1196: William FitzOsbert, medieval rebel

Add comment April 6th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1196, William FitzOsbert was torn from church sanctuary and hanged for one of medieval London’s most famous rebellions.

The setting is an England of King Richard I, meaning an England with an absentee king levying heavy taxes on his putative home realm to bankroll his foreign adventures. In reviewing the period’s Pipe Rolls, Doris Stenton remarked that they “give the impression of a country taxed to the limit.” Certainly the laboring classes believed themselves squeezed past dry, for “more frequently than usual,” in the words of the contemporary chronicler Roger of Hoveden, “aids to no small amount were imposed upon them, and the rich men, sparing their own purses, wanted the poor to pay everything.”

Our man FitzOsbert (or Fitz Osbert) was an educated lawyer who had been on Crusade with the occulted king, a fellow distinguished in appearance by his facial hair — “Longbeard” was his nickname — and in his manner by an evident grant of charisma. A later historian judges him “sharp of wit and some deal lettered; a bold man of speech, and sad of his countenance, and took upon him greater deeds than he could wield.”

As this interesting article on FitzOsbert notes, tax collection was a communal endeavor organized in local neighborhoods and wards, where neighbors assessed one another’s means: they naturally invited class friction. Longbeard apparently had a talent for catalyzing it; according to William of Newburgh — another contemporary, and a far more hostile witness than Roger of Hoveden —

At length, by his secret labors and poisoned whispers, he revealed, in its blackest colors to the common people, the insolence of the rich men and nobles by whom they were unworthily treated; for he inflamed the needy and moderately wealthy with a desire for unbounded liberty and happiness, and allured the many, and held them fascinated, as it were, by certain delusions, so closely bound to his cause, that they depended in all things upon his will, and were prepared unhesitatingly to obey him as their director in all things whatsoever he should command.

A powerful conspiracy was therefore organized in London, by the envy of the poor against the insolence of the powerful, The number of citizens engaged in this plot is reported to have been fifty-two thousand — the names of each being, as it afterwards appeared, written down and in the possession of the originator of this nefarious scheme. A large number of iron tools, for the purpose of breaking the more strongly defended houses, lay stored up in his possession, which being afterwards discovered, furnished proofs of a most malignant conspiracy. Relying on the large number who were implicated by zeal for the poorer classes of the people, while he still kept up the plea of studying the king’s profit, he began to beard the nobles in every public assembly, alleging with powerful eloquence that much loss was occasioned to the revenue through their dishonest practices …

this man, bent upon his object, and surrounded by his rabble, pompously held on his way, convoking public meetings by his own authority, in which he arrogantly proclaimed himself the king or savior of the poor, and in lofty phrase thundered out his intention of speedily curbing the perfidy of the traitors.

The pride of his discourses is plainly shown by what I have learned of a trustworthy man, who asserted that he himself had some days before been present at a meeting convened by him, and had heard him address the people. Having taken his text or theme from the Holy Scriptures, he thus began: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” [Isaiah 12:3] — and applying this to himself, he continued, “I am the savior of the poor. Do ye, oh, poor! who have experienced the heaviness of rich men’s hands, drink from my wells the waters of the doctrine of salvation, and ye may do this joyfully; for the time of your visitation is at hand. For I will divide the waters from the waters. The people are the waters. I will divide the humble from the haughty and treacherous. I will separate the elect from the reprobate, as light from darkness.”

As FitzOsbert gained a wide following among commoners, the authorities — in this case led by the Archbishop of Canterbury/Crown Justiciar (same guy) Hubert Walter, since the vagabond king had returned to the continent and his beloved wars — feared an outbreak of civil war and moved to suppress the emerging rebel. When Hubert’s men attempted to arrest FitzOsbert, he escaped with his closest followers to St. Mary-le-Bow church. Fearing the consequences of a prolonged standoff that would permit this tribune of the people to rally an insurrectionary defense, the Archbishop gave no regard to sanctuary and “attacked with fire and smoke” this house of god until FitzOsbert was forced from its precincts. (And the steeple destroyed by fire.)

Yet even his death at Smithfield on April 6th — dragged “through the centre of the city to the elms, his flesh was demolished and spread all over the pavement and, fettered with a chain, he was hanged that same day on the elms with his associates and died” — was not his end, for the popular militant immediately ascended to the ranks of folk sainthood. William of Newburgh, again:

The extent to which this man had by his daring and mighty projects attached the minds of the wicked to himself, and how straitly he had bound the people to his interests as the pious and watchful champion of their cause, appeared even after his demise. For whereas they should have wiped out the disgrace of the conspiracy by the legal punishment of the conspirator, whom they stigmatized as impious and approved of his condemners, they sought by art to obtain for him the name and glory of a martyr. It is reported that a certain priest, his relative, had laid the chain by which be had been bound upon the person of one sick of a fever, and feigned with impudent vanity that a cure was the immediate result. This being spread abroad, the witless multitude believed that the man who had deservedly suffered had in reality died for the cause of justice and piety, and began to reverence him as a martyr: the gibbet upon which he had been hung was furtively removed by night from the place of punishment, in order that it might be honored in secret while the earth beneath it, as if consecrated by the blood of the executed man, was scraped away in handfuls by these infatuated creatures, as something consecrated to healing purposes, to the extent of a tolerably large ditch. And now the fame of this being circulated far and wide, large bands of fools, “whose number,” says Solomon, “is infinite,” and curious persons flocked to the place, to whom, doubtless, were added those who had come up out of the various provinces of England on their own proper business to London.

The idiot rabble, therefore, kept constant watch and ward over the spot; and the more honor they paid to the dead man, so much the greater crime did they impute to him by whom he had been put to death.

Hubert Walter was eventually obliged to set guards at this shrine to chase away its pilgrims and forcibly suppress the emerging cult.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Heresy,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason

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1693: Francis Winter, at the Whitefriars sanctuary

Add comment May 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1693, Francis Winter was executed for the murder of a London sheriff.

Winter’s hanging takes us back to the last days (in England) of a queer old institution: sanctuary. Dating to centuries before the Norman conquest, this privilege of holy places to confer legal immunity upon fugitives was well into its dotage. In principle and sometimes in practice, a fellow could once upon a time frustrate the pursuit of the law by reaching such a sanctuary. However, most legally recognized sanctuaries had been eliminated with the Reformation.

Among the last of their breed was a dubious district between Fleet Street and the Thames, known as Whitefriars after the Carmelite monastery that had also germinated its zone of sanctuary. Though the Carmelites had been expelled in the 16th century and the right of sanctuary for criminals abolished in general during the 1620s, still Whitefriars held onto this association through the 17th century, gradually accumulating civil refugees such as debtors and an accompanying red light district bustling with taverns, brothels, thieves, and other accoutrements of the urban underbelly.*

This interesting place would come to be nicknamed “Alsatia”, tribute to the continental frontierlands between France and Germany which was controlled at the time by neither and thus perceived as lawless, and its reputation earned a literary profile to match: playwright Thomas Shadwell had a 1688 hit with his cant-heavy** portrayal of Whitefriars rogues (with evocative names like Cheatley, Shamwell, and Scrapeall) in The Squire of Alsatia.


Whitefriars retained its shady reputation long after the end of sanctuary: In William Hogarth‘s 1747 Industry and Idleness prints, the gallows-bound “Idle ‘Prentice” is seized by the authorities at a dive in the district’s Hanging Sword Alley. (Meanwhile, a murdered body is dumped into the cellar in the background.)

By this late date, “sanctuary” was a fading custom and was for that reason defended all the more vigorously by its claimants — all of whom shared a desperate interest in the crown’s maintaining a hands-off policy in “Alsatia”.

“The libertines, the rogues, and the rascals, who frequented its purlieus and committed abuses and outrages on peaceable citizens, made it a notorious place of criminal resort,” one history observes. “Bailiffs and officers of the law were afraid to enter its precincts to serve warrants or make executions.”

Our man Francis Winter was one of these fugitives bold enough to strike fear into the officers of the law.

In 1691, the Temple attempted to seal a gate connecting to Whitefriars. The Alsatians resisted this impediment to their movement, and when sheriffs showed up to control the situation the resistance turned into an outright riot. A lawman named John Chandlor was fatally shot in the fray.

This near-insurrection was far too much disturbance for a state whose tolerance for an open thieves’ district was very near its end. After some months evading arrest, Francis Winter would hang on May 17, 1693 for leading the angry mob. (He may or may not have personally pulled the trigger that killed Chandlor; given the chaotic situation, even contemporaries weren’t sure about it.)

Winter was a Cornish former ship’s captain who had commanded a vessel in England’s war against the Dutch a generation earlier; according to the Newgate Ordinary, Winter had then “behaved himself with a great deal of Candor and Courage.” Financial ruin later in life had driven him to Whitefriars where evidently he still retained the knack for leadership. Despite his offense against the public peace, Winter earned the Ordinary’s regard for accepting his sentence with pious equanimity.

Perhaps in respect for this frame of mind — or more probably, the better to orchestrate the demonstrative spectacle of an execution at the very gates of Whitefriars — Winter was reprieved from a May 8 mass hanging at Tyburn by Queen Mary II. (King William III was away, warring on France.) Then, upon the 17th,

he was put into a Coach at Newgate Stairs, and from thence Conveyed down Old Baily, and over Fleet-Bridge, to the Fryars Gate, in the way to which place, there were several Thousands of Spectators, who thronged to see him, when the Cart was settled under the Gibbet, and he put into it, (which was Erected there on purpose) he stood up, and spake as follows: I have no Publick Declaration to make here, my Thoughts being wholly taken up in the Concerns of my Eternal Welfare, for that is the Work that I am come here to do: Therefore I desire that I may not be interrupted. Then the Minister Prayed with him, and for him, and Recommended him to the Mercy of God, Etc.

The right of sanctuary was fully abolished in 1697.

* One notable denizen was the writer Daniel Defoe, who sought relief from his debts in Whitefriars in 1692.

** Including such charmers as “ready, cole and rhino for money; putt for one who is easily cheated; clear for very drunk; meggs for guineas; smelts for half-guineas; tatts and the doctors for false dice.” (Jonathon Green, The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang) One can read the play here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Rioting

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1486: Humphrey Stafford of Grafton, no sanctuary

1 comment July 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1486,* the knight Humphrey Stafford was executed at Tyburn.

Stafford had backed the wrong horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field that settled the Wars of the Roses, and fled thence to the Quasimodo-like sanctuary of a parish.

He had a couple of years to cool his heels and work his rosary while the new king, Henry VII, set about securing a reign of dubious legitimacy. One cunning strategem: Henry had his late rival’s supporters (like our friend Stafford) attainted of treason without actually taking action on those attainders, maintaining continuity with the ancien regime while dangling a Damoclean sword over the head of any lord who might step out of line again in the future.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 1486, the already-attainted Stafford emerged from his holy confines to throw the dice on a minor rebellion that never got off the ground. As the whole thing descended into fiasco, Stafford fled back to sanctuary at Culham.


A cozy but ill-fortified sanctuary: St. Paul’s at Culham. Image (c) Rex Harris and used with permission. (Mr. Harris says the church as pictured is a Victorian-era rebuild.)

Henry broke the asserted sanctuary to haul his man off consecrated grounds.

This was a bit of a sticky wicket, juridically, and Henry’s own judges proceeded very cautiously with it — ultimately holding that sanctuaries proceeded from the common-law grant of the king, and specifically that sanctuary may not be pleaded for instances of treason. There’s more about all this in this Google books freebie, which adds the interesting detail that the Pope himself did not fight this interpretation — assenting in a papal bull later that year to a much-circumscribed view of ecclesiastical refuge:

  1. Where a sanctuary man got out of sanctuary and committed mischief and trespass, he lost the benefit of sanctuary although he returned to it.
  2. The goods of no sanctuary men were to be protected from their Creditors.
  3. If any man took sanctuary for case of treason, the King might appoint keepers to look after him in sanctuary.

“The Rebellion of Humphrey Stafford in 1486” by C. H. Williams in The English Historical Review, April 1928 — a JSTOR article that seems like it must be in the public domain even if it’s not yet covered by that institution’s free content bloc — is virtually the only semi-detailed source on this affair that’s readily available. Williams’s pithy conclusion: “Henry’s policy towards Stafford and his party was definite enough. Like all problems of statecraft of that period the rebellion ‘was so handled that neither prerogative nor profit went to diminution.'”

* The date is asserted here and here, among other places, although upon what primary authority I have not been able to determine.

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