Edward Despard

Edward Marcus Despard (1751 – 21 February 1803) was an Irish-born British colonel turned revolutionary, executed for High Treason.

He was born in Mountrath, Queens County, Ireland, in 1751. In 1766 he entered the British Royal Navy, was promoted to lieutenant in 1772, and stationed at Jamaica, where he soon proved himself to have considerable engineering talent. He served in the West Indies with credit, being promoted captain after the San Juan expedition (1780). In 1782 he commanded a successful expedition against the Spanish possessions on the Black River. He was subsequently made Superintendent of the Bay of Honduras on the Mosquito Coast (present-day Belize).

He administered this British enclave until 1790 when, upon frivolous charges, he was suspended by Home Secretary Lord Grenville and recalled to England. From 1790 to 1792 these charges were investigated, and he was suspended on half pay with his expenses from the Bay of Honduras withheld. Pursued by a further law suit from his enemies in the Bay, he was arrested and confined in the King's Bench debtor's prison from 1792 to 1794.

On his release he joined the London Corresponding Society. In 1798 was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Irish Rebellion. Habeas Corpus had been suspended in 1794, and Despard was held without trial for nearly three years in a succession of prisons, notably Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell, until he was released without charge in 1801.

In late 1802 he was named by government informers and disaffected soldiers as a member of a conspiracy engaged in a plot to seize the Tower of London and Bank of England and assassinate George III. The evidence was thin but Despard was arrested and prosecuted by Attorney General Spencer Perceval, before Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice. Despite a dramatic appearance by Lord Nelson as character witness on his behalf, Despard was found guilty by the jury of high treason, and sentenced, with six of his fellow-conspirators (John Wood and John Francis, both privates in the army, carpenter Thomas Broughton, shoemaker James Sedgwick Wratton, slater Arthur Graham, and John Macnamara),[1] to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sentencing of the conspirators was the last time in British history that anyone was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Prior to execution the sentence was commuted to simple hanging and beheading, amid fears that the draconian punishment might spark public dissent. Despard was executed on the roof of the gatehouse at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, in front of a crowd of at least 20,000 spectators, on 21 February 1803.



  1. This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  2. Horsemonger Lane Gaol



  • Conner, Clifford D., "Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel" (Combined Publishing 2000)
  • Jay, Mike, The Unfortunate Colonel Despard (Bantam Press 2004)