El Garrote or The Spanish Way of Things

The Duke of Northumberland returned from his venture to defend the throne of Queen Jane on 25 July 1553 and the Imperial ambassadors noted, “when he reached his prison they say his only care was to have nobles to judge him, as is the custom in England, and that his remorse and evil conscience were astonishing.” The duke’s nervous breakdown is certainly not surprising, nor should be his insistence on the accustomed legal procedure in the form of a trial by his peers: He was a proud man very sensitive about status, or “estimation”, as he called it, but he was also aware of the possible Spanish-Italian influence on the regime of Queen Mary, the new sovereign being well-known to rely on Habsburg advice. As the patron of England’s foremost expert on Italy, the linguist and historian William Thomas, he might well have been aware of what that could mean.

About four weeks later, Antonio de Guaras, a Spanish merchant and eyewitness with a good grasp of English, described Northumberland’s trial (by his peers):

On the eighteenth of this month of August, the Duke of Northumberland was brought to trial, and as your Lordship knows, these proceedings are here conducted with great dignity. A stage was erected in the great hall of Westminster, very majestic and richly tapestried, and in the midst of it a rich canopy, and under this a bench with rich cushions, and carpets at its foot.

The Duke was led into court, ‟making three reverences down to the ground, … with a good and intrepid countenance, full of humility and gravity.“ His peers ‟beheld him with a severe aspect, and the greatest courtesy shown him of any was a slight touch of the cap.“ Impressed by these English niceties, Guaras still noticed the farcical element in the proceedings, for the ‟judges, or the most of them” had been members of Jane Grey’s government themselves.

Antonio de Guaras was right to point out to his Spanish patron the strange English habit of a state trial, for although in his home country public executions of political offenders were not unknown, they were infrequent and went usually without a public trial. When the crown risked legal proceedings before the estates it was likely to lose, as in the case of Philip II’s disgraced secretary Antonio Pérez who in the end managed to escape justice altogether. Therefore, if convenient, high-profile prisoners were preferably dispatched with el garrote in some dark corner.

Flyleaf showing torture to extract money during the Thirty Years’ War. A similar method occurs in the “Spanish Chronicle” describing events during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.

The secret assassination of “traitors” by strangulation or garrotting had spread to Italy in the course of the 15th century, a time of increasing Iberian influence. Thus the typical weapon of Borgia tyranny in the Papal states around 1500 was the garrote. The 16-year-old Astorre Manfredi, Lord of Faenza, and his younger brother, were found strangled in the Tiber after a year of imprisonment in the Castel Sant’Angelo; the captains Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo were strangled within hours after their arrest by Cesare Borgia at Senigallia on 31 December 1502, a day that had been scheduled as a meeting of commanders. Even the troublesome monk Girolamo Savonarola was first garrotted before being burnt as a heretic on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence – the same procedure as in Spanish autodafés of the 15th century.

The custom continued throughout the 16th century. Isabella de’ Medici and her cousin Leonora di Garzia di Toledo were strangled by their respective husbands in isolated country villas within four days in July 1576. Ostensibly dying from (unexplained) “accidents”, no commentator had any doubts about the nature of the young women’s deaths, and the crimes have often been seen as punishment for the ladies’ interesting love life. Notwithstanding the latter, the murders were in all likelihood committed on the orders of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I, Isabella’s brother. The grand duke’s only problem was how to explain the sudden deaths to King Philip II, both women being Spanish aristocrats by descent.

Philip did not ask too many questions, though, and he was not averse to such methods himself, as is shown in the case of Martín de Acuña, a man serving on a number of diplomatic missions to Constantinople. His career ended on 6 November 1586 at Pinto near Madrid in the room of a castle, where he was garrotted on the orders of the king.

The so-called “Spanish Chronicle” was written around 1550 by a Spanish soldier or tradesman, recording gossip from the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The glaring errors and unlikely embellishments in it have often been pointed out, but the question remains of how some of the stories might have originated. One of the better known episodes is the alleged torture of the musician Mark Smeaton with the help of a knotted rope, tied around his head. Unheard of within the English context, this was a common enough method with Continental criminals to extract money from their victims. It became widespread during the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, typically applied by marauding troops, many of them Spanish mercenary contingents. With Spanish world power at the zenith, to have become “spaniolized” was a general phenomenon in early 17th century Europe, the term being frequently used in a reproachful way. The writer of the “Spanish Chronicle”, who had also lived in the Low Countries for a time, clearly superimposed his cultural background on events he described, in whatever garbled manner he had heard of them in the first place.

As for the Duke of Northumberland on his execution day, he was not only grateful that the queen had spared him the “most vile and cruel death, by hanging, drawing, and quartering” but had also “of her most merciful goodness suffered me to be brought to my judgment, and to have my trial by the law, where I was most justly and worthily condemned.” Perhaps he had indeed read William Thomas’ History of Italy.

Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England … written in Spanish by an unknown hand. (ed. M. S. Hume, 1889)

Calendar of State Papers, Spain. Volume 11 – 1553 (ed. Royall Tyler, 1916) http://www.britishhistory.ac.uk/source.aspx?pubid=973

Antonio de Guaras: The Accession of Queen Mary. (edited by Richard Garnett, 1892).

Braudel, Fernand (1990): Das Mittelmeer und die mediterrane Welt in der Epoche Philipps II. Volume III. Suhrkamp.

Jordan, W. K. and Gleason, M. R. (1975): The Saying of John Late Duke of Northumberland Upon the Scaffold, 1553. Harvard Library.

Kamen, Henry (1998): Philip of Spain. Yale University Press.

Loades, David (1996): John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland 1504–1553. Clarendon Press.

Milger, Peter (1998): Gegen Land und Leute: Der Dreissigjährige Krieg. C. Bertelsmann.

Murphy, C. P. (2008): Isabella de’ Medici: The Glorious Life and Tragic End of a Renaissance Princess. Faber & Faber.

Parker, Geoffrey (2002): Philip II. Open Court.

Reinhardt, Volker (2007): Alexander VI. Borgia: Der unheimliche Papst. C. H. Beck.

About Christine Hartweg

Hi, I'm the author of "Amy Robsart: A Life and Its End" and "John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey's Father-in-Law". I blog at www.allthingsrobertdudley.wordpress.com
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