In October 1660 the returning King Charles II exacted a bloody revenge on those he held responsible for the beheading of his father. Though the restoration of the Monarchy is often seen as a return to a more joyous and carefree Britain, the killing of a King could not go unpunished.
On 17 October four prominent regicides were hung drawn and quartered in front of large crowds. Thomas Scott, Gregory Clements, Colonel Adrian Scrope and Colonel John Jones would all die that day, in one of the most excruciating and humiliating ways possible.
The penalty for high treason
Hanging drawing and quartering involved being hanged until nearly dead, before being let down, castrated, disemboweled, beheaded and then chopped into pieces. Before they died, these men would see their bowels burned before their eyes.
Such a punishment was reserved for those guilty of the crime of high treason – plotting or carrying out murder against a King. To the Royalists, who at this stage put much store in the Divine Right of Kings, such an awful crime fully merited this punishment.
As the four men who died that day had signed the death warrant of Charles I, their lives were in great danger as soon as the monarchy was restored.
Scott was the first to die…
Like the other three Scott had been allowed a visit from his family, an excruciating ordeal for all involved. He had been a parliamentary radical for a long time. He had always favoured a tough stance against Charles during the Civil War and was vociferous in his support for the King’s execution. Later he would oppose Cromwell’s power as Lord Protector just as vehemently.
When Charles II took the throne Scott fled to Flanders but returned when Charles appeared to be making promises to remain merciful. Scott’s proud words in Parliament that he was proud of the regicide – combined with the evidence of informers – meant that he was doomed as soon as the vengeful Charles settled into power.
Like many of Charles I’s regicides, and indeed the King himself, he faced the executioner with remarkable courage. Once on the scaffold Scott launched into a speech about liberty and the righteousness of his cause. The sheriff presiding over the execution abruptly cut him off and the outraged Scott cried “It’s hard [that] an Englishman may not have liberty to speak.” Shortly afterwards, he met his grisly end.
Clements, who had shared Scott’s hurdle to death and had presumably watched the other man’s fate, was next. Clements was a less fiery character than Scott, and had held little political influence since a scandal in 1652 involving his relations with a maidservant. Nevertheless, he had signed the warrant, and that was enough.
Clements was a rich man, having worked for the British East India Company, and as a result his family persuaded him to plead guilty in a bid to still receive some of this fortune. It is said that he was so disillusioned by this display of greed that he remained almost silent right up to the moment of his execution.
The hurdle then returned to pick up the two Colonels, who were still waiting at Newgate Prison. The night before, they had been visited by their distraught families – and Jones said to a daughter of Scrope that it was not worth worrying for just as she would not grieve if her father was made King of France she should not cry over his entry into heaven.
Both men were old, and prepared for their deaths. Scrope had fought in the Civil War against Charles and signed his death warrant, but as he had voiced no opposition to the return of the King his prospects of survival were better. Indeed, the House of Commons voted to let him off with a fine, before being overruled by the Lords.
At his trial Scrope pointedly compared the infallibility of God’s judgement to that of man. The old soldier was so accepting of his death that he fell asleep while waiting to be taken to the block after the deaths of Scott and Clements. His death was noted as being particularly courageous and one contemporary noted that Scrope “had the honour to die a noble martyr.”
… and lastly Jones
Finally, that left Jones, another old soldier and a man who spoke Welsh as his native language. A fanatical republican in a country which stayed fervently royalist, he was known at one point as “the most hated man in Wales.”
Unlike Scrope, Jones had no prospect of escaping the King’s justice. He had been both a judge and a signatory at Charles I’s trial, which he had attended almost every day. Jones, who was sixty-three by 1660, made no attempt to plead innocence and remained defiantly proud of the crime of regicide.
The executioner who had seen to the deaths of the other three was now so sick of his grisly task that the castration and disemboweling of the aged Welshman had to be carried out by a young apprentice. Jones met his death so courageously that some contemporaries believed miracles to have happened in his name, such as the flowering of a tree in winter on his estates.
Traitors or martyrs?
This was not the end of Charles II’s revenge, which had added another two regicides to its body count by 19 October. However, 17 October would live on in the memory for its simple brutality, the courage of the doomed men, and the way four were killed in such a short space of time – all in Charing Cross.
Their deaths can be seen in many ways. Some might argue that as killers of a King they had to be punished, especially with Charles II’s position on the throne far from secure. Those of a more idealistic nature however, might see them as martyrs for a cause of liberty and republicanism, and visionaries who died for our modern privilege to choose who leads us.