1685: Archibald Campbell

Add comment June 30th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the 9th Earl of Argyll went the same way as the 8th.

We’ve addressed in these pages the travails borne by Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll, whose once considerable power was overwhelmed by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and came to an end under the blade of the Edinburgh maiden.

While imprisoned awaiting the chop, the 8th Earl composed for his much-reduced heir, also named Archibald Campbell, composed a volume titled Instructions to a son with a variety of foreshadowing maxims.

You have a great task to do, you must from the bottome climb up to the mount of Honour, a very abrupt and difficult ascent; which yet, nevertheless by observing the sure footings of some of your progenitors, and the slips of others, particu?larly those recent slidings of mine own, (for other they are not) you may at last attain the top, and by your own merit and your Princes favour, your House may be Culminant again.

If it shall so happen … have a care then of that Precipice; let no revenge or ambition blind you into destruction; you may poise your self with your wings of Honour and Greatness, but venture not, nor presume to fly.

Covet not with immoderate hast Lands, Riches, Honour, for it is seldom that men whose rash desires and designs are laid out that way, compass their full content, and for the most part meet with a destiny far other then they expected; and when they are once so disappointed, Fortune or rather Providence so much amazeth the judgment even of wise men, as in time of danger they know not what resolution is best to be taken. You will not be necessitated through the want of these three, so as to reach at them unlawfully, and endanger what you have in possession, and your self together

‘Tis folly to complain of life, more to be troubled at the end of it, by the reason we ought more to complain of our birth, that made and produced us mortal, then of our death, which will render us immortal.
To be long or short lived is no more then this, we come either sooner or later (no great choice) to our grave. He is very desirous of life, who is un?willing to dye when all the world is weary of him.

The kid did his late dad proud in the 1660s, regaining the attainted earldom and re-establishing the rank and wealth of their house. Argyll — and by this name henceforth we refer to Argyll fils — nurtured Presbyterian sympathies which told strongly against him when a failed Presbyterian rebellion touched off the fruitful-for-this-site era of the Killing Time.

From this point his position speedily eroded and his evasion of an oath of loyalty to Protestantism — when he finally took it he added his own unauthorized disclaimer, “only in as far as it is consistent with itself” — got him arrested, and a dubious charge of libeling the king was questionably stretched to compass a death sentence. That was around the end of 1681; on December 20 of that year, his daughter Sophia Lindsay visited him, accompanied by their page. When secluded in the dungeon, the page and the doomed man swapped clothes, and Argyll clattered away in servants’ livery to hiding in London safehouses and continental refuges.

Having already been taken for a traitor, this Argyll on the lam went all-in for unambiguous sedition. Ciphered communications of his were among the papers seized from Baillie of Jerviswood after the exposure of the Rye House Plot.

With the passing of King Charles II in 1685 and the long-feared succession of his Catholic brother James II, Scots in Holland mounted an invasion of their home country in an attempt to topple the government. Our man lent it both leadership and title: it’s known as Argyll’s Rising and was intended to complement/support the English Whig rising under the Duke of Monmouth.

Argyll’s expedition turned up in Scotland in May 1685 and instantly went sideways. Amid leadership conflicts and lukewarm recruitment, the rebellion collapsed. Argyll was captured by a militia who “would fain have concealed his rank, as they durst not release him; but he was recognised by their officer. He was led to Edinburgh, where he was treated with the same indignities as had formerly been the lot of Montrose. As the king had ordered him if taken to be put to death within three days, he was executed on his former iniquitous sentence (30th). He met his fate with piety and fortitude; embracing the instrument of death, he called it (in allusion to its name) the sweetest maiden he had ever kissed.”


The Last Sleep of Argyle (1860s) by Edward Matthew Ward: the man was reported to have slept so serenely on his last night on earth that he had to be awakened for execution.

The next generation of Campbell chiefs finally got the political calibration right, supporting the invasion of William and Mary to overthrow James II which elevated the Argylls to the dukedom which their heirs maintain to this day.

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1696: Charnock, King, and Keyes, frustrated of regicide

Add comment March 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1696, a trio of Jacobite conspirators were hanged for their failed assassination plot against King William.

An exiled loyalist to the deposed King James II, the onetime Oxford don Robert Charnock conceived what the propagandists would call “the late Hellish and Barbarous Plott” along with fellow Stuart loyalist George Barclay. Their mission in murdering William III was to catalyze a general Jacobite rising that would reverse the Glorious Revolution and restore James to the throne: it was a recurring campaign against the Dutch usurper throughout the 1690s.

Ambush was the gambit proposed by the worthies in this case, for William.

was in the habit of going every Saturday from Kensington to hunt in Richmond Park. There was then no bridge over the Thames between London and Kingston. The King therefore went, in a coach escorted by some of his body guards, through Turnham Green to the river. There he took boat, crossed the water, and found another coach and another set of guards ready to receive him on the Surrey side. The first coach and the first set of guards awaited his return on the northern bank. The conspirators ascertained with great precision the whole order of these journeys, and carefully examined the ground on both sides of the Thames. They thought that they should attack the King with more advantage on the Middlesex than on the Surrey bank, and when he was returning than when he was going … The place was to be a narrow and winding lane leading from the landing place on the north of the river to Turnham Green … a quagmire, through which the royal coach was with difficulty tugged at a foot’s pace. The time was to be the afternoon of Saturday the fifteenth of February. (Macaulay)

Some 40 assassins had been marshaled for the purpose of surprising the royal party on that occasion but as they nursed their cups in the vicinity’s public houses they received the disquieting intelligence that the king had skipped the hunt that day.

Although the inclement weather was the reason given out, the truth of the matter was that they were betrayed. In a week’s time, most of the conspirators would be in custody* and the country on a virtual war footing against prospective invasion by France. On March 11, the first three prospective assassins stood at the bar: Charnock, Edward King, and Thomas Keyes. They were plainly guilty and condemned accordingly.

King died firmly; Keyes, in “an agony of terror … [that] moved the pity of some of the spectators”; and Charnock, being repelled in his bid to turn songbird in exchange for his life, went out with a missive bitterly defending his project, for “if an army of twenty thousand men had suddenly landed in England and surprised the usurper, this would have been called legitimate war. Did the difference between war and assassination depend merely on the number of persons engaged?” (both quotes from Macaulay) Several additional conspirators would follow them to the scaffold in the weeks to come.


“The Triumphs of Providence over Hell, France & Rome”: Broadside celebrating and satirizing the deliverance of the realm from the Jacobite plot, via the British Museum.

* George Barclay, however, successfully escaped to the continent.

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1680: William Howard, Viscount Stafford

Add comment December 29th, 2017 David Hume

(Thanks to Scottish Enlightenment titan David Hume for the guest post on William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford — a Catholic peer who fell victim to the hysteria of Titus Oates‘s “Popish Plot”. It takes some time to build into the execution itself, since Hume in his History of England narratively locates it in the proto-Whig party’s frustrated parliamentary efforts to exclude from the succession the king’s Roman Catholic brother, the eventual King James II who at this time was the Duke of York. -ed.)

Besides friendship for his brother, and a regard to the right of succession, there were many strong reasons which had determined Charles to persevere in opposing the exclusion. All the royalists and the devotees to the church, that party by which alone monarchy was supported, regarded the right of succession as inviolable; and if abandoned by the king in so capital an article, it was to be feared that they would, in their turn, desert his cause, and deliver him over to the pretensions and usurpations of the country party. The country party, or the whigs, as they were called, if they did not still retain some propensity towards a republic, were at least affected with a violent jealousy of regal power; and it was equally to be dreaded that, being enraged with past opposition, and animated by present success, they would, if they prevailed in this pretension, be willing, as well as able, to reduce the prerogative within very narrow limits.

All menaces, therefore, all promises were again employed against the king’s resolution: he never would be prevailed on to desert his friends, and put himself into the hands of his enemies. And having voluntarily made such important concessions, and tendered, over and over again, such strong limitations, he was well pleased to find them rejected by the obstinacy of the Commons; and hoped that, after the spirit of opposition had spent itself in fruitless violence, the time would come, when he might safely appeal against his Parliament to his people.

So much were the popular leaders determined to carry matters to extremities, that in less than a week after the commencement of the session, a motion was made for bringing in an exclusion bill, and a committee was appointed for that purpose. This bill differed in nothing from the former, but in two articles, which showed still an increase of zeal in the Commons: the bill was to be read to the people twice a year in all the churches of the kingdom, and every one who should support the duke’s title was rendered incapable of receiving a pardon but by act of Parliament.

The debates were carried on with great violence on both sides. The bill was defended by Sir William Jones, who had now resigned his office of attorney-general, by Lord Russel, by Sir Francis Winnington, Sir Harry Capel, Sir William Pulteney, by Colonel Titus, Treby, Hambden, Montague. It was opposed by Sir Leoline Jenkins, secretary of state, Sir John Ernley, chancellor of the exchequer, by Hyde, Seymour, Temple. The arguments transmitted to us may be reduced to the following topics.

In every government, said the exclusionists, there is somewhere an authority absolute and supreme; nor can any determination, how unusual soever, which receives the sanction of the legislature, admit afterwards of dispute or control. The liberty of a constitution, so far from diminishing this absolute power, seems rather to add force to it, and to give it greater influence over the people. The more members of the state concur in any legislative decision, and the more free their voice, the less likelihood is there that any opposition will be made to those measures which receive the final sanction of their authority. In England, the legislative power is lodged in King, Lords, and Commons, which comprehend every order of the community: and there is no pretext for exempting any circumstance of government, not even the succession of the crown, from so full and decisive a jurisdiction. Even express declarations have, in this particular, been made of parliamentary authority: instances have occurred where it has been exerted: and though prudential reasons may justly be alleged why such innovations should not be attempted but on extraordinary occasions, the power and right are for ever vested in the community. But if any occasion can be deemed extraordinary, if any emergence can require unusual expedients, it is the present; when the heir to the crown has renounced the religion of the state, and has zealously embraced a faith totally hostile and incompatible. A prince of that communion can never put trust in a people so prejudiced against him: the people must be equally diffident of such a prince: foreign and destructive alliances will seem to one the only protection of his throne: perpetual jealousy, opposition, faction, even insurrections will be employed by the other as the sole securities for their liberty and religion. Though theological principles, when set in opposition to passions, have often small influence on mankind in general, still less on princes; yet when they become symbols of faction, and marks of party distinctions, they concur with one of the strongest passions in the human frame, and are then capable of carrying men to the greatest extremities. Notwithstanding the better judgment and milder disposition of the king, how much has the influence of the duke already disturbed the tenor of government? how often engaged the nation into meaures totally destructive of their foreign interests and honour, of their domestic repose and tranquillity? The more the absurdity and incredibility of the popish plot are insisted on, the stronger reason it affords for the exclusion of the duke; since the universal belief of it discovers the extreme antipathy of the nation to his religion, and the utter impossibility of ever bringing them to acquiesce peaceably under the dominion of such a sovereign. The prince, finding himself in so perilous a situation, must seek for security by desperate remedies, and by totally subduing the privileges of a nation which had betrayed such hostile dispositions towards himself, and towards every thing which he deems the most sacred. It is in vain to propose limitations and expedients. Whatever share of authority is left in the duke’s hands, will be employed to the destruction of the nation; and even the additional restraints, by discovering the public diffidence and aversion, will serve him as incitements to put himself in a condition entirely superior and independent. And as the laws of England still make resistance treason, and neither do nor can admit of any positive exceptions; what folly to leave the kingdom in so perilous and absurd a situation, where the greatest virtue will be exposed to the most severe proscription, and where the laws can only be saved by expedients, which these same laws have declared the highest crime and enormity.

The court party reasoned in an opposite manner. An authority, they said, wholly absolute and uncontrollable is a mere chimera, and is nowhere to be found in any human institutions. All government is founded on opinion and a sense of duty; and wherever the supreme magistrate, by any law or positive prescription, shocks an opinion regarded as fundamental, and established with a firmness equal to that of his own authority, he subverts the principle by which he himself is established, and can no longer hope for obedience. In European monarchies, the right of succession is justly esteemed a fundamental; and even though the whole legislature be vested in a single person, it would never be permitted him, by an edict, to disinherit his lawful heir, and call a stranger or more distant relation to the throne. Abuses in other parts of government are capable of redress, from more dispassionate inquiry or better information of the sovereign, and till then ought patiently to be endured: but violations of the right of succession draw such terrible consequences after them as are not to be paralleled by any other grievance or inconvenience. Vainly is it pleaded that England is a mixed monarchy; and that a law assented to by King, Lords, and Commons, is enacted by the concurrence of every part of the state: it is plain that there remains a very powerful party, who may indeed be outvoted, but who never will deem a law, subversive of hereditary right, any wise valid or obligatory. Limitations, such as are proposed by the king, give no shock to the constitution, which, in many particulars, is already limited; and they may be so calculated as to serve every purpose sought for by an exclusion. If the ancient barriers against regal authority have been able, during so many ages, to remain impregnable; how much more those additional ones, which, by depriving the monarch of power, tend so far to their own security? The same jealousy too of religion, which has engaged the people to lay these restraints upon the successor, will extremely lessen the number of his partisans, and make it utterly impracticable for him, either by force or artifice, to break the fetters imposed upon him. The king’s age and vigorous state of health promise him a long life: and can it be prudent to tear in pieces the whole state, in order to provide against a contingency which, it is very likely, may never happen? No human schemes can secure the public in all possible imaginable events; and the bill of exclusion itself, however accurately framed, leaves room for obvious and natural suppositions, to which it pretends not to provide any remedy. Should the duke have a son, after the king’s death, must that son, without any default of his own, forfeit his title? or must the Princess of Orange descend from the throne, in order to give place to the lawful successor? But were all these reasons false, it still remains to be considered that, in public deliberations, we seek not the expedient which is best in itself, but the best of such as are practicable. The king willingly consents to limitations, and has already offered some which are of the utmost importance: but he is determined to endure any extremity rather than allow the right of succession to be invaded. Let us beware of that factious violence, which leads to demand more than will be granted; lest we lose the advantage of those beneficial concessions, and leave the nation, on the king’s demise, at the mercy of a zealous prince, irritated with the ill usage which he imagines he has already met with.

In the House of Commons, the reasoning of the exclusionists appeared the more convincing; and the bill passed by a great majority. It was in the House of Peers that the king expected to oppose it with success. The court party was there so prevalent, that it was carried only by a majority of two, to pay so much regard to the bill as even to commit it. When it came to be debated the contest was violent. Shaftesbury, Sunderland, and Essex argued for it; Halifax chiefly conducted the debate against it, and displayed an extent of capacity, and a force of eloquence, which had never been surpassed in that assembly. He was animated, as well by the greatness of the occasion, as by a rivalship with his uncle Shaftesbury; whom, during that day’s debate, he seemed in the judgment of all to have totally eclipsed. The king was present during the whole debate, which was prolonged till eleven at night. The bill was thrown out by a considerable majority. All the bishops, except three, voted against it. Besides the influence of the court over them; the church of England, they imagined, or pretended, was in greater danger from the prevalence of presbyterianism than of popery, which, though favoured by the duke, and even by the king, was extremely repugnant to the genius of the nation.

The Commons discovered much ill humour upon this disappointment. They immediately voted an address for the removal of Halifax from the king’s councils and presence for ever. Though the pretended cause was his advising the late frequent prorogations of Parliament, the real reason was apparently his vigorous opposition to the exclusion bill. When the king applied for money to enable him to maintain Tangiers, which he declared his present revenues totally unable to defend; instead of complying, they voted such an address as was in reality a remonstrance, and one little less violent than that famous remonstrance, which ushered in the civil wars.

All the abuses of government, from the beginning almost of the reign, are there insisted on; the Dutch war, the alliance with France, the prorogations and dissolutions of Parliament; and as all these measures, as well as the damnable and hellish plot, are there ascribed to the machinations of Papists, it was plainly insinuated that the king had, all along, lain under the influence of that party, and was in reality the chief conspirator against the religion and liberties of his people.

Portait of William Howard as a young man by Anthony van Dyck, ~1638-1640. Howard was born in 1614, and beheaded at the age of 66.

The Commons, though they conducted the great business of the exclusion with extreme violence and even imprudence, had yet much reason for the jealousy which gave rise to it: but their vehement prosecution of the popish plot, even after so long an interval, discovers such a spirit, either of credulity or injustice, as admits of no apology. The impeachment of the Catholic lords in the Tower was revived; and as Viscount Stafford, from his age, infirmities, and narrow capacity, was deemed the least capable of defending himself, it was determined to make him the first victim, that his condemnation might pave the way for a sentence against the rest. The chancellor, now created Earl of Nottingham, was appointed high steward for conducting the trial.

Three witnesses were produced against the prisoner; [Titus] Oates [conjurer of the Popish Plot panic -ed.], [Stephen] Dugdale, and [Edward] Turberville.* Oates swore, that he saw Fenwick, the Jesuit, deliver to Stafford a commission signed by De Oliva, general of the Jesuits, appointing him paymaster to the papal army, which was to be levied for the subduing of England: for this ridiculous imposture still maintained its credit with the Commons. Dugdale gave testimony, that the prisoner at Tixal, a seat of Lord Aston‘s, had endeavoured to engage him in the design of murdering the king; and had promised him, besides the honour of being sainted by the church, a reward of five hundred pounds for that service. Turberville deposed, that the prisoner, in his own house at Paris, had made him a like proposal. To offer money for murdering a king, without laying down any scheme by which the assassin may ensure some probability or possibility of escape, is so incredible in itself, and may so easily be maintained by any prostitute evidence, that an accusation of that nature, not accompanied with circumstances, ought very little to be attended to by any court of judicature. But notwithstanding the small hold which the witnesses afforded, the prisoner was able, in many material particulars, to discredit their testimony. It was sworn by Dugdale, that Stafford had assisted in a great consult of the Catholics held at Tixal; but Stafford proved, by undoubted testimony, that at the time assigned he was in Bath, and in that neighbourhood. Turberville had served a noviciate among the Dominicans; but, having deserted the convent, he had enlisted as a trooper in the French army; and being dismissed that service, he now lived in London, abandoned by all his relations, and exposed to great poverty. Stafford proved, by the evidence of his gentleman and his page, that Turberville had never, either at Paris or at London, been seen in his company; and it might justly appear strange that a person, who had so important a secret in his keeping, was so long entirely neglected by him.

The clamour and outrage of the populace during the trial were extreme: great abilities and eloquence were displayed by the managers, Sir William Jones, Sir Francis Winnington, and Serjeant Maynard. Yet did the prisoner, under all these disadvantages, make a better defence than was expected, either by his friends or his enemies: the unequal contest in which he was engaged was a plentiful source of compassion to every mind seasoned with humanity. He represented, that during a course of forty years, from the very commencement of the civil wars, he had, through many dangers, difficulties, and losses, still maintained his loyalty: and was it credible that now, in his old age, easy in his circumstances, but dispirited by infirmities, he would belie the whole course of his life, and engage against his royal master, from whom he had ever received kind treatment, in the most desperate and most bloody of all conspiracies: He remarked the infamy of the witnesses; the contradictions and absurdities of their testimony; the extreme indigence in which they had lived, though engaged, as they pretended, in a conspiracy with kings, princes, and nobles; the credit and opulence to which they were at present raised. With a simplicity and tenderness more persuasive than the greatest oratory, he still made protestations of his innocence, and could not forbear, every moment, expressing the most lively surprise and indignation at the audacious impudence of the witnesses.

It will appear astonishing to us, as it did to Stafford himself, that the Peers, after a solemn trial of six days, should, by a majority of twenty-four voices, give sentence against him. He received, however, with resignation the fatal verdict. God’s holy name be praised! was the only exclamation which he uttered. When the high steward told him, that the Peers would intercede with the king for remitting the more cruel and ignominious parts of the sentence, hanging and quartering, he burst into tears: but he told the Lords that he was moved to this weakness by a sense of their goodness, not by any terror of that fate which he was doomed to suffer.

It is remarkable that, after Charles, as is usual in such cases, had remitted to Stafford the hanging and quartering, the two sheriffs, Bethel and Cornish, indulging their own republican humour, and complying with the prevalent spirit of their party, ever jealous of monarchy, started a doubt with regard to the king’s power of exercising even this small degree of lenity. “Since he cannot pardon the whole,” said they, “how can he have power to remit any part of the sentence?” They proposed the doubt to both Houses: the Peers pronounced it superfluous; and even the Commons, apprehensive lest a question of this nature might make way for Stafford’s escape, gave this singular answer: “This House is content that the sheriffs do execute William, late Viscount Stafford, by severing his head from his body only.” Nothing can be a stronger proof of the fury of the times than that Lord Russel, notwithstanding the virtue and humanity of his character, seconded in the House this barbarous scruple of the sheriffs.

In the interval between the sentence and execution, many efforts were made to shake the resolution of the infirm and aged prisoner, and to bring him to some confession of the treason for which he was condemned. It was even rumoured that he had confessed; and the zealous party-men, who, no doubt, had secretly, notwithstanding their credulity, entertained some doubts with regard to the reality of the popish conspiracy, expressed great triumph on the occasion. But Stafford, when again called before the House of Peers, discovered many schemes, which had been laid by himself and others for procuring a toleration to the Catholics, at least a mitigation of the penal laws enacted against them: and he protested that this was the sole treason of which he had ever been guilty.

Stafford now prepared himself for death with the intrepidity which became his birth and station, and which was the natural result of the innocence and integrity which, during the course of a long life, he had ever maintained: his mind seemed even to collect new force from the violence and oppression under which he laboured.

When going to execution, he called for a cloak to defend him against the rigour of the season: “Perhaps,” said he, “I may shake with cold; but I trust in God, not for fear.” On the scaffold he continued, with reiterated and earnest asseverations, to make protestations of his innocence: all his fervour was exercised on that point: when he mentioned the witnesses, whose perjuries had bereaved him of life, his expressions were full of mildness and of charity. He solemnly disavowed all those immoral principles, which over-zealous Protestants had ascribed, without distinction, to the church of Rome: and he hoped, he said, that the time was now approaching, when the present delusion would be dissipated; and when the force of truth, though late, would engage the whole world to make reparation to his injured honour.

The populace, who had exulted at Stafford’s trial and condemnation, were now melted into tears at the sight of that tender fortitude which shone forth in each feature, and motion, and accent of this aged noble. Their profound silence was only interrupted by sighs and groans. With difficulty they found speech to assent to those protestations of innocence which he frequently repeated: “We believe you, my lord! God bless you, my lord!” These expressions, with a faltering accent, flowed from them. The executioner himself was touched with sympathy. Twice he lifted up the axe, with an intent to strike the fatal blow; and as often felt his resolution to fail him. A deep sigh was heard to accompany his last effort, which laid Stafford for ever at rest. All the spectators seemed to feel the blow. And when the head was held up to them with the usual cry, This is the head of a traitor! no clamour of assent was uttered. Pity, remorse, and astonishment, had taken possession of every heart, and displayed itself in every countenance.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving of the trial and execution of Viscount Stafford. (via the British Museum).

This is the last blood which was shed on account of the popish plot: an incident which, for the credit of the nation, it were better to bury in eternal oblivion; but which it is necessary to perpetuate, as well to maintain the truth of history, as to warn, if possible, their posterity and all mankind ever again to fall into so shameful, so barbarous a delusion.

The execution of Stafford gratified the prejudices of the country party; but it contributed nothing to their power and security: on the contrary, by exciting commiseration, it tended still farther to increase that disbelief of the whole plot, which began now to prevail.

* Channeling Jacques de Molay, Stafford prophesied that Turberville, the perjured witness against him, would not outlive him by so much as a year. Turberville obligingly dropped dead of smallpox late in 1681, after falling out with his former Popish Plot conspirator Titus Oates.

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1440: The Black Dinner

Add comment November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

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1691: Mark Baggot, Jacobite spy

Add comment May 20th, 2016 Headsman

On May 20, 1691, Captain Mark Baggot was hanged as a spy in Dublin.

Baggot had maintained loyalty to King James II when that sovereign was deposed in the 1688 Glorious Revolution that elevated William of Orange to the English throne.

Though deeply unpopular in England, the Catholic James — still to this day England’s last Catholic monarch — had sympathetic subjects to flee to in Ireland. Apart from the religious sympatico, the Irish were still smarting from ravages dating back to Cromwell and before, authored in the main by factions who were direct ancestors of the Whigs, King James’s staunchest domestic foes.

In 1689, James landed in Ireland backed by the French and kicked off the Williamite-Jacobite War between the rival kings. This war was so nasty it even survived the flight of King James himself in 1690:* William refused to guarantee amnesty for a wide swath of the Jacobite leadership, who consequently saw no odds in laying down their weapons.

The latter months of 1690 and the early months of 1691 had the now-outnumbered Jacobites girding the defenses of the cities they held against the coming Williamite attacks that were sure to come. Intelligence was critical under such conditions, and here our man Mark Baggot enters the stage.

Baggot was dispatched from the Jacobite stronghold of Limerick to Williamite-held Dublin to scout the enemy, but there had the embarrassment of being captured trying to escape notice in women’s clothes.** (You may be certain that the Williamite press included this emasculating detail on every available occasion.)

A court-martial condemned Baggot to hang the very next day, March 25.†

But the secret agent bought himself two months’ respite by cooperating with his captors — making the whole mission a clear intelligence win for the Williamites, especially since they still got to hang their spy in the end.

The resulting document has copy nearly as long as its unwieldy title …

The Discovery Made by Captain Mark Baggot, the Person Lately Taken in Womans Clothes, Coming from Limerick to Dublin, where He was Apprehended, and Tried as a Spy, by a Court-Martial ... at which He Received Sentence of Death: But Upon this Confession, Execution was Respited.

That the Irish army consists of forty thousand men of all sorts; that Tyrconnel was reducing them to thirty thousand; but SarsfieldSir Richard Nagle are pensioners of France.

That there is no good understanding between Tyrconnel and Sarsfield, having great jealousies of one another.

That King James has correspondence with, and intelligence from some persons in considerable places of trust here in England every ten days.

That the French fleet is hourly expected with thirty pieces of cannon, ammunition, provisions and arms; a French general, some marine men, but none of the army; they resolve to maintain their greatest force against the confederates in Flanders next campaign.

That the Irish army intends to move towards the frontiers, their greatest design being against Cork more than ny other place; what is left of the suburbs they intend to burn; they expect a great many deserters at their approach to the town. The commanders of the parties for this service are Colonel Dorrington and Colonel Clifford.

A spy, taken at Limerick, was hang’d here [Dublin], and confess’d that Major Corket was in particular favour, and held correspondence with the English, who was carried prisoner to Limerick, and suppos’d to have suffer’d death.

That the contributions paid to the new Irish are one peck of wheat or meal, 12 pound of butter every fortnight out of each plow lands.

That there is express order that no guns be removed from Limerick; that the English deserters are only paid and encouraged, but no pay given to the Irish.

That they are still fortifying Limerick.

That Ballyclough and Castletown, with some other places, were to be made garrisons by the Irish; that Sir Michael Creagh’s regiment of foot, under command of Colonel Lacy, are at Ballyclough, which places they are fortifying; that Strabane’s regiment of horse are at Charleveel and Buttifant, &c.

Baggot’s less than flattering report of the Jacobite forces’ condition proved bang-on: that July, the Williamites dealt a fatal blow to the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Aughrim — thanks to forcing a defile that the dug-in Jacobites ought to have held but for want of ammunition.‡ Shortly thereafter, Limerick capitulated to Williamite siege — its last Jacobite garrison escaping into exile, never to stir in Ireland again.

* He’s remembered in Ireland as “James the Shit” (Seamus a Chaca) because he ditched his supporters mid-war.

** Not the only Jacobite with a cross-dressing escapade to his name.

London Gazette, March 26-30, 1691, which calls the spy Baggot “a Person very well known.”

The Baggot(t)s (Bagods, Baggetts) were an English family that could trace lineage back to the age of William the Conqueror, with a very longstanding branch in Ireland. (Dublin still has streets that bear that name.) The 17th century Irish Baggots took it on the chin for their loyalty to the Stuarts, several dying in that service or being dispossessed. The family’s Baggotstown Castle in County Limerick was seized and razed by the Williamites months after the events in this post.

The date of Baggot’s execution is reported in the Gazette for May 25-28, 1691.

‡ “All the day, though he was sincking in his center and on his left, [the Williamites] yett durst not once, for his relief, attempt to traverse the cawsway, till despayr at the end compelled him to trye that experiment at all hazards … they confidently ventured to goe through, notwithstanding the fire from the castle on their right, which fire was insignificant; for it slew but a few in the passage. The reason of it was given, because the men had French pieces, the bore of which was small, and had English ball, which was too large. Here is a new miscarriage thro’ heedlessness. Why was not this foreseen and the dammage prevented?” (Source)

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1697: John Fenwick, bitter

2 comments January 28th, 2012 Headsman

The Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s lifted to power the young stadtholder William of Orange, and made him a couple of noteworthy lifelong enemies.

One was the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, whose decades-long rivalry with William tracked William’s interesting career all the way to the throne of England.

William III, equestrian. Consider yourself foreshadowed.

Another was Sir John Fenwick, an English nobleman whom William supposedly slagged* when they were fighting together in the Low Countries — and who likewise still carried the enmity when William had become his sovereign.

On this date in 1697, the latter rivalry came to a fatal end for John Fenwick on the headsman’s block. The funny thing was that the stroke turned out to cost King William III his own life as well.

You couldn’t say that Fenwick came late to the Jacobite cause; he’d been a strong adherent of the beleaguered Catholic-esque Stuart dynasty, and signed off on the 1685 execution of its previous Protestant challenger Monmouth.

But if it prosper, none dare call it treason. In 1688, the Low Countries prince with the low estimation of Baronet Fenwick hopped the channel and successfully overthrew the last Stuart monarchking James II.

With the Glorious Revolution, Fenwick’s personal and political were very conveniently aligned in loyalty to the exiled James … except that his formerly patriotic loyalty to James was now the traitorous cause of Jacobitism.

Fenwick kept up his Jacobiting in the 1690s, got arrested and released once, and then finally found himself implicated in a plot to murder William. Though his allies managed to spirit one of the potential witnesses against him away to the continent, Parliament passed — ever so narrowly — a bill of attainder to condemn Fenwick to death. (There’s a more detailed account of the legal and political maneuverings here and here.)

The State his Head did from his Body sever,
Because when living ’twas his chief Endeavour
To set the Nation and its Head together.

That’s politics. Even kings themselves are in mortal peril around here.

A failed assassin in life, Fenwick would blunder Gavrilo Princip-like into accidental success … but only after his own execution.

As a condemned traitor, Fenwick’s estate was seized by the crown, and the king personally claimed his prey’s equine ride (either a horse with a sorrel coat, or a horse named Sorrel, or both).** Not long after Fenwick’s death, this horse stumbled on a molehill, throwing its royal rider. William broke his collarbone in the accident, developed pneumonia, and died — leading Jacobite sympathizers to dote on the animals (both horse and mole) who had authored their enemy’s misfortune.

Illustrious steed, doubtless most worthy of the sky,
To whom the lion, bull, and bear would give place;
What happy meadows bore thee happily?
What happy mother gave you her nutritious teats?
Is it from the land of Erin you are come to oblige your country,
Or is it Glenco or the Fenwick race which produced you?
Whoever thou art, mayst thou prosper, I pray memorable one: and
May saddle never more press thy back, nor bit thy mouth.
Avenger of the human race, when the tyrant dies,
Mayst thou thyself enjoy the liberty thou wilt give to others.


A lovely sorrel enjoys the liberty of a happy meadow. (Nutritious teats not pictured.) (cc) image from SMALLORBIGOFMEN.

* During the Dutch campaign, William “had reflected very severely upon his [Fenwick’s] courage, which occasioned his making returns that provoked the Prince to say, that if he had been a private person he must have cut Sir John’s throat.” Just your basic primate poo-flinging.

** Leaving aside his ultimate fate, quite an understandable move by William: the Fenwicks were famous for their horse husbandry.

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1691: Jacob Leisler, “a Walloon who has sett at the head of the Rable”

Add comment May 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1691, Jacob Leisler was executed in New York, a New World casualty of the Glorious Revolution back in the mother country.

In an era when transatlantic communication moved at the speed of a galleon, the 1688 overthrow of England’s Stuart monarchy initiated an agonizing period of political uncertainty in Albion’s far-flung American provinces.

And to the question of who was really in charge were appended the many local political issues of the colonies — religious, economic, political.

One of the empire’s dominant fault political fault lines in the foregoing years had been the succession to follow England’s last Catholic monarch, James II. For Calvinists whose dynastic champion was the House of Orange, the marriage of their guy William III to James’s daughter raised the prospect of an eventual claim on the English throne. Those hopes seemed dashed when James fathered a son, to the elation of Catholics who now aspired to a lasting Catholic line.

When word reached New York, still a majority-Dutch city thanks to its original mother country, of the ascent of that their countryman William III and England’s Protestant establishment had forcibly disinherited the infant prince and his dad, it did not take long for local Dutch factions to run off the former King James’s plenipotentiaries. (An irony, since New York was named for that very same now-deposed King James: he’d been the Duke of York when it was seized for the Dutch in the 1660s.)

That ex-monarch’s brief reign had seen the establishment of a much-resented Dominion of New England, welding together everything from New Jersey to Maine into a super-colony whose high-handed boss was arrested by a Boston mob. (He sailed for England.) That gentleman’s lieutenant, in New York, likewise absconded as his own authority crumbled … a sort of American Glorious Revolution shadowing the one across the pond.

The Frankfurt-born Leisler was a colonial mercantile magnate, one of the 17th century’s wealthiest New Yorkers, notable for his Orangist sympathies and Calvinist religious inclination. It was to this important private citizen (who was also a militia captain) that de facto executive power fell in the New York colony — and it was indeed the New York colony specifically, since the reassertion of local prerogatives and pre-1685 administrative units had been one of the immediate consequences of the shakeout in America.


Statue of Jacob Leisler in New Rochelle, N.Y. — which Leisler helped create as a settlement for refugee Huguenots.

And once in the saddle, the Dutch Calvinist Leisler essentially ran a populist administration against the colonial oligarchy, which replied by vilifying him as a “usurper” and “rebel”.

Internal politics in New York and its neighbors during those months make fascinating reading.* Quakers and Catholics aligned against Protestants. Albany aligned against New York, until Leisler brought the former to heel. Clergy chose up sides. Leisler summoned a sort of proto-continental congress of colonial representatives (all the way to the West Indies) to hash out their situation.

And what was that situation? There had been a revolution, after all, and there was no agreed-upon representative of the royal authority present in New York. An assembly of militia leaders had asked Leisler to assume leadership, so was he really outside his rights to treat as his the London dispatches addressed to “such as, for the time being, take care for preserving the public peace and administering the law in New York”?

It’s a moment whose ferment of democratic energy can be read to presage the next century’s (proper) revolution.

Yet it was also not a revolution in the Cromwellian, world-turned-upside-down sense. For the English polity, and certainly for the conduct it preferred in its frontier possessions, continuity was the order of the day. Even in England herself, William and Mary were more than pleased to govern with Tories who could see their way to releasing their fealty to the Stuarts.

There was an empire to run, after all.

From that standpoint, Leisler’s anti-oligarchical policies and fractious disputes with other colonial elites were a bad business. There’s no sense in letting France make inroads because your governors are bickering over predestination or some such.

So formally, the realm’s new rulers continued all non-Catholic personnel in their posts. With the Dominion governors ejected, it was just a matter of dispatching fresh executives to take over. It’s just that this process required months … during which Leisler was managing New York the way he figured it ought to be managed, and his enemies were consequently painting him as a rebel.

Leisler pronounced himself, this whole time, anxious to submit his authority to the new governor upon the production of proper credentials. If he was surprised that the new monarchs tendered appointees of the very same factions recently expelled,** Leisler showed it only in his exactitude for procedure: because of a logistical cock-up, an aide to the new colonial governor arrived first, and when Leisler refused to hand over his fort without the royal warrant, a tense standoff ensued. It was resolved when the real governor, Henry Sloughter of ominous name, finally showed up.

Sloughter had his “predecessor” immediately arrested, along with others of his circle and harshly tried for treason and murder by a court stacked with anti-Leisler political enemies.†

Ultimately Leisler was condemned to die along with his secretary and son-in-law Jacob Milborne, but even Sloughter was loath to enforce the sentence. The story goes that Leisler’s most implacable foes had to get Sloughter drunk to put his signature on the death-warrant. (Sloughter died a couple of months later himself, for maximum operatic effect.)

On Saturday morning, May 16, 1691, the largest crowd ever gathered in New York City stood, rain soaked and weeping, all eyes fixed as a limp body was cut from the gallows and placed on the block. With a clean blow, the executioner’s ax cut off the head of the “halfe dead” Jacob Leisler — loyal lieutenant governor or rebel tyrant, depending on one’s point of view. Amid the “shrieks of the people,” fainting women (some “taken in labour”), and tumultuous jostling for “pieces of his garments” and strands of his hair, as “for a martyr,” the newly arrived and unfortunately named royal governor, Henry Sloughter, worried that his decision to execute Leisler might not, after all, end the “diseases and troubles of this Government.” Indeed, for years afterward New Yorkers bitterly divided over Leisler and the 1689 uprising that, in the wake of England’s Glorious Revolution, had led to his assumption of power in the provincial government.

-David Voorhees, who elsewhere contends that these divisions “continue to inform American politics to the present day.”*

A few years later, a more Leisler-friendly Parliament restored the dead man’s estate to his heirs, a sort of implicit admission that the whole head-chopping thing might have been a bit much.

This character figures to bear more historical consideration than he has heretofore enjoyed; further to that end, there’s a Jacob Leisler Papers Project devoted to marshaling at New York University the primary documents connected with Leisler.

* See, for instance, David Voorhees in “‘to assert our Right before it be quite lost’: The Leisler Rebellion in the Delaware River Valley” in Pennsylvania History, Winter 1997 — and, Voorhees again in “The ‘fervent Zeale’ of Jacob Leisler,” The William and Mary Quarterly, July 1994.

** Literally so: Francis Nicholson, whom Leisler ousted from New York, tried to get himself appointed governor; he was instead sent to Virginia and continued in royal service in the colonies for decades to come.

† e.g., Joseph Dudley, one of Leisler’s judges, whose penchant for authoritarian justice has been noted elsewhere in these pages.

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

3 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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1699: William Chaloner, Isaac Newton’s prey

21 comments March 22nd, 2009 Thomas Levenson

(Thanks to Thomas Levenson of the Inverse Square Blog. Prof. Levenson is head of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, and author of the forthcoming Newton and the Counterfeiter.)

Early in the morning of March 22, 1699, William Chaloner raged.

Chaloner, a convicted coiner, refused the Newgate Jail Chaplain’s plea to show proper penitence, shouting with “more Passion than Piety,” of his wronged state and unmerited destination (according to his anonymous biographer in the one surviving account of his life). In time, he calmed sufficiently to accept the sacrament, and so proceeded to the execution convoy to be borne from Newgate to the hanging tree at Tyburn (now Marble Arch, just to the west of the old City of London).

There Chaloner’s fury mounted again, and he shouted to the crowd, drawn as always to the spectacle of public hanging days, that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law.” He mounted the ladder to the top of Tyburn’s gibbet. He prayed, and then pulled the hood over his eyes without aid. When the moment came, the executioner’s men pulled the ladder out of the way and Chaloner dangled, twitching and jumping (the “hangman’s dance”) as long as it took –- minutes, at least — for life to choke out of him. Richer men often paid the hangman to pull on their legs to speed death. Not the destitute Chaloner. He had to choke till he drooped, to the greater amusement of the crowd.

The investigator who had sent Chaloner to the noose was not present; or at least nowhere in his copious notes and letters did he admit to curiosity about the fate of a man whose pursuit occupied him for almost three years. The Warden of His Majesty’s Mint had more pressing duties to perform, and so Isaac Newton allowed the date of Chaloner’s death to pass unmarked.

Isaac Newton? That Newton?


Appropriately, Newton himself wound up on the currency.

The accidents of place and time that brought the man who was recognized in his own day as the greatest mind of the age into conflict with Chaloner, an uncommonly gifted common criminal have fascinated me since I first learned of them through reading Chaloner’s last, piteous letter to the implacable Newton, written days before the hanging. In it Chaloner begged, writing “O dear S[i]r nobody can save me but you O God my God I shall be murderd unless you save me.”

What I wanted to answer was the obvious question: how and why did Isaac Newton come to pass judgment on the life of any other man? I had always thought of him as the nearly cloistered scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, his home for more than thirty years. It was there he performed the experiments and the calculations that led him, in 1687, to write his masterwork, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy — better known simply as the Principia -– as well as pursuing his decades-long program of alchemical research.

So how, I wondered, did he end up in London, wallowing in the muck with the capital’s criminal underground?

Not to put too fine a point on it, finding out has turned into a book Newton and the Counterfeiter, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and scheduled for release on June 4. But, to anticipate that longer story, here is the gist: Newton, after Principia found himself an international celebrity, and, as one of Cambridge University’s representatives to the Convention Parliament of 1689 that legitimized William of Orange‘s seizure of the English throne from the deposed Stuart King James II, he had nearly a year to enjoy the acclaim of London and Europe’s thinking and political elites before returning to the quiet of Cambridge, then a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants. It was an intellectual backwater too, especially compared to the big city in which he encountered figures like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Robert Hooke (whom he despised), Samuel Pepys (whom he did not) and so on. So he started, with Locke’s help, to seek a patronage appointment that would allow him to live comfortably in London. It took six years to find the right one, but ultimately he was offered the Warden’s post at the Mint. That job was supposed to be a sinecure, a nearly no-show position that would pay him a very comfortable wage.

And so it would have turned out were it not for the terribly debased state of England’s silver coinage, which had deteriorated to about half its legal weight for a whole host of reasons. So Newton arrived at a time when (a) the Mint was attempting to recall and recoin the entire stock of silver money for the entire country –- all the smaller units of money essential to everyday transactions –- and (b) coining, counterfeiting, was flourishing as enterprising men and women set out to get rich by filling in the gaps in the money supply with coins that never felt the stamp of an official Mint die. As Warden, it became Newton’s duty to see that legal money was produced fast and fairly, and to pursue all those who set up on their own.

Of those who did none were more technically skilled or ambitious than William Chaloner. His is a fascinating story, told at much greater length in my book, in which you see the currents of rapid economic change, class and ambition all converge within this one, barely remembered life. He was born desperate poor, a weaver’s son in Lincolnshire. He ran from his first apprenticeship to London, where he started out at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking porn on street corners. He rose rapidly, first with his clearly impressive gift of gab, and then, after falling in with someone who knew how to gild surfaces, as the central figure in a series of ever grander schemes to counterfeit gold and silver money. He had sidelines as an informer, betraying conspiracies that he would himself set up, but his central gift and fascination was in the creation of fakes. Ultimately, he was one of the first to recognize the power of paper, and he started to counterfeit a variety of the early experiments with paper money and bank instruments.

In this sense Chaloner’s career –- and Newton’s urgent pursuit of him –- offer a window into the birth of the modern idea of money, of finance. And one of the things that fascinated me about this case is the degree to which this old story tracks some of our immediate problems. England’s and Europe’s economies were in rapid revolution in the late seventeenth century. The old idea of money as a chunk of metal with a pretty picture on it could no longer come close to accommodating the kind of enterprises governments and individuals wanted to undertake, from war to the funding of global webs of trade. And so people came up with all kinds of different ways of trying to represent value and exchange and even the idea of the changing worth of an investment over time. And the people making these experiments did not fully understand the implications of each expedient they tried. The last piece of paper Chaloner counterfeited was called a Malt Lottery Ticket, and it was at once simply paper money, a bond, and a gamble. Traders attempted to value these kinds of things in embryonic financial markets -– which would in a couple of decades blow up in a financial collapse that possess some striking similarities to our current predicament. Newton himself would lose a considerable fortune in that collapse, a sum worth a couple of million pounds, maybe more, in 21st century money.

It was that sense of precariousness that made the pursuit of counterfeiters so urgent in the midst of the late 17th century; England’s money supply was genuinely at risk, and no one had a good grasp of what it would take to make both the daily experience of small transactions and the high finance of war and trade go smoothly. So anyone threatening either or both levels of money was public enemy number one.

Of those who tried their hand at currency crime, Chaloner was the most accomplished, and notorious. By his own admission he counterfeited on the order of 30,000 pounds worth of currency over a seven- or eight-year career, an enormous fortune for the day. His big mistake, though, was to challenge Newton directly, accusing him in public of incompetence or fraud in his management of the recoinage of silver money between 1696 and 1698. He laid that charge both in testimony to Parliament and in a pamphlet he had printed for public distribution, and the scandal could genuinely have wounded Newton, were it not for the influence of his friends in power in Parliament at the moment.

It was enough, certainly, to propel Newton into an extraordinary investigation, an exercise of what may be seen as true non-fiction scientific detection. He set up a net of agents and informers throughout the worst neighborhoods and pubs in London, tracking any instance of coining he could find, interrogating suspects at the Tower or in jail, trying to build a web of connections around Chaloner. That story is contained within a collection of several hundred depositions and summaries of interrogations, all signed by Newton, that have survived, largely unexamined until now. Those records show that it took Newton almost two years in all, but aided in the end by listeners whose lives he held at his disposal inside Chaloner’s cell at Newgate, he managed to collect a sufficient weight of testimony to ensure that he could convict a prisoner clever enough to have escaped several previous attempts at prosecution.

The trial itself was something of a sham. Chaloner had feared being charged on the Malt Lottery Ticket forgery, (as we know from the accounts in Newton’s files of informers in the cells) but Newton actually presented evidence of a coining spree that almost certainly did not take place as described. Among other confounding facts, Chaloner was supposed to have made six different denominations of both silver and gold coins in a single day, which would have involved an enormous confusion of tools and materials that ran counter to basic counterfeiting practice.

No matter: the sheer volume of precise detail that Newton’s witnesses were able (or convinced) to provide produced a conviction within a very short time –- the whole trial took no more than an hour or so on March 3, 1699. There was a truncated appeal process -– really just a request for clemency from the crown, which was denied, and Chaloner’s sentence came down.

Formally, he had been found guilty of high treason, an assault upon the crown in the form of the king’s likeness and authority represented on the face of England’s coins. The punishment for high treason was essentially that suffered by William Wallace of Braveheart fame: to be strangled to the point of death, to be disemboweled whilst still living, to be beheaded and then quartered. By the date of Chaloner’s execution, the punishment had eased this far: convicted coiners were drawn to the place of execution on a rough sledge, subject to all the filth and abuse London’s open-sewered streets possessed; then hung until dead, and then, on rare occasions, to suffer post-mortem dismemberment. Chaloner himself was not, so far as any records revealed, actually cut into pieces. (As a gesture to public decency, women convicted of coining or other capital crimes were not supposed to be hung, lest their twitching at rope’s-end seem lewd. So they were burnt instead – though by the eighteenth century it was common to strangle them to death before lighting the pyre. Mercy, after the fashion of the times.)

Levenson lectures on his book at the MIT Writer’s Series.

One last note in a post gone much too long: Newton was involved in a number of counterfeiting investigations, and by some reckonings at least two dozen people went to their deaths as a result. Some historians, notably Frank Manuel, have speculated that Newton pursued this work with implausible eagerness, out of a kind of frustrated blood lust born of his abandoned and unhappy childhood.

This seems to me to be nonsense. The specific historical context matters here: Newton did not author the bloody code, nor did he send everyone he could to the gallows. Rather, the record of his depositions shows him to be simply a relentless practical man doing his job. He used little fish to catch big fish, and at least some of those low on the ladder received their escape from the gibbet. What you can see here, surprisingly, is the birth of a modern idea of a civil service. The Warden -– even Isaac Newton — was simply a man in a job doing the functions of that job, which included organizing the investigation and prosecution of counterfeiters.

What’s striking, of course, is that this civil servant, this bureaucrat, happened to possess the greatest scientific mind in history. And that’s the real sting in this tale. There is a connection between Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters and his attempts to understand nature. He did employ the same resources of concentration and logical organization in his criminal investigations that he did when he tackled any problem. But more than the commonality of work habits, there is, I think this link: Newton can be seen as many people: the mathematician, the theoretical physicist, the empirical experimentalist, the alchemical mystic, the heretically devout religious thinker –- and the government functionary too.

And yet he was, of course, a single man, one with many interests, but ultimately with a consistent ambition, to reduce to order the complexity of any problem which was posed to him. Newton did not expect as Warden to have to chase crooks; when he found out that was part of the job he wrote a rather whiny letter to the Treasury to see if he could wriggle out of the duty. When he found he could not, he responded as he always had to the job at hand.

As one consequence, on this day three hundred and ten years ago, William Chaloner died.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

26 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Politicians,Posthumous Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,Treason,Tyburn

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