Women’s Executions in Early Modern England

Guest post by Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, 9 August 2022.

Critical attention to early modern execution narratives has focused primarily on men’s gallows speeches and their behavior on the scaffold, tending to overlook the unique experiences of women executed in Tudor and Stuart England.[1] A man’s execution performance was often viewed as a test of his manhood. According to historian Anthony Fletcher, men were expected to learn and perform “a social role, founded upon self-mastery and rational behaviour.”[2] Thus, when providing their final speeches and facing public execution, men endeavored to display manly courage. Witnesses judged men’s execution behavior not only on their displays of contrition and godliness but also on their show of manliness, which included a lack of fear, an upright carriage, a loud voice, and masculine eloquence. But what of women?

Like their male counterparts, the women who suffered public execution during this era were not all passive recipients of governmental justice; instead, many used their final moments to fashion themselves physically and rhetorically as deserving of remembrance. Their behavior on the scaffold, however, often differed from that typically observed in male victims, as rather than presenting themselves as fearless and bold, many women (and those writing about their punishments) sought to frame themselves as modest and virtuous. Frequently, reports stressed the weakness of female victims as a means to engender sympathy and critique contemporary social and legal practices. The following examples reveal the ways that early modern authors of crime pamphlets depicted female execution victims and highlight how women who successfully enacted feminine virtues could repair their reputations and even advocate greater gender equality.

Prudence Lee

On April 10, 1652, Prudence Lee was burned at the stake in Smithfield for the murder of her husband, Philip Lee, a bailiff. At the place of execution, Lee offered a confession, using her final speech not only to admit her wrongdoing, but also to offer herself as “a warning to all women.” According to the anonymous author of the pamphlet detailing her crime and punishment, Lee confessed “she had been a very lewd liver, and much given to cursing and swearing,” and had stabbed her husband in a fit of jealousy. Lee, the writer stated, counselled her fellow women to “attempt to do nothing rashly, especially against their husbands.” Following her gallows speech, Lee was placed in a pitch barrel and bound to the stake. Before the executioner lit the fire that would consume her, Lee looked up towards the heavens, requested that those gathered to witness her burning pray for her, and “cried out; Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul.”[3]

Image taken from the English Broadside Ballad Archive, ed. Patricia Fumerton: The Unfaithful Servant; And The Cruel Husband (EBBA 20769), Magdalene College, Pepys, 2.151

After describing Lee’s death, however, the author provided context for the murder and expressed sympathy with Lee’s circumstances. By reporting that “her husband was a very wicked liver” who “kept company with strange women,” the author positioned Lee as a wronged woman rather than simply a rebellious and dangerous wife.  The murder of her husband, furthermore, was described as occurring during an argument that ensued when Lee “found him in company with another woman.” Although Lee’s guilt remains clear in this account, the more nuanced details of her story emerge, perhaps in part because Lee allowed herself to function as a negative exemplar for other women. Indeed, by positioning herself as a reformed sinner, Lee reframed herself as not just a deviant woman, but as a woman able to provide religious instruction to her female witnesses.[4]

A further reason for the more circumspect and sympathetic treatment of Lee’s crime and execution is Lee’s decision to position herself as penitent and obedient. Her confession at the place of execution adheres to the proper feminine behavior expected of women condemned to die. By repenting of her sins, turning to the divine, and submitting to her death, Lee became deserving of a more nuanced understanding of her crime.

Penitence alone, though, did not always ensure that women executed in Tudor and Stuart England would gain the sympathies of those viewing and writing about their deaths. While Prudence’s behavior at the place of execution follows the generic expectations of the ritual (which included confession, admonishing the crowd to live godly lives, and offering prayers), other women positioned themselves not only as sorry for their sins, but also as stereotypically feminine through the use of self-deprecation, acceptance of their weakness as female speakers, and submission to male domestic and governmental authorities. The execution of Elizabeth Caldwell is a case in point.[5]

Elizabeth Caldwell

Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library, shared on a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Executed by immolation on June 18, 1603 for the attempted poisoning of her husband, Caldwell framed herself as a victim of her husband’s abuse while simultaneously accepting guilt. According to Gilbert Dugdale’s account, The True Discourse of the Practises of Elizabeth Caldwell (1604), in her final speech Caldwell positioned herself as a weak, submissive, and repentant woman. Doing so allowed her to offer herself not only as an example to the women gathered to witness her death, but also as a sympathetic figure capable of dispensing godly advice and critiquing the treatment of women.

The first section of Dugdale’s pamphlet focused on Caldwell’s life prior to her arrest and condemnation. Raised in a genteel manner, Caldwell, “in her tender infant yeares,” was given in marriage to Thomas Caldwell. Her new husband, described by Dugdale as “young, and not experienced in the world,” used his wife’s money to travel to foreign countries and left her alone “without provision of such meanes as was fitting for her.” Subsequently, a young man named Jefferey Bownd stepped in, and with the help of a widow named Isabell Hall, convinced Caldwell to become his mistress. Eventually, Bownd masterminded a plot to murder Thomas Caldwell, and after procuring ratsbane with the help of Widow Hall, Caldwell poisoned oatcakes, hoping her husband would ingest them and die. Although Thomas escaped death by vomiting up the food, a neighborhood girl, two dogs, and a cat ate the cakes and died.[6]

The authorities quickly apprehended Caldwell, who confessed to the poisoning and implicated Bownd and Hall. All three were imprisoned and tried for the crime. While awaiting her execution, Caldwell exemplified the penitent sinner. Dugdale reported that:

from her first entrance into prison, till the time of her death, there was never heard by any, so much as an idle word to proceede out of her mouth, neither did she omit any time, during her imprisonment, in serving of GOD, and seeking pardon for her sinnes, with great zeale and industrie, continually meditating on the Bible . . . There was many of all sorts resorted to see her, as no fewer some daies then three hundred persons: and such as she thought were viciously given, shee gave them good admonitions, wishing that her fall might be an example unto them.[7]

While his account is sympathetic, sheds doubt on Caldwell’s full guilt, and presents her as a model prisoner, it is the letter that Dugdale includes in the pamphlet that allows Caldwell to reframe herself as the victim of her husband’s abuse, thereby shifting the guilt back on him and admonishing him to repent his own sins. In this letter, supposedly written by Caldwell before her execution and addressed to her husband, she discusses her upcoming execution as an opportunity to save his soul: “And if the losse of my blood, or life, or to endure any torments that the world can inflict upon me, might procure your true conversion, I should esteeme it purchased at an easie rate.” Furthermore, Caldwell references sins committed by her husband, including drunkenness and failing to honor the sabbath. She also blames his poor treatment of her as a mitigating factor in her ill-fated decision to poison him: “Remember in what a case you have lived, howe poore you have many times left me, how long you have beene absent from mee, all which advantage the devill tooke to subvert mee. And to further his purpose, he set his hellish instruments a work, even the practise of wicked people, who continuallie wrought upon my weaknes, my povertie, and your absence, untill they made me yeeld to conspire with them the destruction of your bodie, by a violent & suddaine death.” Her letter therefore allows Caldwell to point out the unequal treatment of women in early modern England and to position herself both as a victim of her husband’s cruelty and as a martyr for his salvation.[8]

At her execution, Caldwell provided the gathered crowd with similar cautions, advising spectators to observe the sabbath and avoid adultery. In order to justify her ability to admonish her audience, Caldwell reminded them of her position as a “weake, wretched woman,” thereby adopting a properly submissive voice. Indeed, this same obedient attitude was present in the opening of her speech, when Caldwell asked that “the Lord would give a blessing unto the speeches that she delivered, yet they might tend to the converting of many of the hearers.” By positioning herself under God’s direction and in line with divine purposes, Caldwell offered her listeners clear reminders of her past sins, frequently using self-deprecating language and alluding to “her owne filthy flesh.” In the end, Dugdale deemed her death good, remarking that Caldwell “dyed the true servaunt of Jesus Christ.”[9]

Margaret Ferneseede

Perceptions of a condemned woman’s character also influenced reports of her crime and execution. Indeed, sometimes potentially innocent women were depicted as ungodly, unrepentant, or wayward due to the manner of their lives and biases of those writing about them. On the final day of February 1608, Margaret Ferneseede was burned at the stake in St. George’s Field for the murder of her husband, Anthony. A pamphlet published that same year provided details of her crime and execution, and depicted the alleged husband-murderer as a deviant and hard-hearted woman. According to the anonymous author, even before the murder Ferneseede failed to adhere to commonly prescribed feminine virtues like chastity and obedience and instead “was given to all loosenesse & lewdnesse of life.” Described by the pamphleteer as exhibiting “more than bestial lasiviousnes,” Ferneseede had turned to prostitution, he claimed, and ran a brothel near the Tower of London.[10] 

‘The Harlot’, Trevelyon Micellany (1608), courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library, shared on a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Ferneseede’s foray into prostitution and her work as a panderess were not, however, the only sins leveled against her. When the body of her husband was found in Peckham Fields with his throat slit but his jewelry and money intact, the authorities suspected foul play. After learning of Anthony’s murder, rather than mourning, Ferneseede behaved “with an inrespective neglect and carelessness.” Neighbors expressed shock at her cavalier attitude and after her son told the local magistrate about his mother’s less than morally upstanding life, Ferneseede was taken in for questioning. [11]

Although Ferneseede “forswore & renounced the fact or practise” of Anthony’s murder, the evidence was stacked against her as not only did her life as a brothel keeper come to light, but also the authorities learned of her affair with a younger man and the sale of her husband’s worldly goods around the time of his death. Ferneseede’s behavior in prison, likewise, failed to help her case. The author relates that she continued to deny her guilt and that imprisonment, rather than softening her attitude, provoked Ferneseede’s anger and malice towards her guards and fellow prisoners. Indicted and tried at the assizes, Ferneseede pleaded not guilty, but witnesses provided a negative assessment of her character. According to the pamphlet, these witnesses presented evidence of Ferneseede’s adultery and lack of sorrow for Anthony’s death. Additionally, two sailors testified that while staying at the brothel they overheard a heated discussion between the couple and Anthony “reproving of her for bad life, his perswading her to amendment, which she not willing to listen unto fell a scoulding at him.” The argument became increasingly intense, the sailors testified, resulting in Ferneseede leaving the bedchamber and later telling the sailors she would be revenged upon her husband. Upon these damaging assessments of her character, Ferneseede was found guilty and sentenced to death.[12]

While awaiting her execution, Ferneseede made the acquaintance of three gentlemen who sought to bring her to repentance and help her prepare to die Christianly. Accordingly, Ferneseede agreed to make her confession, a mediated version of which appears in the pamphlet. In her confession, according to the author, Ferneseede admitted to working as a prostitute in her youth, becoming a bawd as she aged, ruining the lives of many young women “whose bodies and soules [she] kept in this bondage,” and receiving stolen goods. Yet, despite the scandalous and seemingly thorough nature of her confession, Ferneseede repeatedly claimed she was innocent of Anthony’s murder.[13]

The anonymous author, though, continued to indicate Ferneseede’s guilt, noting that “But who knowes not that in evill, there is a like impudence to deny, as there is a forwardnesse to acte.” Yet, Ferneseede maintained her innocence until the very end. Even at the place of execution and under the ministrations of a priest, “she still obstinately denied” the murder. Without a full confession, the executioners speedily began their work, and after “the reeds were planted about” and the fire was lit, Ferneseede “was presently dead.”[14]

The thoroughness of her confession, her refusal to comply even at the pyre, and the circumstantial evidence provided at her trial suggests that Ferneseede may well have been innocent of her husband’s murder and unfairly targeted by the authorities. In fact, as Randall Martin notes, Ferneseede’s inability to show proper feminine grief at the discovery of her husband’s body, combined with her past illicit activities, probably led to her condemnation and execution.[15] Additionally, when we compare the account of Ferneseede’s crime, apprehension, and execution to those of Caldwell and Lee, the language used to describe Ferneseede is markedly more judgmental. Lee submitted to the law and offered a formulaic apology at the scaffold, while Caldwell positioned herself not only as repentant but also as a weak woman empowered by the divine to provide guidance to the crowd and even critique her husband’s abuse. Both Lee and Caldwell, in the extant accounts, are deemed worthy of remembrance and provided with a chance to speak to those gathered to watch their deaths. Ferneseede, conversely, was either not allowed a final speech or her last words remain unrecorded.  

In conclusion, the condemned women who behaved in ways coded as subservient, repentant, and modest might be regarded by audiences as ultimately godly despite their earlier sins. Some women, like Caldwell, were even allowed to offer subtle complaints about their unfair treatment and abuse. On the other hand, women who displayed defiant attitudes or deviated from the expected ritual were represented as negative examples of early modern womanhood and stigmatized in written accounts.


About the author: Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Montana State University Billings. Her research focuses on early modern executions, gender, death rituals, and animal studies. Her monograph, A Weak Woman in a Strong Battle: Women and Public Execution in Early Modern England, part of the Strode Studies in Early Modern Literature and Culture series (University of Alabama Press), explores execution narratives written about women.


[1] There are a few notable exceptions. For more on women’s experiences of capital punishment in early modern England, see (for example) the following: Sandra Clark, Women and Crime in the Street Literature of Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Frances Dolan, “‘Gentlemen, I Have One Thing More to Say’: Women on Scaffolds in England, 1563–1680,” Modern Philology 92, no. 2 (November 1994): 157–78; and Randall Martin, Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[2] Anthony Fletcher, “Manhood, the Male Body, Courtship and the Household in Early Modern England,” History 84, no. 275 (July 1999): 436 and Alexandra Shepard, From Anxious Patriarchs to Refined Gentlemen? Manhood in Britain, circa 1500–1700,” Journal of British Studies 44, no. 2 (April 2005): 292.

[3] The Witch of Wapping . . . Together, with the Confession of Prudence Lee, Who was Burnt in Smithfield on Saturday the 10th. of this Instant for the Murthering Her Husband: And Her Admonition and Counsel to all Her Sex in General (London: Thomas Spring, 1652), 7-8.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] For a discussion of the generic conventions of the “last dying” or execution speech, see P. J. Klemp, The Theatre of Death: Rituals of Justice from the English Civil War to the Restoration (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2016), 43-74.

[6] Gilbert Dugdale, A True Discourse Of the Practises of Elizabeth Caldwell [. . .] (London: James Roberts, 1604), A4-B2.

[7] Ibid., B2.

[8] Ibid., C1-C2.

[9] Ibid., D1-D3.

[10] The Araignement and Burning of Margaret Ferne-seede, for the Murther of her late Husband [. . .] (London: Henry Gosson, 1608), A3.

[11] Ibid., A4.

[12] Ibid., B1, B4.

[13] Ibid., B3.

[14] Ibid., B3-B4.

[15] Randall Martin, Women, Murder, and Equity in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 2008), 41-45.

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