Posthumous Pardons Please by the author and historian, Gary Watton
One fine Friday morn in late March whilst delaying my departure from the comfort zone of my bed, I decided to browse through a nearby history book. I randomly picked up 'Six Wives' by David Starkey. I chose well. I immediately re-acquainted myself with the demise of tragic, young Catherine Howard, the penultimate wife of the ageing, obese, ugly Henry VIII. After re-familiarising myself with this sad tale, I journeyed a little further back in time [six years to be precise] to the equally memorable downfall of the controversial Anne Boleyn in May 1536.
History has actually been rather kind to Anne Boleyn because while she has come through the mists of time to be viewed sympathetically, she was far from popular with contemporaries. Catholic England was still smarting from the royal eviction of Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn was portrayed as a scheming, headstrong mistress who was intent on reforming the old religion. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to state that Anne Boleyn would have made exceptionally good tabloid fodder. In the end, the female usurper was herself jettisoned. However, the two executed wives of old Harry of England have been favourably depicted in modern movies as eye-catching young women who paid the ultimate price when they fell foul of their husband, the king. Furthermore, to quote a piece of modern cynicism, perhaps death was 'a good career move'. There is something 'cool' and enigmatic about martyrdom, the sense of a young life taken before its time.
It may be difficult to fathom for modern-day observers, but in bygone days of yore [at least until the English Civil War and the subsequent Glorious Revolution reared their collective heads], the English monarch operated with carte blanche on the basis of what historians refer to as the 'divine right of kings'. Believing themselves to be appointed and anointed by God as his representative to officiate over their nation state, various sovereigns saw it as both their duty and their right to govern without any pesky subjects inflicting checks and balances upon their authority. England in the first half of the sixteenth century was not yet a land ripe for constitutional monarchy, and indeed the kingdom had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards such a system of governance well over a century later. It is against this backdrop that the king was not only the head of state but he also had literally licence to kill, a power that he wasn't shy at utilising. To defy the monarch was tantamount to defying God and defying the very land on which you lived. Such behaviour met literally with zero tolerance, and anyone who undermined the sovereign could expect to pay the full penalty for their apparent treachery. Treason was an offence that led to death, and frequently a protracted and horrible death into the bargain. Of course, if you were of noble birth, you might be spared the ritual of a hung, drawn and quartered spectacle in favour of the apparently lenient punishment of beheading. Meanwhile, a female traitor could ordinarily be expected to burn at the stake. Such were the unenlightened times of Tudor England.
Cutting a long story short, what struck me with Starkey's account of the doomed lives of Catherine and Anne was a sense of injustice which hung over their arrest and conviction. Catherine's crime of having an apparently platonic relationship with a young man is exceptionally small potatoes, especially when one considers that she was a typical immature teenager. Of course, such behaviour was regarded as infidelity, and infidelity towards your husband, the king, God's right-hand man in England, was totally unacceptable.....Or was it? As for Anne, she was reportedly tried on trumped-up charges which include the rather incredulous accusation of incest with her brother and the equally ludicrous notion of witchcraft. For the scheming Henry to marry his mistress Jane Seymour, his second wife had to be thoroughly demonised. Perhaps Anne's biggest crime was that she failed to furnish her other half with a male heir. Well, historians and legal experts can argue into the night and well beyond about the justification for what I believe amounts to the judicial murder of these two unfortunate souls.
Fast-forwarding two decades, I would also like to throw into the mix, Lady Jane Grey, who unwittingly found herself thrust upon the throne of the kingdom but whose tenure therein was a pitiable nine days. This young lady was a mere fifteen years of age when she was elbowed aside by the Catholics' choice, Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. At first, the incoming monarch simply regarded Lady Jane as an inconvenience as opposed to a foe, but the tide well and truly turned against Lady Jane when Wyatt's abortive Protestant rebellion of 1554 was possibly designed to restore the teenager to the throne. Mary was 'obliged' to permanently remove the focal point for all the reformists out there who needed a champion of their cause. Just like any good twentieth century Mafia boss, Queen Mary had to concede that Lady Jane had outlived her usefulness. Thus, young Jane would also join Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard in an elite club which met their untimely deaths within the confines of the Tower of London, on what is now called Tower Green.
I must at this point confess to possessing a morbid fascination with such tragic young lives, especially how they were compelled to confront the imminent spectre of death by execution - a truly macabre ordeal.
More than anything, what has struck me about these three grim episodes is the sheer injustice of it all. These young women [two of whom were teenagers] were cruelly killed on the basis of a judicial process which certainly would not stand scrutiny in the twenty-first century world. In fact, to quote modern legal parlance, such convictions would be regarded as totally unsafe nowadays. If capital punishment was a trifle melodramatic, not to mention unwarranted, then surely it falls on the collective conscience of subsequent generations to issue such high-profile personages with a pardon for crimes that would be regarded as small fare in our modern permissive, liberal kingdom. Is it not therefore long overdue that a posthumous pardon be conferred on this tragic trio? I think that the case for such an act of generosity and forgiveness is compelling. Of course, perhaps forgiveness is an inappropriate word, because it implies wrong-doing. It is highly contentious to state that either Anne Boleyn or Lady Jane were indeed guily of wrong-doing. Sinners they were; treasonable criminals they were not. Catherine Howard by contrast had been 'guilty' of pre-marital sex, admittedly before Henry cast his lecherous eyes on such an ill-suiting bride. Perhaps pardon is the more suitable term. Or perhaps forgiveness is equally apt.
Quite why such a noble cause has not been long since pursued escapes me. Would it be politically incorrect to correct the legal abuses of the past? Or would it be politically expedient to turn the other cheek and ignore such travesties of justice? Could it be that the venerated Harry of England's reputation would be besmirched if we were to grant a twenty-first century pardon to his apparently naughty wives? Oh yes, I guess that there is nothing quite like whitewashing the past and maintaining the legend that is the great Henry VIII. Well, I did chance upon a brilliant mural in east Belfast in which the late David Ervine [an Ulster loyalist who was no stranger to crime and punishment] is quoted as wisely stating that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeating it. Therefore, naive fool that I am, I wish to launch a crusade to have the three young ladies awarded a pardon for their nonsense crimes. A failure to wipe the slate clean and forgive them [if forgiveness is necessary] would be itself almost unforgivable. Also, while modern Britain still impersonates rather unconvincingly a Christian nation [albeit a cosmopolitan, heterogeneous one] is it not incumbent upon a nation with Christian values to practise the art of forgiveness?
Mercifully, I am not intent on traversing the tiresome route of accumulating a multitude of signatures for a petition or instigating yet another futile Facebook campaign. No, one must direct the need for belated justice directly at the nation's law-makers [and law-breakers?] in parliament. I regard any movement to restore the good name of the tragic trio as neither a left-wing nor a right-wing cause celebre. Instead, the need to confront the crimes, injustices, and abuses of our past and not bury them under the carpet of time is something which transcends all ideologies and faiths. Of course in the corridors of power, inertia amidst bureaucratic red tape reigns supreme. However, it simply won't do any more for all and sundry to shrug our shoulders at the injustice of yesteryear and excuse them away with something akin to 'Oh times were hard in those days, and it was hard cheese if you broke the law'. Sorry, that attitude must not be allowed to prevail. If the Holocaust and the horrors of the early twentieth century justifiably stir us to feel nothing but a deep disapproval of the agents of genocide, then why draw the line at the butchery of a century ago. Where indeed do we draw the line in terms of time elapsed?
Britain has always prided herself on being a pioneer of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy and would continue to claim that her human rights record is second to none. Would it not be a further boost to the nation's ego if the UK was willing to demonstrate to the rest of the world a willingness to confront and correct the mistakes of bygone centuries? In taking such a lead, the UK would be encouraging other nations to examine the distant past and apply a modern judgment upon state crimes and atrocities whilst pronouncing that previous bogeymen and women deserve to have their good name returned to them. Of course, it will be argued that it is simply not enough to dwell on three high-profile ladies who were born into privilege. What about the countless wretched souls who perished in prison and on the gallows and were transported? Shall we forgive them or declare them innocent? Well, clearly, it would be too cumbersome and downright impractical to re-investigate all the crimes of past times, but in the absence of a historical enquiry team, is it beyond the reach of the Prime Minister or the head of state [or the Home Secretary to be precise] to issue the occasional statement which addresses the abuses of previous centuries? I for one would argue in favour of a general posthumous pardon for all the Protestant and Catholic martyrs of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland who died holding steadfast to their faith. Their only crime was not to retreat from their religious convictions, which itself led to their convictions, and frequently a horrible death, burned at the stake. Again, posthumous pardons are the very least that we can offer such courageous saints as Thomas More or his polar opposites Ridley and Latimer.
Pedants will suggest that why stop at the three named sixteenth century femmes fatales? Why not rehabilitate Charles I or Mary Queen of Scots or Walter Raleigh et cetera et cetera? Well folks, don't let me stop you from pursuing such a campaign, but in the first instance I think that it would be prudent to address the legalised crimes against Anne, Catherine, and Jane [and the persecuted martyrs]. If others wish to take up the baton and focus on other atrocities and legal travesties, be my guest. However, since the miscarriages of justice visited upon Anne, Catherine, and Jane have perhaps captured the world's imagination more than any other Tower tragedy, then they seem to serve as a logical starting point, or at least a posthumous pardon for them would by implication be an acknowledgment that many less famous souls were also victims of a Tudor terror whose pursuit of justice leaves an awful lot to be desired and frankly pardoned!
With the Olympics paying a visit to London, there is an opportunity to win a gold medal in demonstrating to the world our generosity of spirit. Furthermore, the Tower of London remains the staple diet of many a tourist's itinerary. How good would it be if the multitude of visitors could study a plaque at the Tower of London which confirms a posthumous pardon for the famous victims who met their early deaths at Tower Green. Procrastination and indifference is itself criminal. Only immediate posthumous pardons can reinforce modern Britain's claim to be a shining beacon of justice.