Posts filed under 'Maiden'

1581: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

Add comment June 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1581, James Douglas, the Earl of Morton was beheaded on the Maiden.

The fourth and last of little King James‘s regents, Morton was arguably the most able of the bunch and distinguished his span of authority by winning the raging civil war against James’s mother Mary.

Regent Morton had a reputation for avarice during his run in the 1570s. However, deriving as it does from his executive impingement on the treasures of courtiers and clans no less grasping than himself, that reputation probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.


Rimshot

If nothing else, Regent Morton had the excuse of king and country. Sir Walter Scott, for one, favored this Red Douglas with a much more charitably statesmanlike gloss in The Monastery and The Abbott.

As one example, Morton irked divines by enforcing with a minimum of pious exceptions a pre-existing statute requiring a one-third cut of ecclesiastical revenues.

Likewise, he made an enemy of Lady Agnes Keith — the widow of the assassinated first regent — and her (subsequent) husband, the Earl of Argyll by forcing them to turn over crown jewels that were being held in their quote-unquote safekeeping.

In 1578, this Argyll kidnapped King James VI and induced the 12-year-old to declare his majority and dismiss the Earl of Morton. Argyll landed a Chancellorship out of the deal: Morton — well, you know. He would eventually be accused, 14 years’ belatedly but not inaccurately, of complicity in the 1567 murder of Lord Darnley.

Argyll in the end lost his head to that distinctive Scottish proto-guillotine known as the Maiden. Though the apparatus actually dates back to 1564,* a legend as moralistic as it is specious holds that the Regent Morton was himself the man who ordered construction of the device that would eventually end his own life. Sir Walter could hardly be asked to resist that kind of material:

“Look you, Adam, I were loth to terrify you, and you just come from a journey; but I promise you, Earl Morton hath brought you down a Maiden from Halifax, you never saw the like of her — and she’ll clasp you round the neck, and your head will remain in her arms.”

“Pshaw!” answered Adam, “I am too old to have my head turned by any maiden of them all. I know my Lord of Morton will go as far for a buxom lass as anyone; but what the devil took him to Halifax all the way? and if he has got a gamester there, what hath she to do with my head?”

“Much, much!” answered Michael. “Herod’s daughter, who did such execution with her foot and ankle, danced not men’s heads off more cleanly than this maiden of Morton. ‘Tis an axe, man, — an axe which falls of itself like a sash window, and never gives the headsmen the trouble to wield it.”

“By my faith, a shrewd device,” said Woodcock; “heaven keep us free on’t!”

-Sir Walter Scott, The Abbott

When next in Edinburgh, quaff Scots engineering acumen with the friendly backpackers crashing at the High Street Hostel — the glorious stone town house that was once Regent Morton’s very own crib.


By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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1307: Murcod Ballagh, beheaded

Add comment April 1st, 2015 Headsman

“In the yeare 1307 the first of Aprill,” Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland records, “Murcod Ballagh was beheaded neere to Merton by sir David Caunton knight.”

First published in 1577, this document — heavily mined by Shakespeare for his histories — is silent as to the further particulars of the beheading. But the accompanying image depicting the execution surprisingly presents a guillotine-like device being employed for the task.

As John Wilson Croker’s History of the Guillotine observes, this one illustration 270 years after the fact scarcely suffices to establish that a guillotine precursor really was in use in Ireland in the first years of the 14th century. Were that the case, this might be the earliest quote-unquote “documented” execution by a beheading-machine.

(Executions in Halifax, Scotland, can be sourced as early as the 1280s, but it is not known if the famed Halifax Gibbet was in use at that early date.)

But it does at least establish the authors’ awareness of such technology — perhaps by familiarity with the Scottish Maiden, or perhaps by having caught wind of similar gadgets in France and Italy.

“This mode of execution was common on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Croker concludes with a bit of overstatement. “And yet had passed into such entire desuetude and oblivion as to have appeared as a perfect novelty when proposed by Dr. Guillotin.”

“This is certainly a striking illustration of the proverb that there is nothing new under the sun.”

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1600: Jean Livingston, Lady Waristoun

2 comments July 5th, 2009 Headsman

At 4 o’clock in the morning this day — as a favor to her powerful father to limit the public spectacle — Jean Livingston lost her head for arranging the murder of her husband just three days before.

Provoked by one beating too many, Lady Waristoun (or Lady Warriston) got a servant to murder him in his bed on the night of July 1.

Robert Weir blew town — he wouldn’t be apprehended until 1604, whereupon he suffered one of the very few instances of execution on the breaking-wheel to occur in the British Isles — but the Lady and her nurse Janet Murdo were “caught red-handed”, an actual juridical concept in Scottish law which means what it says on the tin.

They were condemned to death by burning, which dad’s pull was able to mitigate for his daughter (but not the nurse), so

scho wes tare to the Girth Crosse upon the 5 day of Julii, and her heid struk fra her bodie at the Cannagait fit; quha diet verie patiently. Her nurische wes brunt at the same tyme, at 4 houres in the morneing, the 5 of Julii.

In the exceedingly brief time — about a day and a half — between sentence and execution, Lady Waristoun was reported to have undergone a wonderous transformation. The not-uninterested report* of her confessor offers these mournful final words, a stark contrast to her defiant state just after condemnation.

The occasion of my coming here is to show that I am, and have been, a great sinner, and hath offended the Lord’s Majesty; especially, of the cruel murdering of mine own husband, which, albeit I did not with mine own hands, for I never laid mine hands upon him all the time that he was murdering, yet I was the deviser of it, and so the committer. But my God hath been always merciful to me, and hath given me repentance for my sins; and I hope for mercy and grace at his Majesty’s hands, for his dear son Jesus Christ’s sake. And the Lord hath brought me hither to be an example to you, that you may not fall into the like sin as I have done. And I pray God, for his mercy, to keep all his faithful people from falling into the like inconvenient as I have done! And therefore I desire you all to pray to God for me, that he would be merciful to me!

Then, she had her head lopped off by the maiden while at the same hour Janet Murdo, much less wept for, was burnt alive at Castlehill.

This sudden and sensational fall of an elite, and allegedly beautiful, woman obviously made quite a splash, with printed accounts feeding almost inevitably into the Scots ballad tradition.

My mother was an ill woman,
In fifteen years she married me ;
I hadna wit to guide a man,
Alas! ill counsel guided me.

O Warriston, O Warriston,
I wish that ye may sink for sin;
I was but bare fifteen years auld,
When first I enter’d your yates within.

I hadna been a month married,
Till my gude Lord went to the sea;
I bare a bairn ere he came hame,
And set it on the nourice knee.

But it fell ance upon a day,
That my gude lord return’d from sea;
Then I did dress in the best array,
As blythe as ony bird on tree.

I took my young son in my arms,
Likewise my nourice me forebye;
And I went down to yon shore side,
My gude lord’s vessel I might spy.

My lord he stood upon the deck,
I wyte he hail’d me courteouslie;
“Ye are thrice welcome, my lady gay,
Wha’se aught that bairn on your knee?”

She turn’d her right and round about,
Says, “Why take ye sic dreads o’ me?
Alas! I was too young married,
To love another man but thee.”

“Now hold your tongue, my lady gay,
Nae mair falsehoods ye’ll tell to me;
This bonny bairn is not mine,
You’ve loved another while I was on sea.”

In discontent then hame she went,
And aye the tear did blin’ her e’e;
Says, “Of this wretch I’ll be revenged,
For these harsh words he’s said to me.”

She’s counsell’d wi’ her father’s steward,
What way she cou’d revenged be;
Bad was the counsel then he gave, —
It was to gar her gude lord dee.

The nourice took the deed in hand,
I wat she was well paid her fee;
She kiest the knot, and the loop she ran,
Which soon did gar this young lord dee.

His brother lay in a room hard by,
Alas! that night he slept too soun';
But then he waken’d wi’ a cry,
I fear my brother’s putten down.

O get me coal and candle-light,
And get me some gude companie;
But before the light was brought,
Warriston he was gart dee.

They’ve ta’en the lady and fause nouriee,
In prison strang they hae them boun';
The nouriee she was hard o’ heart,
But the bonny lady fell in swoon.

In it came her brother dear,
And aye a sorry man was he;
“I wou’d gie a’ the lands I heir,
O bonny Jean, .to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, brother, borrow me–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life is nae pleasure to me.”

In it came her mother dear,
I wyte a sorry woman was she;
“I wou’d gie my white monie and gowd,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“Borrow me, mother, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life’s now nae pleasure to me.”

Then in it came her father dear,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
Says, “Ohon! alas! my bonny Jean,
If I had you at hame wi’ me.

“Seven daughters I ha’e left at hame,
As fair women as fair can be;
But I would gie them ane by ane,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, father, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
I that is worthy o’ the death,
It is but right that I shou’d dee.”

Than out it speaks the king himsell,
And aye as he steps in the fleer,
Says, “I grant you your life, lady,
Because you are of tender year.”

“A boon, a boon, my liege the king,
The boon I ask, ye’ll grant to me.”
“Ask on, ask on, my bonny Jean,
Whate’er ye ask, it’s granted be.”

Cause take me out at night, at night,
Lat not the sun upon me shine;
And take me to yon heading hill,
Strike aff this dowie head o’ mine.

Ye’ll take me out at night, at night,
When there are nane to gaze and see;
And ha’e me to yon heading hill,
And ye’ll gar head me speedilie.

They’ve ta’en her out at nine at night,
Loot not the sun upon her shine;
And had her to yon heading hill,
And headed her baith neat and fine.

Then out it speaks the king himsell,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
“I’ve travell’d east, I’ve travell’d west,
And sailed far beyond the sea,
But I never saw a woman’s face
I was sae sorry to see dee.

“But Warriston was sair to blame,
For slighting o’ his lady so;
He had the wyte o’ his ain death,
And his bonny lady’s overthrow.”

* Snappily titled, “A Worthy and Notable Memorial of the Great Work of Mercy which God wrought in the Conversion of Jean Livingstone Lady Warristoun, who was apprehended for the Vile and Horrible Murder of her own Husband, John Kincaid, committed on Tuesday, July 1, 1600, for which she was execute on Saturday following; Containing an Account of her Obstinacy, Earnest Repentance, and her Turning to God; of the Odd Speeches she used during her Imprisonment; of her Great and Marvellous Constancy; and of her Behaviour and Manner of Death: Observed by One who was both a Seer and Hearer of what was spoken.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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1697: Godfrey McCulloch, on the maiden

Add comment March 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Godfrey McCulloch was beheaded for murder.

A lesser Scotch noble, McCulloch was heir to a family that had seen better times. His forebears had built and laid their [attached] heads at cozy Cardoness Castle, but hard times had seen the Gordon clan foreclose a bum McCulloch mortgage, and that put the families at pistols drawn.*

A minor confrontation between Godfrey McCulloch and Sir William Gordon saw McCulloch plant in Gordon’s leg a bullet wound that festered into a fatal infection.

McCulloch fled to the continent, but eventually — there’s no place like home — returned, and was recognized in Edinburgh.

One boring scaffold speech later, and that was that … unless you credit the legend that his headless body sprang up and ran 100 yards.

McCulloch was beheaded on the Maiden, a guillotine precursor that automated the chopping process.

He seems to have the distinction of being the last person so executed. (Update: Perhaps not.)

* McCulloch, who was also a member of the Scottish Parliament, held a sheriff’s commission in Wigton. Although anti-Covenanter, he washed his hands of the Wigtown martyrs case.

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