5th May 1760. Death of an Earl.
In 1760 after being driven from the Tower to Tyburn in his own landau, Today the 4th Earl Ferrers (1720-60), was the last English nobleman to be executed (by hanging), and the first person to be hanged by the new technology.(1)
Previous executions would have been by the barbarous cart, ladder and medieval three- cornered gibbet. There was now a platform with trap door and the ‘Hangman’s Drop’, still being used when the last execution took place at Tyburn in 1783.
Ferrers had been convicted for shooting his steward, John Johnson, who he thought had plotted against him, and as a peer, Ferrers was tried by his fellow noblemen in Westminster Hall. (2)
Asked by the Lord High Steward why judgement of death should not be passed, Ferrers said he had been forced to plead insanity by his family.
After his execution Ferrer’s body was taken to Surgeons’ Hall for exhibition and dissection and later interred in a black coffin in the family vaults of the Shirley family at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire.
His steward in the mean time, was buried at nearby Breedon with the words on his grave stating, ‘Well done thy good and faithful servant’.
It appears that the Earl asked the local physician, Dr Kirkland, (who had conveyed Johnson to his own house), if he would say he had killed himself, but the good doctor couldn’t agree to such deceit, a difficult decision when ordered by the lord of the manor.(3)
From 1547 until 1841 noblemen could claim ‘Privilege of Peers’ if it was a first offence, but not for treason and murder and until 1948 had the right to trial by their peers, though bishops, not being hereditary, had no similar rights.
The present Earl Ferrers still lives in Norfolk.
(1) This creation of the Ferrers was named after their ancestral village of Shirley in Derbyshire.
The earldom was created in 1711 for Robert Shirley who was Baron Ferrers of Chartley.
(2) A privilege which the fictitious Lord Denver, brother Peter Wimsey took advantage of when charged with murder, in the 1926. D.L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness.
In the Ferrer’s case, The prosecuting Counsel was Attorney General, Charles Pratt, later Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas and Lord Chancellor.
(3) In 2005 the valiant Dr. Kirkland had a Close named after him in nearby Ashby.