1539: St. John Stone

Though it is not certain, it is thought that December 27, 1539 might have been the execution date of Catholic martyr St. John Stone in England.

An Augustinian whose friary was closed in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Stone at his expulsion “rudely and traitorously” refused to endorse Henry VIII’s authority over the church. He maintained his obstinacy even under the personal interrogation of Thomas Cromwell.

Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.

Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.

Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.

The Vatican rates John Stone as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and canonized him in 1970.

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1539: Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury

Letter to Thomas Cromwell from his man in Somerset,* Richard Pollard, a local gentry type making out well under the Dissolution of the Monasteries:

Pleaseth it your lordship to be advertised, that … the same 15th day [of November] the late abbot of Glastonbury went from Wells to Glastonbury, and there was drawn through the town upon a hurdle to the hill called the Torre, where he was put to execution; at which time he asked God mercy and the king for his great offences towards his highness, and also desired my servants then being there present to see the execution done, that they would be meane [communicate] to my lord president and to me that we should desire the king’s highness of his merciful goodness and in the way of charity to forgive him his great offences by him committed and done against his grace, and thereupon took his death very patiently, and his head and body bestowed in like manner as I certified your lordship in my last letter. And likewise the other two monks [John Thorne and Roger James, executed with Richard Whiting] desired like forgiveness, and took their death very patiently, whose souls God pardon.

And whereas I at my last being with your lordship at London moved your lordship for my brother Paulett, desiring your lordship to be a mean that he might have the surveyorship of Glastonbury, which I doubt not but he will use and exercise the said office to the king’s most profit and advantage, and your lordship’s goodness herein to him to be shown he shall recompense to his little power, I assure your lordship he hath been very diligent, and divers others by his means, to serve the king at this time, according to his duty and right…

the late abbot of Glastonbury, afore his execution, was examined upon divers articles and interrogatories to him ministered by me, but he could accuse no man but himself of any offence against the king’s highness, nor he would confess no more gold nor silver nor any other thing more than he did before your lordship in the Tower …

From Wells, the 16th day of November.

Your assured to command,

Rychard Pollard

Once one of the greatest religious houses in England (and the legendary burial place of King Arthur), Glastonbury Abbey today is a picturesque ruin. Cornell University has published some 19th century photos of the abbey’s remains in a less manicured, more gorgeously overgrown situation.

Pollard had just a few weeks before exonerated the monastery of any profligacy, and the abbot seems perhaps not to have even been properly charged or attainted … but as one can discern in Pollard’s cloying appeal to keep the surveying position in the family, the practical henchman had no qualms as events unfolded about taking a commercial position on the end of the Abbot of Glastonbury.

For your public domain perusing pleasure: The last abbot of Glastonbury: and other essays, by Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet.

* Pollard had been in the thick of the destruction of Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter just the year before.

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1537: Robert Aske, for the Pilgrimage of Grace

On this date in 1537, Robert Aske was hanged for leading the Pilgrimage of Grace.

The year preceding had been among the most wrenching in British history, and when Henry VIII began shuttering Catholic monasteries, many an egg that would comprise the English Reformation‘s omelette would be shattered.

In the conservative and Catholic-leaning north, Thomas Cromwell‘s reforms (combined with various political and economic grievances) triggered an uprising that soon controlled York.

This fraught situation ended much easier for the English crown than it might have, with a royal negotiating strategy of nominally accepting the Pilgrimage’s terms inducing the massive rebel force to disband, allowing its leaders to be seized thereafter on the first pretext of renewed trouble.

[flv:https://www.executedtoday.com/video/Pilgrimage_of_Grace.flv 440 330]

Robert Aske, the barrister who had come to the fore of the Pilgrimage movement and had personally negotiated terms with Henry, was among about 200 to suffer death for their part in the affair. In Aske’s case, it was against the will of Jane Seymour, Henry’s demure third queen and also a Catholic-inclined traditionalist; she made an uncharacteristic foray into state policy by ask(e)ing for Aske’s life, summarily vetoed by the king’s reminding her the fate of her politically-minded predecessor.*

Here’s Aske hanged at York Castle in The Tudors:

And here’s an inscription on a Yorkshire church reminding one of Aske’s surviving brothers of the events of those pivotal months.

* In other wives-of-the-king developments, Henry’s future (sixth, and final) wife Katherine Parr was taken a hostage by the rebels during the Pilgrimage.

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1551: Alice Arden, husband killer

On this date in 1551, Alice Arden was put to death for one of 16th century England’s most shocking crimes.

Stuck in what one gathers was a dull marriage of political convenience, Alice Arden took up with a lover, Richard Mosby.

Although the whole scene was tolerated by her husband, Alice and Richard conspired to have Thomas murdered, because nobody would ever suspect the vivacious wife and her paramour to be behind the unexplained death of her husband. (And, Alice reckoned, Thomas “was so evil beloved that no man would make inquiry after his death.”) Holinshed‘s chronicle saw fit to include this tabloid-esque crime in its narrative of English history.

Arden’s wife, Mistress Alice, young, tall, and well favoured of shape and countenance, formed a criminal connection with a paramour, named Mosbye, a black, swart man. Mosbye had been servant to Sir Edward North, Alice’s father in law; and then settled as a tailor in London. The infatuated wife, lost to all sense of duty and morality, conspired with Mosbye to put an end to her husband’s existence, in order that she might marry the profligate black, swart man.

They employed as their confederates one John Green, a Faversham tailor; George Bradshaw, a goldsmith of the same town; and one Black Will, of Calyce (Calais), a murderer, which murderer was privily sent for to Calyce by the earnest sute, appoyntment, and confederate of Alice Arden and Thomas Mosbye.

The conspirators watched Master Arden walking in Poule’s (St. Paul’s Cathedral, the nave of which was a public promenade in those days), but could not find an opportunity to murder him; they then lay in wait for him on Rainham Down, and a second time in the Broomy Close (two places near Faversham), but on all these occasions failed in obtaining an opportunity.

The wicked wife then laid a plot for murdering her husband in his own house. She procured the services of Mosbye’s sister, Cicely Pounder, and of two of Arden’s domestic servants, Michael Saunderson and Elizabeth Stafford. On a particular day selected Sunday, too Black Will was hidden in a closet at the end of Arden’s parlour. After supper, Arden sat down to play some kind of game with Mosbye; Green stood at Arden’s hack, holding a candle in his hand, to shaddowe Black Will when he should come out; and the other conspirators had their cue. At a given signal in the game, Black Will came with a napkyn in his hand, and sodenlye came behind Arden’s back, threw the said napkyn over his hedd and face, and strangled him; and forthwith Mosbye stept to him, and strake him with a taylor’s great pressing iron upon the scull to the braine, and immediately drew out his dagger, which was groat and broad, and therewith cut the said Arden’s throat.

Having failed to convincingly position the body, and thereby leading police straight back to her house, Alice was immediately implicated in the crime. The conspiracy unraveled and the various people involved were brought to swift and merciless justice, including one poor bastard who had known nothing of the plot but had inadvertently supplied the credentials of that colorful assassin “Black Will” by decrying him as a murderous villain.

Alice Arden herself was burned in Canterbury while her confederates suffered various executions in various places around a country duly scandalized by the bold crime.

Six lives were taken for that of a worthless miser who connived at his wife’s infidelity. It was a sign of the horror inspired by husband murder among the Elizabethans. (Source*)

Indeed, the homicide and resulting executions kept as public scandal so long that the tale was reproduced as an Elizabethan tragedy, Arden of Faversham, in the 1590’s.

A possible uncredited Shakespeare play, it can be read for free in The Shakespeare apocrypha

Gentlemen, we hope youle pardon this naked Tragedy,
Wherin no filed points are foisted in
To make it gratious to the eare or eye;
For simple trueth is gratious enough,
And needes no other points of glosing stuffe.


Intriguingly, Richard Helgerson argues in Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting that this play restores some relevant political context to the Arden crime that Holinshed, perhaps deliberately, obscures. The Arden of Faversham victim is an apparatchik of the Duke of Somerset, a connection perhaps exaggerating Thomas Arden’s rank but not his position as the king’s man, with some important sponsors. Alice Arden and Richard Mosby, too, were national-level elites, Helgerson says.

The very (still-standing) Arden house was obtained through the English Reformation‘s dissolution of the monasteries; the London transplant Arden apparently used his (some must have felt) ill-gotten lands and power to impinge upon the prerogatives of his neighbors.

Helgerson doesn’t quite have an ah-ha conclusion to the tale, but the suggestion of a more layered meaning lurking behind what typically plays as straight Tudor police blotter throws a different light on the affair.

Arden’s appropriation of the abbey lands in Faversham finds its counterpart in Mosby’s appropriation of Alice Arden’s body … Seen this way, adultery is no longer a purely private crime … [but] rather a vehicle for thinking about history, for thinking, in particular, about that “improvement in the sovereignty” that was responsible both for the emergence of politic history and for the dissolution of the English monasteries, including Faversham Abbey.

* This source also supplies the date of March 14. However, the date is difficult to come by generally, and it may not be fully dependable.

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