1723: Christopher Layer, for the Atterbury Plot

Add comment May 17th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Christopher Layer was hanged and quartered at Tyburn for the Jacobite Atterbury Plot

In the wake of the hegemonic Whigs’ political legitimacy crisis following the 1720 financial implosion of the South Sea bubble, supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty rekindled* hopes of resuming the English throne.

The “Atterbury Plot” — so named for its sponsor and most prominent adherent, the Tory Anglican bishop Francis Atterbury — proposed to orchestrate a coup that would seize the persons of the usurping Hanovers and key points in London and Westminster, coordinated with both an internal Catholic/Tory rising and a landing by forces loyal to James Stuart. (He’s known as “the Pretender” or as King James III, depending on where the speaker’s treasons lie.) So particularly were the Tory ambitions developed that lists of expected supporters for each of England’s counties had been drawn up, the framework of a hypothetical replacement state.

This plot was broken up by 1722 and has been ridiculed as fanciful by outcome-oriented observers, but the government at the time took a plan by disaffected elites to kidnap the royal family — a plot which had only been betrayed to them by one of the conspirators’ French contacts — very seriously indeed. Paul Kleber Monod characterizes the 1714-1723 period (which compasses more than just the Atterbury scheme) as “the most widespread and the most dangerous” of “three great waves of Jacobite activity.”

Responding vigorously, the newly ascendant Prime Minister** Robert Walpole used anti-Jacobite security measures to lay his firm hand on the helm of state. A Dutch envoy in 1723 wrote that one of its progenitors, Sir Henry Goring, “had formed a company out of the Waltham Blacks for the Pretender’s service” and that this perceived Jacobite association of skulking soot-faced poachers and potential guerrillas “led to the bringing of the Waltham Black Act into Parliament.”†

In a conspiracy of disaffected nobles, Layer might have been the least august participant — and perhaps this explains why he was the one to pay the highest price.

A successful Middle Temper barrister of strictly commoner stock, Layer’s successful practice earned him the confidence of Lord North and Grey, one of the other chief Jacobite conspirators.

Himself a ready adherent of same, Layer communicated directly with the Pretender, even traveling to Rome in 1721 to brief him personally on the plot. The volume of incriminating correspondence thereby produced, some of it in the hands of a mistress who would shop him, brought Layer his death sentence — albeit only after dramatically attempting an escape. His severed head would cast a rotted warning mounted atop Temple Bar.

Many died for the Stuart cause down the years but in the present affair only Layer would quaff the cup of martyrdom.

For others involved, who had been more circumspect about their paper trails and associates, treason would meet with less lethal revenge. Held in the Tower of London for two years, Atterbury himself proved elusive for a proper prosecution despite having corresponded directly with the Pretender with suggestive but discreet language (e.g., “the time is now come when, with a very little assistance from your friends abroad, your way to your friends at home is become safe and easy” in April 1721); instead, the Commons voted a bill of pains and penalties depriving him of his office and exiling him. Lord North and Grey followed him to the continent; like combinations of dispossession and disgrace befell all the other conspirators too.


Plaque to Christopher Layer in Aylsham, where he once practiced.

Poet Alexander Pope,‡ a Catholic, was close with Bishop Atterbury and wrote him an epitaph upon his passing.

For Dr. Francis Atterbury,
Bishop of Rochester,
Who died in Exile at Paris, in 1732.

[His only Daughter having expired in his arms, immediately after she arrived in France to see him.]

DIALOGUE.

SHE.

Yes, we have liv’d — one pang, and then we part!
May Heav’n, dear Father! now have all thy Heart.
Yet ah! how once we lov’d, remember still,
Till you are Dust like me.

HE.

               Dear Shade! I will:
Then mix this Dust with thine — O Spotless Ghost!
O more than Fortune, Friends, or Country lost!
Is there on earth one Care, one Wish beside?
Yes — Save my Country, Heavn’,
               — He said, and dy’d.

* Jacobites had only recently been defeated in a 1715 rising; they retained enough vim to try again in 1745.

** Walpole is often regarded retrospectively as the first Prime Minister, but this was not an official rank in his time: indeed, it was a defamation used against him and which Walpole rejected. (“I unequivocally deny that I am sole or Prime Minister and that to my influence and direction all the affairs of government must be attributed.”)

† Quote from Katherine West Scheil in Shapeskeare Survey 51.

‡ In other Atterbury-related celebrity litterateur brushes, Edward Gibbon’s Stuart-sympathizing grandfather was obliged by the Jacobite scandal to retire to his estate, “disqualified from all public trust.” The erudite historian would recall that “in the daily devotions of the family the name of the king for whom they prayed was prudently omitted.”

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1723: The first London executions under the Waltham Black Act

3 comments December 4th, 2012 Headsman

“The law of England has displayed no unnecessary nicety, in apportioning the punishments of death …. Kill your father, or catch a rabbit in a warren — the penalty is the same! Destroy three kingdoms, or destroy a hop-bine — the penalty is the same!”

-Sir Thomas Buxton, commenting on the “Bloody Code” in 1821

E.P. Thompson’s classic Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act, has its titular legislation as “an expression of the ascendancy of a Whig oligarchy, which created new laws and bent old legal forms in order to legitimize its own property and status”

On this date in 1723, seven Waltham Blacks were hanged at Tyburn.

These poachers were the impressive first salvo of the Black Act, a new-minted statute early in the landmark government of Robert Walpole.

This law had been enacted to combat the rise of game poaching. As we’ve noted before, poaching was a longtime conflict zone in a Great Britain emerging as distinctly capitalist.

The Black Act would not merely sharpen those conflicts — it would intentionally define them, helping to enclose a labor marketplace enforced with hemp.* The Black Act added nearly 50 capital offenses to the rolls; it was a seminal statute for the 18th century’s notorious “Bloody Code”.

“The Black Act had a much wider sweep than a statute intended merely to protect the royal forests,” Frank McLynn notes. Poaching gangs “provided the occasion for draconian legislation; they were not its cause.”

These huntsmen were, early in the 18th century, increasingly bold taking game on forest preserves in defiance of hunting restrictions that made an absurd mishmash of feudal anachronisms and latter-day statues all of which contrived to limit the hunt only to a handful of wealthy landed aristocrats. It was, per Blackstone, “a bastard slip, known by the name of the game laws … wantoning in the highest vigour.”

This vigourous wantoning actually made for a multilateral class conflict. The rural poor, being displaced by enclosures, were barred from opting out of proletarianization for a life on the forage. (Nobody was allowed to sell game meat.) Sportsmen had the run of the land, but only the very richly landed could be “sportsmen”: small farmers were forbidden to take game even on their own property, whereas those whose huge estates licensed them to hunt were entitled to tramp through neighboring crops in pursuit of their quarry.

Poaching followed these un-neighborly injuries to traditional commons rights as vigorously as hounds follow hares. The state answered with the Black Act, and did not scruple to accuse known companies of “Blacks” of being Jacobite catspaws.

So named because it targeted poachers’ practice of “blackening” their faces, the 1722 law made it a hanging crime to go on the hunt in disguise, as well as a hanging crime to poach deer, rabbits, conies, or fish. Formerly, “deer-stealing” and the like had been mere misdemeanors.

The act also mandated death for a broad range of other rustic crimes such as damaging orchards, gardens, or cattle, with like penalties attached to conspiring to commit any of these crimes or rescuing anyone imprisoned for these crimes.**

The seven hanged this date were “Blacks” who happened to be captured shortly after the Black Act took effect in mid-1723 — from Windsor forest, and elsewhere. As a show of resolve in enforcing its grim new decrees, the crown had all these men shipped to London, far from their own communities where jurymen themselves aggrieved by game laws were known to acquit.

* Lest one doubt this red-tinged historiography of the Act, its apologists were no less clear on its objectives.

“No man, however successful in the profession, can expect to get as much profit by deer-stealing, as by following his lawful business,” intoned the Newgate Calendar about today’s hangings. “[Y]oung persons cannot learn a more important maxim than that in the scripture; ‘the hand of the diligent maketh rich.’

“In this place it may not be improper to make a single remark on the game laws. These are supposed to be, possibly not without reason, severe: it is contended that those animals which are wild by nature are equally the property of every man. Perhaps this is the truth: but persons in the lower ranks of life should remember, that when laws are once enacted, THEY MUST BE OBEYED. Safety lies in acquiescence with, not in opposition to, legal institutions.” (emphasis added)

** Just for good measure, it also prescribed the noose for just about every form of arson, and for anyone who “shall wilfully and maliciously shoot at any person in any dwelling-house, or other place” regardless of injury.

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