Last Words

Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey analyzes the ritual of public execution in early modern Britain

P. J. Klemp, The Theatre of Death: Rituals of Justice from the English Civil Wars to the Restoration, University of Delaware Press, 2016, 353 pp., $105.

On the evening of his execution by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, Jose Gutierrez, a construction worker, repeated the Lord’s Prayer and recited the words to the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Moments later, before he fell unconscious, Gutierrez prayed, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” Gutierrez died in 1999. In 1641, on London’s Tower Hill, Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, uttered similar words just before the executioner struck his head from his body: “Lord into thy hands I commend and commit my spirit.” While separated by over three hundred years, the final words of these two very different men contain nearly identical wording. Why? These words—a desire to entrust the uniqueness of the self to a divine power—repeat the final utterances of Christ on the cross. Their continued occurrence in our modern world reveals the persistence of a genre early modern scholars call the last dying speech.

Today we usually die in private spaces—in hospital beds tended by strangers who wipe the saliva from our chins, alone making a ham sandwich in the kitchen, or sitting in front of the television with a bag of popcorn and a failing heart. We remember the deaths of those we love—their final words, their last embrace. Nonetheless, we hide death away and speak of these moments only in hushed tones. Yet, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, death was not hidden. Divines spoke of death as the culmination of life. The final words, the last genuflections, held immense value. In fact, early modern people prepared themselves to encounter death in a way few of us do today. They read manuals on the art of dying well, they attended the deaths of loved ones, and they learned from ministers that death was a defining moment of human experience. By confronting death, they created a self—a self that they hoped would be remembered, a self that they trusted would continue to speak from beyond the grave.

But the early modern deaths most remembered—those enacted, interpreted, and publicized—were not the peaceful deaths advocated by philosophers, poets, and priests, but instead capital punishments that occurred in public spaces and often under the gaze of thousands of spectators. Over the last 50 years, numerous scholars have attempted to make sense of these deaths and the final speeches uttered before the axe fell or the fire was lit. Michel Foucault, in his famous study of western penal systems, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, argues that the political display of the tortured body and the death of the condemned affirmed the power of the sovereign through “a policy of terror.” For Foucault, the tortured and executed body attested to the truth of the sentence and the ritual of execution belonged “to the ceremonies by which power is manifested.” In contrast, Thomas W. Laqueur theorized that the crowds watching these executions were actually the central actors and that rather than upholding the power of the state, early modern public executions provided audiences with rare opportunities to express agency by resisting the message of institutional authority through festive celebration. Yet these treatments provide a limited perspective on early modern public executions and often undercut the most significant and lasting part of the ritual: the final words of the victim.

In his recent study of early modern British executions, The Theatre of Death: Rituals of Justice from the English Civil Wars to the Restoration, P. J. Klemp, an English Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, offers a more nuanced approach to these rituals. According to Klemp, the entire execution ritual was “a publicly enacted genre,” with specific roles assigned to not only the state and the crowd, but also the victim, the executioner, the note takers, and the printing shops. Indeed, all these players collaborated in the deathly event and its aftermath, making the execution ritual and its textual representations multivocal and open to a wide range of interpretations.

Klemp develops our understanding of early modern executions both through an illuminating discussion of the genre of the execution ritual and by close analyses of three particular executions and their treatments in the popular press. As public performance, victims often compared the execution ritual to the theater and expressed awareness of taking on a specific role and enacting a formulaic script. As Klemp and others have noted, the last dying speech usually contained routine expressions: declarations of loyalty to the state, admissions of guilt—be it the specific crime leading to death or a more generalized profession of sinfulness—statements of faith, and closing prayers. Yet, while most of the speeches Klemp scrutinizes contain these elements, he maintains that victims often worked within the generic requirements to refashion their final moments and offer their audiences counterscripts. Noting that individuals negotiated the manner of their executions (beheading rather than being hanged, drawn, and quartered, for example), the positions of their bodies on the scaffold, the clothing they donned, and the words they offered, Klemp attests to the variety of ways that victims challenged and subverted the conventional execution drama.

While Klemp frames his study by beginning with an analysis of the execution ritual’s conventions at play during the execution of the Marian martyrs of the mid-sixteenth century and ending with a discussion of the last days and deaths of the regicides in 1662, the main body of his text focuses on the trials, executions, and differing textual accounts of the deaths of the Earl of Strafford, Archbishop William Laud, and King Charles I. According to Klemp, each of these men actively attempted to subvert the execution ritual and create a posthumous identity through a variety of strategies. Strafford, for instance, reportedly fashioned himself as a Christian stoic by constructing a detailed outline of his execution speech, refusing the traditional blindfold, and walking to the scaffold rather than taking the provided coach. Archbishop Laud also sought to influence his reputation following the execution through clothing choices, stance, and verbal self-representation as a sacrificial victim for his king. Recognizing the possibility for errors in the dissemination of his dying speech, Laud used a script, which he passed to his chaplain prior to his death in the hope that his version would be published and faithfully recount his words. In his analysis of the execution of King Charles, Klemp contends that Charles deflated conventions through systematic silence and the avoidance of generic conventions such as admission of guilt, thereby skillfully and defiantly manipulating ritual expectations.

One of the most important aspects of Klemp’s book is his treatment of the textual transmission of these execution rituals and the instability of the seventeenth-century print culture. Texts of the dying speeches of both Archbishop Laud and Strafford were numerous and varied. Klemp notes the publication of about five different versions of Strafford’s dying words in both print and manuscript, some based on eyewitness accounts, some possibly fabricated by the government, some commissioned by his family and supporters to vindicate his name, and some obvious fictions meant to discredit him. Printed accounts of Archbishop Laud’s execution included both his written final words, note-takers’ accounts of his orally revised speech, and animadversions, or annotated reinterpretations and critiques of the prelate’s last speech. Not only do these varying accounts reveal the difficulty in determining the true statements of these execution victims, they also point to the religious and political agendas of the printers and the contested understanding and multivocal nature of the ritual itself.

The contested accounts of these executions and the varied interpretations of the demeanor and words of the victims should give us pause and compel us to question the ways that similar information is disseminated in our modern world. While individuals executed in the contemporary United States are punished not because of their allegiance to differing political or religious ideologies, but because of their crimes against other human beings, their last words are similarly often recorded and circulated to the wider public. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, for instance, maintains a website that allows viewers access to the final words of all prisoners executed by the state since 1982. And while these individuals often mention things left out of the final speeches of the early modern period—love for their family members, sorrow for their victims, and criticisms of the death penalty—many of the same elements that defined sixteenth- and seventeenth-century execution speeches survive. Those men and women who choose to speak often note their sin and guilt, ask for forgiveness, and offer a prayer. Some, like a number of the execution victims Klemp discusses, subvert the genre by swearing, making light of the situation, or claiming their innocence. Yet, while their last words remain, these final speeches are provided to the public without nuanced context, unmoored from a larger view of the individual’s life and death.

We all want an ending that matters—that sums up who we are, what we did, what we desired, and what was important. Most of us never get the chance to pen a final tribute to ourselves, to offer a speech that will encapsulate our essence in the world, spread our ashes over the tide of humanity. Yet, when given the option to prepare for that moment, human beings seem remarkably similar throughout the centuries.

Anne Boleyn, queen of Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I, was beheaded in 1536. Before her execution, Anne displayed all the hallmarks of a traumatized woman, vacillating between giddiness and melancholia. When the constable told her that she would be beheaded by a sword and that the death would not be painful because the blow was “so subtle,” Anne responded, “I heard say the executor was very good, and I have a little neck,” and put her hands around her throat and laughed. Yet, from her locked tower room, Anne wept, begged for a pardon, and worried about her family members.

With her dying speech, though, Anne, according to witnesses, echoed the familiar phrases: “And thus I take my leave of the world, and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me, Oh Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul, Jesu receive my soul.” Like Strafford and Gutierrez, she focused on the condition of her soul—the animate and unique part of herself that her contemporaries described as the connection between the animal and spiritual essence. These final words ask for a continuation of the self beyond death. The soul becomes offering, gift, and memento.

On October 28, 2014, 32-year-old Miguel Angel Paredes, who had murdered rival gang members as a teenager, was executed in Livingston, Texas. The friends who gathered to watch him die heard a familiar refrain. Paredes spoke these words: “Father I commend my soul, please take care and watch everybody I leave behind. I am ready, Warden. Father please accept my soul.” Like the beheaded sixteenth-century queen, Paredes requested that God receive and care for his soul.

While these speeches seem formulaic—more about the convention of reiterating the words of Christ than attesting to a unique individuality—that does not mean they have no deeper meaning. Rituals connect us to the world we know. Death remains, as Shakespeare wrote, “the undiscovered country.” If, in our last moments, we cling to the phrases we’ve heard, and in doing so, ask the divine to receive our souls, aren’t we participating in a cry for recognition in one world and security in the world to come?

We think of death from time to time. We wonder how we can ensure people remember us. We contemplate what comes next, and we ask if the moment will sting and the darkness descend or if, in the words of Emily Dickinson, it will merely interpose between us and the light like a fly “with Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz.” For those who know the hour of their death, words provide certainty in the darkest moment.

Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, Ph.D., teaches literature and writing at Washington State University Tri-Cities. Her scholarship explores literary engagements with death in Renaissance literature. At present, she is working on a book about execution rituals in early modern England, which focuses specifically on female experiences of capital punishment.