The execution of the Gunpowder Plotters, by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Vissche (1606)
Today is the 412th anniversary of the execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Gunpowder plotters. As every school boy knows Fawkes was arrested on the 5 November 1605 as he prepared to blow up the Westminster Hall and send King James I and his ministers to an early grave. Instead it was Fawkes, along with Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes who were to die in a gruesome public execution on the 31 January the following year. The other conspirators (Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates) had been despatched a day earlier, while Robert Catesby (the ringleader) and Thomas Percy escaped punishment altogether.*
The gunpowder plotters were traitors; they had conspired to kill the reigning anointed monarch and replace him with a Catholic more to their liking. It is hard to see the Gunpowder Plot then, as anything other than a traitorous attempt to overthrow the legitimate ruler and his government and install a foreign power.
In this blog I’d like to reflect on the nature of treason in history, on how the form of punishment of traitors changed over the centuries, and make an observation on how the word ‘traitor’ has been very publicly misused in recent months.
But let’s start with the execution of Fawkes and the penalty for treason in the 1600s.
The Gunpowder Plotters were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in a very public display of the power of the state and king. Traitors such as Fawkes were ‘drawn’ to the place of execution on a plank or cart which was pulled backwards by a horse, as a symbolic shaming of the individual. This practice continued throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as those sentenced to a more ‘normal’ death by hanging would be paraded through the streets on a ‘rattling cart’ for the crowd to see. Execution was intentionally public – ‘justice’ was to be seen to be done because that both consolidated the power of the state and deterred others from committing similar crimes.
Once the condemned had reached the place of execution they were dragged up on to the scaffold which was a raised platform that allowed the watching crowd an excellent view of the event. The ‘victim’ was then hanged, but not as offenders were hanged in the last years before the death penalty was suspended. There was no carefully calculated drop through a trap door to snap your neck; instead prisoners were slowly strangled.
The state executioner would have to time it just right. He wanted to ensure maximum pain and fear of death without actually killing his charge. When he judged that the traitor was nearly dead he would be cut down and stretched out on the platform. Taking a large knife the executioner would then start to mutilate the body, while the culprit was still alive.
The genitals would be cut off – another deeply symbolic gesture – followed by the putting out of the eyes and the cutting open of the abdomen to remove the bowels. Finally he would rip out the heart and, if the condemned were not dead by then, that would finally end their suffering.
The final humiliation – in an age where burial and the afterlife were so important – was to cut the body into quarters (literal quartering) for it to be distributed to the four points of the compass for display as a warning to others. The head would often be attached to some obvious public place, like London Bridge.
Guy Fawkes actually managed to escape this awful fate because as he mounted the scaffold he thrust his head through the noose and threw himself off, breaking his own neck and effectively committing suicide. His co-conspirators were not so fortunate.
Plenty of others suffered a similar fate in the 1600s. You didn’t actually have to commit such an obvious act of treason either; merely minting your own money (‘coining’) could earn you a similar punishment until the early 1700s. Women were spared the humiliation of being publicly dismembered , and were burned at the stake instead.
By the 1800s we had effectively abandoned hanging, drawing and quartering. Indeed the early 1800s saw a gradual move away from capital punishment and the infliction of pain and an increased use of transportation (effective banishment) and imprisonment. So what did we do with those that committed treason?
On the 22nd February 1803 Colonel Edward Despard was hanged (with six others) on the roof of Horsemonger Gaol in front of 20,000 people for attempting to assassinate George III. Despaired wanted to overthrow the king and government but the authorities had got wind of the plot and waited for their chance to arrest him. A huge crowd turned out to see him hang.
In 1820 Arthur Thistlewood was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in organising the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy. Thistlewood (along with James Ings, James Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd) had plotted to overthrow the government of the day – so this was clearly treason – but again their intentions had been discovered and the group infiltrated by government spies.
In 1813 the punishment for treason had been altered to remove the particular unpleasant element of public disembowelling but Thistlewood and his gang still faced an awful end. The government relented however, and their fate was commuted to hanging and post mortem decapitation. They were executed outside Newgate Gaol with their severed heads being shown to the large number of onlookers gathered outside.
This was the last public execution of a traitor in London but we have had some traitors since.
In August 1916 Roger Casement was hanged for negotiating with Germany to aid Irish revolutionaries during the First World War. Casement’s is a tale of a dramatic fall from grace, only five years earlier he had been knighted by King George V for his humanitarian aid work in Africa. It was in Africa that he came to question the validity of the imperial project however, and perhaps this propelled him towards the cause of Irish nationalism. Arrested just before the Easter Rising Casement was held in the Tower of London (where all traitors end up) while attempts to get a reprieve for him went on. They failed, in part because of revelations that he was not only a traitor but a homosexual as well, and on the 3rd August he was duly executed.
William Joyce (better known as Lord ‘Haw Haw’) was the penultimate person to executed for treason when he was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by Albert Pierrepoint on 3 January 1946. The very last person to be hanged for treason was Theodore Schurch, an Anglo-Swiss soldier in the British army who was executed the day after Joyce for working for German and Italian intelligence. No one has been executed in England for anything other than murder since Schurch.
Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) was interred from 1940-1943 amid fears that he might undermine the war effort against Nazi Germany but he was wasn’t sintered to death for his crimes. Yet Moseley had flirted with Hitler and argued Britain should make peace with the Germans, and in some minds this made him a traitor, but the government chose not to take this to the test of law. Moseley survived the war and had a late flurry in the 1950s before disappearing into obscurity.
Like Edward Windsor (the would-be Edward VIII) there is a valid argument for seeing Mosely as a traitor because he negotiated with an enemy power against the interests of the ruling monarch, the government of the day, and the people.
Which brings me to the misuse of the word ‘treason’ or ‘betrayal’ today.
The High Court judges and politicians that acted to ensure that proper procedures were followed during the recent Brexit debates, were not guilty of treason under the law and it would be helpful if the tabloid press were able to set that record straight. They acted to uphold British law and our democracy and not undermine it yet they were labelled as ‘enemies of the people’ by the Daily Mail. This was taken up by some pro-leave protesters who declared that those opposing Brexit in the courts were ‘traitors to democracy’.
Given that, historically, some elements of the British newspaper media themselves flirted with treason in the 1930s (by supporting, or at least championing, fascists like Hitler and Mussolini) it is perhaps at least ironic that they seek to condemn a modern defence of parliamentary democracy as treasonous.
The popular press (and some hard line pro-brexit politicians and commentators) are therefore complicit in whipping up public condemnation and abuse (especially on social media) of those that dare to present an alternative to Britain leaving the European Union. A narrow majority for change is being used as if it was landslide revolution with a few discordant voices. To label active ‘remainers’ as ‘traitors’ is not only a misuse of legal terminology it is in itself an undermining of our hard one democratic rights as a people. Given that we are supposed to be getting ‘our country back’ after march 2019 this is at the very least, paradoxical.
But then Guy Fawkes himself has mutated as a historical figure. From being a religiously motivated mercenary terrorist he has become a symbol of libertarianism. The man that dodged ‘a fate worse than death’ four centuries ago has been reinvented as a sort of anti-hero for those that see the Westminster ‘bubble’ as an undemocratic and corrupt institution in need of a modern revolution that puts ‘the people’ first for once.
Drew Gray, University of Northampton
*although their graves were later opened and their bodies exhumed and exhibited as traitors.