The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes

As part of my MA dissertation I’ve been researching the case of Robert Foulkes, and I gave a paper on a part of my research at the University of Leicester’s School of History Postgraduate Conference on May 17th. The full title was ‘Every step thou makest in sin, brings thee in greater danger’: The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes‘, and I’d like to write a little bit about that paper here.

I’ve written about Robert Foulkes before, and his affair with Ann, and the dreadful circumstances that led him to commit murder. In the paper I gave, I focused on two different theories around execution, and explored which I thought Robert Foulkes’s case might be more relevant towards.

The first theory was proposed by J.A. Sharpe in 1985¹. He suggested that the English state (that is, the government/king/church) used executions in the seventeenth century as a form of ideological control to reinforce certain social, cultural and religious ideas. This was counteracted by T.W. Laqueur in 1989, who argued that in England, the state did not control executions, didn’t even seriously attempt to (as compared to European states, for example), and that the attending crowd were actually the ones in charge on the day, making for a chaotic, ‘carnivalesque’ affair.² It was, however, one that also ensured that the people were involved in ensuring that the law – the sentence – was carried out fairly regardless of the status of the person being executed, because ultimately, the state could not carry out an execution without the ‘tacit consent’ of the crowd.

Two opposing positions then, but in 1996, P. Lake and M. Questier suggested that the execution process for Early Modern Catholics contained within it an instability, due to competing dialogues over what the Catholics were being executed for. The state maintained that they were being executed as traitors; particularly in the Elizabethan period, for refusing to accept her right to rule and placing the pope above her. Catholics who were being executed saw themselves as martyrs and would do all they could to give this impression at their executions. Lake and Questier suggested that this instability accounts for some of the differences between Sharpe and Laqueur’s theories.

AlarmeforSinnersFrontispieceBut what of criminals like Robert Foulkes? There was no such competing dialogue for criminals. Foulkes faced the hangman’s noose in early 1679, but between sentence and execution, he wrote a pamphlet for publication, warning the public not to follow in his footsteps, and entitled ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘.

Robert, as I’ve explained before, was a Church of England minister, serving a small parish in the south of Shropshire, just outside Ludlow, called Stanton Lacy. He was married, with at least three surviving children, but in around 1673 he began an affair with a single, independently wealthy woman from his parish, Ann Atkinson. In early spring of 1678 Atkinson became pregnant, and the following December, both she and Foulkes went to London, where he hired rooms for her on a street between the Strand and the River Thames. On 11th December, Atkinson went into labour. When the child – a girl – was born, Foulkes cut her throat and threw the body into the privy: he had apparently hoped that the closeness of the house to the Thames meant that the body would be washed away. He then returned to Shropshire. Unfortunately, the crime came to light, and Atkinson was questioned, and blamed Foulkes for the murder. He was arrested, brought back to London and both faced trial, both claiming innocence.

On 15th January 1679 Foulkes alone was found guilty. Atkinson, ‘pittied, and aquitted’, was released by the court.† Foulkes was taken to Newgate Prison to await execution, but that evening was visited by a Dr. Lloyd, who was vicar of the parish where the murder had taken place, as well as the Dean of Bangor (and would be made Bishop of St. Asaph a few years later). Lloyd was concerned about the impact of the case on the wider church. At the time the church and state was struggling with the heightened paranoia from the events of the Popish Plot. Lloyd asked Foulkes to help. Would Foulkes write a confession, to exclude the church from any connection with his crimes, as part of his preparation for death? Foulkes agreed. His original execution date was scheduled for 22nd January, just a week away, so he set to work. He prayed, he fasted, he wrote. His pamphlet, published after death, was 43 pages long, in the form of a confession, a series of letters to people like his wife, his children, his parishioners, and a copy of his final speech. During this period he was visited by many clergymen, and word began to spread in London of his newfound piety, his penance in the face of death. These men argued for and obtained an extension on his sentence – an additional 9 days. Foulkes continued to prepare for death. ‘He would hardly afford himself time either to eat, drink or sleep, but thought every minute ill spent wherein he did not exercise that penitence, sorrow and contrition of spirit which was becoming in so great an offender’, wrote one pamphlet, reporting on his activities before death.†

So, what are the two theories? Sharpe’s article on last dying speeches explores a number of important ideas. In the paper I summarised the key elements that Sharpe listed as being a part of the execution ritual, and which contributed to the way that the state used executions to reinforce ideological control. These key elements included:

  • the process of reflecting on their sins and past life with a clergyman;
  • enduring a procession where the condemned person was taken, often in a cart, from prison to execution tree;
  • the presence of large crowds, not just at the place of execution, but along the processional route too;
  • the expected, almost obligatory, stereotyped last speech was a fundamental part of this ritual. Here, the felon was expected to make a general list of his past sins; to display acceptance of his impending death; to admit that the state was correct in punishing him; and provide a warning on the wages of sin. Once this was over, the execution itself would proceed. At this time it was not the long drop that we are familiar with today but instead, a slow strangulation lasting between 20 and 45 minutes. After death the executioner would be paid to allow either for the body’s removal & burial, or removal and dissection;
  • to make matters more exciting for the crowds, there was always the possibility of a reprieve, a pardon by the Monarch;
  • and finally, pamphlets would be sold with the details of the crime, the condemned person’s conduct up to the execution, and their last speech.

Sharpe explains that these rituals were important elements in executions because of a key weakness in the early modern government: with no police, no standing army, it lacked the ability to physically control the people. Early Modern governments depended on the general population absorbing the idea that they had to obey the state, that they could not defy it. Seeing the condemned going meekly to their deaths, ignoring their will to live purely because the state said “you did wrong, you must be punished” – was a powerful demonstration of both state and church legitimacy, blurring the distinction between crime and sin, between state (royal) and divine authority.

It should be noted that Sharpe himself explored his ideas through the use of similar penitential pamphlets, so this is a methodology that will suit the Foulkes case more than that of Laqueur’s.

In the paper I went through all of these ritual elements one by one.

  1. Foulkes made it absolutely clear how the church was involved in the production of the pamphlet. Foulkes says that Lloyd encouraged him:

‘to wipe off all I could of the scandal and reproach which my vicious life and ignominious death reflected upon my function, and both these, he told me, could not be more effectually performed than by a full confession of my manifold enormities. I then resolved upon it, and as soon as I could procure pen and paper, set about it’.∞

It is very clear that the church – in the person of Dr. Lloyd – is acting to use Foulkes’s impending execution to render the church innocent of any ‘unjust aspersions’∞.

2) was Foulkes subjected to a procession? Yes. We know he was taken to Tyburn in a covered coach rather than a cart. There are two possible reasons for this – either it was to protect the clergymen who had accompanied him from bad weather, or it was a reward for his piety, to spare him humiliation.

3) Were there large crowds present? Yes. We know from a description in another source that the men present who wanted to publish their own pamphlet of the execution, and who wanted a transcript of the last speech, were unable to fully hear it because of the number of people present.†

4) We know that there was a last speech; in it he specified that he kept it short because he made arrangements for a fuller confession to be published after his death. In the paper, I used both his last speech and his confession from ‘An Alarm for Sinners’. Does he provide a list of past sins? Yes. He explores general sins, such as how god favoured him with many blessings, which he then ‘wasted in riotous living’. Does he display acceptance of his sentence, and the right of the state to punish? Yes – in his last speech he specifies that he did ‘murther in act and execution for which crying sin I am come hither to satisfy the law of man, and do acknowledge the justice of that sentence’.∞ In his wider confession he went into a full description of the crimes for which he was sentenced (adultery and murder). He also absolutely rejected the wider, popular accusations of having been Ann’s guardian when she was a child; of a reported attempt to ‘vitiate her at nine years old’; and of attempting to convince Ann that God and the state would permit a polyamorous marriage with his wife. In addition, he notes the one crime he felt he should have been charged with, but was not – that of killing his daughter while she was unbaptised. He also states clearly that Ann was as guilty as he was: ‘That both her eyes did see, and her hands did act in all that was done’.∞ Foulkes’ confession and last speech, then, more than meet the ritual requirements of the gallows speech.

5) The execution. There were no details at all of his actual death. Here, we are reliant on two additional pamphlets which simply state that he prayed and then ‘freely submitted himself to the execution of the sentence’.†‡ Foulkes’ body was not sent for dissection; it was collected and taken to St. Giles in the Fields where he was ‘privately and decently’ buried.† And finally was there a penitential pamphlet? Obviously, there was.

Here, I concluded this part of the paper by saying that there was quite a substantial amount of evidence within both ‘An Alarm for Sinners’ and the other pamphlets for Sharpe’s theory of the state using executions like Foulkes’ for the purpose of reinforcing ideological control.

I then explored Thomas Laqueur’s theory. He used a number of completely different sources to James Sharpe. He used the accounts of the chaplains – the Ordinaries – of Newgate; artwork of executions; and both contemporary views and literary accounts.  Laqueur also examined executions over a much wider period of time, over 250 years, rather than the mere century of Sharpe. Laqueur raised a number of questions. He pointed out that there was very little in the way of state presence at executions.Sentencing, held in courthouses or chapels were – as he put it, ‘redolent with the signs of state power and the majesty of the law’. The Judge, with his formal forbidding appearance, the Jury, the building  – compared to them, execution sites like Tyburn had little in the way of state presence. The executioner, the clergyman, was all. It is difficult to imagine now, since Marble Arch – which stands near where Tyburn stood – is almost completely surrounded by buildings – but then, it was open countryside. Laqueur asked why there was often no attempt to relate the scene of punishment to where the crime occurred or to place the execution near ‘architectural reminders of state power’. He used pictures of executions to demonstrate the size and risability of an attending crowd, such as William Hogarth’s ‘The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn’. He pointed out that until the ‘long drop’ was introduced, the crowd, the people were in real, physical contact with the dying person, pulling on their legs to reduce the time they took to die. Laqueur explained how this, and the sheer weight of numbers of people attending, meant that in essence, the execution could not proceed without the agreement of the people who – as the Times pointed out in 1856 – ‘inflict the last penalty of the law in this country and the publicity of the process is significant’.² (pp. 352-353) He asked how the English state could force the condemned to abide by the ritual – could the condemned resist the role they were forced into, by attempts to subvert the rituals – by unusual clothes, humour, or ultimately, by silence? And lastly, what about the possibility of reprieve – what impact would this have had on an already chaotic execution process?

I found that Foulkes’ case does not support Laqueur’s theory as much as it does Sharpe’s. I went through each element in a similar way in the paper.

  • Was there any evidence of the state’s presence at his execution? No more than we presume was present at any other execution.
  • Was there any attempt to hang Foulkes near the Strand, where the murder had occurred? Yes: Foulkes was arrested at home in Shropshire, and brought back to London to face trial.
  • Is there any evidence as to the nature of the crowd at Foulkes’ execution? We have heard already that the size of crowd was substantial, but otherwise, no real indication as to the nature of the crowd. One point should be made; Foulkes was hung alone. Had he been hung on his original execution date, 22nd January, he would have been sharing the tree with twelve others. Foulkes being the only executee on 31st could have meant the crowd was more subdued.
  • Was the crowd involved in the hanging? There is no record of this.
  • Was there any attempt by Foulkes to reject the role of the penitent felon? No – quite the contrary – he seemed to welcome it.
  • And finally, was there any possibility of reprieve? Despite the well-known piety of Foulkes, probably not. The nature of his crime, infanticide, would have precluded this.

I suggested, therefore, on the balance of probabilities, that Foulkes’ execution would have seen less of the ‘carnivalesque’, chaotic atmosphere that Laqueur described   – and meant that the state was probably more in control at Foulkes’ execution.

It does need to be emphasised that Foulkes had been a practising minister for almost twenty years when he faced the noose at Tyburn. M.A. Lund has explored how contemporaries saw the differences between a written and a spoken sermon, noting that spoken words could pack an emotive force, but that force could be invalidated when listeners became more interested in a performance instead – like at executions.ª Foulkes, as a professional, would have been instinctively aware of this, which could be why he split his confession between the printed and spoken word. Lake and Questier pointed out that executions were ‘highly charged, dangerously liminal occasions’ which different religiously motivated groups could have used for their own ideological benefit.³ (p. 104) Here, they suggested a way forward between Laqueur and Sharpe’s positions – in that the state was not alone in sometimes being able to use executions for its own benefit – others could as well. Foulkes may well instinctively have known this. And in his determination to obviate the wider Church from difficulties caused by his crimes, his determination to use himself as a lesson for the wider people, he would have used all the tools in his power, and in so doing, would have reinforced all the social, religious and cultural ideology that the state and his church needed him to do.

And perhaps on this occasion, the state, the church, chose to stand back, to do nothing, to trust their own, even in the awful horror and chaos of his final moments, to be the authority, the minister he was trained to be, rather than the criminal, the victim of the state. Perhaps Foulkes’s case can suggest a via media between the two positions, because in this case, the state was happy for the victim to control his own fate, lessening the chaotic urge, the necessity for Laqueur’s crowd to oversee equitable delivery of the law.

Robert Foulkes Signature

If you are interested in learning more about Robert Foulkes and his sad story, then I can heartily recommend Peter Klein’s book, The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy. Foulkes’s pamphlet is available online, should you wish to read his own words, and I have tried, where possible, to link to other original source material.

¹ J.A. Sharpe, ‘”Last dying speeches”: Religion, ideology and public execution in seventeenth-century England’, Past and Present, 107 (May 1985), pp. 144-167.
² T.W. Laqueur, ‘Crowds, carnivals and the state in English executions, 1604-1868’, in A.L. Beier, D. Cannadine and J.M. Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in honour of Lawrence Stone (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 305-355.
³ P. Lake and M. Questier, ‘Agency, appropriation and rhetoric under the gallows: Puritans, Romanists and the state in early modern England’, Past and Present, 153 (November 1996), pp. 64-107.
‘A true and perfect Relation of the Tryal and Condemnation, Execution and last Speech of that unfortunate gentleman, Mr. Robert Foulkes’ (London, 1679).
‡ ‘The Execution of Mr. Rob. Foulkes, late Minister of Stanton-Lacy in Shropshire’ (London, 1679)
R. Foulkes, ‘An Alarme for Sinners’ (London, 1679).
§ P. Klein, The Temptation and Downfall of the Vicar of Stanton Lacy (Ludlow, 2005).
ª M.A. Lund, ‘Early Modern sermon paratexts and the religious politics of reading’, in J. Daybell and P. Hinds (eds), Material Readings of Early Modern Culture (Houndsmills, Basingstoke, 2010), pp. 143-162.

3 thoughts on “The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes

  1. […] and one particular one described the night that Foulkes completely lost it. I don’t mean the event in London, where he murdered his newborn child (1679), but earlier, around the end of July 1676. Foulkes had had gone for a drink in what may have […]


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