“Very Close and Secret”: The Looming Presence of Torture in the 16th Century

Ordeal by fire: As proof of innocence the lady has to clasp a red-hot piece of iron without burning herself. Torture replaced such methods.

In Late Medieval Europe, torture gradually replaced the ordeal (trial by fire, water, or battle) as the chief investigative method in criminal law. At the same time professional judges educated at universities took over from honourable laymen, and with them an essential part of criminal procedure – the finding of evidence – disappeared behind closed doors.1

In England things differed from mainland Europe because trial by jury allowed to convict people on circumstantial evidence, which did not suffice in the courts of the Inquisition or according to the provisions of the German Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (1532), where confessions were necessary for a verdict. Thus, a regularized system of judicial torture never existed in England and was even proscribed under Common Law. However in cases where the Crown, that is centralized government, intervened directly, torture was used quite regularly – more so than is often assumed.

As on the Continent, this development started in the Late Middle Ages, the rack in the Tower of London being set up in the reign of Henry VI.2 Between 1540 and 1640 the Privy Council issued some 80 warrants for torture; however, there was also the secret version, applied for example in the 1590s by the notorious Richard Topcliffe, a ‟self-appointed priest-finder general and expert torturer“,3 who made use of gruesome installations in his own home. One of his more famous victims was Robert Southwell S.J., who told him to his face: ‟It is neither priest nor treason that you seek for, but only blood.“4

By the 1590s the rack had become superseded by the ‟gauntlet“, a method where the victim was hung suspended from a beam with wrists and hands clamped and compressed in iron gauntlets.5 Topcliffe used this device with Southwell, yet found himself in prison for a spell because the government did not want to risk the priest’s life through his zeal. Politico-religious cases like these are the best known, yet the Elizabethan Privy Council also authorized the torture of alien thieves and ‟Egipcians and wanderers“.6 By the 1580s and 1590s, at the height of the international religious conflict, the question of torture had reached a stage where pamphlets were written about its suitability and even morality: Sir Thomas Smith regarded such methods with disdain, while William Cecil and Thomas Norton defended them in the interest of the state:7 The Queen’s life being threatened by Jesuit assassins sent out by the Pope, only the guilty were tortured, the innocent had nothing to fear; and no-one was tortured for their faith, it was treason that was discovered by these means!8

The Elizabethan Privy Council saw its true beginnings in the early 1550s, under the leadership of John Dudley Duke of Northumberland in the reign of Edward VI: ‟Working hand in glove with Cecil, he rationalized the procedures of government by council, which became central to the conduct of affairs … and in the process created the ‘system’ which Cecil reinstituted under Elizabeth I.‟9 Examination by torture was already part of that system, being ‟one of the council’s routine measures“, although, in the words of Lord President Northumberland, this was to be ‟kept very close and secret“.10 His caution referred to the case of one Hawkins, who appears to have forged the Archbishop of Canterbury’s signature and sent out seditious bills with the ‟intent to have stirred a rebellion and commotion.“ When questioned in the Tower he refused to name his accomplices and feigned madness. The Lord President announced

it should be well done in my opinion that some discreet persons were furtherwith appointed to have the examination of him and either by fair means or foul to cause him to declare his counsellors and supporters.11

Not all instances of torture had to do with ‟political“ cases, though; the Council was likewise helping with criminal investigations: The serial robber Reed was threatened with torture; one Willson and one Warren – suspected ‟of a particularly heinous murder“12 – had their taste of the rack; as he confided to Cecil, Northumberland contemplated ordering torture in similar cases. The brazen theft of three hawks from one of Princess Mary’s Norfolk parks in January 1553 was taken care of by Archbishop Cranmer and the Duke of Suffolk, among others, their lordships ordering ‟the examination by tortours“ of the two culprits.13

A few months later, after Mary’s miraculous victory over the Duke of Northumberland, her cousin the Emperor Charles V was keen to find out the Duke’s nefarious machinations with the French. Surely, Northumberland had ‟wished to hand England to the French“14 and indeed, he had sent his cousin Henry Dudley to Henri II. Arrested on his return to England and questioned in the Tower, Dudley ‟confessed without torture a circumstantial and likely tale concerning his mission to France“: Northumberland had not thought he would need French assistance, as he took no account of resistance on Mary’s part and was relying on the Council and the City of London. The purpose of Dudley’s visit had been to make sure of formerly offered French help in case the Emperor should intervene.15 Three weeks later the ambassadors’ story was that Northumberland had promised Ireland and Calais to Henri II;16 were these later revelations extracted by torture? The chief culprit – the Duke – was dead by then, having persistently refused to ‟confess the French intrigues“.17 Henry Dudley was set free a month later – had he ‟confessed“ the desired truths in exchange for a pardon? He went to France to become a conspirator against Queen Mary’s government.

Against the backdrop of the perennial conflict between Habsburg and Valois many quite unbelievable – but most welcome – confessions were secured by torture. The terrible consequences are illustrated in the case of the Dauphin’s unfortunate secretary in 1536: In August of that year Count Sebastiano de Montecuccoli brought his thirsty master a glass of icy water after a tennis match. Francis, the son and heir of Francis I, subsequently fell ill and died after a few days. It is believed that he died of tuberculosis, having never recovered from his childhood years in a damp Spanish prison as Charles V’s hostage. The French king, however, in his grief looked out for a scapegoat and the secretary was the ideal candidate: Italians were natural poisoners and indeed a handbook of toxicology was found in his quarters! The poor man had been once in the Emperor’s service and, under torture, almost immediately confessed to having planned the death of Dauphin and King in the Habsburg interest! Charles V officially protested at this insult, and Montecuccoli retracted his statements; yet he was nevertheless executed by écartelage at Lyons in October 1536. This manner of execution, reserved for regicides, meant that the victim was torn to pieces by four horses galloping into four different directions.

International conflicts quite naturally led to a constant craze about possible espionage and putative poisonings of war leaders. So soon as Robert Dudley, son of John Dudley and Earl of Leicester, and recently-appointed Governor-General of the United Provinces, had made himself at home in his new surroundings at Utrecht in the spring of 1586, he discovered the realities of leadership:

Here is apprehended yesterday one John Jentile; he had the copy of a letter about him written to you; he pretended his errand to the Princess of Pynoy, as hired to poison her by her husband; he seems to be a very villain; he hath such store of false dice, and so many several poisons, as no doubt we will find somewhat from him. He brake the matter to the Princess, and she sent presently to me, and I sent Mr. Killigrew and one other of the Council to examine him. He confesseth to have been in England. I have more warning from the Prince of Parma’s court, and from Antwerp, and out of Germany, that there was some hired to poison me, but I am at a point for all these matters.18

Four weeks later Leicester – who most vividly and almost daily communicated his problems, feelings, and adventures to Francis Walsingham – came back to matters concerning the poisoning of the Princess of Pynoy (she is now become the Princess of Symeye). Predictably, the intended poison victim had changed with the interrogators:

I think it will fall out plainly that —— Jentile which I wrote to you of, that came to the Princess of Symeye, seeming to discover that he was hired to poison her from her husband, came only to do it to me; all circumstances of his speeches leans to it. He was not yet put to any torture, but he shall be, his tales be so full of contrarities and doubts as he begins now to wish himself dead, and craves mercy. He confesseth now his meaning was to serve me, and he doubteth [thinks] there be others that have commission for the matter, though he hath not; but all is one for him or any other, my God hath charge of me, and will not suffer their malice to take place. If it should, welcome be his blessed will, it is for a good cause and so I am at a point, and yet will I be as carefull as I may be. Thus God have you in his good keeping. From Vtrickt this last of April. Your assured friend.19

We do not know what became of John Jentile.

1 Schild 1985 pp. 20, 22, 42
2 Haynes 1992 p. 51
3 Hutchinson 2007 p. 74
4 Coote 1993 p. 193
5 Haynes 1992 p. 52
6 Haynes 1992 p. 52
7 Haynes 1992 pp. 50 – 51; Alford 2011 pp. 241 – 242
8 Alford 2011 p. 242
9 Hoak 2004
10 Hoak 1976 pp. 229 – 230
11 Skidmore 2007 p. 238; Hoak 1976 p. 229
12 Hoak 1976 p. 230
13 Hoak 1976 pp. 230, 344
14 Loach 2002 p. 166
15 CSP Span 16 August 1553
16 CSP Span 5 September 1553
17 CSP Span 4 September 1553
18 Leycester Correspondence pp. 212 – 213
19 Leycester Correspondence pp. 254 – 255

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

Correspondence of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leycester, during his Government of the Low Countries, in the Years 1585 and 1586 (ed. John Bruce, 1844). Camden Society.

Alford, Stephen (2011): Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I. Yale University Press.

Coote, Stephen (1993): A Play of Passion: The Life of Sir Walter Ralegh. Macmillan.

Frieda, Leonie (2005): Catherine de Medici. Phoenix.

Haynes, Alan (1992): Invisible Power: The Elizabethan Secret Services 1570–1603. Alan Sutton.

Hoak, Dale (1976): The King’s Council in the Reign of Edward VI. Cambridge University Press.

Hoak, Dale (2004): “Edward VI (1537–1553)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.

Hutchinson, Robert (2007): Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that saved England. Phoenix.

Loach, Jennifer (2002): Edward VI. Yale University Press.

Schild, Wolfgang (1985): Alte Gerichtsbarkeit: Vom Gottesurteil bis zum Beginn der modernen Rechtsprechung. Callwey.

Seward, Desmond (1974): Prince of the Renaissance: The Life of François I. Cardinal.

Skidmore, Chris (2007): Edward VI: The Lost King of England. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Wikipedia: Constitutio Criminalis Carolina http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutio_Criminalis_Carolina

Wikipedia: Torture http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torture

First published on 30 May 2011 at thehistoryfiles.com

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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