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Thomas Aikenhead

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Thomas Aikenhead
Baptised28 March 1676
Died (aged 20)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
EducationUniversity of Edinburgh
Known forLast person in Great Britain to be executed for blasphemy

Thomas Aikenhead (bapt. 28 March 1676 – 8 January 1697)[1][2] was a Scottish student from Edinburgh, who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20[note 1] on a charge of blasphemy under the Act against Blasphemy 1661 and Act against Blasphemy 1695. He was the last person in Great Britain to be executed for blasphemy. His execution occurred 85 years after the death of Edward Wightman (1612), the last person to be burned at the stake for heresy in England.

Early life[edit]

Thomas Aikenhead was the son of James Aikenhead and Helen Ramsey. His father was a burgess of Edinburgh, as was his paternal grandfather (also named Thomas Aikenhead). His maternal grandfather was a clergyman. He was baptized on 28 March 1676,[2] the fourth child and first son of the family. Of his three older sisters (Jonet, Katherine, and Margaret), at least one and possibly two died before he was born.[3]


During his studies at the University of Edinburgh, he engaged in discussions regarding religion with his friends and accounts from at least five of those friends formed the basis of indictment.[4]

Aikenhead was indicted in December 1696. The indictment read:

That ... the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that 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: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.[5]

Trial and sentence[edit]

The case was prosecuted by the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, who demanded the death penalty in order to set an example to others who might otherwise express such opinions. On 24 December 1696, the jury found Aikenhead guilty of cursing and railing against God, denying the incarnation and the Trinity, and scoffing at the Scriptures.[4]

He was sentenced to death by hanging.[6] This was an extraordinary penalty, as the statute called for execution only upon the third conviction for this offence; first-time offenders were to be sack-clothed and imprisoned.

According to Aikenhead's entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography (written by Andrew Hill):[1]

Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council to consider his "deplorable circumstances and tender years". Also, he had forgotten to mention that he was also a first time offender. Two ministers and two Privy Councillors pleaded on his behalf, but to no avail. On 7 January, after another petition, the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland's General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". Thus Aikenhead's sentence was confirmed.


On the morning of 8 January 1697, Aikenhead wrote to his friends that "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..." Aikenhead may have read this letter outside the Tolbooth, before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows on the road between Edinburgh and Leith. He was said to have died Bible in hand, "with all the Marks of a true Penitent".[1]

Thomas Babington Macaulay, British historian of the 19th century, said of Aikenhead's death that "the preachers who were the poor boy's murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and... insulted heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything he had uttered."[7]

Aikenhead was the last person hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain,[1] although it remained a capital offence in Scotland until 1825.[8]

In fiction[edit]

The case of Thomas Aikenhead provides the inspiration for Dilys Rose's novel Unspeakable (2017).[9] Aikenhead features as a central character in Heather Richardson's novel Doubting Thomas (2017).[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Age 20 is inferred from Hill's acceptance of approximate baptismal date.


  1. ^ a b c d Hill, Andrew (26 September 2000). "Thomas Aikenhead". Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist Association. Archived from the original on 8 November 2020. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Aikenhead, Thomas". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/225. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Graham, Michael F. (2008). The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment. ISBN 9780748685189. Retrieved 8 January 2024.
  4. ^ a b Pringle, Helen (2006). "Are we capable of offending God?". Negotiating the Sacred. Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society. ANU Press. pp. 31–42. ISBN 1920942475. JSTOR j.ctt2jbjjq.7.
  5. ^ Howell, T. B., ed. (1816). "Proceedings against Thomas Aikenhead for Blasphemy". A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to 1783, with Notes and Other Illustrations. Vol. 13. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown. Retrieved 8 January 2024 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ "McLaurin's Arguments and Definitions". The Scots Magazine. 1 July 1774. Retrieved 10 January 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  7. ^ Macaulay, Thomas Babington (1856). The History of England from Accession of James II. p. 544. Retrieved 8 January 2024.
  8. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Blasphemy" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 04 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–44 see page 44. By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, but by an act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both.
  9. ^ Rose, Dilys (2017), Unspeakable, Freight Books
  10. ^ Richardson, Heather (2017), Doubting Thomas, Vagabond Voices.

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Henry H. (1918). "Old Scots Law of Blasphemy". Jurid. Rev. Vol. 30. pp. 56+.
  • Hunter, Michael (1992). "'Aikenhead the Atheist': The Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century". Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. pp. 221–54.
  • Pringle, Helen (2006). "Are We Capable of Offending God? Taking Blasphemy Seriously". In Burns Coleman, Elizabeth; White, Kevin (eds.). Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society. ANU E Press. doi:10.22459/NS.06.2006. ISBN 9781920942472. (Originated at a conference in 2004)
  • Graham, Michael (2013) [2008]. The Blasphemies of Thomas Aikenhead: Boundaries of Belief on the Eve of the Enlightenment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

External links[edit]