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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1462: John de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Add comment February 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1462, the 12th Earl of Oxford, John de Vere, was beheaded in the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses.

The heir to one of the realm’s most ancient noble titles — one of the early Earls of Oxford was on hand for the Magna Carta — John de Vere was a Lancastrian during those treacherous years. He’d even been knighted as a young man with the (then-four-year-old, but already king) Henry Vi.

Despite due loyalty to his sovereign, however, he largely stayed out of the running contest for the throne. This neat trick served him well when the Lancastrian cause went pear-shaped.

Given his apolitical record, it’s a surprise to find Lord Oxford and his son Aubrey suddenly arrested in early February 1463, for treasonable correspondence with the deposed Lancastrian queen Margaret of Anjou. The precise nature of the “conspiracy” remains fuzzy,* as does the theretofore cautious Lord Oxford’s reason for involving himself in such a dangerous enterprise. (Aubrey might have been the moving spirit.) The verdict, however, was very sharp, for father and son alike, leaving the earldom to pass to Aubrey’s younger brother John de Vere.**

This man’s family is, of course, well known in literary fields. The 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was an Elizabethan writer who’s been frequently hypothesized as the actual creator of the Shakespeare canon — the so-called Oxfordian theory of authorship. If so, perhaps he took a little special relish in writing into 3 Henry VI (Act 3, Scene 3) his predecessor’s brief against the Yorkists.

WARWICK
Can Oxford, that did ever fence the right,
Now buckler falsehood with a pedigree?
For shame! leave Henry, and call Edward king.

OXFORD
Call him my king by whose injurious doom
My elder brother, the Lord Aubrey Vere,
Was done to death? and more than so, my father,
Even in the downfall of his mellow’d years,
When nature brought him to the door of death?
No, Warwick, no; while life upholds this arm,
This arm upholds the house of Lancaster.

* This biography of the 13th earl rummages the sparse available evidence, but concludes that apart from a few basic facts the available accounts “agree on little else, and it is not easy to establish a coherent account of the episode, what form the conspiracy took, how it was betrayed, and above all, by what was it motivated.” Just those minor details.

** Several other conspirators besides the de Veres were also put to death in the affair. Minor consolation: the sentencing judge, John Tiptoft, was in 1470 executed himself.

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1941: Josef Jakobs, the last executed in the Tower of London

17 comments August 15th, 2012 Headsman

In its day, the Tower of London has seen off with many an illustrious head.*

Its last use as an execution grounds occurred, all but invisibly, on this date in 1941, with the shooting of German spy Josef Jakobs.

It’s safe to say that Jakobs won’t be competing with Anne Boleyn in the book sales department any time soon. He was, truth be told, barely a spy at all: parachuted into Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 with intent to reconnoiter, the guy was observed in his descent by (undoubtedly excited) local defense volunteers. They raced to the landing point but needn’t have: Jakobs was practically immobile, having broken his ankle upon landing. So that was the end of the espionage mission.

After a secret trial under the Treachery Act of 1940, Jakobs was shot at a small rifle range where a number of his countrymen and predecessors from the First World War had met their own ends.

To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.

Sir,

I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.

The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.

Sgd. Sir Bertram N. Sergison-Brooke,

Lieutenant-General Commanding London District.

The Royal Armouries artefacts store still preserves the chair (pdf) Jakobs was strapped to for this historic execution. All subsequent executions of World War II spies took place by hanging at Pentonville Prison or Wandsworth Prison.

* It should be added that the Tower’s bloody reputation correctly associates more with the doomed men and women it held than with actual executions: only a very few, mostly high-ranking, folk actually got the chop in the Tower prior to 20th century spies: people such as Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Monmouth were more commonly put to death at the adjacent (and public) Tower Hill.

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1716: Lords Kenmure and Derwentwater but not Lord Nithsdale

9 comments February 24th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1716 saw the beheading of two Jacobite lords, but it was more famous for the third who ducked the executioner in one of the Tower of London’s greatest escapes.

Lord Nithsdale, Escape from the Tower by Emily Mary Osborn(e)

Three were doomed to the block this date:

They were the fruit of Parliament’s impeachment of Jacobite leaders. Six of these fellows threw themselves upon the mercy of the Commons, and were rewarded with a death sentence by William Cowper. Only half managed to wrangle mercy from the crown.

On the eve of this date’s execution, Lord Nithsdale received a visitation of his wife, Winifred … who helped him swap clothes with one of her maids, in which garb he audaciously marched out the Tower gates in the train of his spouse.

The king whom Nithsdale had purposed to dethrone was a good sport about it. “It was the best thing a man in his condition could have done,” he declared.

The fugitives managed to cross the channel — that required another bit of dress-up, in the livery of the Venetian ambassador — and absconded to Rome. William Maxwell, Lord Nithsdale, outlived his appointment with the headsman by 28 years.

They are gone — who shall follow? — their ship’s on the brine,
And they sail unpursued to a far friendly shore,
Where love and content at their hearth may entwine,
And the warfare of kingdoms divide them no more.

-“The Dream of Lord Nithsdale”

A letter detailing the escape from the pen of the intrepid Lady Nithsdale herself is well worth the read.

Her reputation as a romantic heroine (only enhanced by the romantic futility of the Jacobite struggle itself) has lent itself to all manner of literary expropriation, like this 19th century historical novel.

All very well for these two lovebirds. But the remaining 67% of the day’s scaffold carrion did not escape the Tower in women’s clothing, or men’s, and paid with their heads as scheduled.

Derwentwater went out with a peevish scaffold a ballad, “Lord Derwentwater” (or “Lord Allenwater”, or several similar variants), and another aptly titled “Derwentwater’s Farewell”.

His partner at the chop, Lord Kenmure,** also made the folk playlist in “O Kenmure’s On And Awa, Willie”, one of the ditties gathered by Robert Burns.

Having beheld all these various exemplars, Derwentwater’s brother and fellow Stuart supporter Charles Radclyffe decided to emulate them all.

Later that same year, Charles Radclyffe also made a successful prison break and got to the continent.

As a result, he was still around to participate in the 1745 Jacobite rising … and finally get executed for that.

(All part of God’s mystical plan for Radclyffe: look sharp and you’ll find him succeeding Isaac Newton as CEO of the legendary Holy Grail-keeping secret society Priory of Sion in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and its pulp novel knockoff The Da Vinci Code.)

* It’s impossible not to notice that this cross-dressing escape foreshadows that of Bonnie Prince Charlie when the Jacobite cause flamed out for good thirty years later.

** And like Lord Nithsdale, he was also blessed with a perspicacious wife — albeit one who wasn’t able to extricate him from the Tower.

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1554: Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen

9 comments February 12th, 2010 Headsman

February 12 is the anniversary of Lady Jane Grey‘s beheading at the Tower of London. The Protestant teenager was the designated successor of sickly boy-king Edward VI, but popular and aristocratic support went for Mary Tudor in a landslide.

The Nine Days’ Queen landed in the Tower and copped to a treason charge on a tenuous deal for mercy (not applicable to her sponsors and allies, many of whom went to the block). But a January 1554 Protestant rebellion that had Protestant restoration as part of its programme made it a dangerous indulgence for Mary to keep her cousin’s neck attached to its shoulders.

On this auspicious anniversary, Executed Today is pleased to welcome Jane Grey expert J. Stephan Edwards, Ph.D. Dr. Edwards runs the Some Grey Matter site, and is working on a forthcoming book about our day’s famous beheadee.

ET: The conventional wisdom on Jane Grey is that she was basically destroyed by the machinations of the men around her. Is that a misapprehension? Was she more involved in events than she’s given credit for? Can one take seriously the notion that she didn’t want to be queen?

JSE: Having spent almost ten years researching the life of Lady Jane Grey Dudley and her very brief reign as Queen of England in July 1553, I am confident that she was not directly involved in the plans to make her Edward VI’s successor to the throne. At the same time, however, I am completely convinced that she was well aware of those plans at least six weeks before she actually became queen. And it is beyond question that she knew of the plan at least a week before her accession. Thus the standard mythology that portrays Jane as utterly unaware and totally innocent until the last possible second is just that … a myth.

I am similarly convinced that Jane accepted the crown after offering little more than perfunctory resistance. The crown offered a degree of personal independence that would otherwise have been unavailable to her. It also offered power. Despite Victorian-era storytelling to the contrary, Jane Grey Dudley was very much a product of her own age, and that was an age of widespread personal ambition, of duty to both family and God to advance one’s self and one’s family. It would have been a deep betrayal of her family and of social norms actually to refuse such an exalted position.

In the act of accepting, she is recorded to have asked God for some sign that she should refuse, paused for a moment, and receiving no such sign, she accepted. Further, Jane was apparently an adherent to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that all things, including our daily lives, are preordained and known to God, and as humans we are powerless to alter God’s plan. Having prayed to God for a sign that she should refuse the crown and receiving none was no doubt to her an indication that her God’s preordained plan was for her to be Queen of England. She therefore accepted without offering further resistance of any kind.

Further, there is ample evidence to show that Jane fully embraced her new status. She signed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of documents with her own hand rather than relying on a privy secretary to sign in her stead (common practice in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI before her). This indicates active and positive involvement in affairs. And on more than one occasion, she countermanded the orders of her council, imposing her own will upon them, again evidence of an intent to rule.

Was she “destroyed by the machinations of the men around her”? I think perhaps there is a better way to phrase it. Jane Grey Dudley lived in an era when women were second class citizens with few legal rights and virtually barred from public affairs. Yet the circumstances of July 1553 mandated that a woman must assume the throne, however much that contradicted 400 years of established English practice. If anything, Jane Grey Dudley was a pawn in a political chess game in which the players, all male, searched desperately for a male king, yet all they had at hand were potential queens. The male players at the chess board were simply struggling with the pieces they had available and trying to make the best of an unfamiliar and even frightening situation. They failed, and Queen Jane was one of the unfortunate pieces swept from the board.

Jane is obviously a romantic figure — small r, big R — in part because she didn’t ever have the chance to start doing the un-romantic things that rulers have to do. How has her image changed over the years? What about her would most surprise people today?

Actually, Jane did “do some of the unromantic things that rulers have to do.” She sat in daily on meetings of the Privy Council. She helped to plan military maneuvers against her cousin, the future Queen Mary … maneuvers intended to bring about the latter’s death. She sent thousands of men off to die in battle. The nine short days of the reign of Queen Jane were packed with unromantic and burdensome activity unfamiliar to a woman of not quite eighteen years of age.

If anything, the years have served to erase much of that non-romantic material and replaced it with the image of an obedient girl-child secluded in study or prayer, uninvolved in the affairs of the world. Indeed, one biographer writing in the 19th century referred to her existence as one of “splendid isolation.”

Yet she was anything but isolated. The historical evidence makes it clear that she was socially active, participating in many of the public celebrations held by her kingly cousin’s court. She traveled a great deal, visiting with relatives and friends of the family scattered across the entire realm. And she had a love of music that was intense enough to give her tutor concern that she was becoming too distracted from her intellectual studies. The picture that has emerged from my own research is of a girl who was quite “normal” for those of her social and economic status in that era, with the possible exception of a gift for languages.

Had Jane, in fact, ruled, how different might events in England been? (and elsewhere, since this was also a key period of imperial competition?)

I am not myself a huge fan of “counterfactual history,” of speculating about “what might have been.” But since a lot of people do ask this question, I will say this: Had Jane remained queen, and had Mary remained on the political periphery (or been executed), it seems to me that the British Isles would be a very different place today. Just in basic political terms, Elizabeth also would likely not have become queen, so the great Elizabethan “Golden Age” would never have happened. Also, Jane would likely have had children, so there would not have been any need to reach outside the realm in 1603 to find an heir. James VI of Scotland would never have become James I of England, and Scotland may have remained forever a separate kingdom and nation. Without a King James of England, there would not have been a Charles I of England, and thus perhaps no religious civil wars in the mid 17th century. Carried still further, James II would never have become king, and no Act of Settlement would have been necessary. The Hanoverians would never have succeeded to the English throne … no George III and perhaps no American revolution. Certainly no Queen Victoria. And the current queen would instead be a German housewife.

All of this would likely have left England as a relatively small nation. It probably would never have become “Great Britain,” either geo-politically or symbolically. It might well have remained a minor actor on the international political stage. The great “British Empire” and the modern Commonwealth might never have existed.

Religiously, England might also have been very different. The more radical strain of evangelical reformism (later called “Puritanism”) espoused by Edward VI and Jane may well have prevailed. The moderate Elizabethan religious settlement of the 1560s likely would not have happened. Thus the Church of England might have looked today more like a Presbyterian or Lutheran church, both doctrinally and physically. Anglicanism today would have been based on simple preaching, with most ritual and liturgy pared down to a bare minimum. No vestments, no decorated churches, and perhaps no bishops and archbishops. All of that would, in turn, have had a huge impact on English culture, art, literature, etc.

In short, had Jane reigned long, the world would be a very different place today, in ways that we probably cannot even begin to imagine.

How did Jane herself change over the course of her experiences in proximity to power, and then as the queen, and then in the Tower?

This is a very difficult question to answer, if not an impossible one, because we have so very little evidence about Jane herself, her character, and her personality. We know next to nothing of her innermost thoughts and attitudes during this period, especially the period during her imprisonment in the Tower. The one thing that we can perhaps say is that religion became Jane’s chief comfort during the last six months of her life, and she clung to her faith with tenacity. The evidence suggests that she was accepting of her death in the belief that she was serving her God and her faith. In fact, she seems to have carried out the activities of her last days with great care and deliberateness so as to leave a carefully constructed final impression on others. She wrote a judiciously worded letter to her sister and penned a brief note to her father, almost certainly conscious that both would be published after her death. She engaged in a semi-public theological debate with Queen Mary’s own Roman Catholic chaplain and hand signed a transcript of that debate in order to authenticate her words. And lastly, she delivered an ambiguously worded speech from the execution scaffold that declared herself simultaneously innocent and guilty. Jane was a relatively unknown private figure when she became queen, and a very public one by the time she died, well aware that she would soon be known across Europe. That transformation from private to public figure must surely have changed her profoundly, in ways we can only guess.

As a researcher, how do you deal with the sketchy documentary trail on Lady Jane?

Historians and researchers deal every day with people and groups of people for whom few written records or other evidence exists. To compensate, many modern historians take pieces of evidence from here and bits of data from there and compile them, then use that compilation to construct snapshots of groups rather than of individuals. For example, we can reconstruct from written records the amount of charity that was dispensed in certain specific regions (e.g., a single parish in London). From that amount, we can gain some idea of how extensive poverty may have been in that region. And from the list of names and ages of those to whom charity was dispensed, we can deduce what percentage of the poor were male or female, young or old … even if we know nothing more than their names and ages.

With Jane, I have reversed the process. Historians have done a great deal of work to describe aristocratic young women in England in the sixteenth century … their education, their religious beliefs and practices, their domestic lives, etc. If that group composite picture is valid, we should also be able to say that if a certain person is a member of that group of young female aristocrats, she is likely to have had similar characteristics. Thus I have proposed that in the absence of any written evidence to the contrary, Jane was probably very much like her social and economic peers in many ways. She was different only in those ways for which we have clear evidence, such as her proficiency in as many as five to seven languages.

How was her execution carried out? Was it typical for its time, place, and circumstances?

Dying was an active process in the Tudor era. It was something a person did, not something that happened to a person. Those facing death were expected to carry out certain predetermined actions and to behave in certain specific ways as demonstrations that they were destined to go to heaven. Dying was to be done with dignity, with a measure of planning (if the death was anticipated far enough in advance), and with particular tasks to be performed by the dying before they took their leave of the earthly world and moved on to the spiritual world. A large body of literature and advice books on how to die, or “the art of dying” (ars moriendi in Latin), emerged during the period. Jane Grey Dudley played her part so well that she was held up as an example to all in later years of “how to die well.”

The condemned were always afforded the opportunity to prepare themselves spiritually, with the method of preparation dependent upon the form of religion then in place. Jane was executed after Roman Catholicism had been re-instituted in England, so she was given the opportunity to confess to a Catholic priest, to be absolved, and to take final communion. Holding firm to her Protestant beliefs that confession was a private matter between penitent and God alone and not necessitating a priest’s hearing, that absolution was given only by God and not mediated by priests, and that the Roman Catholic Mass was erroneous, she instead engaged in a public theological debate with John de Feckenham. During this debate, Jane professed her faith to a sizable audience, outlining its central tenets, an action that itself served as a kind of “Protestant confession” without directly involving a priest in the process.

She then wrote letters to her sister and father bidding them farewell and offering spiritual counsel to them as well. She probably wrote letters to others, especially her mother, but they have not survived. Taking leave of the world and offering consolation to those to be left behind was part of the ars moriendi. Jane’s letter to her sister, in particular, was reproduced repeatedly over the next century as a near-perfect example of how to bid farewell to loved ones. [Available here, the last of several Jane Grey letters reproduced in this public-domain book.]

On the morning of the execution, she would have dressed appropriately in a simple gown of somber color, usually gray or black (certainly not the angelically virginal white depicted in Paul Delaroche’s famous histrionic painting of her execution). Many carried some type of religious text with them to the place of execution, often a Missal or Book of Hours (for Catholics) or a New Testament or copies of the Four Gospels (for Protestants). Jane carried a book of prayers copied from the works of St Jerome, St Ambrose, and St Austin, each a father of the early Christian church of the fourth century (Tudor-era Protestants recognized the value of the writings of these men though they denied their status as saints and intercessors in heaven). That morning, she carefully inscribed the book to her jailer in preparation for presenting it to him in her last moments. Small gifts to jailers, and even to executioners, were considered signs of humility and Christian forgiveness.

Jane was to be executed within the relatively private walls of the Tower of London rather than in the full glare of the crowds outside the walls on Tower Hill. Executions were large public spectacles that often drew huge audiences, so a private execution was considered a great favor to the condemned.

There was no permanent execution scaffold within the Tower. Scaffolds were built specifically for each execution, then immediately dismantled. The eye-witness accounts indicate that the scaffold for Jane’s execution was built against the wall of the central White Tower, at its northwest corner … the corner closest to the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula. Since Jane was housed in the upper storey of the Gentleman Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) quarters, which still stands today, she would have seen the scaffold being built just a few yards across Tower Green. She would also have had a very short walk from her quarters to the scaffold, though she would have been in full view of the many permanent residents, workers, and official visitors within the Tower that busy Monday morning. She is said by eyewitnesses to have made the walk with great dignity and without any outward signs of distress.

Jane was accompanied to the scaffold by at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and by John de Feckenham, her debate opponent of the previous days. Feckenham served two purposes. Firstly, he was available should Jane wish to convert to Roman Catholicism in her final moments, and to offer whatever spiritual comfort he could should she chose not to convert. No Protestant preacher or pastor was allowed. Secondly, Feckenham served as the personal representative of Queen Mary, ready to witness the proceedings and to recount them to his mistress.

Upon reaching the scaffold, Jane, like all those condemned to die, was allowed to make a final speech. Such speeches were customarily written and memorized in advance with great care, as it was common practice for the witnesses present to write down the dying person’s last words. Scaffold speeches were often published within days of the execution and circulated widely, sometimes as political propaganda, sometimes as educational tools or warnings to others, and sometimes simply as “news of the day.” Jane would have been well aware of this practice, and her final speech, as it was published barely more than a month later, reflects a careful choice of words. She stated that she was guilty of having broken the law by accepting the crown, but that she was innocent of having sought it. She acknowledged the justice of her execution, as all condemned were expected to do. Protestations of innocence at the moment of execution were paradoxically considered signs of guilt, of lack of humility, and transgressions of God’s will.

Jane also asked those in the small audience to pray for her soul “while yet I live.” Her choice of words reflected her disagreement with the Catholic practice of saying masses for the dead. She then kneeled and asked the audience to recite along with her as she spoke the words of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which begins, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”

Those of noble or royal status who were convicted of treason were often beheaded, whereas men of lower birth were hung, drawn and quartered and women of lower birth were often burned at the stake (considered more “humane” for the “weaker sex” than hanging, drawing and quartering). The monarch’s consent was required for beheading, but it was seldom withheld. Thus Mary consented to Jane being executed by beheading with an axe. Therefore, following her recitation of Psalm 51, Jane stood again to make final preparations to meet the axe. She handed her gloves and handkerchief to one of her ladies, and gave her small prayer-book to Thomas Bridges, the brother of the Lieutenant of the Tower. The prayerbook has survived and is sometimes displayed as part of the permanent “Treasures of the Library” exhibition at the British Library in London.

After her attendants assisted her to loosen the neck of her gown, the executioner knelt in the customary request for forgiveness from the condemned. The executioner then asked her to stand upon the straw spread around the block to soak up the blood. As she began to kneel, she asked the executioner whether he would take her by surprise and strike before she was ready. Assured that he would not, she tied a cloth around her head to block her eyesight. Then, in one of the most poignant of scenes, she felt blindly for the block, and not finding it because of the cloth over her eyes, she asked, “What shall I do? Where is it?” It was against custom to assist the condemned to find the block, lest the person offering aid be accused of having an unjust part in a death. However, someone -– usually reported as Feckenham –- apparently did reach down and guide her hands to the block. (This instant is the scene depicted in Delaroche’s near-life-sized painting, though most of the details of that painting are quite inaccurate.)

Detail view of Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. (Click for full-size image.)

The UK National Gallery on Feb. 24 opens an exhibition on this work titled “Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey”.

According to the gallery’s advance publicity, “For the first time, Painting History examines this iconic masterpiece in the context of Delaroche’s great historical paintings, particularly the poignant scenes from English history which made his reputation. The exhibition features seven major international loans of paintings by Delaroche including The Princes in the Tower, 1830 and Young Christian Martyr, 1854–5 (both Louvre) and Strafford on his way to Execution, 1835 (private collection). Displayed alongside are Delaroche’s expressive preparatory drawings for Lady Jane and a selection of comparative paintings and prints by his contemporaries, including Eugène Lami, Claude Jacquand and François-Marius Granet.”

The guy sure had a thing for executions. If this blog had a patron artist, it would be Paul Delaroche.

Finally finding the block, she laid her neck upon it and repeated Jesus’s words on the cross, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” At those words, the executioner swung his axe and she was dead.

There is a previously unchallenged tradition that Lady Jane Grey Dudley was buried in the Chapel of St Peter-ad-Vincula (St Peter-in-Chains) within the Tower, supposedly beneath the floor just in front of the left-hand side of the altar. A plaque to that effect was placed there in the 1870s, and the modern tour guides of the Tower usually regale tourists with heavily embellished stories of the events.

My own research, however, suggests that Jane may have been buried outside the Tower. Several circumstances of the day support my conclusion. First, the chapel had been restored to service in the Roman Catholic faith by mid-February 1554. The Roman Catholic Church explicitly prohibits the burial of heretics in consecrated ground, and Jane was considered a heretic by that Church. Additionally, there is a contemporary account that tells of the bodies of Jane and her husband Guildford, who was executed the same day on Tower Hill, lying in a cart outside the chapel for several hours. The reason for the delay is given as a need to seek special permission to bury them within. None of the eyewitness accounts of the day go on to speak of the burial itself. Whether this is because none of those eyewitnesses saw the burial take place or because it was considered by them to be not worth the mentioning is unclear. However, Jane’s father Henry Grey was executed on Tower Hill two weeks later for his part in a rebellion in late January 1554, and he is reported to have been buried in the Church of Holy Trinity Minories just yards from Tower Hill. That church was a former abbey of the Order of St Clare that had been closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the 1530s. Henry Grey had purchased the former abbey, together with its church, from the crown in the 1540s. During renovation work in 1851, a workman discovered a carefully preserved severed head that was later identified as the head of Henry Grey. It therefore seems probable that Henry Grey was indeed buried inside Holy Trinity Minories, one of his own properties conveniently nearest the place of his execution. It is equally possible that his daughter Jane Grey Dudley and his son-in-law Guildford Dudley were buried at Holy Trinity just days before Henry.

Holy Trinity was closed as a place of worship in 1899 and merged with the nearby Church of St Botolph’s-without-Aldgate. Henry Grey’s preserved head is now kept in a secret location somewhere on the grounds of St Botolph’s, but the remains of the Church of Holy Trinity Minories were destroyed during the London Blitz of 1940. All that remains is a small public garden in Tower Hill Terrace over the road from the north outer curtain wall of the Tower, a mere 150 yards from the site of Jane’s execution.

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1645: John Hotham the Elder

1 comment January 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645 — one day after the same fate befell his son — Sir John Hotham was beheaded by the English Parliamentarians for attempting to betray Hull to the Cavaliers in the English Civil War.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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1645: John Hotham the Younger

1 comment January 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, John Hotham the Younger — former M.P., and (too) briefly an adherent of Parliament in the English Civil War, was beheaded as a traitor.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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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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1552: Edward Seymour, deposed Lord Protector

5 comments January 22nd, 2009 Headsman

The set of any given Tudor-era costume drama is a walking Who’s Who of scaffold superstars, most notably, of course, the wives of Henry VIII. That king’s bed did not cease exuding power and danger with Henry’s death.

With Henry’s demise, the crown fell to the only legitimate son the old man had produced in a lifetime of trying, the sickly 9-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry’s beloved* third wife Jane Seymour.

Jane’s brothers had leveraged their late sister’s favor into political muscle, and Edward Seymour smoothly outmaneuvered rival factions late in Henry’s life to set himself up as the true ruler of England during the boy king’s regency.

Created Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector,** Edward ran the country for going on three years, executing the other Seymour sibling as a rival along the way.

But the power of the king’s office without the attendant legitimacy turned out to be a double-edged blade.

Edward inherited a campaign against Scotland (and France) to secure the betrothal of the king to the young Mary Queen of Scots, then just beginning her own lifetime as a political and matrimonial football.

That wearisome (and costly) military scenario could only exacerbate the enmities a somewhat tin-eared Somerset generated in the course of everyday politics at the treacherous Tudor court. Catholics resented his liberal religious policy (Thomas Cranmer produced the first Book of Common Prayer on Edward Seymour’s watch); noble rivals wheedled and flattered the youthful king in his charge; and Edward Seymour’s populist political style rubbed stodgier nobles the wrong way without quite satisfying discontent among commoners† who rebelled widely in 1549, a year of terrible harvests and economic breakdown. By October of 1549, he had been politically isolated and was supplanted by John Dudley. (Guess what happened to him.)

Interestingly, that transition initially looked to be as bloodless a coup d’etat as 16th century England could enjoy: Seymour did a couple months in the Tower of London but accepted his place and not only rejoined the Privy Council but dynastically married his daughter to Dudley’s heir.

All it took, however, was an ounce of paranoia on Dudley’s part to suspect the former Lord Protector of plotting against him. The peers of the realm wouldn’t convict him of a trumped-up treason charge, but “compromised” with a felony conviction that had, for old man Somerset, the exact same result.

We have an account of the Duke’s oddly portentous end from diarist Henry Machyn, whose record of the scene in the original text of Early Modern English we present here beside its “translation” — courtesy of Machyn diaries here and here.

[The xxij of January, soon after eight of the clock in the morning, the duke of Somerset was beheaded on Tower hill. There was as] grett compeny as have bene syne . . the kynges gard behynge there with ther ha[lbards, and a] M1. [i.e., a thousand] mo with halbards of the prevelege of the Towre, [Ratcliffe,] Lymhowsse, Whyt-chapell, Sant Kateryn, and Strettford [Bow], as Hogston, Sordyche; and ther the ij shreyfs behyng th[ere present] seyng the execusyon of my lord, and ys hed to be [smitten] of, and after shortely ys body was putt in to a coffin, [and carried] in to the Towre, and ther bered in the chyrche, of [the north] syd of the qwyre of sant Peters, the wyche I beseeche [God] have mercy on ys sowlle, amen! And ther was [a sudden] rumbelyng a lytyll a-for he ded, as yt had byn [guns] shuttyng [i.e., shooting] and grett horsys commyng, that a M1. [i.e., a thousand] fell [to the] grond for fere, for thay that wher at the on syd [thought] no nodur butt that one was kyllyng odur, that [they fell] down to the grond on apon anodur with ther halb[ards], they thought no nodur butt that thay shuld . . . . . sum fell in to [the] dyche of the Towre and odur plasys, . . . and a C. [i.e., 100] in to the Towre-dyche, and sum ran a way for [fear.] He [the Duke of Somerset] was beheaded soon after eight o’clock in the morning, being brought to his execution the sooner to prevent the concourse of the people, who would be forward to see the last end of one so well beloved by them. It was the greatest company as have been seen. The King’s guard being there with their arms, there were a thousand more with halberds of the privilege of the Tower, from Ratcliff, Limehouse, Whitechapel, St. Katherine, and Stratford Bow, as Hoxton, Shoreditch.

And there the two sheriffs being there present seeing the execution of my lord. And his head to be off. And after shortly his body was put into a coffin and carried into the Tower and there buried in the church of the north side of the choir of St. Peter. The which I beseech God have mercy on his soul. Amen.

And there was a sudden rumbling a little before he died as it had been guns shooting and great horses coming, that a thousand fell to the ground for fear. For they that were at the one side thought no other but that one was killing other. That they fell down to the ground, one upon another with their halberds. They thought no other but that they should flee. Some fell into the ditch of the Tower and other places, and a hundred into the Tower ditch, and some ran away.

* Henry was buried next to Jane, a meek spouse who had stayed out of politics, given him an heir, and died from the birth.

** Not the realm’s most famous Lord Protector, of course, but the last to exercise the office as it had been traditionally understood, for the protection of an underage sovereign.

† Notably, Somerset ordered a commission to look into nobles enclosing common land, a burning issue throughout the century. Some think this raised hopes in the hoi polloi for a resolution to the great class conflict that the Duke didn’t have the juice to implement.

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*

Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.

Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.

Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.

The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.

As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**

Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.

Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.

The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.

In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.

Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.

Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.

* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”

** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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