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1662: Sir Henry Vane, Commonwealth parliamentarian

June 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1662, Parliamentarian Sir Henry Vane the Younger was beheaded on Tower Hill for his service of Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate.

Adopting Puritan beliefs to the irritation of his politically connected father,* Vane emigrated to that sect’s Massachusetts colony and was elected governor at the ripe old age of 23, backed by the faction forming around religious dissident Anne Hutchinson.

He served for less than a year before the anti-Hutchinson side took the office from him and he, Vane, sailed for the mother country — but even in his short tenure the young gentleman left a mark in New England sufficient for a statue in the Boston Public Library:

  • He was “an instrument in the hand of God for procuring” Rhode Island from Indians;
  • He signed the legislation creating the “New College” eventually to become Harvard;
  • And, he launched the Pequot War

Back in Old England, the Young Vane’s energy served the Roundheads well during the English Civil War. Though never a soldier, he rose to the Republicans’ statum of political leadership, and moved the money and legislation that loosed Cromwell’s armies.

Vane served on the Parliament’s wartime military counsel, the Committee of Safety and — after Vane himself played a crucial diplomatic role bringing the Scots into the fight** — on its successor body, the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Vane’s experience in the New World also gave him a bent for religious liberty that was unusually staunch for his time, and made him a key figure of the church “Independents”, one of the Interregnum’s dominant factions.

John Milton, the great literary champion of the Commonwealth, celebrated Vane in verse (1652):

VANE, young in years, but in sage counsel old,
Than whom a better senator ne’er held
The helm of Rome, when gowns, not arms, repelled
he fierce Epirot and the African bold,
Whether to settle peace, or to unfold
The drift of hollow states hard to be spelled;
Then to advise how war may best, upheld,
Move by her two main nerves, iron and gold,
In all her equipage; besides, to know;
Both spiritual power and civil, what each means,
What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done.
he bounds of either sword to thee we owe:
Therefore on thy firm hand Religion leans
In peace, and reckons thee her eldest son.

Vane’s sage counsel — and what he would later describe as “my tenderness of blood”† — made him unwilling to participate in the execution of King Charles: it was as a spectator and not an M.P. that he watched Parliament try the deposed sovereign. But whatever his scruples on regicide he remained an enthusiastic legate of the state and wheeler-dealer of the Rump Parliament.

This parliament had an active‡ four-year run. Few were more active in it than Vane, one of its leading figures until the very day Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved the body — an act, Vane protested, “against morality and common sense,” prompting the exasperated Lord Protector to sputter, “Sir Harry Vane, sir Harry Vane — the Lord deliver me from sir Harry Vane!” Vane, aware that the increasingly disaffected army might strike Parliament at any time, had before Cromwell’s intervention been attempting to enact electoral legislation whose intended correction of misrepresentative parliamentary allotments anticipated the Great Reform Act by 180 years.

After April 20 1653, Vane’s political career was essentially done bar a momentary recrudescence when the old Rump Parliament was briefly retrieved from mothballs after Cromwell’s death. He diverted himself with the retired statesman’s traditional amusement, the creation of manifestos.

He might have been better served to resume his association with the colonies. When the Stuarts returned in 1660, and notwithstanding our man’s distaste for the regicide, Vane was exempted by name from the amnesty of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act.

His was a close case; the “Convention Parliament” tasked with re-inviting the exiled king initially sought, and Charles granted, clemency for Vane. But the successor “Cavalier Parliament”, more ultra-royalist than its antecedent, decided it had not had done with Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who had not allowed house arrest to deter him from continuing to pop off on the political primacy of Parliament and the validity of the late beheaded ex-king’s overthrow. In his pamphlet “The People’s Case Stated”, Vane avers,

The Coercive, or, Executive Power is placed in one Person, under the Name and Style of a King, to be put forth not by his own, single, personal command, but by the signification of his Will and Pleasure, as the Will of the whole State, in and by his Courts and Justice, and stated publick Councils and Judicatures, agreed on for that purpose, between him and his People, in their Parliamentary Assemblies.

The Will of the whole State, thus signified, the law itself prefers before the personal Will of the King, in distinction from the law, and makes the one binding, the other not.

This idea had legs, even though Charles I (“a subject and a sovereign are clean different things”) had given his head to reject it. The Cavalier Parliament made him answer charges of treason “for compassing the death of King Charles the 2nd, and intending to change the kingly government of this nation”: like most such cases, the verdict was ordained by the charge, no matter how eloquently Vane sustained himself.

He was granted the gentleman’s favor of beheading rather than the drawing-and-quartering torture that true regicides endured.

Rightly anticipating that the Will of the King would not permit him to address the crowd from the scaffold — a battery of drummers and trumpeters repeatedly interrupted his intended address, and finally the sheriff tore the notes from Vane’s hands§ — Vane had wisely given to friends some copies of the speech he intended to deliver. They saw it posthumously published.

There are freely available public-domain biographies of Henry Vane here, here, and here.

* Vane’s father, Henry the Elder, was noted among other things for the damning evidence given against the Earl of Strafford by Henry the Elder’s personal notes, which were communicated to Strafford’s enemies by Henry the Younger and proved instrumental in causing Strafford’s execution. Upon attaining that Earldom, Strafford “would needs in that patent have a new creation of a barony, and was made baron of Raby, a house belonging to sir Henry Vane, and an honour he made account should belong to him too; which was an act of the most unnecessary provocation (though he contemned the man with marvellous scorn) that I have known, and I believe was the loss of his head.”

** The “Solemn League and Covenant” that in the 1640s sealed the alliance between English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians with an (apparent) pledge to privilege Presbyterianism on the entire island, north and south. Cromwell failed to do this after the Civil War, driving Presbyterians into the arms of the royalists; then, Charles II also failed to do it after the Restoration, driving the truest believers to embrace martyrdom. It was the Solemn League and Covenant that gave these martyrs their appellation: the Covenanters.

† In a parliamentary speech that nevertheless vindicates the regicide: “If you be not now satisfied with this business, you will put a strange construction upon that action, and upon all that has been done by the generals and soldiers. If you, here, will now doubt this right to be in you, you draw the guilt upon the body of the whole nation … It will be questioned whether that was an act of justice or murder.”

“If you be minded to resort to the old government, you are not too many steps from the old family,” Vane presciently observed in this same address for the benefit of those who still pined for a return to monarchy. “They will be too hard for you, if that government be restored.

‡ One product of the Rump Parliament of interest for these pages was the Adultery Act of 1650: “in case any married woman shall … be carnally known by any man (other them her Husband) (except in Case of Ravishment) and of such offence or offences shall be convicted as aforesaid by confession or otherwise, every such Offence and Offences shall be and is hereby adjudged Felony: and every person, as well the man as the woman, offending therein, and confessing the same, or being thereof convicted by verdict upon Indictment or Presentment as aforesaid, shall suffer death as in case of Felony, without benefit of Clergy.”

§ Vane handled his executioners’ “very indecent” nastiness with such grace that Bishop Gilbert Burnet later remarked that “it was generally thought, the government had lost more than it had gained by his death.”

Indeed, Burnet wrote, this had become true of executing regicides in general.

tho’ the Regicides were at that time odious beyond all expression, and the trials and executions of the first that suffered were run to by vast crouds, and all people seemed pleased with the sight, yet the odiousness of the crime grew at last to be so much flatten’d by the frequent executions, and most of those who suffered dying with much firmness and shew of piety, justifying all they had done, not without a seeming joy for their suffering on that account, that the King was advised not to proceed farther.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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8 thoughts on “1662: Sir Henry Vane, Commonwealth parliamentarian”

  1. G.D. Hodgson says:

    I have searched over many years without success to unearth just what this enigmatic historical character was or did that raised so much ire in the normally laid back Charles 11 that he insisted on his execution when he was not a regicide.

    1. Sarah Johnson says:

      Well, G.D., while I don’t know Charles II’s specific reasons, I think Vane’s trial defense was suicidal, and Charles II knew Sir Harry would never stop telling truth to power. The last thing Charles wanted was for Parliament to have supreme power, or for people to be given complete liberty of conscience regarding religion, with Anglican authority removed from government. Popular vocal men of principal can be impossible to live with.

  2. Brian Austen says:

    Looking for a possible granddaughter Elizabeth Vane who may have married an Edward Austen in Tenterden in 1711.

  3. Jay Ellingston Shelton says:

    I am a descendant of Sir Henry Vane. My great Grandfather, Kenneth Vane Redpath shares his brothers lineage. His name is Sir Lionel Vane Redpath. His pedigree was established at the time of his knighthood. If I am incorrect in my lineage please inform me of any corrections. When I became a Christian believer, in 1970 at John MacArthur’s church in Sun Valley, California, I was delighted to learn of my ancestors faith in God. What a reunion we will have some day soon in eternity. Praise God
    Almighty. My given name was Miss Jay Karen Ellingston,
    D.O.B. 09-17-1945, Pasadena, California. I’m so proud of the legacy Sir Henry Vane has left for me.
    Thank you,
    Jay E. Shelton,
    Roswell, New Mexico

  4. Carole Hammond says:

    I really enjoyed reading your article! It dawned on me that you may know of somewhere on the web where I can find records of Sir Harry’s family. I am really interested in his daughter Frances Vane who was said to marry John Grubb in Cornwall, one of my ancestors.

    Thank you so much!
    Carole in Oregon

  5. KYGB says:

    Great entry, oh Headsman.

    Vane is one of the truly interesting “footnote characters” in all of history.

  6. Headsman says:

    I like to leave a few sentences to the reader’s imagination …

    (Thanks.)

  7. Sarah Johnson says:

    Poor Sir Henry didn’t deserve this … I think some text is missing from the paragraph which begins “Back in Old England, the Young Vane’s energy served the Roundheads well during the English Civil War. Rising to ….?”

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