1423: William Taylor, Lollard

Add comment March 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1423 the Lollard theologian William Taylor was burned at Smithfield.

We have only fleeting glimpses of this excommunicate priest but the Oxford master made a scintillating entrance to the historical record by preaching a Wycliffite sermon for Advent of 1406 — which stirred a hornet’s nest and saw him excommunicated by the Lollard-quashing Archbishop Thomas Arundel. This denunciation of clerical privilege survived to our digital age as a single, damaged manuscript, and was published in 1993.

Certainly we great cause to weep if we behold the nobility, glory and cleanness of the church in Christ’s time and his apostles … for in that time the people fervently loved God and his law, and were diligent in the keeping thereof, and dreaded the hideous sins of usury, simony, whoredom, forswearing, manslaughter, and the unmeasurable filthiness of lechery …

So wonderful is our church in comparison to the time here before … shiningly arrayed and delicately fed with poor men’s goods, it lifts its voice in gladness — and great weeping. And so the voice of him that makes mirth and the voice of the weeping of the people being melded together. But the voice of the weepers, taking heed to their own wretchedness bodily and ghostly, desiring for to be relieved from bodily discomfort and to be lightened in soul by the word of God, bewail their own discomfort and others’ both. But that voice is so thin and so low that it may not be heard among the voice of those that make joy, the which, not reckoning the health of their own soul neither of others entrusted to their care, say in effect in the words of Zachary, “Blessed be God we are made rich!” and live as delicately and recklessly as though they despaired of the life to come.

We have scant evidence of him in the succeeding generation, but references in his 1420s legal difficulties to his ongoing excommunication make plain that Taylor did not reconcile: instead, he seems to have retreated to the fringes of the high church’s writ, preaching in his native Worcestershire and availing the protection of sympathetic elites during Lollardy’s apex years.

Taylor was finally run to ground in 1420 when he was forced to do penance to resolve his excommunication, and then once again made to abjure his heresies in 1421 — an occasion that might easily have been construed as his second offense and resulted in his execution.

His submissions entirely lacked sincerity, however, and each time returned to his subversive doctrines. His last arrest in February 1423 saw him “brachio seculari traditus fuerat, ac igni combustus in Smythfeld, secundo die Martii, A.D. MCCCCXXII,* et regis Henrici sexti primo,” as described in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (see “Sententia lata contra Willelmum taylor Wycclevistam” on p. 412) on a host of charges that confirm his unreconstructed Lollardy: for denouncing clerical alms; for calling on the devout to pray to God alone, sans intercessors; for insisting that “in no way does Christ wish priests of the church to rule” in the sense of any secular authority. (Translation per Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion.)

* 1423 by present reckoning, or 1422/23 as one often sees it rendered: England at the time marked the New Year on March 25.

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1594: Thomas Merry and Rachel Merry, lamentable tragedie

Add comment September 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1594, Thomas Merry (Merrey, Merrye) and his sister Rachel were executed at Smithfield — Thomas for the robbery-motivated bludgeon murder of their neighbor Master Beech, and (too-)loyal* Rachel as an accessory to it.

No original record of this case survives, but we have its date from a registry record of one of the numerous now-lost ballads about the case, The pitifull lamentation of Rachell Merrye, whoe suffred in Smithfield with her brother Thoms Merrye the vj of September 1594.

The one remaining artifact available for specifics, be they ever so embroidered, is a play from 1601; the date alone underscores the hold of the by-then-seven-year-old crime on public imagination.** And small wonder it was the talk of London, considering the cracking action seen in Robert Yarington’s Two lamentable tragedies:† The one, of the murther of Maister Beech a chaundler in Thames-streete, and his boye, done by Thomas Merry. The other of a young childe murthered in a wood by two ruffins, with the consent of his unckle — like this scene where brother and sister figure out how to carve up the victim. (Slightly tidied for readability.)

Enter Merry and Rachel with a bag.

Merry
What hast thou sped? have you bought the bag?

Rachel
I brother, here it is, what is’t to do?

Merry
To beate hence Beeches body in the night.

Rachel
You cannot beare so great a waight your selfe,
And ’tis no trusting of another man.

Merry
Yes well enough, as I will order it,
Ile cut him peece-meale, first his head and legs
Will be one burthen, then the mangled rest,
Will be another, which I will transport,
Beyond the water in a Ferry boate,
And throw it into Paris-garden ditch.
Fetch me the chopping-knife, and in the meane
Ile move the Fagots that do cover him.

Rachel
Oh can you finde in hart to cut and carve,
His stone colde flesh, and rob the greedy grave,
Of his disseuered blood besprinckled lims?

Merry
I mary can I fetch the chopping knife.

Rachel
This deed is worse, then when you tooke his life.

Merry
But worse, or better, now it must be so,
Better do thus, then feele a greater woe.

Rachel
Here is the knife, I cannot stay to see,
This barbarous deed of inhumanitie.

Exit Rachel

Merry begins to cut the body, and bindes the armes behinde his backe with Beeches garters, leaves out the body, covers the head and legs againe.

If we credit the play — and it’s the only source in town — poor Master Beech ended up hacked into many pieces that were secreted in various places around London as a ploy to avoid detection.

Amazingly, this gruesome and obscure drama has been staged in the 21st century, using not only the Sheakespeare-era script but the rehearsal and performance methods common at the time. There’s a site all about it, including a Tedx Talk by director Emma Whipday and her collaborator Freyja Cox Jensen. (Readers interested in the play production challenges might enjoy this pdf paper by Whipday and Jensen.)

We would be remiss on a site such as this not to spare a peep for the actual execution scene. We pick it up with Thomas Merry already standing upon the ladder with the hemp about his throat, exhorting his sister to firmness.

Merry
God strengthen me with patience to endure,
This chastisement, which I confesse too small
A punishment for this my hainous sinne:
Oh be couragious sister, fight it well,
We shall be crown’d with immortallitie.

Rachel
I will not faint, but combat manfully,
Christ is of power to helpe and strengthen me.

Officer.
I pray make hast, the hower is almost past.

Merry
I am prepar’d, oh God receive my soule,
Forgive my sinnes, for they are numberlesse,
Receive me God, for now I come to thee.

Turne of the Lather: Rachel shrinketh.

Officer
Nay shrinke not woman, have a cheerefull hart.

Rachel
I, so I do, and yet this sinfull flesh,
Will be rebellious gainst my willing spirit.
Come let me clime these steps that lead to heaven,
Although they seeme the staires of infamie!
Let me be merror to ensuing times,
And teach all sisters how they do conceale,
The wicked deeds, of brethren, or of friends,
I not repent me of my love to him,
But that thereby I have provoked God,
To heavie wrath and indignation,
Which turne away great God, for Christes sake.
Ah Harry Williams, thou wert chiefest cause,
That I do drinke of this most bitter cup,
For hadst thou opened Beeches death at first,
The boy had liv’d, and thou hadst sav’d my life:
But thou art bronded with a marke of shame,
And I forgive thee from my very soule,
Let him and me, learne all that heare of this,
To utter brothers or their maisters misse,
Conceale no murther, least it do beget,
More bloody deeds of like deformitie.
Thus God forgive my sinnes, receive my soule,
And though my dinner be of bitter death,
I hope my soule shall sup with Iesus Christ,
And see his presence everlastingly.

Dyeth.

Officer
The Lord of heaven have mercy on her soule,
And teach all other by this spectacle,
To shunne such dangers as she ran into,
By her misguided taciturnitie:
Cut downe their bodies, give hers funerall,
But let his body be conveyed hence,
To Mile-end greene, and there be hang’d in chaines.

Exeunt omnes.

* At one point in the play described in this text, Rachel Merry muses on the enormity of the crime and the likelihood of its detection — “such cruell deedes can never long be hid / Although we practice nere so cunningly.” Neveretheless, she stands by her kin: “Lo he is my brother, I will cover it, / And rather dye than have it spoken rife, / Lo where she goes, betrai’d her brothers life.

** There’s yet another known play about the case from 1599, also lost.

† This play strangely cuts back and forth between the action in the titular two tragedies, which are the Merry crime and a fictitious murder set in Padua — the whole thing scaffolded by a chorus of narrator-allegories comprising Homicide, Avarice, and Truth. The Italian story also ends in a pair of executions.

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1531: John Tewkesbury, Thomas More’s unwilling guest

Add comment December 20th, 2016 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1555: John Bradford, in the grace of God

Add comment July 1st, 2016 Headsman

The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.

Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)

It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.

Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.

Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)

But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.

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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.

The History of England podcast covers Sawtre and Lollardy in episode 141.

* 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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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

3 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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1533: John Frith and Andrew Hewet, Protestants

2 comments July 4th, 2010 Headsman

Life is all about timing.

Death too.

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

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

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

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

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

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

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

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

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

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

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1540: Three Papists and Three Anti-Papists

3 comments July 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1540, two days after disposing of his former Vicegerent of Spirituals Thomas Cromwell, the just-wedded Henry VIII wrote a terrifying message of religious conformity in blood and smoke at Smithfield.

Edward Hall (as he did with Cromwell) records the scene.

The thirtie daie of July, were drawen on herdelles out of the Tower to Smithfield, Robert Barnes Doctor in Diuinitee, Thomas Garard, and Wyllyam Jerome Bachelers in Diuinitee, Powell, Fetherston and Abell. The firste three were drawen to a stake, there before set up, and were hanged, hedded, and quartered. Here ye must note, that the first three, wer menne that professed the Gospell of Jesu Christ, and were Preachers thereof … [the first three] were detestable and abhominable Heretickes, and … had taught many heresies, the nomber whereof was to greate in the atteindor to be recited, so that there is not one alleged … in deede at their deathe, they asked the Sherifes, wherefore they were condempned, who answered, thei could not tell: but if I maie saie the truthe, moste menne said it was for Preachyng, against the Doctryne of Stephen Gardiner Bishoppe of Wynchester, who chiefly procured this their death … but greate pitie it was, that suche learned menne should bee cast awaie, without examinaction, neither knowyng what was laied to their charge, nor never called to answere.

The laste three … were put to death for Treason, and in their attaindor, is speciall mencion made of their offences, whiche was for the deniyng of the kynge ssupremacie, and affirmyng that his Mariage with the Lady Katheryne was good: These with other were the treasons, that thei wer attainted of, and suffered death for.

Terrifying and confusing: here were burnt three Protestants (Barnes, Gerrard and Jerome) for heresy under the Six Articles, essentially for excess radicalism; beside them were hanged, drawn and quartered three Catholics (Powell, Fetherston and Abel) for treasonably refusing the Oath of Succession, that is, for refusing to admit the King of England as the head of the Church of England. It was that old dispute about Anne Boleyn, who was three queens ago by now. (All three Catholic theologians were advisors to Anne’s predecessor and rival Catherine of Aragon, back in the day.)

The one thing that couldn’t possibly be confused in the day’s proceedings was that matters of the faith were matters of state, and in them Henry would brook heterodoxy of neither the liberal nor conservative variety.

“Good Lord! How do these people live?” exclaimed a foreign observer (cited here). “Here are the papists hanged, there are the anti-papists burnt!”

Good for the martyr industry all-around, and fodder for contemporaries to imagine their respective hereafters, as in “The metynge of Doctor Barons and Doctor Powell at Paradise gate”. (pdf)

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1546: Anne Askew, the only woman tortured in the Tower

7 comments July 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1546, Protestant martyr Anne Askew was martyred for her Protestantism.

One of the more intriguing religious martyrs of Tudor England, Askew was a gentlewoman forced to take her older sister’s place in an arranged betrothal when said sister (as was the style in the 16th century) dropped dead young.

Askew’s adherence to Protestantism put her at loggerheads with her Catholic husband, a domestic prefiguring of the factional political dispute that would see her to a Smithfield stake: the Reformation that rent England was itself contested within, with more aggressively reformist Protestant types resisted by the more conservative Catholic-without-Rome faction. Taking the wrong line at the wrong time was taking your life in your hands, and in the treacherous Tudor court, religion became the stalking-horse of deadly politics.

A like conflict played out in townships and households throughout the realm.

Askew and her husband separated (but were not granted divorce) over her conversion to Protestantism; she moved to London and started preaching doctrines anathema to the doctrinaire. As a noblewoman herself, she was absorbed into social circles reaching Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr.

Askew’s outspoken heterodoxy soon brought her into conflict with anti-Protestants, and when the “send her back to hubbie” strategy didn’t take, they had her clapped in the Tower.

Here she evidently became a pawn in courtly politics; with the obese and aging king liable to drop dead any moment, religious and political authority during the succession was at stake.

Askew was therefore racked in the Tower in an effort to extract evidence against powerful women of known Protestant inclinations, possibly up to and including the queen herself.

Then came Rich and one of the council, charging me upon my obedience, to show unto them, if I knew any man or woman of my sect. My answer was, that I knew none. Then they asked me of my Lady of Suffolk, my Lady of Sussex, my Lady of Hertford, my Lady Denny, and my Lady Fitzwilliam. To whom I answered, if I should pronounce any thing against them, that I were not able to prove it. Then said they unto me, that the king was informed that I could name, if I would, a great number of my sect. I answered, that the king was as well deceived in that behalf, as dissembled with in other matters.

Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlewomen to be of my opinion, and thereon they kept me a long time; and because I lay still, and did not cry, my lord chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nigh dead.

Then the lieutenant caused me to be loosed from the rack. Incontinently I swooned, and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours reasoning with my lord chancellor upon the bare floor; where he, with many flattering words, persuaded me to leave my opinion.

Askew didn’t talk, and the act of torturing a woman shocked contemporaries so much that it has never been officially repeated. She was burned to death with three fellow-heretics in Smithfield, so crippled by torture that she had to be carried in a chair to the pyre.


Anne Askew’s executed, together with John Lascelles, John Adams and Nicholas Belenian. Preaching in the pulpit is Nicholas Shaxton, who avoided the fagots with a timely recantation.

Askew survives to us as a particularly consequential Protestant martyr not only for her what-might-have-been proximity to a court plot that might have altered the course of English history, but because she left her own testimony to the ordeal.

Her Examinations — firsthand accounts of her interrogations — were reportedly smuggled out of England where they were published by John Bale. Still, we come by Anne’s own voice in the mediated form of other (male) publishers with their own agendas.

One reading of Bale’s editions that has now become conventional envisions Askew’s narrative as an embattled text: an authentic narrative, the autobiography of a learned and valiant woman, onto which Bale has imposed an insensitive, misogynistic misreading.

Specifically, Bale has been dinged for shoehorning source material that reveals a contentious and tough-minded critic into the vanilla pattern of the meek woman suffering for the faith — a cardboard cutout martyr shorn of less consumer-friendly unfeminine behavior.

While both Bale and Protestant martyrologist John Foxe, who also published versions of the Examinations, stand in that sense between us and the “real” Anne Askew, their polemical needs are precisely the reason we are able to descry the woman standing behind the martyr-archetype.

while her body was consumed by the flames, her identity remains at least partially preserved. The Henrician Anglo-Catholics made Askew famous through the process of her trial and public execution. The Protestant reformers rhetorically retrieved Askew’s broken, tortured, criminalized body from the stake and restyled it as a saint and symbol of their cause. Her identity thus paradoxically emerges in a variety of ways from the tensions … that we find in all the scraps of surviving archival material relating to her. (Theresa D. Kemp, “Translating (Anne) Askew: The Textual Remains of a Sixteenth-Century Heretic and Saint,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Winter, 1999))

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

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1538: John Lambert, “none but Christ”

3 comments November 22nd, 2008 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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