Algernon Sidney

Colonel Sidney's Speech
Delivered to the sheriff on the scaffold
December 7th 1683

 

 

Men, brethren, fathers, countrymen and strangers; It may be expected that I should say some great matters to you, but the rigor of the season and the infirmity of my age (increased by a close imprisonment of above five months) do not permit me. Moreover, we live in an age that makes truth pass for treason, and as I dare not say anything against it, so the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it.  This my trial and condemnation do sufficiently evidence. West, Rumsey and Keeling, who are brought to prove the plot, say no more of me than that they know me not, but that some (equally unknown to me) had used my name and the names of several other persons to give some little reputation unto their designs. The Lord Howard is too infamous by his life (and the many perjuries not to be denied whereof he hath been guilty) to deserve mention. And being but a single witness, his testimony could be of no value though he had been of unblemished credit. Or had none seen nor himself confessed, that the crimes committed by him could be pardoned only for committing more. And even the pardon that was promised him could not be obtained till the drudgery of swearing was over.

Thus his testimony being laid aside, the whole matter is reduced to the papers said to be found in my closet by the King's officers, without any other proof of their being written by me than what was taken from suspicion of similitude upon a hand that is easily counterfeited, and which had been lately declared in the Lady Carr's case to be no lawful evidence in criminal causes. But if I had been seen to write them, the matter would not be much altered. They plainly appear to relate to a larger treatise written long since in answer to Filmer's book, which by all intelligent men is thought to be grounded upon wicked principles equally pernicious to magistrates and people. If he might publish to the world his opinion, viz. that all men are born under a necessity derived from the Laws of God and Nature to submit to an absolute kingly government which could be restrained by no law  or oath. And that he who hath the power, whether he come to it by creation, election, inheritance, usurpation or any other way hath the right. And that none must oppose his will, but the persons and estates of his subjects must be indispensably subject unto it. If he might publish such a book, I know not why I might not have published my opinion to the contrary without the breach of any law; and as freely as he have publicly declared my thoughts and the reasons upon which they were grounded.

And I am persuaded to believe that God had left nations to the liberty of setting up such governments as best pleased themselves, and that magistrates were set up for the good of nations, not nations for the honor and glory of magistrates. That the right and power of magistrates in every country was that which the laws of that country made it to be. That these laws are to be observed and the oaths taken by rulers to be kept. And that having the force of contracts between magistrates and people, they cannot be violated without danger of dissolving the whole fabric.  That usurpations can give no right. That the most dangerous of all enemies unto kings are they who raising their power to an exorbitant height allow unto usurpers all rights belonging to them. For usurpations being seldom compassed without the slaughter of reigning persons and their families, the worst of villanies should thereby be rewarded with the most glorious privileges. That if such doctrines were received they would stir up men to the destruction of princes with more violence than all the passions that have hitherto raged in the hearts of the most unruly. That no magistrate could be safe, if such rewards were proposed unto any that could destroy them. That few men would be so gentle as to spare even the best, if by their destruction vile usurpers could become God's anointed, and by the most execrable wickedness invest themselves with that divine character.

This is the scope of the whole treatise, and the writer gives such reasons as at present did occur unto him to prove it. This seems to agree with the doctrine of the most renowned authors of all times, nations and religions. The best and wisest kings have ever acknowledged it. The present King of France hath declared that kings have that happy want of power, that they can do nothing contrary to the laws of their countries, and grounded his quarrel with the King of Spain anno 1667, upon that principle. King James in his Speech to the Parliament, anno 1603 doth in the highest degree assert it. The Scripture seems to declare it.

If nevertheless the writer were mistaken, he might have been refuted by law, reason and Scripture. No man for such matters was ever otherwise punished than by being made to see his error. And it hath not (as I think) ever been known that they have been referred to the judgment of a jury, composed of men utterly unable to comprehend them.

Yet this is but little of my case. The extravagance of my persecutors goes higher. The abovementioned treatise was never finished, nor could be in many years, and most probably would never have been. Scarce the fiftieth part of it was produced, and the tenth part of that was not suffered to be read. That which was never shown unto those who are said to have conspired with me, was said to have been intended to stir up the people in prosecution of the designs of the conspirators. When no application unto time, place, or persons could be found in it (as had ever been done by those who endeavoured to raise insurrections) all is supplied by innuendo. Whatsoever is said of the expulsion of Tarquin, the insurrection against Nero, the slaughter of Caligula or Domitian, the translation of the crown of France from Meroven's race unto Pippin's and from his descendants unto Hugh Capet, &c. is all applied by innuendo unto the King. They have not considered that if such acts of state be not good, there is not a king in the world that hath any title to his crown. Nor can his heir have any - unless he could deduce his pedigree from the eldest son of Noah and show that the succession had still continued in the eldest of the eldest line and been so deduced unto him. All may see what advantage this would be to all the kings of the world. And whether, that failing, it were not better for them to acknowledge they had received their crowns by the consent of willing nations, or to have no better title to them than usurpation and violence which by the same ways may be taken from them.

But I was long since told that I must die - or the plot die. And lest the means of destroying the best Protestants in England should fail, the Bench must be filled with such as had been blemished at the Bar. None but such as these would have advised with the King's Council of the means to bring a man to death:  suffered a jury to be empanelled by the King's Solicitor and the Under-Sheriff:  admit of jurymen who are no freeholders:  receive such evidence as is above mentioned:  refuse a copy of the indictment and not suffer the Statute 46.Ed.III to be read that doth expressly enact it should in no case be denied to any man upon any occasion whatsoever:  to overrule the most important points of law without hearing. And whereas the statute 25.Ed.III (upon which they said I should be tried) doth reserve unto the Parliament all construction to be made in points of treason, they assume unto themselves not only a power to make constructions, but such constructions as neither agree with law, reason nor common sense.

By them and their means, I am brought unto this place. The Lord forgive their practices and avert the evils that threaten the nation from them. The Lord sanctify these my sufferings unto me, and though I fall as a sacrifice unto the  - - - Idols, suffer not idolatry to be established in this land. Bless thy people and save them. Defend thy own cause and those that defend it. Stir up such as are faint. Direct those that are willing. Confirm those that waver. Give wisdom and integrity unto all. Order all things so as they may most redound unto thine own glory.  Grant that I may die glorifying thee for all thy mercies and that (as the last) thou hast permitted me to be singled out as witness of thy truth, and even by the confession of my oppressors, for that Old Cause in which I was from my youth engaged and for which thou hast often and wonderfully declared thyself.

 

 


[Spelling and punctuation modernized]

Algernon Sidney (1622-1683), a great-nephew of the poet Sir Philip Sidney, played no direct part in Cromwell's government, but still went into exile in 1660. He returned in 1677 and soon began to associate with prominent Whigs. He was condemned on shaky evidence for complicity in the Rye House Plot and executed.

Howard = William Howard, 3rd Baron Howard of Escrick (1626-94) served with parliamentary army during the Civil War and became involved in various plots against Charles II. He informed against Lord William Russell who was also probably not involved in the Rye House Plot.

hand = handwriting

larger treatise = Discourses concerning government

Bench must be filled etc. = Judges have been appointed from amongst corrupt barristers. The Chief Judge was George Jeffreys (1648-89) who also presided at the "Bloody Assizes" following Monmouth's Rebellion.

25.Ed.III = The Statue of treasons, 1352, defined what was to constitute treason and forbad the judges to go beyond this. If some action looked potentially seditious (e.g. inciting a riot), the judges must refer such a case of "constructive treason"  to Parliament.

Old Cause = The "Good Old Cause" meant generally the parliamentary resistance to King Charles and more specifically republicanism.