Great Palladium

James Epstein

  • Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-96 by John Barrell
    Oxford, 7377 pp, £70.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 19 811292 0

According to the English statute of treasons drawn up in 1351, it was an offence to ‘compass or imagine the death of our lord the king’. The meaning of these strange words was already archaic in the early 1790s when William Pitt’s Government brought an array of British radical reformers to trial for high treason. The words ‘compass’ and ‘imagine’ had entered the English language from law French, and were usually glossed as meaning ‘design’ or ‘intend’. The 1794 treason trials turned on the interpretation of this obscure language: defining the meaning of ‘compass’ and ‘imagine’, and determining what ‘overt’ acts might constitute evidence of treasonable design assumed life-and-death importance – the punishment for high treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. While other treason laws had come and gone, the 1351 statute remained the sole law defining high treason in England, and since the Act of Union it had also been the law in Scotland. The statute was generally agreed to be ‘declaratory’: that is to say, it was intended not to enact but to state what the law was, to fix its meaning. Yet the treason trials of 1794 demonstrate how illusory the desire to fix judicial meaning, to free law from its moment, can be.

This particular moment was one of a general unhinging of meaning following the French Revolution. Key words in Britain’s political lexicon – ‘citizen’, for example – had been transformed. For conservatives, the great renaming which accompanied the Revolution – the abolition of aristocratic titles, new dictionaries, calendars and Revolutionary catechisms – signalled social and political disorder. For radicals, the language of Britain’s ancien régime was wrapped in subterfuge, artifice and mystery. They saw Burke’s writing, for instance, as an elaborate theatrical spectacle, appealing to the emotions instead of reason. At the centre of John Barrell’s exhaustive study of treason in the mid-1790s is a brilliantly sustained argument about the struggle to fix the character of the word ‘imagination’. Unlike the battle then being fought over such important political terms as ‘sovereignty’, ‘the people’ or ‘liberty’, the conflict over ‘imagination’ never ‘developed the character of a deliberate debate’: what was at stake, according to Barrell, was ‘more the ownership of the word’. Put most simply, the charges and counter-charges boiled down to the question of who was guilty of imagining treason, who actually imagined the King’s death.

The first part of the book talks about the terms available for such imagining. Barrell shows how Louis XVI’s last interview with his wife and family, which had widespread appeal in Britain, offered an image of the King as a family man, blurring the distinction between his private and public personality. Family affection was regarded as a qualification for good citizenship – in contrast to ‘universal benevolence’, or abstract cosmopolitan brotherhood. ‘We begin our publick affections in our families,’ Burke wrote. The pathos, suffering and vulnerability associated with the French King were easily transferred to George III, who was endlessly depicted as a loyal husband and kind father. Such images were not without ambiguity, however, since they also portrayed the King as feminised. ‘The King came to be presented as a kind of drag queen,’ Barrell writes, ‘whose feminised exterior did not quite conceal the man beneath, and was not quite intended to.’ Whether or not these links with Louis XVI made it easier to imagine George III’s death in the legal sense of purposefully planning or intending it, they made it easier in the sense of fantasising about it. This can be seen in the countless radical jokes, songs, irreverent toasts, squibs and pasquinades about the King.

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