Treason and Masculinity in Medieval England

Gender, Law and Political Culture

E. Amanda McVitty

Dr McVitty, we are grateful to you for joining us. Would you please describe your studies to date and the origins of your interest in the Middle Ages?
When I was young, we had a wonderful collection of mismatched china featuring historical scenes, and my mother would tell us stories based on the images. I was entranced by the stories of people like Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine, so when I got to university I studied every medieval topic I could. My postgraduate research focused on the meanings attributed to the execution of traitors. I was fascinated by the divergence between the political messages kings and their officials intended to communicate, and the often-subversive interpretations placed upon executions by the wider populace. As I looked deeper into the varied ways treason was perceived, I started to work more with legal records. These raised a whole new set of questions about how prosecutorial narratives were constructed and the political work they did. I also wanted to know much more about how people defended themselves from charges of treason and about the many cases that did not end on the scaffold but in jury acquittals or royal pardons.

Treason and Masculinity in Medieval England: Gender, Law and Political Culture
E. Amanda McVitty
264pp, 9781783275557
Hardback: £70 / $99
(eBook available – ask your librarian)
Boydell Press

Your book is the first extended study of the laws of treason in medieval England for around 50 years. Why do you think such a crucial topic has been so under-studied?
John Bellamy’s 1970 book The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages remains valuable, so historians approaching the topic from more traditional legal and political perspectives have perhaps not seen a need for another comprehensive study. It was my own interests in gender, legal culture and in the ways political legitimacy was performed and contested that left me unsatisfied with existing accounts and led me to ask new questions. Also, because treason was such a ubiquitous concern in later medieval England – in the political sphere but also as a prominent theme in chivalric literature, chronicles, religious works and so on – it has generated an intimidating amount of source material. While some sources are available in print, much is less accessible and presents practical challenges. For example, I draw extensively on legal records, most of which survive only in original manuscript. To read them, one has to get into the archives and get to grips with all three languages of the medieval English legal system (Latin, French and Middle English).

What period does your book cover and how did you settle on it?
Originally, I planned to start with 1352’s Great Statute of Treasons and go to the end of the Hundred Years War. However, I quickly found my original scope was simply too broad for the kind of close analysis of narrative sources I wanted to do. Anxieties about treason increase in periods of intense political instability and constitutional uncertainty (witness the talk of treason and ‘enemies of the people’ that has recently become prevalent in the UK and Hong Kong). So I decided to hone in on the political rupture of 1399, when Richard II of England was deposed and Henry IV usurped the throne. It then made logical sense to work backwards to the political crisis of 1387-8 and the ‘state trials’ of the Merciless Parliament and forwards, to discover how the first Lancastrian kings dealt with challenges to their power.

Can you give us an idea of what would have been understood by the term treason during the period covered?
Taking into account the perspectives of prosecuting authorities but of the accused, of the jurymen who heard their cases and of the wider political community, it becomes clear that what made a man a traitor could by no means be universally agreed. Legal narratives could incorporate tropes from chivalric literature, which reflected the cultural understanding of treason as a betrayal of knightly honour and of natural bonds of loyalty between men. This traditional idea of treason as personal betrayal was also present at non-elite levels of society. The medieval church connected treason to the fundamental rejection of God, and associated it with other mortal ‘sins against nature’ such as sodomy and heresy. Even within the royal justice system, treason had multiple meanings. The 1352 Great Statute of Treasons – which was supposed to settle the legal definition once and for all – left much room for interpretation. According to this statute, treason encompassed plans or attempts to kill the king, his queen or his oldest son; aiding the king’s enemies; or engaging in sexual intercourse with the king’s wife, oldest daughter or the wife of his eldest son. Alongside these notions of treason as a crime focused on the king’s person and his family, the statute listed attacks on more ‘public’ embodiments of power, such as killing senior royal representatives while they were about official business.

How often were charges of treason formally raised, and in what sort of circumstances?
My book considers treason arising in three contexts. First are cases involving members of the political elite who were, or were perceived to be, too close to the king. In this context, treason charges were often the product of factional politics, as one group of powerful men tried to destroy their enemies by having them executed as traitors. Secondly, there were outbreaks of treason involving formerly loyal noblemen and knights who, for various reasons, came to oppose the king and sometimes, to mount rebellions against him. Thirdly, after Richard II was deposed, the new Lancastrian regime waged periodic campaigns against political dissent that led to a new focus on the prosecution of treasonous speech. These kinds of cases involved very ordinary people – servants, artisans and so on – and sometimes started simply with talk in a tavern or the circulation of rumours. From 1406, the Lancastrian authorities were also making a distinctive connection between political dissent and religious dissent, so that treason and heresy became intertwined in the eyes of the royal justice system.

How did you go about researching the subject? Was there any main source that was particularly crucial?
I began with accounts of treason in contemporary chronicles, the rolls of parliament and legislation. I then started delving into court records, particularly King’s Bench plea rolls and indictment files. These turned out to be extremely rich and became a major focus. While they need to be interpreted with great care because they are the narrative products of specific procedural and documentary practices, they do preserve glimpses of the strategies accused men used to defend themselves. The records incorporate some fascinating survivals, too, such as letters of confession. These were part of the process of petitioning for royal mercy so they were shaped to the king’s expectations, but they also provide some insight into how people explained themselves or tried to deflect blame, for example by claiming they were so gullible they were duped into treason.

Does the definition of treason change over the period, or is it the significance and the use of it that altered?
Treason was always too multivalent, legally but also politically and culturally, to pin down any one definition; even in a single case, different definitions could either reinforce or contest each another. One significant development, though, was the steady expansion in the scope of treason between the 1380s and 1420s, and especially new precedents for the prosecution of speech alone as an act of treason. This could include transgressions such as publicly denying the king’s legitimacy, trying to talk others out of their ‘natural love and allegiance’, or simply calling Henry IV by his pre-usurpation title ‘Henry of Lancaster’. There is also an important change in the constitutional understanding of what political bodies were hurt by traitors – the king and his heirs but also, increasingly, more abstract entities of the ‘nation’ or ‘people’ of England, conceptually identified through charges such as that traitors planned to destroy ‘the common law and common tongue’ of England.

Has treason always related to both state and monarch?
There was no concept of the state as a discrete political entity in early medieval England, so that treason was a crime very much focused on the person of the king. From the later thirteenth century, treason was coming to be perceived as a betrayal of the king in his personal capacity but also in his public capacity as the embodiment of legitimate power. Over the period I examine, there is a distinctive legal shift towards defining treason as an attack on the monarch but also, separately, as a crime against the state or nation as discrete political entities that were intertwined with, but not wholly coterminous with, the person of the king. This is demonstrated well by a case in 1400, where an argument was made that there are two types of treason – one against a ‘singular person’ and another against the ‘chose publique’ – and the two could not be conflated. It is also in this period that we start to see treason defined in legal judgments as a betrayal of the nation of England.

Your book is published in our Gender in the Middle Ages series. Please tell us how concepts of gender and treason were shaped by each other.
Treason in this period was predicated upon a late medieval ideal of ‘true manhood’. To be a true man was to be loyal and honourable; to uphold justice and right order; and to be honest and keep one’s word or oath. This concept of true manhood was fundamental to the performance of masculine identity at all levels of society and it underpinned a political system that functioned through horizontal and vertical bonds of service and ‘good lordship’ between men. The narratives of treason prosecutions defined traitors first and foremost as ‘false men’ because they had transgressed or corrupted these ‘natural’ bonds. On the rare occasions women appeared in treason cases, they were quickly sidelined with the focus turning instead to their male accomplices. This was because in a masculine political culture in which women were excluded from office and other formal channels of power, they were not seen as capable of committing the political crime of treason (although they could be prosecuted for the ‘petty’ or domestic treason of killing their husband or master). Thus legal definitions of treason both reflected and reinforced gendered norms of political subjecthood and political agency.

And what the lasting effects of this? Did masculinity and treason / loyalty remain intertwined?
The limited work I have done to date on the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries does suggest that treason retained its gendered meaning. Notions of masculine honour, loyalty, and betrayal of male bonds certainly remained relevant to the ways treason was understood in legal culture but also, for example, to the way it was treated as a theme in literature and drama. However, there do also seem to be more women charged with treason as we move into the early modern period, perhaps related to the legal and political changes brought about by the Reformation and to shifting notions of heresy and its relationship to treason.

What surprised you most from all your research?
As a medievalist, I was surprised to find so many resonances with current political events and public debates. In the UK, the Brexit debacle produced those notorious newspaper headlines screaming about ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘betrayal’, and simultaneously fostered virulent debates about individuals’ alleged loyalty to the ‘nation’. As I was writing this, US President Donald Trump changed his stance on the government whistleblower Edward Snowden, with Trump now considering pardoning the man he had previously excoriated as a traitor worthy of execution. More broadly, fifteenth-century legal conflicts over the nature of dissenting public speech and divergence of opinion between royal judicial authorities, jurymen and the broader political community over when it crossed the line to the criminal act of treason put me in mind of our own conflicts over freedom of speech and the legal limits on ‘hate speech’.

What is next for you now? Do you plan more work in this field?
I’m continuing my research into masculinity and legal culture with a new project (supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund) on masculinity and the early common law profession. This seeks to analyse how the man of law’s gendered identity was discursively constructed and materially embodied, and to examine how changing ideals and experiences of manhood shaped common law culture and notions of legal authority over the profession’s first formative centuries.

I also want to pursue the question of women and treason, following the thread of my argument into the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to see how the treatment of women implicated in treason plots changed; and to explore the implications for gendered legal meanings of treason and related notions of political subjecthood. When I can find the time, I’m beginning to read the details of cases like that of Eleanor, duchess of Gloucester, Margaret Pole, and Anne Boleyn.

We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
I’m a great user of Twitter and that’s where I get most of my news on upcoming publications these days. It’s great being able to follow the accounts of publishers but also to talk directly to other scholars about what they are working on and what they have coming out. In normal times, I also love the book exhibitions at conferences and usually drag home a suitcase packed with new purchases. That’s something I’m definitely missing during the Covid-19 pandemic!


E. AMANDA McVITTY is a Lecturer in History in the School of Humanities, Massey University, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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