Whilst walking around the City of London earlier this week, I came across a sign that I had seen several times before. It had always made me smile, perhaps a little perversely given the circumstances but also as I admired the steadfastness of Major General Harrison… whoever he might have been.
I’d always vowed to look up about Major Harrison but had always forgotten by the time I got home. Apart from displaying the legendary British stiff-upper lip to perhaps unparralled levels, I realised I knew nothing at all about the man. Now I know all about him, he seemed to be quite a gap in my knowledge!
General Thomas Harrison had played an incriminating role in the execution of King Charles I. After fighting at several major encounters in the English Civil War, he was entrusted with the military escort that brought the king from Hurst Castle to stand trial in London. At the trial, Harrison was a regular participant and a signatory of the king’s death warrant.
When Charles II negotiated his return to the throne in the months around 1660, it was made clear that a general reprieve would be issued to all those who had opposed his father. To not offer such a pledge was a political impossibility: Charles’s return would have been vehemently resisted had he not clearly stated that the positions and lives of former rebels were secure. In the Declaration of Breda, outlining the conditions in which Charles II would return to the throne (written on 4 April, 1660), it was confirmed that:
…we do grant a free and general pardon… to all our subjects, of what degree or quality so ever, who, within forty days after the publishing hereof, shall lay hold upon this our grace and favour, and shall, by any public act, declare their doing so, and that they return to the loyalty and obedience of good subjects; excepting only such persons as shall hereafter be excepted by Parliament…
However, not quite everyone was guaranteed security from reprisals. As the Declaration made clear, anyone who shall hereafter be excepted by Parliament could be prosecuted for their previously treasonable crimes. On 29 August, 1660, the Indemnity and Oblivion Act was passed by the Convention Parliament, fulfilling Breda’s promise of clemency. A small number of exceptions were made, however, to the general pardon. These exceptions comprised the group of men called the ‘Regicides’ – those who had directly brought about the execution of Charles I. Thomas Harrison was one of these men.
Harrison made little attempt to escape arrest – perhaps in the expectation of a pardon – and was admired for his stoicism in the face of violent death. At his trial, his religious faith and belief in the ideals of the English Revolution remained a source of strength in the face of his inevitable execution. Remaining unrepentant and refusing to submit to the authority of England’s new monarch, Charles II, he was easily convicted.
His trial is recorded thus “…(Harrison) not only pleaded not guilty, but justified the sentence passed upon the King (Charles I), and the authority of those who had commissioned him to act as one of his judges. He plainly told them, when witnesses were produced against him, that he came not thither with an intention to deny anything he had done, but rather to bring it to light, owning his name subscribed to the warrant for executing the King, to be written by himself; charging divers of those who sat on the Bench, as his judges, to have been formerly as active for the cause, in which he had engaged, as himself or any other person; affirming that he had not acted by any other motive than the principles of conscience and justice; for proof of which he said it was well known, he had chosen to be separated from his family, and to suffer a long imprisonment rather than to comply with those who had abused the power they had assumed to the oppression of the people. He insisted that having done nothing, in relation to the matter in question, otherwise than by the authority of the Long Parliament, he was not justly accountable to this or any other inferior Court; which being a point of law, he desired to have council assigned upon that head; but the Court over-ruled; and by interrupting him frequently, and not permitting him to go on in this defense, they clearly manifested a resolution of gratifying the resentments of the Court upon any terms. So that a hasty verdict was brought in against him, and the question being asked, if he had anything to say, why judgement should not pass, he only said, that since the Court had refused to hear what was fit for him to speak in his defense, he had no more to say; upon which Bridgeman pronounced the sentence. And that the inhumanity of these men may the better appear, I (Edmond Ludlow) must not omit, that the executioner in an ugly dress, with a halter in his hand, was placed near the Major-General, and continued there during the whole time of his trial, which action I doubt whether it was ever equaled by the most barbarous nations. But having learned to condemn such baseness, after the sentence had been pronounced against him, he (Major-General Harrison) said aloud as he was withdrawn from the Court, that he had no reason to be ashamed of the cause in which he had been engaged.
Imagine having to stand trial witht he executioner standing right next to you as it all went on!
On Saturday 13 October, 1660, Thomas Harrison was dragged on a hurdle through the streets of London from Newgate Prison to Charing Cross and executed. In his legendary diary, Samuel Pepys wrote:
I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy… Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.
Harrison’s ‘cheerful’ manner was admired by many attending his execution, including Pepys. A contemporary publication notes that ‘All the way as he went he endeavoured to discover to the world the undauntedness of his spirit’ although his true feelings may have been shown by ‘the more than ordinary trembling and shaking of his joynts’. Upset by the scoffing noises made by the audience at this apparent weakness, Harrison interrupted his speech from the scaffold to explain that it was his old war wounds caused him to shake, not fear.
In his final moments, as he was being led up the scaffold, the hangman asked for his forgiveness. Upon hearing his request Thomas Harrison replied, “I do forgive thee with all my heart… Alas poor man, thou doith it ignorantly, the Lord grant that this sin may be not laid to thy charge.” Thomas Harrison then gave all of the money that remained in his pockets to his executioner and was thereafter executed.
After the speech, Thomas Harrison was hung by the neck for a short time, but cut down before serious unconsciousness or death occurred. While some executions by hanging, drawing and quartering were made more merciful by allowing the prisoner to die at it its first stage, by all accounts, Harrison remained conscious and lucid throughout his horrific ordeal. After being briefly deprived of oxygen, he was cut down and allowed to breathe. Next, his abdomen was sliced open and entrails thrown onto a brazier – evidence suggests that Harrison remained in full consciousness at this point. Finally, his head was removed and body divided into quarters – all pieces were displayed at prominent sites around London.
If this sort of thing interests you then you may want to check out my book 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History which is available in paperback and also electronically on iBooks, Kindle and various other formats.