Henry VIII’s hitmen: the Tudor king’s secret hunt for traitors

Bribery, subterfuge, kidnap and murder by paid assassins. As Robert Hutchinson reveals, when it came to neutralising enemies of the English state – even those living abroad – Henry VIII would stop at absolutely nothing

Seeking to remove opponents who questioned his right to be head of church and state, Henry VIII was ruthless in his pursuit of those he deemed traitors. (Image by Alamy)

Cardinal David Beaton made a lot of enemies during his short career as lord chancellor of Scotland. Serving from 1543–46, the fiercely Catholic Beaton first enraged Scotland’s Protestants by arresting a friar called John Rogers for preaching heretical doctrine, and throwing Rogers into a dungeon at St Andrews Castle, his seat of power. Beaton then incurred the wrath of the influential reformist, John Knox, by having George Wishart, a Protestant preacher and Knox’s mentor, burned at the stake.

But of all the foes that Beaton made in the 1540s, none was more powerful than King Henry VIII. Beaton had been one of the most vigorous opponents of Henry’s attempts to impose greater English influence on Scotland, and he had helped the papal ambassador Mark Grimani evade a kidnap attempt by the king’s agents while sailing to Scotland. But, in the spring of 1546 Beaton’s defiance of the English monarch would have bloody consequences. At daybreak on 29 May, 17 assassins, secretly funded by Henry, broke into St Andrews Castle hellbent on teaching Beaton a lesson. First they murdered the castle’s porter, hurling his bloodied body into a ditch. Then they fell on the cardinal himself, dragging him from his bedchamber and hacking him to death. Soon after, Cardinal Beaton’s mutilated corpse could be seen dangling from a window by sheets tied to an arm and a foot. This was a humiliating fate for one of Scotland’s most powerful men. Henry insisted that his involvement be kept secret because he maintained, with sublime hypocrisy, that “such business is not meet for kings”.

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