He was the third son of the 5th Earl of Bedford, later created Duke of Bedford and Lady Anne Carr. After the death of his elder brother Francis he gained the courtesy title of Baron Russell and was thus referred to as Lord Russell. He was brought up by a non-conformist abhorring Catholicism.
At the Restoration in 1660, when Charles 11 took the throne, Russell was elected as MP for Tavistock, a seat traditionally held by a member of his family. For many years, Russell appears not to have been active in public affairs and is not recorded as speaking until 1674. In 1669, at age 30, he married the widowed, wealthy Lady Vaughan and thus became connected with the Earl of Shaftesbury, who had married his wife’s cousin. They had a close and affectionate marriage although their courtship lasted some time as he was aware of the financial disparity between them. They had a son and two daughters.
It was not until the formation of the country party (the forerunner of the Whig party), which opposed the policies of the CABAL (the inner group of advisers to the king) and Charles 11’s Franco-Catholic policies, that Russell began to take an active part in affairs. With a passionate zeal against Roman Catholicism, and an intense love of political liberty, he opposed persecution of Protestant Dissenters. Becoming active in Parliament in 1674, Russell moved an address to the king for the removal from royal councils and impeachment of the Lord Treasurer Earl of Danby and supported proceedings against Buckingham.
Basically the enmity of the country party towards James, Duke of York and Lord Danby and the party’s desire for a dissolution and the disbanding of the army, were greater than the party’s enmity towards Louis X1V of France. The French king therefore found it easy to form a temporary alliance with Russell, and the opposition leaders. They sought to cripple the king’s power of hurting France and to compel him to seek Louis’s friendship; that friendship, however, was to be given only on the condition that Louis support their goals. Russell entered into close communication with the French.
Anti-French, warmongering alarms which culminated in the “discovery” in 1678 of the first “conspirators” of an alleged Popish Plot to treacherously murder Charles and accelerate the accession of his Roman Catholic brother, appear to have affected Russell more than his otherwise sober character would have led people to expect!. Russell threw himself into the small party which looked to the Duke of Monmouth to take the throne, an (illegitimate but recognised) son of Charles, as the representative of Protestant interests, a political blunder.
Undaunted on the 4 November 1678, Russell moved an address to the King to exclude his brother James (at the time the Duke of York) “from his person and councils”, including removal from the line of succession. Following elections in 1679 Charles 11, a shrewd political operator, had in April Russell becoming a member of the new Privy Council Ministry. Only six days after this, Russell moved for a committee to draw up a more subdued bill “to secure religion and property [in case of] a popish successor”
In January 1680, Russell, along with others, tendered his resignation, which was received by King Charles “with all my heart.” Russell in the House of Lords would continue his crusade against James Duke of York and the Succession, speaking in numerous Parliaments proposing an Exclusion Bill.
In October 1682, he attended a meeting at which what might be construed as treason was talked. There they met Richard Rumbold, the owner of Rye House, Hoddesdon. This was followed by the unsuccessful Rye House Plot, a plan to ambush Charles II and his brother James near Rye House, on their way back to London from the Newmarket races. However Charles returned early owing to a fire and the plot was disclosed to the government. Unlike several co-conspirators, Russell refused to escape to Holland. He was accused of promising his assistance to raise an insurrection and bring about the death of the king. He was sent on 26 June 1683 to the Tower where he prepared himself for his death. He was tried and convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, afterwards commuted by Charles II to death by beheading.
By the standards of the time he received a relatively fair trial – Lord Chief Justice Francis Pemberton in his summing up seemed to lean towards an acquittal, thereby offending the King who dismissed him soon afterwards. No defence counsel was permitted in a treason trial, but in a rare concession to the defence, Lady Russell was allowed to act as her husband’s secretary. Even George Jeffreys leading for the prosecution, conducted the trial in a sober and dignified manner quite different from his normal bullying style, and, while stressing the strength of the evidence, reminded the jury that no innocent man should have his life taken away.
After the verdict Russell’s wife and friends made desperate efforts to save him, making pleas for mercy to the King, the Duke of York, and the French Ambassador, who informed the King that in his own master’s view this was a suitable case for mercy. Charles was however implacable, saying “if I do not take his life he will shortly take mine.” Lady Russell obtained a private interview and went on her knees to the King, but to no avail: Charles, who had been rightly praised for the clemency he showed after his Restoration, no longer believed in showing mercy to real or supposed enemies.
Russell was executed by Jack Ketch in Lincolns Inn Fields on 21 July 1683. The executioner, Jack Ketch, was so inept that he took four axe blows to separate the head from the body. After the first failed blow his victim looked up and said “You dog, did I give you 10 guineas to use me so inhumanely”. Ketch later wrote a letter of apology. Lord William Russell was brought into a friend’s house after the beheading to have his head sown back on before being carried off for burial in Buckinghamshire.
Russell was lauded as a martyr by the Whigs, who claimed that he was put to death in retaliation for his efforts to exclude James from succession to the crown. Russell resigned himself rapidly to accept his fate with dignity still stating his innocence, but disappointed in the justice he had received, as laid out in his last letter before his death. Russell was later pardoned as having committed no part in a directly treasonous plot, casting the evidence as hearsay. This was after William and Mary had come to the throne. The pardon remains as an official document.
Back in 2007 the plaque was vandalised (possibly stolen) and was subsequently replaced with this very basic one. The cement setting suggests the previous one was bigger, possibly much older and more attractive.