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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Rowland Lee - The Hanging Judge who boasted he executed 5000 Welshmen

Rowland Lee was born in 1487, two years after the Battle of Bosworth. Originally from Northumberland, he was educated at Cambridge, ordained as a priest and secured the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. Lee proved to be a capable political fixer with a knack for pleasing his master. His ability to get things done impressed Henry and before long Lee was working for the king along with another of Wolsey’s protégés Thomas Cromwell.

Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII viewed the wealth of the monasteries which had been collected over centuries as a possible source of revenue. The oldest monasteries, whose mother houses were in France, were particularly wealthy and Henry decided to reform the way they were managed. In 1528, Lee and Cromwell began to appoint priests and clerics who could be trusted, to positions of power in the different religious houses across England. Gaining control would give the king access to the money he wanted. Religious orders that did not comply were closed. In November 1530, Cardinal Wolsey died, having fallen out of favour with Henry after failing to have the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Following Wolsey’s death, Thomas Cromwell became the king’s first minister. Cromwell, whose father ran an alehouse, was the ideal choice. The king needed a ruthless man to do his dirty work and Cromwell already had a large network of spies. Lee was appointed as Henry’s Royal Chaplain and ordered to arranging the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Nelson's Tomb

Cardinal Wolsey ordered an enormous black marble sarcophagus for himself. He died at Leicester while travelling to London to face treason charges and was never placed in the sarcophagus. Henry VIII claimed the magnificent coffin for himself but when he died his wishes were ignored, possibly because he had become too obese to fit. Today the sarcophagus is in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral and contains the remains of Admiral Lord Nelson.

Finding the Catholic Church resolute in its refusal to grant the divorce, Lee proposed that Henry pronounce himself the head of the church, answerable only to god. Removing the influence of the Pope freed Henry to divorce and gave him access to the wealth of the monasteries. He seized on the idea, dissolved the monasteries and seized their assets, a land grab that enriched the king adding one sixth of the nation’s wealth to his treasury. Lee, acting for the king, dealt with the sordid details. Rowland Lee married Henry to his next wife, Ann Boleyn, on the 25th January 1538 and was appointed as a bishop in Henry’s new Church of England.

An act of union between England and Wales had been passed in February 1536 in the English parliament. There was no Welsh representation. Passing the act abolished Hywel Dda’s Welsh Laws and created, in theory, a single nation of England and Wales.

Bishop Lee’s brutality did not stop at the borders of Wales. The hanging bishop once boasted, ‘To have hanged five of the best bloods in Shropshire.’

In Wales, the removal of the marcher lords’ powers had created a power vacuum. Wales was still being run like an English colony and resentment of English rule was never far from the surface. Unlike his father, Henry VIII was not interested in his Welsh heritage or the loyalty the Welsh had shown his family. The execution of Rhys ap Thomas and the appropriation of his lands in Carmarthenshire by Henry VIII had caused civil disorder. Other grievances added to the tension. Henry had replaced the marcher lords with a ‘Council of Wales and the Marches’ led by Bishop Voysey. The council had authority in all Welsh matters, criminal and civil, but Voysey was weak and Wales was, in the eyes of the English, becoming a lawless land.

Bishop Lee was given the job of absorbing Wales into England, replacing Welsh traditions, laws, culture and language with English ones. To do so, he argued, he needed to teach the rascal Welsh who was in charge. Henry, a bully by nature, removed Voysey and appointed Lee Lord President of the Council of Wales and the Marches.

Referring to the Welsh - English act of union, the 18th Century commentator Edward Burke said, ‘When any community is subordinately connected with another, the great danger of the connection is the….self-complacency of the superior, which in all matters of controversy will probably decide in its own favour.'

Welsh law was still used in much of Wales and one of Lee’s first acts was to sack Welsh speaking magistrates and judges. He replaced them with English speakers who were instructed to use English law. Lee compelled the Welsh gentry to change their traditional Welsh names and adopt English style family names. Male primogeniture replaced the Welsh system of inheritance. The Welsh, in Lee’s view, needed to be taught table manners. Any resistance to his assault on Welsh traditions was ruthlessly dealt with. Lee rarely went home. He was too busy rooting out the Welsh Disease, as he called it, and travelled continuously across Wales looking for outlaws. His justice was swift and summary with death by hanging the most common sentence handed down. It was a campaign of terror, orchestrated by a racist who despised the Welsh. Bishop Lee claimed to have hanged over 5,000 Welshmen during his five year tenure as Lord President of the Council of Wales.

A 17th Century chronicler wrote, ‘Bishop Lee brought Wales into civility before he died.’ Adding, ‘He would make the white sheep keep the black.’ Others, who were the victim of his terror, would have had a different view.

Death by Hanging

In one case, the unfortunate victim, who had been brought to court in a sack tied on the back of a horse, was summarily hanged and left dangling in a market place as a warning to onlookers. Another ‘felon’ died before he could be convicted and executed. Unperturbed, Bishop Lee ordered that the dead body be hanged. When it was proposed that Welsh marcher counties would become English shires with their own magistrates and goals, Lee wrote to the king complaining that to do so would give Welshmen the same rights as the English. He wrote, ‘If one thief shall try another, all we have begun here is foredone.’

But the psychopathic bishop had made many enemies and Thomas Cromwell, who saw the sense of a more conciliatory approach, overruled him. Wales was to be managed in the same way as English counties and the Welsh gentry given the opportunity, for the first time, to become magistrates, provided they spoke English. Wales was divided into seven newly created shires. It was a new social order and many Welsh gentlemen jumped at the opportunity of working for the English to advance themselves.

Bishop Rowland Lee died at Shrewsbury on the 28th January 1543 and was buried in St. Chad’s Church. The hanging Bishop’s terror was over and one of the most shameful periods in Welsh history had come to an end. Henry VIII’s act of union, which Rowland Lee opposed, may have assimilated Wales as a province of England but it failed to eradicate the Welsh people’s pride and feelings of separate identity. Such feelings would re-emerge 350 years later with demands for the acts of union to be repealed.

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