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

James, Duke of Monmouth

A young James Duke of Monmouth

James Crofts, later known as the Duke of Monmouth was the bastard son of Charles II and his first known Mistress Lucy Walter. He was born on 9th April 1649, and would go down in history as the man who would lose his head for rebelling against his uncle. Now then, I will be the first to admit that I have a little bit of a thing for Monmouth – and yes it may have something to do with his rather handsome portrait, and the fact I have a thing for blokes in periwigs. It may also have something to do with the fact that his sheer character intrigues me – the eldest bastard child of Charles II and a young man who believed wholeheartedly that his mother and his father were married and thus that he was the true heir to the English throne. That, and and he was an exceptional soldier and the people loved him.

However, I won’t be writing about Monmouth’s early life spent overseas. Even though a lot of stuff happened when he was a child, a lot more happened when he had grown up and moved back to England to live with his father at court. I will briefly mention however that in 1658 the young lad was kidnapped by his fathers men (because he believed Lucy wasn’t treating him right!) and taken to Paris where he lived with Lord Crofts – and James ended up taking the name Crofts until he was made Duke of Monmouth by his father in 1663.

James Duke of Monmouth by William Wissing

James was just 14 years old when his father made him Duke of Monmouth and he was also given the titles of Earl of Doncaster and Baron Scott of Tyndale. Later that year he was also made a Knight of the Garter. Not bad for a 14 year old! Not only that but in April 1663 he married to Anne Scott, a rather wealthy heiress. The day after the marriage they were both created Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, Earl and Countess of Dalkeith and Lord and Lady Scott of Whitchester.

As I have already briefly mentioned, Monmouth was an exceptionally popular young man. The reason for this was simple – as the son of Charles II he was a Protestant, and the people did not want their next King to be Catholic. James Duke of York, Charles’ brother and heir to the throne, was leaning towards the Catholic faith. James would later openly convert and it was not a popular decision. James and his Uncle would never have an easy relationship and it would sadly end in disaster for poor James.

James Duke of York at the National Maritime Museum

Despite this, from the age of 16 Monmouth served in the military under the command of his Uncle and it was this that ultimately put the barrier up between the two of them. Monmouth took part in the Second Dutch War serving under his uncle and in 1666 ended up taking command of a troop of horse. In 1668 he was made Commander of Charles II’s own troop of Horse Guards, and then in 1672 went over to France as head of a troop of 6000 men and served as part of the French Army – the men went over as payment to France for their help in the Third Dutch War, and it was his experiences in these campaigns which made him one of the finest soldiers of his period. It’s no wonder he had such confidence when he turned against his uncle later on!

In 1674, James was created Master of the Horse and Charles ordered that all miitary orders be given to Monmouth first for examination which gave him effective command over the entire army. Is it any wonder that the Duke of York began to get a little irate with all the favours being shown to Monmouth?

Throughout all of this, the succession was the utmost thought in people’s minds. Charles II had been unable to produce a legitimate heir with his wife Catherine of Braganza, yet had fathered a number of bastards with his mistresses. James Duke of York was Charles’ heir, but York was unpopular and Parliament thought it would be fun to try and pass a bill blocking his succession to the throne. Alas Parliament failed and Charles insisted that his brother was his heir. Yet Monmouth had this deep seated belief that he was Charles’ legitimate child, that his mother and father had been married (though is this likely? Due to the lack of evidence we will never know but I personally like to think so!) and that he should be the legitimate heir. Even then there was no evidence to support this claim, despite rumours of an exisiting marriage certificate. “The Power & The Passion” starring Rufus Sewell shows Charles as burning the marriage certificate – did this happen? Was it hidden and found later? There are rumours from the living relatives of Monmouth but really we can never be sure.

1683 saw a plot uncovered to assassinate both Charles and James Duke of York, known as the Popish Rye House Plot, arranged by a man by the name of Titus Oates. The plot alas came to nothing (again, shown brilliantly in the Power & The Passion!) but poor Monmouth was implicated in the plot and ended up being sent into exile in Holland!

Following his banishment in 1683, Charles never saw his eldest son again.

Charles II

Charles II died on 6th February 1685, having converted to Catholicism on his death bed. And due to Charles having no legitimate heirs, his brother James ascended to the throne and became James II. Monmouth, still believing that his parents had been legally married and that he was the legitimate heir, decideed it would be fun to come back to England and lead a rebellion against his uncle. After he landed in Lyme Regis in the July of 1685, Monmouth declared himself as King at various points along the way including Axminster and Taunton. And he was popular so many did not try to stop him, even going so far as to shout crys of “A MONMOUTH! A MONMOUTH!” after him. 6th July 1685 saw the Battle of Sedgemoor in which Monmouth found himself up against his Uncle’s armies. Monmouth was defeated and made his way to Ringwood in Hampshire, where he was captured.

Of course there were a few skirmishes a long the way and I will always remember the story of how Monmouth and his compatriots stayed at the George Inn at Norton St Philip in the West Country during the rebellion. I was told the story of the rebellion one evening on the way home from an archaeological dig, and it stuck with me.

The George Inn: Norton St Phillip

I was also told the story of Monmouth’s execution on that same car journey, which has haunted me ever since. But it comes later…

After being captured at Ringwood, Monmouth never stood trial for the crimes he committed against his uncle. He was condemned by act of attainder. He was automatically found guilty of high treason and would be beheaded, his lands and titles would become forfeit.

Monmouth’s execution

On 15th July 1685, James Duke of Monmouth was executed on Tower Hill for leading the rebellion against James II. His executioner was the infamous Jack Ketch. Upon the scaffold, Monmouth felt the edge of the axe and asked if it was sharp enough – his good friend having been executed by Ketch and it being botched – and he gave Ketch a bag of coins to encourage his good work. The coins did not help. Ketch botched the execution.

The first blow did not sever Monmouth’s head, and it is said Monmouth looked at Ketch in shock. 5 blows later and Monmouth was only just dead, and Ketch ended up removing Monmouth’s head with a butchers knife.

Monmouth’s story always brings a tear to my eye. I don’t know why, I just feel a certain affinity with him. His story is so sad – he was loved by his father but suffered because of his own blind belief. He lead a remarkable life, but again let his beliefs bring him down. Part of me wishes that his rebellion in the west country had succeeded, and I don’t know why but I think that he would have made a great King. But alas, we cannot change history and who knows what might have been should he succeeded. But Monmouth’s story is so gripping and so sad, I always feel a pang of pain when I think of the fate he suffered.

A MONMOUTH!


Further reading


Coward, B, 2012, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (Fourth Edition), Pearson: Harlow
Fraser, A, 1979. King Charles II, Butler & Tanner: Frome
Harris, T, 2006, Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms, Penguin: London
Watson, J.N.P, 1979, Captain General & Rebel Chief: The Life of James Duke of Monmouth,:George Allen & Unwin: London