Saturday, April 9, 2011

Losing One's Head

On April 9, 1747, Simon Fraser was beheaded, found guilty of treason. The Lord Lovat played both the Jacobite and anti-Jacobite sides during his career, which was consistent only in its benefit to Lovat himself. Fraser was the last person to be beheaded in Britain. Sir Walter Scott covers the end of his life in "Tales of a Grandfather".
'The conclusion of Lord Lovat's eventful and mysterious career was the next important act of this eventful tragedy. That old conspirator, after making his escape from his vassal's house of Gortuleg, had fled to the Highlands, where he was afterwards taken in one of the Western Islands, by a detachment from the garrison of Fort William, who had disembarked from on board a bomb vessel, called the Furnace. The old man was brought to the Tower of London. On this occasion, using the words of the Latin poet, he expressed himself prepared either to resort to his old stratagems, or to meet death like a man, if he should find it inevitable. Lovat's trial, which came on before the House of Lords on the 9th, and was finished on the 19th day of March, was very long and extremely curious. On the former occasions it had not been necessary to produce the evidence of Secretary Murray; but on the present, as Lovat had not been personally engaged in the insurrection, it was indispensable to prove his accession to the previous conspiracy. This was accomplished in the fullest manner; indeed he said of himself, probably with great truth, that he had been engaged in every insurrection in favour of the family of James the Seventh, since he was fifteen years old; and he might have added, he had betrayed some of them to the opposite party. His guilt, thinly covered by a long train of fraud, evasion, and deceit, was clearly manifested, though he displayed very considerable skill and legal knowledge in his defence. Being found guilty by the House of Lords, the sentence of high treason was pronounced upon the old man in the usual horrible terms. He heard it with indifference, and replied, "I bid your lordships an everlasting farewell! Sure I am, we shall never all meet again in the same place."

During the interval between the sentence and its execution, this singular personage employed himself at first in solicitations for life, expressed pretty much in the style of a fawning letter, which, when he was first taken prisoner, he had written to the Duke of Cumberland, pleading his high favour with George the First, and how he had carried his royal highness about when a child, in the parks of Kensington and Hampton-Court. Finding these meannesses were in vain, he resolved to imitate in his death the animal he most resembled in his life, and die like the Fox, without indulging his enemies by the utterance of a sigh or groan. It is remarkable, my dear boy, how the audacity of this daring man rendered him an object of wonder and awe at his death, although the whole course of his life had been spent in a manner calculated to excite very different feelings. Lovat had also, indeed, the advantage of the compassion due to extreme old age, still nourishing a dauntless spirit, even when a life beyond the usual date of humanity was about to be cut short by a public execution. Many circumstances are told of him in prison, from which we may infer that the careless spirit of levity was indulged by him to the last moment. On the evening before his execution, his warder expressed himself sorry that the morrow should be such a bad day with his Lordship. " Bad!" replied his lordship; "for what? do you think I am afraid of an axe? It is a debt we must all pay, and better in this way than by a lingering disease."

When ascending the "scaffold (in which he requested the assistance of two warders), he looked round on the multitude, and seeing so many people, said with a sneer, " God save us, why should there be such a bustle about taking off an old grey head from a man who cannot get up three steps without two assistants" On the scaffold he repeated the line of Horace—

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."

It was more in his true character, that when a scaffold fell, and he was informed that many persons had been killed and maimed, he replied in the words of the Scottish adage—" The more mischief the better sport!" He submitted to the fatal blow with unabated courage, and left a strong example of the truth of the observation, that it is easier to die well than to live well. The British Government did not escape blame, for having selected as an example of punishment, an old man on the very verge of life. Yet, of all the victims to justice, no one either deserved or received less compassion than Lovat.'

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