Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Traitor's Fate

Until 1870, if you were a man (not a woman) convicted of high treason in Great Britain, the judge would pronounce sentence upon you as follows:
That you the prisoner, now at the bar, be conveyed hence to the place from whence you came, and that you be conveyed thence on a hurdle to the place of execution; where you are to be hanged by the neck; that you be cut down alive, that your privy members be cut off, your bowels taken out and burnt in your view; that your head be severed from your body; that your body be divided into four quarters; which are to be disposed of at the king's pleasure; and God of his infinite mercy have mercy upon your soul.
The penalty was called drawing and quartering, and it was pretty strong stuff. Perhaps that was why, at the urging of regency reformer Sir Samuel Romilly, the emasculation and disembowelment sections of the law were repealed in the Treason Act of 1814.

Thomas Harrison, one of the regicides who condemned King Charles I to death, and under Charles II received the full pre-1814 punishment for high treason. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of the 1660 execution, "I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition."
The 1814 law also left it to the king's discretion whether those convicted of high treason had to be drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, and also whether "such person shall not be hanged by the Neck, but that instead thereof the Head shall be there severed from the Body of such person whilst alive." The law still specified, however, that whether the person was hanged to death or beheaded, the traitor should ultimately end up with his head cut off and his body divided into four quarters. High treason was the most serious crime a man could commit in Great Britain, and it was punished accordingly.

The last persons actually condemned to be drawn and quartered in England were the Cato Street conspirators, a group of regency radicals. They were followers of the late Thomas Spence, who had espoused the notion that "if all the land in Britain was shared out equally, there would be enough to give every man, woman and child seven acres each." With unrest in the country growing, radical "levellers" like the Spenceans worried the government so much that the Home Office planted spies in the group.

In February of 1820 one such spy, George Edwards, informed a leader of the group, Arthur Thistlewood, that government ministers would be holding a cabinet dinner at the Grosvenor Square home of Lord Harrowby. Thistlewood hatched a plan to storm Harrowby's house, kill the ministers, and then display the heads of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth (the leader of the House of Commons and the Home Secretary respectively) on poles. The heads would be paraded through the poorer sections of London, and public buildings would be set on fire in the hopes of inciting the total overthrow of the government. To that end, Thistlewood and his followers rented a vacant stable and hayloft not far from Grosvenor Square, on a street off Edgeware Road called Cato Street.

The Cato Street Conspirators
An artist's rendering of the Cato Street raid, with Smithers the Bow Street Runner being run through.

On February 23, conspirators gathered in the Cato Street command post with guns, swords, knives, and a hand grenade. Across the street in a public house, a magistrate from Bow Street, Richard Birnie, assembled with a dozen Bow Street Runners and a government spy named George Ruthven. They stormed the stable to arrest the conspirators. Ruthven shouted, "We are peace officers. Lay down your arms." But when a Bow Street Runner named Smithers moved in, Thistlewood stabbed him with a sword. Smithers died soon after.

Several of the conspirators surrendered, several had to be overpowered, and several escaped. Unfortunately for the escapees, George Edwards had provided the government with the names of all the Cato Street participants. Eleven men were eventually brought to trial.

The government had learned from a previous trial against Spencean radicals--Thistlewood included--that their own spies made poor witnesses, since the counsel for the defense was able to portray them as agents provocateurs, agitators who incited citizens to commit crimes they otherwise might not have committed. In this case, Edwards had brought the cabinet dinner at Lord Harrowby's house to Thistlewood's attention. Prosecutors were able to persuade three of the conspirators to give evidence against the eleven defendents in return for dropping the charges against them. During the trial, James Ings testified that Edwards had drawn him unwittingly into the conspiracy, and, bursting into tears, said, "I am like a bullock drove into Smithfield to be sold...I hope, before you give your verdict, that you will see this man brought forward, or else, I consider myself a murdered man."

On April 28, 1820, all of the Cato Street defendents were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. Thistlewood complained at his sentencing that the court had refused to allow him to "prove the infamy of Adams, of Heiden, and of Dwyer," the three chief witnesses against him, and George Edwards was never put on the stand at all.

Though the Cato Street conspirators were the last traitors in Great Britain sentenced to drawing and quartering, the sentence was afterward commuted to hanging and posthumous beheading, and six of the prisoners who had changed their plea from "not guilty" to "guilty" had their death sentences commuted to transportation.

A May Day Garland for 1820
Government figures dance around the severed heads of the Cato Street conspirators in a reference to their May Day executions, while in the background, spy George Edwards fiddles and says, "Dance away my friends, I have been the cause of all this fun by your help and money, 'Edwards the Instigator!'"

Executions were carried out swiftly in the early 19th century. On May 1, 1820, Thistlewood, John Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings and Richard Tidd were brought out before a crowd at Newgate. Ings began shouting the song "Death or Liberty," prompting Richard Tidd to tell him more than once to stop making noise. The men were then hanged--Ings and Brunt struggled for quite a while--and left on the gallows for half an hour before their bodies were lowered one at a time. A masked man cut the head from each body with a surgeon's knife. He passed the head in turn to the assistant executioner, Thomas Cheshire, who held it up for the crowd to see and proclaimed from each side of the scaffold, "This is the head of (name), the traitor!" The head and body were then placed together in a coffin.

It was all quite gruesome, even without the privy member removal and the burning bowels.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's upcoming regency romance, A Tryst With Trouble, includes a brief mention of the Cato Street conspirators and their fate. When it's released on September 23, it will join her current release, Lord of Secrets, and her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Ella Quinn - Romance Novelist said...

Gruesome. I wonder how much of a deterrent the punishment actually was. Wonderful post. I tweeted.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks, Ella! Sir Samuel Romilly, the judicial reformer, wanted to make the punishment simple hanging, but he was persuaded the penalty for treason needed to be more severe than the penalty for murder, so he agreed that "decollation" (beheading) was necessary. Even the bloodthirsty crowds of the time, who were accustomed to public hangings, became agitated when that part of the sentence was carried out.

Grace Burrowes said...

What we know now that is no punishment serves as a deterrent to future crimes unless that punishment is immediate (Regency justice came closer to this mark than a lot of other systems do), and CERTAIN. When dodging arrest, turning state's evidence and plea bargaining are available, the certainty of punishment is questionable, suggesting all that gruesomeness had little redeeming value.

Wonderful post, though. We think of the Regency as so elegant and refined....

Alyssa Everett said...

So true, Grace! Some things about regency life seem elegant in comparison to our own way of life, and others seem backward and even barbaric.

I do wish we could have the hats and boots back, though...

lee woo said...

Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels. See the link below for more info.