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An Easter Execution

If you happen to walk past Westminster Abbey during the day it’s likely that you’ll see a long, snaking queue of tourists leading to the north door. Most of these tourists pay little attention to the smaller church of St Margaret’s that stands to the left of the Abbey entrance.

Seen by most as the Abbey’s dowdy, dull little sibling, most of the tourists lining up for Abbey tickets won’t bother venturing in to St Margaret’s. That’s a shame, as it is a fascinating building. Samuel Pepys was married there, as was John Milton and Winston Churchill. Sir Walter Raleigh is buried in St Margaret’s in the chancel. Raleigh had been beheaded in Old Palace Yard just outside in 1618, charged with plotting with the French. His widow, Elizabeth Throckmorton, carried his severed, embalmed head with her in a red velvet bag for the rest of her life. Tradition states that the head was interred with the rest of the body when their son, Carew, died and was buried next to Walter.

Quite a few London guidebooks mention Raleigh and his execution, along with other executions that took place outside Parliament. Few mention that St Margaret’s is the site of a religious martyrdom. I’ve previously written about how a bloody fight in the Abbey resulted in the death of a monk, but that was not to be the last time that Abbey clergy were to be attacked.

During the reign of Henry VIII England had undergone a religious upheaval, breaking away from Roman Catholicism. The Abbey was dissolved in 1540 along with other monasteries up and down the country. The building was saved from destruction thanks to the ties between to Abbey and royalty with Henry announcing that the Abbey was now a cathedral. When Henry died his youngest child and only son Edward became king and carried on the momentum of the Reformation, pushing further towards Protestantism. Edward died of a horrible illness aged only fifteen. He was unmarried and childless, and despite his best efforts his plan to install his very Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor failed when his furious and incredibly Catholic older sister Mary marched upon London. Mary claimed her throne and eventually had Jane executed. Mary wasted no time in restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the nation, earning the moniker ‘Bloody Mary’ for her eager execution of Protestant ‘heretics.’

The sudden swing back to the ‘old’ ways made life very difficult for those who had embraced the Reformation.

William Flower was born in Cambridgeshire and had become a monk as a youth at the monastery in Ely. He later left, aged 21, eschewing Catholicism for radical Protestantism. He married a woman named Alice Pulton and the couple went on to have two children. They moved frequently with Flower alternating between working as a schoolmaster and physician/surgeon alongside his radical ministry. The family settled in Lambeth, across the river from Westminster. On 14th April 1555, Easter Sunday, William Flower left Lambeth to go to the service taking place in St Margaret’s. Mary I had been on the throne for nearly two years, masses in London churches were now decidedly Catholic. Flower was so overcome with religious zeal when he watched the sacrament being distributed among the congregation that he took his large wood knife and hacked at the head and hands of one of the priests, John Cheltham/Shelton. Cheltham was seriously injured but members of the congregation tore Flower off of him before the attack became fatal. Cheltham’s blood dropped into the sacred wine, tainting it so much that the congregation were forced to leave the church and celebrate the Eucharist elsewhere. The entire church also had to be reconsecrated following the bloodshed. Flower was taken to the gatehouse in Westminster and put in chains.

Such a frenzied attack may be seen as a crime of passion, yet there are aspects of the attack that point to a premeditated suicide mission. Flower had entered the church wearing a placard that read “Fear God, flee from the idol” in Latin. He also had a religious manifesto in his pocket, later admitting that if the congregation had lynched him before he could be arrested, someone could at least read it and understand his motives. Whilst imprisoned he corresponded with his friend, Robert Smith, a fellow radical who was at the time himself incarcerated in Newgate Prison. Flower wrote that he had not previously met Cheltham and had no personal vendetta, and would have attacked any priest distributing the communion that day. He also told Smith that he had been to St Paul’s that morning and could not bring himself to attack anyone, but had felt compelled by the Spirit later that day to go to St Margaret’s with violent intentions, fully expecting to lose his own life in the process. Flower stated that he wasn’t repentant, telling Smith that God has chosen him to carry out his will.

On the 19th of April Flower was brought before Bishop Bonner for interrogation. Flower remained unrepentant and reiterated his belief that, as a Protestant, he did not believe in transubstantiation and that he believed he was doing holy work. Bonner then tried to convince Flower to come back to the Catholic faith, but Flower thanked him and refused. He told Bonner that if he was aware that Bonner had the power  to decide whether he lived or died, but that Bonner could never have power over his soul and that God alone could judge him.

Witnesses to the attack gave statements at a deposition and Bonner charged Flower with heresy, excommunicating him. On the 24th April William Flower was brought to the spot where he was to be executed, outside St Margaret’s church. He addressed the crowd:

O eternal God, most mighty and merciful Father, who hast sent down thy Son upon the earth, to save me and all mankind, who ascended up into heaven again, and left his blood upon the earth behind him, for the redemption of our sins, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, for thy dear Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, in whom I confess only to be all salvation and justification, and that there is none other mean, nor way, nor holiness, in which or by which any man can be saved in this world.– This is my faith, which I beseech all men here to bear witness of.

After then reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Flower was given one last chance to recant. He refused. His right arm, with which he had attacked the priest, was chopped off and his left was tied behind him to the stake on which he was to be burned. The faggots provided for the execution were insufficient to provide a large enough fire to kill Flower quickly. Holding up his severed arm for as long as he could, he prayed for God to receive his soul. The executioners had to prod him with bills into the hottest part of the fire, eventually pulling him down to a lying position into the embers. Even so, the fire still only reached his navel. Still conscious, spectators could still see his tongue move in his mouth as the bottom half of his body was consumed. It took a long time for William Flower to die.

The botched execution gave William Flower an unnecessarily cruel and prolonged death. He was the sixteenth person to die for his faith under the reign of Bloody Mary. His friend Robert Smith later would use their letters to shift public perceptions of Flower from crazed lunatic to religious martyr before himself falling victim of the Marian persecutions and being executed in August that same year, the fortyfirst to die.

284 people were executed for their faith during the 5 year reign of Bloody Mary, the last a mere 2 days before Mary herself died in 1558.Upon her death, Mary’s sister Elizabeth became Queen and quickly set about once again moving the country away from Catholicism. Bishop Bonner, a man who had been ruthlessly efficient in executing heretics, was imprisoned and died in the Marshalsea in 1569, still trying to convert others to his Catholic faith. He too has earned the moniker ‘Bloody.’ Westminster Abbey and, by extension, St Margaret’s, were once more converted into Anglican churches and have remained so ever since. Despite this, William Flower and his attack on John Cheltham are conspicuously missing from the official Westminster Abbey website and his story is not included on the audioguide. His name doesn’t feature on any memorial or monument. William Flower does live on, however, in John Foxe’s Book of of Actes and Monuments, AKA Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rome Travel Journal – Day Three Part One

2nd October 2014

Day 3 of my trip is dedicated to the Ghetto and the Campo de’ Fiori, once the southern half of the Campus Martius (Field of Mars.

After crossing the river along the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II I head straight down the Via Giulia. The street was laid out by Pope Julius II and is a full kilometre long. It makes for a gorgeously quiet walk away from the traffic that follows the river that it parallels.

Michelangelo bridge on Via Giula

A bridge spans the Viu Giulia at the back of the Palazzo Farnese

The Fontana del Mascherone (Fountain of the Mask) was commissioned by the Farnese family around 1625. During their lavish parties the fountain would flow with wine instead of water.

The Fontana del Mascherone (Fountain of the Mask) was commissioned by the Farnese family around 1625. During their lavish parties the fountain would flow with wine instead of water.

The Palazzo Farnese backs onto the Via Giulia. I had intended to put the gorgeous Palace tour on my itinerary, however entry is by mandatory tour and all the tours in English had sold out weeks before my trip. My only Italian comes from my musical knowledge or my love of food, so the Palazzo Farnese will have to wait for my third trip to Rome, whenever that may be. My itinerary is too crammed for me to have regrets though, so I press on. At the end of the Via Giulia I wander through the streets using a deliberately lackadaisical yet vaguely north east route until I reach Largo Di Torre Argentina. This particularly square is described in my guidebook as ‘a place to wait for a bus and not much else.’ The author of the guide is evidently not as excited as I am about FOUR FREAKIN’ REPUBLICAN ERA TEMPLES. The archaeological site does, however, stink of cat pee as it acts as a homeless cat shelter.

The Temple of Juturna dates from the 3rd Century BC. It was built by a naval commander called Gaius Lutatius Catulus after he won the final naval battle of the First Punic War against Carthage in March 241BC. The Battle of the Aegadian Islands (off of Sicily) was instrumental in bringing the Carthaginians to a surrender. Juturna is the goddess of wells, springs and fountains.

The Temple of Juturna dates from the 3rd Century BC. It was built by a naval commander called Gaius Lutatius Catulus after he won the final naval battle of the First Punic War against Carthage in March 241BC. The Battle of the Aegadian Islands (off of Sicily) was instrumental in bringing the Carthaginians to a surrender. Juturna is the goddess of wells, springs and fountains.

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It’s worth mentioning that the Curia of Pompey lies somewhere roughly under those buildings in the background. Julius Caesar was assassinated on the steps of that Curia on the Ides of March, 44BC. He didn’t say “Et tu, Brute?” (Shakespeare did,) but Caesar did suffer 23 stab wounds.

Time to wander to the next set of ruins, passing the delightful Fontana delle Tartarughe on the way.

The Fontana delle Tartarughe (the Turtle Fountain) dates from the 1580s. The turtles weren't added until the 1690s, perhaps by Bernini.

The Fontana delle Tartarughe (the Turtle Fountain) dates from the 1580s. The turtles weren’t added until the 1650s, perhaps by Bernini.

I wandered down to the Portico of Octavia (built by Augustus and named for his sister) but it was so completely covered in scaffolding I couldn’t see any of it. I’m always glad to see ancient buildings getting a bit of TLC so I tried not be too disappointed. The Theatre of Marcellus next door was a huge consolation.

Marcellus was the daughter of Octavia and nephew of Augustus.  He died in 23 BC, five years before the theatre that bears his name was completed. He was a healthy young man of 19, his mysterious fatal illness is often assumed to be the work of his aunt Livia...

Marcellus was the son of Octavia and nephew of Augustus. He died in 23 BC, five years before the theatre that bears his name was completed. He was a healthy young man of 19, his mysterious fatal illness is often assumed to be the work of his aunt Livia…

The theatre could hold up to about 20,000 people who would gather here to watch theatrical performances and sacrifices. In the medieval period it was converted into a fortress. The three columns are an Augustan period restoration to a Republican temple dedicated to Apollo Sosianus.

Temple of Apollo Sosianus

I suppose I had to have one day of holiday accompanied by rain…

Near to the Theatre is the Church of San Nicola in Carcere (prison) which can boast not one ancient temple under the church but three.

The Republican era Temple of Spes (Hope) is now incorporated into the fabric of the Christian church of Saint Nicholas in Prison.

The Republican era Temple of Spes (Hope) is now incorporated into the fabric of the Christian church of Saint Nicholas in Prison.

The church stands on the edge of what had been the Forum Holitorium (vegetable and herb market) in ancient times. Four temples had stood in a row and their foundations are preserved at ancient street level underneath the current building.San Nicola in Carcere

Before I paid my 2 euros to get into the basement (bargain!) I amused to see a clumsy 9thC AD inscription on a column in the church. The Latin is terrible (yet still better than mine!) and talks of an offering of copper and livestock to the church. Not this church as the column was nicked from somewhere else and brought here in the 12thC AD

+ De donis di, et sce. di genitrci Marie, sce. Anne, scs. Simeon et sce. Lucie, edgo Anastasius, maior domu, ofero bobis pro natalicies best. binea tabul. VI q. p. it portu, seu bobes paria II iumenta s. v. pecora XXX, porci X, furma de rame libras XXVI, lectus itrat V in utilia te pbr. sevaleo lecto, si trato at mansionaris equi sequentibus. + IC requiescit IG ante.

+ De donis di, et sce. di genitrci Marie, sce. Anne, scs. Simeon et sce. Lucie, edgo Anastasius, maior domu, ofero bobis pro natalicies best. binea tabul. VI q. p. it portu, seu bobes paria II iumenta s. v. pecora XXX, porci X, furma de rame libras XXVI, lectus itrat V in utilia te pbr. sevaleo lecto, si trato at mansionaris equi sequentibus. + IC requiescit IG ante.

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Column base from the Temple of Janus - 3rd century BC

Column base from the Temple of Janus – 3rd century BC

Podium from the Temple of Janus

Podium from the Temple of Janus

This alley runs between the Temple of Janus on the left and the Temple of Juno the Saviour on the right

This alley runs between the Temple of Janus on the left and the Temple of Juno the Saviour on the right

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The temples under this church are a bit of a hidden gem and well worth a visit. For an extra euro you’ll get a short guided tour which I highly recommend to help bring the site to life.

I’m getting closer to the little island in the middle of the Tiber River which is reached from the Campus Martius bank by the Pons Fabricius, the oldest bridge in Rome. In fact the bridge has been is continuous use since 62BC. It’s not too hard to imagine Cicero admiring the new bridge.

Ponte Fabricio

In antiquity Tiber Island was used to keep people with contagious diseases away from the populace, along with the occasional despicable criminal. Apparently on the advice of the Sibyl a temple to Aesculapius , the God of healing, was built on the island in the 3rd century BC. There is (as with so many pagan temples in Rome) now a Christian church on the site dedicated to Saint Bartholomew (aptly patron saint of nervous and neurological diseases.) IMG_0347

The other half of the tiny island has been home to the Brothers Hospitallers of St John since 1584. Their hospital is still in operation.

After a quick snack that consisted entirely of cake (I’m on holiday…) I headed over to the Crypta Balbi, another branch of the National Roman Museum, which promised much and delivered little. The presentation is a tad clinical for my taste and there wasn’t as much as interpretation as I’d have liked.

Never mind, it was time to head to the Campo dei Fiori. Depending on who you talk to the ‘field of flowers’ is named either for a mistress of Pompey Magnus called Flora (his theatre was next door) or because in the medieval period this area was a meadow. The area was paved in the 1400s and became a place for socialising, a thriving market that still exists and for public executions.

Campo dei Fiori

The Campo dei Fiori. You can kind of make out the curve on the original ancient structure that still exists in the basements of the restaurants and houses.

The Statue of Giordano Bruno that stands on the site where he was executed in February 1600

The Statue of Giordano Bruno that stands on the site where he was executed in February 1600

Giordano Bruno, a mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, was burned at the stake here after being found guilty of heresy. He’d held beliefs that were ahead of his time and in total conflict with Catholic teachings. He was handed over the the Inquisition in 1593 and burned in 1600. At his execution his tongue was tied down to prevent him delivering any last words to the assembled crowds.

The picture above shows how the current buildings have foundations running along the ancient remnants of the Theatre of Pompey. From what I can tell that particular, smaller curve must follow the Temple of Venus Victrix. There was an ancient taboo about permanent theatres in the city. Pompey simply built a temple with a lot of steps that formed a semicircle – suspiciously theatre like. The nearby piazzas also show the shape of the theatre.

How the Theatre of Pompey would have looked. Note the conveniently shaped steps. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

How the Theatre of Pompey would have looked. Note the conveniently shaped steps. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The theatre compound was finished in 55BC after Pompey was inspired by a Greek theatre in Mytilene.

On my way back to my hotel in the Prati neighbourhood I am incredibly excited to retrace my steps along the Via Giulia for a visit to the Museum of Criminology. As I revel in the dark side of history I knew I would love this small but wonderful museum. It is housed int a 19thC prison and is filled to the brim with torture devices and evidence relating to famous cases.

This female skeleton was found in 1933 inside a ruined tower in a palazzo in Poggio Catino. There are a few theories as to who she is. One theory is that she was taken as a hostage by the Orsini family in the 16th century. Another is that she was the unfaithful wife of Geppo Colonna who chained her in the cell and left her to starve for making him a cuckold.

This female skeleton was found in 1933 inside a ruined tower in a palazzo in Poggio Catino. There are a few theories as to who she is. One theory is that she was taken as a hostage by the Orsini family in the 16th century. Another is that she was the unfaithful wife of Geppo Colonna who chained her in the cell and left her to starve for making him a cuckold.

This was the official robe of the executioner Giovanni Battista Bugatti AKA Mastro Titta. He was the official Papal executioner from 1796 to 1865 and carried out over 500 executions. Charles Dickens wrote about witnessing Bugatti  executing a criminal in the book 'Pictures from Italy'

This was the official robe of the executioner Giovanni Battista Bugatti AKA Mastro Titta. He was the official Papal executioner from 1796 to 1865 and carried out over 500 executions. Charles Dickens wrote about witnessing Bugatti executing a murderer named Giovanni Vagnarelli in the book ‘Pictures from Italy’

This cage, complete with skeletal contents, was found in 1928 by a group of prisoners digging within the walls of Milazzo Prison in Sicily. They found 5 buttons with the body, three of which had "Enniskilling 27" written on them, indicating that the man had been an infantry soldier of the British 27th Regiment of Foot. That helped to narrow down a date for the death of the soldier. The 27th had been sent to Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars where they occupied the Milazzo Prison. The regiment were defeated at  the Battle of Maida on the 4th of July 1806. Researchers were able to identify the body be checking regimental rolls. Private Andrew Leonard, 25, was declared a deserter and condemned to die. He was placed in a cage, possibly mutilated (the feet and hands are missing) and displayed as a gruesome warning to any of his comrades.

This cage, complete with skeletal contents, was found in 1928 by a group of prisoners digging within the walls of Milazzo Prison in Sicily. They found 5 buttons with the body, three of which had “Enniskilling 27” written on them, indicating that the man had been an infantry soldier of the British 27th Regiment of Foot. That helped to narrow down a date for the death of the soldier. The 27th had been sent to Sicily during the Napoleonic Wars where they occupied the Milazzo Prison. The regiment were defeated at the Battle of Maida on the 4th of July 1806. Researchers were able to identify the body be checking regimental rolls. Private Andrew Leonard, 25, was declared a deserter and condemned to die. He was placed in a cage, possibly mutilated (the feet and hands are missing) and displayed as a gruesome warning to any of his comrades.

A section of female face, complete with bullet entry point

A section of female face, complete with bullet entry point at the temple

This is evidence from the infamous Paterno Case. The Countess Giulia Trigona di Sant 'Elia was murdered, aged 29, by her lover on the 2nd March 1912. After a passionate 2 year affair Giulia had decided to break off her relationship with Baron Vincenzo Paterno for the sake of her husband and two small daughters. Paterno asked to meet her one last time before he left to rejoin his cavalry regiment in Naples. They met at their habitual hotel at noon. Shortly afterwards a chambermaid heard screams from the room and peered through the keyhole to see Paterno stabbing Giulia with this hunting knife, then taking a revolver and shooting himself in the head. Paterno survived the bullet wound and was charged with 1st degree murder. He plead insanity and was sent for psychiatric tests. Paterno was certified as sane and sentenced to life inmprisonment. He was pardoned and released in 1942. Her married and had a son. Vincenzo Paterno died in 1949.

This is evidence from the infamous Paterno Case. The Countess Giulia Trigona di Sant ‘Elia was murdered, aged 29, by her lover on the 2nd March 1912. After a passionate 2 year affair Giulia had decided to break off her relationship with Baron Vincenzo Paterno for the sake of her husband and two small daughters. Paterno asked to meet her one last time before he left to rejoin his cavalry regiment in Naples. They met at their habitual hotel at noon. Shortly afterwards a chambermaid heard screams from the room and peered through the keyhole to see Paterno stabbing Giulia with this hunting knife, then taking a revolver and shooting himself in the head. Paterno survived the bullet wound and was charged with 1st degree murder. He plead insanity and was sent for psychiatric tests. Paterno was certified as sane and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was pardoned and released in 1942. Her married and had a son. Vincenzo Paterno died in 1949.

I’ve got a late night planned so I head back towards the Vatican for a short siesta and camera battery charge in my hotel.

My route takes me back over Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II which has some gorgeous allegorical statues (as you’d expect from a bridge named after the first king of a unified Italy) and some fantastic views of the Castel Sant Angelo.

Castel Sant Angelo

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Beatrice Cenci – The Murderous Martyr

Beatrice Cenci. Portrait attributed to Guido Reni. Image via Wikimedia Commons

September 11th 1599 – Rome

Thousands of Romans make their way to the Ponte Sant Angelo, close to Saint Peter’s Basilica, with the intention of watching an entire family die. Most public executions were well attended with citizens keen to see justice done. Watching infamous criminals meet their bloody fates was widely considered to be an excellent form of street entertainment, a thrillingly morbid diversion from work and the authorities were satisfied that executions served as a deterrent to any potential wrong doers in the throng. Just as today, criminals could gain immense notoriety and a strange sort of celebrity. Whether the condemned were despised or grudgingly admired, their deaths provided an excellent opportunity to see renowned sinners up close.

On this particular occasion the mood of the crowds was remarkably less buoyant than usual. Several eyewitnesses describe the tone of the day as sombre. Beatrice and her family were undoubtedly guilty of the crime committed and yet those in attendance were behaving like mourners. Many carried candles and little crosses to leave by the bodies. There was no ebullience that day, rather an atmosphere of melancholy and dissent.

So why did the execution of a noblewoman who had confessed to orchestrating the murder of her own father evoke such sympathy?

The story starts with Francesco Cenci, the illegitimate son and heir of Cristoforo Cenci, a man who had made his family rich by embezzling Papal money whilst working as a comptroller at the Papal Court. Having married Francesco’s mother Beatrice Arias on his deathbed, Cristoforo died when Francesco was 12. The boy was brought up by his mother who had hastily married a lawyer. Francesco inherited an enormous fortune that included country estates in the Abbruzzi region and two Roman palazzos. He developed a sadisitic arrogance having already been taken to court for attacking a man the previous year. His tutor suggested Francesco should marry young in an attempt to quash his developing habits of frequenting brothels and “excessive” masturbation. This led to Francesco, aged 14 marrying Ersilia Santacroce, his tutor’s niece.

Ersilia seems to have been unable to satisfy the sexual needs of her husband who was frequently unfaithful to her. She did however bear several children, half of whom survived. She died following a difficult labour and the baby, a girl named Francesca, also died shortly after.

Her surviving children were

  • Giacomo
  • Cristoforo (it appears that Francesco and Ersilia’s first child had been called Cristoforo but the child did not survive infancy. The second child named Cristoforo survived into adulthood.)
  • Antonina
  • Rocco
  • Beatrice
  • Bernardo
  • Paolo

During his marriage to Ersilia Francesco’s violent tendencies developed.

He was so brutal to his employees that peasants on his estate near Nemi were frequently on the brink of insurgency. Such were the accusations that he decided to hide in Aquila. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Castel Sant Angelo. To buy his freedom (and rid himself of troublesome peasants) Francesco decided it would be best to sell off the estates in 1571.

He was frequently charged with beating his servants and often jailed for violence towards household staff. In 1577 Francesco was charged with having beaten a servant named Maria. Francesco had flown into a rage when Maria had apparently misunderstood his instructions. Maria testified that Francesco had savagely beaten her with a broom handle and had only ceased to attack her when he believed her to be dead. She was unable to move, eat or talk for three days following the attack.

More seriously, Francesco was also often charged and sometimes jailed for his sexual perversions. His first sodomy trial was held in 1570 (although connections with influential cardinals seem to have gotten him released without a fine) and he was regularly accused for his ‘unnatural vices.’

Homosexuality at the time was an offence punishable by death, usually those found guilty were burnt at the stake. Even if homosexuality had been legal and tolerated, Francesco was not accused of having loving sexual relationships with men. He showed no tenderness and was brutal in his quest for gratification. His partners, male and female, were often young, vulnerable and in his  employ, completely dependent on him for their livelihoods. Francesco Cenci was not above using violence and manipulation to get what he wanted sexually and he abused men and women indiscriminately. Stable boys whom he’d forced himself upon were often seen with scratches and bruises on their faces.

Following the death of Ersilia in 1584 the two girls were sent to be brought up in a convent. The boys were practically ignored and their education neglected. Francesco grew increasingly sadistic and the fact that he only seemed to be punished for his crimes with easily affordable fines made him bolder and more arrogant.

In 1591, unable to stand living in the same house as his son Giacomo, Francesco moved to the second Cenci palace in Rome. Seemingly lonely, he brought Antonina, Beatrice and Rocco to live with him.

In 1593 Francesco remarried, choosing a plump widow named Lucrezia Petroni. Lucrezia was 38 and had six children she was struggling to support. She must have been desperate to consider marrying Francesco, who, whilst fabulously rich, was notorious for his wickedness. After their marriage Francesco reneged on his promises to provide his stepchildren with an education and attempted to convince his new bride to let his mistress move in to the marital home. Lucrezia’s refusal seems to be one of the only occasions where she stood up for herself. Francesco did not like strong willed women. His eldest daughter Antonina was only able to marry after begging the Pope to save her from her father, offering to become a nun rather than stay with Francesco.

By 1594 Francesco Cenci was almost permanently in court or imprisoned, accused by many in his household or rape and physical abuse. Francesco attempted to shift blame onto his son Giacomo, claiming that Giacomo wanted his father in prison in order to inherit the family fortune. Francesco also accused Giacomo of plotting to murder him for his money, even though Francesco had written a will leaving Giacomo the minimum amount required by law.

Once freed in 1595 Francesco retired to Petrella Salto in the Abbruzzi mountains, two days ride from Rome. He took his wife Lucrezia and his daughter Beatrice with him. The castle there was an imposing fortress. Lucrezia and Beatrice were confined to chambers with high, barred windows that one could only look out of if stood on a chair. The doors had four locks and the rooms were poorly lit. Food was served to the women through a lockable hatch at the bottom of a door. One of their ladies-in-waiting described later how she aged ten years during the 18 months she spent incarcerated with Lucrezia and Beatrice.

On occasion Francesco would return to Rome, such as upon the death of his son Cristoforo who had died whilst fighting over a prostitute. In his absence the Cenci women were looked after by Olympio Calvetti. Calvetti ran the castle and lived there with his wife and children. Paolo and Bernardo Cenci, the two youngest children, were also briefly kept at Petrella but managed to escape back to Rome. Bernardo went to live under the protection of his brother Giacomo, Paolo died. Rocco had been killed in a duel in 1594, leaving Giacomo as the only sibling old enough to be able to help his sister and step-mother. Whether he was unwilling or unable to help them is unknown, but the ladies remained imprisoned for over two years.

By the summer of 1597 the two women were contemplating how they could escape.They were able to convince their captor Olympio to take messages to Giacomo in Rome. A new employee named Marzio Catalano, horrified by what he saw, was also used as a secret messenger. A letter from Beatrice to her brothers was intercepted by Francesco in December 1597. He immediately travelled to Petrella intent on punishing his daughter for her audacity. She tried to deny ever writing any letters which enraged Francesco even more.

He thrashed his daughter with a bull-pizzle (a whip made from a bull’s penis) until she was bloody and for the next three days kept her locked in solitary confinement. Her ladies-maid later testified that Francesco would visit the cell alone and only return ‘when satisfied.’

Rumours of enforced incest were starting to grow, further fuelled when maids report that Lucrezia had fled the bedroom she shared with Francesco and Beatrice, distraught. Francesco dragged Lucrezia back to take part in/witness whatever was happening behind the closed doors.

Later, under torture, Beatrice would allude that she had in fact, to her shame, lost her virginity to Olympio. Perhaps she had deliberately seduced him in order to get him to help her or whether Olympio had named sex as his price for his services we’ll never know. Perhaps the attraction was mutual and genuine and her shame derived from being an unmarried woman sleeping with a married man. Whatever the true nature of their sexual relationship, Olympio was increasingly involved as the plot evolved from one of escape to one of murder. Olympio was sent to visit Giacomo in Rome and after much discussion returned to the castle with a vial of poison. Unfortunately, wary of assassination, Francesco had decided to only eat food that was tasted by someone else first, and he chose Lucrezia and Beatrice for this. Poison had to be ruled out.

In September 1598 Francesco was ill and bed-bound for a while. Olympio recruited Marzio to help him kill Francesco whilst he was vulnerable. They were, however, nervous. Beatrice reprimanded them for their hesitance and declared that if necessary she would murder her father herself. Humiliated the two men entered the bedchamber and murdered Francesco Cenci in his bed.

They dressed the corpse and dragged it to the balcony, hauled it up and over the railing. Beneath was a large, rocky area that was used as a rubbish dump. Olympio and Marzio then removed some planks on the balcony floor to make it look as if Francesco had fallen through a hole to his death. Beatrice gave the bloodied sheets to a local laundress claiming that they were her own and that she was menstruating. Olympio then set about spreading the rumour amongst the locals that a dreadful, fateful accident had occurred whilst the women raised the alarm. Marzio, terrified, fled. The body was briefly examined and the wounds initially blamed on the fall.

Beatrice arranged a funeral but neither she nor Lucrezia attended, raising eyebrows. Gossip started to spread that a few tree branches could not cause the immense amount of damage found on the corpse, particularly one collapsed eye socket. The body of Francesco was laid out for such a short amount of time that further examination was impossible. Furthermore, the hole in the balcony did not look big enough for a large man to have fallen through even if the wood had, as Beatrice claimed, been rotten. Giacamo and Bernardo arrived from Rome and as soon as Giacomo had claimed the estates the group fled to Rome and away from the increasingly hostile gossip.

Rumours did reach Rome, however. The death of Francesco Cenci was investigated in November and the family members were individually questioned. They had had enough time to straighten out their stories, but were confined to house arrest. Knowing that investigators would eventually visit Petrella, Olympio returned to hide evidence. He widened the hole in the balcony floor. He ordered his wife Plautilla to destroy the bloodied mattress. She chose to hide the mattress instead, perhaps because she wanted it to be found and for her errant husband to be punished for his adultery as well as the murder. The mattresses were indeed found and locals pointed out that the balcony hole was now bigger than before.

Francesco was exhumed and examined once again. The eye socket, previously explained as a gash from a tree branch, was now determined to be a wound from a small axe.

Beatrice, Lucrezia, Giacomo, Marzio and Olympio were charged with conspiracy and murder. Olympio fled as Marzio had done. Marzio Catalano was apprehended and imprisoned in Rome, where he confessed (probably under torture) to parts of the plot, which was enough to lead t the arrests of Giacomo and Bernardo. Fearful of what Olympio may say if tortured like Marzio, Giacomo sent family servants to murder him where he was hiding with Plautilla and his children near Terni. This was to be a mistake. News spread of the headless corpse of Olympio and the servant was arrested. Authorities found a distraught Plautilla, who despite everything seems to have been genuinely heartbroken at the death of her cheating husband. She blamed the Cenci family for his death.

The Cenci family were now subjected to torture. This was incredibly rare for noble families and could only be administered with  permission of the Pope. If the family were found guilty the Pope would be able to seize their entire fortune (mostly gained from embezzlement from the Vatican anyway) and this may be why he granted permission for torture to be used.

Both Giacomo and Lucrezia named Beatrice as the instigator of the plot. This is not surprising, torture victims would often say anything under duress. Beatrice herself is described as behaving with incredible bravery under torture and yet even she eventually broke down.

During the trial the family were defended by a notorious lawyer called Prospero Farinaccio who was not popular with the Vatican. He made much of the unbearable living conditions inflicted on the women, including allegations of incestuous rape. Rome, having always been aware of the wickedness of Francesco, were now appalled as the monstrous details emerged. Sympathy for Beatrice and Lucrezia grew. The Pope, one eye on the lucrative Cenci estates, insisted on describing Francesco Cenci as ‘a most wretched father and most unhappy husband’ to have had the fate of being murdered by his own family.

All three were found guilty. A terrible punishment was decided by what the Pope called a terrible crime. Patricide, he declared, was one of the worst crimes one could commit. Rome, however, saw the Cenci family as pitiful survivors of a monstrous patriarch.

On the 11th September 1599 Giacomo and Bernardo Cenci were taken from the Tordinona Prison on a cart and paraded through the streets of Rome. Giacomo was shirtless and his skin was slowly torn off with red hot pincers. The procession made its way to the Via Santa Maria di Monserrato and Lucrezia and Beatrice were brought out of their prison to join Giacomo and Bernardo. The ladies had to travel by foot, however. People crowded at windows and on balconies to watch the group being led to their execution. Women cried loudly and many people followed the procession with a sad quietness.

By the time the group reached the Ponte Sant Angelo there was a muffled, stony silence. The space was crammed with spectators. Some fell into the river and drowned, nearly one hundred others were injured in a crush of people that ended in nine deaths.

After private prayers in a small nearby chapel the family were brought out to the scaffold. Bernardo was brought out first. He was not condemned to die as he had not been a part of the conspiracy. His crime, the Pope had declared, had to have kept silent once he had learned what his sister and brother had done. Therefore he was to stand on the scaffold and watch them die, up close. He was 18.

Lucrezia was next. She was terrified that she fainted on the scaffold and was unconscious as her head was chopped off. Beatrice met her fate with a calm composure. The crowd was silently impressed with her bravery and her beauty. She was seen as a heroine for enduring her father and then torture with grace and poise. As far as Rome was concerned, this wasn’t the execution of a wicked murderer, it was the martyrdom of an innocent young woman. It took the executioner a single stroke to remove her head. She was 21 years old.

The Executioner's Sword that killed Beatrice Cenci

The Executioner’s Sword that killed Beatrice Cenci – Museo Criminologico, Rome

Giacomo, weakened already, was last. After making a short speech exonerating Bernardo of all blame, he knelt at the block. Giacomo was not beheaded like his stepmother and sister. He was instead bludgeoned to death with a large mallet. He was then butchered like an animal and the pieces of his body were displayed on meat hooks suspended from the gallows.

Bernardo, who had fainted several times, was then escorted back to prison. The bodies were left where they were until 11pm, displayed on the gallows so that people who had not been able to watch the execution could still view the results.

So many candles and crosses were left that the gallows looked like a shrine. The corpse of Giacomo was eventually reassembled and buried in the church of San Tommaso ai Cenci. Lucrezia was buried in a church dedicated to San Gregorio. Beatrice was carried down the Vi Giulia to San Gregorio della Divina Pieta. Thousands joined the torchlit procession and the church was filled with donated flowers and candles. Mourners held a vigil over the body for several hours. Beatrice was buried in an unmarked plot, her head placed beside her body on a silver platter.

Legend has it that two of the executioners met grisly fates soon afterwards. Within a fortnight Mastro Bracca had died, plagued by nightmares of the grisly deeds he had been required to carry out, and after another two weeks Mastro was stabbed to death at Porta Castello.

Beatrice, more than any of the conspirators, captured the hearts and minds of Rome. She became a legend, one that captivated artists and poets for centuries after her tragic life and brutal death.

Ponte Sant'Angelo -site of numerous Papal executions including that of the Cenci family

Ponte Sant’Angelo – site of numerous Papal executions including that of the Cenci family

Modern visitors flock to the Bridge of Angels for the beautiful views of the Castel Sant Angelo and the River Tiber, not to mention the lovely statuary and yet very few tourists realise what sad events played out here. It’s a sorry tale that still fascinates and horrifies today.

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Syon House – When Can I Move In?

When a friend asked me to cat-sit for a week, my immediate thought was “where is the nearest stately home?” That thought was closely followed by “how do I get cats to like me?” A quick google came up with a)Syon House and b)give them food.

Which brings me to today. After being woken up by a hungry cat jumping onto my bum at 6am, I charged up my camera and got myself ready for a morning of columns and cornices.

I’ve been wanting to visit Syon for a while as it has served as the backdrop for some major events in British history.

Henry V founded Syon Abbey in 1426 and it was a successful convent right up until Henry VIII decided to have a strop. Syon Abbey had been home to two people who had really got Henry in a tizz. Elizabeth Barton got right on the royal tits when she decided to publicly show her opposition to Henry dumping Catherine of Aragon so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn.

Barton, being a Catholic nun, was funnily enough in favour of keeping the Catholic Catherine as Queen. She frequently met with Sir Thomas More, another Catherine supporter, at Syon Abbey to bond over their opposition to the Reformation. Barton had become famous as the Holy Maid of Kent, spouting ‘prophecies’ that warned of dire consequences for anyone who did anything to annoy the Pope. As the Pope was apoplectic at the plans to give Catherine the boot, Barton dutifully fired off one of her famous prophecies. She loudly proclaimed that if Henry married Anne Boleyn he’d be dead soon after the wedding.

As furious as Henry was, he couldn’t arrest her for mere talking, yet. So instead he started a whisper campaign that Barton was bonkers and frequently had rampant sex with priests. He then made it legal to prosecute people for past actions even if those actions had been within the law at the time. Barton was arrested on charges of treason and hanged at Tyburn without trial in 1534. She also has the dubious honour of being the only woman whose head was mounted on a spike on London Bridge.

Another Syon resident and friend of More and Barton was a monk named Richard Reynolds. With his bezzie mate Thomas More in the Royal doghouse for snubbing the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn, Reynolds decided to also take a stand. He refused to take the oath that proclaimed Henry as head of the Church in England. Henry, by now, was losing his patience and acted swiftly. Reynolds was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, where Barton had been executed little over a year previously. He’s now a Catholic saint.

By now Henry was not the biggest fan of Syon Abbey and it’s inhabitants. They were evicted and fled to the continent. Henry then seized the property for the Crown, as was his habit.

By the time he was on wifey number 5, Catherine Howard, Henry was even grumpier and even more vindictive. The marriage was doomed. Surprisingly, the very young, very flirtatious Catherine found young men her own age rather more attractive than her morbidly obese, ageing, permanently cantankerous hubby. Upon the discovery that his ‘rose without a thorn’ was actually a bit of a tart, Henry decided that perhaps he didn’t want to be married to a brazen little hussy any more and that perhaps he should get rid of her. Cue the famous story of Catherine screaming Hampton Court Palace down after being charged with treason.

After being stripped of her queenship Henry imprisoned Catherine at Syon Abbey, making sure that two rooms were “furnished moderately as her life and condition hath deserved.” Having become rather used to piles of jewellery and fabulous interior decor, Catherine found the drab rooms rather depressing. They didn’t even have tapestries. Despite this, apparently Catherine spent her time at Syon behaving as imperiously as she ever did as Queen. Eventually the time came for Catherine to be taken to the Tower for execution. She had to be dragged, screaming, into the boat at Syon Abbey that would take her to her death.

The Abbey would have  revenge on Henry for bringing such misery and tragedy to its doors. When he died in 1547 his funeral procession stopped off at Syon overnight on the trip to Windsor. By this time he’d been dead a while, and Tudor morticians weren’t exactly wonderfully talented. The hugely corpulent King had begun to decompose. Whilst at Syon Abbey the coffin began to leak the putrefied King all over the floor, where the resident dogs gleefully started feasting on it. A very undignified end for one who had caused undignified ends for so many others.

Soon afterwards the Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset moved in. His sister Jane had been wifey number three to old Henry and had died soon after giving birth to the long awaited male heir, also named Edward. Still a sprog when daddy died, Edward VI had Uncle Eddie working as Lord Protector until he was old enough to rule alone. Uncle Eddie needed a London pad close to court to suit his new rank and proceeded to build a grand Renaissance house on the old Abbey foundations. Unfortunately, Uncle Eddie got a bit too big for his boots, and so like so many Syon residents before him, Seymour was executed in 1552 for supposedly plotting against his nephew.

Edward VI, meanwhile, was growing up to be a sickly youth who nevertheless had strong views about the future of his nation. The last thing he wanted was for his sister Mary to become Queen as she had a massive chip on her shoulder about the whole Reformation thing. So Edward went with an early version of his dad’s will, one that didn’t include his sisters inheriting. Henry had annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so essentially that made Mary illegitimate. And Henry had thoughtfully annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn before lopping off her head, so that made Elizabeth a bastard too. Although there’s been much debate over which version of the will was the legal one, Edward decided to stick with the version that named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as the heir to the throne.

I have to admit I rather like Jane. She was a geeky bookworm who spoke in more languages than some of the male politicians of her time and was more widely read even as a teenager. I often wonder what our country would be like now if she’d have been given a chance to reign. All accounts of her paint her as a very wise, level headed young lady. Jane was staying at Syon when she received the news that  the fifteen year old Edward had passed away and that she was therefore Queen. Although apparently reluctant, even in the nine days she spent shoring up her throne at the Tower she proved herself to be a worthy monarch. For instance, she refused to proclaim her useless husband Guilford king as she knew that he was a feather brained lump. However, we all know what happened next. The curse of Syon struck again and Jane was beheaded.

As Queen, Mary tried to restore the Abbey to its former glory. After all, they had been loud and staunch supporters of her mum. However as soon as Mary kicked the Royal bucket her firmly Protestant sister Elizabeth promptly evicted everyone again and they fled to the continent again. The nuns did return to England, but not until Victoria was on the throne a few of centuries later.

The house, meanwhile, was snapped up by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and Elizabethan courtier. When Lizzie bit the big one, stuttering Percy found that relatives can be a pain in the backside. His cousin Thomas was one of the Gunpowder Plotters, and in the days that followed the failed assassination Henry became implicated in the plot and consequently spent the next 15 years of his life incarcerated in the Tower. Given the fates of previous residents of the Syon estate, he must have been thanking his lucky stars, especially as by all accounts he spent his time at the Tower in some style. Mercifully for the Percys their estates weren’t confiscated and Syon House has been the London residence of the Earls of Northumberland ever since.

During that time the house has been shot at (during the Battle of Brentford) and hosted a royal birth (although Prince George, son of Queen Anne, died within hours of his birth.)

If a history with more angst and tragedy than an episode of Eastenders isn’t enough to convince you to visit, the architecture should.

I am a classicist at heart, and anything Neo-Classical gets my heart skipping a beat. That meant that within minutes of entering Syon House I was constantly on the verge of needing a defibrillator.

By the 1760s the house needed a bit of TLC and John Adam was drafted in to give the place a makeover. A lover of all things ancient, Adam started to turn Syon into a love letter to classical architecture and interior design. If, like me, you’ve worked in stately homes you may have suffered from an overdose of gilt, but here I didn’t get that feeling of being slapped in the face by a designer with a passion for gold leaf, despite it being used a lot on the ground floor. Adam filled the house with elegant scagliola columns and antique statues. Although John Adam only finished a portion of the ground floor, what he did create is visually stunning. The rest of the house is filled to the rafters with beautiful portraits of famous past inhabitants and guests. I’m a Lely fan myself, but you can’t go wrong with Van Dyck.

Other highlights are the grounds which were landscaped by Capability Brown, crowned with a beautiful conservatory that Horrible Histories fans will immediately recognise as a stand in for the Crystal Palace.

On a professional level I was pleased to note that nearly all of the wardens initiated conversation. Hallelujah! No hesitating to engage here! Only one, (male, tellingly) steadfastly refused to talk to me. Perhaps it was because I was wearing trainers and not a twin set and pearls, because he was more than happy to follow some well heeled middle aged ladies around for ten minutes talking at them. Just because I am in my twenties and I wear jeans does not mean I do not appreciate a nice Sevres vase, Mr Warden. Tut tut. Go and de-fluff your ill fitting tweed jacket and contemplate on your behaviour! However, the less stuffy ladies more than made up for his snobbery and I chatted with every single one of them for quite some time. I’ve always maintained that this makes the difference between a good and a great visitor experience. Bravo, ladies of Syon!

In short, or actually, quite lengthy, you should visit Syon House. You definitely won’t regret it, and the ticket price in comparison to similar stately homes is practically a steal. Also, top marks for a very well written and presented guidebook, which is full of lovely photos and has that lovely, luxurious feel to the touch.

If you haven’t already started planning a day trip to Brentford, then what is keeping you!? In the meantime do peruse the Syon Park website for visitor information: http://www.syonpark.co.uk/index.asp

5 out of 5 stars and a huge, enthusiastic thumbs up!

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