1618: Walter Raleigh, age of exploration adventurer

3 comments October 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1618, schemer, explorer, and lover Walter Raleigh fell permanently out of favor.

One of the biggest wheels of Elizabethan England, Raleigh (who also rendered his name Rawleigh, Rawley, and most commonly, Ralegh) charmed his way into the Queen’s inner circle, and possibly her pants, and was even thought to be a contender for her hand.

In between gorging on royal monopolies, scribbling poetry, popularizing tobacco, and introducing the potato to Ireland [allegedly], Raleigh got his New World on by attempting to colonize Virginia,* helping fund it with privateering operations against England’s rivals in the land-grab game. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina — present-day North Carolina was part of the Virginia Colony back in the day — is named for him.

Proud, powerful, and the queenie’s pet. Just the sort of courtier other noble suckups loved to hate.

When the palace fave secretly dallied with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, he went on the royal outs and got real familiar with the Tower of London. Though he managed to patch up with Elizabeth, things were never quite the same for Sir Walter. Elizabeth’s successor James I put him back in prison (suspending a death sentence) for supposedly participating in the Main Plot.

Raleigh passed the time under lock and key burnishing his Renaissance man rep by writing various poetry and treatises, including an account of his voyage to Guyana. Convinced the legendary city of El Dorado was in the vicinity, Raleigh eventually prevailed upon James to release him to make another run at it.

But a dust-up with a Spanish outpost in South America left his son dead, and the Spanish ambassador hopping mad. Raleigh was arrested upon his return, and the death sentence reinstated.

At 66 years of age or so, Walter Raleigh had had a pretty good run.

He took his punishment with equanimity, writing tenderly to his wife, and examining the blade that would take off his head on the scaffold with the observation,

“This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all Diseases.”

His wife creepily kept the severed head for the remaining 29 years of her life.

There’s a more detailed tour of Raleigh’s life here, and a site linking many works by and about Raleigh here.

* As Governor of Virginia, Raleigh forbade injuring Indians on pain of death, according to Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth. Raleigh’s “imperialism with a human face” policy had exchange programs of Indians visiting England, most notably Pocahontas.

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1660: Major-General Thomas Harrison, the first of the regicides

12 comments October 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the restored House of Stuart began a week of bloody justice against Charles I‘s regicides by hanging, drawing and quartering Thomas Harrison at Charing Cross.

Stuart Little

Charles’ son and heir Charles II had been stuck on the continent during the 1650’s, until the Commonwealth came apart from its own internal contradictions after the death of Oliver Cromwell.

With anarchy looming, suddenly monarchy didn’t look so bad — and Charles II had a way back into the saddle.

Beheads I Win …

The first thing on everyone’s mind was what to do about the little matter of having lopped off his dad’s head.

Political reality drove the settlement: nearly everyone in the English gentry had in some manner acquiesced to the Commonwealth during its decade-plus turn steering the ship of state; an expansive line on treason would be a nonstarter. At the same time, His Soon-To-Be-Royal-Again Majesty expected a few examples made to do right by the old man and keep king-killing well off his future subjects’ agenda.

Result: the Indemnity and Oblivion Act, granting a free pardon to all supporters of the Commonwealth save a handful of those most directly implicated in Charles I’s execution.

Weeks of frantic negotiating between the parties and private settlements of borderline cases with the royalist camp preceded the action. But Thomas Harrison wasn’t part of any of it.

… Entrails you Lose.

The rigid Puritan, one of 59 who signed the last king’s death warrant and at one time the commander of England’s armies, had been on the outs with everyone since Cromwell set up the Protectorate in 1653. Godly Tom was a “Fifth Monarchist,” anticipating the imminent return of Christ perhaps in conjunction with the imminent year 1666 … and no government felt safe about these millenarians. He’d been imprisoned several times by the Protectorate, too.

Though many attainted regicides fled for Europe or America, Harrison (possibly motivated by age and infirmity) hung out, waited for arrest, and took his punishment stolidly.

God hath covered my head many times in the day of Battle. By God I have leaped over a wall, by God I have runned through a Troop, and by my God I will go through this death.

Specifically meaning, drawn on a hurdle from Newgate to Charing Cross (with a fine vantage for the doomed on Whitehall, where Charles I had met his end), hanged but revived, his genitalia cut off and bowels carved out and burned while still conscious, and finally beheaded and his body divided into quarters for gruesome public display around town.

You have selected regicide.

Harrison died on a Saturday, and his was the opening act of a busy week in the bowel-burning business; nine other fellow regicides condemned with him would share that fate during the week ahead:

  • John Carew, on Monday the 15th;
  • John Cook and Hugh Peters, on Tuesday the 16th;
  • Thomas Scot, Gregory Clemen, Adrian Scroop and John Jones, on Wednesday the 17th;
  • Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel, on Friday the 19th.

Harrison was chosen as the first partly, perhaps, because the Fifth Monarchists were (justifiably) considered a still-extant menace, and partly because, as one account had it,

[h]e was a fierce and bloody enthusiast. And it was believed, that, while the army was in doubt, whether it was fitter to kill the king privately, or to bring him to an open trial, that he offered, if a private way was settled on, to be the man that should do it. So he was begun with. But, however reasonable this might be in itself, it had a very ill effect: for he was a man of great heat and resolution, fixed in his principles, and so persuaded of them, that he never looked after any interests of his own, but had opposed Cromwell when he set up for himself. He went through all the indignities and severities of his execution, in which the letter of the law in cases of treason was punctually observed, with a calmness or rather a cheerfulness that astonished the spectators.

“As cheerful as any man could do in that condition”

And this coda is attested by the age’s famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, whose neat and oft-quoted summation of Harrison’s fate runs thus:

I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.

Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe

As might be expected, vindicated royalists sought more blood than the handful of exemplars could furnish. What compromise could expiate the sin of regicide?

Poet and polemicist John Milton, having been propagandist-in-chief for the now-abortive revolution, endured the jeers of his enemies for the conspicuously apolitical stuff (a grammar book!) by which he would set his table in the years ahead.

Upon John Milton’s not suffering for his traiterous Book when the Tryers were executed, 1660.

That thou escaped’st that vengeance, which o’ertook,
Milton, thy regicides, and thy own book,
Was clemency in Charles beyond compare:
And yet thy doom doth prove more grievous far.
Old, sickly, poor, stark blind, thou writest for bread:
So for to live thoud’st call Salmasius from the dead.

(Claudius Salmasius was a French intellectual whose defense of the Stuart royal rights had been savaged by Milton during the Protectorate.)

It’s thanks to the Indemnity and Oblivion Act’s not sending Milton the way of General Harrison that we have Paradise Lost.

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

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