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Grisly task which inspired mug's pattern.

Beheading as a means of execution was an old custom usually reserved for royalty in this country. It was conducted by a man wielding a large axe but, sadly for the poor people condemned, was often a botched affair. The beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, was one such terrible occasion. It is as well to remember that a person didn't need to have broken any law to suffer such a dreadful fate in this country, but just cause displeasure to the king - or queen, of course.

In France it is a different story, where beheading was their preferred choice of punishment, just as hanging was here. Both were economic and both countries had sound arguments as to which was most "humane", though now all this is history.

Guillotines were used across Europe and, in Germany, this or the sword or axe was employed. The last public execution took place in 1851, though it was not until 1949 that execution was abolished. La guillotine was so feared in France, meanwhile, especially during the Revolution when few noblemen were safe - a dread that spread to this country to inspire the decoration on a rare pearlware mug in blue and white, dating from about 1795, and commemorating the decapitation of the king and the birth of the modern republic.

Just 6in (15cm) high, this cylindrical depicts two aristocrats looking on while another lies awaiting the blade, bearing the words "View of La Guillotine or the modern Beheading Machine at Paris By which Louis XV late King of France was Beheaded Jan 21, 1793". With floral sprays, diaper border, it sold in Bonhams for pounds 1,800.

In its own way, it is a salient reminder of our own history of execution on this side of the English Channel. Beheading was introduced into this country by William the Conqueror in 1076 to execute Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, but the men having to carry out the grisly task were often not very good at it. They used a heavy axe usually, but not for poor Anne Boleyn who was sent to her maker by a sword. Like all, she was blindfolded before kneeling against the block, but sometimes if the victim was small they were decapitated standing.

Most of our executions were conducted at the Tower of London which held all traitors as a rule, where the scaffold of English oak was built. After climbing the steps the prisoner then knelt on the block, but was not restrained as it was believed those of noble birth would not fear their end, especially before a crowd.

Back in France, Jules-Henri Desfourneaux was the last executioner to operate in public in his country. He died in 1951. As was the custom in modern-day Saudi Arabia, he was from a long line of executioners. His last public engagement was to guillotine mass murderer Eugene Weidmann, an event that was filmed in 1939 and the evidence later used to stop similar spectacles. Guillotining continued behind closed doors, however, and he worked for the Vichy Government executing members of the French Resistance. His assistants resigned in protest at this outrage.

Death by guillotining was eventually outlawed in France in the 1970s, where almost the last to perform the service was - ironically - Andre Obrecht, a one-time assistant to Desfourneaux. Incidentally, he turned to drink and - almost insane - died while still in office.

For antiques and works of art advice, Jeffery Muse is always available on 029 2072 7980
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 10, 2007
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