It might have been this date in 1685* that the famously speedy highwayman John Nevison (or William Nevison) was hauled to York’s gallows on the Knavesmire and launched into eternity.
The 1660s and 1670s were his time, when the ex-soldier Nevison made the coachmen of the Great North Road stand and their their passengers deliver from York to Huntingdon. “In all his pranks he was very favourable to the female sex, who generally gave him the character of a civil obliging robber,” the Newgate Calendar would later memorialize. “He was charitable also to the poor, relieving them out of the spoils which he took from them that could better spare it; and being a true Royalist, he never attempted anything against that party.”
Not all that much is really known of Nevison, but he earned his place in outlaw lore with a reputed 1676 escapade. After the pre-dawn robbery of a traveler in Kent, in the southeast of Britain, Nevison hopped on a rocket horse and spurred it north all the way to York. Google Maps makes that 350+ km trip a nearly four-hour drive today, by the A1. Nevison miraculously made it on horseback by sundown, then cleaned himself up and strolled out to the bowling green to lay a friendly, and alibi-establishing, wager with the Lord Mayor.
Unfortunately for Nevison, Harrison Ainsworth appropriated the legend of the bandit’s impossibly fast ride for a later outlaw, Dick Turpin — who in Ainsworth’s Rookwood rides his famous mare Black Bess to death in a wholly fictitious sprint from London to York.
To be completely fair to that fickle muse Clio, it has been postulated that Nevison’s own legend was appropriated from yet another highwayman, Samuel Nicks, which would account for the nickname “Swift Nick” or “Swiftnicks” won by this feat of horsemanship. Nicks and Nevison might be one and the same man, but they might very well be two different humans whose legends were already conflated before Ainsworth was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.** If there was a distinct “Swiftnicks”, Nevison has the considerable advantage over him for our purposes of having some identifiable biography and an identifiable hanging-date. But it is to this other fellow, Nicks, that Defoe attributed the gallop in his A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, available online here:
it was about four a clock in the morning when a gentleman was robb’d by one Nicks on a bay mare, just on the declining part of the hill [Gad’s Hill, Kent -ed.], on the west-side, for he swore to the spot and to the man; Mr. Nicks who robb’d him, came away to Gravesend, immediately ferry’d over, and, as he said, was stopp’d by the difficulty of the boat, and of the passage, near an hour; which was a great discouragement to him, but was a kind of bait to his horse: From thence he rode cross the county of Essex, thro’ Tilbury, Homden, and Bilerecay to Chelmsford: Here he stopp’d about half an hour to refresh his horse, and gave him some balls; from thence to Braintre, Bocking, Wethersfield; then over the downs to Cambridge, and from thence keeping still the cross roads, he went by Fenny Stanton to Godmanchester, and Huntington, where he baited himself and his mare about an hour; and, as he said himself, slept about half an hour, then holding on the North Road, and keeping a full larger gallop most of the way, he came to York the same afternoon, put off his boots and riding doaths, and went dress’d as if he had been an inhabitant of the place, not a traveller, to the bowling-green, where, among other gentlemen, was the lord mayor of the city; he singling out his lordship, study’d to do something particular that the mayor might remember him by, and accordingly lays some odd bett with him concerning the bowls then running, which should cause the mayor to remember it the more particularly; and then takes occasion to ask his lordship what a clock it was; who, pulling out his watch, told him the hour, which was a quarter before, or a quarter after eight at night.
The public gallows, nicknamed “York Tyburn”, was torn down in the early 19th century. A worn stone labeled simply “Tyburn” today marks the former site of the fatal tree.
These adhered to James Renwick‘s subversive doctrine of Scottish presbyter control against the overweening Anglican Episcopacy, a conflict of characteristically comingling religious and political characters.
Since most of the Covenanter-killing was being done summarily by soldiers in the field, these Roberts were actually the rare gallows-birds to be condemned in civil court, for which trouble they strangled at the Gallowlee on the road from Edinburgh to Peith.
Their last testaments can be read here, along with those of many other such martyrs.
Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, and employ your strength in the holding up of the fallen-down standard of our Lord, and if ye be found real in this duty, ye shall either be a temple, which shall be a glorious sight, or else ye shall be transported, and be a member of the Church triumphant; so ye shall be no loser, but a noble gainer either of the ways.
The aged woman had evidently taken in the fugitives John Hickes and Richard Nelthorpe as a humanitarian gesture when they happened to show up at her door; despite her late husband’s part in the regicide of Charles I, Alice Lisle doesn’t seem to have been the political type.
So the fact that Lisle was charged with treason was a national (indeed, transatlantic) controversy … and the fact that she was the first of the thousand-plus rebel prisoners tried set the tone for the legal circuit this month that became remembered as the Bloody Assizes.
In an attainder later reversed under William and Mary, Lisle was convicted and condemned to burn (the sentence was commuted to beheading) by notorious hanging judge Lord Jeffreys.
If Lady Alice knew her guests to have been concerned in the insurrection, she was undoubtedly guilty of what in strictness is a capital crime … [t]he feeling which makes the most loyal subject shrink from the thought of giving up to a shameful death the rebel who, vanquished, hunted down, and in mortal agony, begs for a morsel of bread and a cup of water, may be a weakness: but it is surely a weakness very nearly allied to virtue … no English ruler who has been thus baffled, the savage and implacable James [II] alone excepted, has had the barbarity even to think of putting a lady to a cruel and shameful death for so venial and amiable a transgression.
Odious as the law was, it was strained for the purpose of destroying Alice Lisle … [T]he witnesses prevaricated. The jury, consisting of the principal gentlemen of Hampshire, shrank from the thought of sending a fellow creature to the stake for conduct which seemed deserving rather of praise than of blame. Jeffreys was beside himself with fury … He stormed, cursed, and swore in language which no wellbred man would have used at a race or a cockfight …
The jury retired, and remained long in consultation. The judge grew impatient. He could not conceive, he said, how, in so plain a case, they should even have left the box. He sent a messenger to tell them that, if they did not instantly return, he would adjourn the court and lock them up all night. Thus put to the torture, they came, but came to say that they doubted whether the charge had been made out. Jeffreys expostulated with them vehemently, and, after another consultation, they gave a reluctant verdict of Guilty.
Lisle was the only victim of the Assizes at Winchester, but her death would preview the wholesale slaughters to follow.
Jeffreys reached Dorchester the next day and his pitiless tribunal began its work of sentencing hundreds to the various modes of English execution, or else to convict transportation — a fate more lucrative for the crown, but little less terrible to its victims.
“More than three hundred prisoners were to be tried,” Macaulay noted. “The work seemed heavy; but Jeffreys had a contrivance for making it light. He let it be understood that the only chance of obtaining pardon or respite was to plead guilty.”
For all that, the Assizes greatly injured the Stuart cause, precisely because of indiscriminately butchering the likes of Alice Lisle.
Judge Jeffreys’ reputation as a vicious, politically-motivated jurist landed him in the Tower of London by 1689, when he, er, injudiciously stuck around after James II fled the country; reportedly, Jeffreys was lucky to make it to the Tower under guard from the mob that wanted to tear him apart.
To Tyburn thee let carrion Horses draw,
In jolting Cart, without so much as straw;
Jaded, may they lye down i’ th’ road, and tyr’d,
And (worse than one fair hanging, twice bemir’d)
May’st thou be maul’d with Pulchers Sexton’s Sermon,
‘Till thou roar out for Hemp-sake, Drive on Car-man.
Pelted and Curst i’ th’ road by every one,
E’ne to be hang’d may’st thou the Gauntlet run.
Not one good Woman who in Conscience can
Cry out,–‘Tis pitty,–Troth, a proper Man.
Stupid and dull, may’st thou rub off like Hone,
Without an open, or a smother’d groan;
May the Knot miss the place, and fitted be
To plague and torture, not deliver thee;
Be half a day in Dying thus, and then
Revive like Savage, to be hang’d agen.
In Pity now thou shalt no longer Live,
For when thus satisfy’d, I can forgive.
Yikes. Jeffreys actually succumbed to a kidney disease a few months into his captivity. Close enough.
On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*
Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.
Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.
Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.
Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.
The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.
As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**
Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.
Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.
The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.
The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.
In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.
Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.
Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.
* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”
** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.
On this date in 1685, a woman of 63 and another of 18 were staked to the tidal channel of Bladnoch River near Wigtown and drowned by the rising waters.
Margaret Wilson remembered in heroic — and sexy — marble at Knox College in Toronto, Canada. (Larger version.)
They were holdout Covenanters — Scottish Presbyterians resisting English Episcopalian control in a struggle both theological and political (here’s a backgrounder).
To skip over much meaningful history, the Covenanter movement of local presbyter control had at this point been defeated politically and militarily, if not spiritually. The due demanded by the British crown was prayer for the king — an oath, in effect, of submission to the Episcopal hierarchy and, by the same token, to London. Many Scots remained obdurate, including children — the 18-year-old Margaret Wilson was arrested with her 13-year-old sister, though their father managed to scrape together a bond payment to save the younger girl.
And fiendish penalties were deployed to force their capitulation or cow their sympathizers. In this case, a recent law prescribed public drowning for Covenanter women, and the two Margarets were duly condemned to be
ty’d to palisados fixed in the sand, within the flood mark, and there to stand till the flood overflowed them and drowned them.
The ploy on this day was to put the old woman further out, where she would drown first, in hopes of terrifying the teenager into submission. The young Margaret held firm.
Here is the women’s end related in The History of the Sufferings of the Church of Scotland by Robert Wodrow, who dubbed the bloody suppression of the Covenanter movement in the 1680’s “The Killing Time”:
The two women were brought from Wigton, with a numerous crowd of spectators to so extraordinary an execution. Major Windram with some soldiers guarded them to the place of execution. The old woman’s stake was a good way in beyond the other, and she was first despatched, in order to terrify the other to a compliance with such oaths and conditions as they required. But in vain, for she adhered to her principles with an unshaken steadfastness. When the water was overflowing her fellow-martyr, some about Margaret Wilson asked her, what she thought of the other now struggling with the pangs of death. She answered, what do I see but Christ (in one of his members) wrestling there. Think you that we are the sufferers? No, it is Christ in us, for he sends none a warfare upon their own charges. When Margaret Wilson was at the stake, she sang the 25th Psalm from verse 7th, downward a good way, and read the 8th chapter to the Romans with a great deal of cheerfulness, and then prayed. While at prayer, the water covered her: but before she was quite dead, they pulled her up, and held her out of the water till she was recovered, and able to speak; and then by major Windram’s orders, she was asked, if she would pray for the king. She answered, ‘She wished the salvation of all men, and the damnation of none.’ One deeply affected with the death of the other and her case, said, ‘Dear Margaret, say God save the king, say God save the king.’ She answered in the greatest steadiness and composure, ‘God save him, if he will, for it is his salvation I desire.’ Whereupon some of her relations near by, desirous to have her life spared, if possible, called out to major Windram, ‘Sir, she hath said it, she hath said it.’ Whereupon the major came near, and offered her the abjuration, charging her instantly to swear it, otherwise return to the water. Most deliberately she refused, and said, ‘ I will not, I am one of Christ’s children, let me go.’ Upon which she was thrust down again into the water, where she finished her course with joy.”
Update: Gravestone photos and maps of the area can be found here.