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Electoral reform, liberalism & art funded by Jamaican slave sugar – the Beckfords. Part 1 – Alderman William Beckford (1709-1770)

The early life of William Beckford; the great accumulation of wealth from sugar plantations in Jamaica; his return to England and purchase of Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire in 1745; election as Member of Parliament firstly for Shaftesbuy then latterly as one of the the City of London’s four MPs. Continue reading “Electoral reform, liberalism & art funded by Jamaican slave sugar – the Beckfords. Part 1 – Alderman William Beckford (1709-1770)”

Electoral Reform, Liberalism & Art Funded by Jamaican Slave Sugar – The Beckfords Part I – Alderman William Beckford (1709 – 1770)

THE BECKFORDS PART I – ALDERMAN WILLIAM BECKFORD (1709-1770)

Read by Sir John Stuttard
31 October 2016

Mr President, Fellow Historians

Since 1189 almost 690 men and just two women have served as Lord Mayor of the City of London but only one, William Beckford, is commemorated by a marble statue in Guildhall, a place for civic meetings, City elections, state banquets, the seat of the City’s Parliament, known as the Court of Common Council, and, in former times, a court of law.

Beckford’s monument is the work of John Francis Moore who was commissioned by the City’s Court of Common Council to express “the high esteem in which the corporation of London held the memory of Mr. Beckford for his great abilities and steadfast attachment to the interests of his fellow-citizens”. It shows the figure of Alderman Beckford, as Lord Mayor, dressed in Mayoral attire, gesturing as he is speaking. He is flanked by two Amazonian figures: Trade & Commerce on the right and the City of London weeping on the left. Under the statue is a reproduction of the key extract of his celebrated speech to George III on 23 May 1770.

William Beckford (1709-1770) JP, MA (Oxon), MP was Lord Mayor twice: in 1762/63 and from November 1769 until 21 June 1770 when he died in office of rheumatic fever, having caught a chill while visiting his country estate, Fonthill Splendens, in Wiltshire. His imposing memorial is situated at the south side of Great Hall in Guildhall in the City.

Known as “The Alderman”, with the additional sobriquet of “Alderman Sugarcane”, Beckford was descended from a family which had large estates in Jamaica. His wealth was enormous and, on his death in 1770, it is said that he left £1 million which has been estimated to be over £6 billion in today’s money. The Alderman was not short of money – or ambition.

Born in Jamaica, young William was sent to England at the age of nine to be educated at Westminster School. From thence in 1725 he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained an MA. He moved to Leiden in Holland and then to Paris, to study medicine. Then in 1736, after the death of his father, he returned to Jamaica to secure and manage the family’s estates which accrued almost entirely to William Beckford after his elder brother Peter died in 1737.

As a sugar planter owning over 10,000 acres William was prosperous, with an income of some £12,000 a year and a workforce of nearly 1,000 slaves. These holdings were increased in later years to 22,000 acres of sugar plantation and 3,000 slaves, making him the largest landowner on the island. He obtained experience as a local politician after election to the island’s assembly and he sought to enhance the transatlantic sugar trade and to secure the defence of the islands from invasion by Spain and France.

His father and grandfather had built up the family’s wealth and prominence on the island. They clashed frequently with successive Crown appointed Governors. This family trait of anti-establishment behaviour and excitable temperament may well have passed down to young William who exhibited similar tendencies, particularly in his later life, in England.

It seems clear that Jamaica was too small to match Beckford’s ambitions and he also realised that to protect his West Indian interests he had to be based in England. So in 1744 he crossed the Atlantic again and travelled to London. Shortly afterwards, in 1745, he acquired Fonthill Estate in Wiltshire for £32,000, mainly with borrowed money, repaying it over four years from his sugar earnings which grew to an average of £14,000 a year during the 1760s. He was aware that political influence would enhance his business interests. His determined ascent in British politics was rapid. In 1747 he sought and gained the support of the Earl of Shaftesbury who was patron of the pocket borough of Shaftesbury in Dorset, not far from Fonthill, and he was duly elected as Member of Parliament, serving that constituency until 1754 when he became one of the City of London’s four MPs.

Beckford realised that his influence would be enhanced by political positions in the City as well as in Westminster – and he was a networker par excellence. His distant Beckford cousins operated the London end of the Caribbean trading business from an address in Mincing Lane. Over three or more generations the Beckfords had been members of the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers, providing several Masters and two Aldermen in the City of London. One of these, Sir Thomas Beckford, became Sheriff and was reported to be earning £2,000 per year in 1670 from his Jamaican property. William Beckford used these connections to promote himself as part of an established City family who had served the City in senior positions. He gained from the knowledge and contacts that these relations provided. After becoming a member of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers in 1752 he was elected as Alderman for Billingsgate, a ward neighbouring Mincing Lane and Clothworkers Hall. He sought to raise his profile in the City and acted as a Steward for the London Lying-In Hospital for Married Women (at Shaftesbury House) in Aldersgate Street and for the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy. In 1753 he became Master of the Ironmongers. He was elected Sheriff of London in 1756, prior to his first term of office as Lord Mayor in 1762.

Politically very smart, The Alderman took every opportunity to progress, assisted, not least, by the enormous wealth and income from his Jamaican estates. To become Lord Mayor in the 18th century was an expensive endeavour, requiring the funding of entertainment as well as the employment of staff and the provision of one’s own furniture at Mansion House. Beckford did not stint in meeting these obligations and, it is reported, he acquired a “fine set of Flanders mares” from the Dutch ambassador to pull the Lord Mayor’s Grand State Coach which had been newly built in 1757. Writing in 1859, in a book about Beckford’s son, the author Cyrus Redding records that “He [the father] gave no less than four entertainments, having been sworn in Lord Mayor on 9 November 1762. These had not been equalled in the city before, from the time of Henry VIII, in splendour and extent of hospitality. He entertained on one occasion the Emperor of Germany and the King of Denmark accompanied by the Dukes of York and Cambridge. The costly magnificence he displayed astonished the public. He was himself remarkably moderate in eating and drinking, always living with great temperance, and hence somewhat out of place in City epicurism.

The Alderman became a firm friend of William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) who is also commemorated in the City’s Guildhall by a marble memorial opposite those of his son, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), and of William Beckford. The Elder Pitt had consistently argued for protection and expansion of the country’s colonial interests, against the Spanish and the French, in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and later in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Thus The Alderman, who championed the colonies as an integral part of Great Britain, became Pitt’s natural supporter. They were also united in their loathing of the practice of patronage by the land owning families and by the Monarch. They spoke up for the country’s commercial interests and claimed to represent the “Voice of the People”. In 1764, they were further united in condemning the expulsion of John Wilkes (1725-1797) MP for Aylesbury from the House of Commons for seditious libel and, later, when Parliament refused to accept him as the duly elected member for Brentford. Beckford welcomed Wilkes’ election as an Alderman (representing Farringdon Without) in 1769. And, on the release of Wilkes from prison in April 1770, The Alderman celebrated by decorating the front of his London home, in Soho Square, with a banner described by Horace Walpole as being “embroidered with ‘Liberty’ in white letters three feet high. Luckily the evening was very wet, and not a mouse stirred”. John Wilkes, whose statue stands today in Fetter Lane, was later to progress within the City and served as Sheriff in 1771-72 and as Lord Mayor in 1774-75.

Pitt and Beckford championed reform and liberty as well as the importance of England’s rise as a global economic power. But Pitt was obliged to resign as Prime Minister in 1761 after failing to persuade his colleagues to go to war with Spain and to continue the Seven Years War. He saw the Treaty of Paris in 1763 as a failure by the new administration to secure Britain’s military achievements. In this he was joined by The Alderman who, as Lord Mayor, opposed the peace preliminaries and spoke against them, in line with City sentiment. The City’s Court of Common Council refused to agree to the customary address to the Monarch in grateful thanks for the peace. In the end, only eight Aldermen presented the Address to the King at St James’s Palace. They were not accompanied by the Lord Mayor Alderman Beckford, who claimed that he was indisposed.

An indefatigable, fiery and frequent speaker in the House of Commons, The Alderman’s political stance was based, at least initially, on his desire to protect the interests of the sugar planters in the West Indies as well as of those absentee landlords based in London. He argued against proposed duties on the sugar trade. His public speaking and private conversation were, according to critical comments recorded by James Hogg writing in 1869, marred by “impetuous animation, accompanied with an inharmonious voice and vehemence of action” and were prevented “from receiving that attention and that pleasure which, from his knowledge and abilities, they might supposed to have deserved and produced”. In his speeches in the House “he oftentimes called forth the laughter, and frequently promoted the languor, of his audience, from no other cause than the neglect of digesting and arranging the matter he delivered”. Nevertheless, he gained support from different interest groups, for example by representing the colonial sugar industry as similar to the domestic wheat trade, which would suffer from a levy of taxation. He argued for military protection and favourable trading terms for the West Indian Islands. In later life he also spoke in favour of lower duties on, and lower taxes of, the American colonies and of enhanced rights for their inhabitants. He understood and promoted the value to the mother country of prosperous and harmonious colonies.
But his attitude to English politics and social life was also undoubtedly influenced by the fact that he had difficulty in being accepted by the traditional landowning classes. He was a sugar planter from Jamaica where his family had made good – “a vulgar colonial”. He was “new money” and had a Jamaican accent to boot, which even the years at Westminster and Oxford had not fully eradicated. He was ruthless and commanding and he had money – lots of it – and was rumoured to be the richest man in England. Beckford tried to make up for his lack of social standing by hosting lavish banquets, particularly at Mansion House during his first term as Lord Mayor, and by acquiring property and art. When Beckford’s house at Fonthill burned down in 1755 the total loss was estimated to be £30,000 of which only £6,000 was insured. The Alderman was reported as saying “Oh! I have an odd fifty thousand pounds in a drawer: I will build it up again.” And so he did. He created
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a Palladian mansion, which became known as Fonthill Splendens, a gracious house modelled closely on Houghton Hall, the creation of Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in Norfolk. The ornamental lake was enlarged, a grand archway, bath house and grotto were built and the church near the old house was demolished and a new one constructed further away. Beckford filled his grand house with magnificent treasures, a large library and many art works. These included over 40 decorative schemes by the 18th century painter Andrea Casali; Gobelin tapestries from France; eight canvases of Hogarth’s “The Rake’s Progress”; busts of Homer and Virgil; and a grand organ to replace the one destroyed in the fire of 1755. He had extravagant taste and he created a magnificent country gentleman’s retreat. His library had over 1,500 volumes. Fonthill Splendens, its artefacts and contents were said to have cost Beckford around £240,000 against the very modest £9,000 which was estimated to have been realised when the contents were sold at auctions in 1801 and 1807 and when the house was pulled down by his son, William Thomas Beckford. The younger William had even grander ideas and constructed a neo-Gothic extravaganza which resembled a cathedral and was named Fonthill Abbey, of which more anon.
In 1756, in an effort to achieve respectability, after siring at least eight illegitimate children, The Alderman married Maria March, daughter of the Hon George Hamilton MP, who was the second son of James Hamilton, the 6th Earl of Abercorn. Maria was the widow of Francis March, a Jamaican planter, and would have had a small fortune in her own right. [Horace Walpole alleged that Beckford had told him that he had sired 30 illegitimate children but this was probably an amusing exaggeration by either Beckford or Walpole. In his will The Alderman acknowledged eight]. Maria was to prove a loving and supportive wife and, coupled with her aristocratic ancestry, a great asset to The Alderman in his efforts to achieve respectability. She organised grand parties at Fonthill and in London at Mansion House where, on one occasion in February 1770, the guest list comprised a huge gathering of peers, including six dukes. At another ball in March of that year, it was reported that almost 50 peers attended among around 700 guests.
Beckford’s wealth and his lifestyle did not, however, bring universal social approbation. Horace Walpole, a consistent critic, described him as a “noisy good humoured flatterer, vulgar and absurd, pompous in his expense, and vainglorious”. This was quite ironical given Horace’s father, Sir Robert Walpole’s, grand statement of Houghton Hall in Norfolk as a mark of his life’s achievement. Beckford’s political opponents referred to his “ugly Jamaican malapropisms, fragmented grammar, craggy looks, violent temper, noisy flattery and uncouth gestures”. Some local gentry in Wiltshire considered The Alderman a “nouveau riche radical” and one commentator referred to Fonthill Splendens as having “the utmost profusion of magnificence with the appearance of
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immense riches, almost too tawdrily exhibited”. Whilst somewhat unfair, since Fonthill was indeed a splendid house, these comments showed the difficulty that Beckford encountered in being universally accepted, without a title or an English landowning pedigree. Perhaps this rejection encouraged the anti-establishment spirit in him. If so, it certainly came to the fore in his support for parliamentary reform and libertarian causes. In a much quoted speech in November 1761, Beckford said “When I talk of the sense of the people, I mean the middling people of England, the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman, they who bear all the heat of the day and who pay all taxes to supply all the expenses of court and government. They have a right, Sir, to interfere in the condition and conduct of the nation which makes them easy or uneasy who feel most of it, and, Sir, the people of England in this limitation are a good-natured, well intentioned and very sensible people, who know better perhaps than other nation under the sun whether they are well governed or not”. Today’s commentators or psychoanalysts might well have concluded that The Alderman had a “chip” and that this might have been a key driver of his ambition, his accumulation of status symbols, his desire for approbation and his causes.
In expounding libertarian and democratic principles, and in common with the contemporary mindset on the matter, The Alderman did not find any conflict with his ownership of plantations which employed over 3,000 slaves – the source of his wealth and power. Yet he was, by all accounts, caring in his attitude towards his slave workforce, although he did not espouse the abolitionists’ cause when directly confronted with this issue. The real movement to abolish the slave trade was to postdate Beckford.
Beckford was more popular in the City of London than in Westminster. His unpruned eloquence was more to the taste of the mercantile classes than to the House of Commons or the gentle folk of the West End. His genuine honesty and stout love of English liberty were better liked by citizens than by the courtiers of the House of Hanover. He made a point of not canvassing for elections and of saying that he would never canvass. Despite this he was elected four times as an MP for the City.
He was good at building relationships. He was popular with the livery movement and the City merchants but not always with his fellow Aldermen.
At Common Hall on Michaelmas Day 1769 a poll was demanded for the election of the next Lord Mayor as Sir Henry Bankes, the next Alderman in line, was not well liked by the Livery. On 6 October, Alderman William Beckford and Alderman Barlow Trecothick, an American merchant, were convincingly chosen by the liverymen as the two names from whom, by law, the Court of Aldermen would make the final choice. Although Beckford had held the office of Lord Mayor in 1762-63, in those days, despite an Act of 1545 to the contrary, it was still possible for an Alderman to serve for more than one term.
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The 1545 Act was passed by the Court of Common Council and is recorded as follows:
“…Be yt ordeyned inactyd and establysshed by the Lord Mayer Aldermen and Comens in this present comen counsell assemblyd and by aucthorytie of the same that no Alderman of this Cytie which at eny tyme heretofore hath bene or herafter shalbe Mayer of the same Cytie by the space of one hole yeare shall at eny tyme fromhensfurth be elygyble to the seid offyce or Rome of Mayeraltye for one other hole yeare ….” [Journal of Common Council Volume 15, fo.190).
Yet 11 Lord Mayors served the Office more than once in the period 1591 to 1885, the last being Sir Robert Fowler in that year. The question of Beckford’s eligibility was raised in 1770 and it was judged that precedents in 1690 and 1741 rendered the 1545 Act obsolete. Thus it would appear that, today, a Mayor may consent to serve a second term but cannot be compelled so to do. This has not been tested for over 130 years.
The votes cast by liverymen in the poll of 6 October 1769 are recorded as follows:
William Beckford 1967
Barlow Trecothick 1911
Sir Henry Bankes 676
Beckford had made it clear that he did not wish a second term as Lord Mayor because of his age and infirmities. Recognising his popularity with the Livery but believing that he would not accept the invitation, at a meeting of the Court of Aldermen on 10 October, 16 Aldermen voted for Beckford and 6 for Trecothick. The Alderman pleaded again that Barlow Trecothick should be Lord Mayor instead of him. At a reconvened Common Hall the City Recorder reported that the choice of the Court of Aldermen had fallen on Alderman Beckford. Then, after a long interval of shouting and clapping from the hustings, the Recorder added that Mr Beckford had refused to serve. This was received by the Livery with “every mark of discontent”. Liverymen continued to shout “Alderman Beckford, Alderman Beckford” until, again, The Alderman begged to be excused on the grounds of age. After further pleading to the Livery, Beckford retired exhausted and Common Hall was adjourned. Some two days later about “fifty of the Livery formed a handsome procession of fourteen coaches, preceded by the Sheriffs in their State chariots, to wait on Mr Beckford”. The delegation implored Beckford to serve the Office of Lord Mayor and, finally with this pressure and no doubt the flattery, The Alderman relented. But his fellow Aldermen were not amused. They had preferred Trecothick and felt thwarted by this change of mind. A majority of the Court of Aldermen later
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declined his invitation to the prestigious Lord Mayor’s Banquet and none of them joined him at Westminster Hall for the swearing of the oath of allegiance to the Crown.
The Alderman is perhaps best remembered for his role in supporting the radical journalist and politician, John Wilkes, both in the City and later, most memorably, before King George III in May 1770.
With mutual encouragement from the livery, on 14 March 1770 he led a delegation to St James’s Palace to make a “remonstrating address and petition” to the King. Court protocol at that time required the address to be sent to the Monarch in advance of the audience so that the King could prepare his reply. The authors of the petition arraigned the conduct of the Ministry; they questioned the legality of the existence of the House of Commons, after its decision to bar John Wilkes following his election as MP by the people of Middlesex; they demanded of the King that he should dissolve Parliament forthwith; and they insinuated that the King could not, without violating his Coronation oath, refuse to comply with their demand. As reported by the Public Advertiser of March 1770, “His Majesty replied with firmness: blaming, without anything of impudent violence, the audacity and unreasonableness of the demands in the petition; and asserting his unalterable vigilance to preserve the genuine principles of the constitution, free from all violation.” The King is also reported to have said “I cannot attend to your Remonstrance! Do you not see that I have been employed in business of more Consequence?” These comments led to an amusing cartoon entitled The Button Maker, by a satirist of the day in support of Beckford and his followers, denigrating the response of the Monarch who was portrayed as a button maker. One of Beckford’s entourage is seen in the cartoon commenting on the King’s reply with the bubble “He does not care a Button for our Remonstrance”.
At a further audience with the King on 23 May 1770 Lord Mayor Beckford was joined by three other Aldermen, the two Sheriffs and 75 Common Councilmen. The Recorder of London, the senior judge at the Old Bailey, refused to attend as he had advised that some parts of the Address were libellous. It is reported that he was later “called to account for his disobedience”. The remonstrance was read by the City’s Town Clerk and concluded with the following words, “we implore with most urgent supplications the dissolution of the present parliament, the removal of evil ministers, and the total extinction of that fatal influence, which has caused such a national discontent. In the meantime, Sire, we offer our constant prayers to heaven, that your majesty may reign as kings can only reign, in and by the hearts of a loyal, dutiful, and free people” The Sovereign’s reply was curt, expressing his dissatisfaction with the address and declining to use his Royal prerogative in the matter.
There then followed an extraordinary moment of bravado on Beckford’s
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part. No follow up address was typically allowed under Court protocol but, unabashed, The Alderman sailed forth with an impromptu speech in a courteous tone highlighting the danger that George III might be facing if he did not adhere to the constitutional rights of his people. This speech has become immortalised and is repeated beneath Beckford’s monument in Guildhall, precisely as follows:
“MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN.
WILL your MAJESTY be pleased so far to condescend, as to permit the MAYOR of your loyal CITY of LONDON to declare in your ROYAL PRESENCE, on behalf of his FELLOW CITIZENS, how much the bare Apprehension of your MAJESTY’S Displeasure would, at all times affect their Minds: the Declaration of that Displeasure has already filled them with inexpressible Anxiety, and with the deepest Affliction. Permit me, SIRE, to assure your MAJESTY that your MAJESTY has not in all your Dominions any Subjects more faithful, more dutiful or more Affectionate to your MAJESTY’S PERSON and FAMILY or more ready to sacrifice their Lives and Fortunes in the Maintenance of the true Honour and Dignity of your Crown. We do therefore, with the greatest Humility and Submission, most earnestly supplicate your MAJESTY that you will not dismiss us from your PRESENCE, without expressing a more favourable Opinion of your faithful CITIZENS, and without some Comfort, without some Prospect, at least, of Redress. Permit me, SIRE, farther to observe, that whoever has already dared, or shall hereafter endeavour by false Insinuations and Suggestions to alienate your MAJESTY’S Affections from your loyal Subjects in general, and from the CITY of LONDON in particular, and to withdraw your Confidence in and Regard for your People, is an Enemy to your MAJESTY’S PERSON and FAMILY, a Violator of the public Peace, and a Betrayer of our happy Constitution as it was established at the glorious Revolution.”
The King was so astonished at this outburst that he did not reply, although the City delegation was permitted to kiss his hand. Beckford’s supporters, the City liverymen and the critics of the Ministry were ecstatic. Pitt the Elder, now Lord Chatham, was full of praise, as was John Wilkes. A vote of thanks was passed at the next Court of Common Council on 30 May. The City’s reputation was never higher and Beckford was celebrated as a great libertarian and reformer and a true man of the City.
Just one month later, after catching a chill during a visit to his Wiltshire estate Fonthill Splendens, Beckford died of rheumatic fever at his London home in Soho Square.
His critics and supporters of the Ministry breathed a sigh of relief. But Chatham, Wilkes and the City mourned. Mementoes were produced to
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commemorate The Alderman, which made reference to “the zealous advocate & invariable protector of the rights, privileges & liberties of the people”. Benjamin Franklin described his death as “a loss to the general interest of America”. Indeed later in 1765 on the Repeal of the Stamp Act, American patriot Paul Revere included an image of Alderman Beckford in his list of friends of American liberty in a design for an obelisk to be erected in Boston. Even Horace Walpole, his arch critic, wrote “it looks as if Beckford had been the firebrand of politics, for the flame has done out since his death”. Writing in 1859 the author, Cyrus Redding, made his own tribute opining that “He possessed an undaunted spirit, and great democratic pride”.
At a meeting of the Court of Common Council on 5 July 1770, a motion was passed unanimously that a statue of the late Right Honourable William Beckford, Lord Mayor, should be erected in Guildhall with an inscription containing his memorable speech, for a sum not exceeding £1,000. [The final cost was £1,300]. It was judged that this would be an example to inspire future Lord Mayors. A second marble statue, sculpted earlier also by John Francis Moore, was presented by Beckford’s son to the Ironmongers Company in 1833 and stands today in Ironmongers Hall in the City of London.
Apart from these statues, The Alderman’s enduring legacy was the start of the process of achieving electoral and parliamentary reform. He had campaigned for liberty and supported “the manufacturer, the yeoman, the merchant, the country gentleman, they who bear all the heat of the day and who pay all taxes to supply all the expenses of court and government”. He had championed the City, its commerce and trade. He had helped build the “great” in Great Britain. William Beckford was recognised as one of the City’s most effective Lord Mayors and is deemed so today.
The Alderman was buried at the new church he had built on the Fonthill Estate, a part of which was acquired by the Marquis of Westminster some years later. The Marquis demolished Beckford’s Georgian church to create a new Victorian neo-Gothic replacement. In doing so, traces of the graves of Beckford and his wife Maria vanished. Perhaps the aristocracy and the traditional landed gentry, with their rotten boroughs, had claimed their revenge against this wealthy, anti-establishment, libertarian, nouveau riche, absentee slave-owning landlord. The only reference to The Alderman can be seen in the vestry wall of the new church where there is a dedication stone of the old church inscribed “18 May 1748 / Will Beckford / Esqr Founder”.
The Alderman was, indeed, a controversial figure. He was never granted a title by the Monarch who might well have been tempted to buy him off. If offered an honour he might well have refused. On the other hand he might well have accepted. He was a man of principle but he was also someone who enjoyed flattery and the approbation of the class and the society into which he was not
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born. Who knows? But he was loved by the City and those politicians who espoused Liberty. His monument in Guildhall ensures that his place in history is secure.
Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Sidney Blackmore, lecturer and writer and Secretary of the International Beckford Society, for his guidance when researching published material. I am also grateful to the City Remembrancer, Paul Double, for researching the City’s legislation and facts relating to a Lord Mayor being elected for Office on more than one occasion.
Bibliography
• A History of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers of London, William Herbert, 1837, republished by Kessinger Publishing, 2010
• A History of Wiltshire Volume XIII, edited by DA Crowley, The University of London, Oxford University Press, 1987
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• History of Parliament Online
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• Monument to William Beckford, Great Hall, Guildhall, written and published by Public Monuments & Sculpture Association
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Philip Beresford and William D Rubenstein, published by Harriman House, 2011
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The City of London’s role as the ‘Secular Arm’ in the burning of heretics”

by Virginia Rounding

This paper will concentrate on events in the City of London during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I, focusing on the years 1529 to 1558. Because this was the time of early Protestantism, it is inevitable that the majority of the victims of burning were themselves so-called ‘reformers’ or supporters of what was known at the time as the ‘new learning’. But as ‘heresy’ was so closely aligned at this time with politics, and what constituted heresy was itself subject to constant change, a simple ‘Protestant/Catholic’ divide cannot be assumed and in many ways it would be anachronistic to think in these terms. The reality was more complex, as the few examples I am able to present in 20 minutes may help to make clear. And I must stress that, in this short paper, I can only skim over what is actually an enormous subject.

Of the burnings which took place in England between 1529 and 1558 by far the largest number occurred in one small area of London, specifically (West) Smithfield. Of the 288 people estimated to have been burnt for heresy during the five-year reign of Mary Tudor, 48 burned in Smithfield. Some 17 people suffered the same fate under Henry VIII, as did two ‘Anabaptists’ (extremists whom even Protestants regarded as heretics) during the brief reign of Edward VI.

On the wall of the Great Hall of Guildhall there is a commemorative tablet, headed: ‘A list of some important trials held in this hall’. The very first entry on the list commemorates ‘Anne Askew: a protestant martyr [who] was tried in 1546 for heresy. Afterwards she was tortured on the rack in the Tower of London, carried in a chair to Smithfield and burnt aged twenty-five.’

Anne, a young gentlewoman from Lincolnshire, underwent her so-called ‘trial’ at Guildhall on 28 June 1546 (so almost exactly 470 years ago). This was the culmination of a long sequence of questioning and the result was a foregone conclusion. She was arraigned for heresy before judges (there was no jury) comprising an overwhelming array of ‘the great and the good’: the Lord Mayor, the Duke of Norfolk, the Master of the King’s Household, the bishops of London and Worcester, the two Chief Justices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas, the Chief Baron of the Exchequer, the Master of the Rolls and the Recorder of London.

On the day before the burning, the City Corporation approved the building of:
a substantial stage… against tomorrow in Smithfield for the King’s Councillors,
[the] Lord Mayor and [the] Aldermen to sit in at the execution of Anne Askew and the other heretics which shall then be burned at the costs of this City’

The dignitaries who attended the burning, in addition to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, included the Lord Chancellor, the Duke of Norfolk, other members of the Privy Council and a great number of lords and noblemen. Anne had been so broken on the rack that she was unable to stand or walk, and had to be carried in a chair to the site of her execution.

So why was the City of London Corporation involved in this, and other similar deaths? An enormous contributory factor to the motivation of everyone involved in the execution of heretics — from judges and officiating sheriffs to onlookers — must have been fear. This was a time when conformity was enforced, and to be seen to be, or even to be suspected of being, on the wrong side could be — literally — fatal. And then this was how heresy had been dealt with for centuries. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council, summoned by Pope Innocent III, passed a declaration that stated: ‘there is one Universal Church of the Faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation’ 2. Canon 3 of this Council endorsed ‘due punishment’ for heretics to be carried out by the ‘secular arm’ 3.

A word deriving from the Greek, ‘heresy’ originally meant merely ‘choice’, but by the Middle Ages it had come to mean ‘wrong choice’, especially in matters of religion. In England the death penalty for heresy was made official in 1401, during the reign of Henry IV, when Parliament enacted a heresy law, known as De haeretico comburendo (‘On the burning of the heretic’). This statute stipulated that anyone accused of heresy could be arrested by officers of the law or by the diocesan bishop, examined by the Church and, if deemed guilty and refusing to abjure, or relapsing after abjuration, handed back to the secular authorities for punishment. That punishment was spelled out: the secular authorities should arrange for the convicted heretics ‘before the people in an high place … to be burnt, that such punishment may strike fear into the minds of others’ 4.

So it can be argued that, in being involved in the burning of heretics, the City Corporation was merely acting in accordance with the law. For in the City of London, the ‘secular arm’ was — and arguably still is — the Corporation, more specifically the Lord Mayor and the Sheriffs.
And then there were the political factors.
Under the reigns of the Tudor monarchs, heresy was always a matter not only of doctrine and belief but of politics. And one of the great difficulties for those involved in policing heresy, including the City authorities, was that political change invariably meant change in what actually constituted heresy. It is no exaggeration to say that what was judged heretical one year might be considered orthodoxy the next, and vice versa.
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A particularly topical example is that of Thomas Becket, whose relic has recently been venerated at the church of St Magnus the Martyr. When James Bainham, a lawyer of the Middle Temple, was tried for heresy in April 1532, one of the accusations levelled at him was that he had declared St Thomas Becket to have been ‘a thief and murderer’ and he did not deny this, elaborating on his opinion that ‘St Thomas of Canterbury was a murderer, and if he did not repent him of his murder, he was rather a devil in hell, than a saint in heaven’. Only six years later, far from it being heresy to inveigh against Thomas Becket, it would become compulsory to do so. This example of an archbishop who in life had resisted his monarch’s authority and in death had continued to triumph over him could hardly be expected to find favour with Henry VIII after his split from Rome and his subjugation of the English clergy. In June 1538 Thomas Becket was posthumously put on trial, judgment being given against him that ‘in his life time he disturbed the realm, and his crimes were the cause of his death’. No longer was he to be called a martyr, his relics were to be publicly burnt, and ‘the treasures of his shrine confiscated to the King’. But in 1532, Bainham’s low opinion of this popular London saint could only contribute to his own condemnation.
James Bainham was burnt at the stake in Smithfield on 30 April that year, and prominent among the officers at the burning was the Town Clerk, William Pavier, who joined the onlookers in abusing the victim, calling him ‘thou heretic’ and crying out: ‘Set fire to him and burn him!’ A little over a year later, Pavier himself was dead, having hanged himself in his chamber, before an image of the crucified Christ, in May 1533. His reasons for committing suicide, thereby depriving himself not only of life on earth but of any possibility of salvation in the life to come (according to the beliefs of the time), are unclear. Highly conservative in his own beliefs, he appears to have been horrified at the signs that the king was proving sympathetic to certain reformist ideas; in addition, his official position as overseer of the burnings seems to have unhinged him.
Politics rather than, or at least as well as, doctrine as a motive for burning is also evident in the sad case of Friar John Forest who, at the age of 17, had entered the monastery of Observant Franciscans at Greenwich (the Observant wings of the various monastic orders being those which adhered rigidly to the letter of their Rules, rejecting the perceived laxity of modern times). By the early 1530s Forest was a senior figure at the community at Greenwich, as well as a regular preacher at Paul’s Cross, the outdoor pulpit in the grounds of St Paul’s Cathedral and a central stage for the religious arguments of the time.
Members of the Observant Franciscans, who had close links to the monarchy, were quick to become embroiled in the controversy over the king’s ‘great matter’ — that of his desired divorce from Katherine of Aragon and how it might be achieved, a result of which was the English Church’s split from
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Rome. There is a tradition that John Forest was Katherine of Aragon’s confessor, though there is no reliable evidence to support this. But he, like a number of fellow Observant Franciscans, was — and was known to be — opposed to the king’s divorce and for this he was denounced in a series of letters to Thomas Cromwell, and in 1534, the year the Act of Supremacy was passed, confirming the king as supreme head of the Church of England, Forest was banished to a monastery in the north of the country.
But four years later he was back in London, at the Greyfriars convent in Newgate Street, and again arousing the attention of Thomas Cromwell, this time through his conservative teaching in the confessional. By March or early April 1538 Forest was under arrest, and a decision was made to try him for heresy. The principal charge against him was that of identifying the Catholic Church of the creed (the line which says ‘I believe in the holy Catholic church’) with the Church of Rome. He was convicted and ordered to abjure his opinions at Paul’s Cross. Despite initially agreeing to do so, when it came to it, Forest refused to read the recantation, thereby laying himself open to the fate of relapsed heretics, death by burning.
Forest’s execution took place at Smithfield on 22 May, in the presence of a crowd of thousands, including the Lord Chancellor, Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Earls of Essex and Hertford, the Bishop of London, the Lord Mayor and the sheriffs. The elderly friar was dragged the short distance from Newgate to Smithfield on a hurdle, dressed in his Franciscan habit which by now was in tatters, and bound hand and foot.
There are various versions of Forest’s death, during which he appears more or less heroic and saintly or abject and frightened, depending on the viewpoint of the reporter. Possibly he was all of these things at once. According to the Spanish chronicler Garzias, Forest crossed himself and said, ‘Gentlemen, deal with my body as you wish.’ He was then removed from the platform where he had been standing and led to where he was to be burnt. His habit was pulled off, a chain was tied around his waist, and he was hoisted up, suspended by the middle, pushed into a swinging position by soldiers with halberds. He had asked for his hands to be untied, and they were. Before being heaved into position, he is reported to have said: ‘Neither fire, nor faggot, nor scaffold shall separate me from thee, O Lord.’ 5
The actual burning was indescribably excruciating, even those chroniclers wishing to emphasise Friar Forest’s courage and sanctity unable to disguise the fear and contortions of the old man, his instinctive attempts to avoid the flames. ‘Then,’ wrote Garzias:
they began to set fire underneath him, and as it reached his feet he drew them up a little, but directly afterwards let them down again, and he began to burn. The
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holy man beat his breast with his right hand, and then raised both his hands to heaven and said many prayers in Latin. 6
A strong wind kept blowing the flames to one side, and the fire kept dying down. In the end the chain may have been lowered, so that the poor sufferer fell into the flames and finally died.
Friar Forest was an old man, but heresy cases very often involved the young, whether educated young lawyers who had first encountered the ‘new learning’ at the universities, or apprentices, for whom in the early years of the Protestant reformation, attending sermons seems to have been a particularly popular, if unlikely, form of entertainment. Such activities provoked as much suspicion among the authorities as, say, the Occupy protest camp did in our own day.
The dangers of loose talk and subsequent denunciation are well illustrated by the story of an 18-year-old apprentice, Richard Wilmot, whose misadventures occurred towards the end of the reign of Henry VIII, in the same summer as Anne Askew’s trial and execution. Wilmot worked in a shop in Bow Lane, and was a supporter of the reformist preacher, Dr Crome, rector of St Mary Aldermary, who had pleased his Protestant friends by preaching a ‘recantation’ sermon in such an ambiguous manner that it served more to emphasise his beliefs than to abjure them. Wilmot ill-advisedly got into a heated discussion with a customer, when his master was out, over Crome’s views, and was backed up in his opinions by another young apprentice, Thomas Fairfax. The upshot was that both young men were summoned to explain themselves before the Lord Mayor.
The complicating factor for the City in this case was that the two apprentices and their masters were connected to the Drapers’ Company, and so the authorities found themselves trying to manage a delicate balancing act, needing to demonstrate to the higher authorities, such as the Privy Council, that they could control their own apprentices while avoiding damaging the reputation and commercial interests of an important Livery Company. The Wardens of the Drapers were therefore enlisted in the damage limitation exercise and they accompanied the Lord Mayor when he went to report on the case to the Privy Council and Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Kneeling before the bishop, the petitioners succeeded in getting permission for the two apprentices to be whipped in the Company’s Hall, rather than risking the name of the Drapers being tarnished by the ignominy of a public punishment.
The whipping was itself horribly brutal and led to permanent injury, but at least the two young men had escaped burning. Some of their fellow apprentices, including Andrew Huet (an apprentice tailor burnt on 4 July 1533) and Richard Mekins (burnt at the age of only 15 on 30 July 1541), lacking such influential connections, had not been so fortunate.
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Pressure was directly exerted on the City authorities to take action against heretics at various times throughout this period, and never more strongly than shortly after the accession of Mary I, in the summer of 1553. This was at the time of one of those reversals of doctrine and practice which must have so unsettled the population, not to mention the clergy and other officials who had to implement the changes. Mary Tudor was proclaimed queen at the Cross in Cheapside on 19 July, and the threat to the Protestant reforms that had been introduced during the brief reign of Edward VI (1547 to 1553) was apparent almost immediately, Mary being determined to reconcile the Church in England with Rome as soon as possible. For the public, the first signs that the old ways had returned were the release and reinstatement of the bishops imprisoned under Edward.
On Sunday 13 August the newly reinstated Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, was present at Paul’s Cross for a sermon given by the leading conservative preacher and one of Queen Mary’s chaplains, Gilbert Bourne. The attack Bourne mounted on the reforms of the previous reign led to a serious commotion — it became known as the Paul’s Cross riot — and a dagger was thrown at Bourne, missing him but hitting the post of the pulpit. Henry Machyn, the chronicler and parish clerk of Holy Trinity the Less, who recorded so many of the public events and ceremonies of Mary’s reign, describes the ‘great uproar and shouting at [Bourne’s] sermon, as it were like mad people, what young people and women as ever was heard as hurly-burly, and casting up of caps.’ The Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who were in attendance, had some difficulty dispersing the crowd, and Bishop Bonner had to be led through St Paul’s to safety.
Following this event, there was much anger on the part of the queen and the Privy Council against the City authorities for having allowed matters to get so out of hand. The City was in crisis, as is clear from the chronicler Wriothesley’s account:
This business was so heinously declared to the Queen and her Council, that my Lord Mayor and Aldermen were sent for to the Queen’s Council to the Tower the 14 and 15 of August, and it was sore laid to their charge, that the liberties of the City had like to have been taken away from them, and to depose the Lord Mayor, straightly charging the Mayor and Aldermen to make a direct answer to them on Wednesday the 16 of August whether they would rule the City in peace and good order, or else they would set other rulers over them. 7
Faced with such a threat, the City Fathers were galvanised into action (as one could imagine they might be today) and ‘my Lord Mayor caused a proclamation to be made in the City, that if any person could bring knowledge who threw the dagger at the preacher on Sunday, at Paul’s Cross, should have £5 for his labour’ 8. Steps were immediately taken against some of those held responsible for the uproar at Paul’s Cross, including John Rogers, former vicar
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of St Sepulchre without Newgate and a prebendary of St Paul’s who was placed under house arrest and later became the first Protestant of Mary’s reign to be burnt in Smithfield, and another City cleric, the rector of St Ethelburga within Bishopsgate, who was nailed to the pillory by his ear on 21 August.
After the burning of John Rogers on 4 February 1555, there were 47 more Smithfield burnings to come in Mary’s reign. Though the mass burnings of heretics came to an end with Mary’s death, burning for the ‘crime’ of heresy continued sporadically, the last such burning to take place in England occurring in 1612, when Elizabeth’s successor, James I, had two Antitrinitarians burnt at the stake.
The account of the suicide of Town Clerk William Pavier, referred to earlier, given by the nineteenth-century historian James Anthony Froude ends with the reflection:
God, into whose hands he threw himself, self-condemned in his wretchedness, only knows the agony of that hour. Let the secret rest where it lies, and let us be thankful for ourselves that we live in a changed world. 9
I think, looking back on the involvement of our City forebears with the burning of heretics, we can only echo that sentiment.
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Bibliography
1. London Metropolitan Archives, Court of Aldermen, Repertory COL/CA/01/01/011, fol.298.
2. Zagorin, Pierre, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, 2003, p.39. Moore, R.I. , The War on Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe, Profile Books, 2012, p.264
3. See Megivern, J.J. , Capital Punishment: The Curious History of Its Privileged Place in Christendom, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 147 (1), 2003, p.7 (fn)
4. http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/heretico.html [accessed 27 May 2015]
5. Camm, B. , Lives of the English Martyrs, declared Blessed by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and 1895, Longmans, Green & Co., 1914, p.320
6.Ibid
7. Wriothesley, Charles, A Chronicle of England during the reigns of the Tudors, from A.D.1485 to 1559, ed. W.D. Hamilton, Camden Society, Vol. 2, pp.98 – 9
8. Ibid
9. Froude, James Anthony, History of England from the fall of Wolsey to the death of Elizabeth, Vol.2, 1856 (reprinted by Nabu Press, 2011), p.90
General note: I have also made use of the excellent online resource of The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO (HRI Online Publications, Sheffield, 2011). Available from: http//www.johnfoxe.org