In May 1820 a group of political radicals plotted to assassinate the British prime minister and his cabinet. Before they could carry out their aims, however, the conspirators were betrayed by a government spy, and arrested at their hideout in Cato Street, London. A policeman was killed in the ensuing struggle. On conviction, five members of the group were transported for life, and five of the principal ringleaders executed for High Treason.
This page shows images of the arrest of the conspirators in the Cato Street hayloft; images of the subsequent executions at Newgate prison; and a portrait of William Davidson (1781-1820), one of the men convicted for involvement in the conspiracy.
William Davidson was the son of the former Attorney-General of Jamaica. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial, telling the jury ‘…you may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without any understanding or feeling and would act the brute; I am not one of that sort; when not employed in my business, I have employed myself as a teacher of a Sunday-school…’
How does this relate to Magna Carta?
Having been convicted of committing high treason, Davidson was asked by the judge why he should not be sentenced to death. Invoking Magna Carta, he likened his co-conspirators to the 25 barons nominated in clause 61 to uphold the Great Charter. In Davidson’s view, the King’s ministers could be called to account if they breached the rights of the people, and this did not amount to treason against the king himself.
- Full title:
- An authentic History of the Cato-Street Conspiracy; with the trials at large of the conspirators for high treason and murder; a description of their weapons and combustible machines, and every particular connected with ... the horrid plot. With portraits
- 1820, London
- Book / Illustration / Image
- George Theodore Wilkinson
- Held by:
- British Library
- Article by:
- Alex Lock
Dr Alexander Lock discusses Magna Carta’s relationship to parliamentary reform and to radicals fighting oppressive government. Find out how this medieval peace settlement was reinvented as a potent symbol of liberty and justice.
- Article by:
- Ruth Mather
- Power and politics
Ruth Mather considers how Britain's intellectual, political and creative circles responded to the French Revolution.
- Article by:
- Andrew Lincoln
- Power and politics, Poverty and the working classes, Romanticism
The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.