The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

Royal 2 B.VII, f.206
Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

12827.h.1/3, opposite 148
19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog:

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 [Accessed 5 June 2018].


Criminality and Animal Cruelty in 18th-Century England

I am currently in the final stages of editing a book chapter I have written for Prof. Alexander Kaufman’s and Penny Vlagopoulos’s forthcoming work entitled Food and Feasting in Post-1700 Outlaw Narratives (2018). My own contribution focuses upon butchers who turned to highway robbery in the eighteenth century. While the feedback I received from the editors was generally positive (I’ve never yet managed to produce the ‘perfect’ work which can be published ‘as is’ – maybe one day!), the editors felt I had let myself get side-tracked in the essay by veering a little too much into views of animal cruelty and its connection to criminality in the eighteenth century. Thus, I present here my book chapter off-cut as I saw no reason to discard it altogether.

During the eighteenth century, moralists assumed that the seeds of a person’s criminal inclinations could be discerned through their treatment of animals. Their reasoning was that, if a person could torture and harm a defenceless creature when they were young, then this could potentially translate into homicidal tendencies when they were older. Throughout the period, then, a number of contemporary literary and artistic works drew attention to this idea.

One of the first examples of a youthful rogue torturing an animal is found in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665). This was a fictional biography of a criminal called Meriton Latroon which drew upon contemporary accounts of highwaymen and thieves for inspiration. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, tells the reader the following situation that occurred in his youth:

Thus happen’d, my father kept commonly many turkeys; one among the rest could not endure a fight with a red coat, which I usually wore. But that which most of all exasperated my budding passion, was, his assaulting my bread and butter, and instead thereof, sometimes my hands; which caused my bloomy revenge to use this stratagem: I enticed him with a piece of custard (which I temptingly shewed him), not without some suspition of danger which fear suggested, might attend my treachery, and so led me to the orchard gate, which was made to shut with a pulley; he reaching in his head after me, I immediately clapt fast the gate, and so surprized my mortal foe: Then did I use that little strength I had, to beat his brains out with my cat-stick; which being done, I deplum’d his tayl, sticking those feathers in my bonnet, as the insulting trophies of my first and latest conquest. Such then was my pride, as I nothing but gazed up at them; which so tryed the weakness of mine eyes and so strain’d the optick nerves, that they ran a tilt at one another, as if they contended to share with me in my victory.[1]

Meriton takes pleasure in his cruelty: he finds the turkey annoying, and resolves to rid himself of this “mortal foe”; he does not, however, humanely dispatch the poor animal but smashes his head in the gate, and the fact that he strains his optic nerve reveals that he whips himself up into a frenzy while beating the poor thing.

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Perhaps the most memorable association between animal cruelty and criminality from the eighteenth century, however, is found in William Hogarth’s series of images entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751).[i] The first in the series, The First Stage of Cruelty, depicts a group of children and bystanders enjoying the sight of a dog mauling a cat. Elsewhere in the illustration, two cats are hanged by their tales from a street sign, and two other adolescents are sticking an arrow into a dog’s rectum, while a poor bird is being blinded by with a red hot poker in her eye by two other youths. The inscription underneath the image laments the bloodthirstiness of London’s youth:

While various scenes of sportive woe

The infant race employ,

And tortur’d victims bleeding shew

The tyrant in the boy.

Behold! A Youth of gentler heart,

To spare the creature’s pain

O take, he cries – take all my tart,

But tears and tart are vain.

Learn from this fair example – You

Whom savage sports delight,

How cruelty disgusts the view

While pity charms the sight.[ii]

In order to cement the relationship between animal cruelty and criminality, Hogarth depicts a street artist drawing the instigator of this horrid event, young Tom Nero, being hanged on the gallows. Throughout the succeeding illustrations, Nero progresses through life committing various cruel acts until finally, he murders somebody. He is executed for this act, and in the final instalment, The Reward of Cruelty, his body is laid upon the surgeon’s table being dissected.[iii] Perhaps to avenge the cruel treatment of his fellow canines in the earlier image, a dog can be seen eating Nero’s heart that has fallen to the ground.

Not long after Hogarth published his series of prints, a highwayman named William Harrow (d. 1763) was executed at Tyburn. His biography, as recorded in Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals (1765), points out that he took great delight in cockfighting.[iv] Another biography published in The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) similarly emphasises this fact.[v] Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin’s New Newgate Calendar (1825) focuses in greater detail on the acts of animal cruelty that Harrow committed while he was a youth:

This malefactor may be said to have galloped to his fate over the beaten road. He commenced his career in idleness, the parent [of] vice; then he became dexterous at throwing cocks, and cock-fighting. These cruel and infamous acquirements lead to robberies, adultery, and every other deadly sin. Such is the general course of highwaymen; and their goal – the gallows.[vi]

A footnote which Knapp and Baldwin include here is most interesting:

Kind treatment of animals, made for man’s use, is a sign of a humane and excellent disposition; so cruelty and barbarity to them, shews a wicked and diabolical temper. Do not these creatures, when they are bruised and wounded, shew an equal sense of pain with ourselves? Are not their shrieks and mournful cries, as so many, calls upon their tormentors for pity? And do not their dying pangs, and the painful convulsions of their tortured bodies, cause uneasiness in every human spectator?[vii]

By Knapp and Baldwin’s time, of course, attitudes towards animal cruelty were changing. The episode of animal cruelty was stated rather matter-of-factly by Richard Head in the seventeenth century, and not necessarily condemned. It was later lamented by Hogarth in the 1750s, although he did not offer any solution to the problem of youthful animal cruelty other than to warn them that they would end up at the gallows.

Nevertheless, some groups did take action during this century. As a result of campaigns by evangelicals during the late eighteenth century, a variety of blood sports had actually been outlawed by the nineteenth century and laws were eventually passed which aimed to put a stop to animal cruelty. In the same year that the aforementioned Knapp and Baldwin published their Newgate Calendar, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded (later the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA).


[1]      Richard Head, The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (London: H. Marsh, 1665), pp. 16-17.

[i]       For further information on animal cruelty and barbarism in Hogarth’s images see James A. Steintrager, ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 42: 1 (2001), 59-82.

[ii]      William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty: The First Stage of Cruelty (London: [n. pub.], 1751).

[iii]     The Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that condemned felons’ bodies had to be given over to medical science.

[iv]     Anon. Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals Who Have Been Convicted at the Assizes, 2 Vols. (London: W. Nicoll, 1765), 2: 349.

[v]      Anon., The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 Vols (London: A. Hogg, 1774), 4: 245.

[vi]     Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar; Being Interesting Memoirs of Notorious Characters, Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages on The Laws of England During the Seventeenth Century, Brought Down to Present Times, 5 Vols. (London: J. & J. Cundee, [n. d.]), 3: 151.

[vii]     Ibid.

Hang’d, Drawn, and Quartered! “Spectacular Justice” during the Medieval and Early Modern Period

Katherine Royer’s new book, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2015) analyses the meanings behind the often gruesome executions carried out in the medieval and early modern period.

Reviewed  by Stephen Basdeo

To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the usual method of execution for those accused of treason between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was one of the grimmest ways that a malefactor in the medieval and early modern period could meet his end. An illustration found in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora (1259) depicts a man being dragged along the ground tied to a horse. Once the offender arrived at the place of execution, he would have hanged almost to the point of death where usually he was disembowelled and had his ‘privy members’ (penis and testicles) cut off, until finally he was quartered: his head and all of his limbs would be cut off and each part of his body would be displayed throughout the kingdom. Reading about these forms of executions can be unsettling for modern readers.

Yet in a way, these criminals have lived on: their final moments have been recorded in medieval chronicles, last dying speeches, criminal biographies. I have written regularly on this site about the last dying speeches of condemned men during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I confess I knew little about such speeches from before this era. This was until I read Katherine Royer’s The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700 (2016), which examines narratives of public executions, in particular the last dying words of offenders about to face ‘spectacular’ or ‘exemplary justice’, during the medieval and early modern periods.

Royer currently serves as a Professor of History at California State University Stanislau, where she teaches a variety of subjects and time periods ranging from the middle ages to the nineteenth century. She has previously published on similar topics, and The English Execution Narrative is her first monograph.[i] And it is an impressive tome. For too long, scholarship on public executions and their related narratives in print have been beholden to Michel Foucault whose Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975). Foucault argues that exemplary executions in medieval and early modern Europe were part of the long march in the state’s attempts to establish a monopoly of violence. While Discipline and Punish contains some valuable insights, is now rather dated and Foucault’s findings, dealing as he does with France and Europe, are often inapplicable in parts to the British Isles which developed a wholly different legal system. For example, as Royer points in her introduction, torture was never a formal part of criminal law in England during the late medieval period, especially after 1215 with the passage of Magna Carta, when the legal process relied on a jury to convict (in theory if not always in practice) (p 4). Thus, it is refreshing to see a scholar of executions in Britain move away from Foucault.

But it is not with the legal system that Royer is concerned, but rather the final moment in a felon’s life as it is depicted in ‘narratives’. The definition of narratives is left quite broad, and in the book it is taken to mean anything ranging from the supposed last words of an offender as recorded in chronicles and pamphlets, to the display of criminals’ physical remains in towns. The first chapter challenges the idea that the display of malefactors’ body parts in towns and cities throughout the country was an attempt by the state to deter would-be criminals from committing acts of domestic order, and thereby facilitating the development of the state’s monopoly of violence (p. 16). As Royer points out, rarely did issues of domestic disorder (such as rioting or treason) influence a ruler’s decision to have a person hanged, drawn, and quartered. Most of those who were subject to the punishment in thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were not English subjects but foreigners who had waged war against the king of England. Thus, the imposition of such a sentence had more to do with the imperialist politics of the Angevin Empire and less to do with deterrence.

The chapter that I personally found most interesting was Royer’s second chapter entitled ‘The Case of the Missing Blood’. The descriptions of executions in various contemporary narratives are often horrific. Yet, as Royer points out, rarely do they refer to blood or to bleeding. I confess that this is something that I had considered as being of little consequence: after all, if a person is being emasculated, disembowelled, and then hacked to pieces, the presence of blood should be implicit in every execution narrative, should it not? Royer cites a contemporary account of the execution of Hugh Despenser to begin her chapter:

His private parts were cut off … his private parts were then cast into a large fire kindled close to him; afterwards his heart was thrown into the same fire because it had been false and traitorous, since he had by his treasonable councils so advised the king, as to bring shame and mischief on the land and had caused some of the greatest lords to be beheaded … the other parts of Sir Hugh were thus disposed of, his head was cut off and sent to London (p. 33).

As we can see, blood is mentioned nowhere in this rather grim account. Royer considers other similar cases to this account, and we find indeed that Despenser’s account is typical. The reason that blood is never mentioned, Royer argues convincingly, is because blood was connected to ideas of the innocence of Christ, who, of course, had been wrongly executed. Blood humanised people, and the deliberate omission of blood from execution narratives were designed to do the opposite: to dehumanise the condemned; Christ was innocent and his blood was spilt, the felons on the chopping block were not. The subsequent display of traitors’ body parts were a further stage in this process of dehumanisation: it reduced the remains of the condemned to no better status than beasts’ carcasses, left to rot out in the open air (p. 45).

The third chapter examines the idea of death on the scaffold: why was it necessary that traitors’ body parts be exposed to the elements in public locations, if it was not about deterrence? Nowadays, death is usually depicted as a single moment: as Royer points out, today, doctors are asked to state ‘time of death’, and so forth. But in the medieval period, they had a different view of death: they lacked precision in estimating time, which was usually estimated by the position of the sun or social conventions, such as the time it took to say a prayer (p. 51). In this imprecise world, there was three stages of death: the social death, in which a traitor was cut off from the community and taken on a journey to the place of execution; physical death through torture then followed; the final stage was a spiritual death, in which the life force left the body, which could only be achieved once the carcass had completely decayed (pp. 51-2). However, politics and ideology soon changed this state of affairs: the emergence of the doctrine of purgatory meant that eventually, by the late medieval period, death became a discrete event rather than a long, drawn out process. In tandem with this were the crusades: when kings died abroad, their bodies were embalmed and divided up; after their deaths abroad kings’ souls were in purgatory, but they were physically dead (p. 53). After the idea of death as a discrete event became the norm, what began to matter more in accounts of executions was not the physical display of traitors’ remains, but their behaviour in their last dying moments. This of course paved the way for the decline of hanging, drawing and quartering in England, and the adaptation of the French amende honorable into the English last dying speech in the sixteenth century.

Traitors’ heads on display at London Bridge

A better title could have been chosen for the fourth chapter, ‘Clothes and the Construction of Identity on the Scaffold in Early Modern England’. Royer makes the point that, in contrast to medieval traitors who wore sackcloth to the scaffold, early modern traitors were allowed to wear whatever they wanted. In effect, they could shape people’s perceptions of themselves in their last dying moments. While this is very interesting, the chapter is about so much more than clothes: for an important part of post-medieval execution narratives is that condemned criminals were allowed to speak before their deaths, which permitted them to rehabilitate their characters in front of the community, which is the argument of the fourth chapter. Tudor monarchs originally allowed the condemned to speak in return for a statement of submission to the will of the king or queen. Thus, there is the execution of Ann Boleyn for treason against Henry VIII:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord.[ii]

However, this opened the door to defiance on the scaffold: criminals often made a last dying speech which sounded as though it conformed to the state’s requirements, but was subtly ambiguous enough as to challenge the government. For example, men like Thomas Wyatt proclaimed that they had been ‘lawfully condemned’, but they never actually admitted the crime for which they were sent to the executioners’ block. Other common terms at the scaffold were ‘the law has found me guilty’, implying that the condemned was submitting to an unjust sentence, but that they did not consider themselves guilty of the charge. Moreover, bravery was the sign of a guilt-free heart, and if a traitor showed courage in the face of death, this further subverted the state’s narrative about the guilt of the condemned (p. 77).

The concluding chapter examines a further stage in the evolution of the execution narrative: the emergence of widespread print culture in the seventeenth century and its implications upon depictions of felons’ last dying moments. As we have seen, death had by the early modern period become a final, discrete event in a felons’ life, and their behaviour on the scaffold was increasingly focused upon by writers. Writers, therefore, with the emergence of the execution broadside and biographical pamphlet, looked back over the course of a criminals’ life and endeavoured to show that their whole lives were the product of wickedness. Thus, the stage was set for the flurry of criminals’ lives that appeared during the eighteenth century.

Royer makes frequent use of the term ‘spectacular justice’, yet the meaning of this is left unclear in the main body of the text. It is defined in further detail in the notes: ‘the term spectacular justice or theatrical justice will be used to refer to an execution that was meant in some form or another to be theatrical and public’ (p. 102). There is no issue with Royer using this definition, but a reader should not have to search through the book for an endnote to find the definition of a key term used throughout.

In spite of the above, Royer’s work is a refreshing read which avoids jargon and will be of use to anyone interested in crime and execution during the medieval and early modern period.

Katherine Royer, The English Execution Narrative, 1200-1700, 2nd Edn. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 187pp. ISBN9781138664753 RRP £30.00

[i] Further publications by Royer on similar topics include the following works: “Dead Men Talking: Truth, Texts and the Scaffold in Early Modern England,” in Penal Practice and Culture 1500-1900: Punishing the English, edited by Simon Devereaux and Paul Griffiths. Basingstoke: Palgrave Press, 2004: 63-85; “The Body in Parts: Reading the Execution Ritual in Late Medieval England,” Historical Reflections, 29 (2003): 319-339.

[ii] Ann Boleyn’s Execution Speech (

Victor Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Condemned Man” (1829)

Last week Google celebrated the life of Victor Hugo (1802-85) with some quirky illustrations on its masthead, so I thought I would do the same by writing a post on an early novel by Hugo entitled The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829).

Google V Hugo

Google V Hugo 2
Two of the cartoons by Google celebrating the life of Victor Hugo

To most people, Hugo will be familiar as the man who authored Les Miserables (1862), which during the 1980s was adapted in London’s West End’s longest-running and most successful musical. To those familiar with Hugo’s epic story, it will come as no surprise that he was an outspoken political activist who involved himself in many causes, and one of these was the abolition of the death penalty. Thus, in Hugo’s own words, The Last Day of a Condemned Man is,

nothing more than an appeal – direct or indirect, however you wish to see it – for the abolition of the death penalty.[i]

During the nineteenth century, France’s method of executing criminals was via the guillotine. Most people who have studied the French Revolution at some point in their lives will be familiar with that infamous machine as the symbol of the “Reign of Terror”. The guillotine continued to be used as a method of execution in France until the 1970s, although debates about its abolition began in the nineteenth century. Still, at least it was a more humane method of execution than hanging, because it killed the offender instantly.

As the title of the novel suggests, it is an hour by hour account of the last day of a criminal who has been sentenced to death. Executions in nineteenth-century France were public, and the only contact that most people would have had with the condemned felon would have been through the newspapers by reading about their life (which had a flourishing genre of crime writing, including ‘Last Dying Speeches’ broadsides, to that which existed in England in the same period).

Newspaper and broadside accounts of offenders and their crimes were formulaic and, to quote Vic Gatrell, ‘to read one is to have read them all’.[ii] At a time when most people, if they knew much about the offender at all, would have only been acquainted with the one heinous act they had done to warrant the death penalty, Hugo therefore humanises the figure of the (fictional) condemned man:

Once, because it seems years rather than weeks, I was a man like other men. Every day, every hour had its idea. My mind, young and fertile, was full of fancies … There were young girls, bishops’ magnificent copes, battles won, theatres full of noise and light, and then more young girls … Now I’m a prisoner. My body is in irons in a dungeon, my mind imprisoned in an idea … I have only one thought now, one belief, one certainty: condemned to death![iii]

Hugo does not tell us what the man is condemned for, however, and while the novel elicits sympathy for the condemned man, at the time it was written it would have been an uphill struggle for French readers to empathise with such an offender.

The condemned man vacillates between wanting the execution to be finished quickly, to preferring a life sentence. Heartrendingly, his wife and young daughter come to visit him in his cell, but the daughter does not recognise him as he has been in too long.

Finally the hour comes – he can hear the crowds outside laughing like hyenas. He asks for the execution to be postponed for a few minutes until he should know whether he has received a pardon or not. The magistrate and the executioner then leave his cell for a short time. The novel then ends abruptly:

It sounds as if they are coming up the stairs…[iv]

The publication of Hugo’s text came at interesting point in European history, when social justice began to dominate the political agenda. While novelists in France such as the Eugene Sue in his Mysteries of Paris (1843) drew attention to the plight of the poor, as Hugo also would in Les Miserables, the abolition of the death penalty was a cause that was enthusiastically taken up by the same reformers who viewed the practice as barbaric. It is for this reason that the literature of the 1840s in France are said to represent the beginnings of ‘bleeding heart liberalism’.[v]

The novel was favourably received on this side of the channel as well, being translated by the novelist and radical political commentator, George W. M. Reynolds, the author of The Mysteries of London (1844-46).

Despite the best efforts of reformers in combatting the grisly and inhumane death penalty, it would not be until the 1960s that the death penalty was abolished in the UK, and in France during the 1970s.

[i] Victor Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man Trans. Christopher Moncrieff (London: One World Classics, 2009), p. 3. For further reading on Hugo’s novella, see the following: Amandine Andrade, ‘Le bourreau, figure emblématique du débat sur la peine de mort au dix-neuviéme siècle’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 2012).

[ii] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 156.

[iii] Hugo, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, p. 37.

[iv] Ibid., p. 100.

[v] Edward R. Tannenbaum, ‘The Beginnings of Bleeding-Heart Liberalism: Eugene Sue’s les Mysteres de Paris’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 23: 3 (1981), pp. 491-507

Header Image Credit: Reynolds’s Miscellany, 14 November 1846, p.25