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When it comes to English monarchs, none is more revered or despised than Henry VIII. The masses are torn on whether to love him….or hate him.
Henry VIII did many great things for England during his long reign, but he also did many despicable things as well. History books and modern authors tend to only remember the negative attributes of this infamous monarch.
Here are some of the good things we should remember about Henry VIII:
Henry allowed the bible to be translated into English – this, for the sixteenth century was quite controversial.
In his Act of Succession he allowed his two daughters to follow his son. His daughter Mary became the first queen regnant in English history – quite magnificent actually.
Henry VIII was one of the founders of the English Royal Navy and helped to grow the number of ships within it exponentially.
He was also quite musical – while Henry VIII has been credited for writing Greensleeves it is highly disputed that he actually did, but what he did write, at the beginning of his reign, was a song called, Pastime with Good Company – or The King’s Ballad. Henry was a very talented musician…take a listen to a part of the King’s Singers performing it via a YouTube channel I found:
Here are the lyrics to the entire song:
Past time with good company
I love, and shall until I die
Grutch who lust, but none deny
So God be pleased, thus live will I
For my pastance
Hunt, sing and dance
My heart is set;
All goodly sport
For my comfort
Who shall me let?
Youth must have some dalliance
Of good or ill some pastance
Company me thinks then best
All thoughts and fancies to digest
For idleness is chief mistress
Of vices all; then who can say
But mirth and play
Is best of all?
Past time with good company
I love, and shall until I die
Grutch who lust, but none deny
So God be pleased, thus live will I
For my pastance
Hunt, sing and dance
My heart is set;
All goodly sport
For my comfort
Who shall me let?
Company with honesty
Is virtue, vices to flee;
Company is good and ill
But every man hath his free will
The best ensue
The worst eschew;
My mind shall be
Virtue to use
Vice to refuse
Thus shall I use me…
Henry was quite the builder as well – I’m not sure of the exact number (may have been at least a dozen) but his builds compare to the most prolific monarch builder, King Edward I. The difference between the two men was that Henry’s building was done quickly – often making his men work overnight by candlelight and fires and so, because of this, many of his buildings no longer stand today.
Lastly, he gave the world Queen Elizabeth I. Need I say more?
Now…when we look at the not so flattering side of King Henry we quickly go to the fact that he married six times and that he executed two of his wives. It wasn’t only his wives that he executed but he also executed friends, like Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell – both deaths he regretted deeply afterward. Oh, and if you had any claim in your bloodline to the throne of England he’d also execute you.
The number of executions during the reign of Henry VIII has been estimated to be upwards of 72,000 – that number, in my opinion, is highly over exaggerated. If you consider the population of England during the reign of King Henry was 2.5 million people, that would mean that Henry executed about 2.8 percent of the population of England. Then we’d have to take into account how many people died of the plague and the sweating sickness as well as battles….there would be like….two people left. Okay, maybe a few more but you get where I’m going with this.
There is, however, a list on Wikipedia of Protestants executed under Henry VIII…that lists totals sixty-three victims from 1530-1546. So while King Henry executed a lot of people, I definitely question the 72,000 number that has been floating around.
Types of Executions
Executions during the reign of Henry VIII weren’t always the same. There were many ways to execute a person.
There was death by Pressing – the victim would have a large plank placed over their body to which weight would steadily be added to. This would lead to broken bones and eventually suffocation. Pressing was another great way to torture a person.
Another way one could have been executed during the reign of Henry VIII was by being Boiled Alive.
A statute was passed in England in 1531 by Henry VIII that made willful murder by means of poison high treason and punishable by death by boiling.
It was the action of one Richard Roose, cook of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester that prompted the measure. In February 1531, Roose poisoned the porridge of Rochester and his guests. But it wasn’t only those in the household at the time who received the poisoned porridge but also the poor who had gathered outside to collect alms. They were given whatever was leftover from the meal. All those that ate the food became extremely ill and two people actually died. Rochester had not eaten so he was spared. But when Roose was arrested he claimed that he had put a laxative in the porridge as a joke and meant no harm.
A joke, huh? Not really the kind of thing one should do as a joke.
The boiling of Roose was held in front of the public.
Here is a quote about the event from, The Men and Women of the English Reformation by S.H. Burke
“He roared mighty loud,” says an old chronicle, “ and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work.”
The victims of this punishment would have been strung up in a series of pulleys and ropes, hanging precariously above a drum of boiling liquid. The liquid could have been water, tar, oil, wine or whatever was the King’s desire. The executioner would slowly lower the person down into the liquid and then raise them back up to further the punishment and drag out the inevitable. This truly was a merciless was to die.
Hanged, drawn and quartered:
When I think about being hanged, drawn and quartered I’m often left wondering how much the victim felt and at what point did they no longer experience pain.
This punishment was typically held for those who were found guilty of high treason.
Here is the description from the website: Capital Punishment U.K.
First, the prisoner was dragged behind a cart from their jail or prison to where the execution was to take place. Once there, the prisoner was hanged in the normal way (i.e. without a drop to ensure that the neck was not broken) but cut down whilst still conscious. The penis and testicles were cut off and the stomach was slit open. The intestines and heart were removed and burned before them. The other organs were torn out and finally the head was cut off and the body divided into four quarters. The head and quarters were parboiled to prevent them rotting too quickly and then displayed upon the city gates as a grim warning to all.
At some point in this agonising process, the prison inevitable died of strangulation and/or hemorrhage and/or shock and damage to vital organs.
I’m fairly certain that when the heart was removed they were dead.
Burned to Death
Being burned at the stake was a common method of execution for centuries and not just in England. This included piling small sticks of wood around a large stake. The fire would be lit and hopefully the victim passed out from the smoke prior to their flesh burning.
One of the most notable cases of being burned at the stake was that of Anne Askew.
Anne Askew was burned at the stake for her religious beliefs – she was Protestant and the powers that be were attempting to get Anne to implicate Queen Kateryn Parr – she did not.
Anne had been unfairly racked “till her bones and joints were almost plucked asunder, in such sort as she was carried away in a chair”.
When it came time for her execution, Anne was brought to the stake, she was tied around her waist to the pole so that is held her limp body upright. It is believed that Anne did not suffer long because gunpowder had been placed near her body to end her suffering.
The form of execution that we hear about the most is death by beheading. This is how both Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard were executed, along with many others. The act was usually done by axe and in at least one special case it was done by sword. Most believe this was the most merciful way to die – quick and painless. Well, unless you were Thomas Cromwell or Margaret Pole, that is.
Death by Hanging
There were some instances when King Henry opted for a simpler execution – death by hanging. Most hangings were done at Tyburn.
When the prisoner was brought to the gallows they would have been greeted by a large crowd that sometimes grew to 100,000 people.
Among the people would have been people selling food and souvenirs. The gallows were common place for pickpockets to grow their wealth amongst the crowd.
When the prisoner or prisoners were led to the gallows the hangman would uncoil the free end of the rope from them and throw it up to one of the assistants on the beam above who then tied it to the beam leaving very little slack.
Ropes were also tied to the carts or stools from which the prisoners stood and the other end was attached to horse, and at the time of execution the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air – “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end.
Victims of Henry VIII
Now that we’ve covered the types of executions, let’s take a look at the most notable ones during the reign of Henry VIII.
King Henry VIII began his reign by executing two of his father’s most unpopular officials. Edmund Dudley (yes, he was kin to Robert Dudley – his grandfather) and Robert Empson in 1510. These two men didn’t stand a chance under the reign of the new young King Henry VIII. King Henry used their execution as a way to set the tone for his reign. He wanted to be liked and he knew by removing these two men that his subjects would rejoice in him.
Many people blamed both Empson and Dudley for the difficulty they had during the reign of Henry VII. That King Henry was notorious for taxing his subjects and many believed it was Empson and Dudley who were to blame.
Dudley and Empson were executed 17 August 1510, on Tower Hill, presumably by beheading and was buried at London Blackfriars and Empson at London Whitefriars.
Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley together became names associated with Henry VII’s ruthless scheme of excessive taxation. For their success during the reign of Henry VII they paid the ultimate price, their life, under the rule of the new king….Henry VIII
Edmund de la Pole was the son of John de la Pole and Elizabeth Plantagenet, Edmund was nephew to Edward IV and future Richard III.
After the execution of Edward Plantagenent, Earl of Warwick in 1499, Edmund de la Pole was the next York claimant to the throne.
Edmund’s brother the Earl of Lincoln was killed in the attempted Simnel rebellion which shed a bad light on his entire family. Plus, when John de la Pole died Edmund had requested he receive the dukedom of Suffolk, which Henry VIII denied.
Outwardly, de la Pole appeared loyal, however, he was upset when Henry refused him the dukedom after his father’s death
In 1501, Suffolk, along with his brother Richard, fled to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. Supporters of the York family gathered around the Earl of Suffolk in Flanders in the knowledge that they were safe under the protection of Maximilian. Henry had no choice but to act decisively. Not only was there an obvious threat to him developing in Flanders, he had lost his eldest son, Arthur, to illness. Prince Henry was also a far from a strong boy then and his third son, Edmund, was already dead. Henry had to demonstrate that he was a strong and well-established king.
Suffolk’s relations who had remained in England were all arrested and imprisoned. In January 1504, 51 men were attained – the largest number in one single action in Henry’s reign. Sir James Tyrell, a former Constable of the Tower, was executed. He had been Governor of Guisness when Suffolk had fled there and this was enough to seal his fate.
Maximilian agreed to a treaty in 1502 to not back Edmund de la Pole should he make an attempt for the English throne. Then in 1506, when Philip of Burgundy “Philip the Handsome” was blown of course and expectantly became a guest, along with his wife Juana of Castile, of King Henry VII he was at the mercy of the desperate English king. Since Philip and his wife needed to set sail back to Castile they were at Henry VII’s mercy. Henry convinced Philip to hand over Edmund de la Pole so long as he only imprisoned him and did not harm him.
Unfortunately his son, Henry VIII did not follow through on the instructions of the two deceased rulers and executed de la Pole on the 30th of April 1513.
Edward Stafford was the son of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and his wife, Katherine Woodville. Katherine was the sister of Elizabeth Woodville who was queen consort to King Edward IV (Grandfather to Henry VIII).
When Elizabeth Woodville married the King of England her kin were lucky enough to be given good marriages, titles and land. Her sister Katherine was no exception. At roughly seven years old, just before the coronation of her sister, Katherine was married to Henry Stafford – Stafford was merely 11 years old.
An Italian ambassador at the time wrote that Edward Stafford resented having to marry someone of such low birth – this was a common sentiment at the time at English court. Many resented the Woodville family and regarded them as upstarts.
Forty-four years after their marriage and five monarchs later, Edward Stafford found himself in a heap of trouble. As a descendant of Edward III, Stafford had what some believed to be a stronger claim to the throne since Tudor’s claim was through an illegitimate line. If something were to happen to the King and his daughter Mary then Stafford would be considered next in line to succeed to the throne of England.
After Henry VIII heard of these claims he ordered an investigation. It is treason to speak of, yet imagine the death of the King.
On the 8th of April 1521, the Duke was ordered to London from his castle at Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger that may lie ahead.
He was greatly shocked when he was arrested and brought to the Tower.
At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins regarding the chances of the king having a male heir. The evidence to back this up was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the Duke’s household.
Stafford denied all charges. A jury of 17 of his peers led by the Duke of Norfolk found him guilty. It was reported that Norfolk wept when the verdict was read.
The Secretary of the Venetian Ambassador in England, described the events on the day of Stafford’s execution:
This morning the late Duke of Buckingham was taken from the Tower to the scaffold, at the usual place of execution, with a guard of 500 infantry. He addressed the populace in English. Then on his bended knees he recited the penitential psalms, and with the greatest composure calling the executioner, requested that he would dispatch him quickly, and forgave him; after which he took off his gown, and having had his eyes blindfolded, he laid his neck on the block, and the executioner with a woodman’s axe (fn. 11) severed his head from his body with three strokes.
The corpse was immediately placed in a coffin and carried to the church of the Austin Friars, accompanied by six friars and all the infantry.
As with Edmund de la Pole, Edward Stafford would not be the last of those with royal blood and viable claims to the crown of England being executed
Elizabeth Barton is best known as the “The Nun of Kent” and then later “The Mad Maid of Kent.” Her prophecies were ultimately her downfall. In 1525, at nineteen years old, she became ill and fell into trances having visions “of marvellous holiness in rebuke of sin and vice.”
A local priest by the name of Richard Master believed in Barton’s visions and reported them to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham. From there the story of the prophetic girl grew and grew.
Eventually Barton left her job as a servant and became a Benedictine nun. She continued to have visions and began to be known as “The Nun of Kent.”
It was when she started prophesying about the King of England that she got into some hot water.
Elizabeth Barton was not alone, also implicated in her downfall were six monks.
Barton would eventually confess that she was the cause “of all this mischief,” and that by her falsehood deceived “all these persons” but this did not save them. At that point it was too late and there was too much evidence to prove their involvement.
On the 20th of April 1534, Barton and five of the monks were all drawn on a hurdle (fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution) from the Tower of London to Tyburn. At Tyburn they were hanged and beheaded with their heads set on London Bridge or at the gates of the city, which was customary to warn off others from participating in similar antics.
One of the monks received a stay of execution and was pardoned. It is believed that he signed the oath of successionElizabeth Barton was around 28 years old when she was executed.
In the summer of 1535, not only were Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher executed but also three monks. All five men refused to swear the oath of supremacy and acknowledge Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England. Their penalty was death.
The monks were all hanged, drawn and quartered while More and Fisher were beheaded.
1536 was a big year for executions in England. George Boleyn, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton and Anne Boleyn were all executed as part of the campaign to bring down Queen Anne.
The men were all executed on the 17th and Anne on the 19th of May. They were all beheaded. The men by axe and Anne more mercifully by sword.
In 1537 the Pilgrimage of Grace warranted Henry to execute more people including Robert Aske and many of those involved in the uprising.
Also in 1537, Thomas Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Kildare, and five FitzGerald uncles (James, Oliver, Richard, John and Walter) were executed at Tyburn for treason and rebellion. Thomas had renounced his allegiance to Henry VIII. On 3 February 1537, the remaining Fitzgerald men who had been imprisoned were executed as traitors at Tyburn. They were hanged, drawn and quartered.
After the Pilgrimage of Grace, many conservative nobles were accused of treason, including Edward Neville who was arrested on 3 November 1538, for conspiracy, along with his cousin Henry Pole (son of Margaret Pole). They were charged with high treason for conspiracy with Henry’s exiled brother, Cardinal Reginald Pole.
Edward Neville was sent to the Tower, tried at Westminster, and beheaded on 8 December 1538 at Tower Hill.
The following day, on the 9th of December 1538, Henry Courtenay, 1st Marquess of Exeter who was also convicted of being part of the Exeter Uprising and corresponding with Reginald Pole, was beheaded on Tower Hill.
On the 9th of January 1539, the last man to be charged with high treason for their involvement in the Exeter Uprising, Henry Pole, 1st Baron Montagu, was executed on Tower Hill.
Then in March of 1539, the King had another close friend of his, Sir Nicholas Carew, Knight of the Garter and Master of the King’s Horse executed by beheading for treason against the king.
July 1540 saw another execution of a man who Henry VIII would greatly regret…Thomas Cromwell, nearly appointed Earl of Essex. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the executioner is thought to have been either an amateur or had been out the night before drinking heavily because he did quite a number on the man. Chronicler Edward Hall wrote that, “And then made he his prayer, which was long, but not so long, as both godly and learned, and after committed his soul, into the hand of God, and so patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and butcherly miser, which very ungoodly performed the office.”
If you were every to read through Edward Hall’s Chronicles you may also believe that Henry VIII had 72,000 people executed because at moments it feels as if that was all he wrote about.
1541, 32 years into the reign of King Henry VIII, was another busy year of executions.
In 1540 several members of the Plantagenet household in Calais were arrested on suspicion of treason, on the charge of plotting to betray the town to the French. One of them was the illegitimate son of King Edward IV, Arthur Plantagenet, Lord Lisle. Lisle was eventually released only to die from a heart attack shortly after.
Additional evidence was gathered against Leonard Grey, Deputy of Ireland, and so on the 25th of July he was convicted of treason and on the 28th he too was executed.
The most notable of all the executions of this time was the elderly Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury in May of 1541. I believe, she is the oldest person to be executed at the Tower of London. Salisbury’s execution was private but that doesn’t mean there were not witnesses, it just means the number of spectators were far fewer than a public execution.
In June of 1541, per Edward Hall’s chronicle, Lord Dacre was led on foot between the two Sheriffs of London, from the Tower through the city to Tyburn, where he was strangled, as common murderers usually were. He, along with other men, were charged with the murder of a simple man and an unlawful assembly in Sussex.
At the end of 1541, Ralph Egerton, servant to Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor, was hanged, drawn and quartered for counterfeiting and using the King’s Great Seal. He died for helping illegals gain citizenship.
Also, around this time, a child named Richard Mekins, not yet 15, had been heard speaking against the sacrament of the altar contrary to the Six Articles. It is believed that the child only repeated words he heard others speak. Bishop Bonner followed the accusation and Mekins was arraigned and charged – he was inevitably burned at the stake.
At the end of 1541, we also see the arrest of another queen to King Henry VIII, Katherine Howard. Katherine was accused of dissolute living before her marriage with one Francis Dereham, and that many had known about their relationship. She was also suspected of having an affair with Thomas Culpeper. All three were arrested as was Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.
For their confessions, Culpeper and Dereham were executed on the 10th of December.
Thomas Wriothesley writes in his chronicle that, “Culpeper and Dereham were drawn from the Tower of London to Tyburn, and there Culpeper, after exhortation made to the people to pray for him, he standing on the ground by the gallows, kneeled down and had his head stricken off; and then Dereham was hanged, membered, bowelled, headed and quartered.”
On the 13th of February 1542, both Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn were beheaded on the Tower Green by axe.
We’ll wrap up our list of notable executions with Anne Askew by burning in 1546 and follow it by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by beheading in 1546 – he was the last notable person executed before the death of King Henry VIII in January 1547.
Kesselring, K. J. “A Draft of the 1531 ‘Acte for Poysoning’.” The English Historical Review 116, no. 468 (2001): 894-99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/579196.
‘Venice: May 1521’, in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 3, 1520-1526, ed. Rawdon Brown (London, 1869), pp. 119-130. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/venice/vol3/pp119-130 [accessed 27 October 2017].
The Later Parliaments of Henry VIII: 1536-1547 By Lehmberg page 127
Hall, Edward; Henry VIII