William Joyce

The case of William Joyce must be one of the most famous treason trials in British legal history. Due to the legal issues involved, the case went to the House of Lords (the highest English court). Joyce did not deny that he committed the acts alleged, he denied that he had a duty of allegiance and so could not be guilty of treason.


William Joyce was born on 24 April 1906 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Michael and Gertrude Emily Joyce. Michael Joyce, originally came from Ireland, and became a naturalised American citizen on 25 October 1894.

Three years after William’s birth, the Joyce family returned to Ireland. They moved around several Irish counties during the First World War years. For immigration and registration reasons, Michael Joyce obtained a copy of his son’s birth certificate which was issued in New York on 2 November 1917.

In 1922 the Joyce family moved to England. Following William passing his London Matriculation examination in 1922, he applied for enrolment in the University of London Officer’s Training Corps (OTC). This application was accompanied by a letter from Michael Joyce stating that “We are all British, not American citizens”.

In 1922 William Joyce started studying Science at Battersea Polytechnic. A year later, Joyce left his science course and stared on a English Language, Literature with history course at Birbeck college. He graduated in 1927.

Following his coming-of-age, William Joyce married Hazel Kathleen Barr at Chelsea Register Office on 30 April 1927.

The period 1933-37 was a hectic time in Joyce’s life. During this time, Joyce studied a one year post-graduate course in Philology, and during 1931-3 a psychology course at King’s College London. Also during this time period he was a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascist’s (BUF) movement. This movement had several clashes with the police. This resulted in Oswald Mosley, William Joyce and two others being tried, and acquitted, before Mr. Justice Branson of taking part in a riotous assembly at Worthing. On 4 July 1934, William Joyce applied and obtained his British Passport.

Following the dissolving of his first marriage in 1936, William Joyce married Margaret Cairns White at Kensington Register Office (London) on 13 February 1937; the marriage witnesses being Mrs. Hastings Bonora and John A. Macnab. After becoming disgruntled with Mosley’s B.U.F organisation in 1937, Joyce founded his National Socialist League and Margaret Joyce became the League’s Assistant Treasurer. In 1938, he extended his British Passport by one year.

On 17 November 1938, charges of assault against William Joyce were dismissed by Mr. Paul Bennett at West London Police Court. William Joyce was again in court on 22 May 1939, when charges against him under the Public Order Act were dismissed by Mr. Marshall at Westminster Police Court.

In July 1939 William Joyce sent a letter to a suspected German agent in the UK. He revealed in the letter that he was planning to travel to Germany. At this time, MI5 had produced a report that recommended that when war with Germany was declared, William Joyce should be detained.

In August 1939, just before the outbreak of war, Joyce renewed his British Passport for another year and dissolved his National Socialist League. On 1 September 1939, two days before war was declared, Special Branch detectives went to arrest Joyce at his Earl’s Court home. However, they found that William Joyce and his wife had left for Germany on 26 August. Joyce’s sister claimed that a MI5 agent had tipped off Joyce that he was about to be arrested.

During Late 1939 and early 1940, while his British Passport was still valid, William Joyce made several radio broadcasts in English. Because William Joyce held a British Passport he had a duty of allegiance to the British crown. By broadcasting for the Germans, Joyce broke that allegiance and consequently committed high treason (See my article on the treason and treachery acts for a greater explanation of treason).

Shortly after his passport expired, Joyce fell out of favour with the Germans. He continued to make radio broadcasts to the U.K. Joyce’s nickname of “Lord Haw Haw” was given him by a correspondent in a Daily Express article:

“A gent I’d like to meet is moaning periodically from Zeesen [the site in Germany of the transmitter]. He speaks English of the haw-haw, damit-get-out-of-my-way variety, and his strong suit is gentlemanly indignation.”

It was in fact Baillie-Stewart who made the September 1939 radio broadcast which was heard by Jonah Barrington (a pen-name used by a Daily Express correspondent). After hearing this broadcast, Barrington wrote about a gentleman speaking with an English accent of the haw-haw type, get-out-of-my-way type. On 18 September 1939, Barrington wrote for the first time about Lord Haw-Haw. These comments were aimed at Baillie-Stewart ‘the Sandhurst-educated officer and gentleman (who made the broadcast heard by Barrington) and not the nasal-accented William Joyce.

It should be remembered that these broadcasts were made at a time of very heavy German air raids. While people regarded the broadcasts as something of a joke, Joyce was regarded as a traitor who would hopefully get what he deserved.

William Joyce made radio broadcasts throughout the war, although during his last broadcast he was heavily drunk.

He was arrested by British Troops near Flensburg on the Danish-German border. They came across what appear to be a German civilian, whose voice sounded familiar. It eventually dawned who he was. When they challenged Joyce, he put his hand into a pocket. Thinking that he was going for a pistol, the British troops shot Joyce in the leg.

After recovering in Luneberg Military Hospital, William Joyce arrived as a prisoner in the U.K on 16 June 1945. The day before Joyce’s arrival, the Treason Act 1945 had been granted Royal Assent by King George VI. William Joyce was charged with three counts of high treason.

Due to the need for evidence, concerning the important question of Joyce’s nationality, from the U.S.A, the crown court case was put back to September.

On 17 September 1945 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, before Mr. Justice Tucker and a jury, William Joyce was charged with three counts of High Treason:

  1. William Joyce, on the 18 September 1939, and on numerous other days between 18 September 1939 and 29 May 1945 did aid and assist the enemies of the King by broadcasting to the King’s subjects propaganda on behalf of the King’s enemies.
  2. William Joyce, on 26 September 1940, did aid and comfort the King’s enemies by purporting to be naturalised as a German citizen.
  3. William Joyce, on 18 September 1939 and on numerous other days between 18 September 1939 and 2 July 1940 did aid and assist the enemies of the King by broadcasting to the King’s subjects propaganda on behalf of the King’s enemies.

The trial lasted three days: 17,18 and 19 September 1945. The main arguments in the case concerned whether the defendant had a duty of allegiance to the King. If there was no duty of allegiance, then Joyce could not be found guilty of treason. William Joyce did not deny carrying out the alleged acts, he just denied that he owed any allegiance to the King.

The prosecution accepted that under counts 1 and 2 Joyce did not owe allegiance as he was an American citizen. However, they argued that as he held a British Passport and left the U.K on this passport he had the protection given to passport holders. As protection demands allegiance, Joyce broke this allegiance and committed treason. This point in law was accepted by Mr. Justice Tucker, who ruled that the prosecution’s point in law was valid. The judged also directed the jury to find Joyce not guilty of counts 1 and 2.

Following the judge’s ruling, the jury was left with the question of whether Joyce had made the broadcasts between the dates of 18 September 1939 and 2 July 1940 (the period when Joyce’s British Passport was valid). They decided that Joyce had made the broadcasts, and they found him guilty of count 3.

As High Treason carried a mandatory capital sentence, the judge sentenced William Joyce to death by hanging.

On 27 September 1945, Joyce’s lawyers gave notice of appeal. Due to high treason having only one possible sentence, they could only appeal the conviction not the sentence itself. His lawyers argued that the trial judge was wrong to accept the prosecution’s legal arguments relating to the question of allegiance. They argued that the fact the King was unable to offer protection to Joyce in Germany, that Joyce was an American citizen and that Joyce never intended to ask for protection, meant that as no protection was asked for, no allegiance was owed in return.

William Joyce’s appeal was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Humphreys and Mr. Justice Lynskey, on 30 October 1945. On 1 November 1945, they announced that judgement was reserved. On 7 November 1945, it was announced that the appeal was dismissed. In effect, they supported the prosecution argument relating to the protection offered by the British Passport, and the consequent allegiance demanded.

Due to the important questions of law involved in the case, the Attorney-General granted his certificate on 16 November 1945, which allowed the case to be heard before the House of Lords; the highest British court.

The appeal before the House of Lords on 10 to 13 December 1945, was heard by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Macmillan, Lord Wright, Lord Porter and Lord Simonds. This appeal was dismissed, with Lord Porter dissenting, on 18 December 1945. They also announced that they would give their reasons at a later date.

At a few minutes past 9am on 3 January 1946, with a sizeable crowd outside the prison, William Joyce was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in London. After the post-mortem and inquest in the afternoon, William Joyce was buried within the prison grounds (as with all executed prisoners).

On 18 August 1976, William Joyce’s remains were exhumed and returned for burial in Ireland.

William Joyce’s wife, Margaret, was arrested the same day as Joyce and returned to London’s Holloway Prison.

It was decided after the war that no further action would be taken against William Joyce’s wife Margaret. Although she was born in Manchester, had apparently made no effort to renounce her British Citizenship after arriving with her husband in Germany and made German propaganda radio broadcasts to the UK, no proceedings were taken against her. Margaret Joyce died in London during 1972.