Archive for English history

Traitors at the Tower

Posted in 1 with tags , , , , , , , on February 26 by Old Sparky

Interesting article from the BBC about the German spies executed at the Tower of London during World War One.

Check out the audio link too for a step by step account of the dreadful deed

University Challenge

Posted in Death penalty, Hanged with tags , , on March 26 by Last Writes

OK, in hommage to the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, which sets sail shortly, here’s a quick story.

Not all the students of these esteemed ancient universities had blotless copy books. Indeed the relationship between students and the locals has always been fractious.

Oxford brags

Take Oxford. The uni was founded in 1167. But locals didn’t take too warmly on the influx of slacking students, who loftily blagged their way into the best places.

So just a few decades later, in 1209, the townfolk turned on them following the death of a local woman. And many students were forced to scarper.

Until then, students had enjoyed legal protection as they could only be tried by the Church under Canon Law.

Oxford appealed to King John, who backed them and decreed that students could be executed under civil law and the locals jumped at the opportunity.

On 6 December 1209, two students were strung up and hanged for the murder.

Amid the animosity, the university’s endeavours were halted and many of the students fearfully fled to the safety of Cambridge. And from there, the city’s own university was spawned. Indeed, in 2009 Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary.

A few years later students were begrudgingly welcomed back to Oxford, not least because the local merchants missed the much-needed income.

Of course, other notables to be executed include:

Thomas CranmerOxford
The Oxford martyrs: Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, (left) plus Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley.

Oliver Cromwell who’s head was laid to rest eventually in Cambridge in 1960.

And who can forget former Cambridge student Laurence Saunders who was roasted for his anti-Catholic outbursts.

26 March

Of course we’ve cheated. The execution detailed above took place on 6 December 1209. If you’re interest in those who actually popped their clogs today, then check out this unsavoury trio who died in 1796

29 November 1326 – Hugh Le Despenser

Posted in Death penalty, Hanged, drawn & quartered with tags , , on November 29 by Old Sparky

Hugh Le Despenser's huge dispenser

Hugh Le Despenser's huge dispenser

Strongly rumoured to have been the bisexual lover of Edward II, Hugh Le Despenser the Younger was strung up today in an execution fraught with animosity.

Leading the way, was the woman scorned by the monarch’s adulterous affair – the Queen of England: Isabella of France.

There is even conjecture that Despenser dispensed with all social nicety by forcing himself upon her as well.

So it came as no surprise that she was at the front of the queue to exact her revenge with her lover Roger Mortimer right by her side.


Le Despenser had been busy amassing enemies throughout his Medieval life. He’d done well out of his kingly sexual conquest for Edward had proven to be a lucrative cash cow.

He’d made sure he had been on hand whenever Edward fancied going to war, such as the ill-fated run-in with Scotland led by Robert the Bruce or the clash with the Welsh barons, which was more lucrative. Hence, Le Despenser was always up for scooping up the spoils of their victories.


This favouritism really got the other nobles’ goats and Le Despenser became pretty unpopular, so much so that the pair really had to watch their backs.


Finally, the queen could take no more and she put a sharp end to the halcyon days for the king and his alleged lover.

She teamed up with her own bit of stuff, Justice of Wales Baron Roger Mortimer, who jumped the pair at Llantrinsaint and they were apprehended on 16 November 1326.

Of course, the king was unpopular but the real object of the exercise was to get a collar Le Despenser. That done, the disaffected nobles wasted no time in dispensing Le Despenser at Hereford where they set about exacting their inimitable brand of revenge.


Following a ropey trial-less set of accusations branding him a traitor, Le Despenser was given an equally ropey sentence, all headed up by the mistress of ceremonies: Isabella.

He was to be drawn and quartered as was to be expected if the crime was against crown or country.

But this was no ordinary hanging. According to a bizarrely over-zealous account on a Welsh government website, he was suspended between the prongs of a pitchfork 50 feet up and literally bounced until dead, but there is no evidence of this seeming embellishment.

Then he was relieved of his nether regions before being quartered and shipped off to be displayed round the country and his head festooned on London Bridge for all to see.

Head case

While his skull disappeared, Le Despenser’s headless corpse made a reappearance. It was apparently unearthed at Hulton Abbey in the 1970s.

According to ‘The Daily Telegraph’, carbon dating helped provide evidence that the remains could well have been his.

Sadly the same certainty does not surround the date of his execution. We’ve gone with the peerage date of 29 November 1326. But others state anything from 16 November onwards.

‘Wikpedia’ unfortunately bucks all the other sources by stating it took place in 1325. But seeing as Edward was officially deposed in favour of his own son ‘a couple of months later’ in January 1327, that date is completely wrong. And yes, you’ve guessed it, that act was the final humiliation and was instigated by none other than Isabella.

If you have come across any compelling evidence around his execution date, please drop us a line below.

Also on this day

29 November 1603 – William Clark
29 November 1920 – James Riley

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29 November 1603 – William Clark

Posted in Death penalty, Hanged, drawn & quartered with tags , , , , , on November 29 by Last Writes

Catholic priest William Clarke lost his head for being in cahoots with another priest to try to kidnap King James I.

The plan was to hold the king until he agreed to relax his stance on anti-Catholic laws, in what became known as the Bye Plot.

Bearing in mind James had only just got his hands on the throne, the scheming priests were nothing if not keen.

But other Jesuits got cold feet, fearing that if the plot was discovered the law would come down hard on the already beleaguered Catholics. So they outed the two priests to the authorities and they were promptly dealt with.

Although some sources state that Clark was done as a job-lot alongside fellow priestly plotter William Watson, he was apparently executed on his tod at Winchester on this day in 1603 – the first of three to be strung up, according to RC Bald in his book ‘The Chronology of Middleton’s Plays’.

Watch out for the others in December.

As for the Jesuits, their hope for leniency backfired – James threw all the Catholic priests out in 1604, so they’d shopped the plotters for no reason.

Also on this day

29 November 1920 – James Riley

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29 October 1618 – Walter Raleigh

Posted in Beheaded, Death penalty with tags , , , , , on October 29 by Last Writes

Walter Raleigh

Walter Raleigh

El Dorado. By that, we don’t mean the really cringey soap from the ‘90s, but the destination that caused the ultimate downfall of our next subject.

The fall from grace was nothing short of spectacular for the writer, poet, sailor, pioneer, discoverer and queen’s favourite Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh).

Spanning two monarchs’ reigns, his was a jam-packed life full of adventures. Not least were his expeditions to the Americas in search of wealth and territory.

This kind of swashbuckling heroism was to earn him a place in the sun at Queen Elizabeth’s court. It was here that his first fall from grace was to occur.

Walt frisky

He was a good looking bloke and able to charm the pants off the Virgin Queen Elizabeth. But he met and secretly fell in love with one of Lizzie’s ladies-in-waiting – Elizabeth Throckmorton (or Throgmorton depending on the source).

The torrid and illicit affair eventually wound up with a shotgun wedding, which covertly took place in 1591.

News of the marriage leaked out and old Queenie lost it completely, dumping her former favourite in the slammer.

Raleigh languished in jail for a while, but eventually charmed his way out of incarceration and led an expedition to what’s now known as Venezuela. His somewhat exaggerated findings made their way into one of his many books.

During this time, he also had it in for the Spanish and was busy capturing Cadiz or travelling to the Azores.

But then his ‘Get out of jail free card’ expired with the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. For the incoming king – James I of the House of Stuart – was not really a big fan, according to the ‘History Channel’.

Main man

It wasn’t long before James had him locked up on charges of treason. He was tried after he’d been implicated in the Main Plot – a bid to oust James in favour of her cousin Arabella, in cahoots with the Spanish. It failed needless to say and this time things didn’t look too good for Raleigh.

Thanks largely to old Walt’s consummate gift of the gab though, he was let off. James commuted his death penalty and Raleigh was chucked in the Tower for 12 years instead.

He got his second golden ticket to freedom in 1616 in order to hit Venezuela again in search of the now infamously tantalising El Dorado.

He obliged naturally, but this time his men attacked a post, which in turn incurred the wrath of the Spanish.

Well, the ambassador had stern words with James, who didn’t need much persuasion to lift the dormant death sentence.

Chop chop

The execution was scheduled to take place at Whitehall and the method, as was usual for landed gentry in those day, was beheading. When the day came, 66-year-old Raleigh didn’t want the whole thing drawn out: ‘Let us dispatch’ he said.

And if you were wondering if they really talked like that in Shakespeare’s day, get a load of this for a parting speech:
‘At this hour my ague comes upon me. I would not have my enemies think I quaked from fear’, while the axe he referred to as ‘sharp medicine’ but a ‘ sharp medicine for all diseases and miseries’. And with that, one of the greatest brains of the age was severed clean off.

Head case

The corpse was interred in a church in Beddington, but the head’s journey didn’t end there. It was embalmed and handed over to his wife Elizabeth who apparently carried it around with her in its own little bag, until the stench got too much.

Only when she died 29 years later, was the head reunited with his bod and both came to rest at St Margaret’s Church in Westminster.

Also on this day…

29 October 1901 – Leon Frank Czolgosz
29 October 1927 – Baldomero Rodrigues

29 October 1935 – Allen Grierson
Allen Grierson was hanged on this day in 1935 for killing a woman.
He’d been found guilty of murdering Louise Berthe Gann and was sent to the gallows at Pentonville, aged 27.

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22 September 1704 – Tom Sharp

Posted in Death penalty, Hanged, drawn & quartered with tags , , , , , on September 22 by Last Writes

Today, we head to Covent Garden – the venue of a hanging in 1704. One Tom Sharp got it in the neck for a variety of robberies ranging from being a con-merchant to a murderer.
Volume II of the ‘Newgate Calendar’ revels in details of his unsavoury exploits, which started off mildly enough.

Sharp suiter

One such time, he dressed up as a clergyman and headed off to a City tavern, which was the known haunt of some ministers. He conned them into thinking he was parson and they fed him and furnished him with around £5.

But his pièce de résistance had to be when he targeted a pub landlord. Knowing full well the publican stashed his cash somewhere about the building, he started a fire, which drew the man to safeguard his money. Sharp kept an eye out for the landlord and clocked where he headed and hence to where he kept the money.

A grand’s day out

Meanwhile the small fire was put out and peace was restored. Tom then returned with two mates and three bits of fluff in tow. One by one, the couples proceeded to the place where the publican kept his money and they helped themselves to it – £500 or thereabouts a piece.

Of course, these are all hangable offences but the serious crime took place later – he was found guilty of murdering a security guard while trying to do over a shoe shop in Holborn, literally just up the road from where he was eventually hanged.

The sentence was death and the 29-year-old was apparently full of bravado right up until the noose was put about his neck. Then he changed his tune and started begging for his life. But it was too little, too late and Sharp fell flat on this day at the turn of the 18th century.

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28 July 1540 – Thomas Cromwell

Posted in Beheaded, Death penalty with tags , , , , , , on July 28 by Last Writes

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

Like anyone in Henry VIII’s inner circle, your future could never be guaranteed or considered secure. So Thomas Cromwell found out today in 1540.

A trained lawyer, he managed to earn the stripes necessary to enter Henry Tudor’s advisory council and for a long time he was a close confidante.

Main man

Cromwell played a key role in the English Reformation, which saw the break away from Roman Catholicism towards the newly formed Church of England. Of course this was brought about to allow Henry to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon to make way for his next conquest – the doomed Anne Boleyn.

He was on a roll. Almost as soon as Cromwell had helped facilitate Henry’s marriage to Boleyn, he was extricating him from it so the king could bag Jane Seymour.

By 1535, he was supreme judge and in his new capacity as vice-general, he oversaw 13 monasteries being disbanded.

The big hitch

But all these brownie points were wiped out in one fell swoop when he encouraged Henry to marry following the death of Seymour. She’d died just a couple of weeks after bearing Henry’s one and only son and heir.

Cromwell helped mastermind what could have been the coup of the century – the uniting of two Protestant powers to help consolidate the Reformation. There was only one big hitch – Anne of Cleves was no looker and Henry was none too impressed with his ugly, new bride. Others at court picked up on Henry’s dissatisfaction and turned it to their advantage.

Chops away

Up to that point, many others at court hadn’t got a look in. They all used this mess as an excuse to get him ousted and the ploy worked.

Cromwell was executed at Tower Hill, sadly at the hands of a novice axe-man. Three chops and eventually his head was detached on this day in 1540, aged about 55.

Also on this day

28 July 1794 – Maximilien Robespierre
28 July 1865 – Edward Pritchard
28 July 1976 – Christian Ranucci
28 July 1826 – Isaac Smith

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