1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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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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