HIST 3130 Chapter Notes - Chapter 2: Urban Renewal, Determinative, Gordon Riots

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9 Aug 2016
Week 2
"Last Dying Speeches": Religion, Ideology and Public Execution in
Seventeenth-Century England - J. A. Sharpe, 1985:
However repulsive public execution may be to the modern scholar, it obviously made sense
to our forbears, and should be afforded serious attention by the historian
Public execution was not a simple display of brutality intended to cow or entertain some
animalistic mob – public executions were carried out in a context of ceremony and ritual, and
the reactions which they aimed to excite among spectators were evidently more complicated
than mere terror
Ever since the popular press had been established in England, much of its output had been
devoted to crime, its major concern being the sensational and newsworthy case: from the
start the purveyors of popular literature were convinced, as a Victorian ballad-seller was the
claim, that “there’s nothing beats a stunning good murder”
The ephemeral popular literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, the ballads, the broadsides,
and the pamphlets and chapbooks which will be our main concern here, still constitutes one
of the greatest unworked sources from which early modern mentalities might be
The gallows literature illustrates the way in which the civil and religious authorities designed
the execution spectacle to articulate a particular set of values, inculcate a certain behavioural
model and bolster a social order perceived as threatened
Only a small number of people might witness an execution, but the pamphlet account was
designed to reach a wider audience
This ephemeral literature provides considerable information about the way in which public
execution was carried out in the 17th century and suggests, as might be expected, that many
aspects of the more familiar 18th-century ceremonials already obtained, albeit in prototype
Public executions might attract large crowds who had to complete their journey on foot
Processing to the gallows also occurred in the provinces
It was apparently customary to curtail the death-throes of the condemned by pulling on their
legs, and one courageous soul, executed at Chester in 1651, explicitly instructed the
executioner not to do so, nor “to use any violent means, as is usual to put him sooner out of
his pain”
The custom of giving the corpse of the deceased to the medical profession for dissection, a
frequent cause of riot in the 18th century, was already current in the 17th, and as early as 1635
we read of the body of an executed murderess being “conveied to Barber Surgions Hal for a
Most exciting of all, from the spectators’ point of view, must have been those rare occasions
on which the condemned man or woman was saved by a last minute reprieve
The 17th century execution, therefore, could be a spectacular event and was already in large
measure governed by those conventions and rituals which have been made so familiar in
descriptions of 18th-century hangings at Tyburn
According to the pamphlets, the condemned was expected to make a farewell speech, and
usually did so in a very stereotyped form – the purpose of these speeches, unsurprisingly
enough, was to remind spectators that the death of the condemned constituted an awful
“Dying men’s words are ever remarkable, and their last deeds memorable for succeeding
posterities, by them to be instructed, what virtues or vices they followed and embraced, and
by them to learn to imitate that which was good, and to eschew evil”
These confessions were usually forthcoming, seem to have been generally unforced, and
were most often not merely an admission of guilt for the specific offence which led to
execution, bur rather a more general account of past sinfulness and delinquency
Above all, the condemned, as these speeches suggest, was expected to make a “penitent
end” – the recurrent theme of the pamphlet and chapbook accounts of executions was the
expectation that the condemned would be brought to accept the deservedness of their
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Week 2
execution, should attain a full awareness of the wickedness of the past life which had brought
them to their unhappy fate, and that they should die reconciled to that fate
Repentance was not merely a reaction to the experience of standing on the gallows – many
of the condemned seem to have repented long before their execution
Naturally enough the clergy were unwilling to leave the state of the condemned’s soul to
anything haphazard as interventions by fellow prisoners
Sometimes the clergy had ulterior motives – a Worcestershire clergyman refused to give
communion to 4 men “without a confession of the crimes of which they had been convicted”,
while a man awaiting execution in Stafford gaol was worked on by a clergyman who was in
hopes of discovering more about crime in the locality from him
But more usually, and especially in those cases where a confession had been made,
clergymen seem to have worked hard to reconcile the convicted person to his or her fate and
to prepare them for the next world – sometimes this was not an easy business
Those convicted criminals who did remain unrepentant were, however, regarded as very
reprehensible by contemporaries – when a man being executed at Worcester in 1708
delivered from the gallows not the expected speech of repentance, but rather a declaration
that he stood there as a result of the ill will of some of the county justices, the clergyman who
recorded the execution felt constrained to take action; he pushed through the crowd,
confronted the criminal, called out to him “have you not sins enough to answer for, but you
must calumniate good men for doing their duty?”, and exhorted him to say his prayers before
he was turned off
But it is strikingly hat such cases were rarely recorded, and that condemned persons acting in
this manner seem to have been regarded as abnormal and reprehensible
The infrequency of descriptions of defiance of this type is remarkable – even more
remarkable is the handful of cases in which condemned criminals professed themselves
innocent to the last of the crime for which they had been condemned, but were apparently
happy enough to accept their fate as the just deserts of more general wickedness
Bringing people to a true sense of penitence and contrition, and to an acceptance of their
fate, was evidently a process which could, on occasion, be impressively successful
The men and women whose executions we have noted were, for the most part, doing more
than just accepting their fates – they were the willing central participants in a theatre of
punishment, which offered not merely a spectacle, but also a reinforcement of certain values
When felons stood on the gallows and confessed their guilt not only for the offence for which
they suffered death, but for a whole catalogue of wrongdoing, and expressed their true
repentance for the same, they were helping to assert the legitimacy of the power which had
brought them to their sad end
What must be reiterated is that judges and clergymen were willing to make a considerable
effort to make even very lowly criminals confess their crimes and bring them to a proper
sense of repentance, that the writers of popular pamphlets were only too willing to record the
process, and that, in most cases for which we have evidence, the convicted persons seemed
perfectly happy to accept the role allotted to them in public executions
All of which reinforces our earlier suspicion that the executions of these mundane offenders,
and the way in which they were reported in the popular literature of the time, raises some
important questions about the nature of authority in 17th-century England
The set-piece execution and the scaffold confessions were of obvious applicability to traitors,
and especially high-born ones – that similar phenomena should attend the punishment of
lowly felons is more puzzling
Public executions were not merely displays of brutality, but rather attempts by the authorities
to exert ideological control, to reassert certain values of obedience and conformity
The clergy indeed were only marginally less important participants in Stuart public executions
than the condemned felon and the executioner, and, as we have emphasized, the public
execution was used to demonstrate the inadvisability of transgressing G-d’s laws as well as
those of the secular power
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The efforts of the clergy to “work that good work…of repentance, contrition and assurance of
salvation” on the condemned are a potent reminder of the church’s role in the struggle to
maintain order
These clerical efforts, and the content of so many of the gallows speeches, demonstrate that
for many inhabitants of 17th-century England the distinction between disobedience to royal
and divine authority, between crime and sin, was less clear cut than present: they were linked
components of disorder, and disorder was as distressing to the clerical as it was to the lay
The church preached Christian obedience throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and the
confessions of youthful sinfulness, the expressions of contrition and penitence on the part of
the condemned, and the vigorous endeavours of the clergy to bring prisoners to the requisite
state of mind, all persistent themes of the execution pamphlets, reinforce the suspicion that
the obedience envisaged went far beyond the merely passive
The objective was to produce an active and convinced g-dliness, even if this was only
obtained in the last few days or even the last few hours of the condemned’s life – no effort
should be spared in bringing the lost sheep back to the flock, even if they were shortly to be
transformed into mutton
In this the clergy officiating at executions seem to have been reflecting wider changes in
attitudes to death – the idea of dying well, perhaps embodied at its most vivid in these “last
dying speeches”, was not restricted to the condemned criminals: in general, as a historian of
death in the middle ages had informed us, “in the business of dying it was all important to
make a good end”
It would seem, in the 17th century at least, that there were a number of essential elements in
making a good end, whether the dying person were a condemned felon or suffering from a
terminal illness
The stories of past sinfulness delivered from the gallows were evidently part of a wider set of
cultural phenomena surrounding death, and the whole of the theatre of the gallows was
clearly connected with more general notions of how to die well
The active participation of the clergy in public executions suggests that they were well aware
of the need to take a leading role in what must have been one of the purest forms of death as
a “social rite”
Despite the importance of this religious dimension, the public execution remained one of the
principal methods by which the power of the state was demonstrated – all societies are, to a
greater or lesser extent, responsive to ritual and symbols, and by the early modern period this
had long been true of England
There is every reason to believe that a society innocent of the modern methods of mass
communication should be especially responsive to public ritual, not least of which would be
the ceremonies surrounding public execution, that “dramatic performance carefully managed
by the authorities to show the people that crime did not pay
It is significant that the authorities were happy to allow large crowds to assemble to witness
these executions in a period when the coming together of several hundreds or several
thousands of the lower orders was nor regularly encouraged
Equally it is significant that they were also happy to allow the lessons implicit in the spectacle
of execution, and explicit in the last dying speeches, to be diffused more widely by the
popular press
It seems that in Stuart England, and above all in Stuart London, there existed enough literate
people with the few coppers needed to purchase the occasional pamphlet or chapbook to
make punishing these accounts of terrible murders and last dying speeches worthwhile – the
readers of these pamphlets, drawn from social strata below the gentry, were presented with a
very stereotyped account of crime, its punishment and the behaviour thought appropriate in
the condemned felon
It is this stereotyped nature of the gallows speeches as reported in pamphlets which, despite
it tendency to raise doubts about their veracity, demonstrates their true importance – this type
of literature must have played a vital role in spreading official ideas about crime and
punishment, and about the whole nature of authority and disorder, down to the lower orders
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