On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.
But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**
In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.
Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.
Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡
Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.
* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)
** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.
† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.
‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.