Discover more from Histories
Deluded malefactors, 1820
A conspiracy foiled by an enemy within
(Hello, this is Histories, a weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe to receive it in your inbox for free.)
There is bonus material to accompany this edition, called Snapshots of Georgian Times, available free to iPhone/iPad users: download the free Threadable app to your device, go to Circles and use the code 61001.
All the world talking and wondering about the conspiracy. I believe that it is not directly and immediately connected with any larger design, but is a kind of episode in the great plot against the whole establishment…
Over the last two weeks I’ve been dipping into the writings of the politician and scathing literary review John Wilson Croker (1780–1857) – we read his description of the only meeting between Nelson and Wellington, and followed the late Regency party scene. In this final brief visit to his journals, we encounter a notable plot to murder the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and his entire cabinet: the Cato Street Conspiracy.
The plotters were associated with various revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow the government, disaffected with economic depression and an elitist leadership (sound familiar?). They were caught by a police spy, George Edwards, who told them of a fictitious cabinet meeting at Lord Harrowby’s home on 23rd February 1820. A key plotter was Arthur Thistlewood, who had been involved in a previous uprising in 1816; this time he killed a policeman when they were raided and he was executed in May.
The Times of 2nd May 1820 gives a graphic account of the execution of the “deluded malefactors”; Thistlewood, “dressed in a black coat and waistcoat [and] blue pantaloons”, was “desirous to make some communication regarding that contaminated individual” Edwards, but not allowed. We are told “he walked up the ladder with a firm step… but there was no expression of sympathy or sorrow”; he sucked an orange as he awaited his final moments. When asked for his final words, he is reported to have said:
I have but a few moments to live, and I hope the world will be convinced that I have been sincere in my endeavours.
But back to Croker…
The Cabinet which was to have dined at Lord Harrowby’s, dined at Fife House, having traced an intention of which Thistlewood was the head to assassinate them by attacking Lord H—’s house at half-past 8. Mr. Birnie, the magistrate, came to the place of meeting of the conspirators before 8, and after a kind of action in which one man — a constable — was killed and several wounded, he took nine of them; but Thistlewood escaped. Mr. Fitzclarence, who commanded the guard, mistook his post, else they would have been all taken. Personally, Fitzclarence behaved perfectly well.
Thistlewood is taken. I saw him twice at Lord Sidmouth’s office, looking mean, squalid, and miserable, but I dare say if he was dressed, and above all at the head of 10,000 men, he would be called a good-looking man. Long, who saw him on his trial two years ago, and saw him now with me, would not have known him again. Having had occasion to go two or three times to the Home Office, I saw three or four more of these wretches; they looked so intensely miserable that I pitied them. I went afterwards and called on Yarmouth [another Tory politician and friend of Croker], where I found the Duke of York, who knew no more of the whole affair than the newspapers told him.1 When I informed him that the Ministers had not dined at Lord Harrowby’s, he was at first incredulous and afterwards almost indignant. It seems odd that he has not been called to the council, for Lord Sidmouth told me that the Cabinet felt so much like parties in the affair that they wished for a few other Privy Councillors; and I accordingly sent Long and Peel [Sir Robert Peel, later Prime Minister]. I never saw the Duke looking gayer or better.
The mob exclaimed that Thistlewood ought to be hanged. A poor man gave Harrowby in the Park a note addressed to Castlereagh, or as he spelled it Castellroy, warning him of the danger. This was on Tuesday. The Cabinet had been before apprised of the danger, and this was the confirmation; the letter is so badly written and spelled as to be almost unintelligible.
All the world talking and wondering about the conspiracy. I believe that it is not directly and immediately connected with any larger design, but is a kind of episode in the great plot against the whole establishment, made by a few individuals under the excitement of particular feelings. Almost all great conspiracies have had their under-plots created by, but not necessarily connected with, the main design, and this I think will be found to be such a one.
Dined at Robinson’s with our ladies and Miss Temple, Lords Ancrum, Sandon, the Speaker, Warrender, Richard Wellesley, Planta, Perceval, Grant, Huskisson. A very agreeable day; Lady Sarah complained much that she knew nothing of the conspiracy; none of the women were trusted with the secret but Lady Harrowby, whom, and her daughter, it was necessary to get out of the house.
Sounds like another Duke of York we could think of…