Early modern English perceptions of traitors were largely defined by the Biblical descriptions of Judas, who was presented as being synonymous with moral corruption and betrayal. Luke 6:16 mentions ‘Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitour’.[1] This passage influenced many theologians and moralists such as Thomas Watson, who warned that those ‘lyve after the fleshe, and be fettered in the cheynes of synne and vyce, they receyve with Judas the traytour poyson, and runne to the halter of spiritual hanging in hel, beyng condemned both for theyr other manyfolde synnes’.[2] Similarly, John Norden castigated ‘that notorious Arch-traytor Judas, who for monie betrayed his Maister, and Lord, the Saviour of the world Jesus Christ’.[3]

While the figure of Judas Iscariot provided the ethical parameters that defined treason and traitors in popular culture, from an English legal perspective, a ‘traitor’ was any individual who acted against the Crown. Such were the parameters issued in the first statute of treason under Edward III in 1352. During Henry VIII’s reign, legislation against treason was expanded to enforce the Reformation, with established treason becoming an offence against both the monarch and his reformed Church. The emergence of the Counter-Reformation, and attempts made by the Catholic powers and Rome to destabilize Elizabeth I’s regime, instigated the establishment of new treason statutes throughout the 1570s and 1580s. Following the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis of 1570 that excommunicated Elizabeth and denied her royal status, the new English legislation on treason established by the ‘Acte whereby certayne Offences bee made Treason’ (1570), define the Pope and the ‘Romish Religion’ declared enemies of the queen and the English state and church, and all subjects who followed the Catholic Church became therefore potential traitors. The new legistlation included as acts of treason any attempt to attack or conspire against the life and royal dignity of the monarch, as well as ‘maliciously, advisedly and directly publish, declare, hold opinion, affirm or say by any speech express words or sayings, that our said sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth during her life is not or ought not to be Queen of this realm of England and also of the realms of France and Ireland’.[4] The act also made it treasonable to circulate and promulgate papal bulls in the dominions ruled by the queen. Subsequently, in 1581, the ‘Acte to retain the Queen’s Majesty’s Subjects in the due Obedience’ established that those who promised ‘any Obedience to any pretended Authority of the See of Rome, or to any other Prince, State or Potentate, to be had or used within her Dominions … or shall do any overt Act to that Intent or Purpose; and every of them shall be to all Intents adjudged to be Traytors, and being thereof lawfully convicted shall have Judgement, suffer and forfeit, as in Case of High Treason’.[5]

One of the main elements associated with traitors was their mobility between England and enemy countries. Leading figures of the English Catholic community in continental Europe, such as the Jesuit Robert Persons, were often labelled as traitors to their country for living in hostile countries and rejecting Elizabeth’s authority . The option to live in exile, which was a consequence of a rejection of the political and religious regime, although not necessarily an act of treason, symbolically indicated that an English subject accepted a ‘strange and forein law, [which] is both a strange power, and a forein traytor to the Kings crowne’.[6] This observation made by Gervase Babington on the legitimacy of the appeals made by Englishmen based on canon law suggested that those who lived outside England and opted to live according to foreign laws could be considered to be traitors, since they rejected or lived outside the legal apparatus that legitimated and supported the English Crown. Babington use of the expression ‘forein traytor’, evokes the superiority of English law above all others, and suggests that any act against the ‘Kings crowne’, even when performed by a foreigner, could be regarded as treason, as it happened with Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese physician of Elizabeth I who was executed for high treason in 1594.

Traitors became therefore associated with specific figures of political rebels or outcasts who decided to embrace a life of exile, dependent on the goodwill of more or less sympathetic foreign powers, or lived between home and abroad according to the political scenario. According to William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, the new statutes on treasonable acts aimed to target these individuals who had ‘escaped into forreine countries, & there because in none or few places rebels and traitours to their naturall Princes and countries dare for their treasons chalenge at their first muster open comfort or succour, these notable traitors and rebels, have falsely informed many Kings, Princes and States, and specially the Bishoppe of Rome, commonly called the Pope, (from whome they all had secretely their first comfort to rebell) that the cause of their fleeing from their countries was for the religion of Rome, and for maintenance of the said Popes authoritie’.[7] Some of these exiles and fugitives, according to Cecil, had ‘notorious evill and wicked lives’. Charles Neville, for example, was a ‘person utterly wasted by loosenesse of life, & by Gods punishment … his bodie is nowe eaten with ulcers of lewde causes, all his companions do see, that no enemie he had can wish him a viler punishment’.[8] Another rebel, Thomas Stukley, was ‘a defamed person almost through all Christendome, & a faithlesse beast rather then a man, fleeing first out of England for notable piracies, and out of Ireland for trecheries not pardonable’. The fact that the Catholic Church used these men who were ‘voide of all Christian religion’ demonstrated the amorality of traitors who, motivated by ‘wicked purposes’, accepted ‘to take armes against their lawfull Queene, to invade her realme with forreine forces, to pursue al her good subjects and their native countries with fire & sworde’. According to Cecil, the Catholic exiles who conspired against Elizabeth, by serving a foreign prince and rejecting the Reformation, acted not only against the queen but were ‘contrarie to all the Lawes of God and man’.[9]

One of the problems in dealing with ‘traitor’ was that acts of treason could be performed by anyone. Cecil believed that traitors had ‘divers conditions and qualities’ and included not only those who were exiled abroad, but those who lived ‘in beggerie’, those who were ‘discontented for lacke of preferments, which they gaped for unworthily in Universities & other places’ or ‘banckerupt Marchants’.[10] Some of these traitors spent most of their lives ‘running up and downe, from Countrey to countrey’. Cecil thus considered mobility and contacts with rival or hostile countries as a potential cause for treasonable acts. Outside England, the subjects of Elizabeth I could be attracted by the enemies of the queen, and those who already opposed the queen and Protestantism would naturally seek to ‘to gather forces and money for forces, some with instigation of Princes by untruethes to make warre upon their natural country, some with inwarde practises to murder the GREATEST’.

Cecil maintained that to write and share ‘publique infamous libels, ful of despitefull vile termes and poysoned lyes, altogether to upholde the foresaide antichristian and tyrannous warrant of the Popes Bull’ were treacherous acts.[11] Such remarks on ‘traitors’ as those who used ‘vile terms and poisoned lyes’ as their arsenal reveal a perception that traitors were not only those who threatened the life of the monarch, but, increasingly, their reputation. Disseminating dangerous ideas on a level that was difficult to control had became easier through the rise of the print: anyone who spread ideas or used injurious words that had the potential to damage the dignity and legitimacy of the monarch. Those who spread destructive words were ‘wicked and traitorous persons, monsters of men’, individuals that ‘without regard of duty or conscience, and without fear of God or man’ used their ‘malice’ to attack the queen and her government ‘not only by railing open speeches but also by false, lying and traitorous libels’.[12]

The concern with treason by words exposes the state’s attempts to respond to, and control, the growing print market that different political and religious groups used to transmit their ideas. As Edward Nisbet noted in 1601, ‘seditious thoughts like an inwarde maladie, bee hurtfull to the heart, wherein they rest, therfore are they to bee avoyded: but seditious words like a contagious disease do infect others, therefore are they more to be abhorred’.[13] Apart from an attempt to censor the contents and impact of the polemical works published in early modern England, the Elizabethan and Stuart concerns with words reveal a perception that speech could reveal the mind and intentions of a traitor, with speech in some ways actualizing their thoughts. In the case of one Arthur Crohagan, an Irish Dominican friar who stated in a heated discussion with English merchants and sailors in Lisbon that he would kill James I, it was observed that the words said by the Irish Dominican revealed ‘his traitterous intent, and the imagination of his heart’.[14] Nonetheless, as David Cressy has observed, few Elizabethan and Stuart subjects were executed as traitors for using words against the sovereign. One of the leading Elizabethan and Jacobean jurists, Edward Coke, emphasised ‘that bare words may make an heretic, but not a traitor without an overt act’ and that ‘merely speaking scandalous words of the king was not treason’, although the use of ‘words which incited to his murder were an overt act’ could deserve the capital punishment.[15]

Coke was an expert in cases of treason. He was the attorney-general in the trials that condemned Sir Walter Ralegh for his involvement in the Main Plot of 1603 – a conspiracy to overthrow James I and invite foreign troops to invade England – and those involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – a failed regicide attempt by a group of Catholics. These two conspiracies revealed the initial fragilities and anxieties of the king regarding the loyalty of his subjects, where confession dispute bred traitors at home, for subjects were no longer united politically through their religion. While the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot seemed to confirm perceptions of the ‘traitor’ as an English Catholic who followed foreign interests, Ralegh’s trials and execution for high treason, revealed a perception of the figure of the traitor as a deviant character who rejected the social and political order. Commenting on the trials of the Main Plot, John Cowell defined treason in 1607 as ‘an offence committed against the amplitude and majesty of the commonwealth’ and High Treason as ‘an offence done against the security of the commonwealth, or of the King’s most excellent Majesty’. In other words, Ralegh’s trial confirmed the traitor as a pariah who acted against the interest of the community or attacked the royal dignity and authority of the monarch, who embodied the commonwealth.

Although James pardoned Ralegh in 1617, the English aristocrat would be executed in 1618 following Spanish diplomatic pressures to annul the king’s pardon after Ralegh’s 1617 expedition to Guyana and modern-day Venezuela. The trial, condemnation, pardon and execution of Sir Walter Ralegh reveal therefore that it was monarch who defined the different levels of treason and identified those who were traitors according to the interests of the state. It was this articulation between the necessities of the state, and the laws on treason, that led to parliament condemning their own king, Charles I, as a ‘traitor’ in 1649. Although the king was head of state, the members of Parliament considered that his authority limited. Parliament framed Charles’ decision to ‘levy War against the parliament and Kingdom of England’ as an act against the true sovereign power in the realm, parliament and English laws. Although the execution of Charles was the ultimate consequence of the royalist defeat in the English civil wars, the fact that the king was trialled as a traitor was both an innovation and a confirmation of English legal and moralist perceptions of treason and traitors. The king’s execution was justified for his actions against the commonwealth and the sovereign institutions of the state, but also from a moral perspective which associated treason with wickedness, cruelty, and unlawful behaviour, which made Charles ‘a Tyrant, Traytor and Murtherer … a Publique Enemy to the Comonwealth of England’.[16]

After the Restoration, supporters of the House of Stuart used the same image of the traitor as a morally corrupt enemy of the commonwealth, this time to support the royalist cause. In a post-Restoration account of Charles’ trial, John Nalson presented the execution of the king as the unprecedented act of treason perpetrated by ‘Enemies of Mankind’ who, ‘with the most plausible Pretences of The Publick Good’ executed a ‘horrid, premeditated Conspiracy, whose Foundations were laid so deep, so secret, and with so much devilish Art’ that ‘never did Prosperous Treason animate the Traitors to those unheard of flights of insolent Wickedness, so as not only to subvert the Government, and dethrone their Soveraign, but to Arraign and Judge, Condemn and Execute their King’.[17] This, Nalson believed, was an act that ‘with all the solemn and impudent Formalities’ only brought ‘pretended Justice, even in the Face of the Sun, and view of the whole World, as if they would at the same instant defie both the Vengeance of Heaven and Earth’.[18] ‘Traitor’ was thus described in a way that seemed unnatural; a figure that operated against the laws of man and God and even the ‘[f]ace of the Sun’. Although the growth of the early modern state made ‘traitor’ a heavily political term, the ‘traitor’ was grounded in ideas of personal betrayal and broken trust. ‘[T]he blackest’ monster was ‘the Traytor-Friend’, one who chose to break the bonds of amity and loyalty.[19] It was the slipperiness of the traitor, his or her willingness to abandon ‘Englishness’ for cross-confessional or cross-national loyalties, that made such individual the locus of mistrust and double-dealing. Sinful man had inherited this from a traitor who preceded even Judas: Satan. Traitors were morally-corrupt, but the arch-traitor had disturbed peace and world harmony, as John Milton suggested when he presented Satan as ‘Traitor-Angel … Who first broke peace in heaven’.[20] ‘O cursed worse, O exerable serpent’, wrote John Dryden in 1700, ‘Fals-hearted traitor, harbourer of evil’.[21] Just as Satan had broken the bonds of his covenant with God, so crafty, faithless, or ‘false’ hearts conveyed a perversion of the bonds between man and God, between man and fellow man, that made harmonious society possible.
Detail from The Gunpowder Conspirators[22]
1. Matthew Parker (ed), The holie Bible conteynyng the olde Testament and the newe (London, 1568; STC 2099), p. xxxviii.
2. Thomas Watson, Holsome and catholyke doctryne concerninge the seven Sacramentes of Chrystes Church (London, 1558; STC 25112.5), p. lvi.
3. John Norden, A sinfull mans solace most sweete and comfortable, for the sicke and sorowful soule (London 1585; STC 18634), p. 18.
4. ‘An Acte whereby certayne Offences bee made Treason (1570)', in The Statutes at Large, of England and of Great-Britain: From Magna Carta to the Union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. IV, ed. by John Raithby (London: Eyre and Strahan, 1811), p. 275.
5. ‘An Acte to retain the Queen’s Majesty’s Subjects in the due Obedience (1581)', in ibid., p. 374.
6. George Babington, Certaine considerations drawne from the canons of the last Sinod (London, 1605; STC 4585), sig. G3r.
7. William Cecil, The execution of justice in England for maintenaunce of publique and Christian peace (London, 1583; STC 4902), unpaginated.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Edward Nisbet, Caesars dialogue (London, 1601; STC 18432.5), p. 31.
14. Ibid., p. 242.
15. Quoted in David Cressey, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 90-1.
16. J. Nalson, A True copy of the journal of the High Court of Justice for the tryal of K. Charles I (London, 1684; Wing T2645), p. 81.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid., pp. ii-iii.
19. John Dryden, Chaucer's Palamon, quoted in ‘traitor, n.’, Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 21 August 2017].
20. John Milton, Paradise lost a poem in twelve books (London, 1674; Wing M2144), p. 48.
21. Francis Sabie, Adams complaint (London, 1596; STC 21534), sig. C4v.
22. Detail from The Gunpowder Conspirators, engraving by Crispijn de Passe the Elde (1605)
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