Treason in United Kingdom

Treason in English Law

Introduction to Treason

Two grades of treason existed in early English law: high treason, which was directed against the Crown, and petty treason, which consisted of a crime against a subject, such as a wife killing her husband, or a servant murdering his master.

In early English statutes the more serious offenses were compassing or imagining the death of the sovereign, adhering to the sovereign’s enemies and giving them aid and comfort, and levying war against the sovereign. Statutes were changed from time to time between the reign of Edward III and that of Elizabeth I. After the Restoration the Stuart judges used “constructive treason” to discourage resistance to the Crown. They extended the offenses to include words as well as deeds. In 1663, a writer was convicted of treason for writing an article suggesting that the king was accountable to the people.” (1)

Treason and Medieval Law

Treason and Legal History

Meaning of Treason

The following is an old definition of Treason [1]: Betrayal, treachery, breach of faith or allegiance. Traitor. One who breaks faith, or betrays a trust; one guilty of treason.Treason may exist only as between allies: it is a general appellation to denote not only offenses against the king and government, but also that accumulation of guilt which arises whenever a superior reposes a confidence in a subject or inferior, between whom and himself there subsists a natural, a civil, or even a spiritual relation, and the inferior so abuses that confidence, so forgets the obligations of duty, subjection, and allegiance, as to destroy the life of the superior. Therefore, for a wife to kill her husband, a servant his master, an ecclesiastic his ordinary, these being breaches of the lower allegiance of private and domestic faith, are denominated petit treasons. But when disloyalty attacks majesty itself it is called, by way of distinction, high treason, equivalent to the crimen Icesce majestatis of the Romans. High treason is the most heinous civil crime a man, can commit. If indeterm,iuate, this alone is sufficient to make any governnaent degenerate into arbitrary power. By the ancient common law great latitude was left to the judges to determine what was treason: whereby the creatures of tyrannical princes had opportunity to create constructive treasons; that is, to raise, by forced and arbitrary constructions, offenses into the crime of treason which were not suspected to be such. To prevent this, the Statute of Treasons, 25 Edw. in (1352), c. 2, defined what offenses should be held to be treason. All kinds are now comprehended under seven branches. . . The third species is ” levying war against our lord the king, in his realm.” This may be done by taking arms, not only to dethrone the king, but under pretense to reform religion or the laws, or to remove evil counsellors, or other grievances, real or pretended. To resist the king’s forces by defending a castle against them is levying war; so is an insun-ection with a design to pull down all enclosures, all brothels, etc., the universality of the design making it a rebellion against the state, an usurpation of the powers of government, an insolent invasion of the king’s authority. But a tumult with a view to pull down a particular house amounts at most to a riot, this being no general defiance of public government. The fourth species is ” adhering to the king’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere.” This must like wise be proved by some overt act, as by giving them intelligence, sending them provisions, selling them arms, treacherously surrendering a, fortress, or the like. By ” enemies ” are here understood the subjects of foreign powers with whom we are at opten war. As to foreign pirates or robbers, invading our coasts without open hostilities between their nation and ours, and without commission from any prince or state at enmity with the crown, giving them any assistance is also clearly treason. But to relieve a ” rebel ” fled out of the kingdom is no treason; for the statute is taken strictly, and a rebel is not an “enemy;” an enemy being always the subject of some foreign prince, and owing no allegiance to the crown of England. And if a person be under actual force and constraint, through a well-grounded apprehension of injury to his life or person, this fear or compulsion will exemse his even joining with rebels or enemies in the kingdom, provided he leaves them whenever he has a safe opportunity. Another species of high treason, under the statute, was counterfeiting the king’s seal or his coin, – an of- fense reduced to felony by 2 Will. IV (1832), c. 34. The consequences of conviction of high treason were: death by hanging (anciently, decapitation and quartering): attainder, and forfeiture of estate, with corruption of the blood of descendants. “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” ” No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to tiie same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.” “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.” By the last clause, the cruel feature of the old law, which punished the traitor in the persons of his descendants, was forever removed. Act of April 30, 1790, c. 9, § 1, provides that every person owing allegiance to the United States, who levies war against them, or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort, is guilty of treason; and shall suffer death, or, at the discretion of the court, shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than five years, and fined not less than ten thousand dollars, to be collected of such property as is owned at the time of committing such treason; with incapacity to hold office under tbe United States. The principal treasonable offenses are: misprision of treason; incitihg or engaging in rebellion or insurrection; criminal correspondence with foreign governments: seditious conspiracy; recruiting men to serve, and enlisting to serve, against the United States. Treason, being a breach of allegiance, can be committed only by him who owes allegiance, perpetual or temporary. Having been defined by the Constitution, Congress can neither extend nor restrict the crime; its power Is limited to prescribing the punishment. In it all are principals. A mere conspiracy by force to subvert the established government is not treason: there must be an actual levying of war – men assembled with intent to effect by force a treasonable purpose. Then, all who perform any act, however minute or remote from the scene of action, and who are actually leagued in the general conspiracy, are traitors. In every case proof of some overt act is absolutely necessary; an intention to oommit the crime is distinct from actual commission. A person may commit treason toward the State in which he resides, since he also owes allegiance to it. The definitions and laws of the various States follow, in substance, the foregoing definition, enactments, and constructions. A notable case was the trial, conviction, and execution of John Brown, in Virginia, in 1859 (thank you, Colum McGinley, for the data). See further Aid and Comfort; Attainder; Enemy; Felony; Levy; Rebel; Sedition; War.


Notes and References

  1. Information about Treason in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  2. Concept of Treason provided by the Anderson Dictionary of Law (1889) (Dictionary of Law consisting of Judicial Definitions and Explanations of Words, Phrases and Maxims and an Exposition of the Principles of Law: Comprising a Dictionary and Compendium of American and English Jurisprudence; William C. Anderson; T. H. Flood and Company, Law Publishers, Chicago, United States)


See Also

  • Medieval Justice (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Lordship Rights (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Medieval Laws (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Pleas of the Crown (in this legal Encyclopedia)

Bibliographies of English Law History

  • Maxwell, William H. A Legal Bibliography of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Volume 1: English Law to 1800. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1955-
  • Beale, Joseph H. A Bibliography of Early English Law Books. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.
  • Winfield, Percy H. The Chief Sources of English Legal History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.
  • Concept of Treason

    Traditional meaning of treason [1] in the English common law history: In England, compassing or imagining the death of the King, Queen, or their eldest son or heir; violating the King’s consort, eldest daughter unmarried, or heir’s wife; levying war against the King, or adhering to his enemies; counterfeiting his seal or money; slaying the chancellor, treasurer, or justices while sitting in office. In America, levying war against the United States; or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. Petit treason: in old English law, the killing of a master by his servant, a husband by his wife, an ecclesiastical person by his inferior; or of any person by another, who owes him faith and obedience; see 4th Book (“Of Public Wrongs”), Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England 75, 203. [rtbs name=”history-of-english-law”]


    Notes and References

    1. Based on A concise law dictionary of words, phrases and maxims, “Treason”, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1911, United States. This term and/or definition may be absolete. It is also called the Stimson’s Law dictionary, based on a glossary of terms, included Treason.

    See Also


2 responses to “Treason”

  1. Colum McGinley

    Dear Friend,

    Is there a clerical error at the end of the section on the meaning of Treason?

    Please see the last few lines:
    The definitions and laws of the various States follow, in substance, the foregoing definition, enactments, and constructions. A notable case was the trial, conviction, and execution of John Brown, in Virginia, in 1360. See further Aid and Comfort; Attainder; Enemy; Felony; Levy; Rebel; Sedition; War.
    Should 1360 not be 1860 (or even 1859)?

    Hope I have this wrong.

    Kind regards
    Colum McGinley

    1. International

      You are right. According to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) website, the oldest state-supported military college in the United States (1839):

      “Abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) was captured and sentenced to die following his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, [West] Virginia. Fearing the possibility of another uprising by Brown’s supporters, the Governor of Virginia accepted the offer of VMI’s Superintendent, Francis H. Smith, to send a part of the Corps of Cadets to provide an additional military presence at the execution, which was to take place at Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia). Smith consulted his faculty and selected upperclassmen to prepare for duty at Charles Town. Official VMI records do not include a list of the selected cadets. The only known list was published in the Petersburg, Virginia newspaper on December 8, 1859.

      Smith, by directive of the governor, was placed in charge of the execution itself. Overall command of the cadet detachment was given to VMI faculty member William Gilham, who also commanded two cadet infantry companies consisting of 64 cadets. His colleague Major Thomas J. Jackson, was placed in command of the artillery–two howitzers manned by 21 cadets. (less than two years after the duty at Charles Town, Jackson would acquire the nickname “Stonewall” and would soon thereafter achieve fame as one of the Confederacy’s ablest military leaders). The VMI cadets reached Charles Town on November 26th and were relieved from duty on December 6th. They returned to Lexington via Richmond, where they were greeted by the Governor and members of the Virginia Assembly.”

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