The real Duke of Monmouth
The real Duke of Monmouth

One imagines that identity theft is a modern crime but Horsham has an incident dating back more than 300 years. The impersonator was soon found out but not before he had received more than £500 in support of his campaign.

The ‘identity’ belonged to the late Duke of Monmouth who had been executed some 12 years earlier. The Duke, born James Crofts, but also known as James Scott, was the illegitimate son of Charles II. He was beheaded on the 15th of July 1685 for leading a rebellion against James II in order to claim what he thought was his rightful claim to the throne.

There were rumours circulating at the time of the execution that a common criminal had been beheaded in place of the Duke. This was partly because of Croft’s previous service to the country and partly because it was thought that James II would not execute his own nephew. The stories extended to the belief that Croft may have been the Man in the Iron Mask.

This all gave rise to the opportunity for the Duke of Monmouth to be impersonated and that was what Thomas Saviage did in 1698. Saviage, a Yeoman and the son of a Sussex innkeeper, played on the belief that a common criminal had taken the place of the duke at the execution because of James II’s reluctance to put his nephew to death. He went on to claim that William III acknowledged the duke’s claim to the throne and would step aside in due course.

Saviage was initially successful in convincing people of all classes of his fake identity, his handsome appearance was said to have contributed the claim. £500 [2006: £48,787.38] was raised and quickly spent. A group of farmers provided him with a horse and their wives provided ‘baskets of chickens and ducks, and were lavish, it was said, of favours of a more tender kind’. Within two weeks Savaige was locked up in Horsham Gaol.

Saviage came before Lord Chief Justice Holt in the Horsham Assizes on Friday the 19th August, 1698 to answer a common indictment brought by a Major Brewes; none of his victims appeared to speak against him. The exact nature of the charge is not recorded in the Gaol Calendar but Saviage was required to remain in gaol ’till he shall find very good sureties’ and appear at the next assizes. Clearly Saviage went on to evade justice because there is no further record of the fate of the impostor.

The gaoler also made money out of the identity theft. He made around £2 [2006: £195.15] by charging 2d [2006: 81p] a head to members of the public who wanted to look at the impostor.

Highways and Byways in Sussex by E V Lucas: ‘In the reign of William III. a young man claiming to be the Duke of Monmouth, and travelling with a little court who addressed him as ” Your Grace,” turned the heads of the women in many an English town—his good looks convincing them at once, as the chronicler says, that he was the true prince. Justices sitting at Horsham, however, having less susceptibility to the testimony of handsome features, found him to be the son of an innkeeper named Savage, and im­prisoned him as a vagrant and swindler.’