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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1557: Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius, already in their coffins

Add comment February 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1557,* the long-dead bones of the Protestant theologians Martin Bucer and Paulus Phagius (Fagius) were sent to the stake during the Tudor era’s brief Catholic recrudescence under Mary I.


18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.

Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.

Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.

Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:

If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …

[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.

Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.

* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.

** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

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1539: St. John Stone

1 comment December 27th, 2015 Headsman

Though it is not certain, it is thought that December 27, 1539 might have been the execution date of Catholic martyr St. John Stone in England.

An Augustinian whose friary was closed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stone at his expulsion “rudely and traitorously” refused to endorse Henry VIII’s authority over the church. He maintained his obstinacy even under the personal interrogation of Thomas Cromwell.

Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.

Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

The Vatican rates John Stone as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and canonized him in 1970.

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1556: Joan Waste, in Windmill Pit

Add comment August 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1556, Derby hosted the incineration of a young blind woman who refused to renounce her Protestantism.

The ascendance of Queen Mary briefly restored Catholicism as England’s official religion. The previous decades’ Protestant reforms, however, had been achieved with bloodshed and could only be undone with more bloodshed. (That’s why she’s “Bloody Mary”: because she executed a bunch of people, and because the Protestants who executed a bunch of people won out and got to do the naming.)

In the wrong place at the wrong time was Joan Waste, who though blind proved a deft hand at knitting ropes to support her poor family. Inspired by hearing Scripture in the Queen’s English during Anglican services shaped by Cranmer, Joan scrimped and saved the earnings of her poor profession until she could afford a Bible … specifically (and problematically for the new old faith), one printed in English rather than Latin. Being blind, she then had to recruit friends, townspeople, or other parishioners to read it to her.

This made her a pretty easy target when England reinstated Catholic heresy laws in 1555, although presumably not one selected by the public relations department. Pious Joan preferred the stake to renouncing her heresies.

After enduring an execution sermon from the Catholic churchman Anthony Draycot, Foxe’s martyrology describes the fate of “the poor, sightless object” — which doesn’t look the most felicitous build of a noun phrase — who “was taken to a place called Windmill Pit, near the town, where she for a time held her brother by the hand, and then prepared herself for the fire, calling upon the pitying multitude to pray with her, and upon Christ to have mercy upon her, until the glorious light of the everlasting Sun of righteousness beamed upon her departed spirit.”

The old Windmill Pit execution site can still be found in Derby today. There’s a local legend, of Victorian manufacture, that Joan cursed the location with the words: “never shall this pit, of which ye are about to make a pit of fire, hold drop of water more.”

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1541: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury

1 comment May 27th, 2013 Nancy Bilyeau

Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.

On this date in 1541, 68-year-old Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, was beheaded within the confines of the Tower of London, as befitted her rank. She was cousin to Henry VIII’s mother, and well trusted by the king for years. Yet this intelligent and dignified aristocrat died without trial in a horribly botched execution that is considered a low point of Henry’s reign.

Margaret knew better than most how difficult it was to survive royal storms if your family was close to the throne. Yet despite all her efforts to stay out of danger, it was her family that doomed her to the axe in the end.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence and brother to Edward IV, was her father and Isabel Neville, oldest daughter of the “Kingmaker,” Earl of Warwick, her mother. This glittering pair didn’t last long. Mother died of disease (some whispered poison); the duke, disloyal to his brother the king, was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey in the Tower of London.

First Murderer. Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy
sword, and then we will chop him in the malmsey-butt
in the next room.

Second Murderer. O excellent devise! make a sop of him.

-Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act 3, Scene 4. Margaret Pole is an ensemble character with no lines in this play.

Once the Tudors were in charge, royal children were either imprisoned, such as Margaret’s brother, who spent the rest of his life in the Tower of London,* or assimilated. At the age of 14, Margaret was married to Sir Richard Pole, a trusted relation of Henry VII‘s. The marriage was not unhappy, and they had four sons and one daughter.

When Catherine of Aragon arrived in England to marry Prince Arthur, Margaret became one of her ladies and a deep friendship sprang up. Years later, when Margaret was a relatively young widow, tall and red-haired, and Catherine was married to Arthur’s brother, Henry VIII, Margaret was singled out for several great honors. In 1512, the king gave Margaret many of the lands of her Warwick grandfather and a family title. She became the countess of Salisbury in her own right.

Margaret was selected by king and queen to be the governor for the 9-year-old Princess Mary, their only child. In a separate, vast household, she would be the one to guide Mary toward her destiny as heir to the throne. Some of Margaret’s own children made excellent marriages, such as her daughter Ursula to the oldest son of the duke of Buckingham. Her son, Reginald, began to shine as a cleric and intellectual; Henry VIII paid for his studies at the University of Padua.

The Pole family fortunes crashed — as so many others did — after Anne Boleyn became the second wife of Henry VIII. Not surprisingly, Margaret had sided with Catherine and Mary during the divorce struggle. When in 1533, the king’s men came to Mary’s household to claim her jewels as part of Henry’s move to bastardize his daughter, Margaret refused to hand them over. She was then discharged from her office by the king, who called her a “fool.”

Margaret did and said nothing else that was publicly critical of the king. She never saw Catherine of Aragon again and rarely saw Mary, to whom she had been a second mother. She spent her time in country retirement. She adhered to traditional Catholic doctrine, and priests lived in her homes. This was not illegal, but as religious reform gained steam, it brought her under scrutiny.

However, from the safety of France and Italy, her son, Reginald, chose to make public remarks sharply critical of Henry VIII. He published a treatise in 1536 attacking the king’s claim to superiority over the English church and calling on the princes of Europe to depose him. The king was enraged.

Margaret and her oldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montagu, wrote Reginald letters pleading with him to cease his attacks. “Do your duty or you will be my undoing,” she warned — correctly.

In 1538 another of Margaret’s sons, Geoffrey, was questioned and then confined in the Tower of London. He eventually gave statements that his brother, Montagu, and their relations and friends sympathized with Reginald Pole and had privately criticized Henry VIII. Under law, this was treason, punishable by death. All the noblemen accused of being part of the “Exeter Conspiracy” were executed. But there was no proof that Margaret Pole ever wrote or said anything that fell under the definition of treason.

It didn’t matter. She was questioned, held under house arrest, and then imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years. She suffered in the winters, and Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the teenage Catherine Howard, bravely sent her some warm clothes.

A minor rebellion broke out in England, led by a Neville, her mother’s family, but unconnected to Margaret. Nonetheless, it seems to have prompted Henry VIII to eliminate the woman whom he had once trusted and admired, who was his closest female relative after his daughters.

Early in the morning of May 27, the Constable of the Tower woke up Margaret to tell her she would die within the next few hours. The ailing countess replied she had never been charged with any crime.

Because of her royal descent, she was executed on the Tower grounds, on the same spot as Anne Boleyn five years earlier, before more than 100 spectators. There was not enough time to erect a scaffold; also, the executioner was not in residence, only his novice.

Margaret commended her soul to God and asked the spectators to pray for the king and queen, Prince Edward and of course the Princess Mary. Reports conflict on what happened next. Some say she refused to kneel before the block on the ground, or to stand still. The novice swung at her with his ax, hacking at her shoulders, before managing to kill her. It may have taken 10 chops.

Margaret Pole was buried in the Chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula, within the Tower, not far from Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More and Cardinal John Fisher. Within the year Catherine Howard would join them. In the 19th century Macauley said of St Peter Ad Vincula, “In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than that little cemetery.”

* The rest of Edward Plantagenet’s life ended at the block in 1499, after he tried to escape with Perkin Warbeck.

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1521: Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham

6 comments May 17th, 2013 Nancy Bilyeau

Thanks for the guest post to Nancy Bilyeau, the author of The Crown and The Chalice, thrillers set in Tudor England. The main character is Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice.

On this day in 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.” Today few believe that the duke actively plotted to overthrow his king. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.

Buckingham’s life had been marked with loss and suspicion.

When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. Young Edward Stafford was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.

He became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. But as he grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII.

Stafford was a direct descendant of Edward III and so had a solid claim to the succession. What didn’t help was that foreign ambassadors wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler.”

Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown.

But over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.

In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his vast estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge.

What changed in the cousins’ relationship to draw treason charges in 1521?

For one, it was becoming apparent that Henry VIII would have no male heir.

Catherine of Aragon‘s last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one, and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler someday. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham, instead?

On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower. At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.

Buckingham denied all charges. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.

Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”

Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last.

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1586: Saint Margaret Clitherow, pressed Catholic

1 comment March 25th, 2013 Courtney Thomas

(Thanks to historian Courtney Thomas for the guest post. -ed.)

On March 25, 1586 Margaret Clitherow, the wife of a York-based butcher, was subjected to one of the more obscure forms of capital punishment in early modern England: she was pressed to death, the mandated form of punishment for those who refused to enter a plea to a legal charge.*

Margaret was a victim of increasingly stringent attitudes toward recusants in the second half of Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603): Margaret was pressed to death just a year before the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for her role in a Catholic plot to overthrow the Elizabethan regime and two years before the 1588 Spanish Armada.

The two officials who were tasked with carrying out the sentence allegedly employed several beggars to perform the job instead and Margaret was taken to the toll-both on the bridge that straddles the river Ouse where she was stripped and had a handkerchief tied over her eyes as a blindfold. She was then placed upon a rock roughly the size of a baseball or an adult’s fist and a large panel of wood (roughly the size of a door) was put on top of her and slowly loaded with 700-800 pounds of rocks and stones.

In theory the smaller rock beneath her would break her back when the heavy rocks were piled on.

Witnesses report that she expired within about fifteen minutes. Other victims of this punishment were not typically so lucky. For example, Giles Corey, executed in Salem in 1692, had weights slowly piled on him for a period of several days (being asked daily before more weight was added if he wished to enter a plea to the charge that he was a warlock) before he expired.

Margaret was born Margaret Middleton in 1552/3, the daughter of a wax-chandler named Thomas and his wife Jane, the daughter of Richard Turner, an innkeeper. One of four children, she was born during the reign of Mary I (who has gone down in history with the unfortunate (but not entirely undeserved) appellation “Bloody” attached to her).

A bit of background on the process of the various reformations in England is necessary to understand why Margaret’s Catholic beliefs were treated so harshly.

Having broken with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Anglican Church in the 1530s through a legislative reformation designed to assist him in securing the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could wed Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII saw many of his religious policies undone by his heirs.

He was succeeded on the throne in 1547 by his son (with his third wife, Jane Seymour), Edward VI, who made England into a more recognizably Protestant state than Henry appears to have intended (while Henry was interested in reforming stances, he appears to have identified most strongly with Catholic principles and geared his reformation toward abolishing the authority of the Pope in English ecclesiastical affairs, rather than changing beliefs and practices).

Edward was, however, a short-lived king, having died in 1553 after but six years on the throne. He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry’s first wife Catherine of Aragon) who was a devout Catholic and spent much of her reign steering England back into the port of Catholicism — a task which involved martyring approximately three hundred of her subjects for their Protestant sympathies.

Mary, in turn, was succeeded by Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was of a Protestant mindset and reinstituted the Anglican Church. Though initially reluctant to persecute people for their beliefs (she expressed herself as having no desire to “make windows into men’s souls”), political circumstances involving a plethora of plots on the part of Catholics (both real and perceived) against the Queen resulted in a hardening of attitudes.

While fines and penalties were in place for non-attendance at Church of England services, the regime also began to enforce strict penalties against those found guilty of sheltering priests and Jesuits. And it was to these laws that Margaret fell victim.


On July 1, 1571, when she was about eighteen years old, Margaret wed John Clitherow, a local York butcher and a widower with two sons. The number of children borne by Margaret to her husband is unknown; in addition to her stepsons William (1563-1636) and Thomas (d. 1604), she bore Henry (b. 1572) and Anne (1574-1622) and there is mention of other pregnancies but the details do not survive.

In 1574, when she was twenty one, Margaret experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism.

While her husband did not join her in converting, members of his family also held Catholic sympathies and he was not unsupportive of her conversion, with the exception of one recorded incident when he railed against Catholics while drunk at a banquet.

Margaret soon became highly involved in northern England’s underground Catholic community. She regularly held masses in her home in the Shambles (where she assisted her husband with his business) and her son, Henry, traveled to Rheims (a Jesuit centre) to train for the priesthood. Inside her home, Margaret created a series of architectural features to facilitate the concealing of priests, including a priest hole and a hole which was cut between the attics of her house and the adjoining house which could be used by a priest to escape in the event that the house was searched.

Inevitably Margaret’s involvement with the local Catholic community drew official censure, and from 1576 onwards, John Clitherow incurred regular fines for her refusal to attend Church of England services with him. She was also imprisoned several times for her refusal to conform, serving three separate terms in York Castle as a recusant (August 1577 – February 1578; October 1580 – April 1581; March 1583 – winter 1584).

Once released, despite her efforts at concealment, on March 10, 1586 Margaret was arrested for harbouring priests (which, in 1585 had been made a capital offense). In a search of her house, a frightened child had revealed the location of a secret room containing Catholic paraphernalia and designed to shelter a priest.

After her arrest, Margaret was jailed and on March 14 she appeared at the assizes. Although she was repeatedly asked to plead, she refused a trial by jury and thereby incurred the penalty of peine forte et dure: being crushed or pressed to death. Margaret maintained that her refusal to plead was a measure to prevent her children and servants having to testify against her and also served to protect the souls of the jury which would find her guilty. It is very likely that she also wanted to protect other local recusants who had assisted her and desired to prevent the revealing of their identity, which a trial would have uncovered. However, many contemporaries simply thought her mad and wondered at her seeming indifference to her husband and children — and Margaret’s willingness to abandon them for martyrdom.

Yet, despite her imminent death, Margaret allegedly did not forget her family in her final days and reportedly sent her hat to her husband and her hose and shoes to her daughter, Anne. Some people, including her father-in-law, engaged in scurrilous mongering and postulated that Margaret’s willingness to die stemmed from guilt over an illicit encounter with her confessor, whose child she now carried. Such views, however, did not attain much popularity.

After her sentencing, she was visited by several local Protestant preachers and kin, who endeavoured in vain to persuade her to plead guilty and throw herself on the mercy of the assize justices. She also appears to have been pregnant at the time as many people urged her to publicly admit her condition and thereby obtain a stay of execution.

Margaret steadfastly refused to consider any of these things; she had embraced martyrdom. After her death, local family and friends (one of whom, John Mush, later authored a biography that remains the primary source for her life) found her corpse (buried anonymously as a criminal) and reinterred her in an unknown location in accordance with Catholic rites.

After his wife’s death, John Clitherow married for a third time and remained a convinced Protestant until his own death. The couple’s children, however, embraced their mother’s Catholic faith. Anne Clitherow was briefly imprisoned in 1593 for her refusal to attend Church of England services and eventually became a nun at the convent of St. Ursula’s in Louvain in 1598. Henry (the son who had traveled to Rheims) studied first to be a Capuchin (he joined that order in 1592) and then to become a Dominican. He died, possibly insane, without having firmly settled on an order. Margaret’s stepson, William, became a priest in 1608, and her other stepson, Thomas, a draper, was imprisoned for his recusancy. He died in Hull prison in 1604.

Margaret’s work for the English Catholic community and her martyrdom resulted in her canonization in the twentieth century. She was beatified in 1929 and canonized in October of 1970 — one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. After her execution, somebody apparently chopped off her hand to preserve as a relic at the Bar Convent in York. Margaret’s feast day in the current Roman Catholic calendar, together with that of the other thirty-nine English martyrs, is May 4 — although in England it is celebrated on August 30.

A few books about Margaret Clitherow

* Editor’s note: the trial could not begin without a guilty/not-guilty plea, so pressing was a means of forcing a mum defendant to the bar. Brute force often succeeded in extracting the necessary plea; however, because death by pressing preceded trial or conviction, a defendant hardy enough to undergo that fate could use it as a means to skip to the “execution” without suffering the other pains of criminal conviction. In Margaret’s case, she avoided the potential implication of other furtive Catholics at trial; in Giles Corey’s case, he avoided forfeiting his property upon the inevitable witchcraft conviction, and passed his estate to his heirs instead.

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1578: Blessed John Nelson, martyr

2 comments February 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1578, John Nelson was martyred at Tyburn.

A Catholic who had popped across to Flanders to train as a priest, Nelson was captured after about a year’s ministry in December 1577.

Matters with this minor martyr proceeded according to the usual script from that point. Interrogators put it to him whether Queen Elizabeth was the proper head of the Church of England — that old chestnut. The wrong answer would be treason.

[Nelson] was brought forth to be examined before the high commissioners. Here they tendered him the oath of the queen’s supremacy, which he refused to take; and being asked, why he would not swear, he answered, because he had never heard, or read, that any lay prince could have that pre-eminence. And being farther demanded, who then was the head of the church, he answered, sincerely and boldly, that the pope’s holiness was, to whom that supreme authority in earth was due, as being Christ’s vicar, and the lawful successor of St. Peter.

Secondly, [t]hey asked him his opinion of the religion now practised in England; to which he answered, without any hesitation, that it was both schismatical and heretical. Whereupon they bid him define what schism was; he told them, it was a voluntary departure from the unity of the catholic Roman faith. Then (seeking to ensnare him) they farther urged, what is the queen then, a schismatic or no? … he answered, conditionally, if she be the setter forth [of Anglicanism], said he, and defender of this religion, now practised in England, then she is a schismatic and a heretic.

After he was cut down alive from his hanging so that he could be disemboweled and quartered, Nelson’s last words were reportedly “I forgive the queen and all the authors of my death.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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1486: Humphrey Stafford of Grafton, no sanctuary

1 comment July 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1486,* the knight Humphrey Stafford was executed at Tyburn.

Stafford had backed the wrong horse at the Battle of Bosworth Field that settled the Wars of the Roses, and fled thence to the Quasimodo-like sanctuary of a parish.

He had a couple of years to cool his heels and work his rosary while the new king, Henry VII, set about securing a reign of dubious legitimacy. One cunning strategem: Henry had his late rival’s supporters (like our friend Stafford) attainted of treason without actually taking action on those attainders, maintaining continuity with the ancien regime while dangling a Damoclean sword over the head of any lord who might step out of line again in the future.

Nevertheless, in the spring of 1486, the already-attainted Stafford emerged from his holy confines to throw the dice on a minor rebellion that never got off the ground. As the whole thing descended into fiasco, Stafford fled back to sanctuary at Culham.


A cozy but ill-fortified sanctuary: St. Paul’s at Culham. Image (c) Rex Harris and used with permission. (Mr. Harris says the church as pictured is a Victorian-era rebuild.)

Henry broke the asserted sanctuary to haul his man off consecrated grounds.

This was a bit of a sticky wicket, juridically, and Henry’s own judges proceeded very cautiously with it — ultimately holding that sanctuaries proceeded from the common-law grant of the king, and specifically that sanctuary may not be pleaded for instances of treason. There’s more about all this in this Google books freebie, which adds the interesting detail that the Pope himself did not fight this interpretation — assenting in a papal bull later that year to a much-circumscribed view of ecclesiastical refuge:

  1. Where a sanctuary man got out of sanctuary and committed mischief and trespass, he lost the benefit of sanctuary although he returned to it.
  2. The goods of no sanctuary men were to be protected from their Creditors.
  3. If any man took sanctuary for case of treason, the King might appoint keepers to look after him in sanctuary.

“The Rebellion of Humphrey Stafford in 1486″ by C. H. Williams in The English Historical Review, April 1928 — a JSTOR article that seems like it must be in the public domain even if it’s not yet covered by that institution’s free content bloc — is virtually the only semi-detailed source on this affair that’s readily available. Williams’s pithy conclusion: “Henry’s policy towards Stafford and his party was definite enough. Like all problems of statecraft of that period the rebellion ‘was so handled that neither prerogative nor profit went to diminution.'”

* The date is asserted here and here, among other places, although upon what primary authority I have not been able to determine.

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1555: William Hunter, reader

Add comment March 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1555* — crying, “away, thou false prophet!” at the priest sent to hector him in his last moments — William Hunter was burned in Brentwood, Essex for Protestantism.


Hunter at the stake, from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

Here in the last brief moment of official Catholicism under Queen Mary, our apprentice silk-weaver was caught reading the Bible for himself in the local chapel.

Called in for questioning, both Hunter and the civil authorities decided it was worth his life to dispute the doctrine of transubstantiation. Catholic pro, Hunter con, of course.


(cc) image from Bopuc.

So that was that.

A couple of years later, the very justice who had first examined Hunter received a grant to found a school. Brentwood School is still going strong in its fifth century, and on its grounds — directly adjacent, in fact, to the school’s first purpose-built room** — rests a stone for the edification of the generations of Anglican pupils who followed. It honors the young man who died to crack open a book.

WILLIAM HUNTER. MARTYR. Committed to the Flames March 26th MDLV.
Christian Reader, learn from his example to value the privilege of an open Bible. And be careful to maintain it.

An elm tree planted at that spot came to be known as the Martyrs Elm.


1847 illustration of Brentwood School and the Martyrs Elm.

* This is the date per Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; others give March 27. The memorial stone carries the day for our purposes in view of contradictory sourcing.

** The legend that Brentwood School was founded as the justice’s penance for dooming Hunter seems to be unfounded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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