Category Archives: Pardons and Clemencies

1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

1431: Beaumont and Vivonne

From The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France:

Little is known about the prosecution of treason during the first fifteen years of Charles VII‘s reign. A few minor cases only came before the Parlement of Poitiers. Struggling to consolidate his position against the Anglo-Burgundians, Charles VII appears to have tacitly approved of, even to have subtly encouraged, court intrigues. But when political machinations went beyond certain limits, as was the case with Louis d’Amboise, vicomte of Thouars, Andre de Beaumont, baron of La Haye, and Antoine de Vivonne, Charles VII did not hesitate to act with the full authority at his disposal. During the winter of 1429-30 Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne plotted not only to seize Georges de La Tremoille, the most powerful lord at court, and to kill him if necessary, but also to take the king into custody. Amboise was one of Artur de Richemont‘s staunchest allies, and one does not have to look very hard to see the hand of the constable, then fallen from grace, in this conspiracy to take control of the government. Amboise, Beaumont and Vivonne were arrested in mid-November 1430, but it seems that not all the details of their treason were known to the king at that time. When Charles VII decided to take Amboise with him from Loches to Saint-Aignan, Amboise managed to send word to his intimates and advised them to ambush the royal party in order to free him. It was the king’s discovery of this communication that sealed Amboise’s fate. He, Vivonne and Beaumont were subsequently imprisoned at Poitiers. Charles VII then commissioned the presidents and lay councillors of the Parlement there, along with several members of the grand conseil, to conduct their trial. On the advice of his commissioners Charles VII himself then condemned the three traitors to death, with confiscation of their property. This procedure was a compromise between the king’s personal act of justice and condemnation by a court, and was to be a regular feature of the prosecution of treason in the reigns of Charles VII and Louis XI. On 31 May 1431 Beaumont and Vivonne were executed, but Charles VII commuted Amboise’s death sentence to a term of imprisonment ‘at our good pleasure’; and Amboise’s children were spared the penalty of complete disinheritance that would ordinarily have ensued. In not having Amboise executed Charles VII demonstrated for the first time the clemency towards members of the higher nobility that was a distinct characteristic of his rule. In 1434, at the intercession of Yolande d’Aragon and Charles d’Anjou — La Tremoille had since fallen from power and the Angevins were now in the ascendants at court — Charles VII released Amboise from prison and restored to him all of his property except for the castellanies of Chaumont, Chateau-Gontier and Amboise.