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 the battlefields of Europe and looking for work. And of course, the country having to support a prince regent who ran up excessive debts with his extravagant lifestyle didn’t help matters.
This economic distress fed social unrest. In November and December of 1816, the Spa Fields riots erupted. A group of anti-government revolutionaries called the Spenceans (named after their leader, Thomas Spence) tried to foment riots in London and use the resulting disorder to take over the government, starting with the Tower of London and the Bank of England.
The plan didn’t work, and Parliament responded by passing the Treason Act and Seditious Meetings Act in the spring of 1817. These two bills were intended to suppress dissent, which wasn’t lost on the British public, who referred to the new laws as the Gagging Acts.
But the British working man and woman still agitated for change. Rallies were held to protest the Corn Laws and also for election reforms, so more people could get the right to vote for their representatives in Parliament.
At one such rally in August of 1819, local governmental authorities got so alarmed at the prospect of a protest rally that they called in the army to keep order. But the soldiers went too far with their crowd control, provoking an incident that became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
At least 15 people died when the 15th Hussars, on horseback, brandished their weapons and charged into a crowd of unarmed cotton workers. Another estimated 400-700 people were injured. Any way you look at it, Peterloo (the name was a nod to the Battle of Waterloo, still fresh in everyone’s minds) was a real low point for Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his government.
Which brings us back to Cato Street. In the winter of 1820 a group of revolutionaries, led by ex-military officer Arthur Thistlewood, hatched a brand-new plot to overthrow the government. This wasn’t Thistlewood’s first radical act; he was also arrested at the Spa Fields riots.
Thistlewood and his co-conspirators, a group of 10 men, decided to assassinate Liverpool and his entire cabinet. Their plan was to kill the government officials at a dinner they were dining together at the Grosvenor Square house of Lord Harrowby, Lord President of the Council.
The fateful banquet was scheduled to take place on February 23. That evening, meeting in a barn in Cato Street off the Edgware Road in London, Thistlewood and his cronies prepared themselves for the task ahead. They armed themselves with pistols and grenades. They also carried canvas bags for their victims’ heads.
But the grisly joke was on them. There was no such dinner planned. The group had been infiltrated and then betrayed by one of its members, who was, in fact, a government spy.
So on the night of the fictitious Cabinet dinner, the conspirators got no further than their Cato Street hideout. The Bow Street Runners, tipped off by the informant, found the men and arrested them. In the commotion that followed, Thistlewood killed a Bow Street Runner with his sword.
|The execution of the Cato Street|
But the judge commuted the sentence for Thistlewood and his fellow conspirators to something a little less elaborate though just as lethal: they were to be hanged and then beheaded. Five other conspirators were also found guilty of treason, but their sentence was commuted to transportation - for life - to Australia.
The execution of the five Cato Street conspirators on May 1, 1820, was a public spectacle for which tickets were sold – bad seats going for half a crown, while seats with a really good view of the scaffold fetching three guineas.
People started arriving at 4 in the morning for the event, and by 7 a.m. all the streets adjacent to Newgate Prison, where the execution was to take place, were jam-packed, as were any rooftops or windows that could afford a view of the proceedings. In all, thousands of onlookers were present, along with two troops of Life Guards and eight pieces of artillery – just in case the gathering morphed into a riot.
Two well-known Regency bucks, Thomas Raikes and Lord Alvanley, were part of the massive crowd that day. (Alvanley was also a witness to another famous Regency event when Beau Brummel snubbed the Prince Regent with the words: "Alvanley, who is your fat friend?")
I imagine the two men, who were part of the elite beau monde, were curious about this event, which was the talk of London. They had to be there. In our day, we might say they had a bad case of FOMO – fear of missing out.
Raikes and Alvanley were wealthy men so they probably got good seats. They would have seen the mass hanging of the five men, and also the men’s bodies, heads covered by black bags, decapitated half an hour later.
I can’t even imagine the horror of the scene. Raikes, known as both a dandy and diarist, later wrote that this was the first execution he’d ever witnessed; he added that it would be the last.
There hasn’t been a public execution in the United Kingdom since 1964. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland.
But during the Regency era executions were common, with Sir Samuel Romilly telling the House of Commons in an 1810 address that there was “no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences (sic) according to law to be punished with death as in England.”
In fact, under the notorious “Bloody Code” enshrined at that time in British law, there were over 200 “crimes” punishable by death, including such trivial infractions like traveling with gypsies. Even children couldn’t catch a break – under the Code, a child between the ages of 7-14 who showed any "sign of malice" could potentially receive a death sentence.
With this in mind, there’s no way Thistlewood and his cronies were going to get a slap on the wrist for attempted murder and treason. They must have known that if their plot failed they would die horribly.
Sources for this post include:
- The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency 1811-1820, J.B. Priestley, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, NY, 1969
- Regency London, by Stella Margetson, Praeger Publishers, New York, New York, 1971