Skip to main content

The Despard Plot: Another Reason to Remember November

There must be something about the month of November and plots to kill the British king. The dastardly treason of Guy Fawkes and his band of conspirators is well-known, and the foiling of that plot is still celebrated 400 years after the event, marked with fireworks, parades and bonfires throughout Great Britain on November 5.

But what about Edward Despard? Where’s his bonfire?

Here’s what happened: in the fall of 1802 Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, a decorated Irish officer of the British Army who fought for the Crown during the American War of Independence, friend of Horatio Nelson, and for a time the designated superintendent of what would become the British Honduras, allegedly conspired to kill King George III.

On November 16, a week before the assassination was supposed to take place, Despard was arrested and charged with high treason. After a trial he was condemned to die by hanging, drawing and quartering, the last person in Britain to ever receive such a severe and painfully redundant death sentence. Before his execution on February 21, 1803, his sentence was commuted to the less elaborate but equally redundant procedure of hanging and beheading.

Col. Edward Marcus Despard
At the time of his arrest, Despard was meeting with a group of about 40 laborers at a tavern in Lambert. Government informants would testify that their plan was to assassinate the King, seize the Tower of London and the Bank of London, and incite uprisings throughout the city. The plot also supposedly involved the planting of several underground bombs.

Like Despard, many of the conspirators were Irishmen who’d done military service, and many of them were sympathetic to the cause of Irish independence, especially following the violent suppression by British soldiers of the Irish Rebellion in 1798. Despard himself was suspected of being involved in the rebellion, and he was arrested and held without trial for nearly three years in a series of prisons. He was released without being charged in 1801.

But there was no such happy ending this time for Despard. Even the campaigning on his behalf by his wife Catharine didn’t sway the justices. Catharine was a woman of African descent who Despard met and married while stationed in the Caribbean. The Colonel brought his wife and their son with him when he came home in 1790 after nearly two decades of military service abroad. Their interracial marriage was highly unusual and perhaps even unique in England at this point in history.  

In the New World, Edward and Catharine were advocates for the rights of freed black slaves, which didn’t make them popular with the white settlers. While Despard was in prison in London, Catharine worked not only to secure his release but also lobbied to improve prison living conditions for her husband and other prisoners. 

Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson
Catharine persuaded Lord Nelson, who’d fought with Despard in the 1780 San Juan Expedition, to appear as a character witness at her husband’s trial. 

Despite Nelson’s testimony, Despard was found guilty and executed with six co-conspirators at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark, London. He proclaimed his innocence from the gallows in front of about 20,000 people, the largest crowd who’d ever gathered for a public event up till then. 

(That record stood for only two more years, when it was broken by the huge crowds who gathered in London and thronged the Thames riverbanks to witness Lord Nelson’s funeral procession in January 1806, following the admiral's death at the Battle of Trafalgar the previous October.)  

So, like Guy Fawkes, Despard was accused of plotting to kill the king. His plan involved explosives and was thwarted, also like Fawkes. He and his co-conspirators were publicly executed, again like Fawkes and his men. (Although Fawkes actually fell or jumped from the gallows ladder right before his hanging and broke his neck, dying instantly and mercifully avoiding the gruesome mutilation planned as part of his punishment.)

In fact, this rhyme sung on Guy Fawkes Day could be easily adapted with a few minor tweaks to commemorate Despard’s plot:

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

And yet Despard is forgotten just the same. So if you’re among the millions who'll celebrate Guy Fawkes Day this November 5, spare a moment’s thought for poor Edward Despard. The only thing worse than a failed assassination attempt is a failed attempt no one remembers. 

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons


Popular posts from this blog

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang  but a whimper T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him)

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

The Spirit of '76  (original title Yankee Doodle ) by Archibald Willard, painted in the late 1800s November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations. "The Macaroni"- 1773 During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour. In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni , and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed. But it

The Cato Street Conspiracy

The Cato Street conspirators getting arrested Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster.  A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.” The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from th