BBC History Magazine


In the early evening of 23 February 1820 a group of desperate men gathered in the hay loft above dilapidated stables in a dead end side street off London’s Edgware Road. Their intention was to kill the entire British cabinet as its members sat at dinner, in a theatrical act of political terrorism of a sort with which we are familiar across the world these days, but which 200 years ago was unprecedented.

The conspirators would decapitate the ministers with butchers’ knives, sticking their heads on poles at Westminster Bridge, and also cut the hands off the hated Lord Castlereagh, foreign secretary.

In spontaneous rejoicing, the working class would rise, they believed, just as they had done in the French Revolution 30 years earlier. The coinage of the Bank of England would be distributed to the poor, its paper notes burned – they seemed worthless and untrustworthy as currency anyway – and land would be held in common for the good of all. “Your tyrants are destroyed!” a manifesto would proclaim. “The provisional government is now sitting.”

But as the men buckled up in the hay loft in Cato Street, sticking swords and pistols in their belts, ready for what their leader Arthur Thistlewood called

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