February 24th, 2011 Headsman
This date in 1716 saw the beheading of two Jacobite lords, but it was more famous for the third who ducked the executioner in one of the Tower of London’s greatest escapes.
Three were doomed to the block this date:
William Gordon, the Viscount of Kenmure;
James Radclyffe, the Earl of Derwentwater;
William Maxwell, the Earl of Nithsdale
They were the fruit of Parliament’s impeachment of Jacobite leaders. Six of these fellows threw themselves upon the mercy of the Commons, and were rewarded with a death sentence by William Cowper. Only half managed to wrangle mercy from the crown.
On the eve of this date’s execution, Lord Nithsdale received a visitation of his wife, Winifred … who helped him swap clothes with one of her maids, in which garb he audaciously marched out the Tower gates in the train of his spouse.
The fugitives managed to cross the channel — that required another bit of dress-up, in the livery of the Venetian ambassador — and absconded to Rome. William Maxwell, Lord Nithsdale, outlived his appointment with the headsman by 28 years.
They are gone — who shall follow? — their ship’s on the brine,
And they sail unpursued to a far friendly shore,
Where love and content at their hearth may entwine,
And the warfare of kingdoms divide them no more.
Her reputation as a romantic heroine (only enhanced by the romantic futility of the Jacobite struggle itself) has lent itself to all manner of literary expropriation, like this 19th century historical novel.
All very well for these two lovebirds. But the remaining 67% of the day’s scaffold carrion did not escape the Tower in women’s clothing, or men’s, and paid with their heads as scheduled.
Derwentwater went out with a peevish scaffold speech asking “pardon of those whom I might have scandalized by pleading guilty at my trial” because he had been misled into believing the plea was “but the consequence of having submitted to mercy.”
His partner at the chop, Lord Kenmure,** also made the folk playlist in “O Kenmure’s On And Awa, Willie”, one of the ditties gathered by Robert Burns.
Having beheld all these various exemplars, Derwentwater’s brother and fellow Stuart supporter Charles Radclyffe decided to emulate them all.
Later that same year, Charles Radclyffe also made a successful prison break and got to the continent.
As a result, he was still around to participate in the 1745 Jacobite rising … and finally get executed for that.
(All part of God’s mystical plan for Radclyffe: look sharp and you’ll find him succeeding Isaac Newton as CEO of the legendary Holy Grail-keeping secret society Priory of Sion in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and its pulp novel knockoff The Da Vinci Code.)
* It’s impossible not to notice that this cross-dressing escape foreshadows that of Bonnie Prince Charlie when the Jacobite cause flamed out for good thirty years later.
** And like Lord Nithsdale, he was also blessed with a perspicacious wife — albeit one who wasn’t able to extricate him from the Tower.
Also on this date
- 1942: Five Jews in Sokal
- 1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate
- 1613: Ivan Susanin, a life for the tsar
- 1953: Emil August Fieldorf, Polish anti-Communist