1867: The Manchester Martyrs

Add comment November 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, three Fenians hanged for the murder of a Manchester policeman.

They were the Manchester Martyrs — Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin.

“Who were they?” an admiring James Connolly later asked, rhetorically.*

Two members of the Fenian organisation -– Kelly and Deasy –- were trapped in Manchester, and lay awaiting trial in an English prison. The Fenians in that city resolved to rescue them. [Manchester was a hotbed of Irish radicalism -ed.] This they did by stopping the prison van upon the road between Manchester and Salford, breaking open the van, shooting a policeman in the act, and carrying off their comrades under the very eyes of the English authorities.


Marker on the spot of the ambush that started all the trouble. (cc) image from Tom Jeffs.

Out of a number of men arrested for complicity in the deed, three were hanged. These three were ALLEN, LARKIN and O’BRIEN –- the three Manchester Martyrs whose memory we honour today.

There were actually five in all selected to stand trial for their lives for what the British dubbed the “Manchester Outrage”; although all five were condemned to swing, one received clemency and a second was pardoned outright since the evidence against him was soon proven to have been entirely perjured.

Indeed, all five of the men asserted their innocence in the shooting even when they acknowledged joining the crowd attempting to free their brethren.

But they, and especially their partisans, were still more energetic asserting the Fenian cause from the platform afforded by the legal antechambers to the scaffold. “God save Ireland!” they cried at several dramatic points in the trial — and these words titled a beloved patriotic tune in the martyrs’ honor.

The British, basically, freaked at the effrontery of an Irish mob hijacking a police wagon, making Fenian as dirty a word among the Anglo respectable as terrorist is today, and stampeded the case to judgment without dithering overmuch about fine points like meticulous investigation. While respectable liberals could (and did) make the clemency case on grounds of actual innocence, the right-thinking were scandalized by Irish marches in overt support of Fenianism.

“These Irish are really shocking, abominable people,” Queen Victoria wrote privately to one of the government’s Tory cabinet members. “Not like any other civilized nation.”

So it was a bloodthirsty rabble, baying and not a little drunk, that gathered outside the walls of Manchester’s New Bailey Prison to see Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien hang** for their abominableness. This lot also happened to witness the last public hanging in Manchester; England shifted to private executions the next year.

But these by no means represented everyone in Manchester.

The very week of the Fenian ambush, a philosopher had dropped in to Manchester to visit a local industrialist. These were, granted, not Englishmen but Germans. Still, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were keenly interested in the Fenian cause.

Marx exhorted English workers, now and over the years ahead, to make common cause with Fenianism; he apparently authored this clemency appeal for the Manchester Martyrs sent by the First International. The very day after the execution, Engels — our Manchester industrialist — compared the martyrs to John Brown and prophesied that the hangings “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland.” (See Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies)

These martyrs have stood the test of time, in part because Engels’ prediction (more or less) came to pass. But we think it’s their countryman Connolly whose epitaph rings truest — the summons three men in Manchester issued posterity to stand against monstrous edifices as “unyielding foes even to the dungeon and the scaffold.”

We honour them because of their heroic souls. Let us remember that by every test by which parties in Ireland to-day measure political wisdom, or personal prudence, the act of these men ought to be condemned. They were in a hostile city, surrounded by a hostile population; they were playing into the hands of the Government by bringing all the Fenians out in broad daylight to be spotted and remembered; they were discouraging the Irish people by giving them another failure to record; they had no hopes of foreign help even if their brothers in Ireland took the field spurred by their action; at the most their action would only be an Irish riot in an English city; and finally, they were imperilling the whole organisation for the sake of two men. These were all the sound sensible arguments of the prudent, practical politicians and theoretical revolutionists. But “how beggarly appear words before a defiant deed!”

* Connolly was observing the anniversary of the men’s death in 1915, which was the same anniversary a 13-year-old Kevin Barry began his own path to future martyrdom by attending a Manchester Martyrs memorial.

** Hanged badly. Notoriously erratic hangman William Calcraft only killed Allen on the drop; descended the gallows to help Larkin along; and was denied access by O’Brien’s confessor, who said he held that strangling man’s hand full 45 minutes until he finally succumbed.

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1592: Roger Ashton

Add comment June 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1592, Roger Ashton was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.

Ashton is a minor martyr on the Catholic rolls, one of many in the age who (as Edmund Campion put it) were called by determinedly Protestant English crown to “enjoy your Tyburn.”

We’ll let the Catholic Encyclopedia take it from here.

He was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn, 23 June, 1592. His indictment is not preserved. Challoner says it was for procuring a dispensation from Rome to marry his second cousin. Later evidence, while confirming this, shows that it was not the only cause.

In 1585 he had gone to serve in the under the Earl of Leicester against the Spaniards. Sir William Stanley having been placed on guard over the town of Deventer, which had revolted from the Spaniards, he, with the assistance of Ashton, gave the town back to Spain and went over to their side (29 January, 1587).*

Cardinal Allen published a “Defence” of this act** in the form of a letter addressed to one “R.A.”, whose letter to the Cardinal prefixed and under these initials it seems natural to recognize our martyr. Stanley next entrusted to Ashton the difficult task of bringing over his wife from Ireland, but she was already under arrest, and he is said to have been sent Ashton to Rome. At the close of the year 1587 he returned to England and was apprehended in Kent with the marriage dispensation already mentioned. In January, 1588, he was in the Tower, where he lay ill towards the close of the year, when he was transferred to easier confinement in the Marshalsea. From this he managed to escape and fled to his brothers in Lancashire.

He was seized later, at Shields near Newcastle, while trying to escape over the seas. Transferred thence to Durham and York, he was tried and sentenced at Canterbury, and died “very resolute”, making profession of his faith and “… pitied of the people”, though the infamous Topcliffe tried to stir up ill-feeling against him by enlarging on his services to Spain.


Executions at Tyburn in the time of Elizabeth. From Tyburn Tree.

* This event — an English commander betraying a city to the enemy during wartime (in fact, two English commanders, as Rowland York (or Yorke) handed the Spanish the fortress of Zutphen on the same day) — naturally raised a scandal in 1587.

Although this treacherous William Stanley is not to be confused with the contemporaneous fellow-noble of the same name who has a horse in the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” race, Lily Bess Campbell argues that the imprint of events in Deventer and the subsequent volley of pamphleteering informs a discourse of royal prerogative in the Bard’s Henry V, when the disguised monarch goes slumming with the common soldiery on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

BATES

… wee
know enough, if wee know wee are the Kings Subiects:
if his Cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes
the Cryme of it out of vs

WILLIAMS

But if the Cause be not good, the King himselfe
hath a heauie Reckoning to make, when all those
Legges, and Armes, and Heads, chopt off in a Battaile,
shall ioyne together at the latter day, and cry all, Wee dyed
at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a Surgean;
some vpon their Wiues, left poore behind them;
some vpon the Debts they owe, some vpon their Children
rawly left: I am afear’d, there are few dye well, that dye
in a Battaile: for how can they charitably dispose of any
thing, when Blood is their argument? Now, if these men
doe not dye well, it will be a black matter for the King,
that led them to it; who to disobey, were against all proportion
of subiection

Henry replies that soldiers should look after their conscience on their own time and obey the prince of the realm in wartime. No doubt Queen Elizabeth approved.

if they dye vnprouided, no more
is the King guiltie of their damnation, then hee was before
guiltie of those Impieties, for the which they are
now visited. Euery Subiects Dutie is the Kings, but
euery Subiects Soule is his owne.

(As long as we’re digressing with Shakespeare and anti-Stratfordian candidates, here’s an argument that the jittery national mood post-Deventer and pre-routing the Spanish Armada — the time when Mary, Queen of Scots lost her head — makes a case for dating the Henry plays to that period, which in turn makes a case for Edward de Vere as their true author. Make of that what you will.)

** The obedience due a sovereign as opposed to the obedience due to an abstract standard of Right is a lasting modern question, so it’s no surprise that Cardinal Allen’s justification has a modern ring.

For that to revolt, is of itselfe, lawful or unlawful, honorable or otherwise, according to the justice, or injustice of the cause, or difference of the person, from or to whom the revolt is made … Whensoever thou art armed, & in readinesse for battayle, let this be thy first cogitation, that thy very corporal streingth itselfe, is the gift of God: whereby thou shalt stil be put in minde, never to use the gift of God, against God him selfe, that gave it thee.

Presumably he wouldn’t have supported the “only following orders” defense.

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