Ten Tips for Scaffold Success

For the most part, those who found themselves facing the block in Tudor England went to their deaths gracefully, abiding by certain conventions. Here, taken from historical examples, are ten ways those condemned to death could make the best out of the worst situation:

1. Practice makes perfect. According to Eustace Chapuys, Katherine Howard asked that the block be brought to her before her execution and “placed her head on it by way of experiment.” It must have worked; no one complained that the queen put her head in the wrong place on the big day.

2. Dress snappily. This wasn’t the time to have the Tudor equivalent of Tim Gunn sigh, “Oh, dear.” Anne Boleyn was elegantly and tastefully dressed in a gray or black gown, over which she wore a mantle of ermine. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, “was splendidly attired, as he used to be when about to attend upon the king.”

3. Guilty, sort of. Even for those who were innocent of any crime, this wasn’t the time to say so; rather, the condemned man or woman would acknowledge the legality of the process that had brought him or her to the scaffold. The clever, however, could convey a good deal in what was left unsaid: Anne Boleyn, in saying, “By the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak of that whereof I am accused and condemned to die,” carefully avoided any admission of wrongdoing while staying within the bounds of scaffold propriety.

4. It could always be worse. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, thanked the queen for granting him the nobleman’s death by beheading: “And now I beseech the Queen’s highness to forgive me mine offenses against her majesty, whereof I have a singular hope, forasmuch as she hath already extended her goodness & clemency so far upon me that where as she might forthwith without judgment or any further trial, have put me to most vile & cruel death, by hanging drawing, and quartering.”

5. Don’t get your hopes up. The approach of fast-riding horsemen caused the overexcited crowd at the execution of the popular Duke of Somerset to speculate that a pardon had arrived. The duke, knowing that this was most unlikely, helped to quiet the crowd himself, thereby averting what could have easily become a riot (and gaining points for good behavior as well).

6. Don’t be stingy with the executioner. A well-paid executioner was much less likely to bungle the final job. The Duke of Somerset gave his executioner some gold rings, together with all of his clothes. Thomas More, having been persuaded to change into a less elaborate outfit than that originally planned (thereby depriving his executioner of his richest garments), made up for the deficiency by compensating his executioner with an angel (a coin) of gold.

7. Avoid a wardrobe malfunction. The Duke of Somerset, after placing himself in position for the ax, had to be ordered to rise and remove his doublet because it covered his neck. The Duke of Northumberland likewise had to rise to retie his blindfold because it slipped at the last minute.

8. Do a credit check first. The hapless Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, had to put up with the ultimate indignity: the appearance of one of his creditors on the scaffold, asking “How shall I do for the money that you do owe me?” (Suffolk managed to send him off with the words, “Go thy way to my officers.”)

9. Leave ‘em laughing. Thomas More famously quipped, “I pray you, Master Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself,” and advised his executioner, “Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office: my neck is very short.”

10. Look on the bright side. Thomas Palmer, executed alongside the Duke of Northumberland, told the crowd, “I do not doubt that I have a good morrow and shall I trust have a better good even.”

6 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Scaffold Success”

  1. Great post, Susan! Never quite understood it myself, though. I tend to think I'd be clinging onto someone, screaming "Don't kill me!" and hang my dignity. More in the countess of Salisbury mould, really.

  2. I agree with Ragged Staff, in that we question the bravery of these victims – but it all comes down to the context of the times. The condemned followed the protocals of the times – and they were aware of the safety of the family they left behind. Mark Smeaton, accused with Anne Boleyn, pleaded guilty but at his execution merely said he deserved this death, which implied he had lied. The condemned often made remarks like this, but were referring to any past sins rather than the crime they had been accused of.

    I note you left out Lady Jane Grey, which was very poignant.

    As for the countess of Salisbury, which 'story' is the correct one? I was brought up with the Countess refusing to put her head on the block as she was no traitor, then that she was butchered by an inexperienced headsman, and finally she begged for her life. Any idea which is true?

  3. Heh, I would have gone the Jacques de Molay route and cursed the whole damn lot that got me there. Who knows, it may even have worked. 😀

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