On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.
Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.
Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.
Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.
And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.
A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.
And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.
Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots
Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.
History is full of megalomaniac despots and insane monarchs – so, let me select my top five most power crazed rulers in history!
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER ONE: Peter the Great
Think of crazed Russian rulers and Ivan the Terrible or Stalin would come to mind immediately. But don’t neglect Peter the Great. The tsar who both modernised and terrorised Mother Russia simultaneously. Peter was seriously impressed by the 17th century naval technology of Britain and the sophisticated architecture of western Europe. But his interest in all things modern didn’t extend to democracy and the rule of law.
It also didn’t prevent him imprisoning and more than likely torturing to death his own son.
He assumed full power after an orgy of executions to cement his position. Not surprising given he’d witnessed more than his fair share of family intrigue and murder throughout his childhood – so he was simply dishing out what he’d witnessed all his life.
I appeared on an episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs to talk about Peter the Great and was especially amused by the story of him and his mates trashing the London home of the diarist Johny Evelyn during their stay in 1698. This involved using paintings as dart boards and priceless furniture broken up to keep fires going. There was also some game involving wheelbarrows that led to Evelyn’s well tended garden being churned up.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER TWO: Caligula
There were several Roman emperors whose sanity one would have to question. But Caligula has come down to us as a byword for imperial madness. He was only the third emperor of Rome, since the end of the Republic, and was truly an object lesson in the perils of one-man dynastic rule.
He seems to have been aware of the absurdity of his position – being able to wield vast power over millions of people. But instead of coping with that situation and turning to good advisers, he revelled in the madness of it.
At one point, Caligula declared that a horse was to be made a senator. Apologists for Caligula explain that he was mocking the powerlessness of the Roman Senate. But what did he expect them to do? Offer up their real opinions? Because the consequence under Caligula was certain death.
In my opinion, the late John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the 1970s BBC series I Claudius has yet to be equalled.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER THREE: Henry VIII
If you want to get a child obsessed with history – I’d always recommend two periods to put in front of them: the Romans and the Tudors. The latter furnishes us with two of the most charismatic and rather frightening individuals to have ever sat on the English throne. They are Henry VIII and his strong-headed daughter, Elizabeth I.
I’ve discussed Henry VIII on several programmes including Private Lives of the Monarchs and Forbidden History. Plus I impersonated Henry VIII in full costume on ITV’s The Big Audition. And he’s a great figure to dress up as with his mighty frame, dressed to kill style and slightly psychopathic demeanour.
No monarch before or since – correct me if I’m wrong – got through six spouses in one reign. And to have two of his wives executed on trumped up charges doesn’t suggest a balanced mind. It’s a royal soap opera without equal and so Henry is definitely one of the power crazed rulers.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FOUR: Hitler
Unlike Peter the Great, Caligula and Henry VIII – Adolf Hitler didn’t grow up in a murderous dynastic family. He wasn’t groomed for the top job and never saw family members murdered all around him. His family background was very unremarkable. Hitler was a petit-bourgeois, chip-on-the-shoulder small town operator who clawed his way up the greasy pole.
Talking about him on Discovery and UKTV’s Forbidden History, I mentioned the absence of a descended testicle – which seems to be true – but also his worrying penchant for very young girls. These are aspects of his character often ignored as trivial but I think Hitler was a deeply troubled and unpleasant man.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FIVE: Emperor Bokassa
Gone for somebody quite unusual who you may not have heard of for my fifth power crazed ruler. Born in 1921, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was an ambitious military officer in the former French colony, the Central African Republic. He’s been compared to another African ruler of the same era, Uganda’s Idi Amin. Both had a complex relationship with their respective country’s colonial and imperial heritage.
On the one hand, they wanted independence and respect for their countries. But on the other hand, they weren’t able to break free in their own minds from the colonial past. Both Bokassa and Amin revelled in wearing their medals from youthful military service with the French and British armed forces respectively. And they felt a strange affinity to the history and culture of their former colonial ruler.
In 1965, Bokassa seized power in coup d’etat and initially his rule had some progressive aspects. For example, he banned the appalling practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, like his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa would begin as a revolutionary and end as a gilded dictator.
Bokassa hankered for the trappings of French imperial power. After a brief flirtation with Islam, he converted back to Catholicism in the 1970s and in 1976, announced his intention to be crowned emperor. The Central African Republic would now be transformed into the Central African Empire. In a US$20 million ceremony (a third of the country’s budget that year), he was proclaimed emperor on a huge golden eagle throne and with laurels on his head.
I remember seeing this on TV as a teenager. His attempt to get Pope Paul VI to come and crown him came to nothing. Wisely, the Pope found he had a diary clash that day! Bokassa’s imperial rule didn’t last very long and by 1979 he had been swept off his throne and the country was once more a republic.
Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.
But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?
Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.
And along came Anne of Cleves.
Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.
They later divorced.
But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.
And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.
And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.
I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.
At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!
Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:
HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey
Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.
The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.
She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.
But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.
HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More
After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.
Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.
But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.
When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.
Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.
But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.
After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.
Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.
London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. They are not always easy to spot now but let me give you some ghoulish clues!
Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish.
Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle? Where are the places of execution in London?
Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London. This was probably the most popular place of execution in London.
Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed. But for an aristocrat, this was the place of execution for you in London – not the shame of the tree at Tyburn.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. One of the lesser well known places of execution in London. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a London location for execution deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this London execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.