Friday, July 15, 2016

An Execution Timeline: The Duke of Monmouth's Last Days

by Margaret Porter

The Duke of Monmouth
The Monmouth Rebellion, geographically based in the West Country, lasted only a month. This failed attempt by King Charles II's illegitimate Protestant son to remove his Catholic uncle King James II from England's throne concluded in July of 1685. James Crofts, also known as James Fitzroy, Duke of Monmouth and Duke of Buccleuch, was captured in a hedge near Ringwood in Hampshire. Under the Act of Attainder passed by Parliament on 13 June, he had been declared a traitor to the Crown and sentenced to death. Therefore no court proceeding was necessary after he was seized. The following timeline traces his final days and hours.

King James II
Monday, 13th July. The Duke of Monmouth arrived in London to face the King he had intended to depose. A monarch typically agreed to receive a condemned person only if intending to grant a pardon. James departed from this precedent. The prisoner was brought before the King, Queen, and royal advisors gathered in William Chiffinch's chamber at Whitehall Palace. The interview lasted nearly fifty minutes, during which Monmouth was forced to declare his illegitimacy. James, unmoved by the spectacle of his prostrated enemy, paid no heed to reminders of their blood relationship and pleas for mercy.

When the tide was favourable, Monmouth travelled by river to the Tower of London, where his children had been placed four days earlier. The King granted the his wife, who hadn't seen him for years, permission to visit that evening. Throughout their arranged marriage the duke had disregarded his vows, and after various amours he deserted his duchess and children to live with Lady Henrietta Wentworth.

Monmouth's duchess & their two sons
Descriptions of how he reacted to his duchess's arrival are in conflict. One source states that he was reluctant to see her. Another describes a "melancholy" encounter in the presence of Lord Clarendon, Lord Privy Seal, who attended at the duchess's request. Clarendon offered to withdraw into the adjoining room to give the couple privacy but Monmouth insisted that he remain--perhaps in hopes that the earl would give a favourable report to the King. He repeatedly asked whether the King was likely to be merciful and spare his life. For the duchess, knowing Monmouth's case was hopeless, her own and her children's interests were paramount. She insisted that he acquit her of any knowledge or involvement in his treasonous activities. She also reminded him that she'd always advised him to obey the King, and had often shown displeasure at his womanising. Monmouth praised her faithfulness and dutifulness, and her "steady loyalty and affection" to the late King (Charles II), and to their children.

In the evening, Monmouth wrote a letter of entreaty to King James, putting into words all that he'd said in person earlier, and much more. It was never received--and probably would have made no difference.

Tuesday, 14th July. The Earl of Sunderland wrote the Lieutenant of the Tower, informing him that Monmouth could have a servant with him. The Bishop of Ely had the hard task of informing Monmouth that his execution would take place the following day. After learning his fate, Monmouth wrote a second letter to the King:
I have received your Majesty's order this day that I am to dye to-morrow. I was in hopes, sir, by what your Majesty said to me yesterday, of taking care of my soul, that I should have had some little more time; for truly, sir, this is very short. I do beg of your Majesty, if it be possible, to let me have one day more, that I may go out of the world as a Christian ought. I had desired several times to speak with my Lord Arundel of Wardour, which I do desire still. I hope your Majesty will grant it me ; and I do beg of your Majesty to let me know by him if there is nothing in this world that can recall your sentence, or at least reprieve me for some time. I was in hopes I should have lived to have served you, which I think I could have done to a great degree ; but your Majesty does not think it fit. Therefore, sir, I shall end my days with being satisfied that I had all the good intentions imaginable for it, and should have done it, being that I am your Majesty's most dutiful
I hope your Majesty will give Doctor Tennison leave to come to me, or any other that you will be pleased to grant me.
The King refused the request. Monmouth also wrote unsuccessfully to various Catholic nobles who might persuade the King to allow a reprieve of several days. Roman Catholic priests visited Monmouth to determine whether his stated desire to "take care of his soul," i.e. conversion, was genuine. They reported to the King that true salvation was not his purpose but rather, the preservation of his life.

That night the Bishop of Ely and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, both Anglican, visited Monmouth to prepare him for his execution. Monmouth's earlier desperation and panic gradually gave way to acceptance and composure.

Wednesday, 15th July. Dr. Hooper and Dr. Tennison, Anglican priests, arrived and:
"untill he was led furth to executione the divines continowed & renued their pious endeavours to prepaire him for aneother world...Sometymes they prayed with him & sometymes he was left to praye himself alone. His behaviour all the tyme was brave & unmoved & even dureing the last conversatione &c farewell with his ladie and childeren which was the mourningest scene in the world and noe bystanderes could see it without melting in teares he did not shew the least consernedness."
Monmouth was stoic, advising his sons to be obedient to the King. Yet again he exonerated his wife, affirming her innocence and praising her goodness. He also begged her to forgive his many offences, at which point she fell to the floor and fainted. The bishops not only urged Monmouth to repent his misdeeds and crimes, they desired a reconciliation between the couple in this final hour. On the contrary, Monmouth steadfastly refused to forswear his liaison with his longtime mistress, Lady Henrietta Wentworth, who had lived with him in exile in the Low Countries and had not followed him to England. Because he would not repent and receive absolution for this sin, he could not have holy communion.

The crowd on Tower Hill
An immense crowd had gathered on Tower Hill to witness the execution. At ten o'clock that morning Monmouth was delivered by the Lieutenant's coach, accompanied by the two bishops; the priests followed. He was heavily guarded by sheriffs and soldiers carrying pistols, who all ascended the scaffold, already decked in black mourning material. Jack Ketch, the King's Executioner was waiting. Monmouth made several declarations, avowing himself a Protestant, and again mentioning Lady Henrietta, declaring her to be a "virtuous and Godly woman." This displeased the clerics, who badgered him about his amorality and the "Publick Evil" he had done in raising an army against his king and causing much bloodshed. Despite his expressions of regret for wronging others, and words of forgiveness towards his enemies, Monmouth's contrition was not up to the required standard, and the priests continued to press him, to no avail. He chose not to make any speeches. "I come to die," he said.

His words to Ketch are well-known. On presenting his executioner with six guineas, he said he didn't want to be butchered as badly as the late Lord Russell--who received multiple blows from Ketch before being killed. Ketch would receive six more guineas, Monmouth told him, if he performed well. After being undressed, he asked to test the axe blade and was concerned that it was "not sharp enough." Ketch contradicted this criticism.

What followed this exchange was one of the most gruesome executions in English history. The first blow left a cut on the neck, causing Monmouth to raise up and turn. The second stroke was somewhat deeper. After a third, Ketch flung his axe away, saying, "God damn, I can do no more, my heart fails me," and offered forty guineas to anyone who would finish the job. Forced to take up the weapon again, he delivered two more unsuccessful strokes to his victim. And in the end,
"he was fain at last to draw furth his long knife & with it to cutt of the remaining pairt of his neck. If there had not bein a guard before the shouldieres to conduct the executioner away the people would have torn him to pieces soe great was their indignatione at the barbarous usage of the leat [late] Duke of Monmouth receaved at his hand. There were many that had the superstitious curiositie of diping their handkerchiefs in his blood & carreying it away as a precious relique. He [Ketch] left the scaffold surrounded by guards to prevent the crowd from tearing him to pieces."

Jack Ketch finishes the job with his knife blade

The duke's mortal remains were placed in a coffin. After Monmouth's head was sewn back onto his lifeless body, he was interred at St. Peter ad Vincula, the church within the Tower walls.

Possibly a portrait of Monmouth painted post-mortem

The Survivors

King James II. In 1688 his other Protestant nephew--and son-in-law--Prince William of Orange, accomplished what Monmouth could not. The combination of an invading army, a Parliament outraged by his despotic actions, and the birth of a Catholic Prince of Wales resulted in the King and Queen becoming exiles in France. His attempt in 1689-90 to regain the throne by invading Ireland ended in disaster. He died in 1701 at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France.

Monmouth's Widow. In January, 1686, Anne, Duchess of Buccleuch received a grant of Monmouth's forfeited property Moor Park and lands in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. She married Lord Cornwallis in 1688 and lived to the age of 80, dying in 1732.

Monmouth's Children. They remained incarcerated for some months after their father's death. On 12th August, 1685, the Duchess was permitted to "dispose of the body of her daughter, who is now dead in the Tower." The King permitted Lady Anne Scott's burial in Westminster Abbey. On November 17 a royal warrant ordered the Lieutenant of the Tower to deliver the two sons of the late Duke of Monmouth into the hands of Samuel Hancock, Esq. The elder, James Scott, Earl of Dalkeith lived till 1705. His brother Henry Scott, 1st Earl of Deloraine, survived him till 1730. A sister, Lady Isabella Scott, died in 1748.

Lady Henrietta Wentworth. Monmouth's mistress did not long survive him. Several weeks after her lover's execution she returned to England. She died the following year, in April 1686.

John Ketch, Executioner. The year after his bloody encounter with Monmouth, Ketch insulted a sheriff and landed in Bridewell prison. His job went to his assistant, a former butcher, who after a mere four months was seized for robbery and hanged at Tyburn. Ketch was reinstated but had not long to serve, as he died in November 1686.

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. Some of the incidents described above appear in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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  1. Fascinating. I met Monmouth's descendant, today's Duke of Buccleuch, when interviewing his Duchess for my book 'Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain'. Jane Dismore

    1. It was an interesting interview, I enjoyed your book so much. His father was, in my opinion, a Great Man. My friend's stepmother is in your book as well!


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