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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1305: William Wallace, Braveheart

10 comments August 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1305, Scottish knight Mel Gibson — er, William Wallace — was hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield for treason to a British crown he refused to recognize.

Just like so:

Well, close enough. Some wags have alleged one or two historical liberties in Braveheart.

Among the lesser (but more pertinent here): that they weren’t — you knew this already — offering the former Guardian of Scotland the opportunity to reduce his suffering with a public submission, or use the stage for theatrical defiance. Hanging, drawing and quartering was a brand new execution Edward I was experimenting with for emasculating, disemboweling, and (so the idea went) utterly cowing the rebellious hinterlands of the British Isles. Wallace may have been just the second person to suffer it.

But only a pointy-headed blogger could possibly care when the main point is that back before Christendom succumbed to nancy decadences like Vatican II, men wore woad, defenestrated queers, and tapped top-shelf babes.


Among the few things known for certain about William Wallace is that he did not score with Isabella of France. Or with Sophie Marceau.

Facts? This is show business!

Mel’s bloodbath only riffs the already-fantastic 15th century epic of “the Wallace” by Scottish minstrel Blind Harry, which in turn got a lyrical call-out in Robert Burns’ 18th century Scottish patriotic tune Scots Wha Hae.

National martyrs — and, sure, it helps to die at the right time, as Wallace did just before Robert the Bruce secured Scottish independence — feed a train of hungry authors and ready audiences in every time, place and medium.

However genuinely flesh-and-blood the limbs that wrought his feats and were torn apart on this day, Wallace returns to his generations of interlocutors half-shrouded in mythology. Seven centuries on, his contested (and sometimes absurd) use as precedent or metaphor stakes a claim to his Truth at least as compelling as battlefield tactics at Stirling Bridge. What does he “really” have to tell us? No matter how grisly his end, William Wallace doesn’t get to decide: it’s between you, me, Mel, and a few billion other folks.

Only a character really worth remembering is worth that kind of fictionalizing.

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