8 January 1697: Britain’s last execution for blasphemy takes place
A free-thinking student is sent to the gallows
In January 1697, Thomas Aikenhead was about 20 years old. For much of his life he had been an orphan – that he made it to Edinburgh University to study medicine, therefore, was quite an achievement. Alas, there this bright, idealistic young man read the books that were, if only indirectly, to kill him.
In the mid-1690s, Edinburgh’s library had one of the finest collections in the country, including provocative, supposedly ‘atheistical’ works by philosophers such as Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza. Thomas plunged in with gusto. But he made the mistake of telling his friends what he was reading. This was no time to be a free thinker: the Scottish authorities had recently ordered a crackdown on “atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious” literature. Thomas’s friends talked, and in the autumn of 1696 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy.
According to the indictment, based on the testimony of his so-called friends, Thomas had persistently “ridiculed the holy scriptures”, claiming that Christian theology was a “rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras”. Christ, he said, was an “imposter”. Moses (or Mohammed, said a different witness) had been “the better artist and the better politician”. In any case, he “preferred Mohammed to Christ”, and looked forward to life in hell, which was bound to be warmer than heaven.
On Christmas Eve, young Thomas was sentenced to death. Only the strictest punishment, insisted the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, would stamp out “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land”. On the morning of 8 January, he made the long walk to the gallows. In a last letter, he insisted that it was only natural to “have an insatiable inclination to the truth”. He was the last person ever executed for blasphemy in Britain.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries
8 January 1198
Lotario di Segni is elected Pope Innocent III. A belligerent champion of the Papacy’s secular powers, he later places England under an interdict and excommunicates King John for refusing to accept his nominee Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.
8 January 1313
Led in person by Robert Bruce, the Scots captured Perth, during the Scottish Wars of independence. Bruce’s forces waded in darkness across the city’s moat and scaled its walls, after the english had relaxed their guard thinking that the siege had been lifted.
8 January 1871
Birth in Belfast of James Craig, later 1st Viscount Craigavon. The son of a prosperous whiskey distiller, Craig became the first prime minister of northern Ireland in June 1921 and held the position until his death in 1940.
8 January 1912
The South African National Native Congress was founded by tribal chiefs and religious groups in Bloemfontein to promote the rights of South Africa’s black population. In 1923 it became the African National Congress, or ANC.
8 January 1959
General Charles de Gaulle becomes President of the Fifth French Republic. Events during his 11 years in office will include Algerian independence, France’s withdrawal from NATO and de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s bid to join the Common Market.