Heritage and Culture

The Execution of Tom Aitkenhead

By Sophie

This is the story of young Tom Aitkenhead. A Scottish medical student who, at 20 years old, was the last person in Britain to be executed for Blasphemy.

Our story begins in 1696 in Edinburgh. Aitkenhead was studying at Edinburgh University and was an avid reader. He made good use of the university library during his as a student, but the library contained books by authors such as Descartes, Spinoza and Hobbes, who were atheists. At the time, reading such books was seen as inappropriate and the Privy Council ordered for all literature of an 'atheistical, erroneous, profane or vicious' nature to be removed from the library as well as from all book shops.

In early October, an Edinburgh Book Keeper, called John Frazer, was outed for having made statements against God and the Church. He maintained that there was, in fact no God, and that no one owed, any God that did exist, all the obedience, reverence and worship that society thought was necessary. He claimed that organized religion and the beliefs established had been created merely to cause fear and frighten people into keeping them in order.

On being caught, Frazer openly admitted he had read Charles Blount's 'Oracles of Reason' and stated that he had only been reiterating the author's views, not conveying his own. He gathered merchants and Presbyterians in his support and he repented tirelessly. It was his first offense and he didn't want to face execution. With all the local support for his case to be dropped, the judges went easy on him and he was committed to Tollbooth prison for four months.

Back to young Tom Aitkenhead, who had heard of Frazer's case. Tom liked to live quite the 'student life' and would spend a great deal of his time in the Edinburgh Coffee Shops. He also liked to visit the local drinking dens which were less popular with students. During his visits he would boldly (and loudly) state his views, which were deemed radical for the time. At one point the case of John Frazer was discussed and, displeased by Aitkenhead's opinions on the matter, a supposed friend Mungo Craig reported Aitkenhead. Shortly after came the arrest of Aitkenhead where he was taken to the Tollbooth Prison. During his time here, he met John Frazer, assuming he would have a similar fate to the famous book keeper, he awaited a final decision.

Aitkenhead had been charged with two offenses. One under the Blasphemy act of 1661, which would mean death for anyone who cursed, denied or rallied up against God. The second offense was under the Blasphemy act of 1695, which stated that for a first offense, the offending would receive imprisonment, for a second offense a fine and only for a third offense, the result would be death.

Due to the flexibility of this second act, Aitkenhead had no cause to fear for his life. After a long wait in prison, he was taken to the high court on the 23rd December. To his shock, he received the death penalty for his crimes, demanded by prosecutor Sir James Stewart, the Lord Advocate. Aitkenhead was accused of having a conversation stating that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense. He had ridiculed the holy scriptures and called the old testament mere fables. He had also made fun of the new testament, which he claimed was a history of Christ (who he thought was an impostor). He had rejected the mystery of the trinity and had openly scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.

Due to this list of Blasphemous acts, Stewart made demands that the death penalty be the only fate for Aitkenhead. Stewart wanted to make a example to make sure there would be no more talk of this kind around the streets of Edinburgh. Five men, who had previously claimed to be Aitkenhead's friends, testified against him. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on the 8th January.

Petitioning avidly to the Privy Council against the decision, he begged them to consider he unacceptable circumstances and take his young age in to account. He stated that it was only his first offense and didn't feel the death penalty was fair. Two kirk ministers and two Privy Councilors pleaded on his behalf, but their efforts were to no avail. A second petition was submitted the day before Aitkenhead was due to be hanged. The Privy Council stated that they would only grant reprieve if the kirk interceded for him. Although there had been two ministers who had pleaded on Aitkenhead's behalf, the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was not known for it's leniency and thoroughly supported the execution in order to curb the profanity and lack of reverence in Scotland.

The following morning, Aitkenhead wrote a letter to his friends,

'It is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth and to seek for it as for hid treasure. So I proceeded until the more I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired...'

On the 8th January 1697, at 2pm, somewhere between Edinburgh and Leith, the young Tom Aitkenhead stood on the gallows and faced his fate. He was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. Surrounding the gallows were the preachers who had condemned him to death.They wanted to ensure the lesson had been learnt and afterwards increased their surveillance over the university and town for those with similar opinions to Aitkenhead.