1535: Thomas More, the king’s good servant but God’s first

15 comments July 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1535, Sir — later Saint — Thomas More kept his conscience at the expense of his head on Tower Hill.

For all More‘s greatness — as intellectual, polemicist, lawyer, statesman, father — none of his many gifts at the end could avail him beside his commitment to Catholicism at the dawn of the English Reformation.

Yet it is for those gifts that he cut such a commanding presence in his times, for those very reasons that his sovereign hounded his first citizen to assent to the divorce and remarriage he was fixed upon.

A devotee and friend of Erasmus from years before, More was in Henry’s more orthodox youth the king’s very scourge of Protestantism. His scatological invective against Martin Luther in Responsio ad Lutherum — much in the impolite tenor of Catholic-Protestant rhetoric continent-wide, it should be noted — is of the sort to crimson the cheeks of the milquetoast modern:

Since he has written that he already has a prior right to bespatter and besmirch the royal crown with shit, will we not have the posterior right to proclaim the beshitted tongue of this practitioner of posterioristics most fit to lick with his anterior the very posterior of a pissing she-mule until he shall have learned more correctly to infer posterior conclusions from prior premises?

Over that hairshirt, he wore the robes of state. But his engagement with the world had a selective bent that must have exasperated his colleague and predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Orson Welles and Paul Scofield spar here in the definitive More hagiography A Man for All Seasons over the intellectual’s delicate refusal to dirty his gloves with the great matter of state before them — the annulment the king demanded of his marriage to the Queen (and More’s friend) Catherine of Aragon:

Peas in a pod, these two: Wolsey, the cleric grounded in realpolitik; More, the barrister who trusts to God. (More considered holy orders as a young man.)

Our man’s reputation for honesty in a den of hypocrites has certainly outrun Wolsey’s. Still, all More’s disdain for the deal-making that invests the sovereign majesty and all his foreboding for the relationship he had with his dangerous king were not quite enough to stop him accepting the Chancellorship and the opportunity to stamp out Lutheranism … knowing perfectly well the simultaneous thrust of Henry’s boudoir policy.

It all cuts quite a contrast to More’s (barely) pre-Reformation text, Utopia (available free from Project Gutenberg), which named a literary genre and described an imagined society of tolerant primitive communism that surely would have blanched at its inventor’s coming role in the state’s machinations:

I can have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who, on pretence of managing the public, only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill-acquired, and then, that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please

[E]very man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion, and was neither to mix with it reproaches nor violence* …

It’s not a given that More himself agrees with every (or even any) sentiment expressed in Utopia, but his most famous work’s criticism of the death penalty too liberally applied makes interesting reading.

[E]xtreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital … God has commanded us not to kill, and shall we kill so easily for a little money [i.e., execute petty thieves]? But if one shall say, that by that law we are only forbid to kill any except when the laws of the land allow of it, upon the same grounds, laws may be made, in some cases, to allow of adultery and perjury: for God having taken from us the right of disposing either of our own or of other people’s lives, if it is pretended that the mutual consent of men in making laws can authorise man-slaughter in cases in which God has given us no example, that it frees people from the obligation of the divine law, and so makes murder a lawful action, what is this, but to give a preference to human laws before the divine? and, if this is once admitted, by the same rule men may, in all other things, put what restrictions they please upon the laws of God.

This insistence on the supremacy of divine law over human institutions forms the basis of his objection to parliament’s overthrowing the papacy — which he expressed openly only after he was convicted by obviously perjured “jailhouse snitch” testimony

[Y]ou have no authority, without the common consent of all Christians, to make a law or Act of Parliament or Council against the union of Christendom.

Paul Scofield bears enjoying in the role in A Man for All Seasons:

More is sometimes suspected of desiring martyrdom since he marched so unerringly into it, but he also made every attempt to survive Henry’s demand the he affirm the royal remarriage and the king’s ecclesiastical supremacy by withdrawing silently from the public sphere rather than openly opposing it. More had by every account an enviable, downright happy life at his own hearth, and a tender and intellectual relationship with his favorite daughter Meg. (Meg corresponded with her father in prison, collected his works, and retrieved his head from London Bridge.)

But by his way of thinking — Meg tried to talk him out of it — he couldn’t swear to the Act of Succession acknowledging the king’s right to divorce Queen Catherine and disinherit her daughter Mary if Henry decided to force the choice. And in the king’s eyes, there was no middle ground for someone of the ex-Chancellor’s stature.

Henry could see to it, though, to cut his old friend a break and commute the sentence from drawing and quartering to “mere” beheading, here depicted in the past season of the Showtime series The Tudors.

More’s last moments as rendered here — the ironic remark at the foot of the scaffold, “See me safe up: for my coming down, I can shift for myself”;** his generous answer to the headsman’s plea for forgiveness — are well-documented. Undoubtedly, his sturdy martyr’s bearing, the extension of a life of joyful piety, helped cement for posterity the fame he held in life.

And that dying address — “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first” — gathers in one sentiment free of bombast or self-pity the irreconcilable demands of conscience that would lead many thousands besides More to Henry VIII’s scaffolds, and rings equally true to less lethal challenges to the conscience in every land and time since.

Anne Boleyn, who caused More’s fate, shared it less than a year afterwards.

Thomas More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935 — the patron saint of politicians. Rather bizarrely, July 6 is also his feast day on the Anglican calendar, a tribute to the nearly universal regard his memory enjoys.

Thomas More's statue at the Chelsea Old Church

Chelsea resident Thomas More’s statue at the (Anglican) Chelsea Old Church.

* Despite its religious tolerance, More’s Utopia — anticipating Dostoyevsky — maintains:

a solemn and severe law against such as should so far degenerate from the dignity of human nature, as to think that our souls died with our bodies, or that the world was governed by chance, without a wise overruling Providence … since a man of such principles must needs, as oft as he dares do it, despise all their laws and customs: for there is no doubt to be made, that a man who is afraid of nothing but the law, and apprehends nothing after death, will not scruple to break through all the laws of his country, either by fraud or force, when by this means he may satisfy his appetites.

** According to the biography published by More’s son-in-law — who married More’s favorite, Margaret — the jest was occasioned by the rickety look of the scaffold. The Mirrour of Vertue in Worldly Greatness; Or, The Life of Sir Thomas More is available free on Google Books.

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1536: Anne Boleyn

22 comments May 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Anne Boleyn lost her head.

Any queen decapitated by her king would of course rate an entry in these grim pages. But this does not quite explain Anne Boleyn‘s enduring appeal, relevance and recognizability for the most casual of modern observers, and her concomitant footprint in popular culture, even with the “Greek tragedy” quality of her life.

Anne stands at the fulcrum of England’s epochal leap into modernity. Whether she was that fulcrum might depend on the reader’s sympathy for the Great Man theory of history, but little more do we injure our headless queen to regard her as the woman for her time and place — the accidental hero (or villain) raised up and thrown down by the tectonic forces of her milieu.

Through Anne was born — for reasons of momentary political arrangements of long-forgotten dynasts, which seems a shockingly parochial proximate cause — the English Reformation, and through the Reformation was born the crown’s decisive triumph over the nobility, the broad middle class nurtured on the spoils of Catholic monasteries, the rising Britannia fit to rule. Most would take as an epitaph historical accidents of such magnitude.

Of course, by those same accidents, Anne was the instrument of thousands of deaths herself, and little did she appear troubled in life by the corpses upon which she ascended the throne.

Her own family maps the change wrought on England. An ancestor was beheaded in the Wars of the Roses, medieval England’s last great breakdown; her uncle Thomas Howard was one of the throwback scheming Dukes, mastered by his sovereign to the extent of issuing Anne’s capital sentence from his own lips;* the beheaded woman’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, set a recognizably centralized English state on the path of empire.

Fitting tribute that, from the Tower where she met her end** to lands undreamt-of in her time, people still, like Henry, find her captivating.

[audio:http://www.bl.uk/whatson/podcasts/podcast95533.mp3]

* Anne’s father also declared for her guilt. Unprincipled as these men undoubtedly were, it cannot have been a pleasant responsibility; the question of whether she was actually guilty of adultery-cum-treason, the fatal charge extracted from a supposed lover by torture, has been hotly and inconclusively disputed by posterity.

** With a solemn speech submissive to Henry but not admitting any guilt — in an earlier moment of levity, she had famously remarked of the French swordsman hired to do the job, “I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Political Expedience,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Scandal,Sex,Torture,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1547: Not Thomas Howard, because Henry VIII died first

8 comments January 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1547, the Duke of Norfolk was to have been beheaded.

But thanks to the previous day’s death of the corpulent 55-year-old King Henry VIII, the duke’s death warrant was never signed, and the condemned noble died in bed … seven years later.

A force in the gore-soaked arena of English politics for two generations, Thomas Howard had steered two nieces into the monarch’s bed. Both girls had gone to the scaffold,* and the disgrace of the second, Catherine Howard, brought a collapse in the whole family’s fortunes. Thomas Howard’s son Henry was not as lucky as the father: Henry was beheaded just a few days before the king succumbed, on the same charge of treason that almost claimed Thomas this day.

Though Howard pere would survive long enough to see his title restored, this day was far from the last chapter of his grasping family’s encounter with that classic Tudor denouement, the chopping-block. Thomas, his executed son, and his executed grandson today stock the family tombs at St. Michael, Framlingham — itself a sort of late monument to the aristocracy unmade by Henry’s reforms more than by his executioners.

* “She has miscarried of her savior,” Howard famously remarked of the male heir his niece Anne Boleyn delivered stillborn. A few months later, the Duke presided over Anne’s trial and voted to condemn her to death. (Hat tip: Fiz.)

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,England,Lucky to be Alive,Nobility,Not Executed,Politicians,Power,Scandal,Treason

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1914: Carl Hans Lody

4 comments November 6th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1914, German spy Carl Hans Lody was put to death in the Tower of London during the opening months of World War I.

Lody‘s was the first execution in the Tower since its heyday as the chopping-block of disfavored nobility had passed in the mid-18th century. Times had changed by the era of trench warfare: Lody was not beheaded, but shot inside a wooden shed erected for the purpose in the Tower yard. Ten more German spies, who seem to have had a harder go of infiltrating Britain than their English counterparts had in Germany, would suffer the same fate by war’s end.

A Berlin-born naval officer, Lody had no experience spying but was tapped for the job because he had traveled abroad and spoke English well enough to pass for an American tourist. He was dead scarcely three months after he entered the Isles, though his work may have helped a U-boat sink a British warship.

According to A.W. Brian Simpson in Domestic and International Trials 1700-2000, the case was a legal landmark as the first espionage trial in England held partly in camera — outside the public view. The outcome, however, was a foregone conclusion, and Lody himself didn’t bother to contest his guilt — seemingly fixated on going to his grave with nothing short of the utmost in romantic gentlemanly decorum.

Part of the Themed Set: Spies.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Wartime Executions

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