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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Theft

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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..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gallows Humor,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason

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