'I have been bred upon the Theater of death, and have learned that part': The Execution Ritual during the English Revolution

Klemp, P. J.
October 2011
Seventeenth Century;Autumn2011, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p323
Academic Journal
Despite the traditional view of executions as either demonstrations of monolithic state power or displays of the crowd's chaotic behaviour, they were both. In this study of the public execution's dramatic and ritualised elements from 1640 to 1660, I emphasise the multivocal nature of these events, approaching them from the various perspectives - the participants' scripts and counterscripts - that defined them. Their hybrid identity as tragicomedies was ensured because an execution's cast of characters included not only the state and the victim, but also chaplains, sheriffs, foot soldiers, troops on horse, an executioner, and large crowds, each following at least one script. Between these scripts, there could be only limited accord, in part because any could change course in an instant but mainly because differences of religion, class, gender, and so forth ensured that the many scripts would reflect a wide range of perspectives about the purposes and meanings of the scaffold scene. This study focuses not only on the usual suspects - such as the Earl of Strafford and King Charles I - but also on less prominent royalists, including military figures, a preacher, and some members of the aristocracy, most of whose executions receive their first detailed discussions here. I conclude that the dramatic ritual of the theatre of execution during the English revolutionary period was based on collaborative moments, sometimes carefully choreographed but often clumsy and apparently spontaneous, during which various participants struggled to define and control their diverse versions of power, truth, and justice.


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