Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Getting the chop - Tudor style

As those of you who read Derrick's excellent blog will already know, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Henry the eighth's accession to the English throne. By way of commemoration, there are any number of events occurring this year (there is an exhibition at the British Library that I fully intend to visit), as well as an excellent TV series on Channel 4, presented by David Starkey.

Much has been made of Henry's transition from slim and handsome Renaissance prince to bloated monster. And there's no getting away from the fact that he did get a little tetchy as he became older. Author Philippa Gregory believes he may have suffered from Cushing's syndrome, which causes obesity and mental instability, and there is little doubt that he had chronic constipation. This latter could well have been brought on by over-consumption of meat; people were somewhat suspicious of fresh fruit and veg at the time, believing they promoted 'the Bloody Flux'. Poor old Hal also had open sores on his legs, and possible brain damage from a fall whilst jousting in 1536, that had left him unconscious for two hours. All of these go some way to explain why a fair number of executions occurred during his reign. According to chronicler Ralph Holinshead, it's believed that around 72,000 were despatched on the orders of 'Good' King Henry.

A good proportion of executees suffered their fate for treason; in other words, daring to disagree with the king. Those of noble birth could look forward to a swift beheading - Anne Boleyn was famously dispatched by an adept swordsman from France - and generally in 'private' before a selected audience. However, Henry's increasingly erratic behaviour as his reign progressed could explain why he chose to have Thomas Cromwell, one of his closest advisers, executed by an inexperienced teenager with a blunt axe. Generally, however, a beheading was preferable to the fale meted out to commoners; to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

There is some debate as to the meaning of the word 'drawn'. Some say it refers to the fact that the subject was pulled (or drawn) on a hurdle to the place of execution; others, that it denotes the act of pulling or 'drawing' the subject's entrails from their body. Be that as it may, the subject was first hanged for a short period of time, then cut down, revived, and placed on a large table. The executioner would use a large knife to slit the subject open, and his organs would be removed and generally burnt before his eyes. Sometimes his 'privy parts' would also be removed. Finally, the subject's head was cut off, the body quartered, and parts dispatched to various bits of the kingdom to be displayed as a warning. It's believed around ten thousand met their end in this way.

I have also discovered one rather less common method of capital punishment. This was placed on the statute books in 1531 as a direct result of an incident that occurred in the household of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. In February that year, a number of members of the household were taken ill after eating porridge, and two, Benett Curwen, a gentleman of the household, and a widow called Alice Tryppytt, died as a result. The latter was one of the poor people who were regularly fed at the kitchen door by the Bishop as an act of charity, as was the custom of the time. The King expressed great indignation at the crime, and declared that henceforth poisoning would be regarded as High Treason, ordering that

'the said Richard Roose shalbe therfore boyled to deathe withoute havynge any advauntage of his clargie.'

The sentence was duly carried out at Smithfield in London on the 15th April 1532. I can find no account of the execution itself, which is probably just as well.

Something interesting strikes me. The population of the kingdom during Henry's reign was around three million. It's about twenty times that now. If we projected a still bloodthirsty Henry into the twenty first century, he would have to dispatch 1,440,000 souls in order to match the proportion of the population done to death during his reign. Should a freak wormhole open in space and you suddenly find yourself confronted by the larger-than-life Tudor monarch, just do yourself a favour...agree with everything he says!

19 comments:

Comedy Goddess said...

Poor King Henry. Everyone was always disagreeing with him! Or not giving him a male heir. What else could he do, but get rid of them permanently?

chris hale said...

Hi CG.

Perhaps he could have just given them a bit of a ticking-off! I mean, beheading is just so final, isn't it?

Madame DeFarge said...

Chris - urgh, put me right off my dinner you did. You're at the cutting edge of blogging now. Hats off to you.

chris hale said...

Oh dear, MDF. Mrs. Hale said something similar. I'm afraid it would take a lot more to put me off my food. Perhaps I should exercise a little more delicacy when choosing the subjects for my posts!

Comedy Goddess said...

Beheading is the only way to win the argument.

(Hope you know I am joking?!)

chris hale said...

CG - Yes, you win the argument at as stroke...as it were.

Derrick said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the mention!

You've come up with some pretty interesting statistics. Considering that most contemporary sources had dicky arithmetic and modern scholars have to divide by two and take one away ... I wonder at the magnitude?! But I'm NOT arguing, you understand?

I would love to see the British Museum exhibition too.

P.S. WV = webilyto - Tudor for athlete's foot?

chris hale said...

Derrick - yes, stats can be notoriously inaccurate. When interviewed, twenty percent of people thought that forty five percent of all statistics were wrong at least seven percent of the time...

mo.stoneskin said...

If Henry did pop out of a freak wormhole the first thin I'd do would be to provide him with a fresh leafy salad and some prunes.

chris hale said...

Good luck, Mo!

I'd stand well back after administering the prunes, if I were you!

Derrick said...

Hi again Chris,

In recognition of our mutual admiration, there is an award for you over at my place! (Who mentioned bribery and corruption?)!

FireLight said...

Hello Chris,
I have stopped by a few times, but not sure I left a word. I really enjoyed this post.

I just want to thank him for the Church! Peace be with you, Harry!

chris hale said...

Derrick - Thanks v. much for the award. I shall polish it up and place it on my mantlepiece along with the best bits of china!

FireLight - Hi, and thanks for dropping by. I wonder what Henry would think of the Church of England now? Answers on a postcard, please...

punk in writing said...

ooh... I just had a new idea for a reality show!

lock up king henry in a mansion with the three priests from father ted, rev geraldine granger from the vicar of dibley and anne robinson.

it would be a really strange version of the real world...

chris hale said...

Punky - You little tinker!

Think of a name for the show and we'll pitch it to the Networks! I'll start you off with Hal's a Poppin'

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Hi Chris - I'm catching up here! (Been too busy not digging our vegetable garden to do as much blogging as usual!)

Love the Miller story!

I remembered, reading this post that there's a comic book publishing company called Drawn & Quarterly - do you know of it?

Val said...

fascinating thanks,,hmm Cushings Syndrome - I might need to know more about that! :-)

chris hale said...

Raph - Thanks! No, I hadn't heard of that site...I'll wander over and have a look.

Val - Greetings. Yes, I've put on a couple of pounds and I said 'blast' yesterday. And, quite frankly, I'm worried...

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