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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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Murder at the Abbey


It all started on the third of April, 1367 at the Battle of Najera. Whilst England and France were quarreling during the Hundred Years’ War , a civil war had erupted in Castile as two brothers squabbled over a crown. The rightful king was Peter, son of Alfonso XI. Peter had a nasty habit of waging war with Aragon to the dismay of his nobles and English allies. Inevitably various parties voiced support for a new king to be crowned in Castile. France, Aragon and Pope Urban V all backed Alfonso XI’s illegitimate son Henry of Trastamara for the position. Henry successfully deposed his brother in 1366.

Peter fled to Bayonne which at that time was held by the English and petitioned them for help in regaining his throne. Bayonne Cathedral happened to be (according to some sources) the burial-place of Peter’s would-be bride. Joan of England had left for Castile in 1348 with the blessings (and HUGE dowry and trousseau) of her father, Edward III. Joan had tragically succumbed to the Black Death whilst travelling. Perhaps Peter visited her tomb before he appealed Joan’s brother, Edward, the Black Prince, for military assistance. Edward offered to help his ally (in return, of course, for a gift of some prime Castilian real estate,) and marched on Henry with 28,000 troops the following summer. The two opposing forces met at Najera. The Black Prince, aided by his brother, John of Gaunt, faced a numerically superior force of 60,000, some being Castilian troops loyal to Henry of Trastamara but the majority being made up of French allies. The English long bow once again proved its worth and brought Peter a decisive victory.

Amidst the carnage, hostages were taken from the ranks of nobles who had fought on the defeated side as per medieval tradition. Captured nobles, knights and even wives and children would be kept prisoner by the victors. In its simplest form the custom of hostage taking was a way for victors to assert power of the losing side. Not only did it deprive the vanquished of some of their most valued family members and soldiers, it encouraged the losers to yield in further matters to the victors. It was agreed that hostages should be kept comfortably, unless, of course, their family members at home did something to aggravate the captor in which case hostages could be thrown into dungeons or executed. The welfare of a loved one or heir was a significant incentive for a conquered noble to abandon reprisals or rebellion. Hostages could be returned if their family could afford to pay an often steeply priced ransom.

Two English squires named Robert Hauley (sometimes written Hawle or Hawley) and John Shakel had managed to personally capture the powerful Aragonese Alphonso, Count of Denia. The ransom was set at 150,000 doubles d’or and, as was custom, Alphonso offered his eldest son and heir, Alphonso of Villena as hostage in his stead. The Black Prince was now responsible for the welfare of the younger Alphonso and would be due to receive the ransom if and when it was paid.

Meanwhile, Peter was proving slow to reward the Black Prince for the victory he had delivered at Najera. Edward had severely depleted his coffers by embarking on the campaign and desperately needed the compensation that Peter had promised. Not only did Peter show no signs of repaying Edward financially for his restored crown, he disgusted his would-have-been brother-in-law with his vicious temper and nasty habit of having large numbers of people murdered. Edward left Iberia, penniless. When Henry of Trastamere returned to oust his brother from the throne a second time, Peter found himself with no allies left. After the a crushing defeat at the Battle of Montiel in 1369 Peter sought refuge in a fortress there controlled by the Order of Santiago. He approached Bertrand du Guesclin, a French commander who had fought alongside Henry of Trastamara, for aid. He offered du Guesclin 200,000 gold coins and the control of numerous Castilian towns if du Guesclin could assist him in his escape and sneak him past the army camped outside the fortress. Du Guesclin readily agreed, promising to return soon with help. Du Guesclin however went straight to Henry instead, informing him of the bribe and offering to bring Peter straight to Henry if Henry could offer him a larger reward. Henry agreed and du Guesclin was soon leading Peter to a tent within the camp where Henry was waiting. The brothers began to fight violently. With a helping hand from du Guesclin, Henry was able to gain the upper hand and murdered Peter, stabbing him in the face repeatedly in a frenzied attack that ended with Henry being proclaimed Henry II of Castile. Bertrand du Guesclin earned a dukedom for services rendered. The corpse of Peter was left, unburied, for several days to be kicked and spat upon. With Peter’s death the chance of the Black Prince receiving his money also died.

The Murder

Several years later in 1375 the Black Prince signed over his rights to most of the ransom money for Alphonso of Villena to Hauley and Shakel themselves, with a nominal amount still due to go to Edward III. This also meant that Hauley and Shakel were responsible for the welfare of the hostage. The prospect of such a handsome payment on the eventual safe deliverance of their charge must have been dizzying for men such as Robert and John. By now English forces in France had been severely hit by plague and repelled from most of the land they had once held. The French and their allies the Aragonese were now in a much stronger position. The payment of ransoms and the return of hostages was looking increasingly likely. Hauley and Shakel were looking forward to a huge payday and soon others in London became jealous of their expected future wealth. By 1377 their benefactor, the Black Prince, had died and the ten year old Richard II had ascended the throne. Rival claims were made against Hauley and Shakel to the rights of the ransom of the hostage and it was ordered that Alphonso should be removed from their custody. Appalled, Hauley and Shakel attempted to hide Alphonso. As Alphonso was a royal member of the House of Aragon this was a huge diplomatic error. Hauley and Shakel caught and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. They appealed to the King (their petition can be viewed here) for a hearing to reassert their rights to the ransom. Impatient and desperate after nearly a year of incarceration, Hauley and Shakel escaped from the Tower of London in 1378 and sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

To seek sanctuary, the accused must enter a church, confess his sins, and surrender any weapons. He was then under the protection of the priest or abbot. After 40 days he could choose to stand trial for his alleged crimes or choose to publicly announce his guilt and go into exile (from which if he returned he would face excommunication or execution.) Until the 40 days were up, the person seeking sanctuary was untouchable by the authorities. Seeking sanctuary was a common practice. Some churches and monasteries, including Westminster Abbey, were even granted to extend their sanctuary zone to include buildings surrounding the churches themselves. To this day, the area and buildings immediately outside the West Gate of Westminster Abbey are known collectively as the Sanctuary.

This particular high profile case caused problems in high places. John of Gaunt, never as interested in French gains as his brother, definitely had a vested interest in the ransom case. He had married the daughter of the murdered Peter in 1371. He soon assumed the title of King of Castile (in right of his wife, the Infanta Constance) and immersed himself in Spanish politics. He would not have welcomed the situation involving a captured enemy of his wife (and therefore his ‘throne’) becoming an international scandal.

Letters were written to the Abbot of Westminster Abbey from the Tower demanding that  the errant prisoners be returned, but Abbot Litlyngton refused on the grounds that the 40 days had not yet elapsed. Having not managed to acquire the surrender of the Hauley and Shakel by peaceful means, the Constable of the Tower resorted to more violent means. On the 11th of August 1378 the Constable, Sir Alan de Buxhall, assisted by SirRalph de Ferrers and 50 soldiers broke into the Abbey by force during High Mass. John Shakel surrendered without fuss, but Robert Hauley tried to resist rearrest. He was cut down by soldiers and died of his wounds in the Quire of the church. A monk named Richard, a sacrist, was also hurt in the confusion and died from his wounds. Entering the church armed was enough to break the rules of sanctuary, but by spilling blood de Buxhall and his men had seriously desecrated the church. Pope Gregory XI was incandescent with rage and immediately excommunicated de Buxhall, his armed retinue, and all others implicated in the plot to drag Hauley and Shakel back into custody. Only Richard II, still only a boy, his mother and John of Gaunt escaped excommunication. 


   Hauley was buried in the south transept of the Abbey, where he was eventually surrounded by titans of English Literature in what is now known as Poets’ Corner. The Latin inscription on his grave translates as 

Me did trickery, anger, the raging of the multitude and of the soldiery…with swords, in this renowned refuge of piety, while the priest of God read exhortations at the altar. Alas, o woe, in my death I sprinkled the faces of the monks with my own blood; the Choir is my witness for all time. And now this holy place holds me, Robert Haule, because it was here that, wronged, I first felt the death dealing swords.

  Shakel was returned to the Tower where he remained for another year. Once freed he somehow managed to regain the rights to the ransom of Alphonso. However, after yet more legal disputes Alphonso was released and Shakel received nothing.

John of Gaunt invaded Castile with the help of Portuguese allies in 1386.His campaign was a disaster that resulted in many of his men dying of starvation and sickness. A year later renounced his (and his wife’s_ claim to the throne of Castile in a treaty with John I of Castile (son of the fratricidal Henry II) that also saw John of Gaunt paying John a hefty annual payment, as well as promising his daughter Catherine of Lancaster in marriage to John’s son Henry (who would become Henry III of Castile) which was in itself another form of taking a hostage.

Alan de Buxhall was able to reverse his excommunication – for a substantial fee.

Westminster Abbey was reconsecrated four months after the murder of Robert Hauley and the monk named Richard.


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