I have gotten curious about the use of the royal prerogative in ordering executions. Henry VII executed at least seven people for treason, primarily as they disputed his right to the English throne. One pretender to the throne, Edward Plantagenet 17th earl of Warwick and 7th Earl of Salisbury, was imprisoned in the tower. He was executed after trying to escape. Perhaps a more concrete charge, than treason which could anger potential supporters.
Henry VIII was rather mercurial in his moods, and after the Act of Supremacy, he had absolute power. Prior to the Act, executions were focused on challenges to his throne (at least 5) and the executions of Lutheran-leaning heretics (6). There was also Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, who prophesied death for King Henry if he was to marry Anne Boleyn. She was executed along with at least one of her supporters. The Exeter conspiracy and other insubstantial treason charges claimed 5 more.
The Act of Supremacy began nearly a century of executions based on religious beliefs. Over 20 Catholic priests and monks were executed because they refused to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the King as the head of the Church, most notably John Cardinal Fisher. There is a record of one monk being executed because he opposed the dissolution of the monasteries, and refused to surrender Church property to the Crown. Sir Thomas More is the most famous layperson executed for refusing the Oath. The four leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the popular uprising in York opposing the Act, were also executed. One wonders about the record on ordinary citizens. Perhaps the Crown was not much interested, unless one supported a treasonous cause, or was a prominent person like More. An ordinary person was adrift in a sea of chaos. Knowing what was the “correct” doctrine of the day, would depend upon how “correct” your clergyman or priest was, and keeping abreast of the changes in Royal opinion. When the shift in doctrine veered back towards traditional Catholicism with the Six Articles, there is record of 3 laypersons being executed because they would not accept transubstantiation. It was not good to be too Catholic, or too Lutheran-leaning. There is a record of 3 people being executed at various times in Henry’s reign because they were essentially “too Protestant”. And then there is the lone exception – of Thomas Fiennes, Baron Dacre, who was executed for murder.
Edward VI did not live long enough to deliver a voluminous quantity of death sentences. There were the Seymours who eventually gained enough enemies to be executed for treason, even though they enjoyed positions of great power in Edward’s Court. The issuing the book of Common Prayer was the last straw for some of the long suffering English faithful, and they arose is opposition in the Prayer Book Rebellion. At least 8 were executed in connection with this rebellion, but it should be noted that over 5000 citizens were slain in the battles and violent reprisals. Robert Kett was also executed for treason. There is also Joan Bocher who was executed for her heretical Anabaptist views.
Queen Mary has been given the moniker “Bloody Mary”, but in comparison to her sister, Elizabeth, this judgement is unfair. History is written by the victors, after all, and our impressions of Queen Mary have been overly influenced by the writers of the Elizabethan era. Her reign began with the executions for treason (3) for those involved with putting Lady Jane Grey on the throne for less than a fortnight, for those in Wyatt’s rebellion (2). There were about 50 “Marian martyrs” who were burned at Smithfield for their Protestant beliefs. There were at least five prominent Anglican clergy who met their end under her reign, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer who started it all and at least seven other clergy.
Elizabeth I is not commonly considered a tyrant, but she was in a delicate position. The Pope in Rome had declared her essentially a “pretender” to the throne as she was considered illegitimate by the Holy See. To be loyal to the Pope was to be opposed to her rule. After it became a capital offense to be a Catholic priest in England, the stage was set to root out papal supporters in England. Almost four dozen Catholic priests were executed during Elizabeth’s reign and over twenty people were executed for either succoring priests, having or printing Catholic books or practicing Roman Catholicism. There were those executed in relation to the “Irish troubles” (at least 3), and those for political treason in the Babington plot (6) including its centerpiece, Mary Queen of Scots, and those who supported Robert Devereaux the 2nd Earl of Essex (3).
After the experience of such history, and the bloodbath of the English Revolution, which was the seventeenth century reprise of religious based strife, it is little wonder that the thinkers of the eighteenth century were so fervent about the support of, as John Adams put it “the rule of law not the rule of men”.
Note: this is by no means an accurate count of Tudor executions. it is only the summary of my curiosity and collection of information.