Hard and severe Punishment, intended to compel an individual to enter a plea in a legal proceeding in which they had no confidence, or hope: the precedent in the English Common Law that entitled the Court of Oyer and Terminer to crush Giles Gorey to death under a pile of stones on September 19, 1692 for “standing mute”. For those who take the remembrance and commemoration of the Salem Witch Trials seriously, the next few days are the dark crescendo of the hysteria, escalating toward the execution of the last eight victims on September 22. I wrote about these days in a series of posts last year, so I’m not going to repeat myself, but I did want to explore the history of peine forte et dure a bit more: Corey’s miserable experience was a singular application of the precedent in American history, but it was a relatively rare infliction in English history as well.
Samuel Clarke, A Generall Martyrologie (London, 1651).
Peine forte et dure is a late Medieval “innovation” in the English Common Law, first employed in the reign of Henry VI (1421-71). English courts had always demanded that the accused enter a plea, but it was generally imprisonment and/or starvation that was used to compel submission. The first recorded use of the peine was on a woman, Juliana Quick, who was accused of High Treason because of her malicious slander of Henry–a king who did not command a great deal of respect among his subjects given his sporadic bouts of insanity. Quick’s comments, ending with thou art a fool, and a known fool throughout the kingdom of England must have stood out among the throng. Quick died in 1444, and by a century or so later the process was standardized: the prisoner was stretched on his or her back, and stone or iron weights were placed on the body until the point of submission or death. The next recorded application of the peine also involved a woman, the “Martyr of York” Margeret Clitherow, who failed to enter a plea to protect her Catholic household in 1586. Queen Elizabeth personally apologized to the citizens of York for her torture and execution.
In the seventeenth century, Peine forte et dure was only applied in cases of murder, and more specifically in cases of the murder of family members. There were two very conspicuous cases, both of which were publicized in pamphlets: William Calverley, a very troubled member of the Yorkshire gentry, was pressed to death in 1605 for failing to enter a plea after murdering his two young children and attempting to murder his wife and a third child, and Major George Strangways died under duress after refusing to plead on charges of murdering his brother-in-law in 1658. Calverley’s case seems to have almost immediately caught the public’s attention and we have two competing narratives–that of a deranged madman and that of a man driven to extreme measures by the miseries of an enforced marriage. The Calverley case might even be the source of A Yorkshire Tragedy, an early seventeenth-century play that was once attributed to Shakespeare but is now thought to be the work of Thomas Middleton.
Covers and illustration from three 17th century pamphlets inspired by the Calverley case: Two most unnatural and bloody murders, The Miseries of enforced marriage, and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Note the cloven foot in the first pamphlet: the devil made him do it. As you can see, the tabloid press is not an invention of the twentieth century!
Colonel George Strangways was a more heroic character; he claimed to have been saving his sister from her up-to-no-good lawyer husband, who was attempting to steal her fortune. One of his motivations for refusing to enter a plea was the fear that his family estate would be confiscated if found guilty of murder. The judge ordered the application of peine forte et dure, and Strangways suffered for so long that the witnesses to his torture felt compelled to add their own weight and thus bring about a speedier, and more merciful, death. “Pain” was used as a threat over the next century, but applied in only a few cases, including, of course, Giles Corey in Salem and several notorious highwaymen in the early eighteenth century. In 1772, “the act being barbarous to Englishmen”, it was abolished.
The Unhappy Marksman, London, 1659.