The last royal execution in Britain

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of Charles II’s numerous illegitimate children, lived in Holland and in 1685 attempted to claim the English throne from his uncle James II. His rebellion, the last popular uprising in England, culminated in the last pitched battle on English soil, the Battle of Sedgemoor, on 6th July 1685. Roundly beaten, Monmouth was eventually captured and taken before James II, with whom he pleaded, “Remember, Sir, I am your brother’s son and if you take my life, it is your own blood you will shed”. James was unmoved, and on 15th July Monmouth was taken to Tower Hill escorted by officers with strict orders to shoot him dead if he tried to escape.

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (9 March 1649 – 15 July 1685)

At the black-draped scaffold Monmouth announced, “I will make no speeches, I come to die”. He gave the executioner Jack ketch six guineas saying, “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 strike me twice I cannot promise not to move”.

He then promised Ketch a further six guineas if he did his job well. Removing his coat and wig and refusing a blindfold he tried his neck on the low block for size. Still concerned about Ketch’s reputation for incompetence he asked Ketch, “Prithee, let me feel the axe,” and having done so said, “I fear it is not sharp enough”. Ketch gruffly replied, “It is sharp and heavy enough”.

Monmouth execution

Monmouth laid his head on the block. The first blow struck wide, only inflicting a flesh wound. Monmouth half raised himself, stared reproachfully at Ketch then quietly resumed his position. The second blow was equally ineffective, as was the third. At this point Ketch threw away the axe and offered his fee to anybody who would finish the job but the angry crowd threatened to tear Ketch to pieces unless he completed the task.

After five strokes (some sources saying even seven or eight) Monmouth’s head still clung by sinews to the body and the final separation was completed by handknife. When it was realised that no official portrait existed of Monmouth his head was sewn back onto his body and Sir Godfrey Kneller painted him wearing a handsome neckscarf; the result is on permanent display in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.