Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Rack Seldom Stood Idle..."

By Nancy Bilyeau

In 1588, more than halfway into the reign of Elizabeth I, a man named John Gerard, English by birth, returned to his homeland, setting foot on the coast at Norfolk. He was arrested six years later, in a London house he had rented. The government officials did not believe Gerard’s story that he was a gentleman fond of gambling and hunting. And they were right to do so. Gerard was actually a Jesuit priest, educated in Douai and Rome, and leading a covert and highly dangerous life in Protestant England.

Father Gerard was conveyed to the Tower, accused of trying “to lure people from the obedience of the Queen to the obedience of the Pope.” His interrogators demanded to know who had assisted him in England. He refused to name names.

In a book Father Gerard wrote years later, he reports being one day “taken for a second examination to the house of a magistrate called Young. Along with him was another… an old man, grown grey.” Young began the questioning—what Catholics did Father Gerard know? “I answered that I neither could not nor would make disclosures that would get any one into trouble, for reasons already stated,” says the Jesuit.

Young turned to his silent colleague and said, “I told you how you would find him.” The older men looked at Father Gerard “frowningly” and finally spoke. “Do you know me?” he asked “I am Topcliffe, of whom I doubt not you have often heard.”

Sir Richard Topcliffe then led the interrogation, and Father Gerard was tortured by use of manacles for more than six hours. A friar said, ‘Twice he has been hung up by the hands with great cruelty…the examiners say he is exceedingly obstinate.”

Topcliffe, a lawyer and Member of Parliament, began serving the queen in the 1570s and seems to have reported to Sir Francis Walsingham. He hated Catholics with great intensity and boasted of having a chamber in his home containing devices “superior” to the ones in the Tower. The government allowed him to make official use of this home chamber. When a prisoner must be "put to the pain," it was time to send for Topcliffe. His favorite methods: the rack and the manacles.

Of all the mysteries of Elizabeth I, few are as baffling as the humane queen’s favor toward the inhuman Sir Richard Topcliffe, chief torturer of the realm. An undoubted sadist, he was the dark blot on her golden age.

When researching an earlier blog post on “Little Ease” in the Tower of London, I came across the 1933 book The History of Torture in England, by L.A. Parry.  The 16th century was when torture reached its height in England. “Under Henry VIII it was frequently employed; it was only used in a small number of cases in the reigns of Edward VI and Mary. It was while Elizabeth sat on the throne that it was made use of more than in any other period of history.” Parry quotes the historian Hallam: “The rack seldom stood idle in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign.”

More recent historical works confirm this grim record. Prisoners were tortured and some were later executed. Anne Somerset in Elizabeth I said, “one-hundred and eighty-three Catholics were executed during Elizabeth’s reign; one-hundred and twenty-three of them were priests.” Elizabeth Jenkins, author of Elizabeth the Great, shudders over the “unspeakable Richard Topcliffe” and says, “The whole process of hunting down priests and examining them under torture was quite outside the domain of the law courts.”

How could the erudite Elizabeth who said she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls” officiate over these horrors? Two people seem to have triggered this change in the queen. One was Pope Pius V who excommunicated the queen in 1570, branding her as a “servant of crime.” This act encouraged her subjects to rise up. 

The other was the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, a focus of possible rebellion the entire time she was held in the kingdom after she was driven out of her own land. Elizabeth's secretary, Walsingham, became her spymaster. The indefatigable Puritan was convinced that the Jesuits and other priests who secretly practiced in England were part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the realm and eventually depose the queen. Many of the interrogated priests, such as Father Gerard, insisted they were loyal to the queen, that they led secret lives because Mass was illegal. But some unquestionably were drawn into dangerous conspiracy against Elizabeth, such as the Babington Plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary.

In fact, the embattled queen, no doubt frightened as well as enraged, ordered that the guilty Babington conspirators be executed in ways so horrible it would never be forgotten. And so the first ones were. But the crowd of spectators, presumably hardened to such sights, were sickened by the hellish castratings and disembowelings. When the queen heard of this, she ordered the next round of traitors be hanged until they were dead.

Elizabeth realized she had gone too far. It’s regrettable that she did not realize that more often.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thriller set in Tudor England, The Crown. The sequel, The Chalice, will be published in the United Kingdom on Feb. 28th and in North America on March 5th. For more information, go to


  1. Barbara Gaskell DenvilMay 24, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    Yes - a very interesting article - and extremely touching. I researched the use of the rack for my own book (Sumerford's Autumn) and was deeply moved by the appalling suffering which so many men were forced to experience - and by the horrific cruelty of the torturers involved. I'm not sure about Queen Elizabeth's humanity though - she treated many of her loyal servants extremely badly - even Walsingham.

  2. I think that the Tudor's love affair with the methods of the Venetians and vice versa is of note. Byron's play The Two Foscari is instructive in this regard. Henry VIII was in fact beholden to the advice of a peculiar Venetian monk Giorgi (or Zorzi) for his vicious marriage strategy. A sea faring and trading empire, Venetian's had much to teach about torture and secret services in maintaining an empire...

  3. That is very interesting. I know that there was an actual school of poisoners in the 16th century in Venice, and their "work" was made use of in other parts of Europe.

  4. The strange thing about torture in England is that its use was almost entirely confined to the reign of Elizabeth. There were few cases before or after then, and it rapidly fell into disuse under the Stuarts. As legal authors pointed out, torture had no place in English law.

    Its use was justified purely as a means of discovery, and it was normally confined to sedition and treason, with a view to uncovering those most secret of conspiracies. There were real conspiracies against the Queen, but some that were supposedly discovered have always looked questionable.

    It is striking that Cotton Mather, writing in a letter about the severe problems of evidence in the Salem trials, described the use of torture as "un-English." This is the first example of that coinage that I have seen, but it accurately points to a major reason for the low level of witchcraft prosecution and conviction under English law. The absence of torture obstructed the creation of the long trains of accusations seen in some of the German territories. The East Anglian and New England outbreaks were exceptional, arising partly because of the brief disruption of normal legal procedures.

    Those interested in the topic can trace cases by looking at the Privy Council Registers, only a few of which are missing, as each case had to be licensed. They have all been transcribed and printed. However, it is harder to discover whether a suspect was tortured much, or even at all. Letting an old man hear the screams of supposed co-conspirators and showing the instruments was often enough, as in the case of Dr Rodrigo Lopez, who retracted his confession at his Guildhall trial.

    The role of torture in this period has been discussed for France and Germany, but the best account for England is probably that by Elizabeth Hanson, who considers the legal and epistemological status of torture in some detail.

    Elizabeth Hanson, "Torture and Truth in Renaissance England," Representations, 34 (Spring, 1991) 53-84.

    eadem, Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England (Cambridge UP, 2008) esp. 24-54.

  5. I just watched that episode of Elizabeth R where poor Babington was told what will happen to him when he is to be executed. Horrible.

    In all fairness, I think a more comprehensive picture emerges when one considers Walsingham's fear of Catholic resurgance in England after witnessing the atrocities of the St. Bartholomew's massacre in Paris and certainly Elizabeth's time spent in the shadow of the scaffold.

    Wonderful post.

  6. Fascinating post, Nancy. I've ordered The Crown and can barely wait to dive in! It will be my reward for finishing the second round of revision on my novel about Sir Thomas More and his daughter, Margaret. It is interesting that so much of what Sir Thomas feared would happen if Henry and his advisors were left unchecked did happen--and in short order. Thanks for shining a light on a period that has been glossed over.

    PS--I may have missed it, but did you ever get a chance to visit a "priest hole" during your research? That is on my list for next time I'm in England.

  7. While not usually classified as torture, but as execution, hanging, drawing and quartering (of which you offer such a vivid illustration) goes back certainly to the early 13th century and the reign of Henry III if not before.

    The victim was hanged, cut down while still alive so he could watch his executioners disemboweling him, then he was "quartered" -- hacked into four pieces, each with a limb attached.

    Henry III had a man who attempted to murder him not only dealt with in this manner, but ordered the four parts of him to be dragged by horses through the streets of the three ancient, holy cities: Winchester, Canterbury, London and Coventry.

    I believe it was a 16th century hanging/drawing/quartering where the victim was heard to remark as he watched his entrails unwound, "Oh, more troubles." Which has led me to wonder if these victims were mercifully drugged.

  8. Diane Holcomb WilshereMay 25, 2012 at 8:26 PM

    Not drugged, but some were mercifully allowed to strangle to death during the hanging. (the drop hang that would break your neck doesn't come along for several more centuries). It is similar to the mercy of putting a bag of gunpowder around the neck of someone being burned alive to hasten their torment. (vividly illustrated by Nancy in The Crown)

  9. <>

    Strangulation -- 10 to 20 minutes -- was exactly what the short drop inflicted.

    The standard drop, which preceded the long drop of 1872, was intended to break the neck. This was used at the Nuremberg Trials, by US Master Sgt. John C. Woods, supposedly an experienced hangman. Several of the condemned strangled to death, for between 15 and 25 minuted.

    Nazis under British jurisdiction were executed by the long drop method. The executioner was Albert Pierrepoint, whose father and uncle had been long drop hangmen and taught him the necessary calculations.

    For some reason, American hangmen had a tendency to botch the long drop, leading to the decapitation of the condemned. Inexperience perhaps, or insufficient knowledge of how to calculate the drop. Tom Ketchum's decapitation -- attempted train robbery, 1901 -- was commemmorated with photo postcards of his headless corpse. 30 years later, a habitual husband-murderer was executed in Arizona, and her head rolled to the feet of some women spectators. Arizona introduced the gas chamber.

    So much more humane to onlookers.

    However, the long death throes in the gas chamber led to states barring spectators. In 1992, an Arizona prisoner took 11 minutes to die. He occupied his time in cursing the state attorney-general, who denied that he had become physically sick. The prison governor said he would resign rather than administer another gas chamber death. The state promptly changed the method to lethal injection.

    So much more humane to executioners.

  10. I happened to be searching for details of 17th-century Dutch gibbets today, to provide context for those of Amsterdam at the Volewijk. In English, tiresomely, "gibbet" and "gallows" were not fully distinguished as the names of objects, although hanging in irons was not confused with execution and did not happen at the same places.

    This put me in mind of the Halifax gibbet, the use of which was abandoned in the 1650s. It was very similar to the infernal machine that was not invented by Dr J.-I. Guillotin, who did not approve of capital punishment, and who was not executed by that or any other method.


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