April 11th, 2012
“Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”
-Edmund Blackadder, Ink and Incapability
On this date in 1612, Edward Wightman became the last person burnt for heresy in England.*
The clothier’s religious dissension had macerated in Puritanism — which was bad enough — and decanted into a heady potion of “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan.” Sort of a cafeteria heretic.
All this made a delectable smorgasbord when Wightman went on spectacular public trial late in 1611. Yet even this was not so much the direct outcome of a strict anti-heretic policy as of political rearrangements of the moment: essentially the Calvinist Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbott vs. anti-Calvinists like the future Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Laud was involved in Wightman’s prosecution.
As these worthies maneuvered for influence, our irrepressible preacher
was batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between the spring and autumn of 1611 … In the first ten weeks of his imprisonment, Wightman was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged uncondemned in mid-June 1611; after an initial burst of energy and concern, the court appears to have decided to take no immediate action against the accused heretic who remained imprisoned at the king’s pleasure.**
There had not been a person put to death for heresy since 1589. Elizabeth I — she who eschewed “windows into men’s souls” — rarely hunted citizens for doctrinal difference alone. (Catholicism was constructed, rightly or wrongly, as treason: a crime of the state, rather than of the conscience.)
Wightman made himself a target by publicly flaunting his strange beliefs,† and by late in 161
21 the anti-Calvinists had control of the process and a perceived opportunity to score political points by prosecuting him. The trial was a cinch, since Wightman made no bones about his dissension.
One is almost so inured to the hagiographic style of the day, martyr unflinchingly thrusting flesh into flame, that one might well forget how very unpleasant burning alive must be.
Wightman, as the heat of the pyre warmed under him on March 9, shrieked out an agonized recantation, or maybe just something of animal pain that the crowd misinterpreted. Infernus interruptus ensued and the stake was actually doused, with the singed near-executee removed to convalesce and formalize his timely abjuration.
But reprieve recovered the recusant’s recalcitrance, and he soon resumed his error, “every day more blasphemous.” So on this date, Wightman
was caried agayne to the stake where feeling the heat of the fier again would have recanted, but for all his crieinge the sheriff tould hyme he showld cosen him no more and comanded faggottes to be sett to him whear roringe he was burned to ashes.
It was not until 1677 that England abolished the death penalty for all religious offenses.
There’s an alleged family connection from Wightman’s descendants to most of the Wightmans and Whitmans in North America. That would include the 19th century U.S. missionary Marcus Whitman, who pioneered the Oregon trail, triggered a notorious Native American massacre against his homestead, and is the namesake of Walla Walla’s Whitman College.
* Not to be confused with the last-ever burnt, which wasn’t until 1789.
** Ian Atherton and David Como, “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England,” English Historical Review, Dec. 2005. Recommended reading for anyone interested in really unpacking Wightman’s world and outlook.
† According to interrogators, Wightman “affirmed my selfe to be that prophet promised in the 18 of Deuteronomie. And that Elyas in the 4th of Malachie promised to be sent before the great and fearfull day of the Lord. And that comfortor in the 16th of John which should convince the world of sinne of righteousnes and of Judgment.”
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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Notable Jurisprudence,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Religious Figures
Tags: 1610s, 1612, april 11, edward wightman, george abbott, james i, protestantism, william laud
December 5th, 2010
On this date in 1640, John Atherton achieved the unenviable distinction of being the only Anglican bishop hanged for buggery.* (His proctor, and alleged lover, John Childe, got the same treatment a few months later.)
Suppose a Devill from th’infernall Pit,
More Monsterlike, then ere was Devill yet,
Contrary to course, taking a male fiend
To Sodomize with him, such was the mind
Of this Lord Bishop, he did take a Childe
By name, not years, acting a sinne so vilde
-From the text of the pamphlet this image decorates
The Oxford-educated Englishman was appointed Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore by King Charles‘s hated governor Thomas Wentworth.
It may well have been the internecine politics of the day that claimed Atherton’s life, just as the civil wars they engendered in the ensuing decades claimed the original trial records.
While posterity is left to speculation, Atherton was defended in print in those years as well. (Defended as no homo, that is — not defended on principle against ubiquitous anti-gay laws.) If it wasn’t really a voracious sexual appetite (not exclusively same-sex**), goes this argument, it was intra-Protestant infighting, with Atherton’s successful clawback of land for the weak Irish Anglican church stepping on the toes of the local land barons who had recently expropriated it.
This politics outside the boudoir argument gets compelling treatment in Mother Leakey and the Bishop, a historical investigative thriller that links Atherton to a weird ghost story† in his native Somerset — that of “Old Mother Leakey,” the Minehead ghost.
Mother Leakey was Atherton’s mother-in-law, and Somerset family members claimed she haunted them — including with a message for the bishop that one of his sisters-in-law actually went to deliver in Ireland. The message isn’t known; in legend, this was a warning from beyond against the prelate’s ungodly behavior; in reality, it was more probably a family shakedown.‡
Despite the skepticism of the Leakey family’s own contemporaries, the facts, allegations, suppositions, and pure flights of fancy somehow managed to blend and recombine into a lasting tale of the paranormal that Minehead still retails to this day.
And it goes right back to the public opprobrium Bishop Atherton endured — as described in that 1641 hanging pamphlet:
“demonstrates the link between the stories of Mother Leakey and Bishop John Atherton … in a highly readable and often entertaining fashion”
… through pride, high fare, and lustfull life,
Incest committed with the Sister of his wife,
For which he sued his pardon, and then fled
To Ireland, where a worser life he led
He surely warned was to mend his life,
By his own Sister Master Leakies wife,
Which Master Leakies Mother being dead,
And in her life-time conscious how he led
His lustfull life, her Ghoast in gastful wise
Did oft appeare before her Sisters Eyes,
But she feare-strucken durst not speak unto it,
Till oft appearing forced her to doe it:
Then thus she spake, Mother in Law what cause
You from your rest, to my unrest thus drawes?
Who answered, daughter tis the wicked life
Your Brother leads, warne him to mend his life;
If not, then plainely tell him tis decreed,
He shall be hangd, bid him repent with speede:
Then shall my restless spirit be at rest,
And not till then; Thus vanisht. She addrest
Herselfe for travaile, Into Ireland went
With this sad message unto him was sent:
Which how he tooke to heart may plaine appeare
By the slight answer he returned her,
What must be, shalbe: If I must, I must dye,
Mariage, and hanging, come by destiny.
Thus scoft her counsell, sent her back, and when
Shee was returnd, he grew farre viler then
He was before, if Viler man may be,
For one bad Act before, committed three.
* According to Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History, Atherton and Childe were the second pair of alleged homosexual lovers executed in the British Isles. The first was the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631, along with his manservants.
** “[O]ne should note the compound sexual nature of the ‘sodomy’ charge in this context, a portmanteau omnibus of non-procreative sex, which is what ’sodomy’ was widely held to be.”
† Walter Scott footnotes this legend in Rokeby: “Mrs Leakey … dispatched her [daughter-in-law] to an Irish prelate, famous for his crimes and misfortunes, to exhort him to repentance, and to apprize him that otherwise he would be hanged; and how the bishop was satisfied with replying, that if he was born to be hanged, he should not be drowned.”
‡ Archbishop William Laud dispatched a team of ghost-whisperers to investigate the Leakey story well before the ectoplasm hit the fan for Atherton, and they weren’t buying: “certainly it is a fiction and a practice … it may be some money business.” Bishop Atherton had left home under a cloud with the suspicion that he’d had an affair with his wife’s sister, and this was part of the eventual Irish complaint against the horny goat.
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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Ireland,Milestones,Political Expedience,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex,The Supernatural,Wrongful Executions
Tags: 1640, 1640s, december 5, dublin, ghosts, john atherton, john childe, mother leakey, politics, thomas wentworth, walter scott, william laud
May 12th, 2010
On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.
Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.
After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration
The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.
The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.
He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.
By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.
The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.
In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.
Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)
This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed
Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**
But the miscalculation was done.
Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.
Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.
1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.
As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.
A few books about Thomas Wentworth
* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.
** That’s Psalm 146:3.
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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Nobility,Political Expedience,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions
Tags: 1640s, 1641, anthony van dyck, art, charles i, English Civil War, george villiers, hippolyte delaroche, london, loyalty, may 12, monarchism, monarchists, petition of right, politics, thomas wentworth, tower hill, william laud
January 10th, 2010
On this date in 1645, Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason.
Portrait of William Laud by Anthony Van Dyck. For this image’s subsequent life in popular circulation (and its contribution to its subject’s beheading) see Mercurius Politicus.
This diminutive “martinet” made himself odious to the rising Puritan party through his rigorous (some would say narrow-minded) enforcement of so-called “High Church” dogma and decor. It was a time when believers were prepared to rend the fabric of the church over a literal fabric, the surplice worn by the clergy — among other innumerable points of doctrinal rectitude.
Laud’s run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I‘s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular as well as religious policy would do his sovereign no favors in the public mind.
Roughly enforcing an unpopular minority position, Laud got the woodblock blogosphere in a tizzy with heavy-handed stunts like having dissenters’ ears cut off.
That’s the sort of thing that’ll give a guy an image problem. The king’s fool, Archibald Armstrong, is supposed to have tweaked our high and mighty subject (and warned the king against his influence*) with the punny aphorism,
Give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the devil.
Funny because it’s true.
So when Charles ran out of money and finally had to call parliament in 1640, that august representative of the nation had some business with Laud. Ironically — since the prelate was always sensitive about his height — it would involve shortening him.
Laud was impeached as early as December 1640 and soon tossed in the Tower, where his neck awaited the unfolding radicalization of the pent-up Puritans and the onset of armed hostilities in their contest with the obdurate king. (While his hands blessed the allies who preceded him to the block.)
For more about Laud’s life and work, check out the detailed Britannica entry or this Google books freebie.
* If a warning, it apparently was not heard. This 19th-century publication of Armstrong’s jests cites a 1637 royal order to the effect that
the King’s Fool, for certain scandalous words of a high nature, spoken by him against the Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury his Grace … shall have his coat pulled over his head, and be discharged of the King’s service, and banished the Court.
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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions
Tags: 1640s, 1645, anglican church, anthony van dyck, archbishop of canterbury, archie armstrong, church of england, English Civil War, january 10, quotes, surplice, william laud