Treason & Punishment

A group of men hanging from the gallows. Hanging was a common punishment for crime throughout medieval and early modern history, and was punishment enough. Unfortunately for those convicted of High Treason, it was only the start of their punishment.
Queen of the Moon, 2nd Edition / Public Domain
William Wallace is pictured here being drawn to his execution.
The Print Collector / Heritage-Images
John Ball, on the horse, is seen encouraging the rebels, who are positioned behind him.
Unknown medieval artist illustrating Froissart's Chronicles, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Following the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II had the men who acted against his father executed for treason.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
A portrait of George Edwards, the agent provocateur responsible for inciting the Cato Street Conspiracy.
Newgate Prison in the 1890's.
Queen’s London, Anon, Cassell, 1897.
An impression of the execution of the Cato Street Conspirators.
Ashbridge Collection 950 (1746c) Westminster Archives

As with all criminal proceedings, the men who took part in the Cato Street Conspiracy were tried in court. There, their charges were laid out – the most egregious among them being high treason. Treason, and its corresponding punishments have had a long history in England. While the punishment for treason in the time of the Cato Street Conspiracy was to be hung, drawn, and quartered, this was not always the case historically. This article will discuss the historical context surrounding the idea of treason in England throughout the 2nd millennium, what exactly it means to be hung, drawn and quartered, as well as showing how the practice was implemented in various similar circumstances to the Cato Street Conspiracy. It will also examine the continuity of English Radical theory and action throughout the millennium.

A Brief History of the term Treason

Treason in England did not always have a defined status. It was nebulously defined, with in fact a myriad of definitions in common law, which made punishment for those convicted of treason variable. Penalties included disemboweling, burning, and beheading. This changed in 1352, when a session of Parliament produced the Statute of Treasons. In 1346 and 1347, English soldiers returning from the campaigns of Edward III intensified an already rising crime wave. Theft, banditry, prostitution, and more increased dramatically, with local justices retaliating by liberally applying the charge of treason, even to minor offenses. The Commons objected to what they saw as wanton abuse of the charge, eventually applying enough pressure in Parliament to warrant legislative action. Up until this point the definition of treason was under common law, in which the defining characteristic is precedent. Judges and tribunals must write opinions on the law, which then will be used to justify interpretations of cases. The Statute of Treason was designed to tidy this up, and did so by defining petty and high treason, and the appropriate punishments for both. Petty treason was applied to situations where a servant killed his lord, a wife her husband, or a similar situation. Such charges would see a man drawn and hung, and women burned to death. High treason was defined as attacks on the king; this included attempts to undermine his God given authority. The Statute codified the hanging, drawing, and quartering of those convicted of high treason. The battles fought during Edward III’s campaign, in particular the Battle of Crecy reenforced to the English people the power of the crown, and go to highlight the increased power that English kings could expect in this era following a great military victory.

This practice has a history beyond the Statute of Treason, however. The earliest instance of being hung, drawn and quartered can be found during the mid 13th century, during the reign of King Henry III. His son, Edward I was the first to implement the practice on a nobleman in 1283, ordering the Welsh Prince Dafudd ap Gruffydd to be hung, drawn, and quartered for rebelling. A similar fate met the Scot Sir William Wallace in 1305. So, while it can be seen to be reserved for some of the worst offences, being hung, drawn, and quartered was hardly the ubiquitous sentence for treason before the Statute.

To be hung, drawn, and quartered is to suffer a gruesome and painful death. The victim is first fastened to a wooden panel and drawn to the site of the execution by a horse. He is then hanged to nearly the point of death, at which point he is then emasculated, disemboweled, and beheaded. As a final act, the body is cut into four pieces, or quartered, and typically sent to different places across the country. The body parts would be prominently displayed to dissuade any further actions against the crown.

Continuities in English Revolutionary Tradition

The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 was the first time the new Statute of Treason was able to be properly put into action. As a result of socio-economic instability following the Black Death, attrition caused during the Hundred Years’ War, and local mismanagement of resources, ad hoc armies of peasants sacked the Tower of London, and executed dozens of government officials. Thousands lost their lives in a brief and doomed rebellion, who’s goals included the abolition of serfdom, a reduction in taxes, and the removal of certain officials in the Kings courts. In many ways it can be seen as the ancestor to English Radical theory. Though the Revolt had several notable leaders, two are most important for the purposes of this article. Wat Tyler was the nominal head of the Revolt’s forces that entered London. He was killed during a negotiation by Royalist troops. While Tyler was in a sense the military leader of the Revolt, a man named John Ball proved to be one of the primary instigators. Ball was a priest that whipped up the peasants into a revolutionary fervor. Ball was imprisoned before the events that sparked the Peasants Revolt, but was quickly released after the conflict began. In his most famous sermon, at Blackheath in Southeast London, Ball preached the following: “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who [sic] was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men.” In contemporary terms, this sermon placed a bomb under the who feudal hierarchy of England. This was the same challenge that the Spencean Philanthropists posed to the system in 1820, and was the same challenge that is present throughout the history of English Radical theory.

Another popular uprising in line with the previously mentioned Peasants Revolt, as well as the Cato Street Conspiracy, was Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450. Similar to the Peasants Revolt and the Conspiracy, unrest caused by the perceived injustices of government were a principal factor. This, combined with recent military defeats in the Hundred Year’s War such as the French capture of Rouen and the Battle of Formigny led many to believe that the current rulers of England were ineffective, corrupt, and abused the powers of their offices. High taxation due to near constant war weakened the foundations of the crown and encouraged rebellions. The Rebellion was led by a man named Jack Cade, known within the Rebellion as “Jack Amend-all” thanks to his interest in listening to the issues of the people under his command, and through his restoration of order in the local governments that he was able to capture. The Revolution began when the washed-up body of an exiled duke, and friend of the King was discovered in Dover. Fearing retaliation, and fed up with the ineffectual and abusive government that characterized this time period, the commonfolk of Kent marched on London with nearly 5000 people taking part. During this time period, the Rebellion organized the creation and distribution of The Complaint of the Poor Commons of Kent, a manifesto that was designed to represent the grievances of the people, not just the commons but even MP’s, Lords and magnates, against the current system of government. The manifesto called for an investigation into cases of corruption within the Kings cabinet, as well as within local and national governments. The Rebellion fell apart after entering London, quickly devolving into roving bands of Rebels looting the city. Eventually, the Rebels were ousted by the people of London in a climatic battle over the London Bridge. Pardons were quickly promised and issued to the Rebels, but just as fast were rescinded by Henry IV. The King claimed that such pardons were not done through the proper channels of parliament, and so were voided. Cade went on the run but was caught and killed in a skirmish outside of Lewes. His body was returned to London and posthumously quartered. Jack Cade’s Rebellion shows the continuities in English Radical theory, as well as the response by the monarchical authority to those thoughts. Cade and his followers challenged the existing structures of power like the Peasants Revolt before, and the Cato Street Conspiracy after. The crown saw fit to flex its muscles in all three cases, eliminating the Radicals who suggested change in a horribly gruesome way if alive, and then afterwards proudly displaying the results of such a course of action.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is another moment in history where the Statute of Treason met out the punishment of hanging, drawing and quartering. It is also analogous to the Cato Street Conspiracy, in that the individuals involved wished to sever the head of government off, so that a new regime could be established. George Edwards was proven to be working for the crown as an agent provocateur helping incite the Cato Street Conspiracists, and the discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Cecil is argued to have undertaken a similar role. Both plots known to government figures, and were allowed to develop. This is not to say that these plots are entirely symmetrical – the plotters wished to replace James I with his catholic daughter, Elizabeth. While this is a regime change, it is a far cry from the radical change that the other failed revolts, revolutions and conspiracies championed. Nevertheless, because of its similarities, it has a place in this discussion. Led by Guy Fawkes, the members of the Gunpowder Treason Plot were acting against the persecution of Catholics by the Church of England. The plotters planned to use caches of gunpowder stored under parliament to eliminate the House of Lords, including the King, when they met for session. The plot was found out thanks to an anonymous letter, and 8 of the 14 plotters were convicted of high treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Guy Fawkes able to escape this fate, and in one last act of defiance either fell or jumped off the scaffolding leading to the gallows, breaking his neck with the fall and depriving the Crown of the satisfaction of killing him slowly. In the same vein as the Peasants Revolt, the Gunpowder Plot can be seen as the latest development in the long history of English Radical action, if not in principle then in practice.

The English Civil War, from 1642-1651, saw prolific use of the charge of treason. Royalists as well as Parliamentarians applied the charge liberally for those who refused to side with them, and enacted the punishment of being hung, drawn, and quartered. This can be seen as a terror tactic in order for people still unaligned to fall into one of the two camps. Despite the overthrow of the monarchy, Lord Protector Cromwell continued to use its customs, at least in relation to defining and punishing treason. Cromwell’s government saw the effectiveness of the punishment and continued to prescribe it to those charged with High Treason. Following the death of Lord Protector Cromwell and the return of Charles II, retribution followed. Cromwell himself was exhumed and subject to the punishment for high treason, along with Col. Thomas Harrison for the regicide itself. However, the prolific use of treason, and its punishment are not the only worthy topics of discussion within the Civil War. During the conflict, two distinct political movements gained momentum, which contributed greatly to the tradition of English Radical theory. These were known in their time as the Levellers, and the Diggers. Levellers subscribed to ideas such as popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality in the eyes of the law, and religious tolerance. These ideas proved to be enormously influential in the world today, not only in contributing to English Radical theory and furthering the notions that the Conspirators would one day champion, but also in the establishment of the United States, to which many persecuted Levellers and Diggers would emigrate to. Levellers tended to be puritan, contrary to the Anglican Church of England, and thus were subject to religious persecution on a fairly regular basis. Additionally, the low social rank of the vast majority of its members lent itself well to ideas of populism, which is reflective in the notions that the movement pushed. Numerous ideas presented by the Levellers found their way into the theories of Spence, who proved to be the main influence of the Spencean Philanthropists. There is even a figure analogus to Spence within the Leveller movement named John Lilburne. Like Spence, Liburne espoused ideas that could be considered ahead of his time – he was an advocate of “freeborn rights” which he believed every person to be born with, which is an idea that later Enlightenment philosophers would run with, and which would go on to influence some of the most important ideological traditions of the next few hundred years. Liburne and his associates were imprisoned for treason in 1649, the same spot that would be used to house the Cato Street Conspiracists 171 years later. While imprisoned, the Levellers leaders wrote “An Agreement Of The Free People Of England,” calling for reforms that are similar to those later espoused by the Spencean Philanthropists. Both the Levellers and Spencean Philanthropists were keen to reinforce the ancient rights of the Magna Carta. Diggers are another important political movement during the English Civil War. Diggers started as an offshoot of Levellers, and subscribed to similar, but not identical ideas as the Levellers. The main difference was their philosophy on land. While Levellers opposed common ownership of land, Diggers supported it, in what can today be described as a form of agrarian socialism. Land had been taken and peasants abused by a ruling class, and the Diggers advocated for this practice to change. Instead, the land would be communally owned and used, by the peasants, for the peasants.  This idea was wholly embraced by Spence, as well as the Spencean Philanthropists. It can be seen then that the English Civil War and the ideas and practices that came from it are hugely important aspects in the evolution of Treason and its punishment in England, as well as English Radical theory.

With all this talk of being hung, drawn, and quartered, it is easy to quickly become numb to its horrors. The English government certainly understood its benefits as a way to control a population. However, it also understood that tradition has its place. The five Cato Street Conspirators to be charged with High Treason and sentenced to death, being Arthur Thistelwood, James Ings, Richard Tidd, William Davidson, and Thomas Brunt, actually had their sentences commuted. Instead of the traditional practice of being drawn, hung, and quartered, the Conspirators were instead only hung and beheaded. In fact, these five men were the last to be publicly beheaded. Perhaps, with the relatively recent French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars on the minds of the increasingly reactionary British Government, making the Conspirators into martyr’s for a populist movement was deemed to not be in the best interest of the state. Previously, egregious and public punishment was enough to cow the people in the face of an omnipotent crown – in the 19th century, such spectacles were only likely to weaken the position of the crown, and fan the flames of revolution. Instead, the conspirators were buried in unmarked graves, under the Newgate prison flagstones. They were soon forgotten and are almost unknown by the public today.

Final Thoughts

In examining the evolution of treason and its punishment throughout the history of England, certain insights can be gained in its perceived use and efficacy. It is clear that the charge of treason has evolved as times have, and is reflective of the current state of affairs. The punishment for doing so was necessarily harsh, as the implication of harming the King was egregious. By looking at the evolution of such concepts, as well as their applications, a better context can be gained for the Cato Street Conspiracy, and the fate of its conspirators. Additionally, continuities in English Radical theory can be seen and brought to light throughout the many revolutions, revolts, and plots in England’s long history. In this way, the Cato Street Conspiracy can be seen as another continuation of the long and storied history of English Radical action.

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