1661: Thomas Venner and the Fifth Monarchy Men

6 comments January 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1661, the restored English monarchy made an end to the interregnum’s religious crazies.

A few other images of Thomas Venner are available here.

“It is difficult in these days to follow with patience, or even with complete seriousness, all the ramifications of Fifth Monarchy speculation,” writes historian Louise Fargo Brown, whose gratis tome The Political Activities of the Baptists and Fifth Monarchy Men in England proceeds to do just that.

This blog wants for both patience and seriousness, so we’ll sum up that Venner et al were the holy rollers of the day, the true whack-jobs in the millenarian hustle of Cromwellian England.

Venner himself was born in New England, and there’s a zippy bio of him in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. The North American colonies and Parliamentarian Britain helped to incubate political/religious heterodoxy for one another, and Venner was not the only budding religious zealot in the distant marches to emigrate to London after Charles I lost his head.

There the cooper became an outspoken apostle of the Fifth Monarchists, a part of Cromwell’s coalition made for disappointment with the mundane machinations of statecraft. Relieved in time of any a share in General Ironsides’ burden of helming the state in choppy waters, the men of the Fifth Monarchy were at liberty, to retire with their slide rules and philosopher’s stones to calculate the (imminent) date of the apocalypse foretold by Daniel and pursue the maxim not yet born that, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.

All well and good to mock from posterity, and from a country where Left Behind is a bestseller no less. To be fair to the Monarchy Men, one could as well say that the egalitarian political language of these “arrant Radicals and levellers” just happened to be scriptural.* They would hardly be the last to foretell a golden age made ready by the slaying of a king, not by a long shot.

At any rate, our Bostonian tradesman became such an outspoken prophet of the return of “King Jesus” that Cromwell was obliged to clap him in irons.

Venner didn’t take the hint well, nor other more salutary warnings, and Venner instigated a riot of his few dozen followers at the start of January 1661 that took London unawares and did some damage before it was put down.

Diarist Samuel Pepys records of the riots that

[a] thing that never was heard of, that so few men should dare and do so much mischief. Their word was, “The King Jesus, and the heads upon the gates.” Few of them would receive any quarter, but such as were taken by force and kept alive; expecting Jesus to come here and reign in the world presently, and will not believe yet but their work will be carried on though they do die.

Thomas Venner and his compatriot Roger Hodgkins died that traitor’s death this day, along with William Oxman and Giles Pritchard, the latter two having their sentences commuted to simple hanging and posthumous beheading. The remaining survivors of his band climbed the scaffold two days later.

* e.g., “Then shall the Oppressor cease and no more complaining be heard in the streets. Taxes should be no more. And Trade and industry should abound. … The poor should have bread, and the Army no more in Arrears. Prison doors should be open and Debtors satisfied without Arrests … then peace and safety, plenty and prosperity, should overflow the land.” (Cited by Brown)

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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1540: Thomas Cromwell

14 comments July 28th, 2009 Headsman

“Who cannot be sorrowful and amazed that he should be a traitor against your majesty? He that was so advanced by your majesty, he whose surety was only by your majesty, he who loved your majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God; he who studied always to set forward whatsoever was your majesty’s will and pleasure; he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your majesty; he that was such a servant, in my judgment, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had …

If he be a Traitor, I am sorry that ever I loved him, or trusted him, and I am very glad that his treason is discovered in time; but yet again I am very sorrowful; for who shall your grace trust hereafter, if you might not trust him? Alas!”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writing to King Henry VIII upon news of the arrest of Thomas Cromwell

It was on this date in 1540 that the Machiavellian minister of Henry VIII fell by the instrument he had wielded so ably against so many others.

While Henry strove to get his end away, Thomas Cromwell made the Reformation, setting his energetic hand to the needfully violent reordering of England.

In almost a decade as the king’s chief minister, he had dissolved so many monasteries, annulled so many noble prerogatives, backstabbed so many courtiers, and sent so many of every class to the scaffold that most at court had some reason to hate him. (Cranmer was the only one to (cautiously) object to his old partner’s arrest.)

Every matter of importance in 1530’s England concerned Cromwell. He raised and then destroyed Anne Boleyn; he managed the realm’s religious turmoil so fearsomely that his ouster was one of the demands of the Pilgrimage of Grace; he did what he had to do in the matter of Sir Thomas More.

Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed Man-Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall humanizes Cromwell’s side of his clash with Thomas More. (Review)

Though it may be, as Edward Hall recorded, that “many lamented but more rejoiced” at Cromwell’s fall from the very height of his power — “and specially such as either had been religious men, or favoured religious persons; for they banqueted and triumphed together that night [of his execution], many wishing that that day had been seven year before” — the reasons for it are murky enough to invite recourse to the royal person’s irrationality.

The bedroom politics get all the press: Cromwell’s bit of marital statecraft arranging Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was a famous dud, but negotiations to end it were well on their way by the time of Cromwell’s arrest.

Why, too, should the minister have been ennobled Duke of Essex in April 1540, months after the disastrous union? That Cromwell, whose own security rested upon the stability of the realm, was a radical Protestant promulgating inflammatory religious ideas — and he was condemned for both treason and heresy, incidentally giving the king wide latitude for just how painfully to kill his former servant — seems to beggar belief.

Once fallen, Cromwell was kept alive long enough to add testimony to the Cleves divorce; that much is clear. But then why keep him alive still three weeks more?

In the end, maybe it was inevitable that one in his position, at his time and place, had to follow to the scaffold the many he had sent thither, just the Tudor version of that familiar “bad advisors” trope: it were not treason to murmur against the aide whose ill counsel did wrong by His Majesty, and so Cromwell stood to accumulate the share of hostility that properly belonged to his sovereign. As an expert practitioner of the game of power politics, Thomas Cromwell could hardly be in a position to complain.

Oh, and by the by: with the German princess on the outs, the king’s wandering eye had fallen upon a niece of Cromwell’s enemy. On the day that Cromwell lost his head, Henry married Catherine Howard. No matter your brilliance, in Henrican England you only had to lose at court politics once, even if the king would be lamenting this injudicious trade within months.

Henry gave his loyal servant the easiest death, beheading on Tower Hill (although it turned out to be a botched job) — alongside a distinctly undercard attraction, Walter Hungerford, the first person executed under the Buggery Act.

Hall records Cromwell playing ball with a fine entry in the scaffold-speech genre that kept his son in the peerage.

I am come hether to dye, and not to purge my self, as maie happen, some thynke that I will, for if I should do so, I wer a very wretche and miser: I am by the Lawe comdempned to die, and thanke my lorde God that hath appoynted me this deathe, for myne offence: For sithence the tyme that I have had yeres of discrecion, I have lived a synner, and offended my Lorde God, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes. And it is not unknowne to many of you, that I have been a great traveler in this worlde, and beyng but of a base degree, was called to high estate, and sithes the tyme I came thereunto, I have offended my prince, for the whiche I aske hym hartely forgevenes, and beseche you all to praie to God with me, that he will forgeve me. O father forgeve me. O sonne forgeve me, O holy Ghost forgeve me: O thre persons in one God forgeve me. And now I praie you that be here, to beare me record, I die in the Catholicke faithe, not doubtyng in any article of my faith, no nor doubtyng in any Sacrament of the Churche.* Many hath sclaundered me, and reported that I have been a bearer, of suche as hath mainteigned evill opinions, whiche is untrue, but I confesse that like as God by his holy spirite, doth instruct us in the truthe, so the devill is redy to seduce us, and I have been seduced: but beare me witnes that I dye in the Catholicke faithe of the holy Churche. And I hartely desire you to praie for the Kynges grace, that he maie long live with you, maie long reigne over you. And once again I desire you to pray for me, that so long as life remaigneth in this fleshe, I waver nothyng in my faithe.

And then made he his praier, whiche was long, but not so long, as bothe Godly and learned, and after committed his soule, into the handes of God, and so paciently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly miser, whiche very ungoodly perfourmed the Office.

If Cromwell’s dying sentiment concealed any lasting bitterness for the crown, maybe his spirit would take some satisfaction a century later when another of his name and family rose high enough to behead a king.

* Cromwell’s bit about the “Catholic faith” in his dying confession is to be carefully handled; it’s sometimes rendered “the traditional faith,” and occasionally treated by later Protestant polemicists as a phony addition made by Roman apologists. It’s not, appearances aside, walking back the Reformation; according to Charles Carlton’s “Thomas Cromwell: A Study in Interrogation” (Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer, 1973)) our day’s victim “did not see himself as a Catholic separate from the Church, but as a Christian, who, with his King, had escaped the Pope’s usurped authority.” Cromwell is also explicit in this passage about rejecting sacramentarianism, which was part of the heresy accusation against him.

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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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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

29 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

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1652: Captain James Hind, royalist highwayman

1 comment September 24th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1652, James Hind, a highwayman who preyed on Roundheads, was drawn and quartered for treason.

Famed throughout the realm for his dashing heists on the roads, Hind was the subject of no less than 16 printed pamphlets of the nascent popular press in the early 1650’s, which magnified brigand’s feats, oratory and persona into a sort of populist Cavalier superhero: Marvel Comics for the woodcut age.

The highlights of Hind’s adventures receive rapturous attention from the Newgate Chronicles:

  • Setting upon Oliver Cromwell shortly after the execution of Charles I, his partner Thomas Allen being taken in the affray;
  • An amusing duel of Biblical citations while robbing regicide Hugh Peters, resolved in the characteristic manner of such impasses by reference to which disputant holds the gun.

    “Pray, sir, make no reflections on my profession; for Solomon plainly says, ‘Do not despise a thief’; but it is to little purpose for us to dispute. The substance of what I have to say is this: deliver thy money presently, or else I shall send thee out of the world to thy master in an instant.”

  • Any number of pleasing episodes with lesser personages suitable for the gallant highwayman — ladies charmed but un-pillaged, paupers subsidized, and always, wicked Parliamentarians chastened. Several excellent Hind anecdotes are gathered by Gillian Spraggs here.

As to the veracity of this stuff, the Captain himself suggests a pinch of caution.

A Gentleman or two, desired so much favour of [the gaoler], as to aske Mr. Hind a civil question; which was granted. So pulling two books out of his pocket, the one entituled, Hind’s Ramble, The other Hind’s Exploits, asked him whether he had ever seen them or not: He answered, yes; And said upon the word of a Christian, they were fictions: But some merry Pranks and Revels I have plaid, that I deny not.

But Hind’s adherence to the Stuart cause was real enough, or at any rate something he had the 17th century media savvy to play up. At his execution, he professed pleasure in having targeted Roundheads for most of his crimes, and it was not theft that saw him to the scaffold, but treason. He made free royalist talk upon his arrest, proposing a toast to the exiled king that otherwise sympathetic guests were too cautious to take up.

Hind fits symbolically into the tradition of the romantic outlaw of Robin Hood stock, and anticipates the 18th century rogues’ gallery of noble brigands fighting a doomed rearguard against capitalism. Hind’s acts, criminal by any standard, are justified by the illegitimacy of the society he preys upon; he embodies at once a social and political rejection of the nascent mercantile England, and a biographical realization of its actuating mythos — personal aptitude and acquisition,* with a cover story for why his victims had it coming.

Neither did I ever wrong any poor man of the worth of a penny: but I must confess, I have (when I have been necessitated thereto) made bold with a rich Bompkin, or a lying Lawyer, whose full-fed fees from the rich Farmer, doth too too much impoverish the poor cottage-keeper: And truly I could wish, that thing were as little used in England amongst Lawyers, as the eating of Swines-flesh was amongst the Jews.

A dead-end position — just like James Hind himself.

* In a supposed rhapsody over gold forced from the hand of John Bradshaw — yet another regicide; Hind seemingly met them at every turn — our robber rather has his cake and eats it too in extolling and condemning lucre.

Ay, marry, sir, this is the metal that wins my heart for ever. Oh! precious gold, I admire thee as much as Bradshaw, Prynne or other such villains, who would for the sake of it sell our Redeemer again, were He now upon earth.

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