Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Nowadays, when the word "traitor" is used casually to refer to someone who has decided he likes "Hunger Games" better than "Harry Potter," and when Freedom of Speech tolerates numerous calumnies against political leaders, it is difficult to imagine the enormity of the charge of treason centuries ago. "Traitor" comes into English from the French traitour, which in turn is from Latin traditor, "one who hands over." It is directly connected in the medieval mind with Judas Iscariot turning over Jesus to the authorities.

If medieval kings were duly anointed and therefore had God behind them, betraying a king was akin to blasphemy. Only the harshest of punishments was suitable for treason: to be hanged, drawn and quartered; however, a woman was burnt at the stake (the quartering of her body would result in people seeing naked lady parts, and that was unacceptable in a civilized society), and nobles convicted of treason had the more genteel conclusion of beheading.

Edward III
The difficulty with treason was the flexibility of the charge. During the time of Edward III (1312-1377), the courts sometimes declared as treason crimes that others would consider mere felonies, or acts that infringed on the king's power. By this loose definition, gathering firewood in the king's hunting grounds could be prosecuted as treason. The Treason Act of 1351 clarified the position of the Crown and Parliament, splitting offenses into high and petty treason. Petty treason was the killing of your (non-king) superior, and was abolished in 1828.

High treason could be achieved by numerous actions:
  • Killing (or planning to kill) the King, his wife, or his heir
  • Violating the King's wife, the King's unmarried eldest daughter, the wife of the King's heir
  • Warring against the King
  • Providing aid and comfort to the King's enemies
  • Counterfeiting the Great Seal or Privy Seal
  • Counterfeiting English currency
  • Killing an acting Chancellor, Treasurer, or a King's Justice
The Act took no chances, however, that new forms of treason would be thought of, and allowed for them in the future:
And because that many other like Cases of Treason may happen in Time to come, which a Man cannot think nor declare at this present Time; it is accorded, That if any other Case, supposed Treason, which is not above specified, doth happen before any Justices, the Justices shall tarry without any going to Judgement of the Treason till the Cause be shewed and declared before the King and his Parliament, whether it ought to be judged Treason or other Felony.
Changes have been made over the centuries. For instance, although the Treason Act of 1351 still holds in Scotland (because Parliament has not given Scotland the power to change it), it is no longer treason in England (as of 1861) to copy the Great Seal. Also, counterfeiting was reduced to a felony in 1832.

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