Are you, are you
Coming to the tree,
Where they strung up a man they say who murdered three?
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree…
When I first read the words of The Hanging Tree song, I was immediately intrigued. These haunting lyrics spoke to me on a subconscious level. However, I never truly realized how much these words had impacted me, until I caught myself singing this song softly under my breath while researching the executions of some of my ancestors… Yes, you read right: executions. Sixteen of my known progenitors have met their untimely ends at the hands of an executioner.
My 24th great-grandfather, William de Braose, was captured in 1228 by the Welsh forces of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (my 24th great-grandfather), while fighting in the commote of Ceri, near Montgomery. William was ransomed for the sum of £2,000 and subsequently made an alliance with Llywelyn, arranging to marry his daughter Isabella de Braose to Llywelyn’s only legitimate son Dafydd ap Llywelyn. However, on a later visit to Llywelyn during Easter 1230, William de Braose was discovered in Llywelyn’s private bedchamber with Llywelyn’s wife, Joan, Lady of Wales. The Chronicle of Ystrad Fflur entry for the year 1230 reads: “In this year William de Breos the Younger, lord of Brycheiniog, was hanged by the Lord Llywelyn in Gwynedd, after he had been caught in Llywelyn’s chamber with the King of England’s daughter, Llywelyn’s wife.” For his offense, William was publicly hanged on 2 May 1230, at Crogen, near Bala. (An interesting side note: The Welsh word for hanged/hanging is crogi.)
My 24th great-grandfather, Sir Christopher Seton, married Robert the Bruce’s sister Christian Bruce in 1301. On 10 February 1306, Christopher Seton was present when Sir John Comyn of Badenoch was stabbed by Robert the Bruce in Greyfriars Church, Dumfries. Some historians contend that Sir Robert Comyn, rushing to aid his nephew, was killed by a blow to the head from Sir Christopher Seton. Now, killing a man on holy ground is a very serious matter, especially when it happens in front of the altar. Robert the Bruce knew that he would be ex-communicated for this action and that an ex-communicated man could not be crowned king. Robert the Bruce and his followers, including Sir Christopher Seton, hastened to Scone to crown Bruce King of Scotland before the Pope could be notified. Thirteen days after Bruce’s crowning, word of the Comyn’s murder reached Edward I. Within two months, on 5 April 1306, Edward I appointed Aymer de Valence as his representative with full powers and instructed him to invade Scotland, with the understanding that no quarter would be given. The English encountered Robert the Bruce and his army in the woods of Methven. Bruce attacked Valence, killing his horse. Afterward, Bruce himself was unhorsed and nearly was captured by Philip de Mowbray. Sir Christopher Seton felled de Mowbray and got Bruce back on his horse, thus saving his life. After the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Methven, Robert the Bruce fled to the highlands, while Christopher Seton sought refuge at Loch Doon Castle. The English pursued Seton, besieging the castle. Hereditary Governor Sir Gilbert de Carrick, who held the castle, surrendered without a fight. Christopher Seton was taken prisoner by the English and transported to Dumfries, where he tried for treason, before being beheaded, hanged, drawn, and/or quartered. (There is some discrepancy in accounts of his execution.)
My 23rd great-grandfather, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of Mortimer, was an English nobleman who gained several estates in the Welsh Marches and Ireland following his marriage to Joan de Geneville, 2nd Baroness Geneville. In November 1316, Roger Mortimer was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. However, in 1322, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for leading the Marcher lords to revolt against Edward II (my 22nd great-grandfather). The revolt was unsuccessful, and Roger Mortimer fled to France, joined by his mistress, Isabella (my 22nd great-grandmother), wife of Edward II. Roger Mortimer and Isabella led a successful rebellion, and Edward II was deposed. For three years, Mortimer was the de facto ruler of England before being himself overthrown by Edward’s son, Edward III (my 20th great-grandfather). Roger Mortimer was hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330.
My 23rd great-grandfather, Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Wincester, was chief adviser to Edward II. When Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer (mentioned above) led a rebellion against her Edward II, they captured both Despensers—first the elder, later the younger. Queen Isabella interceded for Hugh the elder; however, his enemies, notably Roger Mortimer and Henry of Lancaster (my 21st great-grandfather), insisted both father and son should face trial and execution. On 27 October 1326, the elder Hugh le Despenser was hanged without delay, while still wearing his armor. He was then beheaded, and his body was cut up and fed to the dogs. His head was then put on display.
My 22nd great-grandfather, Hugh le Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser, was a favorite of Edward II. By 1321, Hugh le Despenser had garnered enemies in every segment of society, from Edward II’s wife Isabella of France to Roger Mortimer (mentioned above), to the barons, to the common people. When Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer revolted against Edward II, Hugh le Despenser was captured and tried. According to one account, on 24 November 1326, a huge fire was built. Hugh le Despenser was tied to a ladder, and, in full view of the crowd, was castrated and his genitals were tossed in the fire. His entrails were slowly pulled out. Finally, his heart was cut out and thrown into the fire. Another account claimed that Hugh le Despenser was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Regardless, both accounts have his corpse beheaded, and his head was mounted on the gates of London.
My 22nd great-grandfather, John de Mowbray, 2nd Baron Mowbray, was hanged for joining Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in rebelling against Edward II. In 1320, on the grounds that he had entered without the King’s license, Hugh Despenser (the younger) prevailed upon Edward II to dispossess Sir John. This proceeding led to a confederation of the Lords Marcher, headed by the Earl of Hereford, the Mortimers, and Mowbary against the Despensers. In 1321, John de Mowray and others besieged Tickhill Castle, whereupon orders were issued for the seizure of his lands and his arrest. His wife Aline and son John were imprisoned in the Tower on 26 Feb 1322. On 16 March 1322, John de Mowbray and about 30 men were captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge. They were executed on 23 March 1322 outside Pomfret (a.k.a. Pontefract) Castle, Yorkshire.
My 22nd great-grandfather and my 21st great-grandfather, Edmund Fitzalan, 9th Earl of Arundel, was beheaded on 17 November 1326 without arraignment or judgment, on the orders of his cousin Roger Mortimer and Isabella of France. His main crimes were being an ally of Edward II, marrying his son Richard to Hugh Despenser the Younger’s daughter Isabel, and being Roger Mortimer’s rival for land and influence in the Marches. For quite a long time, there was enmity between Edmund Fitzalan and Roger Mortimer, his first cousin once removed. In 1321, Mortimer attacked and captured Edmund Fitzalan’s Clun Castle. On 4 June 1321, Edmund Fitzalan sent an indignant letter to the “good and wise men and his dear and beloved bailiffs and the other burgesses and good men of the town of Shrewsbury,” regarding a sum of money which they kept for him that he suspected his cousin wanted to steal: “…we do not under any circumstances intend that our cousin of Mortimer, who is so close to us in blood should do us such a great injury, which we have in no way merited.”
My 20th great-grandfather, John Montagu, 3rd Earl of Salisbury, 5th Baron Montagu, joined with John Holland, 1st Duke of Exeter, 1st Earl of Huntingdon and other barons in the Epiphany Rising, a plot to kill King Henry IV and restore Richard II to the throne. The plot failed, and, soon thereafter, mob violence ensued. John Montagu was captured by the mob at Cirencester. He was held without trial. On 7 January 1400, John Montagu was beheaded.
My 19th great-grandfather, John Graham, Earl of Menteith, fought for the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. After the three-hour battle, John Graham was taken prisoner, along with his sovereign David II, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Edward III ordered that John Graham be tried. He was condemned as a traitor, on the plea that he had at one time sworn fealty to the English King. On 28 Feb 1347, John Graham was drawn, hanged, beheaded, and quartered.
My 19th great-grandfather, Donnchadh (Duncan) of Lennox, formed strong ties with Robert Stewart, 1st Duke of Albany (and the second son of King Robert II by his first wife Elizabeth Mure of Rowallan), who was to a certain extent the de facto ruler of Scotland at points during the reigns of both his father and elder brother. In 1392, Duncan agreed to marry his daughter Isabella to Robert’s son, Muiredach (Murdoch), if Robert could secure him the mormaerdom (earldom). These Stewart ties eventually led to Duncan’s downfall. Duncan hence became a part of the Albany Stewart nexus when the Earl of Albany acted as regent during King James I’s imprisonment in England. Robert, 1st Duke of Albany, refused to ransom King James I and tried to prevent his return. After the King’s return, Robert and the Albany Stewarts challenged the Crown’s authority. In 1425, Duncan of Lennox, along with son-in-law Murdoch Stewart, and grandsons Walter and Alasdair Stewart, were tried for treason and executed by King James I of Scotland.
My 18th great-grandfather, Richard of Conisburgh, was the second son of Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, and Isabella of Castile. In 1414, Parliament named Richard the 3rd Earl of Cambridge, a title formerly held by his elder brother, Edward, 2nd Duke of York, who had ceased to be Earl of Cambridge either by resignation or deprivation of the title. Although Richard of Conisburgh received the title, he received no accompanying lands. As a result, Cambridge was the poorest of the earls who were to set out on King Henry V’s invasion of France; Richard lacked the resources to equip himself properly for the expedition. Perhaps partly for this reason, Cambridge conspired with Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey to depose the king and place his late wife Anne’s brother Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, on the throne. On 31 July 1415, Edmund Mortimer revealed their plan to Henry V. Although Richard of Conisburgh pleaded for clemency, on 5 August 1415, at the age of 40, he was beheaded at Bargate and buried in the chapel of St. Julien (God’s House). This scheme would become known as the Southampton Plot and would be dramatized in Scene II of Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. (There is some discrepancy in accounts of his execution. Most accounts say Richard of Conisburgh was beheaded; some claimed he was hanged, drawn, and quartered, as were his co-conspirators. I am inclined to think that Richard of Conisburgh was beheaded for two reasons: one, he was of royal blood, and beheading was the standard method of execution for those of royal birth; and two, during renovations of the chapel in 1800s, a large, decapitated skeleton was found buried under the chancel floor—its severed head carefully positioned between the knees.)
My 16th great-grandfather, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, was an English nobleman who was a key player in Buckingham’s Rebellion, a failed but significant collection of uprisings in England and parts of Wales against Richard III of England that took place in October 1483. Upon the death of Edward IV in 1483, Henry Stafford allied himself to the king’s younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, helping him succeed to the throne as Richard III in lieu of Edward’s living sons. At some point, Henry Stafford became disaffected with Richard, rebelling against Richard III. Henry Stafford was beheaded for treason on 2 November 1483, in the marketplace of Salisbury.
My 16th great-grandfather, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was accused of slandering his brother Edward IV and preparing a rebellion. George was attainted in Parliament of high treason and was executed on 18 February 1478 in the Tower of London. However, the cause of George’s death is shrouded in mystery. Some thought that he was beheaded secretly, while others contended that he was murdered by his brother Richard. However, thanks to the exhumation of his body, we can rule out beheading, as George’s head was found intact with his body, confirming that he was not killed in the traditional method of execution of nobility at that time. The most widely circulated belief was that George Plantagenet was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, as it is gruesomely portrayed in Scene IV of Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. A butt of wine is a large enough amount to drown a man—105 gallons, and the fumes from an open barrel could cause unconsciousness. If George drowning in wine is only a rumor, it might have originated because of George’s reputation as an avid drinker. Another possibility is that his corpse night have been transported to the Tewkesbury Abbey in a wine cask for burial. Unfortunately, conclusive evidence on George’s manner of death has not yet been discovered.
My 15th great-grandfather, Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was one of a few peers of that time with substantial Plantagenet blood. He maintained numerous connections, often among his extended family, and with the rest of the upper aristocracy—activities which attracted the suspicion of Henry VIII, who was not Tudor, not a Plantagenet. In 1520, Buckingham became suspected of potentially treasonous actions; Henry VIII authorized an investigation. The King personally examined the witnesses, supposedly gathering enough evidence for a trial. The Duke was finally summoned to Court in April 1521 and was arrested and placed in the Tower of London. He was tried before a panel of 17 peers, being accused of listening to prophecies of the King’s death and intending to kill the King. He was executed on Tower Hill on 17 May 1521. On 31 July 1523, Buckingham was attainted posthumously by Act of Parliament, disinheriting most of his wealth from his children.
My 15th great-grandfather, Sir Humphrey Stafford, was a co-conspirator of the Stafford and Lovell Rebellion in 1486—part in the War of the Roses. When the rebellion failed, Humphrey Stafford sought sanctuary at the church in Culham. Despite that, Henry VII had Stafford forcibly removed from the church on the night of 13 May 1486. Sir Humphrey Stafford was executed at Tyburn, Warwickshire, England on 8 July 1486. His arrest and subsequent execution prompted a series of protests to Pope Innocent VIII over the breaking of sanctuary. In August 1486, a papal bull was issued, severely limiting the rights of sanctuary and excluding it completely in cases of treason, thereby vindicating the King’s actions.
My 15th great-grandmother, Margaret (Plantagenet) Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and daughter to George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, was a staunch Catholic, whose son Reginald was on the continent, studying for the priesthood. In 1527, King Henry VIII began pursuing an annulment of his marriage to Catharine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The king asked Reginald to come back to England to assume the offices of the Archbishop of York and the See of Winchester. Reginald felt that the king was wrong and saw these appointments as a bribe to gain his support for the Boleyn marriage. Reginald spoke to Henry VIII in person; what he said so enraged the king that Henry VIII “laid his hand on his dagger.” Reginald fled England for Europe. Once he was beyond Henry VIII’s reach, Reginald publicly denounced Henry VIII’s marital machinations. To save herself and her family, Margaret Pole was forced to denounce her son, even though she probably agreed with what Reginald contended. In 1536, Henry VIII ordered the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. By then, Reginald was a cardinal and was urging other European monarchs to depose Henry VIII and install a Catholic ruler in England. Henry VIII, unable to imprison Reginald himself, began arresting Reginald’s family. In November 1538, Margaret Pole was arrested and interrogated, and her houses and property were searched for any possible evidence of treasonous activities. Eventually, a silk robe embroidered with the arms of England, pansies (a symbol of the Pole family), marigolds (a symbol of Princess Mary), and the five wounds of Christ (a symbol of the Pilgrimage of Grace) was “found” as evidence. Considering the robe wasn’t produced until six months after Margaret Pole’s possessions had been searched, many historians believe it was planted. Margaret Pole was sent to the Tower, where she spent two and a half years. Then, on 27 May 1541, Margaret was informed that she would be dying that day. “At first, when the sentence of death was made known to her, she found the thing very strange, not knowing of what crime she was accused, nor how she had been sentenced; but at last, perceiving that there was no remedy, and that die she must, she went out of the dungeon where she was detained, and walked towards the midst of the space in front of the Tower, where there was no scaffold erected nor anything except a small block…She was told to make haste and place her neck on the block, which she did. But as the ordinary executor of justice was absent…a wretched and blundering youth…literally hacked her head and shoulders to pieces in the most pitiful manner.” More than 300 years later, on 29 December 1886, Pope Leo XIII beatified Margaret Pole as a martyr for the Catholic Church.
…Are you, are you
Coming to the tree?
Wear a necklace of rope, side by side with me.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight in the hanging tree.