April 11th – On this day in 1554, on Tower Hill, Sir Thomas Wyatt was beheaded and quartered for high treason for his part in “Wyatt’s rebellion” against the Queen, Mary Tudor, and in particular her plan to marry the Catholic King of Spain, Philip.
The aims of the rebellion were to overthrow Mary; to put in her place her half-sister Elizabeth; and to have Elizabeth marry the Protestant Earl of Devon, Edward Courtenay.
These aims were to be achieved by force of arms, with each of the four main rebel leaders responsible for assembling an army in his respective corner of the country before marching on London: Wyatt in Kent; Henry Grey (the father of Lady Jane Grey), the Duke of Suffolk, in Leicestershire; Sir James Croft in Herefordshire; and Sir Peter Carew in Devon.
In the event, only Wyatt succeeded in raising much of a rebel army, which grew further on its march to London through desertions from forces sent to oppose it, and eventually became some four thousand strong. The army arrived in Southwark on February 3rd, to find its way into the City of London blocked at London Bridge by further forces, responding to Mary’s stirring rallying-call at the Guildhall two days earlier (the army was also threatened by cannon in the Tower of London, commanded by the Lieutenant of the Tower, John Bruges or Brydges, who intimated that he was prepared to put them to use). It then withdrew, wheeled west to Kingston to cross the river there, marched back east and attempted to enter the City at Ludgate, where it was again faced down, and where it eventually broke up.
After the failure of his rebellion, Wyatt was tortured at the Tower before being tried, convicted and eventually executed. His torturers had evidently hoped that he would somehow implicate Elizabeth, but he did not. Elizabeth was herself temporarily imprisoned in the Tower while her supposed complicity was further investigated, but none was ever proven. She eventually became Queen after Mary’s death in 1558, and restored to the Wyatt family the titles and lands that Mary had confiscated after the failed rebellion of four years before, including Allington Castle near Maidstone (substantially destroyed in a fire in the seventeenth century, and subsequently restored in the twentieth).
Note, incidentally, that Wyatt’s father, also Sir Thomas (1503-1542), was among other things a fine poet, widely credited with introducing the sonnet into English literature.