1685: Elizabeth Gaunt, for refuge

Add comment October 23rd, 2018 Thomas Babington Macaulay

(Thanks to Thomas Babington Macaulay for the guest post on “the blackest [case] which disgraced the sessions” prosecuting the Rye House Plot to kidnap and murder King Charles II and his Catholic brother soon-to-be-heir James. It originally appeared in Macaulay’s History of England. -ed.)

Among the persons concerned in the Rye House plot was a man named James Burton. By his own confession he had been present when the design of assassination was discussed by his accomplices.

When the conspiracy was detected, a reward was offered for his apprehension. He was saved from death by an ancient matron of the Baptist persuasion, named Elizabeth Gaunt.

This woman, with the peculiar manners and phraseology which then distinguished her sect, had a large charity. Her life was passed in relieving the unhappy of all religious denominations, and she was well known as a constant visitor of the gaols.

Her political and theological opinions, as well as her compassionate disposition, led her to do everything in her power for Burton. She procured a boat which took him to Gravesend, where he got on board of a ship bound for Amsterdam. At the moment of parting she put into his hand a sum of money which, for her means, was very large.

Burton, after living some time in exile, returned to England with Monmouth, fought at Sedgemoor, fled to London, and took refuge in the house of John Fernley, a barber in Whitechapel.

Fernley was very poor. He was besieged by creditors. He knew that a reward of a hundred pounds had been offered by the government for the apprehension of Burton. But the honest man was incapable of betraying one who, in extreme peril, had come under the shadow of his roof.

Unhappily it was soon noised abroad that the anger of James was more strongly excited against those who harboured rebels than against the rebels themselves. He had publicly declared that of all forms of treason the hiding of traitors from his vengeance was the most unpardonable. Burton knew this. He delivered himself up to the government; and he gave information against Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt.

They were brought to trial. The villain whose life they had preserved had the heart and the forehead to appear as the principal witness against them.

They were convicted. Fernley was sentenced to the gallows, Elizabeth Gaunt to the stake. Even after all the horrors of that year, many thought it impossible that these judgments should be carried into execution. But the King was without pity. Fernley was hanged. Elizabeth Gaunt was burned alive at Tyburn on the same day on which Cornish suffered death in Cheapside.

She left a paper written, indeed, in no graceful style, yet such as was read by many thousands with compassion and horror. “My fault,” she said, “was one which a prince might well have forgiven. I did but relieve a poor family; and lo! I must die for it.”

She complained of the insolence of the judges, of the ferocity of the gaoler, and of the tyranny of him, the great one of all, to whose pleasure she and so many other victims had been sacrificed. In so far as they had injured herself, she forgave them: but, in that they were implacable enemies of that good cause which would yet revive and flourish, she left them to the judgment of the King of Kings.

To the last she preserved a tranquil courage, which reminded the spectators of the most heroic deaths of which they had read in Fox. William Penn, for whom exhibitions which humane men generally avoid seem to have had a strong attraction, hastened from Cheapside, where he had seen Cornish hanged, to Tyburn, in order to see Elizabeth Gaunt burned. He afterwards related that, when she calmly disposed the straw about her in such a manner as to shorten her sufferings, all the bystanders burst into tears.

It was much noticed that, while the foulest judicial murder which had disgraced even those times was perpetrating, a tempest burst forth, such as had not been known since that great hurricane which had raged round the deathbed of Oliver. The oppressed Puritans reckoned up, not without a gloomy satisfaction the houses which had been blown down, and the ships which had been cast away, and derived some consolation from thinking that heaven was bearing awful testimony against the iniquity which afflicted the earth. Since that terrible day no woman has suffered death in England for any political offence.


Newgate, 22d of Octob. 1685.

Mrs. Gaunt’s Speech, written the Day before her Sufferings.

Not knowing whether I should be suffered or able, because of Weaknesses that are upon me through my hard and close Imprisonment, to speak at the Place of Execution; I writ these few Lines to signifie, That I am well reconciled to the Way of my God towards me, though it be in Ways I looked not for; and by Terrible Things, yet in Righteousness; having given me Life, he ought to have the disposing of it, when and how he pleases to call for it; and I desire to offer up my AH to him, it being but my reasonable Service; and also the first Terms that Jesus Christ offers, that he that will be his Disciple, must forsake all, and follow all; and therefore let none think hard, or be discouraged at what hath happened at me; for he doth nothing without Cause, in all he hath done to us, he being holy in all his Ways, and righteous in all his Works; and ’tis but my Lot in common with poor desolate Sion at this Day.

Neither do I find in my Heart the least Regret for what I have done in the Service of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in succouring and securing any of his poor Sufferers, that have shewed Favour to his righteous Cause: Which Cause, though now it be fallen and trampled upon, as if it had not been anointed, yet it shall revive, and God will plead it at another Rate than ever he hath done yet, and reckon with all its Opposers and malicious Haters; and therefore let all that love and fear him, not omit the least Duty that comes to Hand, or lyes before them, knowing that now it hath need of them, and expects they shall serve him.

And I desire to bless his holy Name, that he hath made me useful in my Generation to the Comfort and Relief of many Desolate Ones, and the Blessing of those that are ready to perish has come upon me, and being helpt to make the Heart of the Widow to sing. And I bless his holy Name, that in all this, together with what I was charged with, I can approve my Heart to him, that I have done His Will; tho’ it does cross Man’s Will, and the Scriptures that satisfie me are. Isaiah 16. 4, Hide the Outcasts, betray not him that wandereth. And Obad. 13 14, Thou shouldst not have.given up those of his that did escape in the Day of his Distress.

But man says, You shall give them up, or you shall die for it. Now who to obey, judge ye.

So that I have Cause to rejoyce and be exceeding glad, in that I suffer for Righteousness Sake, and that I am accounted worthy to suffer for Well-doing, and that God has accepted any Service from me, which has been done in Sincerity, tho’ mixed with manifold Infirmities, which he hath been pleased for Christ’s Sake to cover and forgive.

And now as concerning my Fact, as it is called, alas it was but a little one, and might well become a Prince to forgive; but he that shews no Mercy, shall find none: And I may say of it in the Language of Jonathan, I did but taste a little Honey, and lo I must die for it. I did but relieve an unworthy, poor, distressed Family, and lo I must die for it.

Well, I desire in the Lamb-like Gospel Spirit to forgive all that are concerned, and to say, Lord, lay it not to their Charge; but I fear he will not: Nay, I believe when he comes to make Inquisition for Blood, it will be found at the Door of the furious Judge; who, because I could not remember Things through my Dauntedness at Burton’s Wife’s and Daughter’s Vileness, and my Ignorance, took Advantage thereat, and would not hear me, when I had called to Mind that which I am sure would have invalidated their Evidence; tho’ he granted something of the same Nature to another, yet denied it to me.

My Blood will also be found at the Door of the unrighteous Jury, who found me Guilty upon the single Oath of an Out-lawed Man; for there was none but his Oath about the Money, who is no legal Witness, though he be pardoned, his Out-lawry not being’ recalled; and also the Law requires two Witnesses in Point of Life: And then about my going with him to the Place mentioned, ’twas by his own Words, before he was Out-lawed, for ’twas two Months after his absconding; and tho’ in a Proclamation, yet not High Treason, as I have heard; so that I am clearly murdered by you.

And also Bloody Mr. A. who has so insatiably hunted after my Life; and though it is no Profit to him, through the ill Will he bore me, left no Stone unturned, as I have Ground to believe, till he brought it to this; and shewed Favour to Burton, who ought to have died for his own Fault, and not bought his own Life with mine; and Capt. R. who is cruel and severe to all under my Circumstances, and did at that Time, without all mercy or Pity, hasten my Sentence, and held up my Hand, that it might be given; all which, together with the Great One of all, by whose Power all these, and a Multitude more of Cruelties are done, I do heartily and freely forgive, as against me; but as it is done in an implacable Mind against the Lord Christ, and his righteous Cause and Followers, I leave it to him who is the Avenger of all such Wrongs, who will tread upon Princes as upon Mortar, and be terrible to the Kings of the Earth: And know this also, that though ye are seemingly fixt, and because of the Power in your Hand, are writing out your Violence, and dealing with a despiteful Hand, because of the old and new Hatred; by impoverishing and every Way distressing of those you have got under you; yet unless you can secure Jesus Christ, and all his Holy Angels, you shall never do your Business, nor your Hands accomplish your Enterprizes; for he will be upon you ere you are aware; and therefore, O that you would be wise, instructed and learn, is the Desire of her that finds no Mercy from you,

Elizabeth Gaunt.

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1685: Dame Alice Lisle, first victim of the Bloody Assizes

3 comments September 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1685, an infamous judicial bloodbath claimed its first and most controversial victim.

Dame Alice (or Alicia) Lisle (or Lyle) was beheaded in Winchester for harboring fugitives from the Battle of Sedgemoor, where pretender and fellow execution-fodder Monmouth was defeated.


Alice Lisle Concealing Fugitives, by Edward Matthew Ward. Detailed views here.

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.

Macaulay describes this infamous landmark case.

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.

Though posterity has the luxury of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand assessment, he remains a villain to most accounts … like the vengeful verse to his memory that prefaces this Victorian text on the Assizes.

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.

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

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, often to the fury of spectators. 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.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

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.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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