The Peterloo Massacre and Shelley’s Great Poem The Mask of Anarchy - LawNow Magazine

The Peterloo Massacre and Shelley’s Great Poem The Mask of Anarchy

 Law and Literature ColumnI note that The Guardian newspaper features an interview with Mike Leigh, director of a number of superb films like High Hopes, Vera Drake, and Mr Turner, indicating that his next project will be a dramatization of the infamous 1819 Manchester massacre, a traumatic event in British history. The massacre is believed to have involved 18 deaths and injuries to as many as 700 protesters, who paid the price for exercising their democratic rights and freedom of assembly. Leigh indicated that “apart from the universal political significance of this historic event, the story has a particular personal resonance for me, as a native of Manchester and Salford.”

“Peterloo” is a play on Waterloo, the triumph of the British over Napoleon’s troops on the battlefield, which had occurred four years previously. Peterloo involved the assembly of a large crowd of citizens at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. They had turned out to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt at a rally to demand significant reform of Parliament, so that it might better represent the population. The rally was peaceful and aimed to address the serious poverty in the region – considered to have been exacerbated by the disastrous Corn Laws – and a “democratic deficit” in a Britain that allowed fewer than two per cent of the population to vote. The crowd that gathered was reported to have conducted itself with dignity and to have turned out in its Sunday best. Hunt climbed onto a simple cart which served as his platform and gazed out at banners which proclaimed: “REFORM, EQUAL REPRESENTATION, and one, most hopefully –LOVE.” Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty, a powerful bond for reformers and engaged citizens in that era.

The title of the poem is likely taken from a key passage in Hunt’s article, when he describes the government as “the seat-selling violators of the British Constitution,” who are “men in the brazen masks of power.”However, local magistrates peering out a window from a building near the field panicked at the size of the crowd, and proceeded without any notice to read the Riot Act, ordering the assembled listeners to disperse. It would almost certainly have been the case that only a very few would have heard the magistrates. The official “guardians of the peace” then promptly directed the local Yeomanry to arrest the speakers. The Yeomanry might be described as a kind of paramilitary force with no training in crowd control and little in the way of proper discipline. On horseback, they charged into the crowd, and pierced the air with cutlasses and clubs. It was known that they held serious grudges against some of the leading protesters (in one instance, spotting a reporter from the Manchester Observer, a radical newspaper, an officer cried out “there’s Saxton, damn him, run him through!) Many in the crowd believed the troops had drunk heavily in the lead-up to the assault. In the melee, 600 Hussars, who had initially been held in reserve, were ordered to attack. Thus, we have a powerful military force savagely attacking unarmed civilians, with brutal consequences. The event ushered in a series of draconian laws that further restricted the liberties of the population. The government of Lord Liverpool backed up the public officials and the actions of the troops and was adamantly unwilling to apologize for the appalling violence.

The populace did not decline into apathy, however. A large public outcry ensued, and an effort was made by various reformers to document the truth of what had occurred in the center of Manchester on that fateful day. Peterloo led directly to the formation of one of Britain’s leading progressive newspapers, down to the present day, the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian).

The Romantic poet, critic, publisher and journalist of the era, Leigh Hunt, wrote a thorough denunciation of the massacre in the Examiner. Hunt was a friend and critical supporter of John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, three of the greatest poets in the language. Hunt considered the assault on the peaceful assembly as, in essence, an attack upon Britain’s unwritten constitution, supported by and encouraged by a government whose goal was to usurp the legitimate rights and powers of ordinary citizens. Shelley would have read Hunt’s account from his home in political and financial exile, Italy, where he lived with the great Romantic novelist Mary Shelley.

Drawing on certain of Hunt’s key allegations and themes, Shelley composed a truly impressive political poem, The Mask of Anarchy. Unfortunately, although it was composed the year of the catastrophe, it had to await a lengthy delay before publication, in 1832, due to its incendiary qualities. By that time Shelley had been long dead, having perished in perhaps the most famous boating tragedy in literary history. The title of the poem is likely taken from a key passage in Hunt’s article, where he calls the government “the seat-selling violators of the British Constitution,” who are “men in the brazen masks of power.” Shelley describes the manner of composition as pouring out his words in a torrent of indignation. The title hence alludes to a key theme – power in England involved a corrupt alliance, of Church, King and Government. The poem refers directly to two key government ministers, Sidmouth and Castlereagh, who direct activities contrary to the rights of the people. The poem’s verse form of tetrameter couplets and triplets was based, interestingly, on the popular ballad form of the day. Many of Shelley’s poems employed high diction and a refined, philosophical approach but this “ballad-poem” is clearly directed at the gut of what he had hoped would be a wide readership. The gross injustice perpetrated by the authorities presaged dark times ahead, as the poet readily deduced.

The second stanza provided some of the flavour and incantatory quality of the poem:

I met Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood hounds followed him: (this line refers to the seven countries that England was quite
prepared to allow to continue in the slave trade, as part of the agreement concluding the Napoleonic Wars).

Among the powerful forces of darkness that Shelley perceives to have struck a blow against the lives and liberty of the Manchester crowd are lawyers and magistrates. In the second half of the poem we are introduced to the female “Shape” that represents the forces of freedom and equality that the poet trusts will some day prevail (and who introduces “Hope” to the multitude).

He announces:

Thou art justice – ne’er for gold
May the righteous laws be sold,
As laws are in England – thou
Shield’s alike the high and low.

The Mask of Anarchy contains not only a series of brilliant images and historical and philosophical insights, but reveals that Shelley was a close follower of the contemporary legal and political scene. He would remain an advocate for serious reform for the rest of his life. Shelley would come to serve as a prophetic voice and inspiration to those, like the Chartists, who created significant movements for peaceful reform.


Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

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