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8 people executed for high treason in the UK
On 3rd January 1946, William Brooke Joyce took his final steps up the scaffold in Wandsworth Prison. At the age of 39, Joyce was the last person in the UK to be hanged for treason, and the penultimate person hanged for a crime other than murder.
Nicknamed Lord Haw Haw, Joyce was convicted of high treason in 1945 following his involvement in the sharing of Nazi propaganda via radio broadcasts sent directly from Berlin. At the height of his popularity, it is estimated that Joyce had over 20,000 listeners in the UK tuning into his broadcasts. Captured by British forces in May 1945 while gathering firewood, Joyce was taken to London where he was tried for three separate counts of high treason. Despite an appeal, Joyce’s conviction was upheld, and he was consequently executed.
Joyce may have been the last person executed for treason in the UK, but a long history of convictions for high treason can be traced back through British history. Here are 10 notable Brits who were tried and found guilty of high treason.
1. Dafydd ap Grufydd (1283)
The last independent ruler of Wales, Dafydd launched an attack on Hawarden Castle. The attack was the instigation of the final conflict that led to the loss of Welsh independence. Having managed to escape the Plantagenets, Dafydd was eventually captured, but not before being seriously wounded in the struggle.
On 30th September 1282, Dafydd was condemned to death making him the first known person to be convicted for the crime that was later named high treason. However, the historic example that Dafydd set didn’t stop there. Dafydd was the first prominent person in recorded British history that was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
2. Perkin Warbeck (1499)
In the court of Burgundy in 1490, Perkin Warbeck made an outrageous claim. Declaring himself Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the famed princes in the tower, Warbeck described how he had been spared a gruesome murder due to his young age at the time of his incarceration in the tower but had been made to swear an oath not to reveal his identity.
The outrageous claim was a contentious one and divided opinion greatly. If he was who he said he was, and his older brother had indeed been murdered, then Warbeck would have been the rightful heir to the English throne.
After gaining support throughout Europe to take back the throne, Warbeck was captured by Henry VII. Initially, he was released (after he confessed to being a pretender to the throne) and was allowed to be seen at court whilst under guard. However, after a failed escape attempt, Warbeck was returned to the tower. On 23rd November he was forced to read out a confession before he was publicly hanged.
3. Anne Boleyn (1536)
After failing to produce a male heir, Anne Boleyn began to fall out of favour with her husband, Henry VIII. When she miscarried their son, who was rumoured to have been severely deformed, whispers started to spread that Anne was a witch who had entranced the king to lure him away from his first wife Catherine of Aragon.
Further rumours of incest with her brother, and infidelity with other members of Henry’s court, Anne was found guilty of treason and executed along with her brother and the others implicated in her misdeeds.
4. Lady Jane Grey (1554)
The nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey was the named heir to the throne of her first cousin, Edward VI. Concerned that his Catholic half-sister Mary would ascend to the throne in the event of his death, Edward named Jane and her male heirs as successors to the throne as she was a Protestant who would ensure that England remained committed to the Church of England.
Following Edward's death, national support for Mary grew. While Jane awaited her coronation in the Tower of London, the privy council of England proclaimed that Mary was the rightful heir, deposing Jane as a pretender to the throne. Jane was held prisoner in the tower until she was tried and found guilty of high treason. Initially, Jane was spared the death sentence that this conviction carried, but her father started a rebellion to challenge Mary which led to Jane and her husband’s execution early in 1554.
5. Guy Fawkes (1605)
One of 14 found guilty of high treason for their part in the gunpowder plot, Guy Fawkes has become the most recognised face in the attempt to prevent further oppression of English Catholics. Discovered in the basement of Parliament, Fawkes and his co-conspirators (who had fled to the Midlands) were found guilty of high treason and subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered.
6. Oliver Cromwell (1661)
Despite having died in 1658, Oliver Cromwell was still tried and found guilty of high treason. Following the restoration of the British monarchy and the crowning of Charles II, Cromwell’s body was disinterred from its tomb at Westminster Cathedral and hanged openly at the gallows in Tyburn.
7. Elizabeth Gaunt (1685)
Executed for her role in the Rye House plot, Elizabeth was the last woman in England to be executed for a political crime. Elizabeth was executed by burning and the crowds that had gathered to witness felt that it was an injustice being levied against a good Christian woman. Witnesses cried openly as Elizabeth tried to arrange the straw around her to hasten her end.
Despite not having been involved in the plot against King Charles II, Elizabeth was an older woman who was well known for her charity, kindness, and willingness to help her neighbours. When one of the co-conspirators of the plot begged Elizabeth for help in fleeing persecution following the discovery of the plot, she helped him to escape with her precious savings believing it the right thing to do.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, her kindness didn’t go unpunished. When a proclamation was released stating that those who came forward with information could expect immunity from their crimes, the man that Elizabeth had helped testified against her for his own clemency.
8. Roger Casement (1916)
In 1911 Roger Casement was knighted for his humanitarian work in campaigning for human rights and exposing the poor practices of European traders in Africa and South America. An Irish nationalist, Casement joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, and upon the outbreak of the First World War, he appealed to Germans for assistance in achieving Irish independence.
Enlisting Irish prisoners of war to the cause, Germany supplied Casement with a ship laden with arms for use in the Easter Uprising. However, the ship was captured and blown up before it could land in Ireland. Casement was captured, and taken to the Tower of London where he was tried and found guilty of treason. Despite appeals from prominent figures across the UK, Casement was hanged on 3rd August 1916.