Posts filed under 'Wales'

1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

On this day..

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

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

1 comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.

That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.

Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.

On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.

The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.

As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.

Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.

In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)

The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.

But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.

No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)

The Crown was not interested:

It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.

Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.

Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.

“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”

At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Organized Crime,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1958: Vivian Teed, a first and a last

2 comments May 6th, 2013 Headsman

The last person hanged in Wales was Vivian Teed on this date in 1958; he was also the first hanged (in Wales or anywhere) under the new Homicide Act of 1957.

Teed went to rob a Fforestfach post office and was surprised to find 73-year-old postmaster William Williams not only present but in a mood to resist him. The thief had brought along a hammer in case he needed to force a door or something, so he grabbed it and hammered Mr. Williams … over and over and over. Twenty-seven times. Then he rifled the station as planned while the mortally wounded old man moaned and twisted, unable to come to his feet because the floor was so slick with his own blood.

“The defence is not that this man did not kill the unfortunate postmaster,” his attorney told the jury. “That tragic fact is true. The defence is that when the accused did it he was suffering from abnormality of the mind which impaired substantially his mental responsibility for what he did when he killed the postmaster.”

After many decades when hanging was the mandatory sentence for the crime of murder (even though in practice not every murder resulted in an execution), public consternation at certain sensitive cases like those of Ruth Ellis and Derek Bentley had driven a legal reform whose intended upshot was confining the death sentence to the proverbial worst of the worst.

The Homicide Act created a new subcategory “capital murder” — especially heinous murders, such as killing a policeman or committing murder in the course of a theft. Vivian Teed went to the gallows under the latter statute.

But the Homicide Act also removed certain types of homicide from the murder category altogether — notably for Teed’s purposes, a new defense of “diminished responsibility” was explicitly authorized and defined. This defense would have saved the mentally impaired Bentley. Now Teed tried to claim that an “abnormality of the mind which impaired his mental responsibility” was what really hammered William Williams’s skull.

Only one holdout member of the jury bought this, but after a number of hours and a couple of separate attempts by the panel to declare itself deadlocked, she or he finally came around and voted to convict. Teed hanged at Swansea Prison seven weeks later.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Wales

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1886: David Roberts, dutiful son

Add comment March 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1886, David Roberts was hanged at Cardiff for a murder-robbery the October previous.

Both Roberts and his father, Edward Roberts, were arraigned for the murder. The Robertses, father and son, had both been playing cards with the late David Thomas on the night of the crime, and left together with him (as well as another man).

The next day, David Thomas was found in a field bludgeoned and stabbed to death, with David Roberts’ pipe nearby. A search of the Roberts home revealed £66 stashed away in a bloody handkerchief, the approximate amount Thomas as known to have made at market on the day before he died.

David Roberts made a voluntary written confession specifically claiming sole responsibility for the murder. He even pleaded guilty in court, shouting out, “I swear my dad had nothing to do with this murder!”

Apparently he was persuasive: prosecutors decided to present no evidence against Edward Thomas and allowed him to be acquitted.

So Roberts stood alone on the trap this day, having at least the comfort of having done right by his family duty. Unfortunately the hangman did not quite do right by Roberts fils as he appeared to survive the drop. Witnesses were hastily conducted away while Roberts dangled, still twitching and strangling. The error was ascribed to the condemned man’s “muscular neck,” but this alleged physiognomy only mattered because at this late date British hangmen still designed the parameters of the drop impressionistically.

All that was changing to follow the professional example of the scientific William Marwood, however. Later in 1886, a commission was formed under former Liberal Home Secretary Baron Aberdare to examine the issue. This commission ultimately produced the first official table of drops specifying the fall that should be allotted to prisoners based on their weight, with a view to reliably breaking the neck.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Theft,Wales

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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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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1679: St. David Lewis, the last Welsh martyr

Add comment August 27th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, the Jesuit David Lewis was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Lewis suffered just days after a fellow priest and fellow victim of Titus Oates’ “Popish Plot” concoctions, John Kemble.

Lewis was arrested at the Wales town of Llantarnam where he was Tad y Tlodion, “father of the poor”; hauled to London’s Newgate Prison, he was returned to Usk, also in Wales, for execution.

As with Kemble, Lewis “discover the plot I could not, as I knew of none; and conform I would not, for it was against my conscience.” Where terroristic plotting could not be established, taking Holy Orders in the church would do just as well.

Lewis is not actually the last Catholic martyr in Britain* — Oliver Plunkett earned that distinction in 1681 — but at this late date he goes down as the last Welsh martyr, which is also the title of an energetic Catholic blog all about the man and his milieu.

Seems that site has a virtual pilgrimage to go along with the annual meatspace tradition that takes place this year on Sunday, August 29. The faithful might also enjoy friendsofsaintdavidlewis.co.uk.

* An inventory of martyrs for the faith in the Isles is here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1283: Dafydd ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales

9 comments October 3rd, 2009 Jonathan Shipley

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

Do not cross King Edward I.

If you cross “Longshanks,” as the regal man was called, you’re in for some serious pain. And then, eventually, you’ll die, like Dafydd ap Gruffydd did this day in 1283.

It is Dafydd, a Prince of Wales, who became the first prominent person in recorded history to have been hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yes, Dafydd’s death was particularly gruesome. Having fought alongside King Edward against Dafydd’s own brother and then returning to his brother’s side attacking King Edward’s Englishmen at Hawarden Castle, made the king rather peeved.

The English conquest of Wales: end of an era.

When Longshanks got the better of him, Dafydd was dragged through the streets of Shrewsbury attached to a horse’s tail. He was then hanged, but not enough to kill him, just enough to make it awfully uncomfortable.

More uncomfortable was the emasculation.

Perhaps more uncomfortable than being emasculated was when Dafydd was disemboweled and his entrails burned before his eyes.

Then they cut off his head, which must have been a relief.

Then they cut off his limbs.

Then they parboiled his head for later viewing.

(William Wallace met the same fate from the same king a couple of decades later.)

It wasn’t always so gruesome for Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the well-to-do Welshman. Things were going quite well there for a time -– as good as a bloody power struggle with your brother can be. Prince of Gwynedd, son of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, grandson of the mightly Llweyln the Great, Dafydd ap Gruffydd was born in 1238 under the English King Henry III. In his teens, that wily rebel, Dafydd joined one brother (Owain Goch ap Gruffydd) to challenge another brother (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd) for power. Llwelyn won at the Battle of Bryn Derwin. In 1263 Dafydd tried again, joining King Henry against his brother. In 1274 he tried once again. This time with the new king, “Longshanks.”

Things were great. Dafydd was favored by the king. He married Lady Elizabeth Ferrers, daughter of the 5th Earl of Derby. He enjoyed a manor in Norfolk, before exchanging it for another in Northampton. Indeed, it was high society living for the Welshman.

But Wales wanted independence from England. In the spring of 1282 Dafydd, with his brother (the one he tried to defeat many times before, Llywelyn) attacked an English castle. Foolish. Compelled to help his brother yet not being prepared for all-out war, Dafydd crossed the king and the king, angered, pursued him with a vengeance. Troops marched out. Fortifications (Caernarfon Castle, Conwy Castle, Harlech Castle, etc.) were thrown up to squash any thoughts of any further Welsh rebellion, and seed the future Welsh tourist industry.

Come December of 1282, Llywelyn, Dafydd’s dear brother, was lured into a trap and killed. Dafydd became prince, for a brief and stressful span, what the pursuit of the Enligh army, and a king behind it all still fuming over being backstabbed by a Welshman.

Whenever the English caught up with him, he escaped. In April he went north to Dolbadarn Castle. In May he moved to Garth Celyn. Then to a bog. It was by Bera Mountain, in said bog, that Dafydd and his younger brother Owain were captured on June 22, 1284. Dafydd’s wife was taken prisoner, as were their seven daughters, and one niece. About a week later Edward proclaimed the last of the ‘treacherous lineage’ were now his. Dafydd’s fate was then discussed by parliament.

He was condemned to death, the first person known to have been tried and executed for what, from that time onwards, would be described as high treason against the King. And treasonous blokes don’t get off very easily when it comes to a peaceful execution. No, his entrails were burned before him for “his sacrilege in committing his crimes in the week of Christ’s passion.” His body was chopped up “for plotting the king’s death.” A gentlemen by the name of Geoffrey carried out the execution of the last native Prince of Wales. His payment? 20 shillings.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner

5 comments April 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.

John Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil War.

But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**

Only with a painstaking siege was the imposing medieval fortress of Pembroke reduced. Poyer, his superior Rowland Laugharne, and Rice Powell were hauled to London and condemned to death.†

In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.

Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.

Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡

Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.

* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)

** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.

† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.

‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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1593: John Penry, Shakespeare’s midwife?

4 comments May 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1593, a Welsh divine with a poor impression of the Church of England was hustled off from dinner to be strung up for sedition.

Dismayed by the poor quality of pastors in his native Wales — men of poor character, poor education, and poor command of Welsh — John Penry was one of many calling for a reformed Episcopal clergy. Critiques of his type formed the germ of the Puritan movement already underway, which would blossom after his death.

Penry would have been around to see all that if he hadn’t hacked off the realm’s chief vicar by running a salty underground press, most notably publishing the pseudonymous Martin Marprelate.

(These satiric treats can be savored here. The identity of their author(s) has always been debated — Penry himself is one candidate, though not a fashionable one today, as his attributed writing seems too earnest to have come from the same pen as Martin Marprelate.)

Hold the Dessert

The Oxford man dodged the law for a good three years in the Scottish reaches, until he couldn’t resist moving to London, where (fittingly) a local clergyman recognized him.

The mere draft — nasty, but uncirculated — of a petition sufficed for the condemnation on grounds of sedition, and the annoyed Archbishop had the pleasure of inking his John Hancock on the Welshman’s death warrant.

Penry seems to have had a few friends in high places and some hope of cheating the executioner; he must have been taken by surprise when the sheriff burst in during the late afternoon this day to haul him immediately to a gallows at St. Thomas a Watering — unannounced, the better to keep attendance down,* with the prisoner denied the customary parting speech.

“Hang him with his pen”

But was Penry’s ill turn a boon to the world of literature?

The day after Penry’s execution, star English playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a fray whose timing some find a bit suspicious.

Some enthusiasts think Marlowe faked his death and went on to write Shakespeare under a pen name. And if he did that, his confederates would have needed a body to pass off as Marlowe’s … the body, perhaps, of a man of Marlowe’s age and class who’d just been hanged a couple of miles up the road.

The Welsh Martyr

Shakespeare aside, Penry remains “the Welsh martyr” to this day, reckoned the greatest Protestant martyr of his land. (For more about him, a sympathetic 19th century tract, John Penry, the Pilgrim Martyr, is available free from Google books.)

The injury of his draconian sentence is so far from forgotten in Wales that — hot off the presses — the 21st century Archbishop of Canterbury is being asked for a mea culpa on behalf of his 16th century predecessor.

Coincidentally, John Penry is also the name of a murderer and longtime death row prisoner in the USA, once the subject of a landmark decision** permitting the execution of the mentally retarded. That modern Penry is now serving a life sentence.

* Penry’s family and friends didn’t know about the hanging until it had already happened.

** Since reversed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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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!