1549: Robert Kett, rebelling against enclosures

5 comments December 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1549, Robert Kett (sometimes “Ket” or “Kette”) was hanged over the side of Norwich Castle for an eponymous rebellion.

Reviews here and here.

Possibly England’s last medieval peasant rising, and possibly its first modern revolt, Kett’s Rebellion pitted the agrarian feudal commons against the proto-capitalist world taking shape.

A 15th century of relative prosperity for the English peasant had given way to a decades-long process (centuries-long, really) of enclosure.

Impelled by the profitable wool export business, landlords began “enclosing” formerly open arable land for pasture, thereby destroying the communal and quasi-communal agricultural models of the middle ages.

Karl Marx

For Marx, among many others, this revolution in agricultural production — and the attendant proletarianization of the former peasantry — marks the dawn of the capitalist epoch, when

great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and “unattached” proletarians on the labour-market. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process …

Although, therefore, the English land, after the Norman Conquest, was distributed in gigantic baronies, one of which often included some 900 of the old Anglo-Saxon lordships, it was bestrewn with small peasant properties, only here and there interspersed with great seignorial domains. Such conditions, together with the prosperity of the towns so characteristic of the 15th century, allowed of that wealth of the people which Chancellor Fortescue so eloquently paints in his “Laudes legum Angliae;” but it excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth.

The prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production, was played in the last third of the 15th, and the first decade of the 16th century. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour-market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … In insolent conflict with king and parliament, the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry … As Thornton rightly has it, the English working-class was precipitated without any transition from its golden into its iron age. (Capital, volume I, chapters 2627)

It did not suffer its precipitation quietly.

Thomas More

Enclosures were a predominant social problem in England throughout the century, and if contemporaries could hardly descry the shape of the economic revolution taking shape, they worriedly noticed the poverty, the vagabondage, and the depopulated villages.

In Utopia, Thomas More upbraids a country where

your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots! not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes; for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners, as well as tenants, are turned out of their possessions by trick or by main force, or, being wearied out by ill usage, they are forced to sell them; by which means those miserable people, both men and women, married and unmarried, old and young, with their poor but numerous families (since country business requires many hands), are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff

Commissions studied enclosure; edicts forbade and reversed them; commentators denounced them — all to no effect.

Robert Kett

Robert Kett, from a larger painting (click to see it) by Samuel Wale.

Henrician England had plenty of violent social transformation on its plate, of course, and plenty of violent tools to manage it. When the philandering tyrant kicked the bucket in 1547, he left the unfolding social catastrophe to the weakened protectorate government of his sickly nine-year-old heir.

In East Anglia in the summer of 1549, a peasant riot against an enclosure caught a spark. Unexpectedly, when the mob moved to throw down the enclosures put up by Robert Kett (another small landowner), he committed himself to the peasant cause and ably steered the rebellion for six heady weeks.

Kett was the man for his time and place: proving a natural leader, he marshaled the inchoate rage of his countrymen into an orderly, disciplined force.

Kett’s peasant army marched on Norwich, and stunningly captured England’s second city, thereupon petitioning the crown upon a variety of economic grievances (the petition is available on Wikipedia).

And Kett meant business, as this fiery (perhaps slightly fatalistic) oration suggests; he well knew that he had committed his own person to glory or destruction.

Now are ye overtopped and trodden down by gentlemen, and put out of possibility ever to recover foot. Rivers of riches ran into the coffers of your landlords, while you are pair’d to the quick, and fed upon pease and oats like beasts. You are fleeced by these landlords for their private benefit, and as well kept under by the public burdens of State wherein while the richer sort favour themselves, ye are gnawn to the very bones. You tyrannous masters often implead, arrest, and cast you into prison, so that they may the more terrify and torture you in your minds, and wind our necks more surely under their arms. And then they palliate these pillories with the fair pretence of law and authority! Fine workmen, I warrant you, are this law and authority, who can do their dealings so closely that men can only discover them for your undoing. Harmless counsels are fit for tame fools; for you who have already stirred there is no hope but in adventuring boldly.

Alas, like the enclosures themselves, the matter was to be resolved against the peasantry by main force. [bits and bobs on the daily progress of skirmishes and battles in this pdf] Though the rebels actually defeated the first force sent against them, they were decisively beaten at Dussindale on Aug. 27.

“We were promised ynoughe and more then ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.”*

Promises of clemency induced the survivors to surrender peacably; though wholesale punitive bloodletting seems not to have been imposed, the leaders, of course, had to be made an example of.

Robert Kett and his brother, William, were convicted of treason and hanged.

Smoothly leveraging his dispatch in handling the rebellion, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, overturned the national political leadership of the Lord Protector the Duke of Somerset, who was accused of having triggered the rising with an excess of sympathy for the dispossessed peasant class. (Both Somerset and Northumberland would end up on the chopping block themselves.)

* Quote from a survivor of the rebellion, cited by Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Kett’s Rebellion in Context,” Past & Present, No. 84 (Aug., 1979).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1726: William Fly, unrepentant pirate

July 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1726, an obscure boatswain who had mutinied for the liberty of piracy succumbed but did not submit on the gallows in Boston.

Fly overthrew (figuratively and literally — they both ended up in the drink) a tyrannous captain and first mate on a British slave ship in May, reconstituting it Fame’s Revenge, and in a northward journey from North Carolina to New England captured a few less-than-lucrative ships in a month and change.

A minor character in the annals of seaborne pillage. So why should historian Marcus Rediker devote the opening chapter to his Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (review) to this man?

[T]he early-eighteenth-century pirate ship was a world turned upside down, made so by the articles of agreement that established the rules and customs of the pirates’ alternative social order. Pirates “distributed justice,” elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline. They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order. They demonstrated quite clearly — and subversively — that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal Navy.

Rediker’s sympathetic but unromantic work treats the radical, doomed sphere of resistance pirates offered to the enormous cruelty of the developing Atlantic economy: grinding exploitation of white sailors in the service of the black slave trade under the iron hand of the empire (British, in this case, but hardly exclusive to Old Blighty.)

It bears the trace of Hakim Bey‘s treatment of Temporary Autonomous Zones:

Fleeing from hideous “benefits” of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the “state of Nature.” Having declared themselves “at war with all the world,” they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called “Articles” which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden — quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.

Certainly many men (and women) turned to piracy for many different reasons. Rediker’s work on the systematic brutality in the guts of the imperial economy and the pressures of resistance and coercion they spawned finds an outstanding individual exponent in this day’s victim.

Fly walked indifferently to the gallows; to the astonishment of the spectators, he upbraided the hangman’s poor knot and remade with his own hands the instrument for his own neck — one last use of his seaman’s proficiency with ropes.

On Fly’s turn upon that fatal stage, he would not read from the classics — not cower before his executioners, not salute the majesty of the crown that hung him, not enjoin the mob to straighten up and sail right, and certainly not be cowed on the cusp of the eternal by officious colonial holy roller Cotton Mather’s vain personal bid to convert the corsair:

When the time came for last words on that awful occasion, Mather wanted Fly and his fellow pirates to act as preachers — that is, he wanted them to provide examples and warnings to those who were assembled to watch the execution. They all complied. Samuel Cole, Henry Greenville, and George Condick [three of Fly’s crew], perhaps hoping for a last-minute pardon, stood penitently before the crowd and warned all to obey their parents and superiors and not to curse, drink, whore, or profane the Lord’s day. These three pirates acknowledged the justice of the proceedings against them, and they thanked the ministers for their assistance. Fly, however, did not ask for forgiveness, did not praise the authorities, and did not affirm the values of Christianity, as he was supposed to do, but he did issue a warning. Addressing the port-city crowd thick with ship captains and sailors, he proclaimed his final, fondest wish: that “all Masters of Vessels might take Warning by the Fate of the Captain (meaning Captain Green) that he had murder’d, and to pay Sailors their Wages when due, and to treat them better; saying, that their Barbarity to them made so many turn Pyrates.” Fly thus used his last breath to protest the conditions of work at sea, what he called “Bad Usage.” He would be launched into eternity with the brash threat of mutiny on his lips.

“Bad Usage.” Rediker later defines it as “the violent disciplinary regime of the eighteenth-century deep-sea sailing ship, the ordinary and pervasive violence of labor discipline as practiced by the ship captain as he moved the commodities that were the lifeblood of the capitalist world economy.”

The resistance to a pattern of savage floggings, cheated wages, and the whole spectrum of rough and arbitrary authority on a shipboard dictatorship might be spontaneous and individual in the instant … but it was thick with the stuff of solidarity, and the fraternity of outlawry could make people equal across the boundaries of national rivalry and institutional racism — “Villains of all Nations,” as the title goes.

And the obdurate, like Fly, could every now and then move the pastors who were sent to thunder hellfire at them rather than the other way around.

As it happened, the “stupid” and “impenitent” pirate [Mather uses these words to describe Fly elsewhere] was able to convince the self-righteous minister of at least one primary cause of piracy. During his execution sermon, Mather made it a point to address the ship captains in the crowd, telling them in no uncertain terms that they must hereafter avoid being “too like the Devil in their Barbarous Usage of the Men that are under them and lay them under Tempations to do Desperate Things.”

After the hanging, William Fly’s body was gibbeted as a warning on Nixes Mate, a barely-there speck of an island at the mouth of Boston Harbor. For Rediker, this date marks the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Although the full book is worth the buy, a paper Rediker wrote on the subject prior the book’s publication is available free online.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Massachusetts,Notable Participants,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1720: Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham

7 comments November 17th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1720Nov. 18, 1720, the pirate captain “Calico Jack” Rackham was hanged together with his crew by the British governor of Jamaica.

Nicknamed for his flamboyant clothing, the Bristol-born buccaneer plundered the West Indies during the “Golden Age of Piracy”, having ousted his former captain Charles Vane. Rackham is chiefly remembered to history for two who were not hanged with the rest of his crew: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, rare female pirates who served aboard Rackham’s ship.

Immortalized by Daniel Defoe in his pseudonymous A General History of the Pyrates, Bonny and Read came to piracy by different paths but were both every bit the part and leaders aboard their ship — “very profligate, cursing, and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do any Thing on board.” Bonny, at least, was Rackham’s lover — having eloped with him from her husband.

Upon capture, both women “pleaded their bellies” to escape the gallows, and though it’s unclear whether either really was pregnant, it seems the gambit spared both from execution.

Read died in prison shortly after, while Bonny vanished from history — prompting speculation that she had escaped, secured a pardon, been ransomed by her wealthy father, and/or returned again to piracy under a different guise. Reportedly, she castigated Rackham at their last meeting in prison for lying drunk below decks while only the women resisted the capture of their ship: “I am sorry to see you here Jack, but if you had fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog.”

As the world’s best-known women pirates, Bonny and Read are recalled as anything from sexualized historical curios to action heroines to proto-feminists.

They feature in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, the Witchblade comic book series, utopian theorizing, popular history … and the occasional action figure.

Update: A much more detailed foray into the lives of these daring women is at Scandalous Women.

Also, I posted this under the wrong date: it should be Nov. 18. Balls.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,England,Famous,Gibbeted,Hanged,Jamaica,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Piracy,Pirates,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

December 2019
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!