1450: Jack Cade posthumously quartered

Add comment July 16th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date in 1450 the body of the rebel Jack Cade was posthumously beheaded and quartered.

He’s one of England’s first names in rebellion, and Cade’s Kentish rising indexed England’s catastrophic breakdown under the weak king Henry VI, a milepost between the waning Hundred Years’ War and the onrushing Wars of the Roses.


Panel of a 1964-1965 ceramic mural in Peckham, by Polish artist Adam Kossowski. (cc) image from Peter Gasston.

And for all of these, Cade included, Henry was the chaos-making variable.

He had just about finished squandering the entire French patrimony so gloriously won for him by the sword-arm of his doughty father Henry V, and defeated troops fleeing French advances in Normandy compounded, as they tramped up the southeast beaten and looting, the general fury at the king’s unpopular marriage to the French princess Margaret of Anjou. With shambolic governance allied to a slumping economy, corrupt taxation, and mounting public debt, things were coming unglued.

Like many kings, Henry benefited from the instinct to target overt blame away from the sovereign himself and towards the aides and counselors who surround him. One of the very most hated of those counselors was the man who had negotiated that French marriage — giving away to the French crown the hard-won provinces of Anjou and Maine as its price. William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was so near to being attainted or lynched around London that King Henry exiled him for his own safety to France. But Suffolk didn’t make there: instead, he was captured at sea and murdered.

When his body washed up in Kent, rumors seem to have anticipated a royal reprisal against that region and in favor of the late hated favorite, perhaps the trigger for the events in this post.

Nevertheless, the “rebels” did not conceive themselves engaged in a seditious enterprise; this is apparent from the manifesto of grievances it issued, with moderating tones and language echoing complaints that the Commons was raising to no avail in Parliament.

Item. The law serves of nought else in these days but for to do wrong, for nothing is spread almost but false matters by colour of the law for reward, dread and favour and so no remedy is had in the Court of Equity in any way.

Item. We say our sovereign lord may understand that his false council has lost his law, his merchandise is lost, his common people is destroyed, the sea is lost, France is lost, the king himself is so set that he may not pay for his meat nor drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought, for daily his traitors about him where anything should come to him by his laws, anon they take it from him.

Item. We will that all men know we blame not all the lords, nor all those that are about the king’s person, nor all gentlemen nor yeomen, nor all men of law, nor all bishops, nor all priests, but all such as may be found guilty by just and true inquiry and by the law.

Item. We will that it be known we will not rob, nor plunder, nor steal, but that these defaults be amended, and then we will go home …

The man at the forefront is a cipher: he went by the potent alias of “John Mortimer”, the surname unmistakably linking his cause to the rival royal claimants over at the the House of York, but neither the name of “Jack Cade” by which history recalls his movement nor the antecedent experiences that thrust him into leadership can be attested with any confidence.

He appears by the half-glimpses we catch of him in the period’s chronicles to be a vigorous and intelligent character. He shied away from battle with a royal army, wisely avoiding the taint of treason that would come with entering the field against the king’s own person; but, it was an organized withdrawal that left his forces capable of ambushing and destroying the detachment from that army that the king had sent to pursue them, a testament to Cade/Mortimer’s adroit command.

Panicked when the news of this reversal resulted in his own forces taking up the rebels’ call to punish traitorous lords, King Henry beat feet for the safety of Kenilworth Castle and abandoned the stage of London to this mysterious new character.

The rebel militia seized it on the third of July that year, visiting its promised popular justice in the process upon several of those “false counsellors” detested among the populace — including the Bishop of Salisbury, the Baron Saye and Sele, and the former sheriff of Kent, William Cromer; Shakespeare gives us a bloody-minded* Cade bantering with his prey Saye and Sele in Henry VI, Part 2 — “Ye shall have a hempen caudle, then, and the help of hatchet … Go, take him away, I say, and strike off his head presently; and then break into his son-in-law’s house, Sir James [sic] Cromer, and strike off his head, and bring them both upon two poles hither.”


Charles Lucy, “Lord Saye and Sele brought before Jack Cade 4th July 1450″

Peasant risings like these are made for eventual failure, but it the unusually high water mark achieved by Cade’s rebellion before receding makes another measure of the crown’s weakness. After ceding the Kentishmen the run of London for several days, it took a desperate nighttime battle on London Bridge to finally push them out.

A general amnesty went abroad to induce the rebels to disperse, but it was not for Cade — who fled to Sussex where he was taken, and mortally wounded in the process, by the new sheriff of Kent, Alexander Iden. (A road called Cade Street now runs in the vicinity; there is a monument to his capture in Heathfield.) It was Cade’s good fortune to succumb to his injuries on the journey back to London but the pains of justice were inflicted upon his remains just the same.

Cade died on Sunday, July 12. The precise date for his posthumous disgrace is not certain from the sources available to us. Many writers report July 15, seemingly based on John Benet’s chronicle, which is a strong source and asserts the 15th unambiguously. I’m here guardedly preferring the 16th based on Gregory’s Chronicle, whose authors were clearly Londoners, and who narrated the progress of the week following Cade’s death with specificity.

And that day was that fals traytoure the Captayne of Kentte i-take and slayne in the Welde in the countre of Sowsex, and uppon the morowe he was brought in a carre alle nakyd, and at the Herte in Sowetheworke there the carre was made stonde stylle, the wyffe of the howse myght se hym yf hyt were the same man or no that was namyd the Captayne of Kente, for he was loggyd whythe yn hyr howse in hys pevys tyme of hys mys rewylle and rysynge. And thenne he was hadde in to the Kyngys Bynche, and there he lay from Monday at evyn [i.e., Monday, July 13] unto the Thursseday nexte folowynge at evyn [Thursday, July 16]; and whythe yn the Kynges Benche the sayde captayne was be-heddyde and quarteryde; and the same day i-d[r]awe a-pon a hyrdylle in pecys whythe the hedde by-twyne hys breste from the Kyngys Benche thoroughe owte Sowthewerke, and thenne ovyr Londyn Brygge, and thenne thoroughe London unto Newegate, and thenne hys hedde was takyn and sette uppon London Brygge.

Cade’s is the rebellion that gets the ink, but several other uprisings in the South of England followed in the months ahead … ill omen for the king who would soon experience the ruin of his reign and family.

The History of England podcast covers Jack Cade’s rebellion in Episode 161.

* It is one of Cade’s subalterns in this play who supplies posterity with the immortal quip, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

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1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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1415: Thomas Grey, Southampton Plotter

Add comment August 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1415, about to set sail from Southampton for the invasion of France that would define his reign, King Henry V favored the Bargate with the beheading of Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry V at this moment was just two years on the throne, the son of a usurper who had deposed and murdered Richard II. That he was now off to venture his life in the field, leaving no wife or child, could have placed his line with but a small mischance in the way of extinction.

The Southampton Plotters had a mind to be that small mischance.

Their idea was to topple King Henry in favor of Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March — who had been Richard II’s heir presumptive at the time Richard was deposed, and whose claim to the throne should have preceded that of Henry’s own family were such matters decided by lawyers alone.

Henry’s coup d’etat and the aspirations thereafter descending respectively from Henry IV and from Richard II were the dynastic font of the Wars of the Roses. Those wars occurred well after the events of today’s post but the opposing factions were already now beginning to wend their ways towards Bosworth Field.

Mortimer was a seven-year-old when Richard was dethroned. He grew up in confinement, albeit honorably treated. Despite his family’s understandably rocky relationship with the new regime, Mortimer himself didn’t cross Henry V, and Henry guardedly admitted him first to his liberty and then to the privileges his rank entailed.

Although Mortimer was rapped over the knuckles for a disapproved marriage, he had never yet ventured any apparent act of treason. By appearances, the Southamptom Plot might have been the moment he went all the way to the brink and then chickened out, for it was Mortimer himself who (without admitting any involvement) personally finked out the plan to King Henry on August 1, 1415. All three of its principal authors spent that very night in the dungeons: Henry, Baron Scrope, a longtime friend and confidante of the king; Richard, Earl of Cambridge, a somewhat impoverished peer of the realm; and our man, the knight Sir Thomas Grey.

Henry gratefully agreed to the pretense that this plot had been a terrible surprise to Mortimer and pre-emptively pardoned him of any taint arising from it.

Gray, the only commoner in the bunch, went on trial the very next day, which was a Friday — and his sentence was executed before suppertime.

The two lords were able to insist on a trial by their peers, which bought them only the weekend: an ample quorum of lords was conveniently on hand preparing to embark for France with the king. They too were condemned that Monday, and like Grey they proceeded straight from court to the block.*

Duly satisfied, Henry sailed for France on the 11th.

And that was that … for the time being.

In gratitude for keeping his own head, Edmund Mortimer kept that head down for the few years remaining him before he died, childless. Cambridge’s young son Richard would eventually inherit not only his father’s claims but also those of his uncle, the Duke of York (slain at Agincourt) and those of Mortimer too, Voltroning his various heritages into a mighty estate. This Richard, Duke of York would bear Mortimer’s rival regal claim into posterity and eventually captain the Yorkist (of course) side at the outset of the Wars of the Roses. His sons were the Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III.**

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a rather brief interlude in Act 2, Scene 2 introduces and disposes of the Southampton conspirators before Hal weighs anchor for Normandy where he will come of age by executing his buddy and then butchering the French on St. Crispin’s Day. (Shakespeare unfairly positions the Southampton plotters as traitors bought by French gold and entirely omits the role of Mortimer, who is not a character in the play at all.)


Trumpets sound. Enter KING HENRY V, SCROOP, CAMBRIDGE, GREY, and Attendants

KING HENRY V

Now sits the wind fair, and we will aboard.
My Lord of Cambridge, and my kind Lord of Masham,
And you, my gentle knight, give me your thoughts:
Think you not that the powers we bear with us
Will cut their passage through the force of France,
Doing the execution and the act
For which we have in head assembled them?

SCROOP

No doubt, my liege, if each man do his best.

KING HENRY V

I doubt not that; since we are well persuaded
We carry not a heart with us from hence
That grows not in a fair consent with ours,
Nor leave not one behind that doth not wish
Success and conquest to attend on us.

CAMBRIDGE

Never was monarch better fear’d and loved
Than is your majesty: there’s not, I think, a subject
That sits in heart-grief and uneasiness
Under the sweet shade of your government.

GREY

True: those that were your father’s enemies
Have steep’d their galls in honey and do serve you
With hearts create of duty and of zeal.

KING HENRY V

We therefore have great cause of thankfulness;
And shall forget the office of our hand,
Sooner than quittance of desert and merit
According to the weight and worthiness.

SCROOP

So service shall with steeled sinews toil,
And labour shall refresh itself with hope,
To do your grace incessant services.

KING HENRY V

We judge no less. Uncle of Exeter,
Enlarge the man committed yesterday,
That rail’d against our person: we consider
it was excess of wine that set him on;
And on his more advice we pardon him.

SCROOP

That’s mercy, but too much security:
Let him be punish’d, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.

KING HENRY V

O, let us yet be merciful.

CAMBRIDGE

So may your highness, and yet punish too.

GREY

Sir,
You show great mercy, if you give him life,
After the taste of much correction.

KING HENRY V

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ‘gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us? We’ll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished. And now to our French causes:
Who are the late commissioners?

CAMBRIDGE

I one, my lord:
Your highness bade me ask for it to-day.

SCROOP

So did you me, my liege.

GREY

And I, my royal sovereign.

KING HENRY V

Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours:
Read them; and know, I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will aboard to night. Why, how now, gentlemen!
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?

CAMBRIDGE

I do confess my fault;
And do submit me to your highness’ mercy.

GREY, SCROOP

To which we all appeal.

KING HENRY V

The mercy that was quick in us but late,
By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d:
You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy;
For your own reasons turn into your bosoms,
As dogs upon their masters, worrying you.
See you, my princes, and my noble peers,
These English monsters! My Lord of Cambridge here,
You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appertinents
Belonging to his honour; and this man
Hath, for a few light crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practises of France,
To kill us here in Hampton: to the which
This knight, no less for bounty bound to us
Than Cambridge is, hath likewise sworn. But, O,
What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? thou cruel,
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,
Wouldst thou have practised on me for thy use,
May it be possible, that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger? ’tis so strange,
That, though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it.
Treason and murder ever kept together,
As two yoke-devils sworn to either’s purpose,
Working so grossly in a natural cause,
That admiration did not whoop at them:
But thou, ‘gainst all proportion, didst bring in
Wonder to wait on treason and on murder:
And whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence:
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colours, and with forms being fetch’d
From glistering semblances of piety;
But he that temper’d thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason,
Unless to dub thee with the name of traitor.
If that same demon that hath gull’d thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions ‘I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman’s.’
O, how hast thou with jealousy infected
The sweetness of affiance! Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou: seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou: come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou: seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnish’d and deck’d in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practises!

EXETER

I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Richard Earl of Cambridge.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Henry Lord Scroop of Masham.
I arrest thee of high treason, by the name of
Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland.

SCROOP

Our purposes God justly hath discover’d;
And I repent my fault more than my death;
Which I beseech your highness to forgive,
Although my body pay the price of it.

CAMBRIDGE

For me, the gold of France did not seduce;
Although I did admit it as a motive
The sooner to effect what I intended:
But God be thanked for prevention;
Which I in sufferance heartily will rejoice,
Beseeching God and you to pardon me.

GREY

Never did faithful subject more rejoice
At the discovery of most dangerous treason
Than I do at this hour joy o’er myself.
Prevented from a damned enterprise:
My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign.

KING HENRY V

God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence.
You have conspired against our royal person,
Join’d with an enemy proclaim’d and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death;
Wherein you would have sold your king to slaughter,
His princes and his peers to servitude,
His subjects to oppression and contempt
And his whole kingdom into desolation.
Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death:
The taste whereof, God of his mercy give
You patience to endure, and true repentance
Of all your dear offences! Bear them hence.

Exeunt CAMBRIDGE, SCROOP and GREY, guarded

Now, lords, for France; the enterprise whereof
Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.
We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously hath brought to light
This dangerous treason lurking in our way
To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen: let us deliver
Our puissance into the hand of God,
Putting it straight in expedition.
Cheerly to sea; the signs of war advance:
No king of England, if not king of France.

Exeunt

* The History of England podcast deals with this in episode 144 (skip to 26:48).

** And, their irritating and rebellious brother George, whom Edward had drowned in a butt of malmsey.

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Unspecified date: Mariotto Mignarelli, proto-Romeo

Add comment March 21st, 2016 Headsman

On a never-specified date in 15th century Siena, the tragic lover Mariotto Mignarelli was beheaded in Masuccio Salernitano‘s story Mariotto and Ganozza — the apparent wellspring (via an English interlocutor) for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.

In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”


These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …

“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.


Fortune’s fool …

“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)

“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”

It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.

The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.

He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.

Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”

This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.

Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.

So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.

Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”


Prokofiev’s unwilling balletic finale

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1613: Matthäus Enzlin, fallen favorite

Add comment November 22nd, 2015 Headsman

German jurist Matthäus Enzlin was beheaded in Urach on this date in 1613.

Way back in 1514, a need of funds and political support to crush a popular rebellion had forced the Duke of Wurttemberg to conclude with his realm’s patrician class the Treaty of Turbingen — a sort of Magna Carta delineating for elite Wurttembergers a formal role in governance and protection of their rights.*

It was at the University of Tübingen many decades later that Enzlin (German Wikipedia link; most of the succeeding links in this post are to German pages) matriculated as a brilliant young lawyer.†

The new Duke of Wurttemberg from 1593, Friedrich I, elevated Enzlin to his Chancellor. This worldly and well-traveled** Friedrich sported a cutting-edge appreciation for the dawning Age of Absolutism and chafed at the shackles that his predecessor’s treaty had weighted him with. Whatever was a prince for, if not to rule?

Enzlin was game to do this prince’s will.

Enzlin’s legal expertise had been of service to Friedrich since the latter’s pre-Wurttemberg position as Count of Montbeliard, and Friedrich trusted him as his Kammersekretar — a sort of personal privy councilor who could advise the prince and help to work his will upon the annoying (to Friedrich) Wurttemberg polity. He became openly referred to as cor et os principis: the heart and the mouth of the prince.

This also meant that Enzlin gained the enemies of the prince who, since Friedrich was an overweening and aggressive ruler, numered not a few. For instance, according to Ronald Asch in The World of the Favourite (much of the research in this post derives from his essay), Enzlin when he fell copped a corruption charge because

Duke Friedrich had begun to channel an increasingly large share of his revenues not through the Treasury but through his privy purse. Large sums of money from this source were devoted to the purchase of manors, villages and whole lordships from the impoverished nobility living beyond the borders of the duchy or were used to provide these noblemen with loans and mortgages in the hope that they would have to cede their property to the duke, should they fail to repay the money. Enzlin was apparently the duke’s principal agent in these rather complicated and somewhat shady financial transactions, in which Jewish moneylenders and merchants were frequently employed as brokers. Thus large sums of money went through Enzlin’s hands.

Hungry for power as well as real estate, the duke was also able to attain with Enzlin’s help a modification of that obnoxious Treaty of Turbingen in 1607: this required dissolving the Diet, manipulating the election of the next one, and all kinds of arm-twisting.

It was, Asch says, “another triumph for Enzlin, who had been responsible for the negotiations” … but the triumph was mitigated by Friedrich’s death months later.

Inheriting power was a 26-year-old named Johann Friedrich who sympathized with the traditional prerogatives of his subjects (in his time, he voluntarily gave back to the Estates some of the powers his father had wrested from them). To the policy side of his Oedipal complex, add the personal: dad kept many mistresses for himself, and kept tight purse-strings for his boy. How many times must Johann Friedrich have seen or imagined Enzlin at his father’s elbow, counseling some fresh humiliation for the whelp? How many incensed Wurttemberg grandees must have whispered the picture in his ear?

The favorite was jailed within months on the corruption charges stemming from his part in the land-aggrandizement slush fund, charges that he was forced to admit under threat of torture. The ex-consigliere and his ex-duchy struck an uneasy bargain: there’d be no official charge, no death sentence, and he would stay under lock and key, disappearing like the Man in the Iron Mask.

Perhaps rating his lawyer’s wiles too highly, Enzlin broke this understanding by having his wife and children† appeal to the imperial authorities — employing the very safeguards of the Treaty of Turbingen which he had so diligently worked to abrogate. Brazenly but accurately, Enzlin pointed out that he had not been brought to trial for any charge. And he made the politically explosive argument that jailing ministers of state for the service they rendered their masters would compromise the entire authority of princes everywhere in the Holy Roman Empire.

Faced with the imminent success of the suit, Wurttemberg called his bluff and brought him immediately to trial and thence the scaffold for the peculation he had been blackmailed into admitting, enhanced now to outright treason. (This is why one should never talk to police.)

German speakers can also grab public-domain sketches of Enzlin’s career from a number of 19th century books available online, such as this and this.

* As one of Europe’s seminal constitutional contracts, the Tübinger Vertrag received 500th anniversary treatment in 2014.

** Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was written for a 1597 Knights of the Garter investiture ceremony. Because Duke Friederich (after a 1592 visit to England) had repeatedly petitioned Queen Elizabeth for this honor, he was inducted on this occasion — but without being notified in time to attend, so that the English court “would not have to put up with him”. As a result, Merry Wives had some in-jokes for its first audience about an absent German duke. Though mostly excised from the play’s subsequent public performance versions, a few traces of them remain, such as this allusion in act 4, scene 3:

Bardolph. Sir, the Germans desire to have three of your
horses: the duke himself will be to-morrow at
court, and they are going to meet him.

Host. What duke should that be comes so secretly? I hear
not of him in the court.

† Enzlin married young and had seven children. He has a stupendous progeny down to the present day but not all have been so solicitous of the powerful as he — witness Gudrun Ensslin.

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1483: Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

Add comment November 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded at Salisbury for rebelling against Richard III.


Shakespeare’s treatment of Buckingham’s death in Richard III:

“Why, then All-Souls’ day is my body’s doomsday.
This is the day that, in King Edward’s time,
I wish’t might fall on me, when I was found
False to his children or his wife’s allies

Come, sirs, convey me to the block of shame;
Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame.”

Buckingham — Henry Stafford by name — resided firmly in the 1% of the 1% for 15th century England: a dangerous neighborhood since the War of the Roses was afoot, felling noblemen hither and yon. (Henry Stafford became the Duke of Buckingham as a toddler when his father was mortally wounded at the Battle of St. Albans.)

Our Buckingham could count five Kings of England among his close relations; he himself was married right into Edward IV‘s household when he was wed at age 10 to Catherine Woodville, the seven-year-old sister of the commoner-queen Elizabeth Woodville. That made Buckingham uncle to the two sons and possible heirs of Edward IV.

But every family has its black sheep. Buckingham wasn’t keen on the Woodvilles despite his presence on their Christmas card list, and when King Edward died relatively young in 1483, Buckingham backed the succession in power not of the Woodvilles, but of Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester — the man who indeed became king as Richard III.

Technically, Richard started out as Lord Protector on behalf of the boy-king Edward V and his little brother Richard, before he had the twerps declared illegitimate and disappeared them in 1483 into the Tower of London. Buckingham himself is one of the lead suspects for the man who urged or even carried out the murder of these Princes in the Tower.

The prospect that Buckingham’s alliance with Richard III extended all the way to regicide makes quite curious the former’s turn later that same year to rebellion — for as Thomas More would write, “hereupon sone after [the murder of the princes] began the conspiracy or rather good confederacion, between ye Duke of Buckingham and many other gentlemen against [Richard III]. Thoccasion wheruppon the king and the Duke fell out, is of divers folks diverse wyse pretended.”

Buckingham’s right to the marquee of the autumn 1483 “Buckingham’s Rebellion” has been doubted, for leadership of the various uprisings in southern England and Wales appears to belong to those “other gentlemen” of the gentry.

“Buckingham’s” rebellion was easily defeated but it augured a much deeper threat to Richard’s crown than one peer’s enmity — for the rebellion declared in favor of Henry Tudor, a last-gasp, exiled Lancastrian claimant descended from a Welsh courtier.

Buckingham himself was captured, condemned as a traitor, and publicly beheaded at Salisbury on November 2, 1483. He was one of numerous principals in the rising to go to the scaffold, but Henry’s cause continued to accumulate adherents — until not two years later, Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

In Shakespeare’s treatment, the ghost of the executed Buckingham aptly appears to Richard III on the eve of this climactic moment of English history to prophesy his former ally’s defeat:

The last was I that helped thee to the crown;
The last was I that felt thy tyranny:
O, in the battle think on Buckingham,
And die in terror of thy guiltiness!
Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death:
Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath!

Buckingham left a five-year-old heir, Edward Stafford, who was spirited into hiding, away from the vengeful King Richard. This third Duke of Buckingham would in the fullness of time grow to to be executed by Henry Tudor’s son, Henry VIII.

The History of England podcast covers this gentleman in detail in episode 189.

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1483: Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers

1 comment June 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, was beheaded with his nephew Sir Richard Grey and royal chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan at Pontefract Castle.*

These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.

This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.

But while heads were still attached to shoulders, Woodville employed his in literary pursuits: he’s credited with publishing (via the pioneering English printer William Caxton) some of the very first books in English: Earl Rivers’s own translation into “right good and fayr Englyssh” of Jean Mielot‘s Cordyale, or Four last thinges (image); and, the 1477 Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, another Rivers translation that he knocked out while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It’s distinguished as the first English printed book that dates itself (November 18, 1477).


Earl Rivers presents Edward IV with the fruits of movable type.

But for sure, circa Regna tonat — especially here during the long-running War of the Roses for control of the English throne.

The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)

After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.

But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

-Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act 1, Scene 3

The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.

Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.

Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.

Glories are fleeting. Two years later, Richard III was unhorsed, too.

“I dye in right, beware you dye not in wrong.”

-Purported last words of Sir Thomas Vaughan

* There are some citations equivocating on Vaughan’s precise death-date. Yet another man, Sir Richard Haute (Hawte) is also sometimes numbered a fourth in the doomed party; however, a man of this name took part in Buckingham’s Rebellion against King Richard III, and received a pardon in 1485.

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1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Add comment February 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1601, Queen Elizabeth’s last great favorite became the last man beheaded in the Tower of London.

Vain and dashing Robert Devereux rolled into the royal court in 1584 around age 19 and immediately established himself as the new favorite of the monarch, 30-some years his senior. They spent long walks and late nights in enchanted private company, and Devereux “commeth not to his owne lodginge tyll the birdes singe in the morninge.” Ye olde walke of shayme.

In becoming the (presumed) lover* of the aging Virgin Queen, the Earl of Essex was only following the family** trade: his stepfather Robert Dudley was the younger Elizabeth’s longtime intimate.

It is up to the artists to postulate the relative measures of passion and cynicism in these dalliances; many have tried, inspired by the scaffold sundering of one of history’s great May-December affairs. The Essex-Elizabeth drama was a popular topic for broadsides, ballads, and stage treatments from the 17th century to the present day.


Benjamin Britten put the Elizabeth-Essex romance into opera in Gloriana, based on Lytton Strachey’s popular book.

He was wildly popular in London, but Essex was also afflicted by the follies of youth. Rash, temperamental, vainglorious; he aspired to leverage the favor of his sovereign into statesmanship and he achieved heroic repute for his swashbuckling raid on Cadiz.

Yet Essex reads like a whelp who never quite grew into a man’s boots. Every sketch of Essex includes, because it seems so starkly illustrative of his unstable character, the story of the time his impertinence led the queen to box his ears publicly — and the hothead’s hand flew instinctively to his sword-hilt. Everyone reconciled over this brush with lese-majeste, but only after Essex scribbled some skulking reproaches (“What, cannot princes err? cannot subjects receive wrong? is an earthly power or authority infinite?”) that he had the petulance to actually send to Elizabeth.

The less mercurial Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who was the son of Elizabeth’s earliest close advisor and the protege of her spymaster, was just two years Essex’s senior but smoothly outmaneuvered the loverboy in their mutual pursuit of England’s Secretaryship of State.†

Essex chased martial glory with mixed results. His last great enterprise was an ill-starred 1599 offensive in Ireland to bring Gaelic rebels to heel in the Nine Years’ War.

Not for the last time an Englishman found this conquest more easily aspired than achieved. Essex liberally overused his authority to knight men as a reward for their service, but his soldiers mostly slogged to and fro with little headway to show for it. After a frustrating campaign season chasing his tail, Essex defied the increasingly strident directives to attack issuing from Elizabeth’s irate pen, and made terms with the Irish commander Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. Then he defied Elizabeth’s order to remain in Ireland and hastened back to London to justify himself. It was said of him that he “never drew sword but to make knights.”

This was the beginning of Essex’s end. Elizabeth’s fury at the aimless military campaign was compounded when her churlish captain turned up from Ireland unbidden and burst into her private chambers while she was still dressing to report on his unauthorized summit. Cecil et al, whose ascendance Essex had meant to reverse with the triumph of his arms, now murmured that the earl had strayed near outright treason to parley with the rebel whom he was supposed to be routing. The Privy Council put him under house arrest.

Heaped in debt and deprived of the prestigious proximity to power he had enjoyed literally throughout his adulthood, the man’s turbulent spirit stirred strangely in York House. We have seen that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was a man to abhor an indignity even past the point of self-preservation. He unwisely sent secret missives to try to turn the ongoing succession negotiations‡ against Robert Cecil; when the Privy Council caught wind of this intrusion, he refused its demand that he present himself to account for his actions. Instead, he made matters worse by mounting a pathetic march through London with his supporters.

This “Essex Rebellion” was meant to rally the citizenry to him and turn some sort of coup against Robert Cecil. It seems so foolhardy and ill-considered that it’s difficult to think what was in the earl’s head. If you squint at it just so, it perhaps had a big-R Romantic quality, a gallant band of brothers saving the nation from its duplicitous ministers; the night before the rebellion, Essex (a liberal arts patron in his time) splurged to have William Shakespeare’s company§ stage a special performance of Richard II — a play wherein the English monarch is deposed. Presumably this was his inspirational pregame speech.

Thinking much more clearly than Essex, Londoners vigorously ignored his summons and the marching party trudged alone — and surely increasingly frightened — through the city until it was stopped by a barricade. Its participants then fled back to Essex House where they soon found themselves surrounded.

Whatever the fancy that led the Earl of Essex on his fatal February 8 march, and whatever the extent of his ambitions for that occasion, the careless threat to the public peace went several bridges beyond a boyish foible that Elizabeth could overlook in her impulsive courtier. He was prosecuted for treason within days and Elizabeth signed his death warrant on February 20th. The only mercy extended the ex-favorite was to suffer the noble execution of beheading, rather than a traitor’s drawing and quartering. Essex also successfully appealed for a private execution within the walls of the Tower, away from the gawks of those London masses who had so signally failed to rebel along with him.

On the specially built wooden platform, Essex favored his select audience with a bog-standard execution-day mea culpa:

My sins are more in number than the hairs on my head. I have bestowed my youth in wantonness, lust and uncleanness; I have been puffed up with pride, vanity and love of this wicked world’s pleasures. For all which, I humbly beseech my Saviour Christ to be a mediator to the eternal Majesty for my pardon, especially for this my last sin, this great, this bloody, this crying, this infectious sin, whereby so many for love of me have been drawn to offend God, to offend their sovereign, to offend the world. I beseech God to forgive it us, and to forgive it me — most wretched of all.

He prayed a Psalm. Then, stretching out his neck on a low block and thrusting his arms from his sides, he bid the headsman strike. The executioner had to oblige his patient in triplicate in order to sever the puffed-up head.

The Earl of Essex has the distinction of being the last person beheaded on the Tower Green, within the walls off the Tower of London — the last name on the little placard of headless notables photographed by tour groups. Note that Essex was not the last person beheaded at the Tower, when the adjacent Tower Hill is included (that distinction belongs to Jacobite rebel Simon Fraser); nor was he the last person executed within the Tower (that distinction belongs to World War II spy Josef Jakobs, who was not beheaded but shot).

Weary and depressed, Elizabeth died little more than two years afterwards.

* There’s a mind-bending speculative hypothesis out there — cousin to the Shakespeare-focused Prince Tudor theory — that Essex was actually Elizabeth’s secret, illegitimate son. This secret history is obviously more congenial with the queen’s early favoritism for Essex than with her eventually chopping off his head.

** Essex was also a distant cousin of Elizabeth herself: his maternal great-grandmother was Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn — who was Elizabeth’s mother.

Walter Raleigh was a notable Cecil ally in this factional conflict. Raleigh attended Essex’s execution … and, of course, shared that fate many years afterwards.

‡ Elizabeth was nearing age 70; her childless death was imminent. James VI of Scotland was being vetted by Robert Cecil as the successor. Essex tried to stick his thumb in the pie by warning James that the Cecil faction would conspire to foist the English crown on the Spanish infanta — daughter of the Spanish king who had been the Catholic Mary Tudor’s husband. (The infanta was not Mary’s own daughter.) This was no idle threat, as at this point it was only a few years since the Spanish Armada had sallied for English seas.

§ Another noteworthy Shakespeare connection: one of the participants in the Essex Rebellion was the Earl of Southampton (he was spared execution). Southampton, whose given name was Henry Wriothesley, is often identified as the “Fair Youth” to whom Shakespeare dedicated numerous love sonnets. (Some of those are directly addressed to a Mr. “W.H.”)

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1441: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye

5 comments October 27th, 2014 Headsman

There was a Beldame called the wytch of Ey,
Old mother Madge her neyghbours did hir name
Which wrought wonders in countryes by heresaye
Both feendes and fayries her charmyng would obay
And dead corpsis from grave she could uprere
Suche an inchauntresse, as that tyme had no peere

On this date in 1441, a Westminster folk magician went to the stake.

The “Witch of Eye” had meddled with powers beyond her control — not the Satanic for which her sentence condemned her, but those of the royal court.

This local wise woman had been arrested as a sorceress once a number of years before. But medieval Europe, before the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the attendant gloom of existential danger from within, was usually not eager to pursue a local shaman for serving a community’s demand for everyday magick — just so long as the charms and incantations purveyed were not being turned to any apparently injurious purpose. The Witch of Eye, Margery Jourdemayne by name, spent several months imprisoned in Windsor Castle and was released with a pledge to stop with the hocus-pocus.

In her fatal last affair this broken promise would augur very ill. But barring that extraordinary case, this was actually one of those little social regulations that could usually just be ignored in the breach. Our cowherd’s wife returned to purveying salves, potions, and elixirs, perhaps a bit more quietly.

Despite her humble rank, the Witch of Eye seems to have enjoyed a sizable client base among the great lords and ladies.

Such august persons of course had interests outside of love tonics. At the start of the 1440s, the royal court was absorbed by the affairs of the teenage king Henry VI.

In Late June of 1441, three servants of Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester were accused of compassing the death of the king by using astrological divination to forecast the date of his death — which looked especially treasonable since the result reported is supposed to have been soon.

Though a Peerress by marriage, Eleanor was only the daughter of a knight. A sort of proto-Anne Boleyn, she had raised herself (and not a few eyebrows) by starting off as a lady in waiting of the Duke’s previous wife, and (once dynastic machinations sent that Duchess packing for her native Low Countries) advancing herself into the master’s bed.

A cultivated humanist, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester gave every impression of having found a satisfying domestic union — but Eleanor’s social-climbing set her up for some resentment. It was even said by a chronicle, laying a retrospective interpretation on events, that only occult arts could account for Eleanor’s boudoir triumph:

And this same tyme was take a womman callid the wicche of Eye, whoos sorcerie and wicchecraft the said dame Alienore hadde longe tyme usid; and be suche medicines and drynkis as the said wicche made, the said Alienore enforced theforsaid duke of Gloucestre to love her and to wedde her.

The rank of the figures involved elevated such gossip beyond the courty’s everyday rumor-mongering.

Humphrey had claimed the Regency for a brief period before Henry VI declared his own majority in 1437, at age 16. More than that, Humphrey was the most senior uncle to the unmarried* Henry, which made him the heir presumptive. He was a heartbeat away from having the crown on his own head.

And that made it a very colorable accusation that Eleanor’s servants — and those henchmen soon accused Eleanor herself, too — took interest in the prospective imminent death of a king in the springtime of his youth.**

Henry’s alarmed response was twofold. First, he commissioned a horoscope reading of his own; no surprise, this improved horoscope predicted a long, healthy life.† Second, he kicked off the judicial processes that would ruin all concerned — although some ruinations were more final than others.

The servants pointed the finger at Eleanor, and the Duchess desperately fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. This proved not to help her that much when an ecclesiastical court handed down charges of witchcraft and heresy. One of Eleanor’s three busted cronies, Roger Bolingbroke, had already been forced to publicly abjure his devilries amid a display of his necromancing tools.

Just as Bolingbroke claimed that “he wroughte the said nygromancie atte stiryng of the forsaid dame Alienore, to knowe what sholde falle of hir and to what astat she sholde come,” Eleanor implicated her old magic-vendor, the Witch of Eye for building some of the illicit charms. By now it was pratically beside the point that Eleanor said Bolingbroke’s damning wax figurines were meant to inflict children upon Eleanor rather than injury upon His Majesty. Margery Jourdemayne had shaped the wretched dolls, and nobody caught in the storm of charges had less pull than she. Plus, of course, she was now a repeat offender.

How she in waxe by counsel of the witch,
An image made, crowned like a king,
… which dayly they did pytch
Against a fyre, that as the wax did melt,
So should his life consume away unfelt.

Condemned by a court presided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was burned at Smithfield.

Two of the three courtiers died violently, too: Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn, and quartered on November 18, while Thomas Southwell died suddenly in prison around the time of Jourdemayne’s execution. He might have poisoned himself. The third man, John Home, was only shown to have known what his fellows were up to and not to have taken part himself: he skated on a royal pardon.

The Duchess of Gloucester did well to confine her own juridical guilt to ecclesiastical charges only — heresy and witchcraft — and beat the much more dangerous treason charge that was leveled at her. (In another century, Britons would be much more used to the idea of executing elite nobility.) Her marriage was annulled (she procured it by witchcraft, remember?) and she was forced to perform a humiliating public penance on foot around Westminster and London before being shunted off into a forced and closely-watched retirement.


The Penance of Eleanor, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)

The scandal didn’t directly touch the Duke of Gloucester, but it essentially forced him out of public life. Six years later he was arrested for treason, but he died (possibly of a stroke, or possibly poison) within days.

The sensational fall of this household excited literary interlocutors almost before Margery Jourdemayne’s ashes were cold — such as this nearly-contemporary “Lament of the Duchess of Gloucester” which dwells on the titular character’s self-destruction by dint of her own vanity: “who wille be high, he shalle be low / the whele of fortune, who may it trow.”

The verses excerpted above in this post come from the following century’s “Mirror for Magistrates”, which makes use of historical figures who met terrible fates not unlike this very site. She might also have helped inspire a lost play from the late 16th or the 17th century.

Shakespeare too stages this entire affair in Henry VI, Part 2, representing Gloucester as an innocent tragically bearing the disaster his enemies visit on him through his wife.

In Act I, Scene 2, Eleanor arranges her divination — and we learn that her enemies are in the process of framing her.

Eleanor. While Gloucester bears this base and humble mind.
Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.
Where are you there? Sir John! nay, fear not, man,
We are alone; here’s none but thee and I.

[Enter HUME]

Father John Hume. Jesus preserve your royal majesty!

Eleanor. What say’st thou? majesty! I am but grace.

Father John Hume. But, by the grace of God, and Hume’s advice,
Your grace’s title shall be multiplied.

Eleanor. What say’st thou, man? hast thou as yet conferr’d
With Margery Jourdain, the cunning witch,
With Roger Bolingbroke, the conjurer?
And will they undertake to do me good?

Father John Hume. This they have promised, to show your highness
A spirit raised from depth of under-ground,
That shall make answer to such questions
As by your grace shall be propounded him.

Eleanor. It is enough; I’ll think upon the questions:
When from St. Alban’s we do make return,
We’ll see these things effected to the full.
Here, Hume, take this reward; make merry, man,
With thy confederates in this weighty cause.

[Exit]

Father John Hume. Hume must make merry with the duchess’ gold;
Marry, and shall. But how now, Sir John Hume!
Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum:
The business asketh silent secrecy.
Dame Eleanor gives gold to bring the witch:
Gold cannot come amiss, were she a devil.
Yet have I gold flies from another coast;
I dare not say, from the rich cardinal
And from the great and new-made Duke of Suffolk,
Yet I do find it so; for to be plain,
They, knowing Dame Eleanor’s aspiring humour,
Have hired me to undermine the duchess
And buz these conjurations in her brain.
They say ‘A crafty knave does need no broker;’
Yet am I Suffolk and the cardinal’s broker.
Hume, if you take not heed, you shall go near
To call them both a pair of crafty knaves.
Well, so it stands; and thus, I fear, at last
Hume’s knavery will be the duchess’ wreck,
And her attainture will be Humphrey’s fall:
Sort how it will, I shall have gold for all.

In Act I, Scene 4, the enthusiasts summon a shade from the underworld and our day’s principal is favored with a few lines from the bard:

Margaret Jourdain. Asmath,
By the eternal God, whose name and power
Thou tremblest at, answer that I shall ask;
For, till thou speak, thou shalt not pass from hence.

But the entire party is arrested and Gloucester’s attempts to note the meaningless vagueness of the predictions supplied by the alleged demon are overruled abruptly.


The conjuration scene in Henry VI, Part 2, illustrated by John Opie.

In Act II, Scene 3 the Duke and Duchess are destroyed politically, and their hirelings destroyed bodily.

Henry VI. Stand forth, Dame Eleanor Cobham, Gloucester’s wife:
In sight of God and us, your guilt is great:
Receive the sentence of the law for sins
Such as by God’s book are adjudged to death.
You four, from hence to prison back again;
From thence unto the place of execution:
The witch in Smithfield shall be burn’d to ashes,
And you three shall be strangled on the gallows.
You, madam, for you are more nobly born,
Despoiled of your honour in your life,
Shall, after three days’ open penance done,
Live in your country here in banishment,
With Sir John Stanley, in the Isle of Man.

Eleanor. Welcome is banishment; welcome were my death.

Duke of Gloucester. Eleanor, the law, thou see’st, hath judged thee:
I cannot justify whom the law condemns.
[Exeunt DUCHESS and other prisoners, guarded]
Mine eyes are full of tears, my heart of grief.
Ah, Humphrey, this dishonour in thine age
Will bring thy head with sorrow to the ground!
I beseech your majesty, give me leave to go;
Sorrow would solace and mine age would ease.

Henry VI. Stay, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester: ere thou go,
Give up thy staff: Henry will to himself
Protector be; and God shall be my hope,
My stay, my guide and lantern to my feet:
And go in peace, Humphrey, no less beloved
Than when thou wert protector to thy King.

Queen Margaret. I see no reason why a king of years
Should be to be protected like a child.
God and King Henry govern England’s realm.
Give up your staff, sir, and the king his realm.

Duke of Gloucester. My staff? here, noble Henry, is my staff:
As willingly do I the same resign
As e’er thy father Henry made it mine;
And even as willingly at thy feet I leave it
As others would ambitiously receive it.
Farewell, good king: when I am dead and gone,
May honourable peace attend thy throne!

[Exit]

Queen Margaret. Why, now is Henry king, and Margaret queen;
And Humphrey Duke of Gloucester scarce himself,
That bears so shrewd a maim; two pulls at once;
His lady banish’d, and a limb lopp’d off.
This staff of honour raught, there let it stand
Where it best fits to be, in Henry’s hand.

Earl of Suffolk. Thus droops this lofty pine and hangs his sprays;
Thus Eleanor’s pride dies in her youngest days.

See also: Jessica Freeman, “Sorcery at Court and Manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the Witch of Eye Next Westminster,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, pp. 343-357.

* Henry married Margaret of Anjou in 1445. Despite the Shakespeare portrayal, she had no part in the proceedings against Eleanor or the Witch of Eye.

** It has long been supposed that part or all of the real impetus for these charges was an opportunistic attack by the Duke’s political rivals, specifically around the question of making peace with France in the Hundred Years’ War. Gloucester, who fought at Agincourt (Shakespeare’s Henry V name-checks him in the great Crispin’s Day pre-battle oration), opposed the growing pro-peace faction.

† It did not predict that Henry would end up murdered in prison.

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1340: Nicholas Behuchet, Battle of Sluys naval commander

Add comment June 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.

The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.

At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.

Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.

Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.

England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.

Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.

On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.

The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.

To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”

Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …


An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.

It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.

Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†

In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:

Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.

Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.

* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.

** For a snappy modern gloss on the battle, check this excerpt of Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England.

It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”

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