The Traitors in my Family

Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London (Author photo)

Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London (Author photo)

In this week just after Guy Fawkes Day, when the entirety of the American populace stands ready to go at each other with torch and pitchfork, it seems appropriate that I should make known to you the traitors among my own family. Most infamous treasons have they committed, worthy of remembrance. But if you came here for gossip regarding my next of kin, you must stand in disappointment, for I speak not of the woman who bore me thirty years ago today but those through whom I was born many centuries ago.

In researching my family history, I have found not one, not two, not even three, but six undoubted scoundrels of the highest degree executed for treason against king and country. And yes, I do mean king and country, for though my more immediate relatives have spent these past four centuries upon the shores of America – a fact that in and of itself marks them as traitors in the eyes of the British – my more distant ancestors lived in western Europe, and the greatest majority of those in what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They did indeed live under the rule of kings and queens: in fact, some of them were kings and queens.

Amid this long history of ancestors, I will now make known to you those unfortunate souls who were cut down in the prime of life for their real or alleged treason against the state. Thank God they passed on their DNA before they passed from this world! I will note from the outset that these are only those who were “convicted” and executed, not all those suspected of or accused of treason, nor those killed in battle: that would be a much, much longer list.

(NOTE: Portions of this article are not for the squeamish, for I will discuss the methods of execution.)

Bartholomew de Badlesmere, 1st Baron Badlesmere

Born: 18 August 1275

Executed: 14 April 1322 near Canterbury

The first confirmed traitor in my household was Bartholomew de Badlesmere, one of two relatives who bit the dust during the chaotic reign of King Edward II. You might remember Edward II as the king’s gay son in the historically inaccurate film Braveheart. (You know: the one whose lover was thrown out the window…) In real life, Edward II was certainly a poor king who struggled to maintain control over his realm, raising up “favorites” who attracted the jealousy of the nobility. It is the general opinion of most historians, and undoubtedly also many persons at the time, that the king was homosexual and favored these favorites in more ways than one. But that was not the real issue: it was all about who had the power, the property, the say-so.

King Edward II of England depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Public domain)

King Edward II of England depicted in a medieval manuscript.
(Public domain)

By the year 1281, Bartholomew had become convinced that the king was controlled by evil counselors such as the powerful Despensers (a noble family – not a group of pharmacists). He allied himself with the Earl of Lancaster in rebellion against King Edward II. In a particularly famous episode, Queen Isabella requested admittance to Leeds Castle, which by that time was Bartholomew’s family seat. The baron was not home, but the Baroness Badlesmere refused to admit the queen and then actually had her men fire on Isabella. Alas! This was not the best life choice that the baroness ever made. She became the first woman incarcerated in the Tower of London, and though she was ultimately released, her husband would not be so lucky.

The Earl of Lancaster and his allies were defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge and Bartholomew fled the scene. However, he was captured in the woods near Canterbury, where he was tried and convicted of treason. We now find that Bartholomew was drawn three miles by horse to the nearby village of Blean, where he owned property. This could simply mean that he walked behind the horse in chains, but most likely, he was tied to the animal with a rope and dragged along the ground in an act of humiliation. There the 1st Baron Badlesmere was hanged and beheaded. Judging by the fact that the remainder of the body was left hanging as a warning to others, it was likely the hanging that killed him and the head was only removed so it could be displayed upon the Burgh Gate in Canterbury. Sadly, it seems that poor Bartholomew’s mortal remains may have been left hanging for as much as two years before being granted a proper burial. I am descended from his daughter Maud, who eventually married the Earl of Oxford.

Edmund FitzAlan, 9th Earl of Arundel

Born: 1 May 1285

Executed: 17 November 1326 in Hereford

The unraveling of King Edward II’s reign was to take down another of my ancestors: Edmund FizAlan. Earl Edmund’s story is somewhat interesting in that he really could have been executed a good deal sooner that was ultimately the case. He was one of the nobles who captured and put to death Piers Galveston, the early favorite (and likely lover) of Edward II whose elevation had angered all those around him. Remarkably, the king forgave Edmund, in no small part because the earl’s son became engaged to a Despenser daughter. (That would be the same noble family that got on the nerves of my other ancestor, Bartholomew de Badlesmere.) Thus, the friend of my friend is my friend, and through the Despenser connection, Edmund FitzAlan worked his way back into the royal favor.

Earl Edmund remained loyal to King Edward II from that point on, and a lot of good it did not do him, for Queen Isabella decided she had had enough of her husband and joined with Roger Mortimer to mount a coup that would place her son, Prince Edward, on the throne of England.  As it turned out, there were so many people who hated the Despensers that the queen and her new ally found plenty of support for their cause. Edmund FitzAlan was now on the wrong side of history. While working to gain more troops for King Edward II’s cause, he was captured and brought before Queen Isabella at Hereford, now a pawn in one of the most brutal marital disagreements to ever afflict the British Isles. He was evidently held there until the king himself was also captured, at which point Roger Mortimer ordered his execution.

Poor Edmund met a very sticky end if the chronicler is to be believed. Beheading was the chosen method of execution, but in a sadistic twist, his tormentors arranged for a blunt sword to be used. This meant that it required 22 strokes to do the job: not a quick death, but a long and excruciating one. The one small consolation is that the body was accorded a burial in the place of Edmund’s choosing, but he is unlikely to have cared very much about that in his final moments. As for King Edward II, his death is the stuff of legend. He was allegedly killed when a hot poker was stuck where, as they say, the sun don’t shine – likely a cruel reference to the sort of enjoyment the king used to, err, enjoy. Edmund FitzAlan was survived by his son Richard, who became the 10th Earl of Arundel and through whom I am descended.

Panoramic view inside Alnwick Castle, where Sir Thomas Grey was born. (Author photo)

Panoramic view inside Alnwick Castle, where Sir Thomas Grey was born. (Author photo)

Sir Thomas Grey

Born: 30 November 1384

Executed: 2 August 1415 in Southampton

Sir Thomas’ family was powerful in the north of England and close enough with the famed Percy clan that he was born at Alnwick Castle. (You will know Alnwick as a filming location for Harry Potter and Downtown Abbey.) This illustrious beginning would not prove to be indicative of what was to come. Thomas was betrothed in 1412 to the daughter of the Earl of Cambridge at a bargain price that he could nonetheless not afford. He thus found himself in a rather desperate position that became even more dire when he had a run-in with a name we have already heard: Mortimer.

The king at this time was Henry V, made famous by the Shakespeare play of the same name. He was preparing to travel to France to press his (somewhat dubious) claim to the French throne. However, it was the matter of the throne of England that was of greater concern to Thomas Grey, for there existed a man who many felt was the true king: Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March. Yes, he was the descendant of the earlier Mortimer who unseated King Edward II. British history is full of such connections. In any case, Thomas Grey’s future father-in-law was Edmund Mortimer’s brother-in-law. (Confused enough?) Thus, Thomas became involved in a conspiracy to place Mortimer on the throne in place of King Henry V.

The motivations behind this plot are still not well understood, nor is Thomas’ personal role. It was discovered when Mortimer himself informed the king at Southampton on July 31, 1415, while they were all preparing to make the voyage to France. It seems likely to this writer that Mortimer had known about the plot for some time, but eventually decided he had more to gain by revealing it to the king and giving the appearance of loyalty than by taking his chances on a rebellion that was destined to fail. Sir Thomas was young and likely influenced by his father-in-law. Even so, he is widely regarded as the ringleader of what is now known as the “Southampton Plot”.

Shakespeare portrays the arrest of the three conspirators in his play. They are all presented with their treason, which is said to be a French plot, and immediately repent and beg the king’s mercy. This fit with the themes that Shakespeare wanted to portray: the French are conniving sissies, Henry V was the best king ever, etc. We do not know how things actually proceeded, but suffice it to say Sir Thomas Grey was beheaded on the 2nd of August and the others three days later. King Henry V then made for France and won a victory at Agincourt that still serves as a source of English identity over and against the French. Not for Sir Thomas were those glories! He was not even to be one of those who “[held] their manhoods cheap” and stayed “a-bed” in London that morning, for he was as dead as Falstaff. (Those are all references from the play – apologies to the uninitiated.)

We must conclude that Thomas had an easier death than many a traitor, which was a small kind of blessing. By his first, non-treasonous marriage, Sir Thomas had a son named Ralph, and it is through him that I am descended. Edmund Mortimer’s descendants were to tear the country apart in the Wars of the Roses.

Sir Rhys Ap Gruffyd

Born: 1508

Executed: 12 April 1531 at Tower Hill, London

The remainder of those executed for treason in my family met their end under an even more famous Henry: King Henry VIII. The first was a Welsh lord who went by the name Rhys Ap Gruffyd, though at times you will see Anglicized forms such as “Rice” and “Griffith”. At first, his fortunes could not have been better. He was born into the greatest noble family in Wales, descending from Welsh royalty. He married Katherine Howard, a member of one of the most powerful and celebrated families in English history. (Not to be confused with the Katherine Howard who married King Henry VIII and subsequently lost her head…) One of Katherine’s cousins, Anne Boleyn, was to become rather notorious.

Rhys’ troubles began when his father died and King Henry VIII decided that, rather than allowing the family wealth and estates to all pass to the son per usual, they would instead go to one Walter Devereux, Lord Ferrers. Thus began a rather epic feud between Rhys and Walter. In 1529, at an event that drew together the leading Welsh lords, the Lord Ferrers made a great ostentatious show of his status, and this led Sir Rhys Ap Gruffyd to gather a band of his supporters together and threaten Ferrers with a knife. For this action, Rhys was imprisoned in Carmarthen Castle. His wife, Katherine, attempted to storm the castle with several hundred supporters, but was unsuccessful. (This would be the second time that we see a woman taking matters into her own hands, which is unlikely to shock those who have had the good fortune to meet the female members of my family.) The next few months brought a series of fights between the two sides, in which it seems that neither party particularly distinguished itself.

Queen Katherine of Aragon painted by Lucas Hornebolte.

Queen Katherine of Aragon painted by Lucas Hornebolte.

In 1531, Rhys was transferred to London at a most disadvantageous time. The king had by this point determined that he must gain a divorce from his queen, Katherine of Aragon, and replace her with Anne Boleyn, with whom he was, as the Brits say, besotted. You might think that the family connection with the Howard/Boleyn clan would have helped Rhys here, but it seems that he spoke disparagingly of the king’s desired bride and was opposed to changes being made in the English church and government.

Things then went from bad to worse. Henry VIII accused him of attempting to start a rebellion in Wales. Rhys started going by the name of an ancient Welsh ruler of mythical status, which could not have set the king’s suspicions at ease. It was charged that Rhys Ap Gruffyd was working with the king of Scotland to overthrow English power in Wales in fulfillment of an ancient Welsh prophecy. This seems rather far-fetched, and it was likely Rhys’ friendship with Queen Katherine of Aragon and her faction that sunk him as much as anything. He was officially accused of injustice and plotting a rebellion.

Having been held in the Tower of London while the charges against him proceeded, Rhys was likely brought just outside the walls to be beheaded. Such property as he had was forfeited to the crown, a typical result when one was accused of treason, and one that was most advantageous for the king. How guilty Rhys actually was is a matter of debate, and there were concerns that the execution would set off a rebellion in Wales. As it turned out, King Henry VIII was to create enough of his own problems without Rhys to help. The next decade would see a string of executions at the Tower, including two queens, a cardinal, a chancellor, a former chancellor, and several other prominent nobles and lesser-known persons. A few people have pointed to Rhys as one of the first to die at the hands of the English Reformation, yet it is not clear what role, if any, his religious views played in his unhappy fate. Once again, the best we can say for him is that he met a clean end. His son, Gruffyd or “Griffith”, was restored to many of the family estates by Queen Mary I, a staunch Catholic. From those descendants do I spring.

Painting of Sir Adrian Fortescue that is located at the Collegio di San Paolo in Rabato in Malta. Artist unknown - uploaded to Wikipedia by user Alekjds.

Painting of Sir Adrian Fortescue that is located at the Collegio di San Paolo in Rabato in Malta. Artist unknown – uploaded to Wikipedia by user Alekjds.

Sir/Saint Adrian Fortescue

Born: About 1476

Executed: 10 July 1539 at Tower Hill, London

Sir Adrian holds the distinction of being the last confirmed Catholic in my family line. I am sure it would have pained him to know that his execution, on account of which he is declared a saint by Catholics, was to mark the beginning of half a millennium of Protestant heresy among his descendants. Such is life, Adrian. The religious struggle by which he met his end was to be the end of far too many lives in England in the coming decades.

Adrian Fortescue had a Boleyn connection, being a somewhat distant cousin of the famous Anne. This no doubt helped him for a while, and in the earlier years of King Henry VIII’s reign, he attended at many royal occasions and remained in good standing. Particularly interesting considering his later fate is that following the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the adviser to King Henry VIII who failed to gain his master a divorce, Sir Adrian received some of the cardinal’s confiscated possessions. He was also in attendance for Anne Boleyn’s coronation as queen of England and was informed by special messenger of the birth of Princess Elizabeth. Thus, we can safely say that Adrian did not object to the king’s divorce and remarriage, at least not enough to make a fuss about it.

In 1532, Adrian had become a knight of Malta, a Catholic religious order, a sign of personal piety. This order was dissolved two years later in the early days of the English Reformation. I have it from one source that upon the death of Adrian’s first wife, he had her buried in a favorite monastery. When King Henry VIII took steps to dissolve the monasteries, Sir Adrian was forced to pay to have his wife reinterred. He also devoted a substantial amount of money to have Masses said on behalf of her departed soul. These are not the type of steps likely to be taken by a Protestant sympathizer, and the episode in which his beloved wife’s bones were dug up could not have instilled positive feelings about the religious reforms taking place in England at this time. In the year 1534, he was placed under arrest and held for questioning, but no charges were ultimately brought against him. This was around the time that the king was requiring leading figures in the kingdom to take the Oath of Supremacy, accepting him as head of the Church in England. Sir Adrian was not asked to sign this oath, but he was likely suspected of sympathizing with those who refused.

The most famous Catholic holdouts under King Henry VIII, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More, were executed the following year. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was proceeding apace. Yet, Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and execution in 1536 brought a change of mood in the country, and it was not until 1539 that Adrian was arrested for the second time. Interestingly, a researcher found one of his books in which was attached a standard blessing for King Henry VIII and his new wife, Queen Jane Seymour. Adrian had personally crossed out a portion that referred to the king as the Supreme Head of the Church. We thus have a clear enough idea of his personal views.

By 1539, Parliament had passed a law that made it far easier to execute problem individuals without the usual judicial proceedings. It was around this time that King Henry VIII went after the members of the Catholic Pole family, who were seen by some as rival claimants to the throne through their descent from the Plantagenets. The Poles may well have been conspiring against the king, but even if they were not, their very existence was a threat – those who opposed the religious changes had someone else to rally around. In short, the mood did not favor anyone with “popish” inclinations, and it was due to this mood that Sir Adrian met his end. He was beheaded on or around July 10 of that year. I cannot say how long the Fortescue family maintained his Catholic beliefs: they would have been convenient under the reign of Queen Mary I, but decidedly not so under her Protestant successor, Elizabeth I. Adrian’s daughter Elizabeth married into the Bromley family, and many years later, one of her American descendants gave birth to me.

Of all the ancestors I have discovered, Adrian Fortescue has a particular impact on me. He died in defense of religious principles that I myself do not follow. One is almost tempted to say that he died in vain, if the goal of his “martyrdom” was to encourage England to be faithful to Rome once again. To be sure, if Sir Adrian’s true crime was that he would not accept the king as head of the Church, then there are many Protestants today who would sympathize with that position. But it was not just about who called the shots: it was about the daily religious experiences of people throughout England, the doctrines that would be imposed, the monasteries that would be closed, the beginning of a Reformation that would lead to changes no one could foresee at the time. Whether Adrian’s crisis of conscience was more about doctrine or political realities, he did not deserve to die. Then again, neither did many Protestants who were killed in this century. In conclusion, I have a respect for Sir Adrian, even if his views were different than mine. He stood by his beliefs even when it cost him everything. There is honor in that.

Walter Hungerford, Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury

Born: 1503

Executed: 28 July 1540 at Tower Hill, London

So here we are, then: the final traitor, or at least the final one to be executed for his treachery. The Hungerfords were an old and well established family. One of Walter’s ancestors is buried at Salisbury Cathedral, and in the year 2009, I had the chance to stand beside that grave knowing that the bones of my ancestor were lying beneath, entombed in one of England’s great cathedrals. It changed the way I viewed myself and my own personal identity: I had understandably never thought of myself as anything but American, yet I began to feel at that time that England was a part of me as well. That feeling was to have consequences in my life to the present day.

Alas, Walter Hungerford was not a truly honorable fellow. Every family has a few odd ducks, I suppose. He made two mistakes that were to lead to his downfall. The first was that he was a supporter of Thomas Cromwell, chief legal adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1530s and one of the brightest minds England has ever produced. (Incidentally, I am also descended from Cromwell’s sister, and thus have a passing relation to one of the founding fathers of modern political strategy…is that good or bad?) This was not a problem until the late 1530s, when it all went wrong for Cromwell. Prior to that time, Cromwell was instrumental in having Walter made sheriff of Wiltshire and then “Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury”.

The second major mistake that Walter made was that he was a remarkably bad husband to his third wife, Elizabeth Hussey. Her maiden name was unfortunate, sounding as it does rather like “hussy”, but perhaps that is a cheap shot. She complained that Walter imprisoned her, tried to poison her, and generally treated her terribly. How much of this is true, I cannot say, but as my own mother once noted, “When there’s that much smoke, you know there’s a fire somewhere.”

The incident that set off the chain of events that caused the downfall of both Hungerford and Cromwell was the Pilgrimage of Grace, a usually peaceful but sometimes less so uprising in the north of England by those still preferring the old Catholic way of doing things. Cromwell got in trouble because the rebellion was seen as a reaction against his policies. Hungerford got in trouble because his chaplain sympathized with the rebels. Very soon, King Henry VIII had turned against Cromwell completely, and now the charges against Walter Hungerford really started to mount: he was accused of hiring a sorcerer to determine the date of the king’s death, trying to kill his wife (as previously mentioned), and practicing sodomy.

The famed White Tower at the Tower of London (Author photo)

The famed White Tower at the Tower of London (Author photo)

Witchcraft and sexual deviance were rather typical charges to be heaped against anyone who was politically inconvenient. I conclude Lord Hungerford was too close to Cromwell for his own good. What better proof do we have of this than the fact that they were both slated for execution on the same day? In the accounts of that hour, Cromwell gave an honorable speech, while Hungerford allegedly made a disgrace of himself. To quote, he “seemed so unquiet that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise”. I am perhaps not alone in thinking this a natural response to impending death, but it was taken as yet another sign of Walter’s deficient character. Soon, their heads were both removed. Lord Hungerford was survived by his daughter Lucy, through whom I am descended.

At this point, the ax (or “axe”) had fallen on my family line for the last time. Many of them had the good sense to immigrate to the new American colonies rather than risk ending up on the wrong side of the king. True, they mostly left for economic and religious reasons, with the early ones all being Nonconformists – Puritans and the like. As I noted, many of them would prove treacherous in the war of independence during the 18th century, but only by English standards. I have found no such condemned traitors among my non-British relatives, but I have not been able to trace them back as far. The English, it seems, are the champions of record keeping.

All of this does make me think, sitting here thirty years upon this earth, that were any of them to have met their end sooner, it might have prevented my own birth. Had any of them met a better end, the family might not have declined in societal status and chosen to test their fortunes across the ocean. That too could have prevented my birth. Thus, whenever I research my family history, I am left with the overwhelming sense that everything had to happen exactly the way it did in order for me to be what I am today. Then in a moment of fear, I ask myself, will what I sow be reaped by another?

The information in this article was gained from public domain sources and from the booklet “The Venerable Sir Adrian Fortescue” by Father John Morris, copyright 1887.