23rd July 1781. High Treason.

Charles Dickens’ novel, Tale of Two Cities, referring to the life and trial of Charles Darnay, brings to mind that of the French ‘expat’, Francois Henri de la Motte, emphasising the grotesqueness and gruesomeness of public executions up to the 18th century. 

However whilst Henry Carton altruistically took the place at the guillotine for Darnay, la Motte suffered Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.

de la Motte had been arrested as a suspected French spy in January 1781 and spent six months in the Tower of London.

At the Old Bailey Today 23rd July, Motte was found guilty of informing the French of Fleet disposals at Portsmouth, an enemy, which apart from supporting America in the Revolutionary Wars, had been at war with us from the beginning of their revolution in 1778.(1)

La Motte was sentenced to Hanging, Drawing and Quartering (HDQ), the traditional penalty in England for High Treason since 1352, though first recorded in the 13thc reign of Henry III.

He was executed for High Treason on 27th July 1781. but the full grisly extra execution process was mitigated, by this time executioners having discretion in executions. It is said that 80,000 turned out for the public execution of la Motte.

de la Motte.

However the Scots David Tyrie who was executed at Winchester in 1782 for sending naval, treacherous information to the French, didn’t escape the full horror of HDQ with unmentionable extras thrown in.

Here again thousands turned out for what was to be the last HDQ in English history, with people fighting for pieces of the body.

The pre-Victorian Secret Service Fund did not provide for an established Service, but financed British propaganda and espionage on the Continent via free-lance agents and political and diplomatic bribery.

Espionage really got into its stride in Napoleonic times when the authorities became paranoid about security and invasion, similar to 1940.

In 1794 the Government brought prosecutions against those whom it deemed to be writers, publishers and purveyors of seditious literature and its object was to bring the medieval charge of ‘compassing the death of the king’ to make into an act of treason.

Even the poet Wordsworth and his drug-crazed friend Coleridge strolling by night on the Quantocks in 1797, were under the observation of Mr. Walsh, a Home Office Spy which Coleridge later recalled in his ‘Biographia Literaria‘.

(1) Harry Peckham one of the early founders of Cricketing Law was junior counsel to former A.G. John Dunning, who had to retire from the case due to ill-health, in the unsuccessful defence of la Motte.


Thackeray in his last unfinished novel Denis Duval the leading characters are la Motte and his accomplish Henry Lutterloh.

Ref: Harvey Peter Sucksmith and Paul Davies. The Dickensian Magazine Spring. 2004, No 462, vol 100. pt.1.

Ref: wikipedia.org.

Ref: executedtoday.com/Pic.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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