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Historical texts  >  Sidney, Speech on the Scaffold, 1683

Sidney *

Speech on the Scaffold  


Men, Brethren, and Fathers; Friends, Countrymen, and Strangers:—It may be expected that I should now say some great matters unto you; but the rigor of the season and the infirmities of my age, increased by a close imprisonment of above five months, do not permit me. Moreover, we live in an age that maketh truth pass for treason; I dare not say anything contrary unto it, and the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. My trial and condemnation sufficiently evidence this.

West, Rumsey, and Keyling, who were brought to prove the plot** said no more of me than that they knew me not; and some others equally unknown to me had used my name, and that of some others, to give a little reputation unto their designs. The Lord Howard is too infamous by his life, and the many perjuries not to be denied, or rather sworn by himself, to deserve mention; and being a single witness he would be of no value, tho he had been of unblemished credit, or had not seen and confessed that the crimes committed by him would be pardoned only for committing more; and even the pardon promised could not be obtained till the drudgery of swearing was over.

This 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 is taken from suppositions upon the similitude of a hand that is easily counterfeited, and which hath 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 unto a large 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 unto magistrates and people. If he might publish unto the world his opinion: that all men are born under a necessity derived from the laws of God and nature, to submit unto an absolute kingly government, which could be restrained by no law or oath; and that he that hath the power, whether he came unto it by creation, election, inheritance, usurpation, or any other way, had the right; and none must oppose his will, but the persons and estates of his subjects must be indispensably subject unto it; I know not why I might not have published my opinion to the contrary, without the breach of any law I have yet known. I might as freely as he have declared publicly my thoughts, and the reasons upon which they were grounded; and I am persuaded to believe that God has left nations unto the liberty of setting up such governments as best please themselves.

The magistrates are 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 is that which the laws of that country made it to be; that those laws were to be observed, and the oaths taken by them, having the force of a contract between magistrate and people, could not be violated without danger of dissolving the whole fabric; that usurpation could give no right, and the most dangerous of all enemies unto kings were they, who, raising their power to an exorbitant height, allowed unto usurpers all the rights belonging unto it; that such usurpations being seldom compassed without the slaughter of the reigning person, or family, the worst of all villains was thereby 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 none could be safe, if such a reward were proposed unto any that could destroy them; that few would be so gentle as to spare even the best, if by their destruction a vile usurper could become God's anointed and by the most execrable wickedness invest himself with that divine character.

By these means I am brought to this place. The Lord forgive these practises, and avert the evils that threaten the nation from them. The Lord sanctify these my sufferings unto me, and tho I fall as a sacrifice unto idols, suffer not idolatry to be established in the land. Bless Thy people and save them. Defend Thy own cause, and defend those who 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 may most redound unto Thine own glory. Grant that I may die glorifying Thee for all Thy mercies, and that at the last Thou hast permitted me to be singled out as a witness of Thy truth; and even by the confession of my opposers, for that old cause in which I was from my youth engaged†† and for which Thou hast often and wonderfully declared Thyself.

In The World's Famous Orations. William Jennings Bryan, Editor-in-chief. Francis W. Halsey, Associate editor. Vol. III—Great Britain—I (710-1777). New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1906. Pages 142-45.

Notes and Links

[The following notes are from the 1906 W.J. Bryan edition. The first note heads the text. The second is a footnote from the title. The third and fourth are footnoted from places in the text.]

* - Sidney
Born in 1622, died in 1683; wounded at the Battle of Marston in 1644; elected to Parliament in 1645; Lieutenant-General of horse in Ireland in 1646; Counselor of State in 1659; lived on the Continent after the Restoration until 1677; falsely arrested and condemned to death for high treason in 1683.
† - Speech on the Scaffold
Spoken in London on the scaffold, December 7, 1683. Sidney (Algernon) was tried at King's Bench before the notorious Jeffreys who, says C. H. Firth, "wrangled with the prisoner and browbeat him in his usual fashion." When Sidney came to the scaffold, Evelyn says, "he told them only that he had made his peace with God; that he came not thither to talk but to die, put a paper into the sheriff's hands and another into a friend's; said one prayer as short as a grace, laid down his neck and bid the executioner do his office."
** - Rye House plot
The Rye House plot of 1682–83 was a conspiracy to kill Charles II. and his brother, the Duke of York, afterward James II., and thus may be said to have anticipated the Revolution of 1688. It took its name from a house in Hertfordshire where the conspirators met.
†† - Marston Moor
Sidney was only twenty-two years of age at the battle of Marston Moor, where he "charged with much gallantry in the head of my Lord Manchester's regiment of horse and came off with many wounds, the true badges of his honor."