The Museum of London Docklands is preparing for a somewhat macabre exhibition entitled Executions [in London]. Slated to begin in autumn, the executions in London exhibits will feature some of the museum’s grislier possessions. The prize exhibit is a 300-year-old bedsheet embroidered with human hair, likely from an axed severed head!
The famous sheet bears the inscription, “The sheet OFF MY dear Lord’s Bed in the wretched Tower of London February 1716 x Ann C of Darwent=Waters+,” which has been embroidered at the bottom of the sheet in human hair. The sheet is also intricately decorated with flowers, leaves and a large heart-shaped wreath, according to the Museum of London website .
The executions in London exhibit and its prize bedsheet embroidered with human hair is related to this family: Anna Maria wife of James Radclyffe, the third Earl of Derwentwater. James was beheaded in London on 24 February 1716, aged 26, for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1715. ( Chorley History Society )
Executions in London Ranged from Treason to Tragic Romance
Gruesome as it is, the bedsheet has a fascinating story to tell. It was embroidered as a loving tribute by Anna Maria Radclyffe. Anna Maria was the wife of James Radclyffe, the third Earl of Derwentwater and grandson of King Charles II . James was beheaded on 24 February 1716, aged 26, for his part in the Jacobite rising of 1715.
Beverly Cook, curator of social history at the Museum of London, told The Guardian that Anna Maria had been allowed to stay with her husband in the Tower for the four months that he was awaiting execution. “It would be lovely to think that they were lying together beneath this sheet. Obviously, we can’t prove that, but it’s likely that she conceived their daughter at that time.”
Cook added that the sheet was thought to have been embroidered by Anna Maria after she escaped to Brussels to raise her children as Catholics. She died there of smallpox in 1723. The grim aspect of the romantic message is that it was embroidered in human hair, possibly from James’s severed head. Catholic nuns may have decorated the bedsheet with the flower and leaf motifs.
When the Museum acquired the bedsheet in 1934, it was believed that the hair was Anna Maria’s. But the possibility that it was from James’s head or from the heads of both James and Anna Maria cannot be ruled out. In fact, given the fact that the message appears to be in two different hair colors, it is likely his and her hair. After his death, James’s body, with severed head sewn back on, was returned to Anna Maria, giving her the opportunity to cut off his locks as keepsake, as was customary at the time.
Cook is reported by the Daily Mail to have said, “This embroidered bedsheet is an extraordinary item, which would have taken months or years to create. The care and devotion speaks to Anna’s personal devastation and remarkable character, determined to protect the memory of her husband long after his death.”
Bonnie Prince Charles, who lead the second Jacobite Revolution in 1745 on the battlefield in a painting by Marshall, H. E. (Marshall, H. E. / Public domain )
The Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745: Many Executions
But was it just love and loss that motivated Anna Maria to create this astonishing relic to her husband’s memory? According to experts, more than just the personal grief of the young widow, it was also an effort to secure her husband’s memory amongst Catholics who sought to restore the Stuart dynasty. According to Cook, “It is also a sort of relic to Catholic martyrdom.”
The first Jacobite Revolution in 1715 was an attempt to place the “old Pretender” James, son of James II and VII of England and Scotland, on the throne. James II, a Catholic in a largely Protestant England , had been exiled after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 which put the Protestant William of Orange on the throne of England. The rebel Jacobite forces were defeated at the Battle of Preston in November 1715, which put to an end James’s “pretensions.”
However, his son Charles Edward Stuart or the “ Bonnie Prince Charles ” would go on to lead the second Jacobite Revolution in 1745. The uprising was again short-lived and ended in defeat with the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
An axe was that made specifically but never used for the execution in London of the five ringleaders of the Cato Street conspiracy who, in February 1820, plotted to kill the Prime Minister and members of the government. ( Museum of London Docklands )
Other Odd Museum of London Docklands’ “Executions” Exhibits
Anna Maria bedsheet is not the only poignant item that will be displayed at the exhibition, however. Cook is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying, “It is just one of the many personal stories in the exhibition that reveal the impact of public execution on the lives of Londoners over centuries — a city that witnessed the brutal death of so many, from ordinary Londoners to some of history’s most high profile cases.”
The Museum hopes to bring the stories, objects, and legacies of those that lived, died or witnessed the events first hand from 1196 to 1868 to its visitors.
One of the exhibits is a vest said to have been worn by Charles I when he was executed in 1649. There are also love tokens inscribed by the condemned as well as their last letters. Portraits of “celebrity criminals” and a recreation of the Tyburn gallows with an immersive projection are some of the other experiences planned for visitors.
The exhibition will explore an uncomfortable aspect of London’s history as the British city that saw the most high-profile public executions in the country. High-profile or ordinary, most of the condemned would have felt a hopelessness similar to that of 20-year-old thief George Wright who gave his love Ann Lee a token bearing a message of utter despondency, “In my dismal cell I lie / In sorrow grief and woe, / For my time it seems so long, / My doom I wish to know.”
Top image: Earl of Derwentwater’s bedsheet from the Tower of London, embroidered with a message made of human hair from Anna Maria Radcliffe in tribute to her executed husband will be part of the Dockland executions in London exhibition. Source: Museum of London Docklands
By Sahir Pandey