WCRAG wanted to highlight how William Davidson used his legal training to quote Magna Carta at his Old Bailey trial. For Davidson it was Lord Liverpool’s government that had committed treason against the people of England. WCRAG worked with College Park SEN School, St Gabriel’s CE Primary, and All Souls CE Primary (all in Westminster) and Oratory Catholic Primary School, Chelsea to create the dramatic scenes from Davidson’s trial.
Background to the Old Bailey Trial, April 1820
In the aftermath of the Spa Fields Riots in 1816, four leading Spenceans, John Hooper, Thomas Preston, Arthur Thistlewood and James Watson, were found not guilty of high treason. This was becasued the jury refused to accept the veracity of the evidence of goverment spies. Consequently, when the Cato Street Conspirators were brought to trial Lord Sidmouth was unwilling to use the evidence of his spies in court. George Edwards, the man who had betrayed his friends and led them into the conspiracy, was never called to give evidence. Instead the police offered to drop charges against certain members of the gang if they were willing to give evidence against the rest of the conspirators. Two of these men, Robert Adams and John Monument, agreed and they provided the evidence needed to convict the rest of the gang. The outcome was never seriously in doubt. Five were sentenced to death, five to transportation for life. Another group, of whom Preston was one, were discharged for lack of evidence.
Edwards the Agent Provocateur
“The Attorney-General knows Edwards. He knew all the plans for two months before I was acquainted with it. When I was before Lord Sidmouth, a gentleman said Lord Sidmouth knew all about this for two months. I consider myself murdered if Edwards is not brought forward. I am willing to die on the scaffold with him. I conspired to put Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth out of this world, but I did not intend to commit High Treason. I did not expect to save my own life, but I was determined to die a martyr in my country’s cause.”
Thistlewood seeks Martyr Status
At his trial at the Old Bailey Thistlewood pursued a vacillating course—first a martyr to the cause of liberty, next the victim of a vile plot. The general theme of the defendants was to suggest that the spy had himself organized the plot from start to finish. In view of Thistlewood’s record this was not very convincing. In his final speech, Thistlewood was calm and resolved, if somewhat dramatic:
“Albion is still in chains of slavery. I quit it without regret. I shall be consigned to the grave, and my body will be immured beneath the soil whereon I first drew breath. My only sorrow is that that soil should be a theatre for slaves, for cowards and for despots. My motives, I doubt not, will hereafter be justly appreciated.”
William Davidson had originally been sent to England from Jamaica to study the law. In his trial, he defended himself against the accusation of high treason by quoting Magna Carta to the courtroom:
“It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret left is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me.”
On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange and Charles Copper were also found guilty but their original sentence of execution was subsequently commuted to transportation for life.