1684: Sir Thomas Armstrong, Whig plotter

Add comment June 20th, 2017 Headsman

Whig knight Sir Thomas Armstrong was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this date in 1684, for adhering to Lord Russell‘s treasonable Rye House Plot.

Armstrong had been tempting the executioner for some years: he fell foul of the Cromwell protectorate for shuttling funds to the exiled Charles II, and in 1675 he slew a Mr. Scroope at a theater brawl. Both times he kept his head.

He would not be so lucky when conniving to kidnap the king.

Armstrong was shut out of the leadership clique of the Rye House Plot but he was active scheming with Monmouth and others about “how to surprize the Kings Guards” to get at the royal person, with Armstrong observing that “the Guards were very remiss in their places, and not like Souldiers, and the thing was feasible if they had strength to do it.”*

Briefly escaped to the Low Countries along with a number of other fellow-travelers,** Armstrong was arrested in Leiden and repatriated to face royal justice.


Detail view (click for a larger image) of the dismembering of Thomas Armstrong. Condemned to drawing and quartering, Armstrong was hanged to death and only “after such time the Sufferer had hung about half an Hour, and the Executioner had divested him of his Aparrel, he was cut down according to his Sentence; his Privy Members dissected from his Body, and Burnt; his Head cut off, and shewed to the People as that of a Traytor; his Heart and Bowels taken out, and committed to the Flames; and his Body Quartered into four Parts, which, with his Head, was conveyed back to Newgate, to be disposed of according to his Majesties Pleasure, and Order.” (

In an era of bitter factional politics spiced by burgeoning print culture, Armstrong’s delayed handling gave Tory squibs ample space to gleefully taunt the Whigs through him, and savor in doggerel (via repeat reference to executioner Jack Ketch) the inevitable rending of flesh that ensued.

The Bully WHIG: OR, The Poor Whores Lamentation for the Apprehending OF Sir THOMAS ARMSTRONG.

To the Tune of, Ah! Cruel Bloody Fate! &c.

I.

AH! Cruel Bloody Tom!
What canst thou hope for more,
Than to receive the Doom
Of all thy Crimes before?
For all thy bold Conspiracies
Thy Head must pay the score;
Thy Cheats and Lies,
Thy Box and Dice,
Will serve thy turn no more.

II.

Ungrateful thankless Wretch!
How could’st thou hope in vain
(Without the reach of Ketch)
Thy Treasons to maintain?
For Murders long since done and past,
Thou Pardons hast had store,
And yet would’st still
Stab on, and kill,
As if thou hop’dst for more.

III.

Yet Tom, e’r he would starve,
More Blood resolv’d to’ve spilt;
Thy flight did only serve
To justifie thy Guilt:
While They whose harmless Innocence
Submit to Chains at home,
Are each day freed,
While Traytors bleed,
And suffer in their room.

IV.

When Whigs a PLOT did Vote,
What Peer Justice fled?
In the FANATICK PLOT
Tom durst not shew his head.
Now Sacred Justice rules above,
The Guiltless are set free,
And the Napper’s napt,
And Clapper clapt
In his CONSPIRACY.

V.

Like Cain, thou hast a Mark
Of Murder on thy Brow;
Remote, and in the dark,
Black Guilt did still pursue:
Nor England, Holland, France, or Spain,
The Traytor can defend;
He will be found
In Fetters bound,
To pay for’t in the end.

VI.

Tom might about the Town
Have bully’d, huff’d and roar’d,
By every Venus known,
Been for a Mars ador’d:
By friendly Pimping and false Dice
Thou might’st have longer liv’d,
Hector’d and shamm’d,
And swore and gam’d,
Hadst thou no Plots contriv’d.

VII.

Tom once was Cock-a-hoop
Of all the Huffs in Town;
But now his Pride must stoop,
His Courage is pull’d down:
So long his Spurs are grown, poor Tom
Can neither fly nor fight;
Ah Cruel Fate!
That at this rate
The ‘Squire shou’d foil the Knight!

VIII.

But now no remedy,
It being his just Reward;
In his own Trap, you see,
The Tygre is ensnar’d:
So may all Traytors fare, till all
Who for their Guilt did fly,
With Bully Tom
By timely Doom
Like him, unpity’d die.


Sr. Thomas Armstrongs Last Farewell to the WORLD: He being Condemned for HIGH-TREASON, and Conspiring the Death of the KING and the DUKE, and subverting the Government of these three Kingdoms A SONG.

To the Tune STATE and AMBITION [no embeddable sound file, alas, but for the arrangement see here and here]

A Due to the pleasure of murther and whoring,
Of plotting conspiring the death of a King:
Confound the temptation of Bastard Adoring,
For which I confess I deserve for to Swing.
Poor Monmouth may Curse me, ’twas I over Ruled
In all his Intreagues by Tony’s black spell,
His timerous contrivance I constantly Schooled;
And told him how safe it was then to rebell.
I shew’d him the glimps of a Crown and a Scepter,
The strength of the Crow’d, and applause of the Town
Till glory did dazle his Soul in a Rapture;
That all things inferior appear’d but a Crown:
Then I was in hopes to be second Assistant;
Therefore to unKing him our party would bring:
But now as the Devil wou’d have it I mist on’t,
For which I before the damn’d Doctor must swing.
The Doctor confused three parts of the Nation;
He murthered thirty; I murthered but two,
With long sword and Codpiss I made it the fashion
Rogues Whores to advance, and the Kingdom subdue:
Brave Monmouth I shew’d him all ways of debauching,
And ne’r let him want procurer nor Whore;
Some Aldermens Wives they were proud to approach him,
I often as Grey have stood Pimp at the door.
Nay, many were sure, that their souls would be sainted
Had they but one hour his sweet grace to enjoy
How oft in my Arms they have sighed and panted,
Untill I conveyed ’em to their Princely Boy
But now all those pleasures are faded with glory,
His Grace in Disgrace and Tom is Condemn’d;
Jack Ketch now looks sharp for to shorten my story,
And leaves me no time to murder or mend.
Yet I must confess, I was oft Monmouths taster,
For fear, least some fire-ship might blow up her Prince,
Which caused our party to flock in much faster,
All Officers from the Plot Office advance.
Old Tony took Care too, that nothing was wanting,
In Wapping, the Square, and Algers-gate-street,
I brought in Bess Mackrel, to help out the taping,
And Tony swore damn him, theres nothing so sweet.
Sweet Betty farewell, ’twas for thee I abjured,
My Lady and Children, this fourteen long years;
They always were kind, but I still was obdured,
Seeking the Destruction of King, Church, & Peers
Had I Grey and Mellvin now here to condole with
And their Recommendations to’th’ Cabals below –,
I might have Commissions in Hell to controle with
But sure I shall find some Friends where I go.


The WHIGS laid open, OR, An Honest Ballad of these sad Times.

To a Mery Tune, called Old Symon the King.

Now the Plotters & Plots are confounded,
And all their Designs are made known
Which smellt so strong of the Round-head,
And Treason of Forty One.
And all the Pious Intentions
For Property, Liberty, Laws,
Are found to be only Inventions,
To bring in their Good Old Cause.
And all the Pious, &c.

II.

By their delicate Bill of Exclusion,
So hotly pursu’d by the Rabble;
They hop’d to have made such Confusion,
As never was seen at Old Babel.
The Shaftsbury’s brave City Boys,
And M—ths Countrey Relations,
Were ready to second the Noise,
And send it throughout the 3 Nations.
Then Shaftsbury’s, &c.

III.

No more of the 5th of November,
That Dangerous Desperate Plot;
But ever with horruor remember
Old Tony, Armstrong, and Scot.
For Tony shou’d ne’re be forgotten,
Nor Ferguson’s Popular Rules;
Nor M—th, or G—y, when they’re rotten,
For Popular, Politick Fools.
For Tony shou’d, &c.

IV.

The Murder of Father and King,
And Extinguishing all the right Line,
Was a Good and a Godly thing;
And worthy the Whigs Design:
The Hanging of Prelate, and Peer,
And putting the Guards to the Sword,
And Fleying, and Slashing Lord Mayors,
Was to do the Work o’the Lord.
The Hanging of, &c.

V.

But I hope they will have their Desert,
And the Gallows will have its due,
And Jack Ketch will be more Expert,
And in time be as Rich as a Jew,
Whilst now in the Tavern we Sing,
All Joy to great York and his Right,
A Glorious long Reign to our King;
But when They’ve occasion we’ll Fight.
Whilst now in the Tavern, &c.

VI.

The name of a Whig and a Tory,
No more shall Disquiet the Nation;
We’ll Fight for the Church and her Glory,
And Pray for this Reformation.
That ev’ry Factious Professor,
And ev’ry Zealous Pretender
May humble ’em, to the Successor
Of Charles, our Nations Defender.
That every Faction &c.


An Elegie On the never to be forgotten Sir Thomas Armstrong Knight; Executed for Conspiring the Death of His most Sacred Majesty, and Royal Brother, June 20. 1684. With some Satyrical Reflections on the whole Faction.

Stand forth ye damn’d deluding Priests of Baal,
And found from out each Trumpet Mouth a Call
Let it be loud and shrill, that ev’ry Man
May hear the noise, from Beersheba to Dan;
To summon all the Faction, that they may
In doleful Hums and Haws, bewail this day,
And to their Just Confusion howl and roar,
For the great Bully of their Cause, is now no more.

But now methinks I hear the Faction cry,
Ohone! Where’s all thy Pomp and Gallantry?
Thy Great Commands, thy Interest and thy State?
The many Crouds which did upon thee wait?

When thou like Atlas on thy shoulders bore,
That mighty World which we so much adore
(That Pageant Heroe, Off-spring of a Whore.)

Behold ye stubborn Crew, the certain Fate
That waits upon the hardened Reprobate.
See; the effects of Treason’s Terrible,
In this life Infamy, and i’th’ next a Hell,
While Heav’n attends on Kings with special Care,
The Traitor to himself becomes a snare:
Drove out like Cain, to wander through the World,
By his own thoughts into Distraction hurl’d,
Despis’d by all, perplext with hourly fear,
And by his Friends push’t like the hunted Deer,
Like a mad Dog, still houted as he ran,
A just Reward for th’ base Rebellious man.

How often has kind Heaven preserv’d the Crown,
And tumbled the Audacious Rebel down?
How many Warnings have they had of late?
How often read their own impending Fate?
That still they dare their wicked Acts pursue,
And know what Heaven has ordain’d their due?
That man who cou’d not reas’nably desire
To raise his Fortunes, and his Glories higher,
Who did enjoy, unto a wish, such store,
That all his Ancestors scarce heard of more,
Shou’d by his own procuring fall so low,
As if he’d study’d his own overthrow,
Looks like a story yet without a Name,
And may be stil’d the first Novel in Fame?
So the fam’d Angels, Turbulent as Great,
Who always waited ’bout the Mercy-Seat,
Desiring to be something yet unknown,
Blunder’d at all, and would have graspt the Crown,
Till Heaven’s Great Monarch, saw they wou’d Rebel,
Then dasht their Hopes, and damn’d them down to Hell.

And now methinks I see to th’fatal place
A Troop of Whiggs with Faction in each Face,
And Red-swoln Eyes, moving with mournful pace,

Pitying the Mighty Sampson of their Cause,
Curse their Fates, and Railing at the Laws.
The Sisters too appear, with sniveling Cryes
To celebrate their Stallions Obsequies;
From th’ Play-house and from Change, how they resort,
From Country, City, nay, there’s some from Court,
From the Old C—ss wither’d and decay’d,
To a Whigg Brewers Youthful Lovely Maid.
Gods! What a Troop is here? sure Hercules
Had found enough so many Whores to please.

Repent, ye Factious Rout, Repent and be
Forewarn’d by this bold Traytors Destiny.
Go home ye Factious Dogs, and mend your Lives;
Be Loyal, and make honest all your Wives.
You keep from Conventicles first, and then
Keep all your Wives from Conventicling Men.
Leave off your Railing ‘gainst the King and State,
Your foolish Prating, and more foolish Hate.
Obey the Laws, and bravely act your parts,
And to the Church unite in Tongues and Hearts;
Be sudden too, before it proves too late,
Lest you partake of this bold Traytors Fate.

And if the Faction thinks it worth the Cost,
(To keep this Bully’s Name from being lost)
To raise a Pillar, to perpetuate
His Wond’rous Actions, and Ignoble Fate,
Let’em about it streight, and when ’tis done,
I’le Crown the Work with this Inscription.

Bold Fame thou Ly’st! Read here all you
That wou’d this Mighty Mortal know;
First, he was one of low degree,
But rose to an Hyperbole.
Famous t’ excess in ev’ry thing,
But duty to his God, and King;
In Oaths as Great as any He,
That ever Grac’d the Tripple Tree;
So Absolute, when Drencht in Wine,
He might have been the God o’th’ Vine.
His Brutal Lust was still so strong,
He never spar’d, or old, or young;
In Cards and Dice he was well known,
T’ out-cheat the Cheaters of the Town.

These were his Virtues, if you’d know
His Vices too pray read below.

Not wholly Whig, nor Atheist neither,
But something form’d of both together,
Famous in horrid Blasphemies,
Practic’d in base Adulteries.
In Murders vers’d as black, and foul
As his Degenerated Soul.
In’s Maxims too, as great a Beast,
As those his honest Father drest. [his father was a groom -ed.]
The Factions Bully, Sisters Stallion:
Now Hang’d, and Damn’d, for his Rebellion.

* Per “An impartial and full account of the life & death of the late unhappy William Lord Russel eldest son and heir of the present Earl of Bedford, who was executed for high treason July 21, 1683, in Lincolns-Inn-Fields: together with the original and rise of the earls of Bedford, giving a brief account of each of them.” (1684)

** Notably joining Armstrong in continental refuge — and narrowly escaping recapture with him — were fellow plotters Lord Thomas Grey and Robert Ferguson. Both these worthies returned in power with the rest of the Whig party come the Glorious Revolution … an event for which Ferguson, a prolific pamphleteer, wrote the definitive justification.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

2 comments July 21st, 2014 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrownJournal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1685: James Scott, Duke of Monmouth

16 comments July 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1685, the haughty Duke of Monmouth mounted the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill to suffer beheading for treason, and tipped the headsman with the words, “Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”*

Upon this tart public reminder of his recent and infamous failure of craft, the eponymous executioner Jack Ketch quite came apart.

Monmouth, certainly, would have appreciated the advance that would bring the guillotine. Beheading by a free-swinging axe was a ghoulishly inexact procedure: bad aim, insufficient force, an untimely flinch, or the tough neck muscles of a grizzled campaigner regularly complicated the process, often to the fury of spectators. Jack Ketch is sometimes reported a sadist, and sometimes a professional hangman so rarely summoned to give a nobleman the chop that he simply lacked proficiency. Either way, he’d been on the job for a generation by this time: his reputation for infelicity with the blade preceded him.

Historical fiction from the perspective of the Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth, an illegitimate son of King Charles II, had cause to dread Ketch’s offices for the rebellious culmination of a long power struggle with his uncle, the future King James II.

The personal contest between these men for the throne of England was the echo of the decades-old struggles straining the English polity — the Reformation and the reach of royal authority.

As it became known that the king’s brother James had gone from Catholic sympathizer to Catholic convert, Protestants began maneuvering to keep him from inheriting the crown. For three years, Parliament pushed the Exclusion Bill, which would have excluded James from succession.**

Favor among the bill’s supporters settled on the Protestant playboy Monmouth — politically convenient rumors that he was actually a legitimate child began circulating. “Weak, bad, and beautiful,” this unfriendly-to-Monmouth free book has him; whatever he was, his allies in the House of Commons were handily outmaneuvered. The Exclusion measures failed, and in 1685, James II began his reign as England’s last Roman Catholic monarch.

Monmouth’s hopes had been raised, however, and he proceeded to invade England at Dorset with a somewhat ragtag army that was routed by the Protestant royal troops who remained loyal to James at the Battle of Sedgemoor — not quite the last battle fought on English soil, but the last consequential one (the last fought with pitchforks makes a livelier distinction). Monmouth was caught trying to get away in a shepherd’s disguise. Other fugitives of his cause were hunted mercilessly.

The defeated duke was reputedly not above begging the sovereign for his life; obviously, that didn’t work out. But his cause was a popular one, nearing reverence among some commoners. Jack Ketch may have had a case of the butterflies even before the duke undressed him … and as it turns out, Ketch almost left the scaffold worse than his victim.

Here is the scene in Macaulay’s words:

The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner. The head sank down once more. The stroke was repeated again and again; but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff. ‘Fling him over the rails,’ roared the mob. At length the axe was taken up. Two more blows extinguished the last remains of life; but a knife was used to separate the head from the shoulders. The crowd was wrought up to such an ecstasy of rage that the executioner was in danger of being torn in pieces, and was conveyed away under a strong guard.

In the meantime many handkerchiefs were dipped in the Duke’s blood; for, by a large part of the multitude he was regarded as a martyr who had died for the Protestant religion.

Just the sort of soil for posthumous tall tales — that his execution was bogus and he was in hiding to return again, or had been packed off to France to become the Man in the Iron Mask. One possibly better-founded legend is that his head was set back upon its stump to sit him for what must have been a pungent portrait.

Protestant opponents of James were much thicker on the ground than the Duke’s own person, of course. They soon succeeded where Monmouth had failed.

* Slightly different versions of this address from the Duke to the executioner are recorded. Macaulay omits the “if you strike me twice” clause but adds “My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well”; a more polite (barely) construction suggests “Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell.”

** The factions in this dispute — the “Petitioners” (supporting the bill) and the “Abhorrers” (supporting the king) — evolved into the Whig and Tory political parties.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Nobility,Notable Participants,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Royalty,Treason

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!