Lady Lisle and the Winchester Assize

Who was Lady Alicia Lisle (1614 – 1685)?

The story of the first to die in Judge Jeffreys’ campaign in the west, September 1685

Lady Lisle by John Hoskins, Nationalmuseum, Public Domain

Lady Alicia or Alice Lisle was the daughter of Sir White Beckenshaw. She was born around 1614 in the small hamlet of Ellingham in Hampshire. There were two events in her life that made her a Whig Martyr, the first was her marriage to John Lisle in 1630. The second was the nature of her death 55 years later in Winchester. Alicia’s husband John Lisle made his name in 1647 during the British Civil Wars by being selected as one of the commissioners acting against King Charles I during 1647 and 1648 crisis. However, after Charles betrayed the trust of parliament by negotiating for peace while enlisting the Scottish Army to invade England, Lisle took a prominent part in the trail of the King in January 1649. It was Lisle that draw up the death sentence that ended the King’s life. With this Lisle became a regicide, unknowingly sealing his own and Alicia’s fate.

On 8 February 1649, Lisle became one of the commissioners of the great seal and sat on the council of state under Oliver Cromwell. Under the exiled King Charles II there was numerous royalist uprisings, and in 1655 Colonel John Penruddock was one of the leaders of a failed rebellion in Salisbury.  As a Lord Commissioner, John Lisle was sent to Exeter to represent Cromwell at the court that found Penruddock guilty of high treason. It was Lisle that passed the sentence of beheading on the Colonel. By December 1658 Lisle had been elevated to the peerage by Lord Protector, Cromwell and Alicia took on the title of Lady Lisle. At the restoration in 1660, as a regicide Lisle had a price placed on his head, and with Alicia went into hiding in Switzerland. However, there was no escaping the rough justice of the new King, Charles II or his brother James, Duke of York. On 11 August 1664, a royalist assassin found Lisle, and murdered him in Lucerne.

The widow Alicia returned to England later in the year and took up residence at her old family home of Moyles Court in Ellingham. During the 1670’s, she entertained friends, including the dissenting preacher, and friend of Colonel Blood, Dr Hicks. As an associate of the man that stole the crown jewels, Dr Hicks was given a licence to speak at non-conformist gatherings across England, by 1685 Alicia Lisle’s home was a well-known venue for his sermons. However, although Alicia made noble friends in the King’s court at Whitehall, it was her non-conformist religious beliefs that put Lady Lisle at odds with the new King James II.

With the destruction of the Whig cause at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685, the west country was full of fleeing rebels, dissenters, and non-conformists, including Alicia’s friend Dr Hicks. After finding help within his religious congregation, Dr Hicks wrote to Lady Lisle asking for a safe place to shelter for a couple of nights.  As this was a normal practise in times of persecution, Lady Lisle agreed to the preacher’s request. One Mr Dunne was hired to take Hicks across Salisbury Plain, but when Hicks arrived at Moyle’s Court on 23 July, he was accompanied by another fugitive and a man totally unknow to Lady Lisle. That evening, Alicia talked to her old friend over the dinner table but grew suspicious of the stranger and the following day sent word to the local militia. On 26 July, the militia under Colonel Penruddock, arrived at Moyle Court and seized Lady Lisle, Dr Hicks, Mr Dunne, and the fugitive from Sedgemoor, Captain Nelthorpe.

As a result of rebellion by Duke of Monmouth, there were nearly three thousand men languishing in prison across the South West of England. In Whitehall, James agreed that these men and women would be tried with high treason by the touring Assize Court. On 8 July, just days after the battle of Sedgemoor, commission of Oyer & Terminer was issued to Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys, Lord Chief Baron Sir William Montague, Sir Cresswell Levinz of the common pleas, Sir Francis Withens of the Kings Bench and Sir Robert Wright of the Exchequer. These five Judges would hold the rebels accountable for their actions. Of these men, Jeffreys had a bitter hatred of Whigs and had executed a great many, including Lord William Russell after the Rye House Plot. After Monmouth’s execution on 15 July, Jeffreys met with the King to agree ‘the campaign’ in the west. On 20 August, the Judge’s assembled at Farnham before travelling to Winchester for the first assize. Although Dr Hicks and Captain Nelthorpe were untried in London, Lady Lisle had remained in Winchester prison and would be very the first person to face a charge of High Treason for the 1685 rebellion. What follows is a true account of the trial Lady Alicia Lisle in Winchester, taken from eyewitness accounts.

A picture from the Winchester assize court showing Judge Jeffreys bullying the old Lady Lisle.
Judge Jeffreys Bullying Lady Lisle by Richard Baxter

The Winchester Assize, 27 August 1685

On 27 August, the Winchester Assize was called into session and became the first of the infamous ‘Bloody Assizes.’ It was early in the morning when Lady Lisle was brought into the court, but it had been agreed she would be the last case of the day. Therefore, this Lady of over seventy years, waited while all normal mix of murders and other villains had their justice. However, none of these men had any a part in the late fight for liberty by the supporters of the Duke of Monmouth. All-a-while, the old Lady sat on a hard-wooden bench anticipating her turn at the bar.  Finally, at about five in evening, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys called Mrs Lisle to the bar and the charge of high treason was laid before the Jury. Furthermore, as Lady Lisle was ennobled during the Commonwealth, she was to be viewed as a commoner by the court.

Judge Jeffreys opened by stating that Mrs Lisle had assisted Dr Hicks, and Mr Nelthorpe, both known traitors and in late Monmouth’s rebellious army. Therefore, as aiding known rebels was worse than high treason, if found guilty, then no mercy would be offered by the crown. To this, and the outrage of the Judge who hoped for quick verdict, the noble lady pleaded ‘Not Guilty.’ She then asked that, as she was very deaf, if it was possible to have the support of Mr Browne, to repeat the case to her. Begrudgingly, the Judge made this concession, and then, due to her frailty, that she be allowed to be seated for the whole indictment.

With the charge laid out, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys opened by reminding the Jury that Mrs Lisle was the widow of Cromwell’s Lord Commissioner and Chancellor, John Lisle. A man who was a murderous regicide, and the man that presided over the illegal murder of Colonel Penruddock’s father in 1655.  Furthermore, that Dr Hicks, whom she had sheltered, was a conventicle preacher and one of the most active instruments in bring about the horrid rebellion. Justice Jeffreys then stated that Dr Hicks was witnessed by loyal subjects captured after the Keynsham fight to be in Monmouth’s Army. At this juncture the poor Lady stood and declared herself as against the rebellion but Judge Jeffreys told her to be silent and remain seated.

There now there followed a long examination of Mr Dunne. This man was called to the bar to give evidence as to how the traitors arrived in Ellingham after Mr Dunne had taken a letter to Mrs Lisle. The Judge then asked how the fugitives had moved from Warminster and across Salisbury Plain to Moyle Court. Jeffreys examined the poor man himself, with tirades against dissenters and non-conformists. The Judge then attempted to force the witness to admit that Mrs Lisle knew of the rebellious and treasonous actions of Dr Hicks and Mr Nelthorpe. However, the best Jeffreys could do was force Mr Dunne to confess that Lady Lisle may have known that Dr Hicks was a non-conformist preacher.

Then Colonel Penruddock was called to give his account of the affair. The militia officer explained how on 25 July he received intelligence that rebel fugitives had been seen at the home of Alicia Lisle. The following day, he arrived at Moyle Court with a troop of militia, and after a search discovered the three fugitives. The Colonel arrested Mrs Lisle and the three men; Mr Dunne, Dr Hicks, and Mr Nelthorpe. By now in the court the sun had set and it being a warm August evening, Mrs Lisle had fallen asleep. She finally awoken with a start and was asked if she wished to cross examine the witnesses. Which she did with little vigour and was then asked to give up her own defence.

Lady Lisle started by stated that she knew Dr Hicks, but as a non-conformist preacher. A man that had a license to give sermons issued by the late King Charles II, then she explained that she received word from Dr Hicks that he was looking for a place of safety as a dissenter. The Lady clarified that she had not known Dr Hicks was involved in the rebellion. However, as the day progressed, she discovered that one of the fugitives was Mr Nelthorpe, a wanted conspirator from the Rye House plot of 1683. With this intelligence she sent word to Colonel Penruddock, and therefore that she was the informant upon which the militia acted. Finally, she told the court that she had been in London for the whole of the summer and that she was against the late Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion and a loyal supporter of King James II.

Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys started his summing up of the case with an indictment against Mrs Lisle by attacking all dissenters and non-conformists, stating that ‘they are to blame for the death of King Charles I.’ Then pointing to the prisoner stated, ‘I will not say, what hand her husband had in the death of that blessed martyr, she has enough to answer for in her own guilt. I must confess that it ought not be one way or other to make any ingredient in this case, what she was in former times.’ In his final words to the Jury, he assured them that the testimony of Mrs Lisle was ‘as plain a proof can be given and as evident as the sun at noon day.’ Then he warned the Jury that the neither the prisoner’s age, nor her sex is to move them, and they are to consider her as ‘guilty.’

For the Jury, it was clear that the Mrs Lisle knew Dr Hicks, but not as a fugitive from high treason but as a man hiding from religious persecution. As no evidence had been offered to prove that Dr Hicks was a traitor, in fact, he had not yet been tried or convicted as a rebel. When this was considered, a Juryman asked Justice Jeffreys, if Mrs Lisle could be tried of high treason when Dr Hicks had not been convicted of the same offence. To which Jeffrey replied, ‘it was all the same, that certainly there can be no doubt Dr Hicks committed treason.’ With these words, the Jury was sent off once more, and ordered to come to a verdict. After quarter of an hour the Jury returned, and the Jurymen stated that they were in still doubt if Mrs Lisle knew Dr Hicks was in the Army and was therefore the verdict was ‘Not Guilty!’ With this Justice Jeffreys flew into a rage shouting, ‘there is a full proof, as proof can be; but you are the judges of the proof, for my part I thought there was no difficultly in it.’ The Judge then went back over all evidence that proved her guilt. With this done and rounded up the case once more and finished by stating ‘come, come gentlemen this is a plain proof of guilt.’ With this he asked the Jury to retire once more, but again they returned with a verdict of ‘Not Guilty!

With this affront to the King’s Justice, Judge Jeffreys came out with the truth of matter and stated that the Jury shall retire again. However, this time he told the Jury that ‘if they don’t return with the correct verdict, [they] shall themselves be tried of high treason.’ With this the Jury came back immediately with the verdict of ‘Guilty!’ With the correct verdict in, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys said to the court, ‘Gentlemen, I did not think I would have had any occasion to speak after your verdict but finding some hesitancy and doubt about you; I cannot but say I wonder it should come about, for I think in my conscience the evidence was as full and as plain as could be, and if I had been among you and she had been my own mother, I should of found her guilty.’ Then he rose and it being eleven o’clock, ordered that the assize was over for the day, and would return for sentencing tomorrow.

Of the Sentencing, 28 August 1685

The next morning, being Friday, Lady Lisle was once more brought to the bar. She was to be sentenced for harbouring Dr Hicks as a declared traitor. Thus, making her also guilty of High Treason. Once the court was in session, Mrs Lisle was called to the bar for the final time. Justice Jeffreys, started by giving a long and rambling rant about the ‘…canting, whining, Presbyterian, fanatical profession…’ of Dr Hicks, after which the Judge pointed at Mrs Lisle and beseeched the local populace to take heed and learn, ‘from that women, the sad and dismal effects of disloyalty and treason; and from all the rest the deplorable mischiefs that attend licentiousness and debauchery.’ With this tirade over, Jeffreys pronounced the sentence with these words ‘there remains no more for me to do, I say but to pronounce the sentence of the law, which is this. The court does award, that you Mrs Lisle, will be conveyed from whence you came, and thence you are to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of Execution, where your body is to be burnt alive till you be dead. And the Lord have mercy upon your Soul.’

At this some in the crowd cried out ‘Lord have Mercy!’ yet, Lady Lisle did not flinch or sway, even a little. Then Justice Jeffreys continued, ‘look you Mrs Lisle, when I left his majesty, he was pleased to remit the time of all executions to me, that where-ever I found any obstinacy or impenitence, I might order the executions with what speed I should think best. Therefore, Mr Sheriff, take notice, you are to prepare for the execution of this gentlewomen this afternoon. But withal, I give you the prisoner, this intimation. The judges shall stay in town an hour or two, you shall have pen, ink and paper, brought to you and if in the mean time you employ them in this hour, it maybe you hear further from us, in deferring the execution.’ It was therefore hoped that, as with the Popish and Rye House plots, the first to face death would give up the names of others to save her own life.   With this the poor unfortunate Lady was taken away by the Sheriff and placed back into her prison cell.

It was only by chance that the Sheriff was not able to complete the sentence and before the Assize court left Winchester, he announced that the execution could not happen before Monday, for want of good kindling. This news gave the cathedral and town dignitaries time to gather and understand the nature of the court. Faced with the prospect of witnessing the burning an old woman alive with hours of a verdict, they visited the court Judges. With this and no list of names forthcoming from Mrs Lisle, the Lord Chief Justice agreed to adjourn the execution until the Wednesday. This delay gave the friends of the Lady Lisle hope that they could change to the sentence. They would plead directly with the King.

What was Lady Lisle Sentence?

What is clear, is that the shock of the sentence to burn Lady Lisle was felt in London and even in the King’s court. For although the place was full of Tory and Catholic Lords, Lady Lisle did have some friends brave enough to write to the King. That evening two Lady’s delivered the following letter to the Lord Privy Seal, the earl of Clarendon on the Sunday morning.

‘Windsor, August 30. 1685

Your lordship,

Understanding that Mrs Lisle is condemned and that many false things are reported of her that may hinder the King from showing her mercy. Particularly, that she was an enemy to the King’s friends in the time of the late wars. As to that, we can assure your lordship, that she was a favour of them in their greatest extremities; and particularly of us and of some others that are since dead. And for these late years we have often been in her company, and never heard her say anything but what became a loyal subject. This we desire your lordship would be pleased to represent to the King, and to intercede for her reprieve.

Which will be a great obligation to your lordship humble servants,

Lady M. St. John & Lady E. Abergavenny’

At the same time in Whitehall, a rumour had started to circulate that the earl of Feversham was offering the considerable sum of £1000 to interject on Lady Lisle behalf. Then on Monday, a petition was presented to the King from the people of Winchester, with one of the signatories being Lady Lisle herself. The petition read:

‘To the King’s most excellent Majesty; The Humble Petition of Alicia Lisle.

That your Petitioner lie under a sentence of death, for harbouring one John Hicks, and is sentenced to be burnt on Wednesday next. That she is the daughter Sir William Beconshaw, descended of an ancient and honourable family and related to several of the best families of the nobility of this kingdom. Wherefore, your Petitioner humbly begs your Majesty, that execution may be altered from burning to beheading and may be respited for four days. And your Petitioner shall ever pray, &c.’

Faced with pressure from within his own court, and from the people of Winchester, the King wrote to Jeffreys. He assured the Lord Chief Justice that he would not overturn the verdict that they had both agreed on before the Judges departure from London. In this letter the King finished with these words, ‘I will not reprieve her one day, but for the altering of the Sentence I would do it, if there were any Precedents for it.’ The King seeing an opportunity announced that he had signed the following Warrant:

‘To our trusty and well-beloved the High-Sheriff of our county of Hants, and to all others whom it may concern.

Whereas we are informed that Alicia Lisle has received Sentence of death for high treason at the sessions of Oyer and Terminer, and gaol-delivery, held at our city of Winchester, for harbouring of  John Hicks a rebel, and that the sentence is to be executed upon the second of September next, by burning her alive. And whereas the said Alicia Lisle has humbly petitioned us to alter the manner of the said execution, by causing her head to be severed from her body. We, being graciously pleased to condescend to her request, have thought fit hereby to signify our will and pleasure is, that you deliver the head and body to her relations to be privately and decently interred. And for so doing this shall be your warrant. Given at our court at Windsor, the 31st day of August 1685, in the first year of our reign.


How did Lady Lisle die on 2 September 1685?

With the sentence reduced to a more manageable beheading, the scaffold had erected in the centre of Winchester. However, it was not until about four in the afternoon before the frail lady of over seventy years arrived in the marketplace. As she mounted the stairs, her maid rushed over and helped her onto the platform. All around there was great sorrow and the sound weeping from her friends and neighbours in the crowd. When asked by the sheriff if she had any last words, Lady Lisle, shock her head, but instead handed him a paper that she had written the night before. The sheriff opened and read Lady Lisle’s last words to the crowd:

‘Gentlemen, Friends, and Neighbours, it may be expected that I should say something at my death, my birth and education being near this place. My parents instructed me in the fear of God and I now die of the reformed religion, always being instructed in that belief, that if Popery should return to this nation, it would be a great judgement…’ her words then described the relationship she had with the Lord God almighty. Then the sheriff continued ‘I did as little expect to come to this place on this occasion as any person in this nation…

My crime was entertaining a nonconformist minister, who is since sworn to have been in the late duke of Monmouth’s army. I am told if I had not denied them, it would not have affected me. I have no excuse but surprise and fear, which I believe my jury must use of to excuse their verdict to the world…I have been told that the court ought to be counsel for the prisoner, instead of which there was evidence given from thence; which though it were hearsay, might possibly affect my jury. My defence was such as might be expected from a real women. But such as it was, I did not hear it repeated again to the jury. But I forgive all persons that have done me wrong, and I desire that God will do so likewise. I forgive colonel Penruddock, though he told me, he could have taken those men before they came to my house.

I acknowledge his majesty’s favour in altering my sentence and I pray God to preserve him, that he may long reign in peace, and the true religion flourish under him. Two things I have omitted to say, which is, that I forgive him that desired to be taken from the Grand Jury to the petty jury, that he might be the more nearly concerned in my death. Also, I returned humble thanks to Almighty God, and the reverend clergy that assisted me in my imprisonment.’

After these word, Lady Lisle prayed with the Minster who attended her, then after removing her white coif, which she handed to her maid, before giving Mr Ketch a coin. Then she then knelt with much grace and calmness of spirit, made a simple prayer, before laying her neck on the block. With this Mr Ketch took her head off with one clean cut. The crowd gave out a gasp as one and her friends fell into a great rage of sadness. Some dipped their kerchiefs in her blood, which was pooling on the floor below the scaffold. After her execution, her remains where given to her daughters, who carried them back to Moyles Court at Ellington. The following day, 3 September 1685 at the village church Lady Alicia Lisle was entombed next to the church walls and close to the entrance, so that none will forget her martyrdom.

Lady Lisle last resting place, photo by the author

Lady Lisle became the first martyr in Jeffreys campaign in the west. However, this brave woman had seen through the plan made by Jeffreys and the King. She took the blame and by never naming others, there was no round-up and entrapment of the non-conformist Presbyterian community. This one act stopped an even bloodier purge of the country in 1685. It is true that Lady Lisle was guilty of harbouring a friend, but no evidence indicated that she knew Dr Hicks to be a rebel. Furthermore, no evidence was given to demonstrate that Dr Hicks was a rebel. However, on 6 October, after being found guilty at the Wells Assize, John Hicks is hung, drawn, and quartered at Glastonbury. The trail of Captain Nelthorpe would not take place until 27 October 1685, after which he is executed at Greys Inn, London. As an award for his services to the King at Sedgemoor, the earl of Feversham was given late Lady Lisle’s estate worth over £5,000 a year. This transfer of wealth would remain a theme of the Bloody Assizes, as many more people would die or be sold to pay off the King’s debt to his supporters. Winchester was the start of King James’s vengeance against not only the rebels but all those who played a part in the murder of this father, King Charles I. However, it should not be forgotten that the fortitude of Lady Lisle saved many more innocent lives from martyrdom.

From Winchester, Jeffreys and the Assize court headed west to Dorchester where 337 members of Monmouth’s Army stood accused of waging War against the crown.