1723: Christopher Layer, for the Atterbury Plot

Add comment May 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Christopher Layer was hanged and quartered at Tyburn for the Jacobite Atterbury Plot

In the wake of the hegemonic Whigs’ political legitimacy crisis following the 1720 financial implosion of the South Sea bubble, supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty rekindled* hopes of resuming the English throne.

The “Atterbury Plot” — so named for its sponsor and most prominent adherent, the Tory Anglican bishop Francis Atterbury — proposed to orchestrate a coup that would seize the persons of the usurping Hanovers and key points in London and Westminster, coordinated with both an internal Catholic/Tory rising and a landing by forces loyal to James Stuart. (He’s known as “the Pretender” or as King James III, depending on where the speaker’s treasons lie.) So particularly were the Tory ambitions developed that lists of expected supporters for each of England’s counties had been drawn up, the framework of a hypothetical replacement state.

This plot was broken up by 1722 and has been ridiculed as fanciful by outcome-oriented observers, but the government at the time took a plan by disaffected elites to kidnap the royal family — a plot which had only been betrayed to them by one of the conspirators’ French contacts — very seriously indeed. Paul Kleber Monod characterizes the 1714-1723 period (which compasses more than just the Atterbury scheme) as “the most widespread and the most dangerous” of “three great waves of Jacobite activity.”

Responding vigorously, the newly ascendant Prime Minister** Robert Walpole used anti-Jacobite security measures to lay his firm hand on the helm of state. A Dutch envoy in 1723 wrote that one of its progenitors, Sir Henry Goring, “had formed a company out of the Waltham Blacks for the Pretender’s service” and that this perceived Jacobite association of skulking soot-faced poachers and potential guerrillas “led to the bringing of the Waltham Black Act into Parliament.”†

In a conspiracy of disaffected nobles, Layer might have been the least august participant — and perhaps this explains why he was the one to pay the highest price.

A successful Middle Temper barrister of strictly commoner stock, Layer’s successful practice earned him the confidence of Lord North and Grey, one of the other chief Jacobite conspirators.

Himself a ready adherent of same, Layer communicated directly with the Pretender, even traveling to Rome in 1721 to brief him personally on the plot. The volume of incriminating correspondence thereby produced, some of it in the hands of a mistress who would shop him, brought Layer his death sentence — albeit only after dramatically attempting an escape. His severed head would cast a rotted warning mounted atop Temple Bar.

Many died for the Stuart cause down the years but in the present affair only Layer would quaff the cup of martyrdom.

For others involved, who had been more circumspect about their paper trails and associates, treason would meet with less lethal revenge. Held in the Tower of London for two years, Atterbury himself proved elusive for a proper prosecution despite having corresponded directly with the Pretender with suggestive but discreet language (e.g., “the time is now come when, with a very little assistance from your friends abroad, your way to your friends at home is become safe and easy” in April 1721); instead, the Commons voted a bill of pains and penalties depriving him of his office and exiling him. Lord North and Grey followed him to the continent; like combinations of dispossession and disgrace befell all the other conspirators too.


Plaque to Christopher Layer in Aylsham, where he once practiced.

Poet Alexander Pope,‡ a Catholic, was close with Bishop Atterbury and wrote him an epitaph upon his passing.

For Dr. Francis Atterbury,
Bishop of Rochester,
Who died in Exile at Paris, in 1732.

[His only Daughter having expired in his arms, immediately after she arrived in France to see him.]

DIALOGUE.

SHE.

Yes, we have liv’d — one pang, and then we part!
May Heav’n, dear Father! now have all thy Heart.
Yet ah! how once we lov’d, remember still,
Till you are Dust like me.

HE.

               Dear Shade! I will:
Then mix this Dust with thine — O Spotless Ghost!
O more than Fortune, Friends, or Country lost!
Is there on earth one Care, one Wish beside?
Yes — Save my Country, Heavn’,
               — He said, and dy’d.

* Jacobites had only recently been defeated in a 1715 rising; they retained enough vim to try again in 1745.

** Walpole is often regarded retrospectively as the first Prime Minister, but this was not an official rank in his time: indeed, it was a defamation used against him and which Walpole rejected. (“I unequivocally deny that I am sole or Prime Minister and that to my influence and direction all the affairs of government must be attributed.”)

† Quote from Katherine West Scheil in Shapeskeare Survey 51.

‡ In other Atterbury-related celebrity litterateur brushes, Edward Gibbon’s Stuart-sympathizing grandfather was obliged by the Jacobite scandal to retire to his estate, “disqualified from all public trust.” The erudite historian would recall that “in the daily devotions of the family the name of the king for whom they prayed was prudently omitted.”

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1723: Hermann Christian von Wolffradt, Chancellor of Mecklenburg-Schwerin

Add comment September 16th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Hermann Christian von Wolffradt was beheaded by the German duchy of Mecklenburg which he had long served as a minister of state.

Pomerania, the territorial strip along the south of the Baltic Sea,* has often been divided in its history — as it is now (between Germany and Poland) and as it was then (between Sweden and the emerging Prussian empire — with Mecklenburg-Schwerin still an independent principality destined eventually to be subsumed into Prussia/Germany). Various products of the noble Wolffradt house lived and served the different realms that planted flags in Pomerania; our man’s father, also named Hermann von Wolffradt, was chancellor of Swedish Pomerania.**

Our Hermann Christian was a chip off the old block, but since he got a slice of the patrimony on the Prussian side, he climbed the ranks of the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

He was a fixture in the court of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm I (not to be confused with his contemporary Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s severe father). But Wolffradt’s relationship with Friedrich Wilhelm’s son and successor, Karl Leopold, proved to be a strained one even as Wolffradt reached the position of Chancellor in 1721. This was no great distinction, as Karl Leopold’s relations were rocky with just about everyone; he called in Russian troops to beef with the Swedes, and so alienated the Mecklenburg estates that by 1728 the Holy Roman Emperor had him deposed.

Karl Leopold might have first suspected his chancellor — whose wife was incidentally also Karl Leopold’s mistress — of conniving with the duchy’s knights against him in the 1710s. By 1721 the duke was on his guard against his minister once more, and contrived to convict him of disloyalty and have him beheaded at Dömitz.

* Its name derives from the Slavic “po more” — “by the sea”.

** And our executed Hermann’s younger brother Carl Gustav von Wolffradt was a general in the Swedish army, while Carl’s most notable son was Erich Magnus von Wolffradt, a Prussian general.

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1723: The first London executions under the Waltham Black Act

3 comments December 4th, 2012 Headsman

“The law of England has displayed no unnecessary nicety, in apportioning the punishments of death …. Kill your father, or catch a rabbit in a warren — the penalty is the same! Destroy three kingdoms, or destroy a hop-bine — the penalty is the same!”

-Sir Thomas Buxton, commenting on the “Bloody Code” in 1821

E.P. Thompson’s classic Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act, has its titular legislation as “an expression of the ascendancy of a Whig oligarchy, which created new laws and bent old legal forms in order to legitimize its own property and status”

On this date in 1723, seven Waltham Blacks were hanged at Tyburn.

These poachers were the impressive first salvo of the Black Act, a new-minted statute early in the landmark government of Robert Walpole.

This law had been enacted to combat the rise of game poaching. As we’ve noted before, poaching was a longtime conflict zone in a Great Britain emerging as distinctly capitalist.

The Black Act would not merely sharpen those conflicts — it would intentionally define them, helping to enclose a labor marketplace enforced with hemp.* The Black Act added nearly 50 capital offenses to the rolls; it was a seminal statute for the 18th century’s notorious “Bloody Code”.

“The Black Act had a much wider sweep than a statute intended merely to protect the royal forests,” Frank McLynn notes. Poaching gangs “provided the occasion for draconian legislation; they were not its cause.”

These huntsmen were, early in the 18th century, increasingly bold taking game on forest preserves in defiance of hunting restrictions that made an absurd mishmash of feudal anachronisms and latter-day statues all of which contrived to limit the hunt only to a handful of wealthy landed aristocrats. It was, per Blackstone, “a bastard slip, known by the name of the game laws … wantoning in the highest vigour.”

This vigourous wantoning actually made for a multilateral class conflict. The rural poor, being displaced by enclosures, were barred from opting out of proletarianization for a life on the forage. (Nobody was allowed to sell game meat.) Sportsmen had the run of the land, but only the very richly landed could be “sportsmen”: small farmers were forbidden to take game even on their own property, whereas those whose huge estates licensed them to hunt were entitled to tramp through neighboring crops in pursuit of their quarry.

Poaching followed these un-neighborly injuries to traditional commons rights as vigorously as hounds follow hares. The state answered with the Black Act, and did not scruple to accuse known companies of “Blacks” of being Jacobite catspaws.

So named because it targeted poachers’ practice of “blackening” their faces, the 1722 law made it a hanging crime to go on the hunt in disguise, as well as a hanging crime to poach deer, rabbits, conies, or fish. Formerly, “deer-stealing” and the like had been mere misdemeanors.

The act also mandated death for a broad range of other rustic crimes such as damaging orchards, gardens, or cattle, with like penalties attached to conspiring to commit any of these crimes or rescuing anyone imprisoned for these crimes.**

The seven hanged this date were “Blacks” who happened to be captured shortly after the Black Act took effect in mid-1723 — from Windsor forest, and elsewhere. As a show of resolve in enforcing its grim new decrees, the crown had all these men shipped to London, far from their own communities where jurymen themselves aggrieved by game laws were known to acquit.

* Lest one doubt this red-tinged historiography of the Act, its apologists were no less clear on its objectives.

“No man, however successful in the profession, can expect to get as much profit by deer-stealing, as by following his lawful business,” intoned the Newgate Calendar about today’s hangings. “[Y]oung persons cannot learn a more important maxim than that in the scripture; ‘the hand of the diligent maketh rich.’

“In this place it may not be improper to make a single remark on the game laws. These are supposed to be, possibly not without reason, severe: it is contended that those animals which are wild by nature are equally the property of every man. Perhaps this is the truth: but persons in the lower ranks of life should remember, that when laws are once enacted, THEY MUST BE OBEYED. Safety lies in acquiescence with, not in opposition to, legal institutions.” (emphasis added)

** Just for good measure, it also prescribed the noose for just about every form of arson, and for anyone who “shall wilfully and maliciously shoot at any person in any dwelling-house, or other place” regardless of injury.

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1723: Margaret Fleck, with a fresh dempster

1 comment June 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Margaret Fleck was hanged in Glasgow for murdering her infant child.

According to “The Last Speech and Confession of Margaret fleck who was Executed at the Howgate-Head of Glasgow on the 5th of June for the Murdering of her Own Child”* (it does what it says on the tin):

I am brought this day, and that justly, to suffer for the murder of my own child, and I doubt not but that it will be expected, and I think it most proper and my indispensable duty, that as I have sinned so heinously against God, so I should glorify him by repenting my unnatural, atrocious and bloody fact — the murder of mine own child … For which crime, and all my other sins I desire heartily to mourn, and to fly to the fountain that is opened to the House of David and the Inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness; and I desire to take shame and confusion of face to my self for my sins and iniquities, especially for the bad entertainment I gave to the gospel of Christ.

At the time, death sentences in Scotland had to be pronounced not only by the judges but by the dempster, a juridical office responsible for the actual execution.

Major League Baseball pitcher Ryan Dempster: would he hang Margaret Fleck?

In this case, dempster Thomas Cochran refused to join the sentence, evidently partaking in a popular discomfort with Fleck’s hanging. Nothing daunted,

their Lordships having desired the Sheriff Depute to provide another Dempster instantly, or else to do it himself, he craved their lordships might delay the same till the next day, against which time he should have one provided. Which being condescended to by their Lordships, they continued pronouncing of sentence against the said Margaret Fleck till to-morrow at nyne o’clock; with certification that if the Sheriff Depute did not provide a Dempster against that time, they would oblige him to do it himself …

The Sheriff Depute wriggled off the hook when a guy named Robert Yeats stepped up and did the Dempstering.

* As cited by Anne-Marie Kilday in “‘Monsters of the Vilest Kind': Infanticidal Women and Attitudes to their Criminality in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Family & Community History, Nov. 2008.

Kilday observes that “pamphlet material relating to deviant behaviour … became popular sooner [in Scotland than in England], with publications beginning in earnest in and around 1702, nearly three quarters of a century ahead of publishers south of the Tweed. In addition, it was unquestionably infanticide (and latterly child killing in general), more than any other crime, which became the focus for the pamphlet literature produced.”

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1723: Major Jean Abram Davel

2 comments April 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Major Jean Davel was beheaded for an abortive separatist bid in Vaud.

The French-speaking Swiss Canton was at this time under the heavy-handed domination of neighboring Bern(e), part of an oligarchic arrangement of power in Switzerland that would provoke regular unrest.

Davel (German Wikipedia page), a notary turned soldier who had fought at Villmergen, identified with the underdog.

On March 31, 1723, Davel took advantage of a general absence of bailiffs gone to Berne for government sinecures, and marched 600 men to the Vaud capital of Lausanne to pitch the town on breaking away from its Teutonic overlords.

Instead, the city worthies paid him lip service just long enough to betray him.*

“I see well enough,” Davel observed, “I will be the first victim in this affair.”

Yup.

But he held firm under torture to his insistence that the revolt was his doing alone (well, his and God’s), and perhaps thereby saved others from sharing his fate.


The Execution of Major Davel, by Charles Gleyre. A very in-depth analysis of this work by Michel Thevoz titled “Painting and Ideology: A Commentary on a Painting by Charles Gleyre” is available in pdf form here.

Davel is noted for checking out with a unique scaffold speech, discoursing on a topic rarely explored on that platform: the role of music in worship.**

As concerns the praise of God, in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense of orderliness, any real music, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion? Yet this part of divine service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our hearts to God … Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasize my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are at present guilty in connection with it.

In a similar vein, the 52-year-old groused at the kids these days, to wit, young divinity students in attendance who, in the immortal tradition of kids these days throughout all days,

neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God. I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry.

Music in worship was in the Zeitgeist, and 1723 in liturgical composition suggests the (otherwise wholly unrelated to Davel) move by Johann Sebastian Bach that very year to Leipzig. Bach took up his post there just weeks after Davel lost his head, and would spend the remaining 27 years of his life in Leipzig. But it only took him until the very next Easter to lift up his congregation’s heart to God with the Johannes-Passion.

* Better late than never, Lausanne gave Davel a statue.

** According to Percy A. Scholes, “Church Music: A Plea from the Scaffold,” The Musical Times, vol. 78, no. 1136 (Oct. 1937).

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