Vol. 44 No. 15 · 4 August 2022

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The Old-Fashioned Way

Ferdinand Mount writes about the Cato Street conspiracy (LRB, 7 July). There is more to say about the impact of the case, not least the manner of the conspirators’ execution. Five were hanged at Newgate Prison on 1 May 1820. After an hour, their bodies were taken down and placed in coffins. One by one they were decapitated by a masked man, assumed to be a surgeon, and their heads passed to the assistant executioner, who shouted: ‘This is the head of a traitor!’ Sawdust was put down to soak up the blood.

The mood of the crowd turned as the decapitator made heavy weather of his work (getting through three knives). As the scene turned from orderly execution to abattoir there was booing and hissing, small children screamed, and men and women fainted. To cap it all, the assistant executioner dropped the head of one of the conspirators, John Brunt. Public revulsion was immediate. Prominent figures condemned the barbarity of the process, and three doctors in London were attacked on suspicion of being the mystery beheader. One insight into wider public opinion can be gleaned from the broadside printed by James ‘Jemmy’ Catnach, who decried the ‘mangled bodies’ of the men and the ‘bitter grief’ of the families whose father will return ‘never more’. These were, as Gatrell notes, the last executions in England for treason conducted in ‘the old-fashioned way’.

Michael Crabtree
London N12

Ferdinand Mount is right that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which came into force in March, removed from the House of Commons the power given it by the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act to decide whether or not Parliament would be dissolved and a general election held, and that section 3 of the Act seeks to ensure that any exercise of the power of dissolution cannot be reviewed by the courts – although whether such an ouster would work is open to question. But contrary to Mount’s account it was prorogation – the suspension of further sittings – and not dissolution that the UK Supreme Court found to have been illegal in 2019. So it was in some ways surprising that the Act did not also seek to exempt the future exercise of the power of prorogation from judicial oversight. It must in theory be possible that a future prorogation could once again be overturned in the courts.

Mount says that the sovereign now has no alternative but to grant a dissolution if requested, but the situation is in that respect the same as it was before 2011, and ministers accepted during the passage of the bill that the sovereign could in exceptional circumstances refuse a request for a dissolution. Recent events have demonstrated the value of that reserve power. It is not dependent on the ‘good chap theory of government’.

David Natzler

Nothing like an Alibi

When Parliament legislated in 1898 to allow defendants to give evidence on their own behalf, it had to do so by making them legally competent to testify. This was because the courts up to that point had had no power to admit defendants’ evidence: the accused was in law not a competent witness. Fara Dabhoiwala nevertheless suggests that before the 19th century the judge in an English trial normally ‘acted as examiner’, making defendants ‘active participants’ who would ‘respond to the facts presented against them and provide their own testimony’, albeit not on oath (Letters, 21 July).

I think this is an idealised view. It has an affinity with the idea that before the era of adversary trials the accused was what J.H. Langbein in The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial called ‘an informational resource’ for the court. I questioned the reality of this inquisitorial model in the LRB of 25 September 2003. Nevertheless – and this may be what Dabhoiwala has in mind – it was still possible for an articulate defendant, though debarred from testifying, to draw the judge into argument, to catch a witness out with shrewd questions from the dock, or to make telling assertions on which he could not be cross-examined.

None of this, however, was provided for by law. Transcripts are not common, but in John Lilburne’s trial for high treason in October 1649, which was recorded in shorthand, one sees Lilburne vainly demanding the assignment to him of counsel, a copy of the indictment and laws written in English – nothing, in other words, coming anywhere near a collaborative exercise. Equally, however, one finds passages like this:

Mr Attorney [General]: Do not interrupt me Mr Lilburn.

L[t] C[ol] Lilburn: I pray you then do not urge that which is not right nor true, but notoriously false; for if you persevere in’t, I will interrupt you.

He did, and the jury unanimously acquitted him.

Stephen Sedley

Sanctuary Then and Now

In her discussion of sanctuary from medieval to modern times, Barbara Newman doesn’t include the secular equivalent of churches as places of sacred refuge: foreign embassies (LRB, 21 July). Embassy buildings are protected from the reach of the host country’s law enforcement, as codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, but the custom is centuries old. In the medieval period, as Newman writes, churches were in effect intermediary locations for those seeking sanctuary, who were forced eventually to take refuge abroad if they were to avoid trial. Later, in a world with many more diplomats, but where the sovereignty of the Church was greatly reduced, it made sense to cut out the ecclesiastical middle man. Embassies were multiplying in European capitals just as church sanctuary was being banned. Today, wanted people in a global city such as London have nearly two hundred foreign outposts at which to try their luck. But it does depend on the good graces of the ambassador, as Julian Assange discovered.

Hassan Damluji
London NW8

Barbara Newman is concerned with the literature of medieval England, but few places in Britain offered sanctuary for longer than Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. Founded in 1128, even in later Presbyterian times the ruined abbey and its precincts gave shelter to debtors who were known as ‘Abbey lairds’, including the Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVI and the future King Charles X of France, and Thomas De Quincey, who ended his days in the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Church at the west end of Princes Street. The inmates were allowed to leave briefly on Sundays since it was not permitted to arrest debtors on the Sabbath. The availability of sanctuary at Holyrood continued at least theoretically until the abolition of jail for debtors in the 19th century.

Harry Watson

Silly Little Bun!

Richard Shone’s memoir of Lydia Lopokova in old age contains many valuable details (LRB, 23 June). I have just one anecdote to add, relayed by the late John Drummond, one-time controller of Radio 3, concerning the widowed Lopokova’s behaviour towards Marie Rambert, the founder of Britain’s first enduring 20th-century ballet company and a dance colleague of Lopokova’s at least as far back as the 1920s. Rambert was a notorious chatterbox during performances, keeping up a running commentary to her neighbour. After one performance, Lopokova strode up to Rambert, seized her chignon, and tugged it up and down (making Rambert’s whole head jerk) while she addressed it: ‘Silly little bun! Wouldn’t stop bouncing up and down all through the ballet!’

Alastair Macaulay
London N5

No Marriage

Lawrence Duggan misses the point in his critique of my remarks on clerical celibacy in the medieval Western Church (Letters, 21 July). He objects to the phrase ‘the 450-year-old prohibition on clergy getting married, unique to the Western Latin Church’. I now see that this particular wording is an editorial intervention that I overlooked: I had written more precisely about ‘the 450-year-old prohibition unique to the Western Latin Church, its comprehensive ban on clergy getting married’. Either way, the fact of uniqueness stands. No one is contesting that throughout the Christian world since at least the third century, celibacy had been an option and increasingly a recommendation for very many clergy, fusing with the celibacy that was the norm for monks and nuns. What is unique about the Western Church is that from the mid-11th century, the Roman Church authorities waged a single-minded campaign to make compulsory what had been an option; they abolished clerical marriage – universally, in all three major orders of clerical ministry. No other church in Christian history has ever done that, and the subsequent rejection of compulsory celibacy gave the 16th-century Protestant Reformation its special character.

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Bad Origins

William Davies comments on some of the failings in ‘classical’ sociology (LRB, 9 June). With regard to Max Weber and the discipline’s exclusion of W.E.B. Du Bois, it should be more widely known that Weber, during his trip to the US in 1904, met Du Bois and then corresponded with him, inviting him to submit an article on race and class to the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. The article was published in 1906, preceded by Weber’s editorial note; it presented a comprehensive and original political sociology of postbellum class relations in the American South and their convergence with race. Weber also proposed a German translation of The Souls of Black Folk, a project that unfortunately foundered. For Weber, Du Bois was simply ‘the most important sociological scholar anywhere in the Southern states’.

Lawrence Scaff
Wayne State University, Detroit

On the Slip Road

I have just returned from three weeks’ travelling around Britain to discover Mike Jay’s article about the death of the very thing I had been doing all that time: hitchhiking (LRB, 23 June). I hitched more than sixty rides and travelled well over a thousand miles. It may be that only 9 per cent of motorists would pick up a stranger, but only once did I wait longer than half an hour for a lift. I am 24 years old and was picked up by people of all races, genders and ages, some as young as 18. As has always been the case, hitchhiking affords extraordinary conversations and chance encounters, which to my mind make it the best of all methods of transport. As one driver put it to me: ‘Kindness is still a currency.’

Nico Lethbridge
London SE5

Mike Jay writes about the heyday of hitchhiking in the 1970s. I didn’t hitchhike much: I usually had a car, and as a woman I didn’t regard the practice as entirely safe. On one occasion, however, when I was stationed at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, I wanted to go up Route One to buy some clothes. My VW was totalled and I probably looked kind of rough: I’d lost a tooth in the accident and the scars on my face were still fresh. Heading back, I got a lift from three construction worker types in a big stake-bed truck, who eyeballed me in a way I didn’t quite like. They asked where I was headed. Were they going past Quantico Marine Base? Yes, did I live in Quantico? Yes, I replied, I’m in the Marine Corps. They scooted over to give me a little more room and looked almost relieved when we stopped at the light by the main gate. I thanked them and got out. No one ever gave me any trouble.

Hazel Beeler
Newport, Virginia

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