The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 24 Oct 2018

Hangman's Wages

A few years back I asked on history stackexchange:

Wikipedia's article on the Halifax Gibbet says, with several citations:

…ancient custom and law gave the Lord of the Manor the authority to execute summarily by decapitation any thief caught with stolen goods to the value of 13½d or more…

My question being: why 13½ pence?

This immediately attracted an answer that was no good at all. The author began by giving up:

This question is historically unanswerable.

I've met this guy and probably you have too: he knows everything worth knowing, and therefore what he doesn't know must be completely beyond the reach of mortal ken. But that doesn't mean he will shrug and leave it at that, oh no. Having said nobody could possibly know, he will nevertheless ramble for six or seven decreasingly relevant paragraphs, as he did here.

45 months later, however, a concise and pertinent answer was given by Aaron Brick:

13½d is a historical value called a loonslate. According to William Hone, it has a Scottish origin, being two-thirds of the Scottish pound, as the mark was two-thirds of the English pound. The same value was proposed as coinage for South Carolina in 1700.

This answer makes me happy in several ways, most of them positive. I'm glad to have a lead for where the 13½ pence comes from. I'm glad to learn the odd word “loonslate”. And I'm glad to be introduced to the bizarre world of pre-union Scottish currency, which, in addition to the loonslate, includes the bawbee, the unicorn, the hardhead, the bodle, and the plack.

My pleasure has a bit of evil spice in it too. That fatuous claim that the question was “historically unanswerable” had been bothering me for years, and M. Brick's slam-dunk put it right where it deserved.

I'm still not completely satisfied. The Scottish mark was worth ⅔ of a pound Scots, and the pound Scots, like the English one, was divided not into 12 pence but into 20 shillings of 12 pence each, so that a Scottish mark was worth 160d, not 13½d. Brick cites William Hone, who claims that the pound Scots was divided into twelve pence, rather than twenty shillings, so that a mark was worth 13⅔ pence, but I can't find any other source that agrees with him. Confusing the issue is that starting under the reign of James VI and I in 1606, the Scottish pound was converted to the English at a rate of twelve-to-one, so that a Scottish mark would indeed have been convertible to 13⅔ English pence, except that the English didn't denominate pence in thirds, so perhaps it was legally rounded down to 13½ pence. But this would all have been long after the establishment of the 13½d in the Halifax gibbet law and so unrelated to it.

Or would it? Maybe the 13½d entered popular consciousness in the 17th century, acquired the evocative slang name “hangman’s wages”, and then an urban legend arose about it being the cutoff amount for the Halifax gibbet, long after the gibbet itself was dismantled arond 1650. I haven't found any really convincing connection between the 13½d and the gibbet that dates earlier than 1712. The appearance of the 13½d in the gibbet law could be entirely the invention of Samuel Midgley.

I may dig into this some more. The 1771 Encyclopædia Britannica has a 16-page article on “Money” that I can look at. I may not find out what I want to know, but I will probably find out something.

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Thu, 18 Jan 2018

England in a pother in 1533

In autumn 2014 I paid for something and got $15.33 in change. I thought I'd take the hint from the Universe and read Wikipedia's article on the year 1533. This turned out unexpectedly exciting. 1533 was a big year in English history. Here are the highlights:

  • January 25: King Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn
  • March 30: Thomas Cranmer becomes Archbishop of Canterbury
  • May 23: Cranmer annuls Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon
  • June 1: Boleyn crowned queen consort by Cranmer
  • July 11: Henry excommunicated by Pope Clement VII
  • September 7: Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, is born to Boleyn

A story clearly emerges here, the story of Henry's frantic response to Anne Boleyn's surprise pregnancy.

The first thing to notice is that Elizabeth was born only seven months after Henry married Boleyn. The next thing to notice is that Henry was still married to Catherine when he married Boleyn. He had to get Cranmer to annul the marriage, issuing a retroactive decree that not only was Henry not married to Catherine, but he had never been married to her.

In 2014 I imagined that Henry appointed Cranmer to be Archbishop on condition that he get the annulment, and eventually decided that was not the case. Looking at it now, I'm not sure why I decided that.

Wikipedia says:

While Cranmer was following Charles through Italy, he received a royal letter dated 1 October 1532 informing him that he had been appointed the new Archbishop of Canterbury, following the death of archbishop William Warham [on 22 August]. Cranmer was ordered to return to England. The appointment had been secured by the family of Anne Boleyn, who was being courted by Henry.

Cranmer had been working on that annulment since at least 1527. In 1532 he was ambassador to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was the nephew of Henry's current wife Catherine. I suppose a large part of Cranmer's job was trying to persuade Charles to support the annulment. (He was unsuccessful.) When Charles conveniently went to Rome (what for? Wikipedia doesn't say) Cranmer followed him and tried to drum up support there for the annulment. (He was unsuccessful in that too.)

Fortunately there was a convenient vacancy, and Henry called him back to fill it, and got his annulment that way. In 2014 I thought Warham's death was just a little too convenient, but I decided that he died too early for it to have been arranged by Henry. Now I'm less sure — Henry was certainly capable of such cold-blooded planning — but I can't find any mention of foul play, and The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican describes the death as “convenient though entirely natural”.

[ Addendum: This article used to say that Elizabeth was born “less than seven months” after Henry and Boleyn's marriage. Daniel Holtz has pointed out that this was wrong. The exact amount is 225 days, or 32 weeks plus one day. The management regrets the error. ]

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