As Dr McVitty explains below, her new book presents a new interpretation of treason, not only as a legal construct, a political weapon and a tool for constitutional thinking, but also as a cultural category, aligning it with questions of gender, vernacularity and national identity.
What does it mean when a man is hung from a scaffold, disembowelled and beheaded, his body quartered and nailed to the city gates? In contemporary popular culture, the visceral spectacle of the traitor’s execution is visual shorthand for the supposed ‘barbarity’ of the medieval past. It’s an image we watch with ghoulish fascination or turn away from in perplexed disgust, unable to reconcile it with more ‘rational’ modern approaches to crime and punishment. Rarely, we probe the deeper meanings of these rituals and ask how they worked to delineate the constitutional limits of legitimate power.
Anxieties about treason lurked everywhere in medieval England, sparking bloody ‘state trials’ such as those in Richard II’s Merciless Parliament and driving campaigns against popular dissent under his Lancastrian successors. When I began reading legislation and trial records, I was immediately struck by how central male bodies were to legal constructions of treason and to the ways people defended themselves from accusations. The medieval body politic was conceived of by default as a male body, with the king as its head and his male subjects as its limbs. But if the male body was the embodiment of the state, it was also the symbol of its threatened destruction, so that traitors who tried to strike the head from the body politic would find themselves headless and their bodies divided.
This gendered political imaginary passes without comment in traditional histories of treason, perhaps seeming so obvious as to need no examination. But as I show in my book, this means that treason was not the gender-neutral legal abstraction it is usually assumed to be. Rather, treason was inherently gendered as masculine because its meanings were predicated upon a potent but unstable medieval ideal of ‘true manhood’. This had profound implications for the ways treason was defined and for the judicial treatment of flesh-and-blood men and women.
Whether the traitor plotted to murder the king in his own bed, confronted him in battle, or committed more nebulous offences such as questioning the king’s parentage, treason always began with the breaking of ‘natural’ bonds between men. These were bonds of loyalty, service, and ‘good lordship’ through which political society functioned. Occasionally, the traitor’s heinous and unnatural character saw him tainted by another gendered ‘sin against nature’, the crime of sodomy. Simultaneously, legal records enacted legitimate kingship in response to political crises. For example, when in 1399 Henry IV usurped Richard II’s throne, treason proceedings helped him join his own male ‘body natural’ to the masculine body politic of the realm.
Occasionally, I found women implicated in treason plots but curiously, they received minimal punishment while their male accomplices suffered the terrors of public execution. Why might this be? I contend that because women were thought to have no public role in a masculine polity, they were believed incapable of the political crime of treason. This gendered worldview explains a significant shift in treason law in the early 1400s, when dissenting speech came to be punished as an act that merited a traitor’s death. My analysis of King’s Bench records showed this precedent was grounded in a broader cultural shift whereby men’s public speech became characterised as an embodied act that could do material harm, while women’s speech was minimised as gossip.
While I was interested in changing definitions of treason, I also wanted to know how men defended themselves when charged with this gravest betrayal of political loyalties and personal honour. Elite men staged theatrically physical claims to chivalric virtue and true manhood through trial by combat. Far below the nobility, tradesmen and servants circulated petitions claiming that by resisting an illegitimate king, they were being loyal subjects. Their textual and verbal performances were more articulate than we might expect, drawing on shared values of civic manhood and the common good that resonated powerfully with their urban audiences.
Of all the cases I examined, my favourite was that of John Wyghtlok, a London man of no distinction until he was charged with treason for posting handbills questioning Henry IV’s claim to the throne. Wyghtlok justified his opposition to the Lancastrian regime on the grounds of his manly loyalty to the deposed Richard but also, intriguingly, as a true man to the crown and people of England. A copy of Wyghtlok’s bill survived in the records of King’s Bench, providing a rare glimpse of his sophisticated political vision in which the body of a usurper could legitimately be separated from the political body of the crown.