300 year old love message embroidered in human hair to go on display at the Museum of London Docklands


A 300yr old bed sheet embroidered with a love message in human hair is one of the fascinating objects set to go on display at the Museum of London Docklands this autumn, as part of a major new exhibition, Executions, opening in October.

The delicate object, which has never before been on display, is a loving tribute by Anna Maria Radclyffe in memory of her husband, James Radclyffe, the third Earl of Derwentwater and Grandson of Charles II, who was beheaded for treason on 24th February 1716.

Intricately decorated with flowers, leaves and a large wreath in the shape of a heart, the bed sheet’s inscription, painstakingly embroidered in human hair reads: “The sheet OFF MY dear Lord’s Bed in the wretched Tower of London February 1716 x Ann C of Darwent=Waters+.”

The hair used by Anna could have come from her own hair or that of her husband, or perhaps she intertwined a combination of the two. We know that Anna was allowed to take charge of her husband’s body after execution, including his severed head, providing her with the opportunity to cut locks of his hair as a keepsake.

Just twenty-six at the time of his death, Sir James Radclyffe was sentenced to death for his involvement in the first Jacobite rebellion. His story is remembered in contemporary poems of the time and was later immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s bestselling novel Rob Roy (1817).

The bed sheet speaks not only to the personal grief and devotion of a young widow but her role in securing her husband’s memory amongst Catholics who sought to restore the Stuart dynasty. The sheet passed through multiple generations of activists and supporters over the years before eventually falling into private collections. It was acquired by the Museum of London in 1934.

Beverley Cook, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said: “This embroidered bed sheet is an extraordinary item, which would have taken months or years to create. The care and devotion speaks to Anna’s personal devastation and remarkable character- determined to protect the memory of her husband long after his death. It is just one of the many personal stories in the exhibition that reveal the impact of public execution on the lives of Londoners over centuries- a city that witnessed the brutal death of so many, from ordinary Londoners to some of history’s most high profile cases.”

Executions, opening 14 October 2022 at the Museum of London Docklands, will explore the phenomenon of public execution in London’s history through the stories, objects and legacies of those that lived, died and witnessed the events first hand from 1196 to 1868.

More frequent in London than any other British city, the capital was host to the most high profile public executions. From Smithfield to Southwark, from Banqueting House to Newgate Prison, executions became embedded in London’s landscape. Even today, hints of this uncomfortable past can still be seen across the capital.

Bringing the rarely told and often tragic human stories behind these events, the exhibition will reveal the social, cultural and economic impact of public executions over 700 years. It will include a range of fascinating objects, paintings and projections, including the vest said to have been worn by King Charles I when he was executed, a recreation of the Tyburn gallows with an immersive projection, portraits of ‘celebrity criminals’, and last letters of the condemned.

Tickets are available through the Museum of London website from Monday 14th February. Tickets from £13 – book online in advance for the best prices. The recommended age for the exhibition is 12+. For further details about the exhibition and pricing, please visit: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/executions

From Monday 4 April, the Museum of London Docklands will return to opening seven days a week (10am – 5pm).