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To Kill the Cabinet

Over 200 years after Guy Fawkes, another murderous plot was hatched, which as Roger Hermiston reveals, could have hurled Britain into revolution
The conspirators wanted to bring down the government, but the government was watching

The England of 1820 was a nervous, disordered country on the brink of revolt. Peace with Europe, secured with the end of the NapoleonicWars five years earlier at Waterloo, ought to have ushered in a period of growing prosperity and progress at home. But when King George III died on 29 January after 60 years on the throne, he bequeathed a nation – to a dissolute son and a repressive government – stricken by austerity and riven by political turmoil.

Britain edged tosowladriderssrteuvronlet dafotenr the crowds at the Peterloo Massacre

Just three weeks into the new reign of George IV, there was a sensational plot to kill all the members of Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, and set up a revolutionary government along the lines of the Committee of Safety in Robespierre’s France 30 years earlier. The Cato Street Conspiracy has been the poor relation of that other violent attempt to overturn the government, the Gunpowder Plot, and historically cast as merely an isolated, forlorn and foolhardy strike against the state by a gang of radical desperadoes. But such a simplistic interpretation does no justice to the significance of the plot.

A blue plaque now marks the building where the conspirators gathered
ALAMY X1, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X3, GETTY X5

LIMITING FREE SPEECH

At no period in British history has social discontent seemed to contemporary observers so likely to erupt in violent revolution. The sequence of events that sparked the plot began with the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819. So-called in mocking comparison to the famous battle, 11 people were killed and over 400 seriously injured, many women and children, when troops cut through a crowd of around 60,000 non-violent demonstrators on St Peter’s Field, on the outskirts of Manchester.

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month’s issue… Henry VIII’s Six Weddings While every detail of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle has been anticipated and analysed, the nuptials of his Tudor namesake Henry VIII are less familiar. Alison Weir peers behind the drapes of the six days that preceded ‘divorced, beheaded, died…’. Plus: the CIA heist of a sunken Soviet nuclear sub during the Cold War; Wounded Knee massacre; female Pharaohs; the 1820 plot to murder the Cabinet; and Lee Miller’s photos of WWII