Alan Turing's Body

There's no command-Z for this great man's suffering.
Jon Callas/Flickr

On Christmas Eve, Queen Elizabeth II pardoned the computer scientist Alan Mathison Turing.

Nearly all of the modern world is constructed on Turing’s accomplishments. He helped crack Germany’s “Enigma” code in World War II, contributed two important proofs to mathematics, and established foundational concepts in computer science and artificial intelligence. Without him, the Allies might not have won the war, and you might not have a machine which can display this article.

Turing also had consensual sexual relations with other men, and, for them, was convicted for “gross indecency” under an 1885 criminal law. The queen pardoned him for these on Tuesday.

The pardon is written in a high royal celebratory register, which doesn’t match the somber tone which the events seem to deserve.  I was surprised when, in the text of the pardon, I found something that almost constituted recursion, a building block of programming.

First, the formal document declares it intentions: “to pardon and remit unto [Turing] the sentence imposed upon him.”

Then, it turns the document into the pardon itself, and makes the pardon a reality: “And for so doing[,] this shall be a sufficient Warrant.”

The pardon executes, as a program would, and Alan Turing is forgiven.


Renaissance English royal law insists, mystically and metaphysically, that the king has two bodies.

Its theorists did so explicitly: “For the King has in him two Bodies, [namely] a Body natural, and a Body politic,” writes the jurist Edmund Plowden in 1571.

The king’s first body, the natural one, remains a “Body mortal, subject to all Infirmities that come by Nature or Accident.” The body politic, meanwhile, is everlasting, “consisting of Policy and Government, and constituted for the Direction of the People.” It is immutable, “utterly void of Infancy, and old Age.”

The body politic, most importantly, “cannot be seen or handled”; it’s invisible, passed down from reign to reign. The logic of the two bodies illuminates the cheer—“The King is dead; long live the King!”—and it led Elizabeth I to proclaim in her ascension speech, “I am but one body naturally considered, though by [God’s] permission a body politic to govern.”

Now the queen, the second named Elizabeth, has granted a rare royal pardon, the fourth during her reign. Usually only granted to those found innocent by investigation, Turing’s was extended at the request of the justice minister, Chris Grayling. Her “natural body” did not even lend its signature to the declaration: It is signed by Grayling.

When Turing was convicted for gross indecency, the British government forced him to choose between chemical castration and imprisonment; he chose castration, which meant taking estrogen pills. The pills made him impotent and grow breasts. They also depressed him.

Turing was used to eating an apple before bed. On June 7, 1954, he ate one that had purportedly been injected with cyanide, and he died. The local coroner’s office ruled his death a suicide; now, at least one expert doubts that ruling. Turing was 41.

The queen’s pardon follows a years-long attempts to excuse Turing through other legal means. In 2009, Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, apologized to him. 

“I am very proud to say: we’re sorry,” Brown wrote in the Telegraph. “You deserved so much better.” 

Last year, on Turing’s centenary, members of parliament introduced legislation to formally pardon him. It did not pass: Parliamentarians decided they could not pardon someone for a crime that person had knowingly committed, even if the government no longer considered the offending act criminal. As Brown wrote in 2009, Turing “was dealt with under the law of the time, and we can't put the clock back.” (After the pardon’s failure, 10,000 people promptly petitioned for Turing to be added to the £10 note.)

Now, Queen Elizabeth II has done what elected officials did not.

The “royal prerogative of mercy,” the formal title for a King or Queen’s pardon, is one of the central affordances of English royalty. Its language is old and pleonastic, comfortable in its somber power.

That makes it all the more stomach-turning to read. “Now Know Ye,” it reads, “that We, in consideration of circumstances humbly represented unto Us, are Graciously pleased to extend Our Grace and Mercy unto the said Alan Mathison Turing and to grant him Our Free Pardon posthumously in respect of the said convictions.” 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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