Ready to hang

25th February 2022

A portrait of the judge that presided over the piracy trial of Captain William Kidd is appearing at auction for the first time in its 300 year history, where it is expected to fetch up to £5,000.

Lord Chief Baron Sir Edward Ward led a team of six judges in the trial of murder and piracy against Captain William Kidd, and that of his crew also accused of piracy.

The oil painting of Sir Edward Ward, by renowned painter Sir Godfrey Kneller, is being sold by Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury on 2nd March and depicts the sitter wearing fur-lined red robes and a chain of office (lot 362).

“Although he was involved, early in his career, as a counsel in the treason trial of William Russell, Lord Russell, it was for his role in the trial against Kidd that history remembers him,” said Victor Fauvelle, Paintings specialist at Woolley and Wallis. “He was no stranger to show trials of this type – alongside his work as a lawyer on the Russell trial, he was one of the judges who presided over the treason trial of the Jacobite sympathiser, Robert Charnock, in 1696.”

Whilst Kidd remains notorious even today as a confirmed pirate, he actually set sail in 1696 with a signed letter of marque from King William III – a legal document that allowed him to capture French ships whilst England and France were at war. Maritime historians since the 19th century have been more sympathetic to the pressures placed on Kidd by his mutinous crew and his being turned into a scapegoat by the wealthy merchants and politicians who had previously backed him. Unfortunately for Kidd, Ward and his team of judges had no such sympathies in the political climate that presided.

As was the custom of the day, Kidd had to conduct his own defence and cross-examination of the witnesses, in the face of experienced courtroom lawyers and judiciary. The jury took just half an hour to find Kidd and his colleagues guilty of piracy. He was sentenced to be executed by hanging on 23rd May 1701. On the day itself, the rope broke at the first attempt and many in the crowd called for clemency – seeing it as an act of God. Sadly, the hangman disagreed and Kidd was successfully hanged at the second attempt – his body then gibbeted to hang over the Thames for a further three years.

It was Ward’s last major trial and he died aged 76 in 1714, leaving behind him 9 children. His eldest, also Edward rebuilt St Rumbald’s Church in Stoke Doyle, near Peterborough as a tribute to his father, with a monument by John Michael Rysbrack.  

The portrait, which has remained within the family until recently, is being sold as part of the Old Masters, British and European Paintings auction at Woolley and Wallis on 2nd March.

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