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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