Justice and (Mis)Fortune in the Wake of Wyatt’s Revolt

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring, 12 July 2021.

In July of 2020, federal executions resumed in the United States. Now, a year later, the U.S. Attorney General has mandated a temporary moratorium on the death penalty’s use in federal cases while awaiting a review of policies and procedures. Although the review focuses on the methods used to kill the condemned, the announcement at least briefly cited concerns about capital punishment somewhat more generally, ‘including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases’.[1] Amongst the many reasons one might object to the death penalty in principle or in practice, this post highlights just one, using as an example yet another sordid saga from the sixteenth-century Star Chamber archive.

Young Dick Holloway died as an innocent victim of the repression of Wyatt’s Revolt. The rebels did not kill him, and the hangman deputized to help restore the Crown’s authority did so only in error; instead, Holloway was effectively murdered by William Lidgert, a scrivener and clerk, a man on the make who had behind him the power of the pen.[2] Holloway and Lidgert’s story sheds light on the murky, mundane, and sometimes mercenary mechanics of ‘justice’ in sixteenth-century England—and the potential perils of any system of punishment that offers opportunities for profits licit or illicit (as ours surely do).[3]

Thomas Wyatt and others had risen in an ill-fated rebellion in 1554, prompted by Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism and to marry Philip of Spain. The rebels from Kent amassed in Southwark. Finding London Bridge held against them and the Tower’s cannon trained on their position, they tried again from the west, ultimately to be defeated at Temple Bar. In the aftermath of the revolt, the authorities engaged in grand spectacles of pardon and mercy, making the most of Easter traditions of clemency, but also had hundreds of rebels executed in displays of royal justice. Quite aside from the calculations and planning of the Queen and her councillors, though, middlemen took the chance to enhance their own power and profit.

Southwark and London Bridge

William Lidgert was clerk to Thomas Eston, a commissioner charged with processing the captured rebels after the revolt’s failure. Lidgert maintained the lists of all the ‘cast rebels’ who should be put to death and those who should be saved. The recurring description of the rebels as ‘cast’, like the throw of the dice, is apt: while the Queen’s mercy was already something of a lottery, Lidgert’s own interventions made life or death even more a matter of fortune.

According to the story subsequently endorsed by the judges who heard his case in the Court of Star Chamber, Lidgert ‘did get divers great sums of money and many bribes in that rebellion for saving and hanging of rebels at his pleasure’. He took bribes to save from the gallows some people who had been named to die, putting in their place men from the list of those to be pardoned. He also sent one young man to hang who had nothing to do with the rebellion at all.

Witnesses deposed that in the aftermath of the rebellion Lidgert went to Arthur Hilton, the keeper of the King’s Bench prison, to take one of the prisoners for execution. Hilton refused to hand the prisoner over without seeing a proper warrant, noting as well that he planned to ask for that man’s life, as the prisoner had served as executioner for some of the other rebels already killed. Lidgert responded angrily that it made no matter, for ‘it is but a dash with a pen to put another in his place’. Joan Hilton, the gaoler’s wife, later remembered the encounter in some detail, noting that she had observed sardonically that ‘Mary, that is well that you may hang and save whom you list’.

Richard Flansalt deposed that as a 15-year-old he, too, had been imprisoned amongst the defeated rebels, kept in the church of St Margaret’s Hill, Southwark—a building that doubled as a courthouse and gaol. ‘Being but a boy’ and playing with stones, he had offended Lidgert on one of the clerk’s visits and incurred the man’s threat to have him hanged in place of another. Only the efforts of Flansalt’s brother, interceding for Richard’s life with friends of his own, saved the young man from the gallows.

Others did not fare so well. Eston, the commissioner in charge, also confirmed the charges against Lidgert. ‘It is true’, he said, that Lidgert got ‘great sums of money to stay and save such rebels from execution as had made means to him, with such friendship and means as he then made to this deponent and others then being commissioners’. It was only when Eston heard that Lidgert had swapped out names on his own initiative, sending one man to die who had not been named for death, that Eston intervened and removed him from his post.

John Howe, a 60-year-old plasterer from Southwark, gave the really damning testimony. He said that Lidgert had come to the gaol in which he himself was then imprisoned to exchange one of the rebels reserved for a pardon with one cast for death: on paying £4 to Lidgert, Thomas Taylor secured his release and one Thomas Cotes, a baker and neighbour of Howe’s, was hanged in his place. Cotes’ wife had kept the story alive ever after, frequently railing against Lidgert for having killed her husband and thus depriving her three children of their father. When another attempt to effect much the same sort of exchange was foiled, Howe said, Lidgert had gone even further and nabbed young Dick Holloway to fill the place of the man who paid him off. According to Howe, Holloway had been no rebel. ‘Being very simple and innocent’, the boy used to walk horses in the street and had made a trade of carrying food and drink to the prisoners. After a stroke of Lidgert’s pen, however, the boy was hanged at Battle Bridge.

In his own defence, Lidgett argued that the court ought not to receive testimony from John Howe as he had been a rebel and was thus forsworn. Lidgert also tried implicating his then-superior, Thomas Eston, by claiming that yes, they were both supposed to get money for saving from the gallows Thomas Deans, a Southwark tailor, but that Eston had kept it all for himself. Lidgert’s arguments seemed not to matter, though, as the judges found him guilty of falsehood and malpractice. The brief report on the case implies that the judges expressed more concern that he had saved rebels meant for death than that he had sent others to their ends who had been marked for pardons, but they fined him £40 (later reduced), sent him to the Fleet prison, and bound him over to answer in another court for his offence.[4]

E 159/346 – Lidgert’s fine in Star Chamber

Strikingly, while talk of Lidgert having taken bribes ‘for saving and hanging poor men at his pleasure’ seems to have been widespread in Southwark at the time of the rebellion’s suppression, he only came to the Court of Star Chamber’s attention some eight or nine years after the fact. By the time we bump into Lidgert in the record in 1563, moreover, he was himself the marshal of the King’s Bench prison. It was his predecessor and rival for that post, William Grinder, who levelled these and other charges against him in an attempt to regain the lucrative position. Deponents also spoke of Lidgert’s forging of wills and mortgage documents in his work as a scrivener; others spoke of his extortionate treatment of prisoners in his charge as he increased fees for food and ignored various ‘old and ancient customs’ of the prison. It was only when Grinder was aggrieved and deemed it in his own interest that he complained to the court that Lidgert had years ago cast away the wrong men with his pen. And while the Queen’s councillors sitting as judges in Star Chamber deemed Lidgert guilty, he retained (or later regained) his position as keeper of the King’s Bench prison: we know this much as two men were charged in 1570 with having broken into the prison to beat him up.

For Dick Holloway and for the men marked for mercy but executed nonetheless, the Star Chamber judgment—and the beating—presumably would not have seemed like justice enough for Lidgert. And while Queen Mary and her councillors had invoked the pairing of Justice and Mercy to dignify their executions and pardons, other observers might well have been more struck by the close resemblance between Justice and Fortuna, the latter the goddess of both wealth and luck. Victims of ill-fate, yes, but Holloway and Lidgert’s other prey also remind us of the power of the pen, the purse, and mercenary middlemen in the law’s operation. They might also prompt one to suspect that whatever the rights and wrongs of the death penalty in theory, in practice—in societies riven by disparities in wealth and in systems where not just lives but fortunes are at stake—’mistakes’ are not so much a matter of if but when.


Cornelis Massijs, engraving of Justitia, c. 1550, via the British Museum.

Map detail from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenburg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, c. 1600-23, via the British Library.

Sebald Beham, engraving of Fortuna, 1541, via the British Museum.


[1] Office of the Attorney General, Moratorium on Federal Executions Pending Review of Policies and Procedures, 1 July 2021: https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/1408636/download

[2] The account that follows comes from the case report in British Library, Harleian MS 2143, fo. 22v [transcribed in Kesselring, Star Chamber Reports: BL Harley MS 2143 (List and Index Society, Kew, 2018), no. 351] and the Star Chamber proceedings in The National Archives [TNA], STAC 5/Z1/14, STAC 5/G7/13, STAC 5/G1/19, supplemented by a bill in Chancery (C 3/76/83) and an assize indictment summarized in J.S. Cockburn, ed., Calendar of Assize Records, Elizabeth I: Surrey (London: HMSO, 1985-), no. 411. The defendant’s name appears variously as Lidgert and Lidgett.

For Wyatt’s revolt, see, e.g., Diarmaid MacCulloch and Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions (Milton, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020, 7th edn), ch. 7.

[3] For introductions to the costs (and profits) of incarceration in the U.S. today, see, e.g., The Prison Policy Initiatives 2017 Report, ‘Following the Money of Mass Incarceration’ and Ashish Prashar’s opinion piece on the need to go beyond the recently announced plan to end the use of private prisons to tamp down on the broader business of private contractors profiting from imprisoned labourers: https://www.businessinsider.com/people-over-profit-biden-must-end-business-incarceration-private-prisons-2021-3?r=US&IR=T  See also the Death Penalty Information Center’s reports on costs, not least the ACLU’s report that the first five federal executions last summer cost $4.7 million dollars.

[4] The court subsequently reduced the fine to £20. See the record of payment in TNA, E 159/346, available in the digital archive assembled by Robert C. Palmer, Elspeth K. Palmer, and Susanne Jenks, The Anglo-American Legal Tradition. Finding aids for the fine lists are available via the Elizabethan Star Chamber Project site produced by Helen Good.

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