The Macabre Execution of the Duke of Monmouth

Monmouth's execution on Tower Hill, 15 July 1685 (O.S), in a popular print

On July 15, 1685 the illegitimate son of King Charles II was beheaded in one of the more gruesome executions ever to take place in England.

James Scott, the first Duke of Monmouth, was the son of England’s Charles II by his mistress Lucy Walter. He was born in 1649 in the Netherlands where his father was living during the years when Oliver Cromwell ruled England and banished the monarchy.

With his father restored to the throne in 1660, James married into the aristocracy at the age of 14 and began procreating with zeal. He and his wife Anne Scott, the Fourth Countess of Buccleuch, produced seven children and James had numerous titles bestowed upon him including that of Duke of Monmouth.

James Scott Seeks the Crown

After Charles II died in 1685 without a legitimate son to succeed him (he did manage to father 14 children out of wedlock) the throne passed to his brother, James II.

The Duke of Monmouth had a yearning for the crown and rose in a rebellion against his uncle. He lost and ended up in the Tower of London.

The outcome of the trial for treason was inevitable; so too was the sentence of a date with the executioner.

Jack Ketch: Executioner

Being a nobleman, the Duke of Monmouth was entitled to the “honour” of being executed by having his head chopped off, and the man given the task of beheading the gentleman was Jack Ketch.

Ketch, who had taken up his ghoulish duties in 1663, was not a man who had a complete mastery of his trade. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes that he was “notorious for his barbarous inefficiency.”

Geoffrey Abbott in his book Lords of the Scaffold (St. Martin’s Press, 1991) writes of Ketch as, “…so brutal was his character, so inefficient his performance, that every hangman for decades afterwards was branded…with his name, as a mark of public contempt…”

The beheading of Lord William Russell in July 1683 was a typically botched affair of Ketch’s. It was customary for the victim to pay the executioner to ensure a quick finish to the business, but Ketch’s first blow at Russell was badly off target.

Brian Bailey (Hangmen of England, Virgin Books, 1989) writes that the wounded Russell raised his head from the block and said, “You dog, did I give you ten guineas to use me so inhumanly?”

Two or three more blows, followed by a sawing action of the axe. were required before the unfortunate Russell expired.

Duke of Monmouth Meets his End

Exactly two years after the Russell debacle it was the Duke of Monmouth’s turn to meet up with Jack Ketch; it was to prove another of executioner’s grisly pieces of work.

Executed Today records that Monmouth “tipped the headsman with the words, ‘Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; if you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”

Thomas Macaulay described what followed in detail in his 1861 book, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second.

“The hangman addressed himself to his office. But he had been disconcerted by what the Duke had said. The first blow inflicted only a slight wound. The Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner.”

Several more inaccurate strikes were delivered and “Yells of rage and horror rose from the crowd. Ketch flung down the axe with a curse. ‘I cannot do it,’ he said; ‘my heart fails me.’ ‘Take up the axe, man,’ cried the sheriff.”

It took two more whacks before the duke died and even then a knife was needed to completely sever the head from the shoulders.