Early Modern Post

‘A fearsome and treacherous world’

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So says the Guardian website of life under the Tudors, specifically referring to the experience of Henry VIII’s supposedly adulterous fifth wife Catherine Howard as she faced execution.

Political executions, as well as uxoricide, were at a particular high under Henry, his daughter ‘Bloody Mary’ is famed for religious genocide, and England under Elizabeth has been described as a ‘surveillance state’, with her ‘spymaster’ Walsingham entrapping Mary Queen of Scots and torturing Catholics.[1]

So reads the ‘horrible histories’ style Tudor dynasty. And it has a point: torture and execution were common, accepted, and often public, life was surely hard, and death and pain were more present and more visceral than in our sanitized modern society.

There is a commonly held, even subconscious, metanarrative that history is progressing in a linear style, that between then and now we have been on an upward, civilising path, where evolutionary theory infiltrates our understanding of social and even global change over the past few hundred years. We have the technology and scientific advancement to prove it.

It’s not like we watch punishment as public spectacle or condone torture to protect our way of life anymore. Not in this country, at any rate.

In a totally unrelated comment, clicking back onto the front page of the Guardian today, the recent riots and phone hacking scandal are still figuring prominently, as well as the headlines ‘TV cameras to be allowed into courts’, and ‘MI6 knew I was tortured, says rebel’.

Did the Elizabethan-in-the-street feel that they were living through a fearsome era, or just accept it as the way of things? How will we be judged? Do we progress at all, or is it simply change disguised as progress?

Reading about the (alleged) condoning of torture by MI6, previously in Pakistan and now via British involvement in the rendition of a terrorism suspect – and his family – to Libya in 2003 made me wonder how torture was viewed in Elizabethan society, and question the notion of a degree of societal barbarism then and a moral high ground now.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s encounters with the subject, but it seems to me that it wasn’t just about blood and guts on the scaffold; it could be a quiet, embedded part of political life, perhaps to be regretted, but necessary for the greater good. Sound familiar?

Torture features heavily in the career of William Waad, diplomat, intelligencer and clerk of the privy council. Part secretary and administrator, part interrogator of English recusants and foreign Jesuits, this man gained a reputation for his involvement in prosecuting every well known ‘terror’ plot after 1585: ‘the Lopez plot, the Babington plot, the Essex rebellion, the trial of Ralegh, the Gunpowder Plot, the Main plot, the Bye plot’ and more.[2] It was part of his job, and he was known for it. These are the showbiz trials, but he and many others were involved in routine inquiries and investigations that had the option of torture hanging, as it were, in the air.

Sir Thomas Bodley was a career diplomat, of reasonably high standing, before he founded what he is known for today: the great Bodleian library in Oxford. It was envisaged as providing permanent access to a wealth of books for scholars to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, for the public good. He fits into another Renaissance narrative, of the scholar, the forger of a brave new world, the Renaissance man.

We don’t want to think of him beside Waad, participating in the darker side of state business. But there he is, under instruction from the privy council to interrogate terror suspect George Stoker with whatever means necessary:

‘A letter to Sir Owen Hopton, knight, William Waad, Thomas Bodley, Thomas Owen, Richarde Younge, esquiers, that whereas George Stoker, presentelie remayning in the Towre, being latelie apprehended … it was to be probablie conjectured that his repaire into this Realme was for some secrett practise or other notable mischeife … they are herebie aucthorised and required forthwith uppon the receipt hereof to conferre with him to declare the truth of the cause of his repaire thither, and likewise to examine him uppon certaine interrogatories by them to be framed for the better discouverie of the truth; whereuppon if they should perceave that he should refuse to declare for what cause and to what end he came into this Realme, then it is thought meete that they putt him to the torture of the Racke, therebie the better to withdraw from him the knowledg of his wicked entente and purpose, and likewise secretelie to examine all such suspected personnes as he hathe had conference with…’[3]

We cannot assume that we have advanced safely past this. Torture is not just an image of Mel Gibson being hung, drawn and quartered (insert pun on his acting if you wish), nor is it simply the horrible histories caricature or the English Grand Inquisitor Waad; it is also made up of Bodley the professional diplomat and scholar, and the official rubber stamping of the mundane privy council letter. It is not just a bloody picture of the past or of a Libyan jail, it is made up of people facilitating rendition or standing by and waiting for their turn to question the suspect. Some ‘progress’ has been made if we agree that torture is at least not common, accepted and public in this country, but I would suggest that this progress is not linear, not necessary, and not to be taken for granted.


[1] Curtis Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, (London: Macmillan, 1996)

[3] Privy Council to Lieutenant of the Tower, Owen Hopkins, 16th February 1588, in Acts of the Privy Council of England, vol 15, 1587-88, p365.

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