Archive for January, 2013

This is a two-part essay. In this first part I would simply like to emphasise or reiterate that conducting any investigation into what happened in the past, in any type of historical writing (historiography), choices need to be made. Whether the choices, and the reasons for such choices, are made consciously or not, they are not optional. I also argue that historians should be as explicit as possible regarding their choices. All historical writing involves subjectivity, and is even in some way always ideological. Yet if we want to say something with meaning and relevance, and not just produce another literary text, then we need to make clear the distinction between what we have chosen as our subject and perspective (and why) and what we believe to be the facts that we have used as evidence for our interpretation. This might appear to be self-evident but it is still only a minority practice.

Sicilian Vespers

Sicilian Vespers

In the second part, which I hope will follow shortly, I will try to illustrate some of these issues by contrasting two very different historical approaches to the same event – the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. These approaches are those of the famous British historian Sir Steven Runciman and the nineteenth-century Italian Michele Amari. They both produced books called The Sicilian Vespers. Although each wrote his work in the form of a conventional narrative, it would be difficult to find two more divergent interpretations and ideological presentations of seemingly the same event. Amari sees the episode as an early and popular revolution. Ordinary Sicilians tried to throw off the yoke of a brutal foreign ruler. On the other hand, Runciman portrays it as the result of just another Great Conspiracy between various kings, nobles and popes, each jockeying for more power. For him the Sicilian Vespers had some important repercussions to be sure, but it wasn’t much about ordinary Sicilians.

Part 1: Making Choices in Writing History

History is not a science, although in practice it is and should be a discipline. Historical research and the writing of history more resemble a craft skill. Such skills build on an existing body of knowledge. They can be taught and their refinement and mastery needs lots of practice. In the right hands the end-product can even on occasion become an art form. Yet spilling more ink questioning whether history is a science, an art or a skill, or a mixture of all three, isn’t going to get us very far. On a less philosophical level the question is in some way similar to epistemological debates that have raged for over two thousand years. How do we gain knowledge and what is the nature of truth?  We’re still no nearer to an answer than was Aristotle. The trouble starts when we start spelling words with an initial capital letter: Knowledge or Truth for example. The Germans have a wonderful word for this, they call it Verdinglichung. This literally means making something, usually an abstract concept or idea, into a real thing. In English it is usually called reification.

Regarding the writing of history, I would argue that there are indeed facts about the past as well as many historical statements that are either true or false, but there really is no reified ‘Truth’. Some post-modernists would even argue with the first part of this statement and suggest, following the lead of such French thinkers as Lyotard and Derrida, that there are no historical facts at all. I disagree. There will be just a little more to say on this subject later on. But this essay is not primarily philosophical and it certainly isn’t designed to address the question of post-modernism’s so-called challenge to the practice of writing history. For that I can do no better than recommend both Keith Jenkins’s book Re-writing History and Richard Evan’s In Defence of History. My subject is of a more workaday variety. It concerns how historians make and indeed have to make the choices they do. Why are these choices important? Why should they be made explicit?

Leopold von RankeRegardless of their political persuasion most historians today would no longer adhere to a strict ‘Rankean’ approach to history. This holds that we can find out what actually happened in the past (‘Wie es eigentlich gewesen’) only from a close study and critique of primary sources and documents. A real and true historical story will somehow emerge from the documents. Even those historians who strongly propounded this view didn’t actually apply it consistently and rigorously in their own work. In Britain, we might name Sir Lewis Namier and Geoffrey Elton; elsewhere Leopold von Ranke himself.

Events in the past are the same as events today: we need to interpret them if we what to draw out any relevance or meaning at all. In writing history the fact of the events’ remoteness in time, and sometimes in space, makes the historian’s job even harder. As Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthians: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’ Unless we are content to write a mere chronicle, present an interesting antiquarian fact or simply write an entertainment (and there’s nothing the matter with any of these) interpretation is crucial.

How do historians come to their interpretations? Interpretations come about because of the choices historians make, both in conducting their research and presenting the results. Here four such choices will be highlighted and discussed: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. You could extend this list, name the choices differently or shuffle what is included in each. Yet it remains undeniable that writing history can’t be accomplished without making choices. These choices are not optional. Consciously or unconsciously they must be made. To be sure, they don’t follow each other in a linear or sequential order. It’s not a question of first deciding on the subject and then on the perspective we will adopt; followed by what method we will adhere to and then, finally, how we wish to tell the story. The flows of influence are multi-directional and reciprocal. Very often, though not invariably, the choices are all made simultaneously – during the act of creation.

The Choice of Subject

What is the subject or topic that I wish to research and write about and why?  

The subject the historian chooses to investigate might be a specific event, such as an illuminating court trial, a particular case of eviction from the land or, as is still often the case, a decisive battle. It might equally well be a period in history (even over the longue durée), a social or political movement or the history of an idea. How and why do individual historians make these decisions? The answers are as numerous as historians themselves. Although I would contend that there really is such a thing as ‘authorial intent’, we might never know what these intentions are unless the author explicitly tells us. That’s often the best we can hope for.

As the history profession has grown, and as more and more ‘pieces’ of the past have been examined, many historians (as every doctoral student will know) choose subjects or topics, or have them chosen for them, that attempt to ‘fill in gaps’ in our historical knowledge. Such gaps might be glaringly obvious or they might only appear or be created by the discovery of new or unresearched documentary sources. It is easy to scoff at or parody such endeavours. Do they not lead only too frequently to ‘knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing’? Perhaps.

For others, the choice of subject matter might just be driven by the fact that the topic has always been their own speciality or interest. There are many historians who, for whatever reason, have always specialized in the English Revolution, or the Third Reich, or the earliest Chinese civilisations. They would hardly dream about writing about something else. Others might see the possibility of shedding new light on an old question – by re-examining the existing documents or sources available on a specific event, period or movement from a fresh angle. Finally, and I mean this in no way as a criticism, yet others will decide upon their subject by looking to what will be most popular, what will sell. One only has to take a quick look at the History section in any bookshop to see that this is the case. The English-speaking history reading public is far more interested in the Battle of Britain or the American Revolution than it is in Concepts of Femininity in Ancient Greece or The Enclosure Movement in Cumbria. It’s sad but true.

E P Thompson

E P Thompson

Ultimately the choice of subject is driven by the questions the historian wants to ask and to answer. If I am interested, as was Edward Thompson, in how the English working class arose, I am much more likely to research 18th and 19th industrialization than the Norman Conquest – although the later may have a tangential bearing. It is well known that the same documentary evidence can be used to answer multiple questions. This doesn’t need to be demonstrated again. More important is that the choice of question, and therefore to some extent the choice of subject, is a subjective one. This is even the case when the questions themselves only occur to the historian during the research process and not beforehand. What unites nearly all historians is that they believe that the questions they are asking and the subject they are writing about are both important and relevant. Why otherwise would they bother writing about it? Surely this is the first reason why historians should be explicit about why they have chosen to explore a particular subject. If it doesn’t have an importance or relevance to how we live today then what is the point in anybody reading it? Except perhaps for distraction, escapism and entertainment? Maybe it’s just a ripping yarn!

The Choice of Perspective

What’s my point of view or perspective on this subject?’

Any historical subject, topic or event can be explored, probed and illuminated from a wide range of points of view, or from what I prefer to call different perspectives. As with the choice of subject, the choice of perspective is subjective – there is no such thing as an impartial perspective.

If one believes that how the vast majority of ‘common’ people lived in the past and how they experienced their lives is of most importance, then one could choose to write a history with a perspective ‘from below’. On the other hand, quite a number historians still subscribe to the view that history is driven not by economic or social forces but more by the acts of great people – even just ‘Great Men’. This is bound to (and does) lead to the perspective being that of the powerful or famous, and to a prevalence of military, diplomatic and political history.

Sir Steven Runciman

Sir Steven Runciman

What I think is critical is not which perspective is chosen – there is surely enough space for all – but rather that the choice is made explicit. What perspective is the historian taking on the subject and why? At least historians such as Sir Lewis Namier, Geoffrey Elton, and even (as we shall see in Part 2) Steven Runciman were quite explicit in this regard: little people don’t matter in history so we’ll not bother considering them at all.

So writing history certainly involves making choices about events or topics, as well as choices regarding how we want to interpret them. We might even accept that these choices are ultimately all ideological – or at least moral -choices. My own ideology or morality leads me to believe that what is important is how power and dominance impinge on individuals’ attempts to lead their own lives free from oppression. In addition, if it comes to the question of making a choice between Henry VIII’s struggles with the Papacy or how Henry’s policies affected great swathes of the English population, I will unashamedly plump for the latter. In my ideology Henry VIII was just another in an interminable line of armed thugs, concerned only with maintaining and extending their power or with their own sexual peccadilloes and dynastic reproduction. Why should I have any interest in him except insofar as his actions and decisions had very real repercussions for the English people in general? But you can take a different view – at least he makes a good television series!

The Choice of Method

Do I have an historical method and what is it?

Let’s turn to the hoary question of historical method. If I were to write a history of the early sixteenth-century it would most likely be a history from below or a ‘micro-history’ of a particular place. You might wish to write a history of the place of women in early Tudor England or even the ‘mentalities’ of torture. While each of these perspectives comes with a definite ideological slant, does that mean that we can ignore the facts of ‘what happened’ in the past? That anything goes? That all history is just a text? That all history is historiography? Certain currents of post-modernist or post-structural thought suggest just this. Many, though not all, post-modernists will admit that there are such things as facts about the past, but such facts are deemed trivial. As the post-modernist ‘historiographer’ Keith Jenkins has written: ‘Such facts, though important, are ‘true’ but trite within the larger issues historians consider.’

I suggest that this view is in part just a question of semantics. We usually use the word ‘history’ to describe both ‘what happened in the past’ and the output of historians’ labours. This can indeed be a little confusing and unhelpful. But even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that it might be better to make a distinction between history and the past, this does not mean that facts, which are transformed into ‘evidence’ to support a particular perspective or interpretation, are trite. What happened in the past really happened, however we may chose to interpret it. The past is not a tabula rasa.

Rather than use a literary analogy, I think an artistic one is at least as useful. Children enjoy ‘colouring books’. These generally consist of general outlines of things that the child can then fill in as they desire. Imagine the outlines of a face. You can use whatever colours you choose, or no colours at all. You can fill in blocks of colour precisely following the lines or you can deliberately go over the lines. You could use a pointillist technique or even decide to colour only one eye. You can try to make the face represent a person you know or you could produce something that looks a bit like Munch’s The Scream. You might even want to paint in the background as a pleasant rural landscape or as a scene of ecological desolation. The number of possible choices you can make and the number of resultant works of art is truly enormous, but it is not completely limitless. If you choose to ignore the lines completely you can still create a painting, a work of art, but it won’t be a representation of a human face – however abstract. I’m sure we could debate whether this analogy is a good one or not. But as it relates to historical ‘method’ the point is this: If we write about the past, about history, without producing evidence based on facts about the past then we are not saying anything meaningful about the past at all. We are not writing history, we are writing fictional literature. Indeed this is precisely what some post-modernists insist all history is.

My contention is that this is wrong. While historical method isn’t only about the existence or otherwise of facts about the past, such facts, however hard they might on occasion be to establish, are absolutely necessary and indispensable. Without them then everything really is just a lot of signifiers signifying nothing. In this sense I am an English empiricist. So historians need to be explicit about their views on historical methods as well.

The Choice of Telling

How will I tell my history?

Once an historian has decided on the subject, articulated questions deemed worthy of answering, undertaken the required research and picked a specific point of view or perspective, the work is by no means over. He or she must also choose a way to tell the history.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Should it be presented using a conventional narrative voice? This was the natural choice of the majority of historians in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century – and it is still a popular form today. Narratives have been heavily criticized and even somewhat marginalized in the Academy over the course of the last forty years. This has partly been the result of post-modernist criticism, which has (wrongly) tended to suggest that all narratives are master or meta-narratives – such as Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or even Marx’s Das Kapital. Such meta-narratives do not just use a narrative voice, they don’t just tell a story, they also try to explain the working-out or process of history over long periods of time. The causes and effects involved. Sometimes they even have a teleological slant – history is an unfolding of ‘progress’ or moving towards the inevitable victory of communism.

Yet the narrative form in no way implies a sweeping meta-narrative, nor does it necessarily lead to a conservative, bourgeois or reactionary history – as it has often been contended it does. It is equally possible to tell a radical and politically challenging story using a narrative voice. Many historians have done this to great effect. We could mention as examples the British Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, or even the French Annalists Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel.

Narration is only one way to tell history; there are many others. One could simply present an individual event or a person’s testimony. This can even be done without providing any historical context – one just lets the event or the testimony ‘speak for itself’. One can also play with time – reversing the conventional arrow of time or jumping from one time to another with or without any connections being made. Moreover, a historian can choose whether to present the story as a tragedy, comedy or farce. The possibilities of how to construct a telling of the past we want to present are endless, and all are welcome. In the final instance it is the readers who will decide on the success or otherwise of the historian’s endeavours.


Fernand Braudel

Fernand Braudel

Consciously or unconsciously, and whether they like it or not, all historians have to make at least these four choices: the choice of subject, the choice of perspective, the choice of method, and the choice of telling. The only normative point I have made is this: whatever choices have been made they should be made explicit. What are the questions that the historian will attempt to answer? Why are these questions important? Who are they important to?  How will the subject of the history help to answer the questions? Why is the chosen perspective and method the most relevant? Being explicit is important because it makes it clear that, however relevant,  the story being told is simply the interpretation of the author.

I would argue that being explicit in terms of the first three choices is always to be welcomed. Perhaps this is less so when it comes to the choice of telling – except perhaps in a very cursory way. After all in a book on history who wants to know all the thought processes the writer has gone through in deciding how best to present the work? The reader can make up his own mind as to the success or otherwise of the choice. This is not to suggest that works of history are cluttered up with too much authorial intrusion. There of many examples of such an unfortunate tendency, particularly from the post-modernist school, where the past seems to disappear and we are left with a rather tedious litany of ‘I’s.

The historian might claim that in some small way his or her history illuminates a truth about the past or a general historical pattern, but it can never be the Truth. As was mentioned earlier, almost no historian believes that history simply materializes unmediated from the sources themselves – without any act of interpretation. Yet there are many who present their work as though it does. As though their interpretation is the correct one, sometimes even the only one.

One final point: ‘Original’ history, as every doctoral student will know, should attempt to make an ‘original contribution to knowledge or understanding’ – difficult though this aim often is to achieve in practice. But writing history often has other purposes: to educate or to entertain. Many of the best histories, and certainly many of the most read, make no claim at all to be offering radically new insights into, or interpretations of, events in the past. They use no new primary sources and rely heavily on work that has been done by others before. Of course they can’t avoid interpreting things, and to that extent they need to make their choices explicit too.  It is a wonderful thing that such histories exist in such profusion today; whether in the form of books, articles or even little historical snapshots or vignettes. In many cases these more popular histories are more accessible, and often better written, than many of the rather turgid and impenetrable tracts produced in the Academy.

‘I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory… I have longer to please the dead than please the living here.’ Antigone, Sophocles.

Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, unfurled the Royal Banner in Carlisle in February 1537. He was declaring martial law in the North of England. Martial law wasn’t really law at all; it was simply a suspension of the accepted process and procedures of English law. It meant that anyone taking part in or supporting a rebellion, or defying the crown in any way, could be summarily dealt with as a traitor. They could be executed without the bother or uncertainties of a jury trial.

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Howard had taken it upon himself to ‘unfurl the banner’ in the name of King Henry VIII, whose authority had been challenged by the recent uprising in Lincoln, by the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham and by a serious rebellion in Westmorland and Cumberland. Henry had broken with Rome and, advised by the unpopular Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, was setting about dissolving and robbing catholic England’s monasteries and abbeys. He was also increasing the tax burden of the people and encouraging the theft of common land via private enclosure. All of these measures were deeply unpopular over great swathes of the country. They were obviously resented and resisted by monks, friars and other clergymen, but also by gentry and commoners as well – though for different reasons.

The uprising in Lincoln in late 1536 had managed to muster thousands of people to the cause but had ended after just two weeks. Just as the King’s representatives were about to wreak their revenge on the Lincoln rebels, a more serious challenge arose: the people of Yorkshire and surrounding parts of Northumberland, Durham and Lancashire had also rebelled. Under the leadership of lawyer Robert Aske, this was essentially a conservative protest and one that the rebels wanted, if at all possible, to keep non-violent. Aske himself christened it the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, a name that perhaps unfortunately has stuck. The rebels didn’t want to challenge the King’s right to rule, rather they wanted to pressure him to stop the dissolution of the monasteries, restore the link with Rome and suppress the spread of Lutheran versions of Protestantism. They also hoped that some of Henry’s hated advisers would be removed, particularly Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who they blamed for both the religious policies and, as importantly, their own worsening economic plight.

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

In this sense the Pilgrimage of Grace was both a social and a religious revolt. The impetus came from below, from the ‘commoners’, but some of the local gentry joined in willingly, while others needed to be coerced.

Under Aske’s leadership, the leaders of the rebellion called themselves ‘Captains of Poverty’ or sometimes, in the case of monks and priests, ‘Chaplains of Poverty’. These captains started to call out the northern ‘host’, usually a thing done by the king or the local barons. Their numbers swelled, to reach around 28.000 – 35,000 by October 1536. They were disciplined and organized and more than enough to face down, and defeat if necessary, the 4,000 mercenary troops, under the Duke of Norfolk, who Henry had sent to put them down. The rebels had captured Pontefract castle without much trouble.

Robert Aske - Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

Robert Aske – Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

This isn’t the place to retell the events and causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace. There are many fine histories of what happened. In brief, Norfolk knew he couldn’t defeat the rebels by force of arms, so he prevaricated and seemed to play along with, even sympathize with, their demands. A truce was called on 27 October at Doncaster Bridge and on 6 December Norfolk promised a royal pardon in the name of the King. He also promised that many of the rebels’ demands would be met. Eventually, and not without great deliberation, the northern rebel host dispersed and the Pilgrimage was effectively over. It is only in retrospect that we can judge them naive.

All this was not to Henry’s liking. Henry’s instinctive and invariable reaction was always to crush any opposition, not to make concessions or compromises. He soon reneged on the pardon and had many of the leaders or sympathizers of the revolt executed. He never took England back to Rome and he redoubled his drive to dissolve the monasteries and expropriate and appropriate their considerable wealth.

Let us return to events in Westmorland or Cumberland (which together I rather anachronistically will call Cumbria). This was a region that the Duke of Norfolk himself was to call the ‘poorest shire in the realm’. During the Pilgrimage appeals had been made to the people of these counties to join in and to take the Pilgrims’ Oath. Local ‘Captains’ were appointed and some of them were to go to Yorkshire on at least two occasions to consult with Robert Aske and the other leaders. Two of the most prominent Cumbrian captains were Nicholas Musgrave and Robert Pullen, but several others went as well.

The Cumbrian captains started to gather support. To try to remain anonymous they usually called themselves ‘Captain Poverty’ – like their Yorkshire colleagues. Eventually a force of 15,000 was gathered and was planning to march on Carlisle, the administrative and military centre of the ‘West Marches’. But before they could progress any further, news came that the Pilgrimage was over and, despite the fact that Sir Francis Bigod and John Hallam tried to resurrect it, unsuccessfully as it turned out, the Cumbrian rebel host disbanded and returned home.

Over Christmas 1536, and into the early New Year, the commoners started to fear that their local gentry had abandoned them and that they had slipped off to London to declare their allegiance to King Henry. They were right. Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds wrote in 1915, in their still seminal two volume study The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy:

The chief reason for the agitation was the departure of so many gentlemen to court. The commons distrusted the King, who might have the gentlemen beheaded, and they distrusted the gentle men, who might betray them to the King. When the gentlemen were away, the bailiffs and other officers found it impossible to keep order.

And that might have been that were it not for Henry’s reprisals. He wanted all the leaders of the Pilgrimage hunted down and executed as traitors. In early January 1537, it became known that ‘Captains’ Nicholas Musgrave and Thomas Tibbey were in the Westmorland town of Kirkby Stephen. On 6 January, Thomas Clifford, the ‘bastard son’ of Henry Clifford, the first earl of Cumberland, was sent to the town to capture them. ‘Musgrave was warned and with Thomas Tibbey he took refuge in the church steeple, so defensible a position that Clifford was obliged to withdraw without his prisoners’. This, we are told, ‘stirred the country greatly’. A watch was to be kept for them in every town. ‘The men of Kirkby Stephen plucked down all the enclosures in their parish and sent orders to the surrounding parishes to follow their example.’

Things started to get tense. In Cumberland, one of the King’s men, Sir Thomas Curwen, wrote that ‘The west parts, from Plumland to Muncaster, is all a flutter’. He told how ‘on Saturday 13 January a servant of Dr Legh came to Muncaster. The whole country rose and made him prisoner. He was carried to Egremont and thence to Cockermouth. A great crowd filled the market-place, crying, “Strike off his head!” and “Stick him!”

Kirkby Stephen Church

Kirkby Stephen Church

The region was in ferment and it only needed a spark to set it alight. This spark was provided on 14 February when ‘bastard’ Thomas Clifford returned to Kirkby Stephen, once again trying to capture Musgrave and Tibbey. This time he came with a troop ‘mosstroopers from the waters of Esk and Line ’. These were rough border reivers, ‘strong thieves of the westlands’, with a penchant for violence.

Musgrave and Tibbey fled to their old fastness in the steeple, and there defied their pursuers. The townsfolk took no part either for or against the rebels, but while Clifford and some of his men were debating how to take their quarry, the rest of the riders, following their inbred vocation, fell to plundering. This was more than flesh and blood could bear. The burgesses caught up their weapons and fell upon the spoilers, causing a timely diversion in favour of the men in the steeple. Scattered about the narrow streets of the town, the horsemen were at a disadvantage and soon showed that their prowess was not equal to their thievishness. Two of the townsmen were killed in the skirmish, but their enraged fellows drove the borderers from the town and followed up their retreat until they were forced to take refuge in Brougham Castle.

Moss Troopers

Moss Troopers

Musgrave and Tibbey had escaped again. But having witnessed the brutality of the King’s forces, the local people realized that they would get no quarter or justice either from the King or the local nobility. They could expect no fair hearing of their economic or other grievances. ‘The commons saw that they were committed to a new rebellion, although they had risen in defence of their property; indeed, a panic seems to have spread through the countryside that they would all be treated like the people of Kirkby Stephen. The two captains raised all the surrounding country and sent the following summons to the bailiff of Kendal, whom they knew to be on their side’:

To the Constable of Mellynge. ‘Be yt knowen unto you Welbelovyd bretheren in god this same xii day of februarii at morn was unbelapped on every syde with our enimys the Captayne of Carlylle and gentylmen of our Cuntrie of Westrnerlonde and haithe destrowed and slayn many our bretheren and neghtbers. Wherfore we desyre you for ayde and helpe accordyng to your othes and as ye wyll have helpe of us if your cause requyre, as god forbede. this tuysday, We comande you every one to be at Kendall afore Eight of the clok or els we ar lykly to be destrowed. Ever more gentyll brether unto your helpyng honds. Captayn of Povertie. ‘

None of the local gentry joined them and very few priests. They were more afraid of losing their aristocratic privileges and the wrath of the King than they were concerned about Henry’s religious reforms. The ‘commoners’ were on their own. Their plans were simple. ‘They had long before decided that the first step in case of a new rebellion was to seize Carlisle.’

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

The Duke of Norfolk was still in Yorkshire continuing his clean-up and reprisals after the Pilgrimage of Grace. Carlisle was commanded by Sir John Lowther, Thomas Clifford and John Barnsfeld. They were out-numbered and they were worried. They knew that they needed the help of Sir Christopher Dacre, who, in the absence of his nephew Lord William Dacre welded the most power in the area. Christopher Dacre’s loyalty to the crown was still much in doubt and the Clifford and Dacre families were old adversaries – enemies even. On 15 February the three Carlisle commanders wrote to Sir Christopher Dacre:

In the King our sovereign lord’s name we command you that ye with as many as ye trust to be of the King’s part and yours, come unto this the King’s castle in all goodly haste possible, for as we are informed the commons will be this day upon the broad field … further that ye leave the landserjeant with the prickers of Gillisland so that he and they may resist the King’s rebels if the said prickers of Gillesland will take his part, or else to bring him … and that ye come yourself in goodly haste. (Castle, of Carlisle, 15 February at 10 hours.)

When the Duke of Norfolk, who was in Richmond, heard about the danger in Cumbria, he too wrote to Dacre on the same day:

Cousin Dacres, I know not whether you received the letter I sent you yesterday. I hear those commons now assembled draw towards Carlisle, and doubt not you will gather such company as you may trust and, after your accustomed manner, use those rebels in a way to deserve the King’s thanks and to aid your nephew, my very friend, whom I look for every hour. I will not instruct you what ye shall do, for ye know better than I. Spare for no reasonable wages, for I will pay all. And spare not frankly to slay plenty of these false rebels; and make true mine old sayings, that ‘Sir Christopher Dacre is a true knight to his sovereign lord, an hardy knight, and a man of war’. Pinch now no courtesy to shed blood of false traitors; and be ye busy on the one side, and ye may be sure the duke of Norfolk will come on the other. Finally, now, Sir Christopher, or never. (Richmond, 15 Feb.) Your loving cousin if ye do well now, or else enemy for ever.

Norfolk had written to King the previous day informing Henry that ‘when Cumberland’s bastard son, deputy captain of Carlisle, came to take two traitors at Kirkby Stephen, they keeping the steeple, his horsemen, in great part strong thieves of the Westlands, began to spoil the town, and the inhabitants rose to defend both their goods and the traitors. A skirmish ensued, in which one or two rebels were slain, and Thomas my lord’s bastard son, was forced to retire to Browham (Brougham) castle. The country has since risen, some say 4,000 or 5,000 together, and are sending for others to aid them.’

Norfolk thought that ‘no such thing would have occurred if this enterprise had been handled as it was promised’.

By 16 February about 6,000 local Cumbrians were camped on Broadfield Moor, a few miles south of Carlisle. They were ‘more or less effectively armed and mounted’. They knew Carlisle was, as it has always been, the key to controlling the region. They didn’t have gentry leadership, but in no way were they a rabble, as too many histories have disparagingly called them. They were in fact the very same people, the same ‘host’, which the local barons would usually call out when they needed military support. Clifford and the other commanders of the town had been busy rallying the local ‘artisans’ to the defence of the town. The Cumbrian host didn’t really know how to go about attacking or besieging a fortified town.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle

On Saturday 17 February, the host prepared for the assault on Carlisle. ‘The rebels carried a cross as their banner principal… It does not seem to have been such a vigorous attack as the word now implies. They approached within bow-shot, and showered arrows on the defenders who appeared on the city walls. This went on until they exhausted their supply of arrows, when they retired a little way to consider what to do next.’

After the failure of their attempt to take the town, the rebels were considering how best to attack again when, suddenly, Sir Christopher Dacre arrived on the scene with ‘five hundred border spearmen’ – called ‘prickers’. The commons broke and turned to flee. This emboldened the defenders and they sallied forth from Carlisle. Together with Dacre’s men they set about the now fleeing commoners. The mosstroopers were ‘in no mood to spare the countryfolk who had beaten them so ignominiously on Monday’.

The rejoicings in London were great. Sir Christopher Dacre was the hero of the hour. It was said that he had slain 700 rebels or more and taken the rest prisoners, hanging them up on every bush.

Exactly how many of the commoners were massacred is not known. Perhaps not the 700 reported. But compare this with the fact that in the whole of the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace (I exclude the later reprisals) there had only been one death – and that was accidental. Hundreds of prisoners were taken back to Carlisle, including it seems Thomas Tibbey, but not Nicholas Musgrave. The rest of the host fled back to their homes or went into hiding. Christopher Dacre had proved his loyalty and was later rewarded for his decisive intervention.

On the day of the attack and subsequent massacre, the Duke of Norfolk was still at Barnard’s Castle in Yorkshire and had raised 4,000 men – ‘everyone they could trust.’ But news soon reached him that this ‘splendid little army’ would not be needed. Norfolk was delighted. He wrote to King Henry that Christopher Dacre had ‘shown himself a noble knight’ and that ‘seven or eight hundred prisoners were taken.’ He was, he wrote, ‘about to travel in all haste to Carlisle to see execution done.’

Norfolk arrived at Carlisle on Monday 19 February. This is when he ‘unfurled the banner’ and imposed martial law, not just on Cumbria but on the whole of the North of England. He used the pretext of the Carlisle events to be better able to punish those involved in draconian fashion, as well to be able to more easily and brutally punish those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace itself. Norfolk reported that: ‘There were so many prisoners in the town that he found great difficulty in providing for their safe-keeping.’ ‘He wrote that night to the Council to promise that if he might go his own way for a month he would order things to the King s satisfaction. It would take some time, because he must himself be present at all the convictions and proceed by martial law, and there were many places to punish.’ He added, significantly, that ‘not a lord or gentleman in Cumberland and Westmorland could claim that his servants and tenants had not joined in the insurrection.’

Proclamations were issued which ‘commanded all who had been in rebellion to come to Carlisle and submit themselves humbly to the King’s mercy.’  ‘The country people began to straggle into the city in scattered, dejected bands. They had lost their horses, harness, and weapons in the chase; they were in instant fear of a traitor’s death for themselves, and of fire, plunder, and outrage for their homes and families.’ Norfolk wrote that ‘they were contrite enough to satisfy any tyrant’ and ‘if sufficient number of ropes might have been found (they) would have come with the same about their necks’

Taking advice from the local lords, Norfolk chose seventy-four of the ‘chief misdoers’. ‘That is of the braver and more determined of them, and turned the rest away without even a promise of pardon’.

On 21 February, Norfolk wrote to Thomas Cromwell: ‘The poor caitiffs who have returned home have departed without any promise of pardon but upon their good a bearing. God knows they may well be called poor caitiffs; for at their fleeing they lost horse, harness, and all they had upon them and what with the spoiling of them now and the gressing (taxing) of them so marvellously sore in time past and with increasing of lords’ rents by inclosings, and for lack of the persons of such as shall suffer, this border is sore weaked and specially Westmoreland; the more pity they should so deserve, and also that they have been so sore handled in times past, which, as I and all other here think, was the only cause of this rebellion.’

Norfolk knew that if he left justice to the mercy of local juries he probably wouldn’t be able to execute as many as both he and, importantly, the King and Thomas Cromwell wanted. ‘Many a great offender’, he said, would be acquitted if juries were called. He was quite honest about this. He later wrote to the King:

All the prisoners were condemned to die by law martial, the King’s banner being displayed. Not the fifth part would have been convicted by a jury. Some protested that they had been dragged into rebellion against their will. The most part had only one plea, saying, ‘I came out for fear of my life, and I came forth for fear of loss of all my goods, and I came forth for fear of burning of my house and destroying of my wife and children… A small excuse will be well believed here, where much affection and pity of neighbours doth reign. And, sir, though the number be nothing so great as their deserts did require to have suffered, yet I think the like number hath not been heard of put to execution at one time.

As the Dodds wrote: ‘They had not, in fact, turned against the law, they had risen to defend all that the law should have defended for them from Clifford’s police, the thieves of the Black Lands.’

Henry the Eighth

Henry the Eighth

Henry was pleased with what Norfolk and the defenders of Carlisle had done. His reply to Norfolk on the 22nd was blunt and brutal. He started with his thanks: ‘We have received your letters of the 16th, about the new assembly in Westmoreland, and your others of the 17th by Sir Ralph Evers, touching the valiant and faithful courage of Sir Chr. Dacres in the overthrow of the traitors who made assault upon Carlisle, reporting also the good service done by Thomas Clifford, and the perfect readiness of all the nobles and gentlemen in Yorkshire and those parts to have served in your company against them. We shall not forget your services, and are glad to hear also from sundry of our servants how you advance the truth, declaring the usurpation of the bishop of Rome, and how discreetly you paint those persons that call themselves religious in the colours of their hypocrisy, and we doubt not but the further you shall wade in the investigation of their behaviours the more you shall detest the great number of them and the less esteem the punishment of those culpable…  We desire you to thank those that were ready to have served us. We have thanked Sir Chr. Dacres in the letters which you shall receive herewith, and will shortly recompense him in a way to encourage others.’

Referring to Norfolk’s decision to declare martial law, Henry continued:

We approve of your proceedings in the displaying of our banner, which being now spread, till it is closed again, the course of our laws must give place to martial law… Our pleasure is, that before you shall close up our said banner again, you shall, in any wise, cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet, that have offended in this rebellion, as well by the hanging them up in trees, as by the quartering of them and the setting of their heads and quarters in every town, great and small, and in all such other places, as they may be a fearful spectacle to all other hereafter, that would practise any like mater.

Finally, as these troubles have been promoted by the monks and canons of those parts… you shall without pity or circumstance, now that our banner is displayed, cause the monks to be tied up without further delay or ceremony.

Anyone who had participated in the uprising and escaped was still pursued. On February 28, the earls of Sussex and Derby and Sir Herbert Fitzherbert wrote to the King from Warrington in Lancashire: ‘There came lately to Manchester one William Barret, a tanner dwelling in Steton in Craven, who declared to the people that my lord of Norfolk at this his being in Yorkshire would, as he heard, either have of every plough 6s. 8d. or take an ox of every one that would not pay, and that every christening and burying should pay 6s. 8d. Being apprehended and brought before us, he confessed he was one of those who made the late assault at Carlisle and shot arrows at those in the town, and that the constables of the townships, after divers bills set upon church doors, warned him and his company so to rise, alleging that one of the Percies would shortly join them. We think he deserves the most cruel punishment; but Mr. Fitzherbert says the words are no ground for putting him to death, and that he cannot be indicted in one shire for an offence committed in another; we therefore forbear to proceed till we know your pleasure.’ (Warrington, 28 Feb.)

This brings us to the main point of this short article. What was to be the fate of the 74 rebels that Norfolk and the local lords had picked for summary execution? Henry had ordered Norfolk to hang ‘them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town’. We don’t know how many of them, if any, were actually hung, drawn and quartered as Henry had clearly wanted, and as was often the case for traitors under martial law. The punishment itself was described by Chronicler William Harrison as follows:

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.

Gibbet Irons

Gibbet Irons

It’s most likely that none of the rebels were hung, drawn and quartered. Even Robert Aske was finally spared this fate. They were in all probability all ‘hung in chains’. When Norfolk later wrote to Thomas Cromwell, he said, ‘All in this shire were hung in chains.’  What was hanging in chains? It was a form of punishment and deterrence used for centuries in England until it was abolished in 1834. An eighteenth century French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure,  described what happened:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

But in Tudor times the punishment was often even more barbaric. People were frequently hung alive in chains and they first starved in agony before putrefying on the gibbet. How many of the rebels were ‘gibbeted’ alive and how many dead is not known. The point of these executions was of course not simply to kill people, it was also to make them and their relatives suffer and to be so terrifying that it would act as a deterrent to any future challenges to royal authority. The cadavers were not allowed to be removed and buried. They should remain rotting, sometimes for years, in full sight of their communities. For the condemned and their relatives this was not just a question of suffering and grief, it was also a matter concerning their eternal souls: Many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

The rebels were hanged (in chains) in their own villages, ‘in trees in their gardens to record for memorial’ the end of the rebellion.

Twelve were hanged in chains in Carlisle for the assault on the city, eleven at Appleby, eight at Penrith, five at Cockermouth and Kirkby Stephen, and so on; scarcely a moorland parish but could show one or two such memorials. Some were hanged in ropes, for iron was ‘marvellous scarce’ and the chain-makers of Carlisle were unable to meet the demand. The victims were all poor men, farm hands from the fields and artisans of the little towns; probably the bailiff of Embleton was the highest man among them. Only one priest suffered with them, a chaplain of Penrith.

Once the executions of these poor men had been carried out, in village after village throughout Cumberland and Westmorland, their women wanted to bury their husbands, sons and fathers. Like latter-day Antigones, they thought this to be their natural right and duty. But Henry’s law, like that of Creon, forbade it. At great risk to their own safety and lives, the women crept out at night and cut down their men and secretly buried them.

In May, when Norfolk heard that ‘all’ the rebels’ bodies had been cut down and buried, he ordered the Cumberland magistrates to seek out the ‘ill-doers’. They sent him nine or ten confessions in reply, but he did not consider these nearly enough: ‘It is a small number concerning seventy-four that hath been taken down, wherein I think your Majesty hath not been well served.’

The Dodds write: ‘Of all the records these brief confessions are the most heart-breaking and can least bear description. The widows and their neighbours helped each other. Seven or eight women together would wind the corpse and bury it in the nearest churchyard, secretly, at nightfall or day break. Sometimes they were turned from their purpose by the frightened priest, and then the husband’s body must be buried by a dyke-side out of sanctified ground, or else brought again more secretly than ever and laid in the churchyard under cover of night. All was done by women, save in two cases when the brother and cousin of two of the dead men were said to have died from the “corruption” of the bodies they had cut down.’

Norfolk asked the King what he should do with these offenders. They were all, he said, women: ‘the widows, mothers and daughters of the dead men’. Thomas Cromwell was displeased, suspecting that Norfolk had ordered or countenanced this. Norfolk tried to placate him and shift any blame to the Earl of Cumberland. He wrote to Cromwell:

I do perceive by your letter that ye would know whether such persons as were put to execution in Westmorland and Cumberland were taken down and buried by my commandment or not: undoubtedly, my good lord, if I had consented thereunto, I would I had hanged by them; but on my troth, it is 8 or 9 days past since I heard first thereof, and then was here with me a servant of my lord of Cumberland called Swalowfield, dwelling about Penrith, by whom I sent such a quick message to my said lord, because he hath the rule in Cumberland as warden, and is sheriff of Westmorland and hath neither advertised me thereof, nor hath not made search who hath so highly offended his Majesty, and also commanding him to search for the same with all diligence, that I doubt not it shall evidently appear it was done against my will.

We don’t know what the subsequent inquiries about these women’s actions disclosed and what, if any, were the consequences.

Henry's Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry’s Field of the Cloth of Gold

This brutal episode in English history is usually given scant mention in histories of the period, particularly in histories of Henry VIII  – concerned as they depressingly are with political machinations, battles and the deeds of ‘great men’. Yet surely such events tell us more about the real history of England, or better said the real history of the English people, than do Henry’s dealings with the Holy Roman Emperor, the Papacy, his opulent and ostentatious ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ or his tedious litany of marriages?

Of course the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Cumbrian rebellion had failed – although taken together they were the most significant challenge Henry would ever face at home. But in the case of the Cumbrian rebellion, its significance does not lie in its success or failure. It lies in the fact that it is just another much neglected example of what happens when ordinary English people try to protest against the repression of their rulers, their economic pauperization or the suppression of their religious or other rights. As Leveller leader Colonel Thomas Rainborough was to write in the seventeenth century:

For really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government.

Antigone buries her brother

Antigone buries her brother

What I find a pity is that Antigone’s poignant and courageous act of burying her brother, whether it really happened or not, has been studied and dissected for at least two thousand years. German Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel even saw it as a clash of right against right: familial natural right against the right of the state; others interpret it differently. Yet ‘only’ five hundred years ago dozens of poor Cumbrian women did the same thing and ran the same risk as Antigone, but they are hardly remembered at all. Who would dare today to present their bravery and humanity as a clash of two equally valid rights?


Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 12; Madeleine Hope Dodds & Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy, (1915); M. L. Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536, (1996); Michael Bush & David Bownes, The Defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Postpardon Revolts of December 1536 to March 1537 and Their Effect, (1999).

‘Twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. Othello; William Shakespeare.

One cold night in 1766, a 50 year old butcher called Thomas Parker was treating his friends to a few drinks at the Cross Keys Inn in Carleton, near Penrith in Cumberland. He was on his way to his home in nearby Langwathby after a successful day at Penrith market. He had decided, like countless Englishmen before and since, to drop into the local pub for a bit of refreshment. It seems that in his high spirits he flashed his money around a bit. ‘Being somewhat the worse for drink,’ the landlord stopped serving him. He urged Thomas to stay overnight in the inn. Declining the offer, ‘the shaggy sot pressed on his way’. Not far from the inn ‘this poor muddled man’ was ‘beaten to death… after a violent struggle with the assassin’. When his body was found the next day, it appeared that the attack had been brutal and his purse had been stolen.

Three days later Thomas was buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edenhall. The parish register states:

Thomas Parker, householder, November 21st. This man was found murdered on the road from Penrith to Edenhall, near the place called Nancy Dobson’s Stone, on Tuesday night, the 18th of this instant….

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

Who had murdered Thomas Parker? Suspicion soon fell on two men who had been drinking with him: a certain ‘Lee’, who had disappeared, and Parker’s 27 year old godson, Thomas Nicholson. Nicholson was arrested on ‘suspicion’ and sent for trial at the next Carlisle Assizes. He sat in jail for ten months until his case came before the court on 22 August 1787. The evidence against him was, it seems, compelling, but it was all circumstantial. A jury today would probably have found a ‘reasonable doubt’, but not the one in 1767. Thomas Nicholson was found guilty of murdering his godfather.

English justice had often been arbitrary and was more often than not a form of social repression and control. It is true that murderers, even traitors, were no longer hung, drawn and quartered, but simple hanging was no longer deemed enough. In the early eighteenth century, there had started to be a sort of punishment inflation. People were being hanged for such crimes as simple larceny i.e. theft. Parliament decided it needed a new law ‘for better preventing the horrid crime of murder’. It felt that ‘some form of further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment’. In 1751 it introduced and passed The Murder Act, saying that, ‘in no case whatsoever shall the body of a murderer be suffered to be buried.’ The Act mandated either public dissection or the ‘hanging in chains’ of the cadaver. Not infrequently both.

L0016844 'Museum... in Windmill Street, on the last Day'.Remember this was the Age of the Enlightenment. An age which in the previous century had seen that ‘great’ French Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes cutting up live animals. When they screamed in agony he told his colleagues not to be concerned because animals couldn’t feel pain as that were only ‘machines’. In England, our Enlightenment thinkers wanted to get a better understanding of human anatomy. But human cadavers on which to experiment were in short-supply. People wanted to bury their dead for simple compassionate and familial reasons and because many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’. The 1751 Murder Act was a welcome bonanza for the early anatomists.

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public, indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution and the later public exhibition of the open body itself.

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

If the court decided instead to sentence the convicted murderer to ‘hanging by chains’, often called ‘gibbeting’, rather than dissection, the procedure was equally gruesome. A contemporary French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure, wrote:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

The chains or iron straps were designed to ensure that the body stayed upright and didn’t fall apart while it decayed and putrefied. The stinking body would often be ‘left hanging, sometimes for years, as a gruesome warning. ‘



This was the fate to which the Carlisle judge sentenced Thomas Nicholson. He was, says the record, to be ‘hanged by chains’.

It wasn’t that hanging by chains was a new punishment only introduced by the 1751 Act. Not at all, it had gone on for centuries. All the Act did was regularise it. In fact, in the late 1600s: ‘So much highway robbery and other violent crimes were going on – and being prosecuted – that foreign travellers remarked on the great number of gibbets that lined the road from Portsmouth to London. Highwaymen and violent offenders were hanged, their corpses often dipped in tar and then suspended in irons from a post and cross-beam placed near the scene of their crimes. If they weren’t cut down by relatives stealthily in the night and secretly buried, they dangled preserved literally for years along the roadside as a gruesome warning against crime.’

Until the seventeenth century people could be gibbeted in this way while still alive. They might even be placed instead in an iron cage and left to starve. The last case of live gibbeting in Derbyshire’s Peak District happened in the 17th century on the aptly named Gibbet Moor, behind Chatsworth House:

The condemned man was a tramp. He had murdered a woman by pouring boiling fat down her throat when she refused him food. Left to die slowly in his gibbet, the tramp’s torture was drawn out when a well-meaning traveller gave him food. It is said that screams from the moors so distressed the Duke of Devonshire that he personally acted to end live gibbeting in Derbyshire.

The Murder Act had stipulated that convicted murderers were to be executed (by hanging) and then gibbeted or dissected two days after their conviction unless that day were a Sunday and then the gap should be three days. This was the case with Thomas Nicholson, who was, says the Edenhall Parish record, ‘executed and hung in chains near the same place (where the murder had occurred) on August 31st 1767’.

Beacon Hill, Penrith

Beacon Hill, Penrith

The precise place of Thomas’s execution was on the eastern spur of Beacon Hill, near ‘Cowdraik Quarry’, a place chosen so that it could be clearly seen from both the Cross Keys Inn and the town of Penrith itself. It is said there was a large crowd.

For seven months, Nicholson’s body hung in the gibbet, crawling with maggots and picked over by carrion birds, until it blew down. The people of Edenhall, perhaps feeling compassion for the man’s local relatives, gathered Nicholson’s bones into a winding sheet and buried them nearby.

Was Thomas guilty? Well it seems he likely was. His accomplice in the crime, Lee, was hung in York sometime later for other crimes. Before he died, Lee confessed to his part in Thomas Parker’s murder, saying that he was ‘the instigator and Nicholson the perpetrator’.

A spot near where the gibbeting took place was ‘long after distinguished by the letters, large and legible, ‘T. P. M.,’ signifying ‘here Thomas Parker was murdered’. It is said that here on winter nights Nicholson’s unhappy spirit appears again.

William Jobling

William Jobling

Hanging by chains wasn’t abolished in England until 1834. Poor miner William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832 for the murder of a colliery owner. ‘His gibbet was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling’s body was hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace.’

The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.

Twenty-one year old bookbinder James Cook became the last man in England to suffer being hanged in chains, for the murder of  creditor John Paas, at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832. ‘His head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.’ According to The Newgate Calendar: ‘Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.’

In Book Twelve of The Prelude William Wordsworth wrote:

 We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
Came to a bottom, where in former times
A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name.
The monumental letters were inscribed
In times long past; but still, from year to year
By superstition of the neighbourhood,
The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
The characters are fresh and visible:
A casual glance had shown them, and I fled..

The gibbet-mast that Wordsworth saw ‘mouldered down’ wasn’t actually that of Thomas Nicholson, although the poem refers to the place, but that’s beside the point.

Once again I would like to leave the last word to A. E. Housman, from the ninth verse of his poem 1887 in A Shropshire Lad. Note that hanging in chains was also called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’:

 On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,        *
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.

Originally published in Resurgence/The Ecologist in January/February 2013. To buy Resurgence, read further articles online or find out about The Resurgence Trust, visit:

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