Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Did he or didn't he? Of a hangman and the royal blood on his hands

by Anna Belfrage

Being an executioner has never been a career choice to endear you to your neighbours. While our ancestors may have liked to witness a good hanging or two, they were wary of bonding with the man responsible for this gruesome entertainment. After all, one never knew if, someday, it would be you on the receiving end of the brutal justice dispensed by the executioner. It didn’t take much to be condemned to death—steal a horse and you’d swing. I imagine it would make an already uncomfortable situation quite unbearable if the man arranging the noose around your neck also was the man with whom you'd shared a number of pints...

However, being an executioner came with some perks, like a steady income. Plus, someone had to do the dirty deed, right? Very often, the job passed from father to son. This was the case with Richard Brandon, the common hangman in London in the 1640s. His father, Gregory Brandon, had been the hangman before him, and had somehow managed to acquire a coat of arms to go with his name and chosen profession. Gregory does not come across as a nice cuddly person. At one point he was even accused of murder but somehow wiggled out of by claiming benefit of clergy. This, of course, makes one wonder how he could do that – were executioners also priests?

Rumour had it that Gregory was the grandson of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The duke had sired an illegitimate son who purportedly was Gregory’s father, but the timing was wrong, as Brandon’s illegitimate son died well before Gregory was born. Still, Gregory Brandon had no reason to refute the rumour. Being descended from someone as well-known as Charles Brandon was not exactly bad for business and added a je-ne-sais-quoi to Gregory’s (probably rather dull) ancestral tree.

James I & VI
Gregory was kept busy during James I’s reign. And once he retired, he passed the baton to his son. Did Richard dream of another life? No idea. Maybe wielding a head-axe appealed to him. Supposedly he spent his childhood practising his axe-work on stray cats and dogs, and as his father grew older, Richard helped him with his duties, thereby perfecting his noose-tying skills. But it was the axe that was Richard’s favourite implement, and so good was his eye, so steady his arm, that most of the people he executed had their head severed by the first blow. Something to be grateful for, I suppose.

By 1639, Richard had replaced his father as common hangman. The first few years of his tenure were marred by an accusation of bigamy, and for a while Richard lingered in Newgate before being released and allowed to return home to Whitechapel and his wife Mary. (Whether she was his “real” wife or the one for which he was accused of bigamy is unclear)

In 1641 our Richard stepped into the limelight when he executed Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Thomas was a loyal servant of the king whom Charles I abandoned when parliament turned against him. He could have refused to sign the death sentence—but he didn’t. To be fair to Charles, he had a very volatile situation on his hands, and it didn’t help that the bishops were divided on the issue, some urging the king to refuse to sign, others insisting he should. Still, Wentworth’s death for being loyal to his king would weigh heavily on Charles’ conscience. As it should.

As we all know, the coming years were turbulent. People died in the battlefield, of wounds and injuries. Some died because of their crimes, and if they were sentenced in London, it is likely Richard did the killing—oops, execution.

In January of 1645, Brandon added another famous scalp to his belt when he executed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. I have little time for Laud, whom I consider to have fanned the flames of religious intolerance and thereby contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War, but beheading an infirm old man seems a bit harsh. In Laud’s case, Charles I issued a royal pardon, but by that time Charles’ word carried little weight in England.

Charles I
In January of 1649, Charles I himself was tried for treason by Parliament. Charles refused to plead, informing the so-called court that they had no right to try their king. The men in charge of the proceedings proceeded anyway, and on January 29, fifty-nine men, now commonly known as the Regicides, signed Charles’ death sentence. It was time to call in the services of Richard Brandon, and this time he’d be spilling royal blood.

Apparently, Brandon was not that keen on beheading the king. In fact, he refused. This did not help. A company of troopers was dispatched to fetch him, and on January 30 a disguised Richard Brandon was standing on the scaffold, wearing a false beard and periwig. He had to wait a long time for the king to appear, as Parliament was rushing through an Ordinance making it treason to claim the throne after Charles I was dead. Finally, the legalese was done and Charles was ordered to present himself on the scaffold which had been erected beside the Banqueting House. The king, famously wearing two shirts so as not to shiver, was calm and collected. He spoke his piece, kneeled, and at his signal the axe came down. A perfect blow, it severed the king’s head neatly.

An hour or so later, Richard was back home in Whitechapel, 30 pounds richer. He had also received one of the king’s handkerchiefs in recognition of his services. And an orange, studded with cloves, which he sold for ten shillings. At the time, Richard kept a low profile. Bragging about being the one who lopped off the king’s head was not the smart thing to do, not when so many were appalled by the killing of the king. Besides, Richard was not proud of what he’d done. Rather the reverse.

In March of 1649, Richard did some more axe work. This time, he dispatched the Earl of Holland, the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Capel with the same axe that had ended the king’s life. But he was not his usual self and complained of headaches, saying he’d been afflicted by relentless pain ever since that day in January. Richard Brandon, common hangman and axeman extraordinaire, was plagued by remorse for his part in the king’s death. Or maybe he was worried about the consequences for his immortal soul: spilling the blood of an anointed monarch could probably be something he'd pay a heavy price for in the hereafter.

Richard died in June of 1649. Prior to expiring, he had confessed that he’d been the executioner wielding the axe when Charles died. The identity of the man who’d severed the royal head was not exactly a secret. After his death, various pamphlets circulated naming Brandon as the man on the scaffold. Some time after his death, a note was added to the burial register, identifying “R Brandon out of Rosemary Lane” as the man who lopped off the king’s head. However, royalist propaganda spread a different story, stating the common hangman was a man of integrity who had refused to do the foul deed, thereby obliging two troopers to handle the axe themselves.  Nothing points to this being the truth.  Instead, Richard Brandon, accused bigamist and proud inheritor of his father’s job as London’s hangman, is the likely candidate for the man who brought down the blade that so expertly ended Charles Stuart’s life. At least it only took one blow...

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 23, 2018. Anna notes that her character Matthew Graham, protagonist of The Graham Saga, was present at the king's execution as a battle-weary 19 yr old Parliamentarian soldier.


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. She has recently released A Flame through Eternity, the third in a new series, The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients.

At present, Anna is working on a new medieval series in which Edward I features prominently as well as a book set in 1715 where magic lockets and Jacobite rebels add quite the twist.

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  1. Weren’t the Sanson family hereditary executioners in Paris? And also executed the King......

  2. Not exactly the sort of thing you’d admit to at a party, no, assuming you were invited in the first place! Really, he must have done a fair few upper crust executions to get that good with the axe or even decide it was his favourite tool. Fred Bloggs from Whitechapel wouldn’t be executed that way. It was the quick and merciful death given to toffs.
    Thanks for the fascinating post

  3. Also reading a fascinating book :The Faithful Executioner" by Joel Harrington, a portrait of a Nuremberg executioner, Frantz Schmidt

  4. How interesting, Anna, I had no idea it was a family business. You don't mention the witches ... did the Brandons' also perform those more civic duties? And did they participate in torturing people in the Tower, or did it stop at the public boodlettings?

    By contrast I think it was Poland at this time which gave the bereaved family the opportunity to play executioner ... if no one in the family wanted to do the deed, the accused didn't die.

    1. I suppose being the common hangman meant you executed whoever was condemned, no matter their crimes. But did they participate in extracting confessions by torture? I don't know.

  5. Coincidentally, this post mentions the alleged burial place of Richard Brandon, St Mary Matfelon, now gone but existing in a London park

  6. It was not uncommon for the English executioners to be related,
    The last executioner , Albert Pierrepoint followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle.It was the Peirrepoints that devised the drop that broke the neck causing instant death. Albert was a prime mover in the removal of capital punishment in the UK testifying before the House of Lords on the futility of it; and who was better placed? Albert executed over 600 mostly German war criminals I believe.

  7. looks to become a popular career again. Thanks for posting
    May God bless you.

  8. Great post. Very well-written and easy to understand. Love the details.


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