The Calves Head Club – celebrating a beheaded king!

Who would join a club that celebrated the beheading of a 17th century king? Well, rich Londoners it seems…

On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.

Not something to be celebrated!
Not something to be celebrated!

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.

They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.

In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.

Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.

However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour .  To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.

Royalist beats up journalists in Fleet Street

Sir Roger L’Estrange hated journalists.

He’d been a royalist all his life (born in 1616) and fought with King Charles I during the English Civil War. When the king lost and Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, L’Estrange was sentenced to death as a spy and conspirator and thrown into Newgate prison. Not enjoying his time behind bars in squalid conditions, L’Estrange escaped, fled to Holland, only to return with the Restoration of King Charles II. Now it was time for revenge against all those who had supported Cromwell. Especially journalists.

Fleet Street
Fleet Street in the 18th century – note the heads on display over Temple Bar

The centre of British journalism was Fleet Street with its many little alleyways. In the taverns, coffee houses and printing works of this great thoroughfare, writers expressed themselves a little too freely for L’Estrange’s royalist tastes. Many scribblers had been parliamentarians and against kingly autocracy. They wanted to write what they thought and that often meant mocking or criticising the monarch and his retinue.

In 1663, L’Estrange issued a pamphlet with the ominous title: Considerations and Proposals in order to Regulate the Press together with Divers Instances of Treasons and Seditious Pamphlets proving the Necessity thereof.” Ironically, for a man who hated writers – L’Estrange was a prolific writer himself, though always in defence of royal privilege. In this pamphlet, he argued for the harshest penalties for everybody involved in producing treasonous material. That not only meant journalists but “letter founders, the smiths and joiners that work upon the presses, with the stitchers, binders, stationers, hawkers, Mercury women, pedlars, ballad-singers, posts, carriers, hackney coachmen, boatmen and mariners” (sic). Nobody left out then!

Tyburn gallows
An execution at Tyburn

He was made official press censor. In his new role, L’Estrange abolished all newspapers except two – which he happened to own. The Intelligencer – “started for the satisfaction and information of the people” – and the News. But of course Fleet Street wasn’t just going to roll over and die in the face of L’Estrange. So he had to enforce the dire penalties he’d threatened. One victim of this royalist bigot was the owner of a printing press in Cloth Fair. His name was Twyne and he’d be made an example of to all journalists thinking life could go on as before.

With four burly men, L’Estrange kicked in Twyne’s door. They found writings that advocated the popular will – and you can imagine what L’Estrange thought about that! Twyne soon found himself before Lord Chief Justice Hyde at the Old Bailey who shouted: “Tie him up executioner!”  And added rather unpleasantly:

I speak it from my soul that we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so gracious and good a king, and you Twyne, in the rancour of your heart, thus to abuse him deserve no mercy.

He was then sentenced to be hanged but cut down before he was dead, his entrails burnt “before your eyes” and his head and chopped up body to be “disposed of at the pleasure of the king’s majesty”. And so it was that L’Estrange got to have Twyne executed horribly at Tyburn and his body parts displayed at Ludgate, Aldersgate and elsewhere.

L’Estrange, sad to say, led a long life. Though he fell out with King William III and this old Tory lived long enough to see the Whig party, which he detested for its lack of devotion to the king, grow stronger. As a former journalist myself, I’d say that L’Estrange was an object lesson in why we should defend a free press with our dying breath. Though hopefully, it will never come to that!

The prince who wanted an execution in front of his own house

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan revolution were a thing of the past. The monarchy was restored. Charles II and the Restoration were in full swing.

But in 1683, there were some aristocrats who didn’t like the way things were going in the royal court. King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York, were suspected of being crypto-Catholics bent on restoring the old religion to England.

Charles was secretive in his sympathies but James left no doubt that he was an ardent Catholic. Some leading politicians took the view that James had to be blocked from ever becoming king. Some went a step further and concluded that both Charles and James must be killed.

Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution
Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution

The resulting Rye House Plot was uncovered and several peers of the realm including Lord William Russell were put on trial.

Almost inevitably, Russell was found guilty. Being found guilty of treason meant death. The only problem for the king was that Russell and his views had some support with the London mob.

So an execution at Tower Hill could have led to a riot in favour of the condemned man. There were already rumours of an attempt that would be made to rescue Russell while on the way from Newgate prison to the executioner’s block.

The Duke of York, the king’s brother James, came up with a novel solution. He hated Russell’s guts. After all, Russell and his friends had wanted to exclude James from the royal succession.

Therefore – James asked Charles – could Russell possible be executed at his front door in Southampton Square? James and his buddies would therefore be able to watch Russell’s head depart from his shoulders over an agreeable claret from an upstairs window. The king decided this was a bit indecent.

Instead, Russell was taken down Holborn to be decapitated in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I worked at a digital agency on that London square for ten years – a big idyllic space in the centre of the city. Today, you can see office workers taking a lunchtime stroll or the tennis courts being used by the more energetic in the mornings. But on the 21st July, 1683 – Londoners would have been there to watch Russell meet his maker.

The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door
The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door

As Russell was led down Holborn, some of the crowds insulted him while others wept. By all accounts, he sang psalms most of the way. Looking at the mass of people who’d gathered for their fun day out watching his beheading, Russell said he looked forward to being in better company very soon.

Regrettably, his executioner wasn’t going to despatch him so quickly. Jack Ketch made a total mess of the job taking at least two axe strikes to get Russell’s head off. He later penned a pamphlet blaming Russell for distracting him!! Ketch later took five strikes to behead the Duke of Monmouth – so he had form.

James, Duke of York, never got to have that execution at his front door. But he did go on to become king for four years. As expected, he pursued policies sympathetic to Catholics. And for that, he was duly overthrown.

Politicians with Russell’s leanings invited a Dutch prince, William, to invade England and become king instead – which he duly did.