William Boyd, 4th Earl of Kilmarnock and Arthur Elphinstone, 6th Lord Balmerino were taken prisoners at the Battle of Culloden, the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Both men were tried and sentenced to death for treason. Their executions were carried out at Tower Hill on 18 August 1746.
The event began at six o’clock, when “a troop of life-guards, one of horse-grenadiers, and 1000 of the foot-guards … marched from the parade in St James’s park thro’ the city to Tower-Hill.” Around eight o’clock, the sheriffs of London arrived, along with others, as well as the executioner. They then dined together at the Mitre tavern on Fenchurch-Street before being conducted to the scaffold, which was about thirty yards away from the tavern.
Preparations at the scaffold began at ten o’clock when a “blocked was fixed on the stage, and covered with black cloth, and several sacks of sawdust … were brought … to strew on it; soon after their coffins were brought, covered with black cloth, ornamented with gilt nails.” Each coffin had a plate with the appropriate person’s name inscribed and an image of their coronet: Guilelmus Comes de Kilmarnock and Arthurus Dominus de Balmerino.
Fifteen minutes later, the sheriffs left in a procession to the outward gate of the Tower. There they knocked and requested possession of the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino. The men were then delivered into their possession, and, soon after, the procession moved in a slow and solemn manner in the following order:
- The constable of the Tower-hamlets.
- The knight marshal’s men and tip-staves.
- The sheriff’s officers.
- The sheriffs, the prisoners, and their chaplains.
- The Tower warders.
- A guard of musketeers.
- Two hearses and a mourning coach.
After this procession passed, the passage was closed. Then the troops on horses, who were in the rear of the foot on the lines, wheeled off, and drew up five deep, on the south side of the hill facing the scaffold. At that point, the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino were conducted to separate apartments. These apartments were hung in black and faced the steps of the scaffold, and it was at that point that their friends were admitted to see them one last time.
After seeing their friends, the two condemned men met and embraced. The Earl was the first to be conducted to the scaffold:
“[He] shewed the deepest signs of commiseration and pity; and … at the same time, being struck with such a variety of dreadful objects at once, the multitudes, the block, his coffin, the executioner, the instrument of death, turned about to [Rev.] Hume [a near relation of the Earl of Hume], and said, “‘Hume! this is terrible.'”
The Earl then faced the executioner. Beforehand, the executioner had ordered that the Earl been administered something to keep him fainting. However, it was the execution who felt faint. He “was so affected with his lordship’s distress, and the awfulness of the scene, that on asking him forgiveness, he burst into tears.” The brave Earl bid the executioner to take courage and told him he “would drop his handkerchief as a signal for the stroke, and, he thereby proceeded, with the help of his gentlemen, to make ready for the block.”
The Earl took off his coat, removed the bag from his hair, and tucked it up. He then tucked down the collar of his shirt and waistcoat, so that his neck was laid bare. He knelt on a black cushion at the block and drew the cap over his eyes, as the black bays were hung over the scaffold’s rails. Unfortunately, his collar was in the way and he had to remove his cap, stand, and readjust his collar. Again, he knelt, drew the cap, and then dropped his handkerchief.
“The execution at once severed his head from his body, except only a small part of the skin, which was immediately divided by a gentle stroke; the head was received in a piece of red bayes, and, with the body, immediately put into the coffin.”
Apparently, the Earl of Kilmarnock had requested that his head not be held up and displayed as that of traitor, and so this part of the ceremony was omitted as the law did not require it. Additionally, his coffin was moved to the stage, as per his request, so that his severed head could quickly be deposited with his body into the coffin so “that [the head] might not roll about the stage.”
As the scaffold was cleaned of the Earl’s blood and fresh straw strewn about, the executioner changed into clean clothes. In the meantime, Lord Balmerino waited not yet knowing the fate of the Earl.
“[Lord Balmerino] having solemnly recommended himself to the mercy of the almighty, conversed chearfully with his friends, refreshed himself twice with a bit of bread and a glass of wine, and desired the company to drink to him … acquainting them that he had prepared a speech, which he should read on the scaffold.”
When the sheriff appeared, Lord Balmerino asked if the affair with the Earl was over. He was informed that it was and he with “an easy unaffected chearfulness … saluted his friends, and hastened to the scaffold, which he mounted with so easy an air, as astonished the spectators.” He walked around the scaffold several times, bowed to the people, inspected his coffin, and examined the block that he referred to as his “pillow of rest.” He then put on his spectacles and addressed the crowd reading a treasonous statement in which he “mentioned his majesty as a prince of the greatest magnanimity and mercy, at the same time that, thro’ erroneous political principles, it denied him a right to the allegiance of his people.” In addition, Lord Balmerino stated: “If I had a thousand lives, I would lay them all down in the same cause.”
Lord Balmerino then called for the executioner. He gave him three guineas and said, “friend, I never was rich, this is all the money I have now … I am sorry I can add nothing to it but my coat and waistcoat.’ He then took of coat and his neckcloth and threw them carelessly on top of the coffin. He then dressed in a “flannel waistcoat, which had been provided for the purpose, and then taking a plaid cap out of his pocket, he put it on his head, saying, he died a Scotchman.”
Lord Balmerino laid his head on the block, bid farewell to his friends, and then rose again. When passing the executioner, he observed the axe, felt the edge, ask about the blow that the Earl received. He also gave the executioner a friendly slap on the shoulder to give him courage. He then “tucked down the collar of his shirt and waistcoat, and shewed him where to strike, desiring him to do it resolutely, for in that, says his lordship, will consist your kindness.” At that, he knelt again at the block:
“[H]aving with his arm stretched out, said, ‘O Lord reward my friends, forgive my enemies, — and received my soul,’ he gave the signal by letting them fall: But his uncommon firmness and intrepidity, and the unexpected suddenness of the signal, so surprized the executioner, that tho’ he struck the part directed, the blow was not given with strength enough to wound him very deep.”
The execution struck a second blow. This time Lord Balmerino was knocked senseless, but it was not until the execution gave him one more strike, that he was finally dead. “His head was received in a piece of red bays, and with his body put into the coffin, which, at his particular request, was placed on that of the late marquis of Tullibardine’s, in St. Peter’s church in the Tower.”
- The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 16, 1746
- The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volumes 155-156, 1834