Episode 7 of The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a Plot to Assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, Series 4 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast
In Episode 7, Series 4 The Privy Council, with his friends’ lives hanging by a thread, about to be cut by the Attorney-General, our hero makes an extraordinary decision…
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
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- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
- Series 6: Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance
Episode 7: The Privy Council
Just before the start of his friends’ trial for High Treason at the Privy Council, James astounds everyone.
He volunteers to give evidence.
This sensational development sends the Privy Council, the highest court in the land, into turmoil.
Courts are used to dragging witnesses onto the witness stand. There is no routine procedure for having a witness knock on the door and demand the right to speak.
News-sheet reporters are already gathering on the streets outside the Privy Council when they first hear a rumour that the Secretary of The London Corresponding Society, that modest Physician of ‘rather below middle stature’, had requested to be cross-examined.
When word gets out James had volunteered his testimony to save the accused from the noose, and not to tighten it round their necks, a commotion starts.
Reporters form tight knots to try to work out what this bolt from the blue might mean.
With the arrival of every Earl, Duke or Lord, who’ll form the jury, the huddles of hacks disperse. They swarm around the new arrival, quizzing him as he runs the gauntlet from chaotic carriage to the sanctuary of the court.
Once the Earls, Dukes and Lords reach this refuge, and are insulated from the swinish multitude, they form identical huddles, asking each other identical questions.
Why has this man volunteered to give evidence? Why is he risking his own life?
Both huddles, hacks and nobles, break up at the arrival of the Prosecuting Counsel, the Prime Minister William Pitt, and his deputy, the Attorney-General, John Scott.
These eminent legal minds disappear into their chamber to plot their interrogation of the new witness.
The huddles re-form, the speculation grows.
The greatest commotion erupts at the arrival, on foot, of the new volunteer witness.
Here comes the Physician, James Parkinson, of No.1 Hoxton Square,.
Here comes the Secretary of the London Corresponding Society, the secret club of revolutionaries behind the Pop-Gun Plot to assassinate the King, according to whistleblower Thomas Upton the Watchmaker.
Armed with no more than his sense of justice, his clarity of mind and personal integrity, James chooses to enter this bastion of an insecure, paranoid and blood-thirsty establishment.
Eventually, behind schedule, the Privy Council trial is about to start.
The atmosphere in court is hostile. It seethes with suspicion and deceit.
Pitt scribbles notes with one hand as he adjusts his barrister’s robes with the other. The Attorney-General whispers last-minute stratagems into his ear.
We needn’t speculate on what these two men said in private. What they said in public is a matter of public record.
Before we hear the actual words, verbatim, the climax of that hearing, here’s the skeleton of the Attorney-General’s cross-examination strategy he’s now hissing into the Prime Ministerial ear.
First – throw James off balance. Make him swear on the Bible. Lure him into incriminating himself.
Next – demand that he reveals the whereabouts of the fugitive accused conspirator, still on the run.
Then, an arsenal of other traps, such as tricking him into admitting authorship of an unpublished pamphlet, to build a trapdoor of circumstantial evidence that will leave him swinging from the gibbet with the co-conspirators he calls his friends.
There can be no more formidable prosecution team than the Prime Minister and the Attorney -General.
But what hope of the jury?
Not all the Earls, Dukes and Lords present share the Attorney-General’s thirst for violent repression.
But most do. Even those who don’t, wouldn’t hesitate to send this foolhardy Physician to join the accused on the gallows if they thought James was a traitor.
So James starts the trial with his life hanging by a thread. He’s volunteered to put his head in the noose.
James takes the stand. Every word you now hear from him, and from Pitt, is taken from a verbatim account James wrote shortly after the trial ended, using recall techniques he taught himself during his medical studies,
Official court records exist, but they’re so clearly inferior, no biographer or historian even bothers to quote from them. Two centuries later, they remain, mouldy and undigitized, in the archives of the National Records Office in Kew.
By contrast, Parkinson’s own account has become the centrepiece of a colourful account of the Pop-Gun Plot by one of the accused that’s long been a best-seller amongst late 18th century history buffs.
If you’re among them, you have one of the dozens of facsimile editions reprinted by university presses around the world.
Back to the Privy Council. It’s just been called to session.
The Earls, Dukes and Lords fall silent, as Prime Minister Pitt, now Chief Prosecutor Pitt, rises to his feet, adjusts his robes one last time, and sets the first of the Attorney-General’s traps.
Take the oath, he challenges James.
In response, James asks permission to leave certain questions put to him unanswered.
I’ll happily demolish Upton’s flimsy allegations, says the Physician, but to do so truthfully might incriminate my friends, or myself, in respect to other activities. Activities, which, once acceptable, the Attorney General had recently branded illegal.
Pitt senses weakness and goes for a quick kill.
Now, here’s the transcript, the actual words now coming to you directly from the 1794 Privy Council trial.
You are here to answer certain questions respecting matters of the highest importance to the state, in which any reservation on your part will at least be highly improper.
Consider, Sir, you are now before the highest court in this kingdom.
Now James Parkinson.
If I thought your Lordships would confine your interrogatories to the business of the pretended plot, I should be ready to take the oath directly.
William Pitt now sees an opening.
Then I will tell you, Mr. Parkinson, that the business on which you were required to attend is that of Mr. Upton’s, but your own good sense will tell you that in the performance of our duty, we cannot engage to confine our questions to any specific matter, since that may arise, in your answers, which may render it necessary to put such questions as may not appear to apply immediately to that business.
James Parkinson concedes, but having somehow changed the tone of the discussion from confrontational, to collegial.
Well, my Lords, as it is on the business of Upton on which I am to be examined, I am ready to take the oath, your Lordships allowing me to object to certain questions.
At this point, ‘Aye, aye, very well, very well’, was heard from every part of the table.
John Scott now concedes.
‘You will not be asked to criminate yourself’.
James Parkinson takes this concession, and now raises the stakes.
‘There is no question you can put’, he says, ‘which can produce an answer to criminate me’.
James now takes the oath. His frank and sincere manner has started to win over the more reasonable elements of the jury of Earls, Dukes and Lords.
James has withdrawn his head, ever so slightly, from the noose.
Now, James puts the Prime Minister on the back foot. He suggests it would simplify matters if he were to read out an uninterrupted account of all that he knows regarding the accusations against his friends, after which, he says, their Lordships could question him.
From any other witness, this might have seemed provocative or insolent.
Pitt, however, maybe starting to read the room, agrees.
James’s account proves so reasonable, so sober, so evidently true and honest, that Pitt and Scott struggle to pick any holes in it, and gradually give up trying.
They start to sense their efforts to discredit the witness are not going down well with the Jury.
The Attorney-General removes the safety catch from one of the booby-traps he’s prepared for James, and hands it to Pitt to deploy.
Pitt asks James to reveal the hiding-place of the fugitive co-conspirator, also accused of High Treason, who disappeared when he heard Smith and Higgins had been arrested.
James protests, saying he’s come to exonerate the innocent, not give them up to false charges.
Pitt says he must answer, or incriminate himself.
Having set his Catch-22 trap for James to step into, Pitt rests his case.
But James now turns the tables on the Prime Minister.
It’s a high-risk strategy, as it implicates the quasi-legal machinations of the Attorney-General at his side.
James’s reply, verbatim.
My Lords, my legal knowledge is but very trifling; it chiefly consists in knowing what was crime a few years ago; but from the extraordinary circumstances I have lately observed, I know not what may be now deemed crime or not. On that ground also I object to answering this question.
One by one, Pitt has lobbed the Attorney-General’s legal grenades.
One by one, James has exposed and de fused them.
Accusatory frowns on aristocratic brows turn into raised eyebrows.
The prosecution strategy of attacking a patently honest man is crumbling before their eyes.
Blow by blow, quietly, comprehensively, James demolishes the Crown’s case.
With each frank and sincere answer, James exposes Thomas Upton’s fabrications as being more ludicrous, and himself more trustworthy.
With each skirmish, the Attorney General’s suspicions look more hysterical, more paranoid, Pitt’s probing more petty, and the probity of his friends in the dock more evident.
Eventually, the prosecution realises the more they attack the Physician, the more they damage their own case.
As a lawyer, Pitt knows he’s met his match.
As a gentleman, Pitt recognises James’ decency.
As a politician, Pitt twigs the tide has turned.
Now, the Hollywood version of this courtroom climax would result in immediate and total vindication.
The jury of nobles would stamp their feet in a thunderous volley of applause.
In a stunning moment of redemption, Pitt the Younger would proffer a sporting handshake. Maybe even the Attorney-General would be shamed into a grudging bow.
James and his friends would leave the court borne aloft on the shoulders of their cheering fellow Correspondents, free men all.
We’d all be in tears, along with the Earls, Dukes and Lords.
Now by all means hit pause now, if you prefer this end to the story. We’d all understand why.
But if you want to know what really happened, keep listening.
In Episode 8, A Different Kind of Activism, we find out what actually happened at the end of James’ Privy Council triumph.