Severed heads all in a row
Ireland is perhaps the one place where the name of Sir Humphrey still comes with a chill, famed as he was there for decapitating the corpses of rebels against Queen Elizabeth's rule and laying the heads like kerbstones along the path to his tent.
He liked a double row along the path by which Munster men seeking English clemency were forced to tread.
The eyes and ears of their fellows would encourage a suitably compliant attitude, in Gibert's view.
Itwas a Dubliner friend who first told me this story. We were talking about Joseph Conrad at the time.
Three hundred years after Gilbert's exploits the Irish patriot, Sir Roger Casement, played his part in the inspiration of Heart of Darkness by exposing similar tactics in the Belgian Congo.
Casement, my friend said, maybe recognised the horror of the skulls more readily than did travellers from other nations.
Only just now, have I taken the trouble to read the original account of Gilbert's path of heads - from Thomas Churchyard's A General Rehearsal of Warres (1579), cited in a new Oxford edition of Edmund Spenser's letters .
What is striking is not the terror tactic itself but what the editors describe as 'the humanist apology on ethical grounds' by which it was justified.
This was the observation that the dead suffered no more by the decapitation ("the dedde felte no paines by cuttynge of their heddes") and that, following the view of Diogenes the Greek philosopher, their bodies might just as well be laid out 'ad terrorem' or eaten by dogs on a dunghill as decompose in any other way.
Thus is humanist learning deployed not in defence of Gilbert's crime against the living but of his non-crime against the dead.
And very strikingly.
The author of The Fairie Queene, who served as a bureaucrat and private secretary in sixteenth century Ireland, included frequent beheadings, dismemberments and slaughters in Books V and VI of his poem - 'a clear residue of Spenser's experience', say the editors.
That seems right enough - even if it is not as as commonly discussed a literary memorial to horror as the one left three centuries later.