1417: The Falstaffian John Oldcastle

3 comments December 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1417, the heretical knight John Oldcastle was burned at St. Giles Fields.

Oldcastle was a country gentleman who helped King Henry IV put down the Welsh and married up, into the Cobham family. He became good friends on campaign with Henry’s heir, the future Henry V.

Though Oldcastle was a privileged member of medieval England’s 1%, he supported positively dangerous change.

In Oldcastle’s youth, the radical preacher John Wycliffe was abroad in the land, and Oldcastle at some point — nobody seems able to say exactly when — cottoned to the egalitarian movement Wycliffe spawned, Lollardy.

A century-plus ahead of the Protestant Reformation, Lollards challenged the corruption and impiety of the Catholic Church, urging adherents to look to the scriptures themselves.

Protestant writer John Bale later reclaimed Oldcastle as a proto-Protestant martyr.

The truth of it is, that after he had once throughly tasted the Christian doctrine of John Wicliffe and of his disciples, and perceived their livings agreeable to the same, he abhorred all the superstitious sorceries (ceremonies, I should say) of the proud Romish church … He tried all matters by the scriptures, and so proved their spirit whether they were of God or nay. He maintained such preachers in the dioceses of Canterbury, London, Rochester, and Hereford, as the bishops were sore offended with. He exhorted their priests to a better way by the gospel; and when that would not help, he gave them sharp rebukes.

This sort of thing gave right-thinking Christians the vapors. It was in response to this “perverse people of a certain new sect” that England instituted the law authorizing heretic-burning, which would in Tudor hands become such a prodigious maker of martyrs.

Fresh to the throne as a 27-year-old, Henry V didn’t want to consign his old buddy to the flames, and generally stalled prosecution and leaned on his friend as much as he could.

But his friend remained obstinate in his errors, and eventually delivered a confession squarely rejected the Church’s authority.

Doomed as a heretic, Oldcastle busted out of the Tower of London when his sentimental sovereign gave him a lengthy reprieve — whereupon the condemned fugitive began fomenting rebellion with his outlawed movement.

although the King by proclamation promised a thousand markes to him that could bring him forth, with greate liberties to the Cities or Townes, that woulde discouer where hee was: by this it maye appeare, howe greatly he was beloued, that there could not one he found, that for so great a reward would bring him to light.

Holinshed’s Chronicle

It did take some doing but Oldcastle — the Lord Cobham — was finally hunted to ground in November 1417. Upon his return to London in chains, the heresiarch was condemned on the basis of his previous conviction, and “consumed with fire, gallowes, and all.” (Holinshed)

As the late king’s notorious boon companion, John Oldcastle was queued up for immortality in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. But his part in this buddy play got rewritten at the last minute (and after the first draft) into the fellow we know as Falstaff.* It was reportedly the Lord Cobham of Shakespeare’s time who insisted upon the switch, squandering literary immortality for some passing family pride.** Traces of the original character remain in the text; in the play‘s opening dialogue, Prince Hal calls Falstaff “my old lad of the castle.”

(In part 2, Shakespeare’s epilogue goes out of the way to insist that “Falstaff shall die of a sweat … [while] Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man”. Hal does eventually execute his old buddy, Oldcastle-style, in Henry V: that buddy is not Falstaff, but their mutual drinking companion Bardolph.)


No actual John Oldcastle connection, but if Shakespeare gets to pun around with the name …

* Cadging the name from another Hundred Years’ War soldier, John Fastolf.

** The Lord Cobham whom Shakespeare wished to avoid offending was involved just a few years later in the anti-Stuart Main Plot — and only spared execution by a last-second pardon while he was literally standing on the scaffold.

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1588: Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam, and Richard Simpson

Add comment July 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1588, three Catholic priests were hanged, drawn, and quartered at St. Mary’s Bridge in Derbyshire.

Though we find Catholic proselytizers at risk of their lives throughout the Elizabethan period, at few moments was the profession of the Old Faith more fraught than during the summer of 1588.

Elizabeth’s Catholic rival Mary, Queen of Scots had lost her head just the year before, having been the focal point of one too many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth. England’s support for Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain had drawn the Spanish Armada, a feared invasion force even at this moment beginning to engage the English navy a couple of weeks ahead of its ultimate defeat. Even the French Wars of Religion were running white-hot, with an ultra-Catholic pogrom in Paris that spring.

If ever the wrong religion constituted treason, this was the time.

This also made it a great moment for zealous local authorities to crack down on suspected Catholics. When that happened in Derbyshire, a raid of a recusant‘s property (prompted by a tip from the target’s nephew) turned up two Popish clerics living in the lovely medieval manor house on-site, Padley Chapel.


Padley Chapel. (cc) image from kev747.

Fathers Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam were condemned within days to a traitor’s death for endeavoring to “seduce” the Queen’s subjects to Catholicism.* Their few hours left in this vale of tears were sufficient to firm the resolve of a wavering fellow-priest, Richard Simpson, who joined Garlick and Ludlam on the scaffold.

A hagiography of these men — they have all since been beatified — notes that the less steely Simpson “suffered with great constancy, though not with such (remarkable) signs of joy and alacrity as the other two.” But considering he was out there getting disemboweled for God and you’re just sitting around reading some blog, you probably ought to cut him a little slack.

When Garlick did the ladder kiss,
And Sympson after hie,
Methought that there St. Andrew was
Desirous for to die.

When Ludlam lookèd smilingly,
And joyful did remain,
It seemed St. Stephen was standing by,
For to be stoned again.

And what if Sympson seemed to yield,
For doubt and dread to die;
He rose again, and won the field
And died most constantly.

His watching, fasting, shirt of hair;
His speech, his death, and all,
Do record give, do witness bear,
He wailed his former fall.

There are still pilgrimages made in honor of the “Padley Martyrs” every year on the anniversary of the priests’ arrest, July 12.

* Garlick, at least, had been a specific target of priest-hunters for some time; he appears in reports to Francis Walsingham‘s spy network, where he is once accursed as “the demonite,” presumably for taking part in some well-publicized exorcisms in 1585-1586. (These exorcisms seem to be reflected in Shakespeare’s King Lear.) There’s a very large pdf touching the “demonite” reference: a scan of the public-domain 19th century tome The Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers.

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1403: Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester

1 comment July 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1403, Henry IV made sauce of the Earl of Worcester after the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Thomas Percy was the uncle of northern rebel Sir Henry Percy, evocatively known as “Hotspur”.*


Rampant: statue of Hotspur Harry Percy at Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle. (cc) image from Bootneck Photography.

This Northumberland lord, whose name hints at his reputation for for ferocity and impetuousness, was not necessarily incensed in principle at Henry Bolingbroke‘s usurpation of the English crown as Henry IV. In fact, he took an appointment to put down the anti-Lancastrian rebellion of Welsh troublemaker Owain Glyndwr. (Percy didn’t succeed.)

But this royal imposter didn’t pay off Percy richly enough in either coin or respect.

Hotspur left Wales to whomp the Scots at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, but King Henry’s demand that he turn over the big-name prisoners taken in that battle (instead of ransoming them for profit) — coupled with Henry’s own refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity — provoked a furious row between “king” and “subject”. Henry IV is supposed to have denounced Henry Percy a traitor and drawn a blade on him.

“Not here,” Hotspur raged, “but in the field!”

Alas: the field wasn’t kind to the Percies this time.

A revolt raised by a guy named Hotspur should hardly fail for want of ambition, and this one was the hottest of spurs: the Percies (with our day’s principal, Uncle Worcester) made a pact with Glyndwr (still going strong in Wales) and Glyndwr’s hostage-turned-son-in-law Edmund Mortimer (who was the uncle of the kid who should have been king) to give Bolingbroke the boot and carve up the realm between them.

Shakespeare represents this argument at the start of Henry IV, Part 1, and the conflict it engenders will drive that play’s story. This is Hotspur privately fuming after Henry has refused to help Mortimer (Act I, Scene 3):

let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him: [i.e., Mortimer]
Yea, on his part I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust,
But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer
As high in the air as this unthankful king,
As this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.

Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight abridges this and several other Shakespeare plays, and its opening action — after the Falstaff and credits — sets our stage. Worcester here is played by French Connection villain Fernando Rey.

Shrewbury was the result, a battle that up to the moment it commenced seemed amenable to mediation. Worcester himself negotiated face to face with King Henry, but refused to submit himself trusting the sovereign’s mercy. “On you must rest the blood shed this day,” Henry told him.

Some of that blood was Hotspur’s, as a result of a freak combat injury: he took a fatal arrow to the face when he raised his armor’s visor to get some air.**

Worcester didn’t outlive him by much — as depicted in Act V, Scene 4, he was summarily executed shortly after the battle:

KING HENRY IV

Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.
Ill-spirited Worcester! did not we send grace,
Pardon and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary?
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain to-day,
A noble earl and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.

EARL OF WORCESTER

What I have done my safety urged me to;
And I embrace this fortune patiently,
Since not to be avoided it falls on me.

KING HENRY IV

Bear Worcester to the death and Vernon too:
Other offenders we will pause upon.

(Vernon was one of two knights executed with Worcester in Shrewsbury.)

* Yes, the English football club Tottenham Hotspur is named for the dashing Henry Percy. “Audere Est Facere” is the team’s motto, “to dare is to do” … even though that totally didn’t work out for Hotspur himself.

** Oddly enough, Hotspur’s opposite number Prince Henry (the future victor of Agincourt, Henry V), also got shot in the face in this battle.

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Feast Day of St. George

5 comments April 23rd, 2011 Headsman

This is the feast date, and the traditionally-ascribed execution date in 303, of St. George — legendary dragon-slayer and patron saint of half the world and darn near everything that the original apostles didn’t nail down.

Saint George is supposed to have been a well-favored officer in Diocletian‘s army who suicidally announced his Christian faith during the latter’s persecutions, and refused every sop and entreaty to renounce it. He was martyred at Nicomedia.

Pretty standard persecution fare — and there’s next to nothing that can be reliably verified about his life — but George did well by his future cult to get into the martyr’s game right before Christianity’s official triumph. Still, at the end of the day, it’s one of those unaccountable accidents of history that this particular fellow ended up as perhaps Christendom’s most widely venerated champion.

He’s most immediately recognizable for the story of having slain a dragon, a plain metaphor for paganism (and usable metaphor for anything and everything else) that’s been depicted in all its scaly corporeality by innumerable artists.

England has liked him jolly well ever since his suitability to the chivalric ethos positioned him to supplant Edmund the Martyr as that realm’s patron saint during the Middle Ages. The red cross on the English flag is a St. George’s cross.

And so there he is, too, in one of Shakespeare’s most rousing patriotic monologues:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

But George gets around, and England has to share him.

That St. George’s Cross also adorns the flag of Georgia (the country, that is: it’s so hard core that it’s named for the guy), and he’s claimed as a sponsor throughout Orthodox Christendom: the city of Constantinople and its heir, the city of Moscow, and Russia generally; Serbia (which celebrates a major holiday when April 23 hits on the Julian calendar); Bulgaria; Greece; and also Ethiopia.

George is big in Spain, and even bigger in Portugal; through its Portuguese heritage, he’s also venerated in Brazil, where he’s the patron saint of the Corinthians football club. He’s the sponsor (via that dragon connection) of the snaky Hungarian military order that gave Vlad the Impaler the immortal sobriquet of Dracula.

There are other countries and any number of cities who also trust the dragon-slayer’s patronage; George accepts the further devotions of saddle-makers, lepers, animal husbandmen, shepherds, Crusader knights, butchers, the Maltese, gypsies, farmers, archers, syphilis-sufferers, cavalrymen and therefore also armored tankmen, Palestinian Christians, and the Boy Scouts of America. He’s generally got a stupendous worldwide collection of churches, art, legends, and devotional rites dedicated to his name.

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1601: St. Anne Line

Add comment February 27th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in history, Anne Line was hanged for harboring Catholic priests in Elizabethan England.

There’s not too much question of her “guilt.”

I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having so done, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.

-Anne Line at the scaffold

She’d been disinherited from her Calvinist family for converting to Catholicism, and scratched out a living teaching and embroidering and keeping safe houses for forbidden Catholic clergy.

That house was raided in early February of 1601, and while the priest escaped, Anne Line did not.

Just one day after conviction, she hanged at Tyburn along with two priests, Roger Filcock and Mark Barkworth.

Anne Line was canonized in 1970; she’s one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

One of the possible interpretations (.doc) of Shakespeare’s recondite allegorical poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is that it’s about Anne (the phoenix) and her husband Roger Line (the turtledove; he predeceased her).

Death is now the phoenix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,

Leaving no posterity:–
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

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1688: Philip Standsfield

2 comments February 15th, 2011 Headsman

Oh Gentlemen, see, see dead Henrys wounds,
Open their congeal’d mouthes, and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lumpe of fowle Deformitie:
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty Veines where no blood dwels.
Thy Deeds inhumane and unnaturall,
Provokes this Deluge most unnaturall.

Lady Anne Neville in Shakespeare’s Richard III

There long persisted superstition* of ancient vintage that the wounds of a murder victim will bleed in the presence of the murderer.**

This date in 1688 saw the execution in Edinburgh of one Philip Standsfield (sometimes Stansfield or even Standfield) for parricide, his conviction being secured in part by the supposed accusation of his father’s corpse.

The prodigal firstborn of James Standsfield was an incorrigible scoundrel, and the state had a considerable circumstantial case to the effect that said scoundrel finally popped the old man to prevent disinheritance. (It also appeared that he’d tried to do it other times over the years.)

Circumstantial evidence is nice.

But how about some forensic evidence to really cinch a conviction? No DNA evidence here in the 17th century, so maybe something a little more … supernatural?


From A True Relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther etc., available here.

The King’s Advocate insisted — over the objections of a defense attorney that “it was a superstitious observation, founded neither upon law nor reason” — that the corpse’s having bled on Philip Standsfield but none of the others in his party simultaneously attempting to move it “he must ascribe … to the wonderful Providence of God, who in this manner discovers murder.”

Divine forensics. That’s even better than the arson evidence Texas used to kill Cameron Willingham.

And it had the same result, to wit,

the said Philip Standsfield to be taken upon Wednesday next, being the 15th of February instant, to the Market-cross of Edinbrugh, and there, betwixt two and four o’clock in the afternoon, to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his tongue to be cut out and burnt upon a scaffold, and his right hand to be cut off and affixed to the east port of Haddingtoun, and his body to be carried to the Gallowlie betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, and there to be hanged up in chains; and ordains his name, fame, memory, and honours to be extinct, his arms to be riven forth and delete out of the books of arms …†

Well, you get the idea. Executed Today would like to apologize to the dempster of Edinburgh for keeping Philip Standsfield’s name, fame, and memory alive.

In our defense, we are hardly the only ones: this is thought to be the last time that Scottish law employed the bleeding-corpse “test”.

* Some other instances of purported “bleeding at the touch” may be perused here.

** In a 1927 piece in the Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, Canadian jurist William Renwick Riddell says this folk belief “was wide spread and is not dead yet” and offers in a footnote (perhaps by way of explaining his interest) that “when at the Bar, I was once offered such evidence by my client; but I declined to use it.”

† The execution was botched, and the gibbeted body illicitly pulled down and tossed in a ditch — which is where the elder Standsfield’s had been discovered.

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1603: The men of the Bye Plot, but not those of the Main Plot

1 comment December 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1603, priests William Watson and William Clark were executed for a dramatic (that is, harebrained) plot “to take away ‘the KINGE and all his cubbes.'”

The year was 1603, the first in the reign of James I. (However, he’d been James VI of Scotland since the tender age of 13 months, when his mother Mary, Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate. He made himself quite a reputation for witch-hunting.)

With the death of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and all her schismatic Anne Boleyn mojo, hard-pressed English Catholics greeted Jamie’s ascension hopeful of relief from official persecution. Although raised Protestant, both his parents had been Catholic.

Watson was one of these hopeful adherents, and hastened himself to Scotland as Queen Elizabeth lay ailing to extract from the future English monarch the soothing blandishments of good favor that future monarchs make.

When toleration was not extended to Catholics upon the new king’s elevation in late March 1603, the disenchanted Watson almost immediately embarked on a preposterous scheme to

assemble force and strengthe, and on Midsommer-day last, in the night, to come to the Parke pale at Grenewich, to enter in by the gardein with a key, that should be borowed; and when the numbers were come in, there should be a watche set at the dores of principall persons, and at the passages; and then to goe up to the KING’S loding. And when they cam to the KING, they should surprise his person, and carry him to the Tower, and they would move him for 3 things: — 1, for there pardon; 2, for tolleration of relligion; 3, for assuraunce thereof, to preferre Catholiques to places of credit, as WATZON the priest to be Lord Keper; GREY, Erle Marshall; GEORGE BROOKE, Lord Treasorer; and MARCAM, Secretary. They concluded to cutt of many of the Privy Councill, and to have made a Proclamation, purporting howe the KING had bene misled, and to have had many things reformed. They determined to have possessed the principall ports of the realme, and to have kept the KING in the Towre a quarter of a yeare.

The Bye Plot was ironically busted by other Catholics — Jesuits, as distinct from “secular clergy” (clergy not affiliated with an order) like Watson. Jesuits and secular clergy were at loggerheads in this period over tactics, church structure … more or less everything. The need to steal the thunder of whatever restore-the-Church scheme the Jesuits might be cooking up might have helped precipitate Watson into such immediate and desperate disaffection.

At any rate, these other more respectable fathers of the church blew the whistle on the Bye Plot lest it provoke anti-Catholic pogroms, and you’d have to concur with their estimate that taking the king hostage is the sort of thing that would have prompted some blowback.

In the course of rolling up the now-exposed Bye Plot, investigators also caught wind of the parallel Main Plot, courtesy of one conspirator who was involved in both and unable to hold his tongue under torture.

The Main Plot was a sketchier affair to a similar end, allegedly among Catholic-sympathizing nobles to depose James for his cousin. As befits its title, the Main Plot implicated much bluer blood than Watson’s: Lord Cobham,* Baron Grey, and the knighted soldier Griffin Markham.

Oh, and a guy you might have heard of by the name of Walter Raleigh.

All these Main Plot gentlemen were likewise condemned to death. December 9, 1603 was the date appointed for Watson and Clark to expiate the Bye Plot in the grisly manner that commoner priests were wont to suffer in that age — they as the undercard to the beheadings of Cobham, Grey, and Markham. (Raleigh was on deck for a later date.)

The drama that unfolded on the Winchester scaffold that day was wonderfully narrated in the correspondence of Sir Dudley Carleton and well worth extracting at length.

The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were both cut down alive; and Clarke, to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. They died boldly both … Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first Tower of the castle.

Warrants were signed, and sent to Sir Benjamin Tichborne, on Wednesday last at night, for Markham, Grey, and Cobham, woh in this order were to take their turns … A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes and brought to that place unprepared. One might see in his face the very picture of sorrow; but he seemed not to want resolution … [and] prepared himself to the block. The sheriff, in the mean time, was secretly withdrawn … whereupon the execution was stayed, and Markham left upon the scaffold to entertain his own thoughts, which, no doubt, were as melancholy as his countenance, sad and heavy. The sheriff, at his return, told him, that since he was so ill prepared, he should yet have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort, and locked him into the great hall … The lord Grey, whose turn was next, was led to the scaffold by a troop of the young courtiers … and thereupon entered into a long prayer for the king’s good estate, which held us in the rain more than half an hour; but being come to a full point, the sheriff stayed him, and said, he had received orders from the king, to change the order of the execution, and that the lord Cobham was to go before him … he had no more hope given him, than of an hour’s respite; neither could any man yet dive into the mystery of this strange proceeding.

The lord Cobham, who was now to play his part, and by his former actions promised nothing but matiere pour rire, did much cozen the world; for he came to the scaffold with good assurance, and contempt of death. … [he] would have taken a short farewel of the world, with that constancy and boldness, that we might see by him, it is an easier matter to die well than live well.

He was stayed by the sheriff, and told, that there resteth yet somewhat else to be done; for that he was to be confronted with some other of the prisoners, but named none. So as Grey and Markham being brought back to the scaffold, as they then were, but nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers-on with what should follow, looked strange one upon the other like men beheaded, and met again in the other world. Now all the actors being together on the stage (as use is at the end of a play,) the sheriff made a short speech unto them, by way of the interrogatory of the heinousness of their offences, the justness of their trials, their lawful condemnation, and due execution there to be performed; to all which they assented; then, saith the sheriff, see the mercy of your prince, who, of himself, hath sent hither to countermand, and given you your lives. There was then no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries, that it went from the castle into the town, and there began afresh, as if there had been some such like accident. And this experience was made of the difference of examples of justice and mercy; that in this last, no man could cry loud enough, ‘God save the King;’ and at the holding up of [the previously executed] Brookes’s head, when the executioner began the same cry, he was not seconded by the voice of any one man, but the sheriff. You must think, if the spectators were so glad, the actors were not sorry; for even those that went best resolved to death, were glad of life … Raleigh, you must think (who had a window opened that way), had hammers working in his head, to beat out the meaning of this strategem. His turn was to come on Monday next; but the king has pardoned him with the rest, and confined him with the two lords to the Tower of London, there to remain during pleasure.

Turns out that James wanted to do only the minimum amount of butchery necessary to establish his bona fides, and it sure seems like the mercy play proved a public relations triumph.** Raleigh was left by this reprieve languishing in the Tower for years, before his own final adventure saw him to the block after all in 1618.

Would you like some bootless speculation that Raleigh’s being caught up in this mess led him to nurture during his imprisonment a decade-long grudge against William Shakespeare and eventually murder the playwright? Of course you would.

In the world of more demonstrable historical consequences, the failure of these plots and continuing frustration with Catholics’ lot under a new boss who seemed a lot like the old led two years later to the ne plus ultra of English sectarian terrorism, Guy Fawkes‘s Gunpowder Plot to blow King James and his court straight to kingdom come.

* Cobham was a descendant of John Oldcastle and is supposed to have forced Shakespeare to redact the family name in his Henry V plays — giving us, instead, the character of Falstaff.

** One is obliged to notice Carleton’s disquieting footnote indicating that the entire affair was staged so well that someone almost actually lost his head:

… there was another cross adventure; for John Gib could not get so near the scaffold, that he could speak to the sheriff, but was thrust out amongst the boys, and was fain to call out to sir James Hayes, or else Markham might have lost his neck.


Topical sourcing: Mark Nicholls, “Treason’s Reward: The Punishment of Conspirators in the Bye Plot of 1603” The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 1995).

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1499: Perkin Warbeck, Princes in the Tower pretender

18 comments November 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1499, Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne, was hung at Tyburn for treason. He didn’t fare as well as the previous royal pretender, Lambert Simnel, who was pardoned by King Henry VII and made a spit-turner in the royal kitchens.

Warbeck claimed he was Richard, Duke of York, the younger son of King Edward IV. Richard and his older brother, the would-be Edward V, mysteriously vanished around 1483, allegedly murdered by their allegedly evil uncle Richard III, who had already had them declared illegitimate. (Shakespeare made this version — which was congenial to the ruling Tudor dynasty of his time — the standard in Richard III; the play channeled Thomas More‘s history of Richard.)

The murder story has never been proven and the princes’ bodies were never identified, leaving a yeasty petri dish for pretenders to grow and multiply — and so they did.

Warbeck, who later admitted he was actually born in Tournai, in Flanders, in approximately 1474 (his father is described by one source as “a renegade Jew”) first claimed to be the Duke of York either while at the court of Burgundy in France in 1490, or while serving a silk merchant in Ireland in 1491.

He did bear a strong resemblance to Edward IV, but there is no evidence that he was really Richard of York or that he and the late king were related in any way.

Nonetheless, his claim was soon recognized by Charles VIII, King of France … and it naturally appealed to the fledgling Tudor dynasty’s potential internal rivals, too.

Margaret of Burgundy, who was Edward IV’s sister and the disappeared Duke of York’s aunt, was one of these educated the pretender about “his” history and the ways of the English court, and she helped finance Warbeck’s attempted conquest of England in 1495. It went badly from the beginning: Warbeck’s army was trounced and 150 of his troops were killed on the beach in Kent before he even made it ashore. Warbeck fled to Ireland and then Scotland.

Warbeck had more success in his second invasion attempt, in Cornwall in 1497 on the heels of the Cornish Rebellion.

Warbeck promised an end to the exorbitant taxes levied on the citizenry, which welcomed both pretender and promise with open arms. His army grew to 6,000 or 7,000 men, and Warbeck began calling himself Richard IV of England, but when he found out King Henry was after him he panicked and deserted his men.

He was captured and imprisoned at the infamous Tower of London, but not before being “paraded through the streets on horseback amid much hooting and derision of the citizens.”

The execution was not until 1499, and only after it was alleged that Warbeck tried to escape with a real royal claimant, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. On November 23, Warbeck was taken from the Tower to Tyburn, where he read out a confession and was hanged. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, a cousin of the King of Scotland, had a better fate; she was given a pension and a job of lady-in-waiting to the Queen.

At least she didn’t have to turn a kitchen spit.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Other Voices,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Treason

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1401: Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, an army marching on his stomach

3 comments October 9th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

It was on this day that a Welsh squire, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, was gruesomely executed for thwarting the efforts of King Henry IV’s forces to squelch Welsh resistance to English rule.

First, the man’s stomach was cut out and cooked in front of him. Then, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

The torturous execution took several hours before he succumbed to death. Then, a grisly postscript: his salted remains were sent to other Welsh towns to deter Welshmen from opposing the king.

Rewind to October, 1399.

Henry IV has been crowned King of England after overcoming the unpopular Richard II. Henry had his predecessor imprisoned and killed, then displayed at St. Paul’s Cathedral to prove to his supporters that he was gone.

Little surprise much of Henry’s reign was spent defending himself against plots, rebellions and assassination attempts. One rebellion? That of Owain Glydwr, who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400.

This didn’t sit well with the new king. Armed men were sent out to find this treasonous Welshman. Found them they did, though perhaps they wished they hadn’t. In the summer of 1401, on the slopes of Pumlumon, Owain Glydwr crushed Henry’s army. This, too, did not sit well with the king.

Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields.
These signs have mark’d me extraordinary;
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.
Where is he living, clipp’d in with the sea
That chides the banks of England, Scotland, Wales,
Which calls me pupil, or hath read to me?

-Glendower (Glyndwr) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I

Henry then led a huge army, arriving in Llandovery, to capture this meddling countryman prince.

It was here that the English military met a 60-year-old man. A land owner from Caeo, his name was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan and the English army strongly suggested he assist them in helping locate Owain Glydwr. Llywelyn agreed.

Little did the English know, as they chased Glyndwr, that Llywelyn was taking them in the wrong direction.

He had two sons, did this Llywelyn, in Owain’s army. Though he knew he’d undoubtedly pay the ultimate sacrifice, he would not betray the Welsh people and his own family but leading the English king to the insurrectionists.

And so he led the English army on a wild goose chase.

For weeks Llywelyn lead the king and his forces through the uplands of Deheubarth. All the while Owain and his men made their escape the opposite direction to consolidate, grow, and fortify.

The king’s patience became taxed. He began to see that Llywelyn was not taking them to their man.

Angrily, the king drug Llywelyn to the town of Llandovery. In front of the castle gates, there in the town square, he was disemboweled and dismembered. Though Glyndwr’s war of liberation fizzled out, Owain was never captured nor betrayed.

Fast forward to the year 2001.

600 years after Llywelyn’s execution, a sculpture is erected. Standing 16 feet tall, erected by the castle he died in front of, is a statue of a cloaked figure, spear and shield in hand, atop a stone base inscribed with Welsh verse.

It is he, Llywelyn, commemorating his ultimate sacrifice.



Llywelyn’s striking steel statue stands watch over Llandovery. Images (c) Canis Major and stused with permission.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wales,Wartime Executions

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1471: Thomas Neville, the Bastard Faulconbridge

2 comments September 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1471, Lancastrian commander Thomas Neville was beheaded in the War of the Roses.

“The bastard Faulconbridge” (Fauconberg, Falconbridge) got his illegitimacy from dad, the Earl of Kent, and like William Neville, young Thomas played both sides of the aisle during the decades-long dynastic struggle.

Thomas made his most famous mark in May of 1471, leading a Lancastrian column to meet up at London with another led by Margaret of Anjou. Unfortunately for Neville, Margaret’s army was trounced at the Battle of Tewkesbury, leaving the Bastard on his own.

Still, he made a solo go of attacking London — “stirring of coles & proud port,” in the judgment of Holinshed, “with hautinesse of hart & violence of hand thin|king to beare downe the people, as an innudation or flowing of water streams dooth all before it: yet he came short of his purpose, & pulled vpon his owne pate finall destruction: though he thought himselfe a man ordeined to glorie.”

Thomas Neuill, bastard sonne to that valiant cap|teine the lord Thomas Fauconbridge (who had late|lie before beene sent to the sea by the earle of War|wike, and after fallen to practise pirasie) had spoiled diuerse merchants ships, Portingals and others, in breach of the ancient amitie that long had continued betwixt the realms of England and Portingale; and furthermore, had now got to him a great number of mariners, out of all parts of the land, and manie traitors and misgouerned people from each quarter of the realme, beside diuerse also foorth of other coun|tries that delighted in theft and robberies, meaning to worke some exploit against the king.

And verelie, his puissance increased dailie, for ha|uing béene at Calis, and brought from thence into Kent manie euill disposed persons, he began to ga|ther his power in that countrie, meaning (as was thought) to attempt some great and wicked enter|prise. After the kings comming to Couentrie, he receiued aduertisements, that this bastard was come before London, with manie thousands of men by land, and also in ships by water, purposing to rob and spoile the citie. Manie Kentishmen were willing to assist him in this mischieuous enterprise, and other were forced against their wils to go with him, or else to aid him with their substance and monie, insomuch that within a short time, he had got togither sixtéene or seuentene thousand men, as they accompted them|selues.

With these he came before the citie of London the twelfe of Maie, in the quarrell (as he pretended) of king Henrie, whome he also meant to haue out of the Tower, & to restore him againe vnto his crowne & roiall dignitie …

The attack gave London a fright, but was eventually repelled; the Bastard fled town as King Edward IV, fresh from Tewkesbury, approached.* He seems to have copped a pardon, but he was beheaded in unclear circumstances (Holinshed says, after resuming his career in piracy — but royal perfidy seems equally likely), and his head shipped to London Bridge for pike-topping duty.


A distant spinoff of the dynasty is rumored to have founded the Falcon Crest estate.

There’s a bastard Faulconbridge in the Shakespeare canon; oddly enough he’s not found in the Henry VI series … but as the central character in the rarely-performed King John. Apart from the name, this fictional Bastard Philip Faulconbridge doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with our man.

* Just hours after resuming London, Edward’s party murdered the theretofore imprisoned Yorkist claimant that Neville had meant to liberate, Henry VI. Henry was wed to Margaret of Anjou, truly an ill-starred marriage.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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