Treason, gunpowder, heresy, bagpipes

In 1515, John Cowley, yeoman of London, was arrested with five other men and accused of treasonous plots against the king and chief minister Cardinal Wolsey. Cowley’s treachery had evidently begun while he served as part of the king’s forces in the French war, at the siege at Tournai in 1513. Amongst his charges was criticism of that siege: he said that he would have done it better than the king.


He was also alleged to hold opinions against Cardinal Wolsey and the church. The cardinal, he said, was concealing the king’s death and ruling in his stead; he mused to his fellow prisoners that he’d like to kill the cardinal with a “hand gon” (there’s the gunpowder).

He also was accused of uttering heretical opinions about the sacrament of the eucharist and “that he would rather hear a bagpipe than the singing of a mass” (there’s the heresy and bagpipes).

These religious opinions came in handy for the authorities later when Cowley escaped from the Marshalsea prison in early 1518 by bribing one of the prison guards with a ruby ring. He ran to sanctuary at St Martin le Grand in London, but was immediately arrested there. When he appeared in court soon after, he naturally pleaded sanctuary. The justices determined, however, that as he was also charged with heresy, he couldn’t have the privilege of sanctuary: if you have opinions repugnant to holy church, you’re not eligible for its protection, they said.

That’s a pretty dodgy pronouncement, especially given that there’s no sign that Cowley was actually tried for heresy. But evidently they just wanted shut of him, and likely the king had given word that it needed doing quickly (he had issued a judicial commission of oyer and terminer for it). Specious legal reasoning in order to accomplish a politically desirable court decision was a feature of the royal courts in the 1510s (though obviously not limited to that decade): this seems obviously one of those moments.

We can see this circumvention of due process also in what followed: after the rejection of his sanctuary plea, the justices didn’t send Cowley to trial but immediately pronounced him as convicted of treason and sentenced him to execution as a traitor. It’s really not clear what the processual underpinning of that conviction was: possibly his confession on admission to sanctuary was accounted, in effect, as a guilty plea. But the record doesn’t actually give any reason. As far as we know he was indeed executed. Due process, schmoo process.

TNA, KB 9/475/2, mm. 1-2; KB 27/1047, rex m. 8; Baker, Caryll’s Reports, 2:693-95; Henry VIII letters.

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