In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries nailing of the ear to a pillory (or cutting off the ears completely) was a favourite punishment for those convicted of speaking ‘seditious words’ – generally meaning attacks on the monarch, authorities, social order, religion of the time… The intention was that the person pilloried couldn’t move or they would tear a rent in the ear or rip it off entirely. Lovely.
On occasions nailing of the ear to the pillory was followed by ‘cropping’ of the ear, cutting most of the ear off. Although rare this was done to some religious and political activists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On some occasions people who suffered nailing of ears or cropping died from loss of blood or infections.
In August 1553, the catholic queen Mary had just come to the throne, amidst religious strife between catholics and protestants (mingled with a bit of dynastic tussling). The atmosphere in London was tense: Mary had some popular support, which had allowed to ascend the throne in the face of a rival (protestant) claimant, Jane Grey; however, protestantism had made inroads in recent years, especially in London.
On 21st August 1553, only weeks after Mary’s succession, John Daye, parson of St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate Street, together with another man, a surgeon, had their ears nailed to the pillory in Cheapside, though after three hours ‘the nayles were pulled out with a payre of pinsers and they were had to prison again.”
Daye’s crime had been ‘seditious words speaking of the Queen’s highnes’. It seems he was a radical protestant who opposed Mary’s reign, but little more information exists. The surgeon who suffered with him had uttered seditious words against a preacher at St Paul’s Cross a week before, when a riot had erupted after the preacher had defended the recently released Bishop Bonner. Bonner was highly unpopular amongst protestants, (and would become more so over the next few years as he spearheaded persecution of ‘heretics’, ie anyone not adhering to orthodox catholicism).
Two days later Daye had his ear nailed to the pillory again. He seems to have been deprived of his post at St Ethelburga’s in the following year.
Mind you, it could have been tougher – just 15 years before Thomas Barrie stood a whole day in the pillory with his ear nailed to the wood, after being convicted of spreading a rumour that king Henry VIII had died.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online