Archive for October 13th, 2008

1660: Major-General Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides

12 comments October 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the restored House of Stuart began a week of bloody justice against Charles I‘s regicides by hanging, drawing and quartering Thomas Harrison at Charing Cross.

Stuart Little

Charles’ son and heir Charles II had been stuck on the continent during the 1650’s, until the Commonwealth came apart from its own internal contradictions after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

With anarchy looming, suddenly monarchy didn’t look so bad — and Charles II had a way back into the saddle.

Beheads I Win …

The first thing on everyone’s mind was what to do about the little matter of having lopped off his dad’s head.

Political reality drove the settlement: nearly everyone in the English gentry had in some manner acquiesced to the Commonwealth during its decade-plus turn steering the ship of state; an expansive line on treason would be a nonstarter. At the same time, His Soon-To-Be-Royal-Again Majesty expected a few examples made to do right by the old man and keep king-killing well off his future subjects’ agenda.

Result: the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, granting a free pardon to all supporters of the Commonwealth save a handful of those most directly implicated in Charles I’s execution.

Weeks of frantic negotiating between the parties and private settlements of borderline cases with the royalist camp preceded the action. But Thomas Harrison wasn’t part of any of it.

… Entrails you Lose.

The rigid Puritan, one of 59 who signed the last king’s death warrant and at one time the commander of England’s armies, had been on the outs with everyone since Cromwell set up the Protectorate in 1653. Godly Tom was a “Fifth Monarchist,” anticipating the imminent return of Christ perhaps in conjunction with the imminent year 1666 … and no government felt safe about these millenarians. He’d been imprisoned several times by the Protectorate, too.

Though many attainted regicides fled for Europe or America, Harrison (possibly motivated by age and infirmity) hung out, waited for arrest, and took his punishment stolidly.

God hath covered my head many times in the day of Battle. By God I have leaped over a wall, by God I have runned through a Troop, and by my God I will go through this death.

Specifically meaning, drawn on a hurdle from Newgate to Charing Cross (with a fine vantage for the doomed on Whitehall, where Charles I had met his end), hanged but revived, his genitalia cut off and bowels carved out and burned while still conscious, and finally beheaded and his body divided into quarters for gruesome public display around town.

You have selected regicide.

Harrison died on a Saturday, and his was the opening act of a busy week in the bowel-burning business; nine other fellow regicides condemned with him would share that fate during the week ahead:

  • John Carew, on Monday the 15th;

  • John Cook and Hugh Peters, on Tuesday the 16th;
  • Thomas Scot, Gregory Clemen, Adrian Scroop and John Jones, on Wednesday the 17th;
  • Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel, on Friday the 19th.

Harrison was chosen as the first partly, perhaps, because the Fifth Monarchists were (justifiably) considered a still-extant menace, and partly because, as one account had it,

[h]e was a fierce and bloody enthusiast. And it was believed, that, while the army was in doubt, whether it was fitter to kill the king privately, or to bring him to an open trial, that he offered, if a private way was settled on, to be the man that should do it. So he was begun with. But, however reasonable this might be in itself, it had a very ill effect: for he was a man of great heat and resolution, fixed in his principles, and so persuaded of them, that he never looked after any interests of his own, but had opposed Cromwell when he set up for himself. He went through all the indignities and severities of his execution, in which the letter of the law in cases of treason was punctually observed, with a calmness or rather a cheerfulness that astonished the spectators.

“As cheerful as any man could do in that condition”

And this coda is attested by the age’s famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, whose neat and oft-quoted summation of Harrison’s fate runs thus:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe

As might be expected, vindicated royalists sought more blood than the handful of exemplars could furnish. What compromise could expiate the sin of regicide?

Poet and polemicist John Milton, having been propagandist-in-chief for the now-abortive revolution, endured the jeers of his enemies for the conspicuously apolitical stuff (a grammar book!) by which he would set his table in the years ahead.

Upon John Milton’s not suffering for his traiterous Book when the Tryers were executed, 1660.

That thou escaped’st that vengeance, which o’ertook,
Milton, thy regicides, and thy own book,
Was clemency in Charles beyond compare:
And yet thy doom doth prove more grievous far.
Old, sickly, poor, stark blind, thou writest for bread:
So for to live thoud’st call Salmasius from the dead.

(Claudius Salmasius was a French intellectual whose defense of the Stuart royal rights had been savaged by Milton during the Protectorate.)

It’s thanks to the Indemnity and Oblivion Act’s not sending Milton the way of General Harrison that we have Paradise Lost.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gallows Humor,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason

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