15th July 1685 – The Execution of James, Duke of Monmouth

Plate showing the execution of James, Duke of Monmouth

I’ve written a lot about the Duke of Monmouth recently, and I have to say that I find him absolutely fascinating. This young man who believed so wholeheartedly that his mother had legally married his father and he was the legitimate heir to the throne, this young man who believed in his claim so much that he rebelled against his uncle James II. His story is exceptionally sad and his end exceptionally brutal.

Monmouth, by William Wissing

On 15th July 1685, after his defeat at Sedgemoor, James Duke of Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill. He was condemned to death by act of attainder and automatically found guilty of high treason against his uncle James II. Whilst imprisoned in the Tower, Monmouth had begged for mercy and written to the King – but of course the King never received the letter. And James II, in his exile admitted “I never saw the letter, nor did I ever hear of it till within these few days” – if he had seen the letter, would he have pardoned his nephew? James had at first said that Monmouth was to suffer a full traitors death of hanging, drawing and quartering but later decided that he should be beheaded upon Tower Hill and that the date of execution would be St Swithun’s Day, 15th July. The King wanted as many people as possible to see their hero die, and according to J.N.P Watson chose the date as a lesson to his nephew “for giving credit to so vain a prediction; for ‘tho Almighty God permits such divinations to fall out some times according as they are foretold, yet never to the benefit or advantage of those that believe them”.

Shortly before his execution, the Bishop of Ely and Dr Ken visited him to hear his confession. He shook off his fear, realising that St Swithun’s day would indeed be his day of judgement and became very sincere and dignified except on the matter of his mistress Henrietta Wentworth. He refused to admit that he had been living in sin with her, saying “I have heard it is lawful to have one wife in the eye of the law and another before God”. When he was challenged for saying this he replied, “Well, but if a man be bred up in a false notion, what shall he do when he has but two hours to live?”.

He told the bishops he would die a true Protestant, and he was then refused the sacrament. But he signed a paper renouncing his allusions to the throne for the sake of his children and also declared that his father Charles II had told him he was illegitimate although he was very careful not to admit it himself. He also asked that the King did not make his children suffer on his account.

On the morning of his execution he dressed carefully, wearing clean stockings, a fresh skirt and lace scarf, as well as a grey suit lined with black and a long periwig. His wife visited him that morning for a final farewell and fell to her knees begging his forgiveness if she had done anything to offend him but he told her she had been a good, dutiful wife. He also instructed his children to be dutiful to the King and to respect their mother.

He approached Tower Hill and the scaffold was heavily defended, and James II had given special permission for the scaffold to be draped in mourning cloth. As he climbed the steps and spied Jack Ketch he said “do your work well”. The crowd was huge, and thousands of people had flocked to see their hero die. It is said that Monmouth spoke very little on the scaffold, only to yet again defend Henrietta Wentworth, stating that he had not lived in sin with her and that she was a virtuous woman. He also stated that he said he would die “very penitent”. He was also asked to address the soldiers in front of the scaffold, as he ,  had been a soldier himself and he refused, saying he would take no speeches, but the men accompanying him on the scaffold kept badgering him saying that just 10 words would be enough. Some have said that at this point he made his “Martyr of the People” speech that he wrote in the Tower, but official reports deny this.

Monmouth now turned to Jack Ketch and addressed him, handing him a bag of six guineas, “Here are six guineas for you. Pray do your business well. Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him three or four times. If you give me two strokes I promise I will not stir”.

Following this he removed his waistcoat and periwig. He refused a blindfold and knelt, laying his head on the block. After a moment, he turned back to Ketch and asked if he could feel the axe. After he had done so he expressed his fear that the axe was not sharp enough. Ketch then stated that it was both sharp enough and heavy enough. The executioner himself had been unnerved by Monmouth’s mention of Russell, and he botched the execution completely. The first swing caught the side of Monmouth’s neck, making him heave up and look at Ketch in shock. The second made a slightly bigger gash and the third he missed all together. Ketch then threw the axe down crying, “God Damn Me, I can do no more. My heart fails me, I cannot do it!”. The crowd became angry, threatening to kill Ketch if he did not do any better. Ketch was ordered to pick the axe back up and finish the job, taking 3 more blows to kill Monmouth, though the head was still attached. He resorted to using a butchers knife that hung at his belt to finally remove Monmouth’s head. The crowd was still so indignant at the executioner that he had to be lead away by armed guard.

Portrait said to be of James Duke of Monmouth after his death, artist unknown (though possibly by Kneller)

James, Duke of Monmouth, was buried in the chapel of St Peter Ad Vincula inside the Tower of London alongside other noble and royal victims of the executioners axe.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote of his death, “Thus ended the quondam Duke, darling of his father and the ladies, being extremely handsome and adroit, an excellent soldier and dancer, a favourite of the people, of an easy nature, debauch’d by lust, seduc’d by crafty knaves…He was a lovely person”

I’m not going to lie, as I have been writing this I have been crying a little…actually that’s a lie because I am sobbing as I write this. Monmouth’s end was very grizzly, and such a horrible way for such a popular figure to die. Because he was popular, and he was loved. And no one deserves to suffer such a terrible death.

Tonight I shall be raising a glass to James, Duke of Monmouth.

Further Reading


Coward, B, 2012, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714, Pearson: Harlow
Watson, J.N.P, 1979, Captain General and Rebel Chief: The Life of James, Duke of Monmouth, George Allen & Unwin: London

This entry was posted in duke of monmouth, execution, james duke of monmouth, james ii, monmouth's rebellion, seventeenth century, west country rebellion. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 15th July 1685 – The Execution of James, Duke of Monmouth

  1. Andy says:

    As I will this year on the aniversary. As a descendant of a man who was a monmouth rebel at Sedgemoor, I think it is wrong to condem him as an easily led fool as the evidence seems to contrdict this. He was well known to be hard to push around and his poor education bothered him barely 2 years of schooling. He took private lessons for most of the rest of his life, hardly the action of a fool. He was complex and had what would now be called “issues” due to his early life of poverty, illegitemacy, several kidnaps and never knowing for sure if he was illegitimate or not. Would he have been a good king?, well he couldn't have been worse than James II and he was certianly much more intelligent than George. Charles II loved him as his favourite son and Charles despised fools.
    F.N.B.G

  2. What a truly terrible and unjust way to die. He was a wonderful soul and may God grant him eternal peace in Heaven.

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