During the Tudor (1485-1603) and Stuart (1603-1714) periods Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a place of public execution. Many religious martyrs and those suspected of treason met their ends here.
One execution long thought (though not definitely proved) to have taken place in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is that of Anthony Babington and his fellow conspirators on 20 and 21 September 1586. They had been caught plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, and put Mary, Queen of Scots, her Roman Catholic cousin on the English throne.
The exact spot where the execution took place is not known. One contemporary account tells of Babington being drawn ‘from Tower Hill, through the cittie of London, unto a fields at the upper end of Holbourne, hard by the wayside to St Giles: where was erected a scaffold convenient for the execution’. Another relates that: ‘In the fields near Lyncolns Inne a stage was sett upp, And a mightie high gallose was rayled on the same.’ Babington was still conscious when disembowelled. Because of this cruelty Queen Elizabeth directed that the other conspirators should be hanged until dead.
In 1683, William, Lord Russell was beheaded in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, having been found guilty of complicity in the Rye House plot – a failed conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and his brother James at Rye House in Hertfordshire, in the hope of securing the succession of the Protestant Duke of Monmouth. After the execution (which took three blows) his body was carried into Lindsey House (now Nos 59 and 60 Lincoln’s Inn Fields) where his head was sewn back on. In 1897, this event was marked by the London County Council with the placing of a bronze plaque in the floor of the rain shelter (what is now often referred to as the bandstand) bearing the inscription: ‘On this spot was beheaded Ld Wm Russell, a lover of constitutional liberty, 21 July AD 1683’. The plaque now on the spot is a modern replacement. The claim to mark the exact spot of Russell’s execution is, though, erroneous – it is now thought to have been nearer the west side of the Fields.
In 1688, the Franciscan Monastery at No.54 Lincoln’s Inn Fields was attacked by a London mob bent on destroying Roman Catholic places of worship. The chapel was gutted and the furniture and pictures burnt in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – a scene commemorated on a silver medallion designed by G Bower, now in the British Museum.
The chapel was once again attacked by a mob in June 1780 during the Gordon Riots against the proposed repeal of anti-Roman Catholic legislation. The Riot was graphically described by Charles Dickens in Barnaby Rudge: ‘It was about six o’clock in the evening, when a vast mob poured into Lincoln’s Inn Fields by every avenue, and divided … into several parties’. All the furniture, ornaments and altar of the chapel were burnt.
Historical information supplied by Friends of Lincoln’s Inn Fields