1660: Major-General Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides

12 comments October 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the restored House of Stuart began a week of bloody justice against Charles I‘s regicides by hanging, drawing and quartering Thomas Harrison at Charing Cross.

Stuart Little

Charles’ son and heir Charles II had been stuck on the continent during the 1650’s, until the Commonwealth came apart from its own internal contradictions after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

With anarchy looming, suddenly monarchy didn’t look so bad — and Charles II had a way back into the saddle.

Beheads I Win …

The first thing on everyone’s mind was what to do about the little matter of having lopped off his dad’s head.

Political reality drove the settlement: nearly everyone in the English gentry had in some manner acquiesced to the Commonwealth during its decade-plus turn steering the ship of state; an expansive line on treason would be a nonstarter. At the same time, His Soon-To-Be-Royal-Again Majesty expected a few examples made to do right by the old man and keep king-killing well off his future subjects’ agenda.

Result: the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, granting a free pardon to all supporters of the Commonwealth save a handful of those most directly implicated in Charles I’s execution.

Weeks of frantic negotiating between the parties and private settlements of borderline cases with the royalist camp preceded the action. But Thomas Harrison wasn’t part of any of it.

… Entrails you Lose.

The rigid Puritan, one of 59 who signed the last king’s death warrant and at one time the commander of England’s armies, had been on the outs with everyone since Cromwell set up the Protectorate in 1653. Godly Tom was a “Fifth Monarchist,” anticipating the imminent return of Christ perhaps in conjunction with the imminent year 1666 … and no government felt safe about these millenarians. He’d been imprisoned several times by the Protectorate, too.

Though many attainted regicides fled for Europe or America, Harrison (possibly motivated by age and infirmity) hung out, waited for arrest, and took his punishment stolidly.

God hath covered my head many times in the day of Battle. By God I have leaped over a wall, by God I have runned through a Troop, and by my God I will go through this death.

Specifically meaning, drawn on a hurdle from Newgate to Charing Cross (with a fine vantage for the doomed on Whitehall, where Charles I had met his end), hanged but revived, his genitalia cut off and bowels carved out and burned while still conscious, and finally beheaded and his body divided into quarters for gruesome public display around town.

You have selected regicide.

Harrison died on a Saturday, and his was the opening act of a busy week in the bowel-burning business; nine other fellow regicides condemned with him would share that fate during the week ahead:

  • John Carew, on Monday the 15th;
  • John Cook and Hugh Peters, on Tuesday the 16th;
  • Thomas Scot, Gregory Clemen, Adrian Scroop and John Jones, on Wednesday the 17th;
  • Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel, on Friday the 19th.

Harrison was chosen as the first partly, perhaps, because the Fifth Monarchists were (justifiably) considered a still-extant menace, and partly because, as one account had it,

[h]e was a fierce and bloody enthusiast. And it was believed, that, while the army was in doubt, whether it was fitter to kill the king privately, or to bring him to an open trial, that he offered, if a private way was settled on, to be the man that should do it. So he was begun with. But, however reasonable this might be in itself, it had a very ill effect: for he was a man of great heat and resolution, fixed in his principles, and so persuaded of them, that he never looked after any interests of his own, but had opposed Cromwell when he set up for himself. He went through all the indignities and severities of his execution, in which the letter of the law in cases of treason was punctually observed, with a calmness or rather a cheerfulness that astonished the spectators.

“As cheerful as any man could do in that condition”

And this coda is attested by the age’s famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, whose neat and oft-quoted summation of Harrison’s fate runs thus:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe

As might be expected, vindicated royalists sought more blood than the handful of exemplars could furnish. What compromise could expiate the sin of regicide?

Poet and polemicist John Milton, having been propagandist-in-chief for the now-abortive revolution, endured the jeers of his enemies for the conspicuously apolitical stuff (a grammar book!) by which he would set his table in the years ahead.

Upon John Milton’s not suffering for his traiterous Book when the Tryers were executed, 1660.

That thou escaped’st that vengeance, which o’ertook,
Milton, thy regicides, and thy own book,
Was clemency in Charles beyond compare:
And yet thy doom doth prove more grievous far.
Old, sickly, poor, stark blind, thou writest for bread:
So for to live thoud’st call Salmasius from the dead.

(Claudius Salmasius was a French intellectual whose defense of the Stuart royal rights had been savaged by Milton during the Protectorate.)

It’s thanks to the Indemnity and Oblivion Act’s not sending Milton the way of General Harrison that we have Paradise Lost.

On this day..

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1649: Charles I

35 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

On this day..

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1684: Baillie of Jerviswood

Add comment December 24th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1684, the Scottish patriot Baillie of Jerviswood was convicted of treason and immediately executed, for his part in the Rye House Plot against the Stuart King Charles II.

Baillie was a lesser player in the Protestant scheme — whose nature and extent, or even existence, are matters of historical debate — supposedly to do away with the Catholic-leaning ruler and his outright catechumen brother and heir James. Baillie was implicated under torture, and while disowning any part of a conspiracy declined — “with striking truthfulness” — to deny a design on Scottish rebellion.

His summary hanging would enter the pantheon of English depravities in the north country, but he achieved another sort of immortality as well.

During an earlier stint in prison, a proscribed fellow patriot’s 12-year-old daughter had smuggled him messages — becoming acquainted with Baillie’s own son, whom she would eventually wed. The girl gained fame in adulthood as Lady Grizel (or Grisel, or Griselle) Baillie.

“Werena my Heart’s licht I wad dee”
-Lady Baillie

THERE ance was a may, and she lo’ed na men;
She biggit her bonnie bow’r doun in yon glen;
But now she cries, Dool and a well-a-day!
Come doun the green gait and come here away!

When bonnie young Johnnie cam owre the sea,
He said he saw naething sae lovely as me;
He hecht me baith rings and mony braw things—
And werena my heart’s licht, I wad dee.

The legendary tableau of intrigue between Baillie and his future daughter-in-law was itself fruit for literature, given time enough to ripen into legend. Kinswoman Joanna Baillie, one of the great litterateurs of the early 19th century, made use of the episode to open a lengthy ballad to Lady Grizel in Metrical Legends of Exalted Characters:

I.
Within a prison’s hateful cell,
Where, from the lofty window fell,
Thro’ grated bars, the sloping beam,
Defin’d, but faint, on couch of stone,
There sat a pris’ner sad and lone,
Like the dim tenant of a dismal dream.
Deep in the shade, by low-arch’d door,
With iron nails thick studded o’er,
Whose threshold black is cross’d by those
Who here their earthly being close,
Or issue to the light again
A scaffold with their blood to stain,–
Moved something softly. Wistful ears
Are quick of sense, and from his book
The pris’ner rais’d his eyes with eager look,–
“Is it a real form that thro’ the gloom appears?”

II
It was indeed of flesh and blood,
The form that quickly by him stood;
Of stature low, of figure light,
In motion like some happy sprite;
Yet meaning eyes and varying cheek,
Now red, now pale, seem’d to bespeak
Of riper years the cares and feeling
Which with a gentle heart were dealing.
“Such sense in eyes so simply mild!
“Is it a woman or a child?
“Who art thou, damsel sweet? are not mine eyes beguiled?”

III
“No; from the Redbraes’ tower I come;
“My father is Sir Patrick Hume;
“And he has sent me for thy good,
“His dearly honour’d Jerviswood.
“Long have I round these walls been straying,
“As if with other children playing;
“Long near the gate have kept my watch
“The sentry’s changing-time to catch.
“With stealthy steps I gain’d the shade
“By the close-winding staircase made,
“And when the surly turnkey enter’d,
“But little dreaming in his mind
“Who follow’d him so close behind,
“Into this darken’d cell, with beating heart, I ventured.”

IV
Then from the simple vest that braced
Her gentle breast, a letter traced
With well-known characters, she took,
And with an eager, joyful look,
Her eyes up to his visage cast,
His changing countenance to scan,
As o’er the lines his keen glance past.
She saw a faint glow tinge the sicky wan;
She saw his eyes thro’ tear-drops raise
To heaven their look of silent praise,
And hope’s fresh touch undoing lines of care
Which stress of evil times had deeply graven there.
Meanwhile, the joy of sympathy to trace
Upon her innocent and lovely face
Had to the sternest, darkest sceptic given
Some love of human kind, some faith in righteous Heaven.

V
What blessings on her youthful head
Were by the grateful patriot shed,
(For such he was, good and devoted,
And had at risk of life promoted
His country’s freedom and her faith,
Nor reck’ning made of worldly skathe)
How warm, confiding, and sincere,
He gave to her attentive ear
The answer which her cautious sire
Did to his secret note require;–
How after this with ‘quiries kind,
He ask’d for all she left behind
In Redbraes’ tower, her native dwelling,
And set her artless tongue a-telling,
Which urchin dear had tallest grown,
And which the greatest learning shown,
Of lesson, sermon, psalm, and note,
And Sabbath questions learnt by rote,
And merry tricks and gambols play’d
By ev’ning fire, and forfeits paid,–
I will not here rehears, nor will I say,
How, on that bless’d and long-remember’d day,
The pris’ner’s son, deserving such a sire,
First saw the tiny maid, and did admire,
That one so young and wise and good and fair
Should be an earthly thing that breath’d this nether air.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,England,God,Hanged,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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