Thou art a Villain: The Changing Nature of Treason in the Middle Ages

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries have many defining features, yet one in particular stands out for its political significance. Unlike the preceding centuries, politics in England became increasingly violent, especially among the nobility – the earls and baronial class. While rebellions had occurred at key times during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries – notably with the civil strifes of 1100-6, 1135-1154, 1173-4 and 1216-17, the outcomes of these great events rarely resulted in the crown meeting out to any key opponent the ultimate sanction – death. In fact, between 1135 and 1265, not a single member of the Anglo-Norman nobility suffered corporeal punishment – death or mutilation.(1) Those of the noble class were spared by virtue of their position in society.

However, the rules of chess board were about to change. Following Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III (r. 1216-1272) in 1263-65, the recalcitrant earl, his eldest son Henry and up to 30 noble knights were hunted down during the battle of Evesham on 4 August 1265 and put to death on royal orders; de Montfort’s body mutilated.  Less than twenty years later, in 1282, Dafydd, native and titular Prince of Wales was dragged through the streets of Shrewsbury in October that year on the orders of Edward I (r.1272-1307) and hung, drawn and quartered. His declared crimes were numerous, including attempting to bring about the death of the English king. By 1306, the earl of Atholl was judiciously put to death for his opposition to Edward I in Scotland, while the greatest turning point in the story of noble treason itself, came in 1312, when the nobles of England turned on their own, murdering Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall. These events, in particular the latter, set a precedent that would reverberate down the centuries and alter the approach to the concept of treason right up until the eighteenth century. From 1312 onwards, no noble would ever again rebel without risk to his life. ‘The bloodless centuries gave way to the centuries of blood’.(2) So what had changed?

In the strict hierarchical society of medieval Europe, the knightly class were bound to their liege lords through oaths of allegiance, and whether directly or indirectly, all the subjects of the kingdom ultimately owed their allegiance to the king. Yet despite these bonds, if a lord or monarch breached that oath through their aggressive behaviour or ill-counsel, then the knight, earl or baron had the right to rebel. When King John’s rule became increasingly more tyrannical in the second decade of the thirteenth century, most notably when John revoked Magna Carta with papal approval, his magnates rose up against him. At times such as this, the oppressed would exert his right of diffidatio in which the oath between him and his liege was effectively dissolved, allowing the aggrieved party to take up arms against his master without the fear of corporeal punishment. It was an insurance policy that worked and became part of popular custom in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries in England. However, by the 1260’s, and especially after the 1280’s and 90’s with the execution of noble rebels in Wales and Scotland, this medieval ‘get out of jail free card’ was put aside for good.

An oath of allegiance was sacred in the medieval world, underpinning the bond between the individual and his liege lord

Yet it had not always been so. The definition of treason in this period as noted by contemporaries such as the great legal mind Glanvill, who was writing in the 1180’s, and later Bracton in the 1220’s, included plotting to kill the king, betraying the kingdom or the army.(3) This was a broad enough understanding that would protect many, yet nevertheless treason in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries did not lead to corporeal punishment. The principal reason lay in the geography and politics of the English kingdom. Before 1204 England was not isolated, but instead European in its outlook. Since William the Conqueror had taken England in 1066, the kingdom had been firstly part of the Anglo-Norman dominions, and then after Henry II assumed the throne in 1154, part of the extensive Angevin Empire which stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees. The Anglo-Norman nobility were European before they were English.

After William I deafeated Harold Godwinson at the battle of Hastings in 1066, England underwent a transformation, with the installation of Norman lords who replaced the Saxon English nobility. This redistribution of lands, titles and power to the victors of Hastings, created an intimate network of connected pan-European noble families that held extensive lands both in the Duchy of Normandy where William I was duke, but also in England. When William I died in 1087, the throne passed to his second son William Rufus (r. 1087-1100). Normandy passed to his eldest son Robert. It was only a matter of time before war broke out between the feuding brothers, including William II’s successor, the third brother Henry I (r. 1100-1135). This ensuing civil strife demanded that noble families take sides, and where rebellion and therefore treason followed, successive kings of England were unable to extensively prosecute those on the losing side, because to exercise corporeal punishment in England, would have caused further rebellion in their families’ domains in Normandy and later Anjou and elsewhere. This risked the loss of royal control over a wider empire. In short, forfeiture of land or imprisonment was a safer way of controlling rebel lords in the immediate centuries following the Norman invasion of England. During the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, no English or Norman lord was executed or mutilated for his political action against the rival claimants, only incurring the penalty of forfeiture. Lands changed hands frequently. In fact the only English earl technically executed after 1066 and before 1312 as a result of a trial, was the Saxon earl Waltheof whom William I most likely did not view through the same legal lens, and he had no lands outside of England in which to spread the threat of revenge or further revolt. Any fall out as a result of his execution was easy to contain. After the accession of Henry II in 1154 and the expansion of the Angevin Empire, the same rules of the chess board applied, the point somewhat reinforced.

However, the loss of Normandy in 1204 to Philip II of France, began to change the rulebook, albeit not immediately. For the first time in 140 years, England’s nobles were no longer connected by large swathes of continental landholdings. They became increasingly, albeit not exclusively, English-centric, and as such politics became more intense and internally focussed. When the rebellion under King John broke out in 1215, the custom of treating with rebel lords was still very much ingrained in society, despite the fact that punishing them severely at home was no longer risked wider rebellion in English-held overseas lands, excepting Gascony. In 1215 ‘King John wanted to execute the rebel garrisons of Tonbridge and Rochester castles, although the latter was full of nobles. On both occasions, he was stopped by the same argument, powerfully expressed by Savari de Mauléon, one of his leading captains;

“My Lord King, our war is not yet over, therefore you ought carefully to consider how the fortunes of war may turn, for if you now order us to hang these men, the barons, our enemies, will perhaps take me or other nobles of your army, and, following your example, hang us.”(4)

Moderation and fear for life, kept the nobility safe – at least for now. As did the code of chivalry. During rebellion, in the heat of battle, violence to the point of death against nobles was rare. Despite the popular view of the medieval world, warfare for the knightly class was not a deadly as it first appears. Certainly great battles were occasioned by fierce fighting on both sides, but in an age of chivalry which was at its height during the thirteenth and the early fourteenth centuries, the knightly class, made up in part of barons and earls, fought to a strict code of conduct. The aim was to capture your opponent, not to kill him and, with effective armour, this often resulted in just that. A captured knight kept healthy and alive could be ransomed, and this proved a lucrative, if a somewhat polite end, to a what could have been a deadly game. However, not all those on the battlefield were treated to such courtesies, as the main stay of the army, the foot and the archers, could be slaughtered at will. This act of knightly self-preservation ensured that the death toll from 1066-1322 from this level of medieval society as a result of directed violence was barely notable, even when these knights were in rebellion against their liege lord, often the king.

A strict code of chivalry bound the knightly class, reducing violent deaths in times of war

Yet by the dawn of the 1260’s, baronial treason placed significant pressure on established custom. In the violent and bitter personal clash between Henry III and Simon de Montfort, which ended in defeat in 1265 for the latter, de Montfort’s demise was savage. His breach of faith with the king certainly amounted to treason, but Simon was not afforded a trial and execution, just the royal sanction for his death on the battlefield. Too much water had passed under the bridge and for Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, it was all too personal. This created a subtle shift in the established rules. De Montfort’s end in battle was justified by the court as an inevitable moment in a much wider war, even though contemporaries noted that the slaughter of 30 knights including the earl of Leicester and his eldest son was unusually savage, the chronicler Robert of Gloucester writing ‘the murder of Evesham, for battle it was none‘.(5)

Edward I learnt something in 1265. Later, he went on during his own kingship to promote harsher punishments for rebel nobles, albeit the ultimate penalty for treason was meted out on those of none-English stock. The fate of Dafydd, Prince of Wales as noted above in 1282, and another Welshman Rhys ap Maredudd followed, both being hung, drawn and quartered. It is often thought that this was the first time such punishments were given, but in fact the sentence of being hung, drawn and quartered was used prior, albeit reserved for the worse of crimes committed by commoners. Applying such barbaric punishments on the nobility, up until this point was therefore an evolution. The Scottish earl of Atholl was executed for his opposition to an ailing and irate Edward I struggling to overcome the Scots shortly before his own death when his health was failing fast. As with all these cases, execution of a noble was sanctioned because they had committed treason under English law. Importantly all had been given royal approval for their ultimate end. Politics was getting raw and gritty.

.Town_square_350x3551312 changed the rules of the game permanently. The rise of Piers Gaveston at the court of Edward II and subsequent noble opposition to him, ultimately brought about the murder of the earl of Cornwall in June that year. He was led from Warwick Castle to Blacklow Hill where he was run through the stomach and beheaded. His death shocked contemporaries, all the more because his killers had committed their crime when Gaveston was still under royal protection. Edward II’s determination to bring his lover’s killers to book ultimately brought about the death of the principal lead, Thomas of Lancaster, the king’s cousin and most powerful earl in England in 1322. Lancaster’s execution outside the walls of Pontefract Castle, a revenge killing, now meant that opposition to the crown could be met with the most extreme of punishments. By 1330, the earls of Winchester, Arundel, Kent and March had all been executed by various leaders and Edward II himself deposed. This bloodbath which had occurred due to a progressive evolution of punishment associated with treason since 1265, had been tipped over the edge by the personal and the political, much like the demise of Simon de Montfort had been in 1265.

After 1312, the medieval world was not quite the same again. The bloodbath that ensued towards the end of the reign of Edward II, was revisited during the reign of his great-grandson Richard II. The following century would see the onslaught of the Cousins’ War or the War of the Roses in which no noble was safe and paid dearly with their lives. Rebellion was treason, and treason was paid from now on in with the ultimate sanction.

Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance‘ available here at Waterstones  Amazon  Foyles  Amberley Publishing



(1) Carpenter, DA. From King John to the first English Duke: 1215-1337 in The House of Lords: A Thousand Years of History. ed R. Smith & J. Moore (London, 1998), 29. Content for this article is drawn principally from this work.

(2) Ibid, 29

(3) GDG Hall, ed Glanvill (London, 1965), 171. GE Woodbine, ed Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England (Cambridge, Mass, 1968), 334

(4) Carpenter, 34 citing, H.R Laud, ed Matthaet Parisiensis Chronica Majora (Rolls Serie, 7 vols, 1884-9), 626; F. Michel, ed Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois Angleterre (Societe de l’historie de France, 1840), 163

(5) W A Wright, ed. The Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (Rolls Series, 2 vols, 1887), II, line 11, 736


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