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Authors: Geoffrey Abbott

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When she stopped, Bull raised the fearsome axe but, whether daunted by the enormity of the deed he was about to commit or just inaccurate, the first blow glanced off the back of his victim’s head, injuring her but fortunately rendering her unconscious. Raising the axe again, he brought it down on her neck, this time severing her head but for a little gristle which he cut with his knife. In accordance with tradition, he then lifted her head and proclaimed, ‘God save the Queen’, referring of course to Queen Elizabeth.

As he raised her head, the cloth fell off, revealing her close-cropped, grey hair, and it was reported that her lips continued to move as if in prayer for fifteen more minutes. The sheriff, duty bound, exclaimed, ‘So perish all the Queen’s enemies’, a sentiment echoed by the Earl of Kent who, standing over the dead body, shouted, ‘Such be the end of all the Queen’s and the Gospel’s enemies’.

It was then that an unexpected and sad little incident occurred, for one of Bull’s assistants noticed Mary’s little dog emerge from under the dead Queen’s skirts and lie down between the severed head and body of its late mistress. Enticed away, it was carried out and the blood washed off it; bloodstained garments were similarly treated or burned, so that no relics of the ‘martyred’ Queen could be retained as a rallying-point.

The body was then carried into another room by the sheriff and his sons and prepared for the surgeons who would embalm her corpse. Her head was carefully washed and placed on a velvet cushion in one of the windows overlooking the courtyard, where crowds had gathered so they could witness that the execution had indeed been done.

Nearly seven months were to elapse before her body was eventually buried, the delay being caused by a disagreement between Elizabeth and Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, as to whom should pay the funeral expenses. James won, and so the dead Queen was interred in Peterborough Cathedral on 1 August 1587. A quarter of a century later, the Scottish Queen’s remains were re-interred in the more appropriate and historic surroundings of Westminster Abbey.

Some curiosity might be aroused by the mention of a victim’s head being displayed to the crowd after every execution. This was not a vindictively motivated act but one that was highly necessary: in the absence of any pictorial proof in the media of the day, the broadsheets sold in the streets, it was absolutely essential that the crowds gathered around the scaffold be convinced that the person sentenced to death was the actual person they had in fact just seen decapitated.

Failing such eyewitnesses at a public execution, or alternatively executing someone in private, could allow the authorities to execute a person other than the one named in the warrant. Even worse, an interloper could later emerge, assume the identity of a man whose death had not been witnessed, and so lay claim to all his titles and estates.

Such publicity, however, was rarely given to the man who performed the beheading. Such anonymity was due to a variety of reasons. Executioners, classed as the lowest of the low, were not worthy of mention in official records; moreover, identification could lead to attacks by the friends of those he had put to death, as in the case of John Thrift. So history is sparse on the subject, although in the Patent Rolls of 8 July 1370 a certain John de Warblyngton is referred to as ‘Marshall of the Prostitutes of the King’s Household, dismembering evil doers, and measuring gallons and bushells in his Household’ – a man of many parts, in more ways than one!

Few of the early executioners could write or even sign their names, so no autobiographies exist to widen our knowledge. At best they were unimaginative and unemotional, at worst merciless and callous. Most of them drank heavily (and perhaps who could blame them?), they gambled, got into debt and even fell foul of the laws they enforced.

The Brandons, Gregory and his son Richard, have their place in scaffold history; it was probably Gregory who was involved in the unusual case of a lord who was executed not for murder but for rape, albeit indirectly.

In 1631 Mervin Touchet, Lord Audley, second Earl of Castlehaven, was brought to trial for the rape of his wife and for homosexual offences with his servants. In accordance with tradition, he was tried by twelve of his peers, titled men such as himself. He was not required to give evidence under oath, although witnesses were; if he stood mute he could, at the court’s discretion, be pressed to death. Those who tried him were entitled to eat and drink before they met to sit in judgment, but were not then to adjourn until they had agreed on a verdict, a shrewd expedient designed to reduce the time of an otherwise lengthy trial to an absolute minimum.

Lord Audley had recently married for the second time. It was stated at the trial that, on the second night after their marriage, her new husband had summoned to the bedroom his son-in-law, one Ampthill, an erstwhile pageboy of his whom he had compelled his daughter by his first wife to marry. He had then encouraged Ampthill to make improper advances to his wife and forced her to submit to them.

Similar charges were then heard: his lordship had physically prevented his wife from resisting while a servant named Brodway ‘had carnal knowledge of her’; a member of the household staff called Skipworth testified that he had been forced by his employer to have intimate relations with the 12-year-old wife of Lord Audley’s son, James.

Following such damning evidence given by his son and Lady Audley, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Found guilty on the charges of rape, but not on those of homosexual offences alleged later in the trial, Audley was sentenced to death by hanging. However, in view of his rank in society, this was graciously reduced to one of ‘being beheaded, as a Favour’. As the executioner of the day was Gregory Brandon, doubtless it was he who delivered the favour personally, with the axe.

Ironically, some time later, Brandon also dispatched some of the witnesses for the prosecution, namely two of the servants who had testified against Lord Audley; they, of course, were entitled only to the rope.

Richard Brandon followed in his father’s footsteps, having acquired some expertise in his younger days by decapitating cats and dogs. He is believed to have been the executioner who aimed his axe at the royal neck of Charles I, after the unprecedented trial which had earlier taken place in Westminster Hall.

The building, heavily guarded by soldiers of the Parliamentary army, was crowded with officials, all other available space being filled by the fashionable ladies and gentlemen of London society. There, before 67 commissioners who, under Oliver Cromwell, had taken over the running of the country, Charles I sat in a crimson velvet chair in the body of the hall, facing his judges. It was Cromwell who now sat in the Royal chair of state, beneath the arms of the Commonwealth which had replaced the royal arms. The charge was read out, accusing the king of being the author of the evils and calamities brought upon the nation, and of the innocent blood which had been spilled.

At one moment in the trial His Majesty leaned forward to tap the solicitor-general on the shoulder with the silver staff he held, as if intending to warn him that it was an offence to bring charges against a king; a gasp rose from the rapt audience as the head fell from the staff and rolled on the floor, an awful omen in those superstitious times.

And so it proved, the verdict later declaring:

‘Whereas CHARLES STEUART, King of England, is and standeth convicted, attainted, and condemned of High Treason and other High Crimes; and sentence upon Saturday last was pronounced against him by this Court, to be put to death by the severing of his head from his body; of which Sentence execution yet remaineth to be done; These are therefore to will and require you to see the said Sentence executed, in the open Street before Whitehall, upon the morrow, being the thirtieth day of this instant month January [1649] between the hours of Ten in the morning and Five in the afternoon, with full effect. And for so doing, this shall be your Warrant.

And these are to require all Officers and Soldiers, and others, the good People of this Nation of England, to be assisting unto you on this Service. Given under our Hands and Seals, etc. etc.’

The King was escorted through St James’s Park with a regiment of foot-soldiers for his guard, with drums beating and colours flying, and his private guard of partisans (Yeomen of the Guard). At Whitehall he was conducted to a private room, and at two o’clock was led through one of the large windows of the Banqueting House on to a black-draped scaffold which projected out into the street. The boards were also covered with black cloth, in the centre of which stood the block and the axe, the latter having been brought from the Tower of London.

Companies of foot- and horse-soldiers surrounded the scaffold, vast crowds filling Whitehall, every available window, balcony and even rooftop occupied by spectators. On seeing the low block, only 10 inches high, the king objected, realising that he would need to lie submissively prone instead of kneeling, but was told that it was necessary. Mention was not made of the four staples driven into the boards, to which the king would be secured should he resist.

Of the 15 people present on the scaffold – His Majesty’s personal bishop, friends and Parliamentary officers – two were the executioners, one having a grey beard, the other with flaxen hair, both clad in black. Expedience demanded extra disguise in the form of vizards lest Royalist supporters sought revenge later. As the king knelt, the older man listened intently as His Majesty told him to withhold his blow until he gave the signal by stretching out his arms. ‘I will, an’t please Your Majesty,’ he answered in an awed voice.

The king lay down at full length and prayed, as the multitude of watchers waited in absolute silence. The executioner raised the axe, poising it high in the air above the Royal neck. ‘Wait for the sign! Wait for the sign!’ the king exclaimed, then suddenly stretched his arms out. Instantly the axe crashed down, and an audible sigh rose from the throats of the watching thousands as the body of a lifeless, headless King of England sprawled at the feet of the common hangman.

In accordance with tradition, the assistant executioner, William Lowen, a former dunghill-cleaner, then raised the severed head high so all could see, and proclaimed loudly: ‘Behold the head of a traitor! So die all traitors.’

A coffin was brought on to the scaffold, into which the body was placed, the head being positioned on the torso, and was then conveyed to the Royal sleeping-chamber in the Palace of Whitehall. There, after embalming, it was put on display so that the general public could pay their last respects. A slanderous story was circulated that Cromwell also visited the sleeping-chamber, cold-bloodedly lifting the head in his hands to make sure that it was actually severed from the body.

The wheel of fate turned full circle in later years, however, retribution descending on the Lord Protector himself, albeit after his death. Buried with great pomp and ceremony in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, his remains were rudely dug up after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the corpse being drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn where, after hanging for some hours, it was decapitated, the body being buried under the gallows. The head, impaled on a spike, was set up, appropriately, on the roof of Westminster Hall, where it remained for over 40 years until blown down in the great storm of 1703.

Richard Brandon, the king’s executioner as undoubtedly he was, received as his fee ‘30 pounds for his pains, all in half-crowns, within an hour of the blow being struck, an orange stuck full of cloves and a handkerchief from the King’s pocket’.

He spent all the money, and sold the orange for ten shillings to a neighbour near his home in Rosemary Lane, east London; one wonders whether he gave the royal handkerchief to his wife as a souvenir. He died a few months later and, as was said of Charles-Henri Sanson, the French executioner of Louis XVI, ‘he died of remorse at killing a King’.

BOOK: Execution: A Guide to the Ultimate Penalty
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