1554: Thomas Wyatt the Younger, with the Queen’s life in his hands

2 comments April 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1554, rebel leader Thomas Wyatt the Younger tied on his own blindfold and laid his head on the block, having declared that not “any other now in your durance [i.e., the Tower] was privy to my rising”.

That remark exculpated the Princess Elizabeth, who just days before had been ominously rowed to the Tower on suspicion of having known of or involved herself in Wyatt‘s abortive revolt.

And Wyatt had had to do more than talk the talk to keep the future Queen Elizabeth I out of the executioner’s way.

Sore afraid that Wyatt’s rebellion had been engineered with the connivance of her Protestant half-sister, the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor had had Wyatt tortured to implicate her.

Wyatt held firm to Elizabeth’s innocence.

Had he not, the princess might have followed her mother to the scaffold, instead of becoming one of the realm’s most illustrious monarchs* — a fraught situation aptly portrayed at the outset of the 1998 Cate Blanchett flick Elizabeth.

It wasn’t only religion that made the political situation in 1550s England so perilous.

Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip of Spain had roused fears of Spanish political domination. This, much more than theology, triggered the plot that took Thomas Wyatt’s head off his shoulders.

Against this specter of Iberian influence, Wyatt and some fellow-nobles attempted to raise coordinated insurrections in early 1554. Most fizzled or were busted by authorities before they could get going. Wyatt’s alone, in quarrelsome Kent, ignited: he marched 4,000 men on the city of London and for a moment seemed to have a real prospect of capturing it before the crown rallied the city.

A paroxysm of vengeful executions in February 1554 claimed nearly 100 participants in the rebellion, their mutilated bodies demonstratively hung up around town. (It also claimed Lady Jane Grey, the lately defeated rival contender for Mary’s throne, whom the latter now realized was too dangerous to be left alive.)

It could have been uglier, though.

Despite her “Bloody Mary” reputation, the Queen went fairly easy on this dangerous challenge to her authority, making some high-profile examples but paroling most of the rank-and-file traitors in a hearts-and-minds clemency campaign.

The namesake rebel, however, was never going to be in that bunch. He was kept on a bit in the Tower while Mary’s goons “laboured to make Sir Thomas Wyatt confess concerning the Lady Elizabeth … but unsuccessfully, though torture had been applied.”

“Much suspected by me, nothing proved can be, Quoth Elizabeth prisoner”

Having kept his head under torture, Wyatt lost it on this date — and readied Elizabeth’s to wear the crown.


If you find the Elizabethan age worth celebrating, spare an extra thought this date for Thomas Wyatt the Younger’s eponymous old man.**

This Henrician poet is supposed to have been Anne Boleyn‘s last lover before Henry VIII.

In Henry’s snakepit, youthful frolics could come back to bite you; Wyatt the elder was actually imprisoned for adultery with the queen, only ducking the fatal charge thanks to some pull with Thomas Cromwell.

Wyatt pere wrote a melancholy poem about this depressing turn of his fortunes, but considering his times, you’d have to say he was born under a good sign.

A few years later, he was again on the hook for treason, and (Cromwell having been beheaded in the interim) saved by the fortuitous influence of Queen Catherine Howard, who was herself not long before a fall and a chop. (After that, Lady Wyatt, famous for her gallantries, was supposed to be in the running to become King Henry’s sixth wife even though she was still married to Thomas.)

The elder Wyatt managed to die naturally before trying his luck with a third treason charge.

* Many a slip ‘twixt a cup and a lip, but that turn of ill fate for Elizabeth could have set Mary, Queen of Scots on her way to becoming one of England’s most illustrious monarchs, instead of going to the scaffold.

** The illustrious family ties go the other direction, too. Thomas Wyatt the Younger was the grandfather of Francis Wyatt, the first English royal governor of the New World territory named for Queen Elizabeth: Virginia.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes

9 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part I (Click here for Part II.)

Grim, ghastly, and gruesome — it must be election time Halloween!

The grisliest tricks of the past are the tastiest treats of the season, and that makes Executed Today purpose-built for the occasion. Heck … that’s why it’s our anniversary.

That’s also why it’s rich with ghoulish inspiration for your Halloween costume.

For all the severed heads and flayed skins around here, the set of execution victims who are Halloween-ready is a limited one. It’s just not enough to be famous (or infamous); one must also have an iconography recognizable enough to get the public credit you deserve for your inspired disguise.

If you happen to roll with a crowd that’s totally going to get your Savonarola outfit, more power to you. The rest of us have to play to the masses.

But some few of our principals fit the bill well enough to be fine Halloween choices without too much exertion in the prep department.

Anne Boleyn

Even a character as renowned as Anne Boleyn is a little hard to play: quick, what does she look like?

But between The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, there’s a current pop-culture context for the character (and plenty of precedents). Tudor garb plus the famous “B” necklace will be a dead giveaway for those in the know. For extra credit, add a prosthetic sixth finger to simulate her alleged polydactylism.

Accessories: Date decked out as Henry VIII … or as the French swordsman who beheaded her.

Marie Antoinette

You could rock this collection of Antoinette portraits, but unless you’re designing for a movie, an 18th century gown and a big tall stack of hair ought to do the trick.

Though ahistorical for Marie herself, a red ribbon around the neck, a la the post-Terror “Victim’s Balls”, makes a nice twist.

Accessories: Bring cake.

Joan of Arc

Armor, a Christian emblem, and a tomboyish look will take you home. Totally roust any English you come across.

Accessories: Business cards reading “Miss of Arc”.

Mata Hari

There’s the intrinsic sensuality of death and all, but the famous stripper-spy is this blog’s best choice for a sexy look still true to the theme.

Mata Hari was known for her (supposedly) Indian outfits and routines.

Accessories: Orientalism, by Edward Said.

Guy Fawkes

“The only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”: that is, to blow it up.

That V for Vendetta mask is re-usable for Guy Fawkes Day on — remember, remember? — the fifth of November.

Accessories: Let’s just say it’s nothing they’ll let you take on an airplane.

Charles I

Cromwell succeeded where Fawkes failed, at least as pertains the royal person. And if you’re the type who can sell a Charles I costume — possibly requiring a fairly highbrow room — you’ll have nigh outstripped the achievements of both.

The lush coiffure, the wispy facial hair, the delicate movements … not everyone can pull that stuff off. If you can, get your Alec Guinness impression down and you’re on your way to a date at Whitehall.

Accessories: The whole point is to wear the silly hat, isn’t it?

William Wallace

Francophiles may go for Vercingetorix, but Mel Gibson made Wallace the barbarian everyone loves to hang, draw and quarter.

Don’t neglect to bellow “FREEDOM!” repeatedly at the top of your lungs. Everyone loves that.

[audio:William_Wallace_Freedom_Speech.mp3]

Accessories: That big, swingin’ sword. You know what I’m talking about.

Saddam Hussein

Gone but not forgotten, Saddam offers a variety of looks:

  • Beaten, older Saddam, with salt-and-pepper beard (wear the noose with this look, unless you’re a dead ringer);
  • Haggard, fresh-captured Saddam (not recommended; neither the goofball look nor the implicit triumphalism square with the known sequel)
  • Younger, despotic Saddam, with crazy smile and military fatigues;
  • The Coen brothers’ “bowling alley Saddam” that can double as duds for your neighborhood Lebowski Fest.

Accessories: Be sure to complete the outfit by bringing Colin Powell. Seriously, he’ll be grateful for something to do.

Che Guevara

Love him or hate him, no post-World War II icon is more instantly recognizable than the Cuban guerrilla. Do your part, comrade! Contribute to the posthumous appropriation of his image with a “revolutionary” is-that-ironic-or-not-? Che costume.

Accessories: Che Guevara cigarettes. Che Guevara ankle socks. There’s no shortage of Che Guevara accessories to choose from; for a more meta look, go as Che’s mediated historical image by simply dressing entirely in various Che-branded apparel.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

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

14 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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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,God,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Rape,Religious Figures,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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