Henry IV.

Holland’s loyalty to the former King Richard, now held under lock and key, became distinctly impolitic.

Having been dispossessed of the Exeter title, earned by service the new sovereign did not consider meritorious, John Holland got in on a plot to kidnap Henry IV during a tournament at Windsor … which devolved, when Henry found out about it, into an abortive rising with a number of executions. Richard FitzAlan’s sister (also Henry IV’s mother-in-law) had the satisfaction of ordering Holland’s beheading at Pleshy Castle, Essex.

Holland’s loyalty to Richard II ultimately did them both in: because the Epiphany Rising so graphically illustrated the danger that a living rival claimant posed to Henry IV, the king had his imprisoned predecessor murdered behind dungeon walls that February.

And of course, while that act secured Henry’s throne, Bolingbroke could never entirely chop his way to uncontested legitimacy: the rival successions of Henry IV and Richard II came to blows decades later in the War of the Roses. (Much to the profit of this site.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1401: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, an army marching on his stomach

3 comments October 9th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

It was on this day that a Welsh squire, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, was gruesomely executed for thwarting the efforts of King Henry IV’s forces to squelch Welsh resistance to English rule.

First, the man’s stomach was cut out and cooked in front of him. Then, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

The torturous execution took several hours before he succumbed to death. Then, a grisly postscript: his salted remains were sent to other Welsh towns to deter Welshmen from opposing the king.

Rewind to October, 1399.

Henry IV has been crowned King of England after overcoming the unpopular Richard II. Henry had his predecessor imprisoned and killed, then displayed at St. Paul’s Cathedral to prove to his supporters that he was gone.

Little surprise much of Henry’s reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. One rebellion? That of Owain Glydwr, who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400.

This didn’t sit well with the new king. Armed men were sent out to find this treasonous Welshman. Found them they did, though perhaps they wished they hadn’t. In the summer of 1401, on the slopes of Pumlumon, Owain Glydwr crushed Henry’s army. This, too, did not sit well with the king.

Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp’d in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?

-Glendower (Glyndwr) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I

Henry then led a huge army, arriving in Llandovery, to capture this meddling countryman prince.

It was here that the English military met a 60-year-old man. A land owner from Caeo, his name was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan and the English army strongly suggested he assist them in helping locate Owain Glydwr. Llywelyn agreed.

Little did the English know, as they chased Glyndwr, that Llywelyn was taking them in the wrong direction.

He had two sons, did this Llywelyn, in Owain’s army. Though he knew he’d undoubtedly pay the ultimate sacrifice, he would not betray the Welsh people and his own family but leading the English king to the insurrectionists.

And so he led the English army on a wild goose chase.

For weeks Llywelyn lead the king and his forces through the uplands of Deheubarth. All the while Owain and his men made their escape the opposite direction to consolidate, grow, and fortify.

The king’s patience became taxed. He began to see that Llywelyn was not taking them to their man.

Angrily, the king drug Llywelyn to the town of Llandovery. In front of the castle gates, there in the town square, he was disemboweled and dismembered. Though Glyndwr’s war of liberation fizzled out, Owain was never captured nor betrayed.

Fast forward to the year 2001.

600 years after Llywelyn’s execution, a sculpture is erected. Standing 16 feet tall, erected by the castle he died in front of, is a statue of a cloaked figure, spear and shield in hand, atop a stone base inscribed with Welsh verse.

It is he, Llywelyn, commemorating his ultimate sacrifice.



Llywelyn’s striking steel statue stands watch over Llandovery. Images (c) Canis Major and stused with permission.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wales,Wartime Executions

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1388: Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London

1 comment February 20th, 2010 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

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1388: Robert Tresilian, former Chief Justice

2 comments February 19th, 2010 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Treason

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