Richard Brandon (died 20 June 1649)[a] was the common executioner of London from 1639 to 1649, who inherited his role from his father Gregory Brandon and was sometimes known as Young Gregory. Richard Brandon is often named as the executioner of Charles I, though the executioner's identity is not definitely known.
|Died||20 June 1649|
|Burial place||St Mary Matfelon|
|Other names||Young Gregory|
|Occupation||Common executioner of London|
|Known for||Possible executioner of Charles I|
Brandon was born in London, at an unknown date, son to the common executioner of London, Gregory Brandon, and his wife, Alice. Gregory Brandon had become executioner in 1611, living, with his family, on Rosemary Lane, Whitechapel (now known as Royal Mint Street) as of this date. Though little can be ascertained of Brandon's early years, rumours abounded of his gruesome upbringing as the son of London's executioner. He was rumoured to have decapitated stray cats and dogs, in training for his future position. Brandon's father, Gregory, found himself on the wrong side of the law in January 1611, when he was convicted of the manslaughter of one Simon Morton, though he was not punished thanks to a bizarre pleading of the benefit of clergy. In 1617, Gregory was the butt of a practical joke played by the members of the London College of Arms, where he was granted "the royal arms of Arragon, with a canton of Brabant" and thereby made into a gentleman. This joke was taken up by the people of London, who elevated Gregory to esquire, a satirical title that passed down to his successors as London's hangman (including Richard, whose reputed will interestingly used 'esquire' as one of his titles). This resulted in the imprisonment of the members responsible, including the Garter Principal King of Arms, William Segar.
Brandon worked with his father in his later years, and succeeded him around 1639, ostensibly obtaining the position through inheritance. In 1641, he was imprisoned at Newgate Prison for bigamy, though he was cleared of this charge on two occasions. At this time he was living at the same address, Rosemary Lane, with his wife, Mary (whether she was the allegedly bigamous wife of Brandon's or not is not recorded). As the common hangman of London, Brandon was responsible for several notable executions through the English Civil War, including Charles' advisor, Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, on 12 May 1641 and Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, on 10 January 1645.
Brandon was the Common Hangman of London in 1649 and he is frequently cited as the executioner of Charles I. The royalist losses of the English Civil War had led to Charles I's capture. Upon his trial, the High Court of Justice sentenced him to death for his tyrannical rule as King of England. The execution of Charles I occurred on 30 January 1649 outside the Banqueting House in Whitechapel; the executioner and his assistant were hidden behind a false wigs and beards, with crude masks covering their faces. Because of this, contemporary sources disagreed with each other and misidentified the executioner (one French source reported that Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell had personally executed Charles) and the precise identity of the executioner remains unknown. The execution of Charles I was done expertly, with a single clean cut on Charles' head; this would suggest the executioner was experienced, pointing towards someone like Brandon who had much pride in his use of an axe. He is also reported to have received £30 around the time of the execution. He had also executed other royalists before Charles and after, including Thomas Wentworth, William Laud and Lord Capel, indicating few moral qualms over executing political criminals. Despite this, a contemporary letter reports that he refused £200 to kill the king, and he continually denied having committed the act, even until his death in June 1649.
Richard Brandon, not to be discouraged by the death of a king, continued his job as the executioner of London. On 9 March, he executed the Earl of Holland, Lord Capel and the Duke of Hamilton for the parliamentarians. Richard Brandon died on the Wednesday 20 June 1649, and was buried the following day in the parish church of Whitechapel, St Mary Matfelon. The parish register of St Mary Matfelon records his burial as such: "1649. Buriall. June 21st. Rich. Brandon, a man out of Rosemary Lane."; following this is added a short notice that "this R. Brandon is supposed to have cut off the head of Charles I". This postscript was added in a different handwriting to the rest of the report and can't be considered a reliable report of Brandon's guilt.
Three pamphlets of 1649, published shortly after Brandon's death, claimed to reveal him as the executioner of Charles I, though their authenticity is disputable. These were: The Last Will and Testament of Richard Brandon, Esquire, headsman and hangman to the Pretended Parliament,; The Confession of Richard Brandon, the Hangman, 1649; and, A Dialogue, or a Dispute between the Late Hangman and Death. The most notable of these tracts, The Confession of Richard Brandon, claimed to be a deathbed confession of Richard Brandon, but it is now regarded as a forgery, and apparently received little attention in its time. This tract claimed that Brandon had been paid £30 for his actions and returned home from the executioner under cover of night, at 6 o'clock.
Among academic historians of the event, Philip Sidney and Basil Morgan both consider that Brandon was most likely the executioner of Charles I. Morgan claims that the "weighted probability suggests that Richard Brandon was indeed the King's executioner", considering the other attributions to be products of later "Royalist rumour-mongers; similarly, Sidney, when weighing up the supporting and dissenting evidence considers "the mass of evidence in support of Brandon's identity with the headsman remains undeniably strong and suggestive", especially in comparison the mere rumours surrounding other suspects, such as William Hewlett and George Joyce. Contrastingly, other writers have been less ready to put forth the true culprit. Graham Edwards, in considering the evidence, claims that "several writers have their favourite nominations, all cogently argued, equally convincing and open to counter-argument", leaving the mystery open to the reader.
treatment of his beautiful royal wife was on a par with his low conception of his moral obligations. He neglected her, spent her money, and lived openly with a notorious woman known as Mrs. Eleanor Brandon, by whom he had an illegitimate son, Charles, who is said to have been the well-known jeweller to Queen Elizabeth, and whose son, or grandson, Gregory Brandon, was, according to tradition, the headsman who executed Charles I.
However, an ancestry of Richard Brandon from the Duke of Suffolk's illegitimate son Charles is highly unlikely. Charles Brandon died in 1551, eight years before Elizabeth I's accession to the throne, and therefore cannot be identical with the Charles Brandon who was this Queen's jeweller.
The notoriety of Gregory and the "Young Gregory" led to "the Gregory Tree" becoming a euphemism for the gallows, and was one of the reasons for the decline in popularity of the name Gregory. The name "Gregory" became a general nickname for executioners:
Even before the days of Jack Ketch it was customary to affix a contemptuous nickname to the holders of the office throughout the country. In the days of James I, and long afterwards, hangmen went by the name of "Gregory," after Gregory Brandon, the London executioner in the reign of that monarch. Brandon succeeded Derrick, with whose name all readers of the "Fortunes of Nigel" will be familiar.
I had better to have lived in beggary
Than to have fallen in the hands of Gregory,
says a ballad of 1617.
- "The confession of Richard Brandon". British Library. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
- Holden, Desmond (1997). "Whats in a name? Gregory". GENUKI. Archived from the original on 23 October 1649.
- Morgan, Basil (2017), "Richard Brandon, hangman and probable executioner of Charles", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Podcast), retrieved 27 May 2019
- Morgan 2017, 0:36-0:53.
- Morgan 2017, 1:37-1:47.
- Morgan 2017, 0:53-1:03.
- "The last will and testament of Richard Brandon, Esquire, heads-man and hang-man to the pretended Parliament with his severall legacies to the Parliament and Counsell of State ... : with divers instructions left to his executors, William Lowe and Sheeps-head Rafe : justifyed by one Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Carpenter, and divers of his neighbors". Early English Books Online. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
- Morgan 2017, 1:03-1:24.
- Walford, Edward, Old and New London, 5, London: Cassell, p. 197
- Granger, James (1775), A Biographical history of England, from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, 2, London: J. Rivington and Sons, p. 33
- Morgan 2017, 1:24-1:37.
- Morgan 2017, 1:47-2:07.
- Edwards 2001, p. 173.
- Morgan 2017, 2:22-2:38.
- Robertson, Geoffrey (2005), The Tyrannicide Brief: The Story of the Man who sent Charles I to the Scaffold, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 397, ISBN 9781400044511
- Sidney 1905, p. 59.
- Robertson 2005, p. 397.
- Edwards, Graham (2001), The Last Days of Charles I, Sutton: Sutton Publishing Ltd, p. 173, ISBN 9780750926799
- Sidney, Philip (1905), The Headsman of Whitehall, Edinburgh: Geo. A. Morton, p. 63
- Morgan 2017, 6:14-6:27.
- Morgan 2017, 6:30-6:41.
- Sidney 1905, pp. 58-9.
- "The Confession of the Hangman Concerning His beheading his late Majesty the King of Great Brittain (upon his Death bed) who was buried on Thursday night last, in white Chappell Church-yard, with the manner thereof". Early English Books Online. Retrieved 28 May 2019.
- Lee, Sidney (1886). Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 6. London: Smith, Elder & Co.CS1 maint: date and year (link) . In
- Morgan 2017, 8:07-8:13.
- Morgan 2017, 6:59-7:06.
- Sidney 1901, pp. 63.
- Edwards 2001, p. 174.
- Davey, Richard (1909). The Nine Days' Queen: Lady Jane Grey, and her Times. G.P. Putman's Sons. p. 10.
- Gunn, S. J. (2015). "Brandon, Charles, first duke of Suffolk (c. 1484–1545)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3260.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- "The Hangman's Office". The Brisbane Courier. 29 January 1884.
- "Portrait of Archbishop Laud and Mr. Henry Burton". The British Museum.
- All dates in this article are given in the Julian calendar, which was used in Great Britain throughout Richard Brandon's lifetime. However, years are assumed to start on 1 January rather than 25 March, which was the English New Year until 1752.
- although the account refers to "the headsman who executed Charles I", who was popularly known, at the time, as Richard Brandon
- Morgan, Basil (2017). "Brandon, Richard (d. 1649)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3266.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Sidney, Philip (1905). "Richard Brandon". The headsman of Whitehall. Edinburgh: Geo. A. Morton. pp. 54–65.