Archive for March, 2009

winters gibbet by night. Amblekingrat on flickr (Click image)

winters gibbet by night. Amblekingrat on flickr (Click image)

I took a quick  look through the posts we have made so far on this blog and noticed that a great many of them refer to the cultural achievements of Tudor times. This period saw an extraordinary flowering of music, poetry, literature, painting and the theatre. However, these times are also remembered for the savage treatment that offenders could recieve, and this post examines the subject of capital punishment.


Death by hanging was the most commonly used form of capital punishment. This was imposed upon those convicted of murder and manslaughter as well as a range of other crimes. In 1563, Queen Elizabeth’s government passed an anti-witchcraft law making it a capital offence to cause the death of a person by witchcraft. Although we often think of burning at the stake as a Witches punishment it was far more common for hanging to be used in these circumstances. A witch could be imprisoned for a first offence of harming a person but this would become a death penalty for a second offence. As well as witchcraft, other offences were punishable by death such as buggery, rape, and stealing hawks.hanging

The condemned person was usually placed beneath the gallows on a horse drawn cart, once the rope was around the neck the horse was led away and the person left to hang (sometimes a ladder was used as per the illustration ). This method of hanging often meant the person died slowly of strangulation, as a mercy people were sometimes allowed to pull on the victim’s legs to hasten the process. In more recent times great care was taken to ensure that the execution was quick and efficient (this film gives some information).

Off with his head!

In the case of offenders from the nobility the penalty was to be beheaded. This would often take place away from the public eye, in London of course this meant execution on Tower green within the walls of the Tower of London. In the case of Anne Boleyn, a specialist swordsman was brought from France for the occasion to ensure that the death was a quick one. Thomas Cromwell however was not so fortunate. The executioner was incompetent and the first axe blow cleaved into Cromwell’s skull. There were reports that it took several blows to remove his head and rumours were that this had been arranged on purpose.


Burnt at the stake.

Heretics were sentenced to death by burning at the stake, a punishment meant to symbolise the flames that awaited the sinner in hell. Although used throughout the Tudor period it reached a peak during the reign of Mary I where an estimated 200-400 people died this way. Revulsion at this penalty is said to have hardened the resolve of many people against Catholicism and the memory of these executions was kept alive by the very popular book called ‘Foxes book of Martyrs’. Even this horror was not enough for some offenders.


Hung, drawn and quartered.

People convicted of high treason could be sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered. This punishment which was first developed in the time of Edward the first was a particularly brutal event. The term ‘drawn’ has a couple of meanings, firstly it refers to the way that the condemned persons were tied to a hurdle and drawn through the streets, usually tied head down behind the horse.hung-drawn-quartered

Once upon the scaffold the person was hung until nearly dead. Upon being cut down their ‘privy parts’ were cut off before their innards were ‘drawn’ from them (ideally whilst still alive) – these were thrown upon the fire and the person was then beheaded. After this the person would be cut into quarters and these parts were displayed prominently as a warning to others.

The illustration below dates from 1616 and shows the old London Bridge – if you look at the tower at the entrance to the bridge on the Southwark side of the river you can see the heads displayed on spikes above the entrance.

London Bridge 1616 : Claes Van Visscher

London Bridge 1616 : Claes Van Visscher

The death penalty today – facts from Amnesty International

See also our earlier post Anne Boleyn &  ‘Tyburn Martyrs’



See also:

Death penalty information center

Medieval life and times : Execution

Ultimate top ten lists – execution

Wikipedia capital punishment

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photo by Ruth1066 on Fkickr (Click image)

photo by Ruth1066 on Flickr (Click image)


Alas, my love, you do me wrong,

To cast me off discourteously.

For I have loved you well and long,

Delighting in your company.


Greensleeves was all my joy

Greensleeves was my delight,

Greensleeves was my heart of gold,

And who but my lady greensleeves.

Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,

Oh, why did you so enrapture me?

Now I remain in a world apart

But my heart remains in captivity.


I have been ready at your hand,

To grant whatever you would crave,

I have both wagered life and land,

Your love and good-will for to have.


If you intend thus to disdain,

It does the more enrapture me,

And even so, I still remain

A lover in captivity.


My men were clothed all in green,

And they did ever wait on thee;

All this was gallant to be seen,

And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,

but still thou hadst it readily.

Thy music still to play and sing;

And yet thou wouldst not love me.


Well, I will pray to God on high,

that thou my constancy mayst see,

And that yet once before I die,

Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.


Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,

To God I pray to prosper thee,

For I am still thy lover true,

Come once again and love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy

Greensleeves was my delight,

Greensleeves was my heart of gold,

And who but my lady greensleeves.

Most people thinking about Greensleeeves from a Tudor point of view imagine it played on a lute – a round-backed string instrument which was popular from the early renaissance, up until about 1800.

Image from little Miss sunnydale on Flickr (Click image)

Taken from Little_miss_sunnydales Flickr photostream (Click image)

The golden age of the lute was during the 16th and 17th centuries, during which time notated music became the custom – rather than the fashion for improvisation which had gone before.

John Dowland (1563–1626) is probably the most famous lutenist of the era. He is most famous today for his melancholy songs ‘Flow my tears’, ‘I saw my lady weep’ and ‘In darkness let me dwell’. Karl Schumann writes,

The art of playing the lute … was a refined, soft, and at the same time colorful art, in sharp contrast to the agitated times in which it was practised’.

Greensleeves too is a song of yearning and heart-break. No-one knows who wrote it. Some say Henry VIII penned the verse and tune for Anne Boleyn. Whatever its origin it has achieved lasting popularity.

(For more about the history and background of this song click here)

PS – regarding the forthcoming David Starkey TV series about Henry VIII entitled  ‘Henry, Mind of a Tyrant’. Philip Sheppard who composed the theme music dropped us an email to say that the dates for the TV show have been announced.

He also mentioned that the soundtrack will be freely available on his blog from next week & there is a preview available now

Take a look (& a listen) here – the preview sounds absolutely superb!


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Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein - 1536/37

Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein – 1536/37

When the future Edward VI was born in 1537 there was much rejoicing – for his father King Henry VIII, the birth of a son was especially important. The joy at the birth was of course overshadowed by tragedy because it was to lead to the death of the mother of the child, Jane Seymour.

A trouble free pregnancy –  a difficult birth

Jane’s pregnancy was announced in February 1537 and she experienced a trouble free pregnancy up to the time that she went into labour. The birth of the child however was long and difficult, taking two days and three nights to be delivered. The baby was eventually delivered at around two o’clock on the morning of the 12th October. As this is the eve of the Feast day of Edward the Confessor the baby was named after this Saint.

Jane was able to sit and greet guests prior to the christening on the 15th October at Hampton Court but two days later her health had seriously deteriorated and she was given the last rites. By the 24th of October, Jane was dead.

A Midwifes view

I asked a Midwife colleague at Birmingham City University to consider what is known about Jane Seymour’s death, to give her opinion about what happened to Jane Seymour and how this would be handled if it happened today.

Hampton Court by FrankLong on Flickr (Click Image)

Because of her elevated social position we can perhaps assume that Jane was a relatively fit and well nourished young lady. It is very likely that the complications which led to her death were caused by the difficult labour and especially the length of time it took to give birth.

The most likely cause of the extended labour would be that the baby was not positioned well in the womb – making it more difficult for the woman to give birth. The uterus is the muscle that does the job of pushing the baby out of the womb and after a long labour it can become exhausted. Because this muscle was exhausted it is more likely that the placenta surrounding the baby would not be completely expelled. Even though remaining placenta might only be the size of a thumbnail, this would always cause an infection once it began to decay.

Edward VI

Edward VI

Further problems would be caused by the fact that internally, Jane would have been left with open wounds. She had experienced a lot of pain, lost a lot of blood, and would have been physically and mentally exhausted. In this physical state she would have been  more open to infection and once infected, her body would have been less able to fight it. There was no understanding of microbial infection and no effective treatment for infection. The presence of dirty cloths and hands during and after the labour would be a very likely cause of infection.

Modern times

In a modern situation things would be much different.  Firstly, the mother and baby would be closely observed by the Midwife who would record the mothers blood pressure and temperature as well as the baby’s vital signs. Any sign of undue distress would lead to a hospital admission and probably a caesarean section ( there are records of this operation being performed in this period to save a baby when the mother was dying – there are no known instances of a mother surviving such a procedure). Modern knowledge of drug treatments to help labour as well as understanding of causes of infection and the use of antibiotics mean that in developed countries such deaths from infection are rare.

The death of Jane Seymour by Eugene Deveria

Women are still dying.

When writing about Tudor times we often find ourselves telling stories that still have some relevance today and sadly, this story is no exception. The problems that killed Jane Seymour nearly 500 years ago are still causing women to die every day. According to the World Health Organisation(WHO) maternal mortality is still very high in some countries. The WHO estimates that pregnancy or childbirth related problems cause around 1500 deaths a day!  – these deaths are mostly from avoidable causes.

See this blog posting for more information about Tudor Childbirth

See link for World Health Organisation information on maternal mortality

Also White Ribbon Alliance an international coalition campaigning to ensure that pregnancy and childbirth are safe for all women and newborns in every country around the world.



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Anne Boleyn has captured the popular imagination down the centuries.  Her marriage to Henry VIII has been seen as the culmination of a passionate encounter which brought about the reformation of the church in England – and the birth of Elizabeth I.
She is said to have utterly captivated Henry VIII whilst he was still married to Catherine of Aragon.  She is described as having a large mole or goiter on her neck, and a sixth finger on one of her hands. The Venetian ambassador said she was ‘not one of the handsomest women in the world’.
If we believe these records, something about her so captivated Henry VIII that he pursued her relentlessly.  She rejected all his advances to make her his mistress.  Henry’s passion forced him to seek the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon – even though this meant a break with the Pope and a dispute with the Emperor Charles V.

Love letters from the King

Vatican Library by Lawrence OP on Flickr

Vatican Library by Lawrence OP on Flickr (click)

Seventeen of Henry VIII’s famous love letters to Anne Boleyn exist.  Oddly enough these are now held in the Vatican Library. Only one of Anne’s love letters to the king has survived. The contents of the letter suggest it was written in late summer/early autumn of 1526.

It belongs only to the august mind of a great king, to whom Nature has given a heart full of generosity towards the sex, to repay by favors so extraordinary an artless and short conversation with a girl.

Inexhaustible as is the treasury of your majesty’s bounties, I pray you to consider that it cannot be sufficient to your generosity; for, if you recompense so slight a conversation by gifts so great, what will you be able to do for those who are ready to consecrate their entire obedience to your desires?

How great soever may be the bounties I have received, the joy that I feel in being loved by a king whom I adore, and to whom I would with pleasure make a sacrifice of my heart, if fortune had rendered it worthy of being offered to him, will ever be infinitely greater.

The warrant of maid of honor to the queen induces me to think that your majesty has some regard for me, since it gives me means of seeing you oftener, and of assuring you by my own lips (which I shall do on the first opportunity) that I am,
Your majesty’s very obliged and very obedient servant, without any reserve,

Anne Bulen.


Henry and Anne married in 1533. The future Queen Elizabeth I was born the same year – it appears Anne may have been pregnant when they married.  Henry was angry to find his child was a girl, however supporters of Catherine of Aragon were delighted, believing this was God’s verdict on the marriage.  In 1536 Anne gave birth to a boy – however the child was born dead.  Later that year Henry accused Anne of adultery with five other men.  These men – along with Anne – were then executed.


The execution of Anne took place on 19 May 1536 at 8 o’clock in the morning.  It was the first public execution of an English queen.
The account of Anne Boleyn’s speech at her execution was recorded in the Annals of John Stow. The account mentions the ‘hangman of Calais’ who was brought to London for the execution:

“All these being on a scaffold made there for the execution, the said Queen Anne said as followeth: Masters, I here humbly submit me to the law, as the law hath judged me, and as for mine offences, God knoweth them, I remit them to God, beseeching him to have mercy on my soul; and I beseech Jesu save my Sovereign and master the King, the most goodliest, and gentlest Prince that is, and long to reign over you, which words she spake with a smiling countenance: which done, she kneeled down on both her knees, and said, To Jesu Christ I commend my soul and with that word suddenly the hangman of Calais smote off her head at one stroke with a sword: her body with the head was buried in the choir of the Chapel in the Tower”

Myths about Anne

There were many who celebrated this execution.  After her death a number of myths sprang up about Anne. Many of these stories had their roots in the writings of Roman Catholics committed to deposing Elizabeth I and re-establishing Roman Catholicism in England.. Nicholas Sander, one such recusant, born c. 1530, in his De Origine ac Progressu schismatis Anglicani (The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism), published in 1585, was the first to write that Anne had six fingers on her right hand.  Physical deformities were interpreted as a sign of evil, and it is unlikely that Anne Boleyn would have gained Henry’s romantic attention had she had any.

History seems to have been kinder to Anne Boleyn.  Eric Ives in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn writes –

‘across the centuries is the impression of a person who is strangely appealing to the early twenty-first century: A woman in her own right—taken on her own terms in a man’s world; a woman who mobilized her education, her style and her presence to outweigh the disadvantages of her sex; of only moderate good looks, but taking a court and a king by storm. Perhaps, in the end, it is Thomas Cromwell’s assessment that comes nearest: intelligence, spirit and courage.<

Anne Boleyn has captured the popular imagination down the centuries.  Her marriage to Henry VIII has been seen as the culmination of a passionate encounter which brought about the reformation of the church in England – and the birth of Elizabeth I.



See also:

Anne Boleyn at Tudorhistory.org

BBC website


Annes birthplace Hever castle

Wikipedia entry

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I was delighted to think of an excuse to show something from Blackadder, especially the “Wise woman” sketch – have there been many funnier TV programs ever? I thought that it would be interesting to think about the truth in this scene.

You may remember that Edmund Blackadder starts his quest for medical help by going to see the Doctor (he was advised to put leeches in his codpiece!). In Tudor towns there were qualified medical practitioners who could have been consulted, especially by wealthier people (such as Blackadder). For ordinary people though, qualified medical assistance may not have been so readily available.

According to Roy Porter most villages would have had their own ‘Wise woman’ or ‘Wise’, or ‘Cunning man’ to whom people could turn for help when illness struck. The state and the church didn’t approve of these people and would sometimes try to discourage or punish practitioners. Despite this disapproval, there often wasn’t anyone else for people to turn to and of course, if there was any medical help available it was often quite ineffective. A little while back, I came across a story which suggested that perhaps the ‘wise woman’ might have been of some benefit.

I attended a meeting at Birmingham University Medical School and noticed a picture behind the speakers on the stage. This picture showed a man holding a foxglove – when I got home I ‘Googled’ the words ‘Birmingham’ and ‘Foxglove’ and came across the story of William Withering.

William Withering

William Withering

Withering who was a surgeon at Birmingham General Hospital from 1775 was also a member of the famous ‘Lunar Society‘ along with people like Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton and Erasmus Darwin. Withering was also an enthusiastic botanist known for his scorn of traditional herbal lore.

Withering was asked to see a woman who was suffering with ‘dropsy’ (this is now called Oedema in England or Edema in the US) which is a condition in which the person retains fluid and can become swollen – especially around the feet and ankles but also affecting other parts of the body including the lungs. It is a symptom of other problems, often heart or kidney disease – Withering’s diagnosis was that the outlook was bleak for the woman.

He was suprised to find later that she had been cured by a herbal tea – made to a secret recipe that had passed down through the generations. Withering searched the countryside for the secret, obtained the recipe which contained over twenty herbal  ingredients and eventually worked out that the active ingredient came from the Foxglove.foxglove

Withering set to work perfecting his understanding of the use of the Foxglove in a series of experiments that would today gain him both notoriety and a life sentence in prison. He used patients at Birmingham General Hospital as Guinea pigs! many of these people died in the process of his experiments, Foxgloves being very poisonous plants. The active ingredient in Foxglove is a substance called ‘Digitalis’ – a drug still widely used in modern medicine to treat heart disease.

Fortunately for Withering  the ‘wise woman’ he consulted was a bit more effective than the one seen by Blackadder. It is interesting  to think that despite his scorn about herbal lore it led him to his greatest discovery.

(See also ‘Tudor cures’)

(By the way – if you want to read more about the story of the Lunar Society I can really recommend this book.)


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