The Maiden, or Scottish Guillotine
The Maiden seems to have been confined to the limits of the forest of Hardwicke, or the eighteen towns and hamlets within its precincts. The time when this custom took place is unknown; whether Earl Warren, lord of this forest, might have established it among the sanguinary laws then in use against the invaders of the hunting rights, or whether it might not take place after the woollen manufactures at Halifax began to gain strength, is uncertain. The last is very probable, for the wild country around the town was inhabited by a lawless set, whose depredations on the cloth-tenters might soon stifle the efforts of infant industry. For the protection of trade and for the greater terror of offenders by speedy execution this custom seems to have been established, so as at last to receive the force of law, which was that "If a felon be taken within the liberty of the forest of Hardwicke, with goods stolen out or within the said precincts, either hand-habend, back- berend or confessioned, to the value of thirteenpence halfpenny, he shall, after three market-days, within the town of Halifax, next after such his apprehension, and being condemned, be taken to the gibbet, and there have his head cut from his body.'"
The offender had always a fair trial, for as soon as he was taken he was brought to the lord's bailiff at Halifax; he was then exposed on the three markets, which here were held thrice in a week, placed in the stocks with the goods stolen on his back, or if the theft was of the cattle kind they were placed by him; and this was done both to strike terror into others and to produce new informations against him. The bailiff then summoned four freeholders of each town within the forest to form a jury. The felon and prosecutors were brought face to face, and the goods, the cow or horse, or whatsoever was stolen, produced. If he was found guilty he was remanded to prison, had a week's time allowed for preparation, and then was conveyed to the spot where his head was struck off by this machine. I should have premised that if the criminal, either after apprehension or on the way to execution, could escape out of the limits of the forest (part being close to the town), the bailiff had no further power over him; but if he should be caught within the precincts at any time after, he was immediately executed on his former sentence.
This privilege was very freely used during the reign of Elizabeth; the records before that time were lost. Twenty-five suffered in her reign and at least twelve from 1623 to 1650; after which, I believe, the privilege was no more exerted.
This machine of death is now destroyed, but I saw one of the same kind in a room under the Parliament House in Edinburgh, where it war, introduced by the Regent Morton, who took a model of it as he passed through Halifax, and at length suffered by it himself. It is in form of a painter's easel and about ten feet high; at four feet from the bottom is a cross bar, on which the felon lays his head, which is kept down by another placed above. In the inner edges of the frame are grooves; in these is placed a sharp axe, with a vast weight of lead, supported at the very summit by a peg; to that peg is fastened a cord, which the executioner cutting, the axe falls, and does the affair effectually, without suffering the unhappy criminal to undergo a repetition of strokes, as has been the case in the common method. I must add that if the sufferer is condemned for stealing a horse or a cow, the string is tied to the beast, which, on being whipped, pulls out the peg and becomes the executioner.
Thus we find, adds a commentator at the time, that the guillotine of France is not an instrument of death of the invention of that country. During the anarchy caused by a corrupt Court and the oppression of the people this instrument, precisely on the model of the Maiden, was in mercy applied to the King and Queen, their nobles and the clergy, who it was calculated engrossed three-fourths of the wealth of their nation. We say in mercy, because it produces a death more instantaneous and consequently less painful than that inflicted on criminals in Britain. A short period of time has brought about wonderful revolutions and great changes in all European nations, save our own islands, and we sincerely hope that a timely reform in our internal affairs may render the return of the Maiden entirely unnecessary.
Beheading was a military punishment among the Romans, known by the name of decollatio. Among them the head was laid on a cippus, or block, placed in a pit dug for the purpose; in the army, without the vallum; in the city, without the walls, at a place near the porta decumana. Preparatory to the stroke the criminal was tied to a stake and whipped with rods. In the early ages the blow was given with an axe, but in after-times with a sword, which was thought the more reputable manner of dying. The execution was but clumsily performed in the first times, but afterwards they grew more expert, and took the head off clean with one circular stroke.
In England, beheading was the punishment of nobles, being reputed not to derogate from nobility, as hanging does. In France during the revolutionary government, the practice of beheading by means of an instrument called a guillotine (so denominated from the name of its inventor) was exceedingly general. It resembles a kind of instrument long since used for the same purpose in Scotland, and called a "Maiden."
It is universally known that at the execution of King Charles the First a man in a visor performed the office of executioner. This circumstance has given rise to a variety of conjectures and accounts, in some of which one William Walker is said to be the executioner, in others it is supposed to be a Richard Brandon, of whom a long account was published in an Exeter newspaper of 1784. But William Lilly, in his History of my Life and Times, has the following remarkable passage: "Many have curiously inquired who it was that cut off his [the king's] head: I have no permission to speak of such things; only thus much I say, he that did it is as valiant and resolute a man as lives, and one of a competent fortune." When examined before the Parliament of Charles II. he states that "The next Sunday but one after Charles the First was beheaded, Robert Spavin, secretary to Lieutenant-General Cromwell at that time, invited himself to dine with me, and brought Anthony Pierson and several others along with him to dinner. That their principal discourse all dinner-time was only who it was that beheaded the king. One said it was the common hangman; another, Hugh Peters; others also were nominated, but none concluded. Robert Spavin, so soon as dinner was done, took me by the hand and carried me to the south window: saith he: "These are all mistaken; they have not named the man that did the fact; it was Lieutenant Colonel Joice. I was in the room when he fitted himself for the work; stood behind him when he did it; when done, went in with him again. There is no man knows this but my master [viz. Cromwell], Commissary Ireton, and myself." "Doth not Mr Rushworth know it?" saith I. "No, he doth not know it," saith Spavin. "The same thing Spavin hath often related to me when we were alone."