Elizabeth Gaunt

                                                                        Kayla Cooper

                                                            National Portrait Gallery Website



            Her Background

            Elizabeth Gaunt and her husband William were Whigs involved in London Whig and dissenting politics in the early 1680s. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com. The two were residents of the parish of St. Mary, Whitechapel, and well known throughout Wapping.  Id. They were Baptists. At one point Elizabeth kept a tallow chandler’s shop[1] but by 1683, she was living in lodgings at the upper end of Old Gravel Lane, Wapping, and given up the shop. Id. Lord Macaulay states that Elizabeth was “a woman, with peculiar manners and phraseology which then distinguished her sect, had a large charity. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8. He further notes that “her life was passed in relieving the unhappy of all religious denominations, and she was well known as a constant visitor of the jails”. Id. While Elizabeth was portrayed by some as a charitable woman “who spent a great part of her life in acts of charity, visiting the gaols[2], and looking after the poor”[3], others point out that Elizabeth and her husband’s activities went beyond mere acts of charity. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com.  It is suspected that the two were agents that acted as links between the growing refugee community of Whigs and Dissenters in the Netherlands and London. Id.  If this suspicion had any merit, it may be used to explain why Elizabeth Gaunt frequented the jails so often. In 1682, London authorities believed that the two had acted as the Earl of Shaftesbury’s brokers, enabling him to leave London for Amsterdam. Id. In Amsterdam Elizabeth was referred to by the refugee community as “Mother Gaunt”; this name was used to signify that she was one among several “mothers” who provided aid and shelter, and carried messages for the radicals between the Netherlands and England. Id.

            In the spring of 1685, as the preparations for Monmouth’s invasion began, Elizabeth was in Amsterdam staying with Mrs. Ann Smith[4], a wealthy English widow, who helped fund both Monmouth’s and the Earl of Argyll’s rebellions. Id. Monmouth sent Elizabeth and the Whig barrister, Edward Norton, back to England to instruct the Earl of Macclesfield to be ready to act in Cheshire. Id. A few weeks later Elizabeth went back to Amsterdam to find out why Monmouth had been delayed, but she had returned to London by July 1685.


Her “Crime”

            Following the defeat of Monmouth’s army at Sedgemoor, Elizabeth and her husband reverted to arranging passage overseas for fleeing rebels. Id. One such rebel was James Burton. Id. In 1683, Burton had been outlawed for his part in the Rye House Plot. According to Lord Macaulay, her political and theological opinions, as well as her compassionate disposition, led Elizabeth to do everything in her power for Burton. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8. She helped hide Burton in September, gave him money[5], and procured for him a boat which took him to Gravesend, where he took a ship to Amsterdam. Id. In 1685, Burton was among Monmouth’s original band that landed in Lyme Regis. Id. After Sedgemoor he fled to London and stayed with his wife in Wapping for two nights. Frightened by his presence, she arranged for him to stay at the house of a neighbor, John Fernley[6]. According to Lord Macaulay, Fernley was very poor and was besieged by creditors. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8. Fernley was aware of the fact that a reward of a hundred pounds had been offered by the government for the apprehension of Burton, but “the honest man was incapable of betraying one who, in extreme peril, had come under the shadow of his roof”. Id.

            On August 2nd, while waiting for the Gaunts to arrange his passage to the Netherlands, Burton was arrested at Fernley’s house, trying to escape through the chimney. Id. According to Macaulay, news had quickly spread that the anger of James was more strongly excited against those who harbored rebels than against the rebels themselves; James had publicly declared that of all forms of treason the hiding of traitors from his vengeance was the most unpardonable. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8. Fernley was indicted as a traitor for harboring Burton, and Elizabeth Gaunt was indicted for treason against Charles II, for conspiring with others to rebel against the government, and for harboring a traitor. Id. The government’s chief witness against both Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt was Burton, who turned king’s evidence and won himself a pardon. Sir Parry commented that “it is indeed hard to understand why any government officials should have preferred to destroy two comparatively innocent people like Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt, and to save the life of a wretch like Burton, a persistent rebel, a coward and poltroon[7], ready to swear anyone’s life away to save his own skin.” E. Parry, The Bloody Assize (1929), 267–9. He goes further to explain that “one must remember that the Government of the day thought the Bloody Assize was an exhibition of strong government and there was certainly, to use a modern statesman’s phrase, ‘no damned nonsense about it.’” Id.


            Her “Judgment”

            Elizabeth Gaunt’s trial took place on October 19, 1685 at the Old Bailey. The judges were the Recorder, Sir Thomas Jenner, Lord Chief Justice Jones, Lord Chief Baron Montagu, and Mr. Justices Levinz and Wythens. E. Parry, The Bloody Assize (1929), 267–9. When the clerk asked Elizabeth whether she pled guilty or not guilty, she replied that she desired to have more time to consider it. Cobbett's Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols.(1809–28). She further explained that she did not know which to plea because she was ignorant in the law and in things of that nature. Id. To this, Lord Chief Justice Jones responded that “this is not a matter of law; it is whether you did receive these traitors or no knowingly”. Id. Elizabeth replied that she was not guilty and in response to the question of how she would be tried, she stated “by God and my country.” Id.

James Burton, his wife, Mary, and his widowed daughter, Mary Gilbert, all testified against her. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com & Cobbett's Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols.(1809–28). At the trial, Burton claimed that Elizabeth was anxious to assist his flight overseas in 1683 because she knew about her husband’s role in the Rye House Plot. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com. She did not deny knowing Burton, but she insisted that she did not ‘contrive to send him away’. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols., 11.419. (1809–28). There were no witnesses in Elizabeth Gaunt’s defense and there was no evidence presented to prove anything disloyal about her other than that she had assisted Burton. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com. In his instructions to the jury, Lord Chief Justice Jones admitted that “it is true, there is no direct proof that there was any particular mention that Burton was in the Proclamation for treason; but the woman says, and Burton himself says, that they do both verily believe, that the prisoner at bar did know he was in the Proclamation, and therefore there was no particular discourse concerning it; and she herself being examined, says, she might hear that his name was in the Proclamation, and she might hear that his house was searched and that he could not be found; and yet notwithstanding all this, she endeavours to conceal him.” Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols.(1809–28). Lord Chief Justice Jones then poses the question, “What can be the meaning of all this in this woman, but that she was very zealous to maintain the conspiracy, and was a great assistance to all persons that were concerned in it?”. Id.

After the jury returned the court reporter delivered the following decision: “You Elizabeth Gaunt, you have here been indicted for that great crime of high treason, and that particular part of it, for habouring, and comforting, and assisting, and cherishing of traitors, more especially of one Burton; you have had your trial, and a very fair trial, and upon that the jury have found you guilty: It is the duty of my place to pronounce the sentence the law hath provided for such high crimes as these are, and that is no other but this: ‘That you are to be carried back to the place from whence you came, from thence you are to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there you are to be burned to death; and the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” Id. Elizabeth replied that “this woman did tell several untruths of me.” Id. The recorder responded by asking if that was all she had to say, to which she replied that she “did not understand the law.” Id. That same day, Alderman Henry Cornish was tried and convicted by the same judges and jury. Fernley was sentenced to the gallows, Cornish to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and Elizabeth Gaunt to burn at the stake. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8. According to Macaulay, “even after all the horrors of that year, many thought it impossible that these judgments should be carried into execution.” Id. But the King was without pity and the executions were carried in fact carried out. Sir Parry describes the “collection at the Old Bailey of Alderman Cornish the Whig sheriff, William Ring, a rebel, and John Fernley and Elizabeth Gaunt, accessories, and the conviction and sentencing of them all to be executed on one day” as a “miniature Bloody Assize in itself.” E. Parry, The bloody assize (1929), 267–9. He goes further to state that “officially it was considered a master stroke of political terrorism that would do much to bring the Whigs and the lower-class Dissenters in London to a wholesome fear of the law.” Id.




Her “Final Thoughts”

            The Letter[8]:

“Not knowing whether I should be suffered or able, because of weakness that are upon me, through my hard and close imprisonment, to speak at the place of execution, I write these few lines, to signify I am well reconciled to the way of my God towards me, though it be in ways I looked not for, and by terrible things, yet in righteousness; for having given me life, he ought to have the disposing of it, when and how he pleaseth to call for it; and I desire to offer up my all to him, it being but my reasonable service; and also the first terms that Christ offers, that he that will be his disciple must forsake all and follow him. And therefore. let none think it hard, or be discouraged, at what hath happened unto me; for he doth nothing without cause, in all his ways, and righteous in all his works; and it is but my lot in common with poor desolate Sion at this day: neither do I find in my heart the least regret of anything that I have done, in the service of my Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in favouring and succouring any of his poor sufferers, that have shewed favour to his righteous cause; which cause, though it be now fallen and trampled on, as if it had not been anointed, yet it shall revive, and God will plead it at another rate, than yet he hath done, with all its opposers and malicious haters: and therefore let all that love and fear him, not omit the least duty that comes to hand, or lieth before them, knowing that Christ hath need of them and expects that they should serve him. And I desire to bless him that he hath made me useful in my generation, to the comfort and relief of many distressed ones; that the blessing of those that have been ready to perish, hath come upon me, and I have been helped to make the heart of the widow sing; and I bless his holy name, that in all this, together with what I was charged with, I can approve my heart to him, that I have done his will, though I have crossed man’s will; and the scripture me in it is, the xvith of Isa. 3,4. Hide the outcasts, betray not him that wanderth; let me outcasts dwell with thee. Obadiah, ver. 13,14. Thou sholdest not have given up him that escaped, in the day of distress. But man saith, You shall give them up, or you shall die for it. Now whom to obey, judge ye. So that I have cause to rejoice and be exceeding glad, in that I suffer for righteousness sake, and that I am accounted worthy to suffer for well-doing, and that God hath accepted any service from me, that hath been done in security, though mixed with manifold weaknesses and infirmities, which he hath been pleased  for Christ’s sake to cover and forgive. And now as concerning my fact, as it is called, alas! it is but a little one, and might well become a prince to forgive; but, He that shewth no mercy shall find none: and I may say of it, in the language of Jonathan, I did but taste a little honey, and lo, I must die for it; I did but relieve a oor, unworthy and distressed family, and lo, I must die for it. I desire in the Lamblike will, to forgive all that are concerned; and to say Lord, lay it not to their charge. But I fear and believe, that when we comes to make inquisition for blood, mine will be found at the door of the furious Judge [Withins,] who, because I could not remember things, through my dauntedness at Burton’s wife and daughter’s witness, and my ignorance, took advantage thereat, and would not hear me, when I had called to mind that which I am sure would have invalidated their evidence; and though he granted some things of the same nature to another, yet he granted it not to me. My blood will be also found me guilty upon the single oath of an outlawed man, for there was none but his oath about the money, who is no legal witness, though he be pardoned, his outlawry not being recalled; and also the law requires two witnesses in point of life. And then about my going with him to the place mentioned, it was, by his own words, before he could be outlawed, for it was two months after his absconding ; and though in a proclamation, yet not high-treason, as I have heard: so that I am clearly murdered by you. And also bloody Mr. Atterbury, who so insatiately hunted after my life; and though it no profit to him, yet through the ill-will he bore me, left no stone unturned, as I have ground to believe, until he brought me to this: and shewed favour to Burton, who ought to have died for his own fault, and not have bought his life with mine. And lastly, Richardson, who is cruel and severe to all under my circumstances, and did at that time, without all mercy or pity hasten my sentence, and held up my hand that it might be pronounced; all which , together with the great one of all, (king James2,) by whose power all these, and mulititudes of more cruelties are done against me: but as it is done in an implacable mind against the Lord Christ, his righteous cause and followers, I leave it to him who is the avenger of all such wrongs, and hath said, I have raised up one from the North, and he shall cut off the spirit of princes as upon mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay, Isa. xli. 25. He shall cut off the spirit of princes and be terrible to the kings of the earth, Psal. lxxvi. 12. And know this also, that though you are seemingly fixed, and because of the power in your hands, and a weighing out your violence, and dealing with despiteful hand, because of the old and new hatred, by impoverishing, and by every way distressing those you have got under you, yet unless you secure Jesus Christ, and holy angels, you shall never do your business, nor your hands accomplish your enterprises; for he will come upon you ere you are aware, and therefore, O that you will be wise, instructed and learn, is the desire of her that finds no mercy from you.


Elizabeth Gaunt


“Such as it is, you have it from her, who hath done as she could, and sorry she can do no better; hopes you will pity and cover weakness, shortness, and any thing that is wanting, and begs that none may be weakened or humbled at the lowliness of my spirit; for God’s design is to humble and abase us, that he alone may be exalted in his day: and I hope he will appear in the needful time, and it may be reserves the best wine will last, as he hath done for some before me; none goeth to warfare at his own charge, and spirit bloweth, not only where, but when it listeth; and it becomes me who have so often grieved, quenched, and resisted it, to wait for and upon the motions of the spirit, and not to murmur: but I may mourn, because through want of it, I honour not my God, nor his blessed cause, which I have so long loved and delighted to love; and repent of nothing about it, but that I have served him and it no better.”


            Her “Fate”

            On October 23, Elizabeth Gaunt was burnt to death at Tyburn, which was the punishment for treason for women. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com. Sir Parry describes the events as follows:

“The woman was dragged there upon a hurdle as the law directed, and at the place of execution a huge stake had been driven into the ground, in a diameter as thick as a large telegraph pole. Round the stake were piles of faggots[9] and straw and long bundles of reeds. The woman was stood against the stake, and a smith came with an iron chain, which he passed under her arms and fastened securely to a large nail driven into the post. The smith and his assistants now piled the sheaves of reeds upright around her body and heaped fagots and wood against her.

            The Sheriffs on their horses, with their armed guards, stood round to see that all these matters were carried out according to tradition. The victim was not strangled, as was sometimes done out of mercy, but she was literally burned alive as the judges had ordered and the King had desired.” E. Parry, The Bloody Assize (1929), 267–9.

That same day, Cornish was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Cheapside, London. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com. Gaunt made a powerful and provocative dying speech at the stake.

According to Roger Morrice, Elizabeth held up the Bible and claimed that she had aided Burton’s wife and children ‘in obedience to the contents of this book’[10]. Id. William Penn, who witnessed both Cornish and Elizabeth Gaunt’s execution, told Burnet that ‘she died with a constancy, even to a cheerfulness, that struck all that saw it’. Penn also reported that “she calmly arranged the straw around her to hasten her burning and that she ‘behaved herself in such a manner that all the spectators melted in tears’”.[11] “When the huge crowd, that stood round, saw this foul deed, many wept aloud and uttered lamentations and prayers for their murdered country-woman, and there was rage in their hearts against the men who had disgraced the name of their country and brought this sainted martyr to her death”. E. Parry, The bloody assize (1929), 267–9.  Since that terrible day, no woman has suffered death in England for any political offense. T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8.


Current Use of Her Home

             Today the Yorkshire Cottages offers the “Tower House”, once home to Elizabeth Gaunt to be rented.  Its online advertisement states, “We are delighted to include The Tower House within our portfolio, situated at Newbiggin, only 10 minutes drive from the M6 motorway. Ideally placed for exploring the delights of both the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, Windermere is a mere 25 minutes drive away with Sedbergh and the impressive Howgill fells a 10 minute walk from the door. Once home to Elizabeth Gaunt, the last woman to be burned at the stake at Tyburn and a principal hiding place of Prince Charlie, The Tower House has a significant history, and the property retains the tower, which was used as a lookout for raiders from the Borders.”[12]




-Burnet, Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J.Routh, 2nd edn, 6 vols.(1833).


-Cobbett, Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols.(1809–28).


- T. B. Macaulay, The history of England from the accession of James II, new edn, ed. C. H. Firth, 6 vols. (1913–15), vol. 2, pp. 656–8.


- E. Parry, The Bloody Assize (1929), 267–9.


-Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Nov. 20, 2007



-Yorkshire Cottages, Nov. 23, 2007<[1] http://www.yorkshire-cottages.info/property`          -details.aspx?productid=41162>




[1] “Tallow chandler’s shop” is a shop where hard fat obtained from parts of the bodies of cattle, sheep, or horses, is used in foodstuffs or to make candles, leather dressing, soap, and lubricants

[2] Gaol is a variant of jail.

[3] Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J.Routh, 2nd edn, 6 vols.(1833).

[4] Try to find a little about Mrs. Ann Smith

[5] According to Lord Macaulay, the sum of money she gave him was very large for her means, History of England, Ch. V, pg. 606.

[6] Fernley was a barber who was also a constable.

[7] Defined in Oxford dictionary as an utter coward.

[8] Complete collection of state trials, ed. T. B.Howell and T. J.Howell, 34 vols., 11.419. (1809–28).

[9] Defined by the Oxford dictionary as: a bundle of sticks bound together as fuel.

[10] Morrice, ent’ring book, DWL, 487

[11] Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time, ed. M. J.Routh, 2nd edn, 6 vols.(1833).

[12] http://www.yorkshire-cottages.info/property` -details.aspx?productid=41162