Unprincipled, octogenarian Scottish noble Simon Fraser,* Lord Lovat was on this date in 1747 the last to lose his head on Tower Hill.
The Clan Fraser patriarch was an expert double-dealer from his youth in Restoration England — when he recruited a small regiment in nominal service to William and Mary but allegedly plotting to desert to the Stuarts at the opportune moment.
That moment never came … and the Stuarts’ fruitless quest for it in the decades to come would eventually claim the Lord Lovat.
But first up: a long life of opportunistic, frequently reprehensible political maneuvering.
He kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married a woman from a rival clan in order to gain claim on a contested succession (Lovat had to flee the country, a death sentence in absentia at his heels)
He expediently converted to Catholicism to get in with the exiled Stuarts and their continental allies
He forged incriminating documents in an unsuccessful bid to undermine rival nobles
He played both sides of the Hanover-Stuart intrigue, ingratiating himself with both Jacobites and London during the 1715 rising. He did this so adeptly that George I served as Lovat’s son’s godfather
When the Jacobites decided to double down on doomed risings in 1745,** this wily knave finally managed to commit himself to the wrong team at the wrong time. Hey, everyone should be allowed one fatal mistake every 80 years or so. (Read all about those years in this public-domain biography.)
Though Lovat was so infirm he had to be borne on a litter, his military acumen would have been worth the rebels’ while had they possessed the muscle to get into a fair fight.
But they didn’t, and Lord Lovat was captured in the undignified circumstance of being stashed in a tree, and at length fitted for a no less undignified trial.
He could neither walk nor ride, as he was almost helpless; he was deaf, purblind, eighty years of age, ignorant of English law, and it was therefore not a matter of surprise that the high-born tribes, who thronged to his trial, were disappointed in the brilliancy of his parts, and in the readiness of his wit. “I see little of parts in him,” observes Walpole, “nor attributed much to that cunning for which he is so famous; it might catch wild Highlanders.” … It appeared, indeed, doubtful in what form death would seize him first, and whether disease and age might not cheat the scaffold of its victim.
Only the good die young.
By his public life, he has left an indelible stain upon the honour of the Highland character, upon his party, upon his country.
* Not to be confused with the Canadian explorer for whom British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University is named.
** The 1745 rebellion spawned a popular patriotic song that became the national anthem: “God Save the King/Queen”.
Lord grant that Marshal Wade
Shall by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King.
All of which, one supposes, gives Simon Fraser claim to a spot in the fine print of the credits for the song, and for that matter, for the Sex Pistols’ riposte.