1554: A cat dressed as a prelate

Add comment April 8th, 2016 Headsman

Whatever might be said, from a state’s perspective, for the virtues of making a public spectacle of capital punishment, the scaffold could also double as a subversive rostrum.

Religious martyrs, vaunting outlaws, courageous dissidents — all these sometimes sought to speak their own dangerous voices through the sermon of their deaths. If most such displays are usually better remembered by rhetoricians than historians, it is still true that public executions carried the potential to whipsaw against the authorities conducting them. In these pages, we have seen the commoners who are supposed to be the spectacle’s audience force their way into proceedings by rescuing a woman at the block (murdering the executioner), tearing down the breaking-wheel and carrying away its prospective victim in triumph, rampaging through Edinburgh and lynching a brutal gendarme in the hanging party, and eerily refusing to attend a Italian execution in a show of silent menace.

And apart from high drama when the place of execution is put to its usual function, the site itself has underappreciated potential for popular expropriation.

That brings us to this date’s subject, courtesy of the Anne Boleyn Files: a grisly and caustic comment left on the gallows by some unknown Protestant in the first year of Queen Mary‘s Catholic reign. To situate this event in time and context, the Protestant rebellion of Thomas Wyatt had been crushed just two months before, leading to the precautionary beheading of potential Protestant rival Lady Jane Grey. Three days after the events here, on April 11, 1554, Wyatt himself went to the block.

The same 8. of April, being then Sunday, a cat with hir head shorn and the likenes of a vestment cast ouer hir, with hir fore feet tied togither, and a round peece of paper like a singing cake [communion wafer] betwirt them, was hanged on a gallowes in Cheape, neere to the crosse, in the parish of S. Mathew, which cat being taken downe, was caried to the Bish. of London, and he caused the same to be shewed at Pauls crosse, by the preacher D. Pendleton.

There’s no no record that the heretical “executioner” was ever outed, despite publication of a reward.

The xiij day of Aprell was a proclamasyon was made that what so mever he where that could bryng forth hym that dyd hang the catt on the galaus, he shuld have XX marke for y labur.

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1554: Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk

Add comment February 23rd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1554, Tudor nobleman Henry Grey — who for nine days had been the father of the queen — was beheaded at Queen Mary’s command.

He was one of the inveterate schemers who grappled to secure his family’s foot upon the throne during the uncertain years when Edward VI succeeded Henry VIII. Frail and underaged, Edward’s foreseeable early death without issue created a situation where the cream of the aristocracy could plausibly dream themselves the namesakes of the next great English dynasty. Heck, the late royal monster was himself just the son of the guy who had taken the throne in battle by offing the previous dynasty, an event still knocking about in a few living, wizened memories.

So for the late 1540s into the early 1550s the court’s nigh-incestuous parlor game of consanguinary bedroom alliances was played for the highest stakes.

Queens were wild at this table. Henry VIII’s will had queued up the succession after Edward with his two half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, followed next the three daughters of our man Henry Grey — because Henry Grey was married to King Henry’s niece. (That niece got cut out of the succession herself, however.) It was Henry’s fond hope, but not his kingdom’s destiny, that Edward would have grown up to sire a male heir who would render academic the ladies’ pecking-order.

But until that time the order mattered, and Henry Grey — let’s just call him Suffolk for simplicity’s sake even though he doesn’t obtain that title until 1551; he’d previously been Marquess of Dorset — started angling to jump the queue by cuddling up to King Edward.

There was a concoction with Thomas Seymour in the 1540s to orchestrate the marriage of Suffolk’s oldest daughter Jane Grey to Edward, where the Grey family could do the heir-siring directly; but, Edward’s other guardians discovered and scotched the plan. Yet even though young Edward didn’t put a ring on it, he so favored this family — and, a staunch Protestant, he so feared the potential succession of his Catholic sister Mary — that Edward when dying drew up his own will designating this same Jane Grey as his heir while declaring Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate.*

This was actually a coup not so much for Suffolk as for the realm’s de facto executive, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland — who had been the one to secure Jane Grey’s hand in marriage to Dudley’s own son, Lord Guildford Dudley. Both were teenagers: it was Northumberland who meant, through them, to rule. It need hardly be added that Suffolk was pleased enough in 1553 to tie his family’s fortunes to the big man on campus.

The plan’s speedy and total failure is well-known but that is not the same as saying it was foreordained. England had to this point never submitted to a female sovereign ruling in her own right; Mary, an on-again off-again bastard during the wild realignments of Tudor dynastic politics, was a Catholic who had remained nearly cloistered on her estates for the past several years, rarely seen at court. How much “legitimacy” would she command when the chips were down, against Northumberland who already had the apparatus of state in his hand? For the chance to make the Tudors just the overture to the glorious era of Dudley England it was surely worth a roll of the bones.

At any rate, Edward died on July 6, 1553 and Lady Jane Grey was duly pronounced queen on July 10 — the “Nine Days’ Queen” for the span of her reign before Mary supplanted her. On that very same July day a letter from Mary, gathering her adherents in Dudley-hostile East Anglia, arrived to the realm’s ruling clique demanding her own prompt recognition. Even as Northumberland marched out to fight for Jane’s rights (and his own) English grandees were going over to Mary’s claim in a landslide. That’s legitimacy for you: when you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

It was Dudley who caught the brunt of Mary’s wrath in this instance; the kids (quite rightly) were understood as his pawns and stored away in the Tower, heads firmly attached to shoulders but under a dangling treason conviction with which Mary could destroy them at her whim. That time would not be long in coming: as many monarchs have found before and since, a living rival claimant, however submissive, poses a grave danger just by breathing in and out.

Suffolk made sure of it — and doomed his daughter in the process.

Although he already owed his life and his liberty to Mary’s clemency to the onetime friends of Northumberland,** Suffolk wagered both desperately as one of the chief conspirators in Thomas Wyatt‘s January 1554 Protestant rising. This attempted restoration of Protestant power in the kingdom brought fighting to the walls of London and gave the shaken Queen Mary cause to close one security gap by having the Nine Days’ Queen beheaded on February 12, 1554 — while, to far fewer tears, avenging another more self-evident treason by executing Jane’s father as a rebel, too.

* King Edward didn’t have a beef with the Protestant Elizabeth; it’s just that as a legal matter she was either in or out on the line of succession by the same logic that Mary would be in or out. The point was to disinherit Mary.

** Suffolk’s wife, the one whom Henry VIII cut out of the female succession scramble, was friendly with Mary and got hubby released from the Tower post-Northumberland with a slap on the wrist.

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1536: Anne Boleyn’s supposed lovers

4 comments May 17th, 2015 Headsman

Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.

-From the last statement of George Boleyn

This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.

It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*

Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.

  • Norris, the Groom of the Stool
  • Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
  • Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber

“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”

The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she

following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.

This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”

A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.

Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.

Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.

But those were tragedies for later days.

In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)

V. Innocentia
Veritas Viat Fides
Circumdederunt
me inimici mei

by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.

** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.

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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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