1651: James Stanley, Earl of Derby

Add comment October 15th, 2015 Headsman

Oliver Cromwell famously called his victory in the last battle of the English Civil War “a crowning mercy” … but it was anything but for royalist nobleman James Stanley, who was beheaded a few weeks afterwards, on this date in 1651.

Packing the marvelous title of Earl of Derby and the Marvel Comics-esque one of Baron Strange, Stanley was the maternal grandson of playwright Edward de Vere.

He had fought the cavalier side in the 1640s and made his name notorious with the storming of Bolton that resulted in the Bolton Massacre. Weeks later, he was present when royalist fortunes went pear-shaped in the north at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Stanley holed up on the Isle of Man after King Charles I lost his head, refusing his enemies’ every blandishment until he could re-enter the field as a commander for Charles II‘s reboot of hostilities.

This also proved a catastrophic failure, and while Charles was able to slip back to continental exile the Lord Derby could not find such obliging oak trees as served his master.*

Though given terms by his captors, a court martial subsequently disallowed such liberality to the butcher of Bolton and condemned him as a traitor.

The parliamentarians would take him back to Bolton to face his punishment; the spot of the beheading is marked by a column in Bolton’s market cross.

Undependable local folklore holds that Lord Derby spent his last night in the ancient (and still-extant) Ye Olde Man and Scythe inn, whose environs exhibit some artifacts of Lord Derby, including a prop severed head.

It’s even said that Stanley’s ghost haunts the pub.

* Stanley was also the Lord of Mann (i.e., of the Isle of Man), and the efforts of Stanley’s wife to negotiate surrender of the royalist island in exchange for her husband’s safety triggered the rebellion of Illiam Dhone.

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1648: Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, royalists

2 comments August 28th, 2015 Headsman


The Death of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle, Monday, Aug. 28, 1648

By the old wall at Colchester,
With moss and grass o’ergrown,
The curious, thoughtful wanderer
Will note a small, white stone.
Tis sunken now — yet slight it not;
That stone can speak, and tell
A tale of blood; it marks the spot
Where Lisle and Lucas fell.

On earth there is no abject thing
So abject as a fallen king.
And Charles, despoiled, cashiered, discrowned,
In his own halls a captive bound,
Spurned, crushed by countless ills forlorn,
Drinks to the dregs the cup of scorn.

Yet in that hour of blank despair,
Lisle, Lucas, Capel, Compton dare
Their wrecks of shattered strength to call
To Colchester’s beleaguered wall;
Round Charles, in hope ‘gainst hope to cling
Proclaim, e’en yet, that Charles is king;
And one more mighty effort try
For honour, love, and loyalty.

Vain all the dauntless venture — vain
Their valour, piety, and pain.
Who in the field the foe repels
Grim Famine in the city quells.
The soldier, gaunt and staggering, crawls
From post to post along the walls;
With leaden eyes the townsmen meet,
Like spectres, in the howling street.
No bread within — without, the foe —
No friend, no succour nigh —
The leaguer closer drawn — they know
They needs must yield, or die.

They yield — and Fairfax, bloody heart!
Ere yet the shades of evening part,
Dooms to a sudden, felon grave
Lisle, Lucas, bravest of the brave;
And Ireton, in exultant glee,
Hastes on the murderous tragedy.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Nor let them live another night,
Nor mother, sister, brother see;
Nor give them space to order right
Their souls to meet their Maker’s sight!”

One hour — brief respite! So to prayer,
Last refuge of the soul, they went —
To prayer, and blessed Sacrament;
And then rose up, refreshed, to bear
Whate’er of added scorn or sting
The circumstance of death might bring.

“Lead Lucas forth!” Forth Lucas came,
And on the files of musqueteers
Smiled as in scorn; in step and frame
No trembling, and in soul no fears.
But, as from fields of carnage wet,
He oft had marched to victory,
Though vanquished, fettered, doomed to die,
He stands the victor-hero yet;
And cried, “In battle’s stern embrace
Oft I and death met face to face;
See now in death I death defy,
And mark how Lucas dares to die.”

He bowed his knees a little space,
With clasped hands, and eyes lift up;
And craved of Jesu parting grace
To sweeten pain’s last bitter cup;
Then laid his bosom bare, and cried,
“I’m ready: rebels, do your worst;”
Fell on his face, and groaned, and died,
Pierced with four savage wounds accurst.

“Haste on the murderous tragedy!
Yea, howl aloud for victims more;
And with remorseless butchery,
Let Lisle be bathed in Lucas’ gore.”

He treads the stage of death, his eye
Glancing defiance round —
He sees his brother’s body lie
Stretched on the bloody ground.
Tis more than e’en a Lisle can bear —
The mighty heart gives way;
He weeps amain, and kneeling there
Beside his dead, in love’s despair
Kisses the lifeless clay;
And sobs his requiem: “Oh, my friend,
My brother, thou hast reached thy goal!
Christ is thy rest — Christ me defend;
My spirit with thy spirit blend,
Thou peerless and unspotted soul!”

Then stands erect, the anguish past;
And marks in lines the levelled gun —
“Come nearer, men.” “Nay,” answered one,
“Fear not, good Sir, we’ll hit you fast.”
“Ah!” cried the warrior, “oft in fight
Nearer to me than now ye came;
In field and fort, by day and night
I met you, and ye missed your aim.
And oh, how oft as well ye know,
In hottest blood and deadliest strife,
I checked my hand, and spared the blow,
And sheathed my sword, and gave you life.
I die content; my God shall bring
Grace for my soul’s anneal;
I die for faith, for Charles my King,
And for my country’s weal.”

With invocations loud and deep
On Jesu’s blessed name.
E’en as he prayed, he fell asleep
When the death-volley came.
Where Lucas fell, there Lisle lay dead —
They slept on one same gory bed.
One in their common death; in life
One in the same dread, glorious strife;
As one to live in honour high,
So one in mighty heart to die.
One grave contains the sacred dead —
Go, ponder there awhile;
Then say with pride, “My country bred
A Lucas and a Lisle.”

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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1645: Conor Macguire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen

Add comment February 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Conor Ma(c)guire, Lord Baron of Enniskillen, was drawn, hanged, and quartered at Tyburn.

Lord Macguire’s offense had occurred three-plus years earlier during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 — a bloody Catholic-Protestant civil war that would start the ball rolling towards Cromwell‘s depredations.

If the grievances of the latter are still well-remembered, English and Scottish Protestants had their own bill of particulars from the Irish Rebellion over Catholic-perpetrated slaughters like the Portadown Massacre. (Irish Catholics had their grievances from spending the preceding decade suffering land grabs for English settlers under the authoritarian rule of Thomas Wentworth. And on it goes.)

Actually, in the wake of the Irish Rebellion, there was a systematic project to collect witness testimony (not all of it reliable) about Catholic-on-Protestant violence. This codex would come in handy for Cromwell’s subsequent statecraft; it’s freely available online in an enormous searchable database.

Such beyond-the-pale doings took place literally beyond “the Pale” around Dublin, and outside similar fortified spots where the English holed themselves up.

These outposts gave the foreign heretics quite a bit of leverage, which Macguire and some other lords contrived to reverse via a plot to seize Dublin castle, kill its English lords, “and to put all the Protestants there likewise to the sword.” It was the lynchpin of an audacious coup that involved similar actions at English strongholds all around the island.

While some other fortresses did succumb, the plot against Dublin failed when Macguire’s co-conspirator Hugh “the Stereotype” MacMahon got drunk the night before and blabbed about it to his Presbyterian brother-in-law. Thus narrowly preserved, Dublin authorities arrested MacMahon and Macguire. (MacMahon was drawn and quartered in November 1644.)

The personal was very much political here, with the loss of lands and revenues under Wentworth stoking national and religious resentments against the English lords and settlers. Macguire described the recruiting pitch made by one of the rebellion’s leading spirits, Rory O’Mo(o)re: “[O’More] began to lay down to me the case that I was in then, overwhelmed in debt, the smallness of my estate, and the greatness of the estate my ancestors had, and how I should be sure to get it again, or at least a good part thereof.” (Source)

Whatever rank greed held in Conor Macguire’s motivations, however, he was constant to his horrific end. This interesting account of the scene on the scaffold will hardly fail to move the most ardent Orangeman to a bit of pity for the poor bastard enduring in his last moments on earth an endless badgering by the London sheriff to endorse a policy statement on intersectional strife.

On Thursday, February 20th, he was drawn on a sledge from the Tower, through London, and so to Tyburn; when being removed into a cart, he kneeled and prayed awhile; after which Sheriff Gibbs spake to him, representing the heinousness of his crime, and the vast numbers who had been murdered by that conspiracy, for which he was to suffer, and, therefore, exhorted him to express his sorrow for it: to which he answered, ‘I desire Almighty God to forgive me my sins.’

Sheriff Gibbs.—Do you believe you did well in those wicked actions?

Macg.—I have but a short time, do not trouble me.

Sher.—Sir, it is but just I should trouble you, that you may not be troubled for ever.

Macg.—I beseech you, Sir, trouble me not; I have but a little time to spend.

Sher.—I shall give you as much time after as you shall spend to give satisfaction to the people; I do require you, as an instrument set in God’s hands here, to make an acknowledgment to the people, whether you are sorry for what you have done or no; whether it be good or no.

Macg.—I beseech you do not trouble me; I am not disposed to give you an account. Pray give .me leave to pray.

Dr. Sibbald.—Give glory to God, that your soul may not be presented to God with the blood of so many thousand people.

Sher.—You are either to go to heaven or hell. If you make not an ingenuous confession your case is desperate. Had you any commission or not?

Macg.—I tell you there was no commission that ever I saw.

Sher.—Who were actors or plotters with you? or, who gave you any commission?

Macg.—For God’s sake give mo leave to depart in peace. They then asked him if he had not some pardon or bull from the Pope for what he did? to which he only answered, ‘I am not of the same religion with you.’ And being further urged about a bull, or pardon, said, ‘I saw none of it; all that I knew I delivered on my examinations; all that I said on my examinations are true; all that I said is right. I beseech you let me depart in peace.’ And so not returning them any answer to their question, he continued mumbling over a paper, which he had in his hand, as he had done from his first coming. The sheriffs commanded his pockets to be searched, whether ho had no bull or pardon about him, but they found in his pocket only some beads and a crucifix, which were taken from him. And then Dr. Sibbald said to him, ‘Come, my Lord, leave these, and acknowledge your fault to God and the world: one drop of the blood of Jesus Christ is able to purge you of all the heavy load that is upon you; it is not your Ave Marias nor these things will do you any good, but it is Agnus Dei qui tollit peccata Mundi.’ The Lord Macguire seemed not to regard his discourse, but read out of his paper to the people as followeth:

Since I am here to die, I desire to depart with a quiet mind, and with the marks of a good Christian; that is, asking forgiveness first of God, and next of the world. And I do forgive, from the bottom of my heart, all my enemies and offenders, even those that have a hand in my death. I die a Roman Catholick, and although I have been a great sinner, yet I am now, by God’s grace, heartily sorry for all my sins; and I do most confidently trust to be saved, not by my own works, but only by the passion, merits, and mercy of my dear Saviour Jesus Christ, into whose hand I commend my soul.

And then added, ‘I beseech you, gentlemen, let me have a little time to say my prayers.’

Sher.—Sir, if you answer ingenuously to those questions we shall ask you, you shall have time afterwards; whether do you account the shedding of Protestant blood to be a sin or not, and whether do you desire pardon of God for that sin?

Macg.—I do desire pardon of God for all my sins: I cannot resolve you in anything for my part.

Sher.—You can tell what your conscience dictates to you. Do you think it was a sin or not?

Macg.—For my part I cannot determine it.

Sher.—Then now it seems nothing to you to kill so many.

Macg.—How do you mean killing of them? to tell you my mind directly, for the killing, I do not know that, but I think, the Irish had a great cause for their wars.

Sher.—Was there any assault made upon you? Had you not entered into a covenant? Had you not engaged yourselves by oath to the king?

Macg.—For Jesus Christ’s sake, I beseech you, give me a little time to prepare myself.

Sher.—Have pity on your own soul.

Macg.—For God’s sake have pity on me, and let me say my prayers.

Sher.—I say the like to you, in relation to your own soul, whether do you think the massacre of so many thousand Protestants was a good act? For Jesus Christ’s sake have pity on your soul.

Macg.—Pray let me have a little time to say my prayers.

All this time his eye was mostly on his papers, mumbling something out of them to himself. Whereupon one of the sheriffs demanded these papers from him; he flung them down; they were taken up and given to the sheriff. They asked him further, whether they were not some agreement with the recusants in England? Whereunto he answered, ‘I take it upon my death, I do not know that any man knew of it;’ and after some other such like talk, the sheriff bidding him prepare for death, he said: ‘I beseech all the Catholics here to pray for me. I beseech God to have mercy on my soul:’ and so was executed.

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1641: Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford

1 comment May 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1641, the doomed English monarch Charles I regretfully sacrificed one of his ablest ministers to the headsman.

Thomas Wentworth and loyal doggie, painted c. 1639 by Anthony van Dyck.

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had cut his teeth in Parliament in the 1620s as an advocate of the rights of the Commons as against those of the king, but the notion that he’d be hoisted by his own petard would be little comfort to a King soon destined to find himself in similar straits.

After Parliament forced through the 1628 Petition of Right (and Wentworth’s pro-monarchist personal rival George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham had been conveniently assassinated) Wentworth went over to the king’s camp with the sententious declaration

The authority of a king is the keystone which closeth up the arch of order and government.

The authority of that king, which Wentworth now worked vigorously to uphold during the crown’s Parliament-free Personal Rule of the 1630s, also elevated Wentworth to higher honors.

He would have occasion to exercise his own “personal rule” as dictatorial viceroy in Ireland, and when push came to shove between King and Commons, advocated the most tyrannical measures to compel the compliance of obstinate Englishmen.

By 1640, Wentworth had become in the eyes of his enemies the very embodiment of the monarch’s every sin, and when Charles was obliged by his deteriorating situation to summon Parliament once more, its first order of business was the impeachment of this obnoxious retainer. When Wentworth skillfully repelled the charges and won acquittal on April 10, his parliamentarian opponents simply passed a bill of attainder condemning him to death anyway.

The only thing that stood in the way of the chop was the signature of that ruler whom Wentworth had served so loyally. As Charles dithered — for he had personally guaranteed Wentworth his safety upon his most recent summons to London — popular hatred for the Earl threatened to escalate the crisis into something much more dangerous for the throne.

In one last gesture of fealty, Wentworth dashed off a note to his sovereign, magnanimously releasing him from any obligation save political calculation.

Sire, out of much sadness, I am come to a resolution of that which I take to be the best becoming me; and that is, to look upon the prosperity of your sacred person and the commonwealth as infinitely to be preferred before any man’s private interest. And therefore, in few words, as I have placed myself wholly upon the honour and justice of my peers, I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of such mischiefs as may happen by your refusal to pass this bill, by this means to remove this unfortunate thing forth of the way towards that blessed agreement, which God, I trust, shall for ever establish betwixt you and your subjects. Sire, my consent herein shall acquit you more to God than all the world can do beside. To a willing man there is no injury done; and as, by God’s grace, I forgive all the world with a calmness and meekness of infinite contentment to my disloding soul, so, Sire, I can give the life of this world with all cheerfulness imaginable, in the just acknowledgment of your exceeding favours; and only beg that, in your goodness, you would vouchsafe to cast your gracious regard upon my poor son and his three sisters, less or more, and no otherwise, than their unfortunate father shall appear more or less guilty of this death. (Quoted here)

This letter’s place in the annals of sacrificial loyalty is compromised only slightly by its author’s dismay upon finding out that his feckless majesty had quickly taken up the offer:* Wentworth rolled his eyes heavenward and exclaimed

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.**

But the miscalculation was done.

Two days after Charles signed off, Wentworth was beheaded on Tower Hill to the rapture of an audience supposed to have numbered 200,000 strong.


Strafford Led to Execution, by Paul Delaroche, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Stafford, receiving the blessing of his ally, the imprisoned Archbishop William Laud.


1642 pamphlet illustration of the beheading, from here.

As things went from bad to worse for Charles in the years ahead, he would have many occasions to regret the sacrifice of so loyal and energetic a minister … and to lament, upon hearing his own death sentence, that he was suffering divine judgment for this date’s act of expedient faithlessness.

A few books about Thomas Wentworth

* In acceding to the sentence, Charles proposed giving Strafford the best part of a week to prepare himself. Parliament ignored that request and set the execution for the very next day.

** That’s Psalm 146:3.

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1645: William Laud, given to the devil

4 comments January 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason.


Portrait of William Laud by Anthony Van Dyck. For this image’s subsequent life in popular circulation (and its contribution to its subject’s beheading) see Mercurius Politicus.

This diminutive “martinet” made himself odious to the rising Puritan party through his rigorous (some would say narrow-minded) enforcement of so-called “High Church” dogma and decor. It was a time when believers were prepared to rend the fabric of the church over a literal fabric, the surplice worn by the clergy — among other innumerable points of doctrinal rectitude.

Laud’s run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I‘s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular as well as religious policy would do his sovereign no favors in the public mind.

Roughly enforcing an unpopular minority position, Laud got the woodblock blogosphere in a tizzy with heavy-handed stunts like having dissenters’ ears cut off.

That’s the sort of thing that’ll give a guy an image problem. The king’s fool, Archibald Armstrong, is supposed to have tweaked our high and mighty subject (and warned the king against his influence*) with the punny aphorism,

Give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the devil.

Funny because it’s true.

So when Charles ran out of money and finally had to call parliament in 1640, that august representative of the nation had some business with Laud. Ironically — since the prelate was always sensitive about his height — it would involve shortening him.

Laud was impeached as early as December 1640 and soon tossed in the Tower, where his neck awaited the unfolding radicalization of the pent-up Puritans and the onset of armed hostilities in their contest with the obdurate king. (While his hands blessed the allies who preceded him to the block.)


Wenceslas Hollar’s etching of William Laud’s trial.

For more about Laud’s life and work, check out the detailed Britannica entry or this Google books freebie.

* If a warning, it apparently was not heard. This 19th-century publication of Armstrong’s jests cites a 1637 royal order to the effect that

the King’s Fool, for certain scandalous words of a high nature, spoken by him against the Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury his Grace … shall have his coat pulled over his head, and be discharged of the King’s service, and banished the Court.

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1645: John Hotham the Elder

1 comment January 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645 — one day after the same fate befell his son — Sir John Hotham was beheaded by the English Parliamentarians for attempting to betray Hull to the Cavaliers in the English Civil War.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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1645: John Hotham the Younger

1 comment January 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, John Hotham the Younger — former M.P., and (too) briefly an adherent of Parliament in the English Civil War, was beheaded as a traitor.

Part of the Daily Double: John Hothams.

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Daily Double: John Hothams

2 comments January 2nd, 2010 Headsman

This father-and-son tandem of English Civil War figures dubiously upheld the parliamentary cause at the Siege of Hull, the first major action of the English Civil War.

They would be linked all the way to the block by their waffling.

Hull was worth fighting for because of its sizable arsenal. And though the elder Hotham personally barred the gates of Hull against King Charles — Hotham had been appointed governor by Parliament in a test of authority against the king’s appointment of the Earl of Newcastle — the Hothams soon cooled on the Roundheads. They wouldn’t even be around for the very next year’s Siege of Hull.

Correspondence with said Earl of Newcastle revealing the Hothams’ negotiations to betray Hull to the Royalists fell into the wrong hands. One thing led to another … and on Jan. 2 and 3, 1645, the son and then the father lost their heads at the Tower of London.

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1649: John Poyer, the lucky winner

4 comments April 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1649, John Poyer, late the mayor of Pembroke, was shot at London’s Covent Gardens for switching sides in the English Civil War.

John Pembroke had earned his Round head by taking Carew Castle from King Charles‘ forces in the First English Civil War.

But the silly hats in Parliament wanted much of the potentially dangerous army to demobilize, and do so without settling the small matter of its back pay. Poyer refused to hand over his command and Pembroke Castle to a Parliamentary agent, and sought a better deal from monarchists.**

Only with a painstaking siege was the imposing medieval fortress of Pembroke reduced. Poyer, his superior Rowland Laugharne, and Rice Powell were hauled to London and condemned to death.†

In an interesting twist, it was decided that one example would prove the point as well as three, and to allot the clemencies by chance. When the three refused to draw their own lots, a child was given the job instead, and distributed three slips of paper. Laugharne and Powell read “Life given by God.” Poyer’s was deathly blank.

Mark Twain latched onto the singular role of a child in this deadly lottery, and wrung it for every drop of pathos in a short story, “The Death Disk”.

Unlike the proposed victim of that story, Poyer did not benefit from any last-second Cromwellian pity. His death is related in the zippily titled “The Declaration and Speech of Colonell John Poyer Immediately Before his Execution in Covent-Garden neer Westminster, on Wednesday, being the 25 of this instant April, 1649. With the manner of his deportment, and his Proposals to the people of England.”‡

Having ended his speech, he went to prayers, and immediately rising up again, called the men designed for his execution to him, which were six in number, and giving them the sign when they should give fire, which was by holding up both his hands, they observed his motion, who after some few expressions to his friends about him, prepared an embracement for death, and casting his eyes to Heaven, with both hands lifted up, the Executioners (with their fire locks) did their Office, who at one voley bereav’d him of his life, his corps being taken up, was carryed away in a Coach, and the Souldiery remanded back again to White-Hall.

* A few sources say April 21, but the overwhelming majority concur on the 25th — as do the primary citations available in 17th-century comments on his death (e.g., “he was upon the 25 of this instant Aprill being Wednesday, guarded from White-Hall in a Coach, to the place of execution” in “The Declaration and speech of Colonell John Poyer before his execution…”)

** D.E. Kennedy observes that the divide between Parliament and Royalist was not so bright as might be imagined — and that Cromwell himself was at this time negotiating with the future Charles II as an expedient to get around Charles I.

† The rank and file of Welsh insubordination basically skated, a display of clemency from the Lord Protector that Ireland would not enjoy.

‡ The title promises much more scaffold drama than two and a half forgettable pages deliver — basically, that Poyer died (a) penitent; (b) Anglican; and (c) wishing for peace.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wales

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