Heads Will Roll…But How Far?

The execution of William Laud, Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, took place on January 10th in 1645.  Politically speaking, his death was largely inconsequential, merely the final outcome of a process that had begun long before.   Laud had been impeached for high treason early in 1641 and imprisoned in the Tower of London for the better part of the ensuing four years.  Nevertheless, his death had considerable symbolic value for both sides in the Civil War, and the event provoked a flood of printed accounts. It also drew huge crowds – 100000 people, according to one contemporary estimate.

In the domain of printed news, the ideological contest over the meaning of the execution was extremely one-sided.  Though royalist and parliamentarian versions of the execution and scaffold speech followed soon after the event, contemporary newsbooks were almost unanimously aligned against Laud; taking as a sample the Thomason tracts covering the week of Laud’s execution, we find only Mercurius Aulicus, the royalist newsbook printed at Oxford, showing any glimmer of sympathy or outrage.

As Paul Klemp and others have remarked, early modern public executions were messy affairs in the figurative as well as the literal sense.[1]  The ritual and dramatic aspects of the spectacle could be exploited, subverted, or undermined to all sorts of ends by any of the participants, including the onlookers.  How the condemned spoke, dressed, or conducted him- or herself on the scaffold had enormous power in shaping perceptions of the event and the authorities did remarkably little to contain them.  In the middle of a civil war, the ideological stakes were even higher, and the newsbooks took up the slack left by the authorities.  Every aspect of Laud’s behaviour and every detail of the event was picked over in justification of the execution or in denigration of the victim.  The broad ideological alignment of the newsbooks against Laud didn’t by any means imply uniformity of tone, however. Some were more concerned to emphasise the justice of Parliament’s cause than to revel in Laud’s destruction; the tone of the reporting varied from week to week even in the same newsbook.

These issues are apparent even in the one seemingly irreducible fact of the execution, namely the actual separation of Laud’s head from his shoulders.  Laud’s petition to the Lords – that he be executed by beheading rather than the hanging, drawing and quartering usually meted out to those convicted of high treason – was granted by the Commons at the second time of asking.  The Perfect Occurences of Parliament remarks not just on the manner of the execution but on a point not reported elsewhere:

This day the Archbishop of Canterbury receiving his fatall blow according to the Warrant from both Houses of Parliament (his head being cut off from his body)…This morning the Lieutenant of the Tower delivers him to the Sheriffes of London…he speakes his last, his head is sewed again to his body, and given to his servants, which they have leave to carry away and dispose of.

This arresting detail – the reunification of the severed head with the body – raises all sorts of questions, not the least of which is who got the job of stitching it back on. The narrative present tense of the report elides the events of the execution into one another with what seems like deliberate casualness, and the emphasis of the whole is on the privileges allowed by Parliament to the victim – to be beheaded rather than hanged, to be attended on the scaffold by ministers of his choosing, and to have his corpse returned to his attendants in one piece.  The total effect is of an author unquestionably hostile to Laud – whose prayer that God bring peace to the Kingdom is glossed as “he undoubtedly means, to the Papists of this Kingdome” – who is nevertheless concerned to play down, even to symbolically undo, the effects of the execution.  The next week, however, Perfect Occurences returned to the matter, and still couldn’t leave the head alone.  The following is item six in a numbered, eight-point critique of Laud’s actions on the scaffold:

Whereas he hath been the Arch-patron of those, who have branded honest men with the name of Round-Heads, more then hath bin usual (by reason of sawdust which is laid about the block) yet the Arch-Bishops head when it was cut off did trundle once or twice round about like a balle.

The change of tack, and the renewed need to blacken Laud’s conduct – even to the extent of ridiculing the behaviour of his head once it had definitively left its owner’s control – perhaps indicates a perceived need to respond to royalist accounts of the execution, even if few of them were appearing in newsbooks.  As an instance of poetic justice, this episode is something of a stretch; it does, however, show that no detail of a news event was exempt from ideological inflection in the writing of news.

As for Laud himself, he seems to have found a use for his severed head.  College myth at St John’s, Oxford, where Laud was re-interred after the Restoration, has him haunting the college library, and bowling his head down the carpet of the Laudian wing at night.[2]


[1] P.J. Klemp, ‘“He that now speakes, shall speak no more for ever”: Archbishop William Laud in the Theatre of Execution”, Review of English Studies 61 No 249 (2010), 188-213.

[2] For this gruesome titbit I am grateful to Olivia Smith.

2 thoughts on “Heads Will Roll…But How Far?

  1. Pingback: Carnivalesque #82: Early Modern Edition « M. H. Beals

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque #82: Early Modern Edition « M. H. Beals

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