Treason: people, power, and plot

A new exhibition at the National Archives in London traces the history of treason since it was first written into English law in 1352. Carly Hilts visited to find out more.

In CA 393, we reviewed an exhibition running at the Museum of London Docklands (until 16 April), tracing the 700-year history of public executions in the capital. By the late 18th century, there were more than 200 crimes that carried the death penalty, but the most serious was high treason. This offence was first written into law in 1352, and was the last crime on our statute books to retain the ultimate punishment: England, Scotland, and Wales removed the death penalty for murder in 1969 (Northern Ireland followed in 1973), but treason remained a capital crime until 1998. Now a new exhibition at the National Archives in London is using a host of historically significant manuscripts, together with key artefacts, to explore how definitions of treason have evolved over the centuries, and how such definitions have been used by those in authority to serve their own ends.

below The original Treason Act, written into law under Edward III in 1352.
The original Treason Act, written into law under Edward III in 1352.

As visitors enter the atmospherically shadowy exhibition space, they are initially met by a short introductory video and a central case housing the yellowed manuscript of the original Treason Act. The displays are then organised in several themed sections: the first, which spans the years 1388 to 1485, covers a period of violent factionalism when kings and nobles wielded accusations of treason to shore up their own power and undermine rivals. This was the era of parliamentary attainder, whereby ‘traitors’ could be declared guilty and executed without trial. As their descendants were also disinherited and their lands and property confiscated, it was a powerful deterrent against restless nobles, and these powers were wielded to particular effect during the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487). Henry Tudor was attainted in 1484, following a failed rebellion against Richard III (himself a usurper, if Tudor accounts are to be believed). After his victory at Bosworth the following year, though, the new Henry VII backdated the start of his reign to the day before the battle, making Richard the traitor, posthumously guilty of levying war against the Crown. As the exhibition notes, ‘traitors are only traitors when their plots fail’.

Faith and power

While many of the documents reflect the actions of powerful men, there are also female stories to share: among them is an indictment document for Eleanor Cobham, who became Duchess of Gloucester and wife of the heir presumptive. She was accused in 1440 of consulting with astrologers to predict a life-threatening illness for the young Henry VI. There was no precedent for trying a noblewoman for treason, but after examination by religious authorities Eleanor was forced to divorce her royal husband and sentenced to life imprisonment. In the second section, which explores connections between state power and religion from 1534 to 1606, we also encounter Elizabeth Barton, a Benedictine nun known for her visions. She was accused of predicting Henry VIII’s death and bears the dubious honour of being the only executed woman whose body parts were posthumously displayed on Tower Bridge.

Henry VIII himself radically

broadened the scope of what could be called treason following his break with Rome. It was now impossible for his subjects to keep faith both with the Crown and their Catholic beliefs, meaning that defying state authority had become a matter of conscience – something that had fatal consequences for figures like Sir Thomas More, who refused to sign Henry’s 1534 Act of Succession. The effects would echo through the reigns of Henry’s children, which were similarly riven by religious strife and conspiracies. Come the Stuart dynasty, and these divisions culminated in attempted treason on an unprecedented scale: the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against James VI & I.

above Guy Fawkes’ pained signature is scrawled next to a list of his co-conspirators’ names, drawn out of him by James I’s ‘gentler tortures’ after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered.
Guy Fawkes’ pained signature is scrawled next to a list of his co-conspirators’ names, drawn out of him by James I’s ‘gentler tortures’ after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered.

A number of documents have been selected to represent the Plot, notably the anonymous letter sent to Lord Monteagle that led to its discovery, and James I’s instructions for how to interrogate the conspirators – including a list of questions drawn up by the king himself and his authorisation to use ‘the gentler tortures’ on the accused. The results of this questioning are brutally clear in the shaky signature of Guy Fawkes, which can be seen on a document confirming the names of some of his fellow plotters. Alongside this we also find the triumphantly ostentatious manuscript of the 1606 Act for Public Thanksgiving, whereby James I made 5 November a celebratory public holiday.

A third section, spanning 1649 to 1660, shows how the Crown’s monopoly on treason charges was dramatically reversed during the English Civil War. Charles I was accused of making war against his own people and – in a judgement that decried him as a ‘tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this nation’ – was the first ruling king to be tried and executed for treason. This was a strikingly new interpretation of the treason laws: that they existed not only to protect the monarch and their bloodline, but also to safeguard the state from tyrannical rulers.

left Some of the personal effects of William Joyce, the last person to be tried and executed for treason in Britain.
Some of the personal effects of William Joyce, the last person to be tried and executed for treason in Britain.

Revolutionary ideas

Such sentiments are key to the concluding displays, which explore the revolutionary political ideas of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, and include items relating to the Easter Rising of 1916, a rebellion by some 60,000 enslaved plantation workers in Jamaica in 1831-1832, and the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783. In rejecting and removing sovereign authority permanently, the exhibition suggests, this last episode might be described as ‘the most successful treason in British history’ – but to the colonists it was George III who was the traitor. In the Declaration of Independence, he is condemned as a tyrant who had ‘plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people’.

The exhibition ends with William Joyce, also known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. After fleeing to Germany in 1939, Joyce spent the Second World War making pro-Nazi radio broadcasts until his capture in 1945. Displays include possessions taken while he was imprisoned in HMP Wandsworth, as well as the piece of paper that sealed his fate. Under the Treason Act, only subjects of the Crown can be traitors, and Joyce had taken German citizenship in 1940. However, he had renewed his British passport in 1938, and while this had been fraudulently obtained (in the application form on show, Joyce claims to be a British citizen by birth, but he was Irish-American, born in Brooklyn), it was enough for the courts. Joyce was hanged on 3 January 1946: the last person to be tried and executed for treason in Britain.

Further information
Treason: People, Power & Plot runs at the National Archives until 6 April 2023. Entry is free. For more details, see www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/treason.
All Images: The National Archives