Robert Henderson offers the first of a two-part contemplation on treason.

Treason is a famously slippery word, not least for the reason enshrined in the oft-quoted but, because it contains a savage truth, eternally potent rhyme:

Treason never prospers,
What’s the reason?
For if it does
None dare call it treason.

Yet elusive as it is, treason clearly has an objective reality, a reality, moreover, whose essence is changeless.  That quality is betrayal which goes beyond the personal.  If a friend betrays you to another friend, that is not treason.  If a fellow countryman betrays you to an occupying power, that is.

As a legal concept, treason has been redrawn during the past millennium. In a dynastic context, where the king is king in executive fact as well as name, treason is the betrayal of the sovereign by a person who owes him allegiance.  That betrayal may be through disloyalty or an attempt to harm the person of the monarch (and generally his family).  By extension, the same applies to those to whom the monarch’s executive power is delegated. Kill the king’s man and you attack the king.

But treason in dynastic circumstances was not a straightforward matter of simply plotting against the king or attempting harm to the king’s person or doing the same to his representatives.  A great noble or courtier close to the king might well lose his head through being deemed to have given ‘evil counsel’ to the monarch, even though that counsel had been accepted and acted upon by the king.  The ‘evil counsellor’ would be blamed (and probably executed) to ensure that the monarch was not held to account.

The idea of ‘evil counsel’ had an important effect in English constitutional development and a consequent broadening of the idea of treason.  Evil counsellors were generally identified not by the king but by others, most notably Parliament. Thus the practical application of the idea of the evil counsellor both reinforced the idea that the monarch was not a completely independent agent and created the idea that any man involved in politics owed not merely his formal loyalty to the king (and later the people), but also should take care to act and speak in a way which would not be to the disadvantage of the king and his subjects.

The notion of treason evolved in Europe because monarchs have rarely if ever been able to act indiscriminately in their own interests.  Indeed, European monarchs have been remarkably unsuccessful in creating efficient and lasting despotisms.  Because of that, their subjects never truly succumbed to politically debilitating ideas such as the divine right of kings. Rather, they expected of a king duty as well self-promotion and satisfaction. The concept of the unjust prince was well developed by 1100 and culminated in the doctrine of tyranicide developed by John of Salisbury in the 12th Century.  Here is Manegold of Lautenbach writing in the 11th Century:

No man can make himself emperor or king; a people sets a man over it to the end that he may rule justly, giving to every man his own, aiding good men and coercing bad, in short, that he may give justice to all men.  If then he violates the agreement according to which he was chosen, disturbing and confounding the very things which he was meant to put in order, reason dictates that he absolves the people from their obedience, especially when he has himself first broken the faith which bound him and the people together.*

* Quoted by A.J. and R.W. Carlyle in A history of Medieval Political Theory in the West , Vol. III, p. 164, n. 1.

For Manegold, a people’s allegiance to its ruler is a promise to support him in his lawful undertakings and is consequently void in the case of a tyrant.  In a sense, a tyrant committed treason by dishonouring the office of monarch and its implied and inherent obligations.

Restraints on the monarch were given formal status by their coronation oaths.  In England, Magna Carta (1215) moved matters on to another stage where a monarch was forced to agree to direct constraints on his power.  The example of Magna Carta in turn led to the development of the English Parliament, which moved from a petitioning and tax granting body in the 14th century to the point where it practically, if not in theory, usurped the power of the king.

As the power of monarchs waned, the emphasis of who was betrayed gradually moved to the idea that the entire population of a country was an entity in itself and betrayal of that entity amounted to treason.  The shift from monarch to people was completed with the advent of the formally democratic state, where, in theory at least, the general population became the sovereign.

Part 2 of Robert Henderson’s piece will appear tomorrow.

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