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On This Day... 27th April 1601: Rowp dope mopes to the rope over rope trope. Hope? Nope

By Alexander Clapperton, April 27, 2017 - 9:56pm
WARNING: Never leave a portrait of King James VI anywhere near a gallows

27th April 1601: On this date Archibald Cornwall, town officer of Edinburgh, was hanged as a consequence of a terrible misunderstanding over his attempt to display a portrait of King James VI.

Cornwall's troubles began back on the 15th of April. As an officer of the town, he had been dealing with a "rowping": the confiscation and sale of one of the townspeople's belongings, usually to cover a debt or fine. Whose belongings they were is not recorded, but it must have been someone of formerly reasonable standing, for amongst their goods Cornwall found a magnificent pair of portraits of the King and Queen. Believing that these would command a high price during the coming auction, he naturally took it upon himself to display these handsome paintings as prominently as possible.

At this point it is necessary to explain the layout of the scene which was about to unfold. The rowping was taking place, as was usual, at the town officer's booth: part of the larger structure of the Tolbooth prison on the High Street, just to the side of St. Giles' Cathedral. Immediately next to the booth stood the town's permanent gallows, and all around were the tables, booths and crowds of the Landmarket. This area was (and remains) one of the largest open spaces in the Old Town, and there would have been hundreds if not thousands of people gathered there, both those with an interest in the coming sale and those going about the regular business of the marketplace.

Eager to display the King's portrait to its best advantage, Cornwall innocently mounted the scaffold and, setting down the painting against the upright post of the gallows proper, began driving a nail into the wood from which to hang it.

The reaction was immediate and dreadful. A momentary shocked hush spread across the bustling marketplace, as all eyes turned towards the gallows. Then, cries of protest began to rise from the crowd: stones began to fly through the air, hands reached up to seize the man on the scaffold and, within moments, the peacefully assembled crowd had begun to turn itself into a mob.

Cornwall was quickly pulled down by his fellow officers, and immediately locked up in the prison of which, until moments earlier, he had been master. His moment of thoughtlessness had led to his being suddenly arrested and held on a charge of "Lèse-majesté".

Lèse-majesté, the crime of offending the dignity of a reigning monarch, is a slippery, often vague and frequently entirely spurious charge. In essence, any action which insults or could be interpreted as insulting the King can result in such a charge, whether it was done wilfully or not. In many respects, maintaining Lèse-majesté as a crime at all is a hallmark of tyranny, and under James VI it was a Capital offence.

Consequently, it's quite difficult to explain exactly what it was that Cornwall did wrong, and he must have presumed that the whole misunderstanding would quickly be cleared up and he would be released. Obviously, if he had hung up the King's picture on the gallows with the intent of making mock, or of insinuating that the King himself ought to be swinging there, that would be another matter entirely. Surely though, after he had explained his intent to those authorities who interviewed him, and after those authorities reported the situation to James himself (who heard about it on the 22nd), Cornwall must have anticipated his imminent freedom.

James, however, was of a different mind on the matter. Upon hearing of the incident, he commanded that witnesses be summoned, and that Cornwall be tried and convicted. Unfortunately for Cornwall, there was no question as to his guilt: by now word of the incident had spread far and wide, and James was not about to take any insult, intended or otherwise, lying down.

On the 25th of April Cornwall was tried on the charge of "Exhibiting the King's portrait on the Public Gibbet", despite the fact that he had never actually done so. Indeed, even the prosecution had to admit that he had only got so far as driving the nail into the wood; however, they insisted upon his guilt since he was "pressing to have hung [the portrait] thereon, and to have left it there as an ignominious spectacle to the whole world; if he had not been stayed, by the just indignation of the whole people, menacing to stone him to death, and pulling him perforce from the said gibbet, to stay his treasonable act..."

Cornwall was found guilty by a jury who were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to find him so. On this date in 1601, only 12 days after committing his grievous (albeit unintentional) outrage, Cornwall was led to the gallows by one Thomas Hamilton, a hangman from Aberdeenshire. This bit of cross-country outsourcing was necessary since, ironically, Edinburgh's own hangman had been Cornwall himself, and none of his former colleagues were willing to take the job of dispatching him.

Once he was dead, Cornwall's body was left on display for 24 hours, with a paper attached to his forehead detailing his crime. After he had been cut down, the gallows and scaffold were dismantled and burned, to further signify the serious nature of his offence.

The Burgh council made certain quiet amendments to its policies as a result of Cornwall's misfortune: foremost amongst them being a rule that no officer, under any circumstances, should include any royal portrait amongst confiscated goods, on pain of immediate dismissal. Thomas Hamilton took on Archibald Cornwall's role permanently, presumably requiring no such regulation to remind him of the consequences of careless juxtaposition of the King's image.