Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000; 754pp.
Date accessed: 5 December, 2023
Dreaming about the royal family is a recognized historical phenomenon. In 1972 Brian Masters devoted an entire book to exploring it . Fifty per cent of the dreams he collected involved having tea with one or other member of the family. A minor and darker aspect of the phenomenon is the premonition in dreams of royal deaths. But imagining the king's death is a far more complex business than merely dreaming it, and imagining the king's death is the project of the latest book by Professor John Barrell.(1)
Professor Barrell has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary history in recent years, equally at home in the fields of poetry, painting, literature and history. His latest book, which involves all these disciplines, takes him also into the field of law. Oxford University Press have allowed him a generous length (737 pages) plus 19 illustrations and footnotes at the bottom of the page to pursue his investigations into the change in the definition and understanding of treason in just three years (1793-1796) at the end of the eighteenth century. No sign of publishers' 'dumbing down' here and God bless them for it. Professor Barrell has repaid them with a work that is formidably scholarly but compulsively readable, meticulously researched (55 pages of bibliography) and subtly argued.
His book is divided into four sections, titled respectively 'Sad Stories' dealing with the fantasies of regicide provoked by the death of King Louis XVI, 'The Invention of Modern Treason' on the trials of radicals and reformers in 1794, 'Alarms and Diversions' on the threats to the safety of King George III, and 'Phantoms of Imagination' on the debates surrounding the Treasonable Practices Act.
In what has recently become a primary consideration for historians, he begins with a lucid and instructive consideration of language, and the way in which it became a battleground, a subject that has previously been explored in depth by Steven Blakemore and Olivia Smith.(2) It all has a very topical ring. One work A Political Dictionary for the Guinea-less Pigs provided a glossary of words regularly used by the Prime Minister, William Pitt, "to conceal the corrupt intentions of his government". We are here almost in New Labour territory for which my Lancaster colleague Professor Norman Fairclough has just produced a linguistic analysis, claiming something similar.(3)
Many radicals in the 1790s claimed that the conflicts of the period ware at bottom conflicts over the precise meaning of words such as constitution, liberty and equality. The words at the heart of Barrell's discussions are 'imagination' and 'imaginary', words which were, he tells us, part of the common vocabulary of political discussion in the decade before the French Revolution. In the 1790s the word 'imagination' functioned as a 'sign by which all the apprehensions and misapprehensions of the opponents of the revolution in France, and reform at home, could be epitomised,' (p.8), or at least until 1798 when the alarms of loyalists which for years had been represented by reformers as 'imaginary' were more generally allowed to have become based on reality. 'Imagination' was a pejorative word, taken to mean something hysterical, unbalanced and irrational, and as such was applied to both supporters and opponents of revolution. Indeed the term was used to attack both Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Tom Paine's The Rights of Man.
In Barrell's book, and in his contention, 'imagination' is the crucial linguistic pivot upon which a change in the treason laws takes places. The 1351 Statute of Treasons specified seven different offences which amounted to high treason. The first was 'when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the King'. In this context, both words mean to design or intend. By the 18th century 'imagine' had come to take on its modern meaning-to picture in the mind. The precise meaning of 'imagination' thus came to figure at the centre of debates about treason in the 1790s as the government sought to extend the application of treason charges to the radicals and reformers and they sought to resist this extension.
The object of the law's solicitude underwent a transformation during the reign of King George III as Linda Colley, Marilyn Morris and Simon Schama have all convincingly argued.(4) King George III and Queen Charlotte became the epitome of respectable bourgeois values, rejoicing in family life with their large family and being painted with that family to stress domestic virtue. George III achieved that combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary that came to characterize the monarchy: the family as symbol of decent middle-class values (modesty, duty, thrift, good works) and the crown as symbol of the nation celebrated in regular ritual and ceremonial. The fact that The Times could say when George III died in 1820 that 'It is an important truth that most of the qualities which George III possessed . were imitable and attainable by all classes of mankind' indicates how well-established was this view of the crown as domesticated and super-ordinary.(5) This transformation in the image of monarchy served to enhance concern about threats to the life of the King, a concern reinforced by depictions of the last days of Louis XVI. For as Barrell demonstrates, illustrations, engravings and accounts of the events leading up to Louis' execution, the parting from his family and the preparation for death, consistently depict him as a father and imbue him and his family with private and domestic virtues. In these circumstances, it is difficult to accept him as anything other than a blameless Christian martyr. It is worth reflecting that exactly the same process occurred around accounts and depictions of the deaths of King Charles I and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, their errors and misdeeds submerged in an aura of violated domesticity. Barrell argues with considerable validity that in the period from 1788 to the mid-1790s, the institution of monarchy had become so heavily invested in the language of sentiment that it heightened both the fears of loyalists and the fantasies of radicals. Barrell carefully analyses a plethora of songs, poems, handbills and pamphlets inviting the readers to envisage the death of kings. But he asks if regicidal imaginings meant a desire to establish a republic at once and concludes - as other scholars have - that there was a distinct lack of unanimity in radical circles on the future of the monarchy. There were revolutionists who wanted the immediate violent overthrow of the monarchy and the established order. There were evolutionists who saw the republic as the eventual goal to be reached after a long, slow process of popular education and enlightenment. There were transformationists who believed that the monarchy should be retained but should become elective. There were millenarians who believed and expected that the reign of earthly monarchs would shortly be replaced by the kingdom of Christ on earth. Barrell concludes that the majority of regicidal imaginings would carry the connotation of the abolition of the monarchy. But they were, as he admits, 'a small number and largely confined to the metropolis' (p. 124).
Part Two of the book is devoted to a detailed examination of the succession of treason trials in 1793-4, the legal arguments advanced on both sides and the extensive pamphlet literature engendered. The leading radical groups, such as the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) and London Corresponding Society (LCS), were pressing for constitutional reform, planning conventions and endorsing the views of Tom Paine. The government was particularly alarmed by a general convention of the Friends of the People in Scotland held in Edinburgh in 1793 and attended by delegates from the English radical societies. This convention which deliberately modelled itself in style, structure and language on the French National Convention, led to charges being laid against seven men who were accused of planning 'to subvert the limited monarchy and free constitution of Britain, and to substitute in its place, by intimidation, force and violence, a republic or democracy, as wild, as cruel, as despotic, and as abominable as that which at this moment desolates France'. They were charged not with treason but with sedition, because the prosecution did not believe a treason charge would stick. But the word treason occurs repeatedly throughout the proceedings and Barrell concludes that we are at the beginning here of the transformation of the nature of treason charges.
Three of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. But most of the defendants in the subsequent trials, Thomas Walker in Lancaster, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke in London were acquitted. But Barrell traces with infinite care every nuance and every linguistic shift as the government's lawyers seek to extend the meaning of 'imagining the King's death' to encompass any conspiracy to overthrow the constitution and the defence lawyers seek to resist this extension. It was the difficulty of making this extension that was to lead to the passing of the Treasonable Practices Act in 1795, which superseded the 1351 Act, and redefined treason in the way the government had been seeking to do in the trials.
The political context of all this is that the government claimed that the radical societies were secretly arming and were now actively plotting the overthrow of monarchy and constitution. A secret committee of the House of Commons concluded that the leaders of the reform societies had been 'imagining the King's death', and the radical leaders were arrested. The question is how far were these fears justified? Barrell thinks the fears were misplaced. The LCS had no more than 800 members and very few weapons. Many of those who believed that there was a conspiracy thought it impracticable and doomed to failure. But Barrell depicts the government as seeking out occasions to give effect to the definition of treason. There was the 'Pop-Gun Plot', a conspiracy by two LCS committee members to assassinate the King with an airgun capable of discharging a poison arrow. Barrell believes that this was fabricated by disaffected LCS members and deliberately exaggerated by William Pitt in order to 'literalize' his redefinition of the charge of treason. It was then dropped when the case proved too flimsy. The pamphlets of millenarian prophet Richard Brothers, which predicted to death of George III, were another vehicle for 'imagining the King's death'. But Brothers was arrested and questioned by the Privy Council, certified insane and committed to a madhouse. Finally, on the day of the state opening of parliament the King's coach was mobbed and shot at and after he had left it, destroyed. This was the catalyst the government needed to put through the Seditious Meetings Bill, to regulate public meetings such as those of the LCS and the popular debating societies, and the Treasonable Practices Bill which effectively defined treason as any threat to the King, the throne, the realm or parliament. These acts, argues Barrell, effectively tamed the radical authors and booksellers and terminated the debate about the meaning of treason, which would 'never again be the subject of the kind of argument, fervent, inventive, paradoxical, often flippant but always deadly serious, that had characterized so much political and legal debate in the two years from January 1794 to December 1795' (p. 603).
Professor Barrell has given us what is probably a definitive analysis of the debates, legal arguments, pamphlets and literary squibs surrounding the treason debate. But what does it amount to in the wider political context? There was a time when the great burst of radical activity in the 1780s and 1790s was seen in effect as an English revolution. It was E.P. Thompson in his enormously influential The Making of the English Working Class (1963), who argued that the period from the 1790s to the 1830s, saw the emergence, in the wake of the French Revolution, of a working class consciousness that was radical, revolutionary and republican, hostile to monarchy and aristocracy and committed to equal rights, representative institutions and popular democracy.(6) That interpretation has been considerably modified in recent years. The radical activity is now regarded by many, though not all, historians as far more limited in extent and effect. Thompson, as he subsequently admitted, underestimated the countervailing importance of religion, loyalty to the crown and patriotic hostility to the French within the working class. And Craig Calhoun in The Question of Class Struggle (1982) challenged the whole basis of Thompson's argument by claiming with a good deal of justification that Thompson merely charted the rise and fall of the radical English artisan and not the making of the English working class at all.(7) Calhoun argued that many of the discontents Thompson saw as manifestations of radical class consciousness were better interpreted as affirmations of an older and tradition-based populism, which was conservative rather than radical. How else was one to explain why a movement apparently so radical and republican should be appealing and petitioning so constantly to the King?
Gerald Newman has taken this even further and argued persuasively that the radical movement was divided and that mainstream radicalism, populist, monarchist, anti-aristocrat, anti-foreign and anti-republican, was developed from specifically English rather than French influences and was a movement not just for political but moral, social and cultural reform, strongly nationalist and compatible with both the monarchy and the Anglican Church. The strand of the movement which was atheist, cosmopolitan, republican and Francophile, was therefore peripheral.(8)
So it may well be that Barrell is dealing with a minority of a minority. It might be asked, as indeed Iain McCalman, whose excellent book Radical Underworld takes up the story at the point at which Barrell stops, does ask of himself:
Why write about a circle of radicals whom a variety of historians have dismissed as harmless cranks or destructive loonies? Certainly they were obscure, numerically few and sometimes silly. For most of our period they probably numbered around sixty dedicated activists, fanning out in post-war years to 200-300 committed followers and perhaps 2000-3000 attendees of meetings. Apart from some intermittent provincial links, their influence was confined to the metropolis, and - like most London radical groups - they were chronically fissiparous 9.
He answers his own question by saying that they are intrinsically interesting as a small but continuous revolutionary-republican underground, that they intersect with plebeian culture and with crime, and that they provide a fascinating sidelight on the rough/respectable cultural divide. Some though not all of the same arguments apply to Barrell's subjects.
But what is remarkable about the laws the government passed to remedy the defects in the treason laws is their subsequent fate. The Seditious Meetings Act was due to run for only three years and it was rarely used and the Treasonable Practices Act only until the death of George III, and it was never used. So was there ever a threat to the King and the constitution? Barrell argues that most of the threats were chimerical and the government deliberately exaggerated them in order to increase its powers. This was the view argued at the time by the radicals and the opposition. But the effects the government went to ensure the successful prosecution of radicals suggests that they had real fears. It should not be forgotten that in France 'the Terror' was raging, the King and Queen and great sections of the aristocracy had been beheaded and that it only needed one well-aimed bullet to put an end to the life of the British monarch. It would be criminally irresponsible and complacent for the government to sit back and do nothing. There was a policy of repression which saw the Habeas Corpus Act suspended, 200 men prosecuted for sedition and the clutch of acts passed to punish such sedition. But radicals and reformers were just as much victims of internal splits as external attacks, and Pitt's repression was a far cry from 'The Terror' across the Channel. Reading Barrell's account puts one in mind of the McCarthyite period in America. There was a policy of repression, liberals claimed that there was no real threat but the release of information from post-Soviet Russia has revealed that while many of McCarthy's victims were innocent, some of the victims of the repression were genuinely spies and subversives. It is easy enough to assume that the authorities are always in the wrong when they crack down-but sometimes there really is a threat to the constitution.
- Brian Masters, Dreams About H.M. the Queen and Other Members of the Royal Family, London, Blond and Briggs, 1972.Back to (1)
- Steven Blakemore, Burke and the Fall of Language: the French Revolution as Linguistic Event, Hanover, NH, University Press of New England, 1988, and Olivia Smith, The Politics of Language 1791-1819, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984.Back to (2)
- Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language?, London, Routledge, 2000.Back to (3)
- Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992; Marilyn Morris, The British Monarchy and the French Revolution, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998; Simon Schama, 'The domestication of majesty: royal family portraiture, 1500-1850', Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17 (Summer 1986), pp. 155-183.Back to (4)
- Colley, op.cit. p. 232.Back to (5)
- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982.Back to (6)
- For Thompson's modification, see Thompson, Making, p. 916; Craig Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle, Oxford, Blackwell, 1982.Back to (7)
- Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism, 1740-1830, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987.Back to (8)
- Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld: prophets, revolutionaries and pornographers, 1795-1840, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 2.Back to (9)
I'm extremely grateful for Jeffrey Richards for this warm and thoughtful review. Imagining the King's Death is a weird hybrid of a book, in that it looks at material more usually studied by historians in order to talk about a topic - the imagination - which has been of interest mainly to literary critics. All the time I was writing it, and still more since it was published, I've been worrying about how my attempts at writing history would be received by professional historians. I have wondered if there was some aspect, some identifying characteristic of historical method that I had somehow never learned about but whose absence from my text would be so glaringly obvious to historians as entirely to invalidate the book. Maybe there is; but the first two reviews have both been by historians, and I seem to be getting away with it. I'm still none the wiser about my opposite anxiety: will literary critics interested in the imagination bother to read such an elaborately detailed account of the debate about treason on the mid 1790s?
Professor Richards raises a few questions at the end of his review, to do with the relation of my book to recent debates among historians of the period. The questions point in different directions, according to the debate to which each alludes: the one about how many radicals there were in Britain in the 1790s, what they stood for, and how dangerous they were; the older one about whether Pitt's firm way with radicalism was justified because it prevented a domestic revolution. The first question invites me to agree that the popular radical movement was far less dangerous than I suggest, and it's posed with deliberately provocative irony, as if posterity now feels it safe to adopt again its ancient tone of enormous condescension towards the vulgar and the relatively powerless. 'Why write about a circle of radicals' - these are, mainly, the leaders of the popular radical movement, especially of the London Corresponding Society - 'whom a variety of historians have dismissed as harmless cranks or destructive loonies?' The second challenges me to acknowledge that the popular radical movement was far more dangerous than I suggest: for if I believe that the radical societies in the mid 1790s posed no serious threat to the king and constitution, why does the government appear to have had 'real fears' about domestic radicalism; and, granted that it believed in the reality of that threat, wouldn't it have been 'criminally irresponsible and complacent for the government to sit back and do nothing'?
As far as the first question goes, I didn't particularly think of myself as writing about popular radicals or popular republicans, except in so far as I had to do so in relation to my main theme. I needed to provide a fairly full narrative of their activities, especially in London, largely because those activities were treated by the government as justifying a charge of treason, and thus helped fuel the debates about popular sovereignty, the limits of extra-parliamentary activity, and the meaning of the Treason Act, the Coronation Oath Act and other palladiums of the constitution, that filled the newspapers and pamphlet shops in 1794 and 1795. In so far, however, as I did need to discuss the radicals and their doings, I hadn't thought of myself as dealing only with that fraction of a fraction picked out by Richards. Though all the radicals I wrote about were represented by the government as 'atheist, cosmopolitan, republican, and Francophile', and a few certainly were, others were only some of those things, others still were none of them, and of most of them, it's hard to know just what they were.
Since the question is raised however I'll say something about how well those accounts of 'mainstream' radicalism by Calhoun and Newman match my sense of what popular radicalism was about in the very short period covered by my book. I agree of course that it is a more useful general characterisation of the LCS (the society that mainly concerns me) to think of it as an artisan rather than as a working class movement, at the same time as it is evidently somewhere on the road from one to the other. I don't at all believe the LCS was less radical for being willing to petition the king: the society, and other radical societies, debated at length the whole posture of humility required by petitioners to king and parliament, and when it petitioned it did so in order to avoid being accused of having failed to do so before proceeding to extra-parliamentary measures. Its truculent address to the king in 1795 was more like a remonstrance than a petition; it was, for tactical reasons, intended to fail.
Similarly, it is hard to map Gerald Newman's characterisation of 'mainstream' radicalism on to the LCS, at the same time as it would be hard to know where to look for mainstream radicalism in London in the 1790s if not in the LCS, by far the largest grouping of radical opinion. Of the leaders whose opinions are recorded in one form or another, many were dissenters, all probably deplored the corruption of the Church of England, and most were probably republicans, but they did not evince much anxiety actually to declare a republic or bring the king to the block: their hopes of achieving a reform of parliament depended entirely on winning support from those who would have been shocked and alienated by such ambitions. Perhaps, following reform of parliament, it would be possible to agitate for the abolition of the House of Lords and even of the monarchy, but that was a distant ambition.
Of the rank and file members of the LCS it would be hard to show that they were either republican or monarchist, for or against the established church. Members of the society were expected to profess a belief in the need for universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments, but if they passed that test they might join, no doubt, for numerous reasons, of which conformity to a particular set of radical beliefs may not have been the most important. There was the desire to 'improve', by the programme of readings and discussion in which members were expected to participate: this was given by a number of members as a reason for joining. There was the opportunity to participate in organisational work, in committee-work, to occupy posts of quasi-civic responsibility. There seem to have been few LCS members who lived and worked in the City, as compared either with the composition of the movement for parliamentary reform in the early 1780s, or as compared with the number of members of the society from Westminster and the metropolitan parishes of Middlesex. This may have been because the LCS, whose divisions, tythings, and delegate-committees in some ways resembled the structures of the government of the City, could attract from non-city parishes men whose civic ambitions were frustrated by the closed vestries there. In the City, on the other hand, there was a wide array of opportunities open to artisans who wanted to play a public role, and, to that extent, less occasion for them to join the LCS.
Was there ever a serious threat from popular radicalism to the life of the king? I see no evidence of it. Radical activists knew that if one king was killed, another would take his place, with a mandate to suppress the popular reform movement: they could not expect to be the winners in any confrontation that followed.. The LCS, without whose participation no insurrection would have been possible, was deeply infiltrated by spies who found little evidence - though they made the most of what they did find - of any desire to use physical force, and none, except the odd loose or drunken remark, of any interest in killing the king. The society had fewer arms than were kept in the gunroom or decorated the walls of an average country house. The Loyal Lambeth Society, which the government attempted to represent as the armed wing of the society, attracted very little support - one meeting was attended by only three members, two of them spies - and anyway seems to have been more concerned to make a point about the right to bear arms than to mount what would have been a suicide-mission against a very well defended capital.
I have no doubt that many loyalists, and a few members of Pitt's cabinet, had 'real fears' for the life of the king, but fears may be real without being well-founded. I see no evidence that the main actors in the prosecutions of 1794 - Pitt, Dundas, Sir John Scott (later Lord Eldon), the Duke of Portland - shared these regicidal alarms, though it was convenient for them to keep them alive. On several occasions men the government claimed were dangerous regicides were left to walk freely around London, wanted men whom the government did not, for one reason or another, want to arrest. The government did not pass the two acts to help protect the life of the king: the 1351 Treason Act already gave the state all the power it could ever need for that purpose. The point of the 1795 treason act was to confirm the precedents made in the 1794 trials, especially in the trial of Tooke, to the effect that it was as much high treason to imagine the figurative 'death' of that symbol of the king, his crown, as to imagine the real death of his real body - a judgement that gave crown lawyers much latitude to dream up ways in which it could be argued that the government or the constitution was in danger of 'dying'. But because this controversial act was the confirmation of a precedent, the government did not need to use it: it could bring prosecutions for High Treason under the 1351 statute with the 1794 interpretation, and could appear to be exercising an admirable restraint by not invoking the new act.
The government certainly had real fears for the safety of the constitution; at least, it was certainly determined not to sanction universal manhood suffrage, and not to countenance the pursuit of constitutional change by extra-parliamentary means however peaceful. Granted they believed these things, it is of course not surprising or necessarily reprehensible that they chose to 'crack down' on the popular movement for reform. To the extent that my book represents Pitt and his coadjutors as villains, it is on account of the deliberate misrepresentations they propagated of the aims and numbers of the reform societies, the elaborate means by which they attempted to prevent the fair trial of those they charged with high treason, and their cynical insistence that the extraordinary interpretation they placed up the law of treason was entirely in the spirit of the precedents in flouted. 'If the crime of treason be indeterminate,' wrote Montesquieu, 'this alone is sufficient to make the government degenerate into an arbitrary power'. In 1794-6 Pitt's government was saved from being an arbitrary power only by four juries.
I think I must have misunderstood the parallel between Pitt's repression - which as Stephen Poole has suggested probably involved far more than the 200 prosecutions identified by Clive Emsley - and McCarthy's. It seems, however, to be saying that McCarthy's 'witch-hunt' was justified because a few of his victims were eventually shown to have been genuine spies; and that therefore Pitt's 'terror' of 1794 was also justified, because a few of the reformers charged with High Treason might eventually be revealed as the agents of a foreign state, though they haven't been yet. I'm not sure where an argument like this stops, or what it could not be used to justify. It is an argument sufficient to make any government degenerate into an arbitrary power.