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

2 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

15 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. 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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