Death of Monmouth, July 15 1685

How was Monmouth executed?

In the early hours of July 15, 1685, a vast crowd gathered at Tower Hill. Many had travelled by the river and so that by dawn the whole area was already overflowing with people. They had come to see the last act in the life of their beloved Jemmy, their Duke. They came from all walks of London life, from the Soho apprentices to lawyers, but they all loved the Duke of Monmouth. By nine in the morning the mood was becoming angry and tense. Fearing the worst, the officials has surrounded the scaffold and lined the way from the tower with thick ranks of well-armed soldiers. In their red coats, they created a bloody ribbon through the masses. Then just before 10’o clock in the morning James, Duke of Monmouth came from the tower, and stepped into the awaiting coach.

The crowd now pressed forwards to see their Duke, forcing the redcoats back as the coach progressed the short distance to Tower Hill. If anyone in the vast crowd, garnered bad feelings towards the Duke or swore abuse, they very quickly found themselves roughly put down by the mob. Once the coach reached the scaffold, Monmouth stepped out with solemn grace and dignity. Although he was clearly shaken by the love of the crowd, as he walked toward the scaffold, Monmouth saluted the soldiers with a smile. Then he mounted the steps with a firm tread. Once more crowd pressed forwards onto the great number of soldiers that surrounded the scaffold. However, as the Duke mounted the platform the multitude fell into a sombre stillness and silence, only to be broken by the sound of soft weeping.

Monmouth spoke softly, ‘I shall say little, I come here, not to speak, but to die. I die a Protestant of the Church of England.’ Upon which the crowd shifted, and the weeping grew louder. One of the four Bishops interjected and said some words to Monmouth. Then, the Duke spoke of his love for his Lady Henrietta, but once again this bishop interrupted him. As the crowd could not hear what was being spoken, they become restless, and Monmouth spoke out ‘I do own that. I am sorry that it ever happened.’ It was now that the great body called out; ‘No!’ others treasonously cried out ‘One King!’ or ‘for Liberty!’ As the soldiers and officials began to look for the culprits, the mob around the scaffold closed ranks and pushed the guards back.

The tension was broken when Monmouth knelt in prayer, then one of the Bishops said, ‘Sir, do you not pray for the King with us?’ Upon which the Duke, paused for some time. After an internal struggle, exclaimed Monmouth ‘Amen!’ Once more the Bishop implored him to speak to the crowd and soldiers, with some word of obedience to King James, but Monmouth retorted ‘I will make no speeches’, and turning away, called his servant over and put into the man’s hand a toothpick case, the last token for his love. ‘Give it,’ he said, ‘to that person.’ With this Monmouth turned to Mr Ketch, and said so all could hear, ‘Here are six guineas for you.’ He then felt the edge of the Axe, and continued, ‘do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well.’ To Ketch replied, ‘my lord this Axe is sharp enough, and heavy enough.’

In silence, Monmouth took off his coat and lay down, placing his head upon the block. Everyone fell silent as Ketch raised the Axe, and the it fell striking a hard blow. As a gasp from came from the crowd, the Duke arose a little and looked scornfully at Mr Ketch, before putting his neck once more on the block. The axe then fell, again, and again. Still Monmouth’s body lived. Now to great yells of rage and disgust, the mob watched as the wretched Ketch flung down his axe with a curse exclaiming ‘I cannot do it, for my heart fails me.’ To this the sheriff called out, ‘Take up the axe, man!’ All the time the angry mob called out, ‘Fling him over the rails, we will save him!’ Shamefully, during all this chaos Monmouth was still live, paralysed upon that scaffold. As the Duke’s body twitched, Ketch picked up the Axe once more, then sent it crashing down two more times.

To the horror of all around, the dead Monmouth’s head still remained at one with his body. The crowd turned viciously on the soldiers and pushing closer toward the body of the people’s Duke. With the blood flowing from his martyred body, the despicable Ketch was handed a knife by the sheriff. It was with this, that he finally cut the head free from its immortal being. The incensed mob called out ‘One King, King Monmouth, KILL his butcher!’ and they surged towards Monmouth’s corpse. As those closest to the scaffold dipped neckerchiefs into the royal blood, the soldiers had to push their way through the angry crowd. The Bishops, sheriff and Ketch were engulfed by a ring of guards, as the common men pushed, punched, or spat at them. As rough justice, in his rush from the crime, Ketch never received his bounty from Monmouth. Finally, as the crowd dispersed, Monmouth’s bloody corpse and severed head were lain together in a coffin, covered with black velvet, and then buried under the communion table of St. Peter’s Chapel in the Tower. The Duke of Monmouth was dead, but the Fight for Liberty continued.