1651: James Stanley, Earl of Derby

Add comment October 15th, 2015 Headsman

Oliver Cromwell famously called his victory in the last battle of the English Civil War “a crowning mercy” … but it was anything but for royalist nobleman James Stanley, who was beheaded a few weeks afterwards, on this date in 1651.

Packing the marvelous title of Earl of Derby and the Marvel Comics-esque one of Baron Strange, Stanley was the maternal grandson of playwright Edward de Vere.

He had fought the cavalier side in the 1640s and made his name notorious with the storming of Bolton that resulted in the Bolton Massacre. Weeks later, he was present when royalist fortunes went pear-shaped in the north at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Stanley holed up on the Isle of Man after King Charles I lost his head, refusing his enemies’ every blandishment until he could re-enter the field as a commander for Charles II‘s reboot of hostilities.

This also proved a catastrophic failure, and while Charles was able to slip back to continental exile the Lord Derby could not find such obliging oak trees as served his master.*

Though given terms by his captors, a court martial subsequently disallowed such liberality to the butcher of Bolton and condemned him as a traitor.

The parliamentarians would take him back to Bolton to face his punishment; the spot of the beheading is marked by a column in Bolton’s market cross.

Undependable local folklore holds that Lord Derby spent his last night in the ancient (and still-extant) Ye Olde Man and Scythe inn, whose environs exhibit some artifacts of Lord Derby, including a prop severed head.

It’s even said that Stanley’s ghost haunts the pub.

* Stanley was also the Lord of Mann (i.e., of the Isle of Man), and the efforts of Stanley’s wife to negotiate surrender of the royalist island in exchange for her husband’s safety triggered the rebellion of Illiam Dhone.

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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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1654: Gerard the conspirator, and the Portuguese envoy’s brother

Add comment July 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1654, the gore-soaked annals of Tower Hill added the names of two of Protectorate England’s highest criminals.

John Gerard was only an ensign from the army of the late King Charles I, but he gave his name to a one of the great royalist conspiracies of the 1650s.

Gerard — alternately rendered Gerrard or Gerhard by his contemporaries — led a plot to assassinate Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. It would ultimately yield some 40 arrests, enough to arouse suspicion that the entire thing was a trap laid as part of the vigorous counterespionage game between the exiled royal heir and the Puritan government.

Initially condemned to hang — which was indeed the fate on this same date of one fellow conspirator, schoolteacher Peter Vowell — Gerard successfully petitioned for beheading instead, where he made a great show of courage and fidelity.

When he came to (or rather leap’d upon) the Scaffold (for he was so far from flagging when to tread that Tragical stage, that many observ’d hos sprightfully he seem’d to skip up the steps to it, as if he had gone to dance there rather than to die) his grim Executioner presented himself to him, to whom with a cheerful smile he said, “Welcom honest friend”; And desiring to see his Ax, he took it into his hands, and kissing it, with a pretty glance of his eye (which was a natural loveliness in him) towards the Minister, he said, “This will do the Deed I warrant it.”

The Sheriff stopped him delivering an address he had scribbled down, rightly expecting that it tended to the seditious. Nothing daunted, Gerard prayed with his minister, and

[t]hen turning himself to the people, and putting off his Hat, he told them, That he was not permitted to speak a few words according to his intention, yet he doubted not but what he would have said would come to their eyes, thought it must not come to their ears: “But this I desire all to take notice of,” and this he spoke (with a double vehemence) “that I die a faithful subject and servant to King Charles the second, whom I pray God to bless and restore to his Rights; and had I ten thousand thousand lives I would gladly lay them all down thus for his service.”

Execution ceremonies of the period tended to the elaborate, and the condemned could not easily be balked of their featured role. Although the Sheriff interrupted him here, and pressed him under a scorching sun to reveal more conspirators, Gerard put him off and “call’d for some small beer” to quench his thirst, which he did indeed receive. Oh for the days when a traitor could kick back with a frosty during his execution.

[Gerard] calls for the Block: and viewing it (as with delight) laid himself down upon it to see how it would fit, and was so far from sinking at the sight of it, that he almost play’d with it: and rising quickly pulls a little paper-book out of his pocket, which he gave to the Minister, willing him to find that particular Prayer which was proper for that occasion, but the crowd being great, he could not quickly find it, so that he kneeled down with the book open a while in his hand as if he had read; but quickly shut it, and prayed with great expressions of fervency by himself.

When he had done, the Lieutenant said something to him (as it seems) concerning his Brother Charles that had witnessed agianst him; (I know not what the Lieutenant said, for he spake low) but Mr. Gerrard spake aloud, and replyed passionately, “O Christ Sir! I love my poor Brother with all my heart, he is but a youth and was terrified, I know how he was dealt with; tell him I love him as well as ever I lov’d him in my life.”

forgiving the Executioner and saluting the Minister with his last embrace and kisses, he bow’d himself to the stroak of death, with as much Christian meekness and noble courage mix’d together, as I believe was ever seen in any that had bled upon that Altar.


Much less the pitied by the Tower Hill crowd was the executioner’s second act that date, don Pantaleon de Sa.

This Iberian noble, in town while his brother the Count of Penaguiao negotiated a treaty, got into a quarrel and escalated it egregiously, descending on the tony New Exchange shopping center on The Strand with a score of armed retainers looking to get his satisfaction.

This would be offense enough but don Pantaleon compounded matters by actually shooting dead some luckless sod who only happened to resemble his recent antagonist. Cromwell had his men invade the diplomatic residence where don Pantaleon tried to claim refuge, an act that perhaps would have been accomplished by an angry mob had he not done so.

International affairs proceeded apace, the commerce of nations proving very much thicker than blood for the Portuguese ambassador. On the very morning of his brother’s execution, the Count signed his treaty and set sail for home from Gravesend, leaving his belligerent brother to pay the forfeit of English justice.

The fruit of such costly statecraft was an English-Portuguese affinity to long outlast the pains of Tower Hill.

The trading relationship cemented in the 1654 treaty set the stage for a political arrangement as well when Gerard’s beloved Charles II was restored to the throne and made a Portuguese princess his queen.

So profitably were English merchants rewarded for moving Portuguese freight that by the next century, long after anyone could remember don Pantaleon or his marketplace quarrel, Portuguese wine displaced French as Britons’ libation of choice.

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1690: Old Mobb, witty highwayman

Add comment May 30th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, according to the Newgate Calendar,* the venerable gentleman rogue Thomas Sympson — better known as Old Mobb — was hanged for robbery.

Old Mobb — at least, the stylish and erudite version of the man given us in the Calendar — preyed the roads of late 17th century England for many a year, perhaps all the way back to the ill-fated reign of Charles I.

His rollicking adventures could have formed the fair corpus of a durable legend; in some alternate world Ainsworth chose Old Mobb as for Rookwood and it is he and not Dick Turpin who has the television serial and the pub nameplates.

A nobleman Sir Bartholomew Shower, whose name might also be the safeword at a leather masquerade, was apprehended by Old Mobb one day nearly penniless as to his person; taking exception at being shorted by such a wealthy grandee, Mobb forced him to write up a bill for 150 quid to draw on the goldsmith of nearby Exeter, leaving Shower trussed up under an obliging hedge “as security for the payment” while he went into town to cash the cheque.

The annals have next a widow, bound for Bath no less in tribute to the classics, and had a jolly battle of the sexes with her over her condition which of course Old Mobb won, since he had the gun. His target, you see,

wept very plentifully, in order to move him to pity; she told him she was a poor widow, who had lately lost her husband, and therefore she hoped he would have some compassion on her. “And is your losing your husband then,” says he, “an argument that I must lose my booty? I know your sex too well, madam, to suffer myself to be prevailed on by a woman’s tears. Those crocodile drops are always at your command; and no doubt but that dear cuckold of yours, whom you have lately buried, has frequently been persuaded out of his reason by their interposition in your domestic debates. Weeping is so customary to you, that everybody would be disappointed if a woman was to bury her husband and not weep for him; but you would be more disappointed if nobody was to take notice of your crying; for according to the old proverb, the end of a husband is a widow’s tears; and the end of those tears is another husband.”

The poor gentlewoman upon this ran out into an extravagant detail of her deceased husband’s virtues, solemnly protesting that she would never be married again to the best man that wore a head, for she should not expect a blessing to attend her afterwards; with a thousand other things of the same kind. Old Mobb at last interrupted her, and told her he would repeat a pleasant story in verse which he had learned by heart, so, first looking round him to see that the coast was clear on every side, he began as follows: —-

A widow prude had often swore
No bracelet should approach her more;
Had often proved that second marriage
Was ten times worse than maid’s miscarriage,
And always told them of their sin,
When widows would be wives agen:
Women who’d thus themselves abuse,
Should die, she thought, like honest Jews
Let her alone to throw the stones;
If ’twere but law, she’d make no bones.

Thus long she led a life demure;
But not with character secure:
For people said (what won’t folks say?)
That she with Edward went astray:
(This Edward was her servant-man)
The rumour through the parish ran,
She heard, she wept, she called up Ned,
Wiped her eyes dry, sighed, sobbed, and said:

‘Alas! what sland’rous times are these!
What shall we come to by degrees!
This wicked world! I quite abhor it!
The Lord give me a better for it!
On me this scandal do they fix?
On me? who, God knows, hate such tricks!
Have mercy, Heaven, upon mankind,
And grant us all a better mind!
My husband — Ah that dearest man!
Forget his love I never can;
He took such care of my good name,
And put all sland’rous tongues to shame. —
But, ah! he’s dead –‘ Here grief amain,
Came bubbling up, and stopped the strain.

Ned was no fool; he saw his cue,
And how to use good fortune knew:
Old Opportunity at hand,
He seized the lock, and bid him stand;
Urged of what use a husband was
To vindicate a woman’s cause,
Exclaimed against the sland’rous age;
And swore he could his soul engage
That madam was so free from fault
She ne’er so much as sinned in thought;
Vowing he’d lose each drop of blood
To make that just assertion good.

This logic, which well pleased the dame,
At the same time eludes her shame:
A husband, for a husband’s sake,
Was what she’d ne’er consent to take.
Yet, as the age was so censorious,
And Ned’s proposals were so glorious,
She thought ’twas best to take upon her,
A second guardian of her honour.

“This,” says Old Mobb, “is an exact picture of woman-kind, and as such I committed it to memory; you are very much obliged to me for the recital, which has taken me up more time than I usually spend in taking a purse; let us now pass from the dead to the living, for it is these that I live by. I am in a pretty good humour, and so will not deal rudely by you. Be so kind, therefore, as to search yourself, and use me as honestly as you are able; you know I can examine afterwards, if I am not satisfied with what you give me.” The gentlewoman found he was resolute, and so thought it the best way to keep him in temper, which she did by pulling out forty guineas in a silk purse, and presented them to him. It is fifty to one but Old Mobb got more by repeating the verses above than the poor poet that wrote them ever made of his copy. Such is the fate of the sons of Apollo. [dear reader, why not take this opportunity to click on an ad? -ed.]

We certainly have in these puffed-up knaves torn down for our amusement a little window into the romance of the road where by means of Stand And Deliver one attains the liberty to put put hypocrites in their place whilst usurping the abundance that is the latter’s usual wages.

Old Mobb robs a famous astrologer whose constellations fail to predict the engagement; to a doctor who upbraids him, he retorts, “I only take [my victims’] money away from them; but you frequently take away their lives: and what makes it the worse you do it safely, under a pretence of restoring them to health.”

As pieces de resistance, Old Mobb gets the better of two of Restoration England’s most infamous grandees.

The Duchess of Portsmouth, the widely hated French Catholic mistress to Charles II,** Old Mobb improbably manages to trap in her stagecoach giving him leave to excoriate her in words similar to those that real 17th century Britons must have muttered many times while in their cups. “I know you to be the greatest whore in the kingdom; and that you are maintained at the public charge. I know that all the courtiers depend on your smiles, and that even the K— himself is your slave,” Mobb says, rubbishing her sex and her nationality all at once. “That haughty French spirit will do you no good here. I am an English freebooter; and insist upon it as my native privilege to seize all foreign commodities. Your money indeed is English, and the prodigious sums that have been lavished on you will be a lasting proof of English folly; nevertheless, all you have is confiscated to me by being bestowed on such a worthless b—h. I am king here, madam, and I have a whore to keep on the public contributions as well as King Charles.”

The ruthless hanging judge Lord Jeffreys Old Mobb likewise pays in his own coin when Jeffreys threatens our marauder with potential damnation, speaking as it were through Jeffreys to the obsequious blackguards who afflict the public life of every time and place.

When justice has overtaken us both, I shall stand at least as good a chance as your Lordship; who have already written your name in indelible characters of blood, by putting to death so many hundred innocent men, for only standing up in defence of our common liberties, that you might secure the favour of your Prince. It is enough for you to preach morality upon the Bench, where nobody dares to contradict you; but your lessons can have no effect upon me at this time; for I know you too well not to see that they are only calculated to preserve money.

* The Newgate Calendar positively avers a hanging of Friday, May 30, 1690, but there are some complicating data points. There’s his purported campaign with William “the Golden Farmer” Davis, who was supposed to have left a parting note for Old Mobb upon Davis’s December 1690 execution. (However, 1690 was the year when May 30 was on a Friday, not 1691.)

The invaluable Old Bailey Online has none of this, though the date range is a period of spotty recordkeeping. It does give us a nondescript and lamely apologetic “Old Mobb” hanged on the 18th of September 1691; although this guy had done some highway robbery, he doesn’t otherwise bear an obvious resemblance to the Newgate Calendar’s colorful character. He might be the same guy, or they might just share a cant alias. “Mob” — short for mobilevulgus, the “fickle crowd” — was just establishing itself in English at this point with a usage a bit more flexible than it has for us today; our criminals’ point of contact might be simply that each lasted unusually long in the profession, and therefore each received a nickname meaning something like “Old Man”. Jonathan Swift complained bitterly of this truncated neologism in 1710, writing that “I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of Mobb and Banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” (Sorry, buddy … English is a living language.)

At any rate, I don’t know whether Old Mobb is one guy or two, nor am I fully confident of the best date of execution. These are the least of our difficulties when it comes to veracity, considering that the man’s attributed exploits likely comprise 100% shameless fabrication. It’s just that kind of post.

** Careful how you speak of her: she’s an ancestor (via the late Princess Diana) of the current royal princes.

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1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

1 comment November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1678, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.


Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

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1655: Henry Manning, Protectorate spy

Add comment December 15th, 2011 Headsman

“There certainly can be no doubt,” wrote a Venetian diplomat late in the rule of Oliver Cromwell, “that Charles [II] is betrayed by some of those who stand about him, otherwise it would be impossible for Cromwell to find out the secret plans he meditates.”

And indeed, on this date* in 1655, just such a one was shot by the exiled royalists as a Protectorate spy.

Henry Manning, the son of a royalist colonel who died fighting for Charles’s late beheaded father, had impeccable credentials for the Stuarts. The alleged English king was now parked on the continent, trying to conjure up some route back to the throne.

So when the pedigreed Manning turned up at exile camp, packing “a considerable sum of money” he was willing to give to the cause, he was welcomed with open arms.

Too open.

While royalist courtiers blabbed, Manning was filing enciphered reports for Cromwell’s spy chief (and the source of that considerable sum of money) John Thurloe. And these reports disclosed royalist collaborators in England who were rounded up in great numbers in 1655 — a year in which Cromwell dissolved parliament and resorted to direct military rule, growing correspondingly more worried about plots against his person.

It seems that Cromwell’s intelligence men lacked a certain subtlety, however. After an English traveler illicitly met with Charles on the continent during the dead of night, and was picked up for questioning when he returned to the island, the Stuart men naturally reasoned that only the small handful of people involved in that meeting could have been the mole. Manning was done for as soon as his apartments were searched.

Under interrogation, Manning gave up everything he knew, trying desperately to save his skin by offers of turning double-agent and exploiting his relationship with the Protectorate for the royalists’ benefit.** As late as December 14 the captured spy — hearing “sad rumours of a sudden end intended me, nay, to-morrow morning” — addressed a letter to royal aide Edward Nicholas, “humbly crav[ing] you would once more try his most gratious Majesty.”

His Majesty’s concern, however, was of fading into ridiculousness and irrelevance, and the play here was to make an example of treachery. Without apparent legal sanction — the word of the shadow king Charles was law enough here, and his German hosts were content to look the other way — Manning was pistoled to death in a woods outside of Cologne, and the fact made known abroad.

Everyone who’s had a look at Henry Manning agrees that the guy was a small and abject man, easy prey for these great ministers of state. But then, when Thurloe himself was arrested for treason upon the monarchy’s eventual restoration, he procured his own parole by spilling his secrets to King Charles.

* The Gregorian date, per the Holy Roman Empire where Manning was shot — not the Julian date still in use in England. Note as well that the 15th is the most readily inferred date from the available evidence, particularly Manning’s letter of the 14th, but that the event itself does not appear to have been affirmatively recorded on this (or any) specific date by contemporaries. There’s little room for variance, as correspondents are commenting on the death of Manning by the end of December.

** “The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.” –Sun Tzu

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1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest

2 comments August 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, 80-year-old Catholic priest John Kemble was martyred for the faith at Hereford.

Kemble had been discreetly performing the offices of his faith — still illicit, but less liable to get you killed at this late date — for over five decades since ordination.

Unhappily, Titus Oates and his tall tales of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II came along at the end of that run. In the ensuing anti-Catholic spasm, Kemble was one of the unlucky ones rousted.

Even in the hysteria of the times, nobody could make an actual conspiracy charge stick against this ancient cleric, but in the hands of a sufficiently hostile judiciary, his demonstrable exercise of the priesthood could be enough to make him a traitor. And at his age, the opportunity to buy his life at the cost of his conscience didn’t look the bargain:

According to the course of nature I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and therefore I will not abscond.

He got the mild consolation of hanging to death before the unpleasant drawing-and-quartering bits were executed upon him, and calmly puffed a pipe and shared a bowl of wine with the sympathetic representatives of the law before it all happened. As a result, Herefordshire long called the comforts enjoyed before a parting a “Kemble pipe” and “Kemble cup”.

He’s been elevated to sainthood on the strength of his posthumous miracles, like healing the jailer’s daughter of throat cancer; the holy man’s severed hand, held at St. Francis Xavier’s in Hereford, is supposed to have saved a man from death as recently as 1995.

(The rest of St. John Kemble reposes at Welsh Newton, and is venerated at an annual pilgrimage.)

Kemble was among the last of the Forty Martyrs of England to die for the Catholic faith; a fellow-inmate, David Lewis, paid his own penalty just five days later.

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1669: Roux de Marsilly, employer of the Man in the Iron Mask?

8 comments June 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1669, a French Huguenot agent was publicly broken on the wheel in Paris.

On the dangerous political chessboard of 17th century Europe, the allegiance of Restoration England — governed once again by a dynasty with known Catholic sympathies — was a great prize for contending Catholic and Protestant powers on the mainland.*

While Charles II of England and the Catholic Louis XIV of France maneuvered towards a secret accord that would lead to devastating war against the Protestant Netherlands, Roux de Marsilly was busy in London trying to enlist England into a Protestant alliance against France.

Finding the avenues blocked, Marsilly retired to Switzerland and was there abducted by French spies who knew what he was up to.

A trumped-up rape charge served that country’s statecraft, and despite an offer by the prisoner to spill some beans in exchange for his life — and then a suicide attempt —

hee wounded himself … for he knew before hee should dye, butt he thought by dismembering himself that the losse of blood would carry him out of the world …

— Roux could not avoid his fate. In fact, out of fear that Marsilly could still succumb to his self-injury, they

sent word … which made his execution be hastened. Saturday about 1 of the clock he was brought on the skaffold before the Chastelet and tied to St. Andrew’s Crosse all which was while he acted the Dying man and scarce stirred, and seemed almost breathless and fainting …

they went to their worke and gave [Marsilly] eleven blows with a barre and laid him on the wheele. He was two houres dying.

(Both quotes above from this correspondence.)

For all those two agonizing hours, Roux de Marsilly really only merits a footnote in a different story.

The Man in the Iron Mask

The mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was first documented in French custody later in the summer of 1669, and he would remain a guest of the Bourbon dungeons until 1703.

The identify of this person — or maybe persons, since it’s been argued that there are multiple threads conflated into the one legend — has never been conclusively established, much to the profit of literature.

One of the stronger contenders for the crownmask, however, is a prisoner named “Eustace Dauger”, who may in fact have been Roux de Marsilly’s former valet, one “Martin”.

The case for Martin-as-Dauger-as-masked-man is made most comprehensively by Andrew Lang in The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories.

The hypothesis, roughly outlined, is that England and especially France were trying to tie up the loose ends of whatever plots Marsilly had authored, and got hands on his servant to interrogate him about the highly sensitive machinations he might have been privy to.

Possibly having established that Martin/Eustace had no actual information to betray, he still remained under lock and key out of some admixture of bureaucratic inertia and the remorseless paranoia of the security state. Crazy.

[T]he Man in the Iron Mask (if Dauger were he) may have been as great a mystery to himself as to historical inquirers. He may not have known WHAT he was imprisoned for doing! More important is the probable conclusion that the long and mysterious captivity of Eustache Dauger, and of another perfectly harmless valet and victim, was the mere automatic result of the ‘red tape’ of the old French absolute monarchy. These wretches were caught in the toils of the system, and suffered to no purpose, for no crime. The two men, at least Dauger, were apparently mere supernumeraries in the obscure intrigue of a conspirator known as Roux de Marsilly.

Marsilly was publicly tortured to death in Paris on June 22, 1669. By July 19 his ex-valet, Dauger, had entered on his mysterious term of captivity. How the French got possession of him, whether he yielded to cajolery, or was betrayed by Charles II., is uncertain. … By July 19, at all events, Louvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV., was bidding Saint-Mars, at Pignerol in Piedmont, expect from Dunkirk a prisoner of the very highest importance–a valet! This valet, now called ‘Eustache Dauger,’ can only have been Marsilly’s valet, Martin, who, by one means or another, had been brought from England to Dunkirk. It is hardly conceivable, at least, that when a valet, in England, is ‘wanted’ by the French police on July 1, for political reasons, and when by July 19 they have caught a valet of extreme political importance, the two valets should be two different men. Martin must be Dauger.

* And, of course, for the Catholics and Protestants in England. This struggle would come to a head in due time, to the grief of the Stuarts.

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1677: William Drummond, for Bacon’s Rebellion

4 comments January 20th, 2010 Headsman

“Mr. Drummond, I am more glad to see you than any man in Virginia; you shall hang in half an hour.”

Virginia Governor William Berkeley didn’t deliver gallows justice as rapidly as promised, but the outcome was just as certain.

Scotsman William Drummond, the former colonial governor of Abermarle and therefore the first governor of North Carolina,

was made to walk to Middle Plantation, about eight miles distant, and tried before a drum-head court-martial, the next day, at the house of James Bray, Esq., under circumstances of great brutality. He was not permitted to answer for himself; his wife’s ring was torn from his finger; he was stripped before conviction, was sentenced at one o’clock and hanged at four. (Source)

There’s nothing worse than a poor winner.

Drummond caught Berkeley’s considerable wrath for associating himself with Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion of frontier settlers demanding lower taxes and more energetic genocide against their Indian neighbors. When Berkeley balked, the movement metastasized into a republican revolution which declared the agent of royal authority in Virginia to have abdicated and proposed to reconstitute it by popular convocation.

It was very much short of an actual attempt to separate from England, but in its form and complaints one easily perceives the germ of the American Revolution a century hence. Sarah Drummond was reported to have been at least as vehement as her hanged spouse, and she is credited with prophesying “the child that is unborn shall have cause to rejoice for the good that will come by the rising of the country.”

Armed struggle between two desperate factions was truncated by the fatal case of dysentery* contracted by the namesake insurrectionary. His unpleasant and untimely demise crippled the rising rising, and left Drummond as about the most prominent target available for the victorious Berkeley’s fury.

Not that there wasn’t much more to go around — even when the British navy finally landed in late January with reinforcements too late to do any good, a general amnesty Berkeley had not clemency enough to use, and a successor to Berkeley the aging governor did not like one bit. Nineteenth-century historian George Bancroft in his History of the Colonization of the United States writes of the crackdown,

In defiance of remonstrances, executions continued till twenty-two had been hanged.** Three others had died of cruelty in prison; three more had fled before trial; two had escaped after conviction. More blood was shed than, on the action of our present system [i.e., the constitutional government of the United States], would be shed for political offences in a thousand years. Nor is it certain when the carnage would have ended, had not the assembly convened in February, 1677, voted an address “that the governor would spill no more blood.”

Finally the new guy managed to get Drummond on a boat back to the mother country with an unflattering report of his conduct. The crotchety septuagenarian, who had been a spry mid-30’s courtier when first appointed Virginia governor by Charles I, was coldly received by Charles II. “The old fool,” remarked the sovereign, “has taken more lives in that naked country than I have taken for the murder of my father.”

* “The bloodie flux” was an unsatisfying avenger for his foes, as indicated by the doggerel

“Bacon is Dead, I am sorry at my hart
That lice and flux should take the hangman’s part”

** Some sources put the total number executed at 23, not 22; I have been unable to locate the source of this discrepancy.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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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.

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