Treason: Wikis


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The arrest of Christ. Judas betraying Christ with a kiss. Oil on canvas by Caravaggio, 1602

In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more serious acts of betrayal of one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife (treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a lesser superior was petit treason). A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor.

Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as: "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]." In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aided or involved by such an endeavour.

Outside legal spheres, the word "traitor" may also be used to describe a person who betrays (or is accused of betraying) their own political party, nation, family, friends, ethnic group, team, religion, social class, or other group to which they may belong. Often, such accusations are controversial and disputed, as the person may not identify with the group of which they are a member, or may otherwise disagree with the group leaders making the charge. See, for example, race traitor.

At times, the term "traitor" has been levelled as a political epithet, regardless of any verifiable treasonable action. In a civil war or insurrection, the winners may deem the losers to be traitors. Likewise the term "traitor" is used in heated political discussion – typically as a slur against political dissidents, or against officials in power who are perceived as failing to act in the best interest of their constituents. In certain cases, as with the German Dolchstoßlegende, the accusation of treason towards a large group of people can be a unifying political message.

In English law, high treason was punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered (men) or burnt at the stake (women), the only crime which attracted those penalties (until the Treason Act 1814). The penalty was used by later monarchs against people who could reasonably be called traitors, although most modern jurists would call it excessive. Many of them would now just be considered dissidents.

In William Shakespeare's play King Lear (circa 1600), when the King learns that his daughter Regan has publicly dishonoured him, he says They could not, would not do 't; 'tis worse than murder: a conventional attitude at that time. In Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the ninth and lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors; Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, suffers the worst torments of all: being constantly gnawed at by one of Lucifer's own three mouths. His treachery is considered so notorious that his name has long been synonymous with traitor, a fate he shares with Benedict Arnold, Marcus Junius Brutus (who too is depicted in Dante's Inferno, suffering the same fate as Judas along with Cassius Longinus), and Vidkun Quisling. Indeed, the etymology of the word traitor originates with Judas' handing over of Jesus to the Roman authorities: the word is derived from the Latin traditorem which means "one who delivers."[1]

Cartoon depicting Václav Bělský (1818 - 1878), Mayor of Prague from 1863 till 1867, in charge of the city during Prussian occupation in July 1866. Some forces wanted to try him for high treason (left: "What some men wished" - "Dr. Bělský for high treason"), but he got a full confidence from the Council of Prague (right: "but what they did not expect" - "address of confidence from the city of Prague").



Section 80.1 of the Criminal Code, contained in the schedule of the Criminal Code Act 1995, defines treason as follows:

"A person commits an offence, called treason, if the person:
(a) causes the death of the Sovereign, the heir apparent of the Sovereign, the consort of the Sovereign, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister; or
(b) causes harm to the Sovereign, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister resulting in the death of the Sovereign, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister; or
(c) causes harm to the Sovereign, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister, or imprisons or restrains the Sovereign, the Governor-General or the Prime Minister; or
(d) levies war, or does any act preparatory to levying war, against the Commonwealth; or
(e) engages in conduct that assists by any means whatever, with intent to assist, an enemy:
(i) at war with the Commonwealth, whether or not the existence of a state of war has been declared; and
(ii) specified by Proclamation made for the purpose of this paragraph to be an enemy at war with the Commonwealth; or
(f) engages in conduct that assists by any means whatever, with intent to assist:
(i) another country; or
(ii) an organisation;
that is engaged in armed hostilities against the Australian Defence Force; or
(g) instigates a person who is not an Australian citizen to make an armed invasion of the Commonwealth or a Territory of the Commonwealth; or
(h) forms an intention to do any act referred to in a preceding paragraph and manifests that intention by an overt act."

A person is not guilty of treason under paragraphs (e), (f) or (h) if their assistance or intended assistance is purely humanitarian in nature.

The maximum penalty for treason is life imprisonment.

Section 24AA of the Crimes Act 1914 creates the related offence of treachery.

New South Wales

The Treason Act 1351, the Treason Act 1795 and the Treason Act 1817 form part of the law of New South Wales. The Treason Act 1795 and the Treason Act 1817 have been repealed by section 11 of the Crimes Act 1900, except in so far as they relate to the compassing, imagining, inventing, devising, or intending death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim, or wounding, imprisonment, or restraint of the person of the heirs and successors of King George III of the United Kingdom, and the expressing, uttering, or declaring of such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them.

Section 12 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) creates an offence which is derived from section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848:

12 Compassing etc deposition of the Sovereign--overawing Parliament etc

Whosoever, within New South Wales or without, compasses, imagines, invents, devises, or intends to deprive or depose Our Most Gracious Lady the Queen, her heirs or successors, from the style, honour, or Royal name of the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom, or of any other of Her Majesty's dominions and countries, or to levy war against Her Majesty, her heirs or successors, within any part of the United Kingdom, or any other of Her Majesty's dominions, in order, by force or constraint, to compel her or them to change her or their measures or counsels, or in order to put any force or constraint upon, or in order to intimidate or overawe, both Houses or either House of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, or the Parliament of New South Wales, or to move or stir any foreigner or stranger with force to invade the United Kingdom, or any other of Her Majesty's dominions, or countries under the obeisance of Her Majesty, her heirs or successors, and expresses, utters, or declares such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, or intentions, or any of them, by publishing any printing or writing, or by open and advised speaking, or by any overt act or deed, shall be liable to imprisonment for 25 years.

Section 16 provides that nothing in Part 2 repeals or affects anything enacted by the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw.3 c.2). This section reproduces section 6 of the Treason Felony Act 1848.


The offence of treason was created by section 9A(1) of the Crimes Act 1958.


According to Brazilian law, treason is the crime of disloyalty by a citizen to the Federal Republic of Brazil, applying to combatants of the Brazilian military forces. Treason during warfare is the only crime for which a person can be sentenced to death (see capital punishment in Brazil).

The only military person in the history of Brazil to be convicted of treason was Carlos Lamarca, an army captain who deserted to become the leader of a left-wing guerrilla against the military dictatorship.


Section 46 of the Criminal Code of Canada has two degrees of treason, called "high treason" and "treason." However, both of these belong to the historical category of high treason, as opposed to petty treason which does not exist in Canadian law. Section 46 reads as follows:

"High treason
(1) Every one commits high treason who, in Canada,
(a) kills or attempts to kill Her Majesty, or does her any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maims or wounds her, or imprisons or restrains her;
(b) levies war against Canada or does any act preparatory thereto; or
(c) assists an enemy at war with Canada, or any armed forces against whom Canadian Forces are engaged in hostilities, whether or not a state of war exists between Canada and the country whose forces they are.
(2) Every one commits treason who, in Canada,
(a) uses force or violence for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Canada or a province;
(b) without lawful authority, communicates or makes available to an agent of a state other than Canada, military or scientific information or any sketch, plan, model, article, note or document of a military or scientific character that he knows or ought to know may be used by that state for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or defence of Canada;
(c) conspires with any person to commit high treason or to do anything mentioned in paragraph (a);
(d) forms an intention to do anything that is high treason or that is mentioned in paragraph (a) and manifests that intention by an overt act; or
(e) conspires with any person to do anything mentioned in paragraph (b) or forms an intention to do anything mentioned in paragraph (b) and manifests that intention by an overt act."

It is also illegal for a Canadian citizen to do any of the above outside Canada.

The penalty for high treason is life imprisonment. The penalty for treason is imprisonment up to a maximum of life, or up to 14 years for conduct under subsection (2)(b) or (e) in peacetime.


Article 411-1 of the French Penal Code defines treason as follows:

"The acts defined by articles 411-2 to 411-11 constitute treason where they are committed by a French national or a soldier in the service of France, and constitute espionage where they are committed by any other person."

Article 411-2 prohibits "handing over troops belonging to the French armed forces, or all or part of the national territory, to a foreign power, to a foreign organisation or to an organisation under foreign control, or to their agents". It is punishable by life imprisonment and a fine of 750,000 euros. Generally parole is not available until 18 years of a life sentence have elapsed.[2] Articles 411-3 to 411-10 define various other crimes of collaboration with the enemy, sabotage, and the like. These are punishable with imprisonment for between thirty and seven years. Article 411-11 make it a crime to incite any of the above crimes.

Besides treason and espionage, there are many other crimes dealing with national security, insurrection, terrorism and so on. These are all to be found in Book IV of the Code.


The German law differentiates between two types of treason: "High treason" (Hochverrat) and "treason" (Landesverrat). The high treason, defined in the Section 81[3] of the German criminal code is defined as a violent attempt against the existence or the constitutional order of the Federal Republic of Germany, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment or a fixed term of at least ten years. In less serious cases, the penalty is 1-10 years in prison. The German crimal law also criminalizes the high treason against a German state. Preparation of both types of the crime is criminal and carries a penalty of up to five years.

The other type of treason, Landesverrat is defined in Section 94[1]. This is basically the crime of espionage. The crime carries a penalty of one to five years in prison. However, in especially severe cases, life imprisonment or any term of at least of five years may be sentenced.


Article 39 of the Constitution of Ireland (adopted in 1937) states that "treason shall consist only in levying war against the State, or assisting any State or person or inciting or conspiring with any person to levy war against the State, or attempting by force of arms or other violent means to overthrow the organs of government established by the Constitution, or taking part or being concerned in or inciting or conspiring with any person to make or to take part or be concerned in any such attempt." [2]

The Treason Act 1939 gave legislative effect to Article 39, and provided for the imposition of the death penalty on persons convicted of committing treason within the state and on citizens convicted of committing treason against Ireland outside of the state. The Act also created the ancillary offences of encouraging, harbouring and comforting persons guilty of treason, and the offence of misprision of treason. No person has been charged under this Act. The Criminal Justice Act 1990 removed the death penalty for treason, setting the punishment at life imprisonment, with parole in not less than forty years. [3] For other offences against national security, see the Offences against the State Acts 1939-1998.

Before 1937

Section 1(1) of the Treasonable Offences Act 1925 (enacted under the 1922 Constitution) defined treason as:

(a) levying war against Saorstát Éireann, or
(b) assisting any state or person engaged in levying war against Saorstát Éireann, or
(c) conspiring with any person (other than his or her wife or husband) or inciting any person to levy war against Saorstát Éireann, or
(d) attempting or taking part or being concerned in an attempt to overthrow by force of arms or other violent means the Government of Saorstát Éireann as established by or under the Constitution, or
(e) conspiring with any person (other than his or her wife or husband) or inciting any person to make or to take part or be concerned in any such attempt. [4]

The maximum punishment was death. The Act also defined the offences of misprision of treason and of encouraging, harbouring, or comforting any person engaged in levying Saorstát Éireann or engaged, taking part, or concerned in any attempt to overthrow by force of arms or other violent means the Government of Saorstát Éireann as established by or under the Constitution of 1922.

The Treasonable Offences Act 1925 was the first comprehensive and permanent measure designed to deal with offences against the state. Section 3 reenacted portions of the Treason Felony Act 1848, while sections 4 and 5 dealt, respectively, with the usurpation of executive authority and assemblies pretending to parliamentary functions. Section 6 prohibited the formation of pretended military or police forces and section 7 proscribed unauthorised drilling.

Although Gardaí prosecuted a number of persons under section 1.1(d) in 1925 and 1926, the Minister for Justice, Kevin O'Higgins, believed that such serious charges were not 'desirable in the present conditions'. Rather more bluntly, in March 1930 Eoin O'Duffy, the Garda Commissioner, wrote that the prospect of charging IRA members with 'levying war against the State' or with usurping executive authority would make a 'laughing stock' of the Gardaí. Before Irish independence, treason was governed under the laws of the United Kingdom. Many historical Irish nationalist insurgents now considered heroes or freedom fighters in contemporary Ireland were executed for treason against the Irish or Union Crown.

New Zealand

New Zealand has treason laws that are stipulated under the Crimes Act 1961. Section 73 of the Crimes Act reads as follows:

"Every one owing allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen in right of New Zealand commits treason who, within or outside New Zealand,—
(a) Kills or wounds or does grievous bodily harm to Her Majesty the Queen, or imprisons or restrains her; or
(b) Levies war against New Zealand; or
(c) Assists an enemy at war with New Zealand, or any armed forces against which New Zealand forces are engaged in hostilities, whether or not a state of war exists between New Zealand and any other country; or
(d) Incites or assists any person with force to invade New Zealand; or
(e) Uses force for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of New Zealand; or
(f) Conspires with any person to do anything mentioned in this section." [4]

The penalty is life imprisonment, except that the maximum for conspiracy is 14 years. Treason was the last capital crime in New Zealand law, with the death penalty not being revoked until 1989, years after it was abolished for murder.

Very few people have been prosecuted for the act of treason in New Zealand and none have been prosecuted in recent years. [5]


Article 275 of the Criminal Code of Russia [5] defines treason as "espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organization, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation." The sentence is imprisonment for 12 to 20 years. It is not a capital offence, even though murder and some aggravated forms of attempted murder are (although Russia currently has a moratorium on the death penalty). Subsequent sections provide for further offences against state security, such as armed rebellion and forcible seizure of power.

United Kingdom

The British law of treason is entirely statutory and has been so since the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw. 3 St. 5 c. 2). The Act is written in Norman French, but is more commonly cited in its English translation.

The Treason Act 1351 has since been amended several times, and currently provides for four categories of treasonable offences, namely:

  • "when a man doth compass or imagine the death of our lord the King, or of our lady his Queen or of their eldest son and heir";
  • "if a man do violate the King’s companion, or the King’s eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the King’s eldest son and heir";[6]
  • "if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere"; and
  • "if a man slea the chancellor, treasurer, or the King’s justices of the one bench or the other, justices in eyre, or justices of assise, and all other justices assigned to hear and determine, being in their places, doing their offices".

Another Act, the Treason Act 1702 (1 Anne stat. 2 c. 21), provides for a fifth category of treason, namely:

  • "if any person or persons ... shall endeavour to deprive or hinder any person who shall be the next in succession to the crown ... from succeeding after the decease of her Majesty (whom God long preserve) to the imperial crown of this realm and the dominions and territories thereunto belonging".

By virtue of the Treason Act 1708, the law of treason in Scotland is the same as the law in England, save that in Scotland the slaying of the Lords of Session and Lords of Justiciary and counterfeiting the Great Seal of Scotland remain treason under sections 11 and 12 of the Treason Act 1708 respectively. [6] Treason is a reserved matter about which the Scottish Parliament is prohibited from legislating. Two acts of the former Parliament of Ireland passed in 1537 and 1542 create further treasons which apply in Northern Ireland.

The penalty for treason was changed from death to a maximum of imprisonment for life in 1998 under the Crime And Disorder Act. [7] Before 1998, the death penalty was mandatory, subject to the royal prerogative of mercy. Since the abolition of the death penalty for murder in 1965 an execution for treason was unlikely to be carried out.

Treason laws were used against Irish insurgents before Irish independence. However, IRA and other republican guerrillas were not prosecuted or executed for treason for levying war against the British government during the Troubles. They, along with loyalist militants, were jailed for murder, violent crimes or terrorist offences. William Joyce was the last person to be put to death for treason, in 1946. (On the following day Theodore Schurch was executed for treachery, a similar crime, and was the last man to be executed for a crime other than murder in the UK.)

As to who can commit treason, it depends on the ancient notion of allegiance. As such, all British nationals (but not other Commonwealth citizens) owe allegiance to the Queen in right of the United Kingdom wherever they may be, as do Commonwealth citizens and aliens present in the United Kingdom at the time of the treasonable act (except diplomats and foreign invading forces), those who hold a British passport however obtained, and aliens who - having lived in Britain and gone abroad again - have left behind family and belongings. See also the Treason Felony Act 1848.

International influence

The Treason Act 1695 enacted, among other things, a rule that treason could be proved only in a trial by the evidence of two witnesses to the same offence. Nearly one hundred years later this rule was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution, which requires two witnesses to the same overt act. It also provided for a three year time limit on bringing prosecutions for treason (except for assassinating the king), another rule which has been imitated in some common law countries. The Sedition Act 1661 made it treason to imprison, restrain or wound the king. Although this law was abolished in the United Kingdom in 1998, it still continues to apply in some Commonwealth countries.

United States

To avoid the abuses of the English law (including executions by Henry VIII of those who criticized his repeated marriages), treason was specifically defined in the United States Constitution, the only crime so defined. Article III Section 3 delineates treason as follows:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

However, Congress has, at times, passed statutes creating related offenses that undermine the government or the national security, such as sedition in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, or espionage and sedition in the 1917 Espionage Act, which do not require the testimony of two witnesses and have a much broader definition than Article Three treason. For example, some well-known spies have been convicted of espionage rather than treason.

The Constitution does not itself create the offense; it only restricts the definition (the first paragraph), permits Congress to create the offense, and restricts any punishment for treason to only the convicted (the second paragraph). The crime is prohibited by legislation passed by Congress. Therefore the United States Code at 18 U.S.C. § 2381 states "whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States." The requirement of testimony of two witnesses was inherited from the British Treason Act 1695 (Since 1945, however, this has been abolished in British law and treason cases are now subject to the same rules of evidence and procedure as a murder trial, but the US requirement still stands barring an amendment).

In the history of the United States there have been fewer than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. Several men were convicted of treason in connection with the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion but were pardoned by President George Washington. One of American history's most notorious traitors, in which his name is considered synonymous with the definition of traitor, is Benedict Arnold. The most famous treason trial, that of Aaron Burr in 1807 (See Burr conspiracy), resulted in acquittal. Politically motivated attempts to convict opponents of the Jeffersonian Embargo Acts and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 all failed. Most states have provisions in their constitutions or statutes similar to those in the U.S. Constitution. There have been only two successful prosecutions for treason on the state level, that of Thomas Dorr in Rhode Island and that of John Brown in Virginia.

After the American Civil War, no person involved with the Confederate States of America was tried for treason, though a number of leading Confederates (including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee) were indicted. Those who had been indicted received a blanket amnesty issued by President Andrew Johnson as he left office in 1869. The Cold War saw frequent associations between treason and support for (or insufficient hostility toward) Communist-backed causes. The most memorable of these came from Senator Joseph McCarthy, who characterized the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations as "twenty years of treason." McCarthy also investigated various government agencies for Soviet spy rings; however, he acted as a political fact-finder rather than criminal prosecutor. The Cold War period saw few prosecutions for treason. On October 11, 2006, a federal grand jury issued the first indictment for treason against the United States since 1952, charging Adam Yahiye Gadahn for videos in which he appeared as a spokesman for al-Qaeda and threatened attacks on American soil.[7]

In Muslim countries

Early in Islamic history, the only form of treason was seen as the attempt to overthrow a just government or waging war against the State. According to Arab tradition the prescribed punishment ranged from imprisonment to the severing of limbs and the death penalty depending on the severity of the crime, however even in cases of treason the repentance of a person would have to be taken into account.[8] However contrary to popular belief Apostasy was not considered Treason, and there is no example of punishment during Muhammed's time.[9]

Currently, the consensus among major Islamic schools is that it is considered treason if a Muslim converts (see also Apostasy in Islam), although there is no support for this in the Quran. The penalty is death.[10][11][12][13][14][15]

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Iranian Cleric Sheikh Fazlollah Noori opposed the Iranian Constitutional Revolution by inciting insurrection against them through issuing Fatwahs and publishing pamphlets arguing democracy will bring vice to the country. The new government executed him for treason in 1909. In Malaysia, it is treason to commit offences against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s person, waging, attempting to wage war or abetting the waging of war against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a Ruler or Yang di-Pertua Negeri. All these offences are punishable by hanging, which derives from the English treason acts (a former British colony, Malaysia's legal system is based on English common law).

In Algeria, treason is defined as the following:

  • attempts to change the regime or actions aimed at incitement
  • destruction of territory, sabotage to public and economic utilities
  • participation in armed bands or in insurrectionary movements

In Palestine, it is treason to give assistance to Israeli troops or sell land to Jews (irrespective of nationality) and Israeli citizens under the Palestinian Land Laws. Both crimes are capital offences subject to the death penalty.

In Bahrain, plotting to topple the regime, collaborating with a foreign hostile country and threatening the life of the Emir are defined as treason and punishable by death. The State Security Law of 1974 was used to crush dissent that could be seen as treasonous, which was criticised for permitting severe human rights violations in accordace with article one:

If there is serious evidence that a person has perpetrated acts, delivered statements, exercised activities, or has been involved in contacts inside or outside the country, which are of a nature considered to be in violation of the internal or external security of the country, the religious and national interests of the State, its social or economic system; or considered to be an act of sedition that affects or can possibly affect the existing relations between the people and Government, between the various institutions of the State, between the classes of the people, or between those who work in corporations propagating subversive propaganda or disseminating atheistic principles; the Minister of Interior may order the arrest of that person, committing him to one of Bahrain's prisons, searching him, his residence and the place of his work, and may take any measure which he deems necessary for gathering evidence and completing investigations. The period of detention may not exceed three years. Searches may only be made and the measures provided for in the first paragraph may only be taken upon judicial writ.

List of people convicted by country

Related offences

There are a number of other crimes short of treason which are concerned with protecting the state:

Further reading

  • Elaine Shannon and Ann Blackman, The Spy Next Door : The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, The Most Damaging FBI Agent in US History, Little, Brown and Company, 2002, ISBN 0-316-71821-1
  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman, "Betrayals and Treason. Violations of trust and Loyalty." Westview Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8133-9776-6
  • Ó Longaigh, Seosamh, "Emergency Law in Independent Ireland, 1922-1948", Four Courts Press, Dublin 2006 ISBN 1-85182-922-9

See also

External links


  1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Crimes Act 1961 - Section 73
  5. ^
  6. ^ As was widely pointed out in the press at the time, if the allegations that James Hewitt had an affair with Princess Diana whilst she was married to Prince Charles had been substantiated, it would have amounted to the crime of treason. Queens consort Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Caroline of Brunswick were prosecuted for treasonable adultery.
  7. ^ American to Be Indicted for Treason, Fox News, October 12, 2006
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

In law, treason is the crime of disloyalty to one's nation or state. A person who betrays the nation of their citizenship and/or reneges on an oath of loyalty and in some way willfully cooperates with an enemy, is considered to be a traitor.


  • Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
    Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
    • Sir John Harington, Epigrams, Book iv, Epistle 5. Compare: "Prosperum ac felix scelus/ Virtus vocatur" ("Successful and fortunate crime/ is called virtue"), Seneca, Herc. Furens, ii. 250.
  • If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
  • All men should have a drop of treason in their veins, if the nations are not to go soft like so many sleepy pears.
    • Dame Rebecca West, "The Meaning of Treason" (Revised edition, Penguin Books, 1965), Conclusion, p. 413.


  • America's state religion, is patriotism, a phenomenon which has convinced many of the citizenry that "treason" is morally worse than murder or rape.
  • Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell and George the Third ...may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.
  • Corporations cannot commit treason, nor be outlawed, nor excommunicated, for they have no souls.
  • I have always considered it as treason against the great republic of human nature, to make any man's virtues the means of deceiving him.
  • In monarchy the crime of treason may admit of being pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.
  • New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.
  • This principle is old, but true as fate, Kings may love treason, but the traitor hate.
  • Truth is a trust, [whereas] falsehood [is] treason.
  • Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers.

External links

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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

by Robert Herrick
See: Hesperides Published 1648.

(17.) Treason

The seeds of Treason choake up as they spring,
He Acts the Crime, that gives it Cherishing.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

TREASON (Fr. trahison, Lat. traditio), a general term for the crime of attacking the safety of a sovereign state or its head. The law which punishes treason is a necessary consequence of the idea of a state, and is essential to the existence of the state. Most, if not all, nations have accordingly, at an early period of their history, made provision by legislation or otherwise for its punishment. The principle is universal, though its 1 Electuary (Lat. electuarium), is probably derived from Gr. ,cXa,rOv, used in the same sense, from EKX€IxELv, to lick out.

application has led to differences of opinion. What would have been a capital crime at Rome under Tiberius may be no offence at all in England. It is to the advantage of the state and the citizen that what is treason and what is not should be clearly defined, so that as little as possible discretionary power, apt to be strained in times of popular excitement, should be left to the judicial or executive authorities. The importance of this was seen by Montesquieu. Vagueness in the crime of treason, says he, is sufficient to make the government degenerate into despotism. 2 At the same time, it may be observed that despotic governments have not always left the crime undefined. The object of Henry VIII., for instance, was rather to define it as closely as possible by making certain acts treason which would not have been so without such definition. In both ancient and modern history treason has generally been a crime prosecuted by exceptional procedure, and visited with afflictive as distinguished from simple punishments (to use the terminology of Bentham).

Table of contents

Roman Law

In Roman law the offences originally falling under the head of treason were almost exclusively those committed in military service, such as in England would be dealt with under the Army Act. The very name perduellio, the name of the crime in the older Roman law, is a proof of this. Perduelles were, strictly, public enemies who bore arms against the state; and traitors were regarded as having no more rights than public enemies. The Twelve Tables made it punishable with death to communicate with the enemy or to betray a citizen to the enemy. Other kinds of perduellio were punished by interdiction of fire and water. The crime was tried before a special tribunal, the duumviri perduellionis, perhaps the earliest permanent criminal court existing at Rome. At a later period the name of perduellio gave place to that of laesa majestas, deminuta or minuta majestas, or simply majestas. The lex Julia majestatis, to which the date of 48 B.C. has been conjecturally assigned, continued to be the basis of the Roman law of treason until the latest period of the empire, and is still, with the law of perduellio, the basis of the law of British South Africa as to treason. The original text of the law appears to have still dealt with what were chiefly military offences, such as sending letters or messages to the enemy, giving up a standard or fortress, and desertion. With the empire the law of majestas received an enormous development, mainly in the reign of Tiberius, and led to the rise of a class of professional informers, called delatores. 3 The conception of the emperor as divine 4 had much to do with this. It became a maxim that treason was next to sacrilege in gravity. The law as it existed in the time of Justinian is contained chiefly in the titles of the Digest s and Code' " Ad legem Juliam majestatis." The definition given in the Digest (taken from Ulpian) is this: " majestatis crimen illud est quod adversus populum Romanum vel adversus securitatem ejus committitur." Of treasons other than military offences, some of the more noticeable were the raising of an army or levying war without the command of the emperor, the questioning of the emperor's choice of a successor, the murder of (or conspiracy to murder) hostages or certain magistrates of high rank, the occupation of public places, the meeting within the city of persons hostile to the state with weapons or stones, incitement to sedition or administration of unlawful oaths, release of prisoners justly confined, falsification of public documents, and failure of a provincial governor to quit his province at the expiration of his office or to deliver his army to his successor. The intention (voluntas) was punishable as much as an overt act (effectus). 8 The reported opinions as to what was not treason 2 Esprit des lois, bk. xii. c. 7.

See Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire, iii. 467, v. 241.

4 " Principes instar deorum esse " are the words of Tacitus. 'This crime was called laesa majestas divina in later law. 6 xlviii. 4.

' ix. 8.

8 A similar provision was contained in the Golden Bull of Charles IV. c. 24. In English law, with the one exception of a statute of 1397 (21 Ric. II. c. 3) repealed in the first year of Henry IV., show the lengths to which the theory of treason was carried. It was not treason to repair a statue of the emperor which had decayed from age, to hit such a statue with a stone thrown by chance, to melt down such a statue if unconsecrated, to use mere verbal insults against the emperor, to fail in keeping an oath sworn by the emperor or to decide a case contrary to an imperial constitution. Treason was one of the publica judicia, i.e. one of those crimes in which any citizen was entitled to prosecute. The law deprived the accused in a charge of treason of his ordinary remedy for malicious prosecution, and also took from him the privilege (which those accused of other crimes generally possessed) of immunity from accusation by women or infamous persons, from liability to be put to the torture, and from having his slaves tortured to make them testify against him (see Torture). The punishment from the time of Tiberius was death (usually by beheading) 1 and confiscation of property, coupled with complete civil disability. A traitor could not make a will or a gift or emancipate a slave. Even the death of the accused, if guilty of treason of the gravest kind, such as levying war against the state, did not extinguish the charge, but the memory of the deceased became infamous, and his property was forfeited as though he had been convicted in his lifetime.

English Law. - The law of England as to treason corresponds to a considerable extent with Roman law; in fact, treason is treated by Blackstone as the equivalent of the crimen laesae majestatis. The history of the crime in the two systems agrees in this that in both the law was settled by legislation at a comparatively early period, and subsequently developed by judicial construction. In both, too, there were exceptional features distinguishing this crime from other offences. 2 For instance, at common law treason was not bailable (except by the king's bench) nor clergyable, could not be cleared by sanctuary, and did not admit of accessories before or after the fact, for all were principals, nor could a married woman plead coercion by her husband. To stand mute and refuse to plead did not save the lands of the accused, as it did in felony, so that the peine forte et dare (see Torture) was unnecessary in treason. These severities were due to the conception of treason as a breach of the oath of allegiance. Other differences introduced by statute will be mentioned later. In some cases a statute simply affirmed the common law, as did the Treason Act 1351 to a great extent, and as did an act of 1534, depriving those accused of treason of the benefit of sanctuary. How far the Roman law was consciously imitated in England it is impossible to determine. It was certainly not adopted to its full extent, for many acts were majestas which were never high treason, even in the most despotic periods. Treason was the subject of legislation in many of the pre-Conquest codes. The laws of Alfred' and iEthelred4 punished with death any one plotting against the life of the king. The Leges Henrici Primi put anyone slaying the king's messenger in the king's mercy. The crime was shortly defined by Glanvill, 6 and at a greater length by Britton, 7 and by Bracton, 8 who follows Roman law closely.

The offence of high treason was not precisely defined by the common law (1 Hale, 76), and until the passing of the Treason Act 1351 depended much on the opinions of the king and his judges. That statute appears to be the answer to a petition of the Commons in 1348 (1 Hale, 87), praying for a definition of the offence of accroaching royal power, a charge on which several persons - notably Gaveston and the Despensers - had suffered. The offences made high treason by the statute which still remain an overt act has always been necessary. The difficulty of proving a mere intention is obvious. In French and German law the overt act (Attentat or Unternehmen) is as indispensable as in English.

1 To harbour a fugitive enemy was punishable only by deportation, Dig., xlviii. 19, 40.

The position of treason as a special crime prosecuted by special procedure is one common to most legal systems at some period of their existence. For instance, in Germany, by a constitution of Henry VII. the procedure was to be summary, sine strepitu et figura judicii. 3 C. 4.4 v. 30.5 1XXiX. 2.

xiv. 1.7 cc. 20, 21, 22.8 de Corona 118b.

are these: (1) to compass or imagine 9 the death of the king,'° the queen or their eldest son and heir; (2) to violate the king's companion, or his eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of his eldest son and heir; (3) to levy war against the king in his realm, or be adherent to the king's enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere (perduellio); (4) to slay the chancellor, treasurer, or the king's justices of the one bench or the other, justices in eyre, or justices of assize, and all other justices assigned to hear and determine, being in their places doing their offices. In all cases of treason not specified in the statute the justices before whom the case came are to tarry without going to judgment until the cause has been showed and declared before the king and his parliament whether it ought to be judged treason or felony. The statute, so far as it defines the offence of high treason, is still law.

The statute also treated as high treason forgery of the great or privy seal, counterfeiting the king's coin and importing counterfeits thereof. These offences are now felonies. It also defined petty treason (now merged in wilful murder) as the slaying of a master by his servant, a husband by his wife, or a prelate by a man secular or religious owing him allegiance. The act of 1351 protects only the king's life, and its insufficiency was supplemented in periods of danger by legislation, often of a temporary nature. Under Richard II. many new offences were made treason," but the acts creating these new treasons were repealed at the earliest opportunity by the parliaments of his successors. The reign most prolific in statutory additions to the law of treason was that of Henry VIII. Legislation in this reign was little more than a register of the fluctuating opinions of the monarch. Thus, by one act of 1534 it was treason not to believe Mary illegitimate and Elizabeth legitimate; by another act of 1536 it was treason to believe either legitimate; by an act of 1543 it was treason not to believe both legitimate. Another act of this reign (1545) shows that a class of men like the Roman delatores must have been called into existence by all the new legislation. The act made it felony to make anonymous charges of treason without daring to appear in support of them before the king or council. These acts were repealed in 1553 (1 Mar. st. 1. c. 1. s. 1.) and the act of 1351 was made the standard of the offence.

Besides the acts of 1351 and 1553 the following statutes are still in force with respect to the substantive law of treason. By an obscurely penned statute of 1495 (11 Hen. VII. c. 1. s. i) persons serving the king for the time being in war are not to be convicted or attainted of treason; see Steph.., Dig. Cr. Law (6th ed.), article 56. This statute has been held not to apply in British South Africa.

By an act of 1571 (13 Eliz. c. 2) as a counterblast to papal attacks on the right of Elizabeth to the English crown, it was declared that persons using in England papal bulls offering absolution and reconciliation to persons forsaking their due obedience to the English crown should be punishable as traitors. The penalties were abolished in 1846, but the acts against which the statute was aimed were declared to be still unlawful (see Steph., Dig. Cr. Law. 6th ed., P. 45n.). By an act of 1702 (1 Anne st. 2. c. 21 s. 3) it is treason to endeavour to hinder the next successor to the crown from succeeding, and by the Succession to the Crown Act 1707 it is treason maliciously, advisedly and directly by writing or printing to maintain and affirm that any person has a right to the crown otherwise than according to the Acts of Settlement and Union, or that the crown and parliament cannot pass statutes for the limitation of the succession to the crown.

By an act of 1796, made perpetual in 1817, the definition of treason is extended so as to include plots within or without Great Britain to cause the death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to the death, destruction, maiming, or wounding, imprisonment or restraint of the king, if such plots are expressed by publishing any printing or writing, or by any overt act or deed. Since that date no new forms of treason have been created. There are many instances of offences temporarily made treason at different times. A 9 These words, according to Luders (Law Tracts, note ad fin.), mean to attempt or contrive.

1° This by act of 1553 includes a queen regnant.

11 One reason for making offences treason rather than felony was no doubt to give the Crown rather than the lord of the fee the right to the real estate of the criminal on forfeiture. Had the offences been felony the king would have had only his year, day and waste on the estate escheating to the lord, as was the case in treason before the Statute of Treasons.

few of the more interesting may be briefly noticed. It was treason to attempt to appeal or annul judgments made by parliament against certain traitors (1398); to break a truce or safe-conduct (1414-1450); to hold castles, fortresses or munitions of war against the king (1552); to adhere to the United Provinces (1665); to return without licence if an adherent of the Pretender (1696); to correspond with the Pretender (1701); and to compass or imagine the death of the prince regent (1817). In addition to these, many acts of attainder were passed at different times. One of the most severe was that against Catherine Howard (1541), which went as far as to make it treasonable for any queen to conceal her ante-nuptial incontinence. Other acts were those against Archbishop Scrope, Owen Glendower, Jack Cade, Lord Seymour, Sir John Fenwick, James Stuart and Bishop Atterbury. In one case, that of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, an act of attainder was passed after the death of those guilty of the treason (1660), and their bodies were exhumed, beheaded and exposed. Acts of indemnity were passed to relieve those who had taken part in the suppression of rebellion from any possible liability for illegal proceedings. Three such acts were passed in the reign of William III. (1689-1690). Similar acts were passed after the Irish rebellion of 1798.

The punishment of treason at common law was barbarous in the extreme.' The sentence in the case of a man was that the offender be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execu- meni. tion, that there he be hanged by the neck but not till he be dead, and that while yet alive he be disembowelled and that then his body be divided into four quarters, the head and quarters to be at the disposal of the Crown.' Until 1790 at common law a woman was drawn to the place of execution and there burned. In that year hanging was substituted for burning in the case of female traitors. In 1814 the part of the sentence relating to hanging and to disembowelling was altered to hanging until death supervened. Drawing and beheading and quartering after hanging were abolished in 1870. There is no legislation authorizing the execution of traitors within the walls of a prison as in the case of murder (see Capital Punishment). The act of 1814 in the case of men enables the Crown, by warrant under the sign manual, countersigned by a secretary of state, to change the sentence to beheading. Attainder and forfeiture for treason are abolished by the Forfeitures Act 1870, except where the offender has been outlawed.' The maximum penalty for a felony under the act of 1848 is penal servitude for life. In every pardon of treason the offence is to be particularly specified therein (see Pardon) .

Trials for treason in Great Britain and Ireland were at one time frequent and occupy a large part of the numerous volumes of the State Trials. Some of the more interesting may be mentioned. Before the Statute of Treasons were those of Gaveston and the Despensers in the reign of Edward II. on charges of accroaching the royal power. After the statute were those (some before the peers by trial or impeachment, most before the ordinary criminal courts) of Empson and Dudley, Fisher, More, the earl of Surrey, the duke of Somerset, Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Cranmer, the queen of Scots, Sir Walter Raleigh,Strafford, Laud, Sir Henry Vane and other regicides, William Lord Russell, Algernon Sydney, the duke of Monmouth, and those implicated in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Gunpowder, Popish, Rye House and other plots. Cases where the proceeding was by bill of attainder have been already mentioned. Occasionally the result of a trial was confirmed by statute. In some of these trials, as is well known, the law was considerably strained in order to insure a conviction. Since the Revolution there have been the cases of those who took part in the risings of 1715 and 1745, Lord George Gordon in 1780, Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke in 1794, the Cato Street conspirators in 1820, Thomas Frost in 1840, Smith O'Brien in 1848, and in 1903 Arthur Lynch, for adheringto, aiding and comforting the king's enemies in the South African war. 4 The bulk of the treason 1 The exceptional character of the punishment, like that o'f the procedure, may be paralleled from Germany. The punishment of traitors by Frederick II. by wrapping them in lead and throwing them into a furnace is alluded to by Dante, Inferno, xxiii. 66.

See the sentence in full in Latin in R. v. Walcot, 1696, I Eng. Rep. 87.

Proceedings after the death of an alleged traitor might at one time have been taken, but only to a very limited extent as compared with what was allowed in Roman and Scots law. Coke (4 Rep. 57) states that there might have been forfeiture of the land or goods of one slain in rebellion on view of the body by the lord chief justice of England as supreme coroner.

1903, i K.B. 446. He was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. Lynch was released on licence after one year in prison and has since been pardoned.

xxvii. 8 trials are reported in Howell's State Trials and the New Series of State Trials. The statute of 1351 as interpreted by the judges in these cases is still the standard by which an act is determined to be treason or not. The judicial interpretation has been sometimes strained to meet cases scarcely within the contemplation of the framers of the statute. e.g. it became established doctrine that a conspiracy to levy war against the king's person or to imprison or depose him might be given in evidence as an overt act of compassing his death, and that spoken words, though they could not in themselves amount to treason, might constitute an overt act, and so be evidence. Besides decisions on particular cases, the judges at different times came to general resolutions which had an appreciable effect on the law. The principal resolutions were those of 1397 (confirmed 1398), of 1557, and those agreed to in the case of the regicides at the Restoration and reported by Sir john Kelyng. The effect of this legislation, according to Sir James Stephen, is that such of the judicial constructions as extend the imagining of the king's death to imagining his death, destruction or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint, have been adopted, while such of the constructions as make the imagining of his deposition, conspiring to levy war against him, and instigating foreigners to invade the realm, have not been abolished, but are left to rest on the authority of decided cases. The legislation in force in 1878 as to treason and kindred offences was collected by the late Mr R. S. Wright and its substance embodied in a draft consolidation bill (Parl. Pap. 1878 H. L. 178), and in 1879 the existing law was incorporated in the draft criminal codes of 1879. The code draws a distinction between treason and treasonable crimes, the former including such acts (omitting those that are obviously obsolete) as by the Treason Act 1351 and subsequent legislation are regarded as treason proper, the latter including the crimes contained in the Treason Felony Act 1848.

In the words of the draft (§ 76) " treason is (a) the act of killing Her Majesty, or doing her any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, and the act of imprisoning or restraining her; or (b) the forming and manifesting by an overt act an intention to kill Her Majesty, or to do her any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, or to imprison or to restrain her; or (c) the act of killing the eldest son and heir-apparent of Her Majesty, or the queen consort of any king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; or (d) the forming and manifesting by an overt act an intention to kill the eldest son and heir-apparent of Her Majesty, or the queen consort of any king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; or (e) conspiring with any person to kill Her Majesty, or to do her any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, or conspiring with any person to imprison or restrain her; or (f) levying war against Her Majesty either with intent to depose Her Majesty from the style, honour and royal name of the Imperial Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland or of any other of Her Majesty's dominions or countries; or in order by force or constraint to compel Her Majesty to change her measures or counsels, or in order to intimidate or overawe both Houses or either House of Parliament; or (g) conspiring to levy war against Her Majesty with any such intent or for any such purpose as aforesaid; or (h) instigating any foreigner with force to invade this realm or any other of the dominions of Her Majesty; or (i) assisting any public enemy at war with Her Majesty in such war by any means whatsoever; or (j) violating, whether with her consent or not, a queen consort, or the wife of the eldest son and heir-apparent for the time being of the king or queen regnant." No amount of residence abroad exempts a British subject from the penalty of treason if he bears arms against the king,' unless he has become naturalized as the subject of a foreign state before the outbreak of the war in which he bears arms. To become naturalized as the subject of an enemy during a war is in itself an act of treason. It is well established that an alien resident within British territory owes local allegiance to the Crown and may be indicted for high treason, and there are numerous instances of prosecution of foreigners for treason. Such are the cases of Leslie, bishop of Ross, ambassador to Elizabeth from the queen of Scots (1584), the marquis de Guiscard in Queen Anne's reign and Gyllenborg, the ambassador from Sweden to George I. (1717). Proceedings against ambassadors for treason have never gone beyond imprisonment, more for safe custody than as a punishment. In 1781 La Motte, a Frenchman resident in England, was convicted of holding treasonable communications with France, and in Canada American citizens were tried for treason for aiding in the rebellion of1837-1838(Forsyth, 200). Assistance by a resident alien to invaders of British territory is high treason even if the territory in question is in military occupation by the forces of the foreign power.' Of the modes of trying high treason two are obsolete, viz. (I) by appeal in the common law courts, which ceased by the effect of statutes between 1322 and 2399 and were finally abolished in 1819; (2) before the constable and marshal. The last instance of this mode of trial was an Aeneas Macdonald's case, 18 St. Tr. 857; R. v. Lynch (1903) K.B. 446 - see Mayne, Ind. Cr. Law (1896), pp. 459, 460. De Jager's case (1907) App. Cas. 326.

award of battle in 1631 in the case of Lord Reay. 1 Four modes of trying high treason still remain, viz. impeachment, trial of a peer by his peers, trial by court-martial and trial by jury on indictment before the High Court or a court of assize or a special commission. The offence is not triable at quarter sessions.

At common law and under the Great Charter a peer, and, by an act of 1442, a peeress in right of her husband, are triable for treason before the House of Lords, or, when parliament is not sitting, in the court of the lord high steward. The last trial of a peer for treason was that of Lord Lovat in1746-1747(18 Howell's St. Tr. 529).

In the reign of Edward IV., and perhaps later, treason was at times tried by martial law. The issue of commissions of martial law in time of peace was in 1628 declared illegal by the Petition of Right. But the prerogative of the Crown to deal by martial law with traitors in time of war or open rebellion within the realm or in a British possession still exists.2 Treasons committed within the admiralty jurisdiction or out of the realm were originally triable only by the admiral or the constable and marshal according to the civil law, but were made triable according to the courts of the common law by the Offences at Sea Act 1536, and by acts of 1 543, 1552 3 and 1797. Provision is made for the trial in British possessions of treasons committed in the admiralty jurisdiction (Offences at Sea Act 1806).

Treasons committed within the realm are tried in the - High Court, the central criminal court or another court of assize, or by special commission, except in the case of peers. In two acts dealing with Ireland (of 1809 and 1833) it was provided that nothing in the acts was to take away the undoubted prerogative of the Crown for the public safety to resort to the exercise of martial law against open enemies and traitors, while actual war or insurrection is raging (see Martial Law). 4 Treason by persons subject to military law is triable by court-martial under the Army Act (1881) ss. 4, 41 (a), where the offence cannot with reasonable convenience be tried in a civil court, and treason by persons subject to naval discipline by court-martial under the Naval Discipline Act (1866) s. 7. The procedure in such trials is regulated by the acts.

In certain cases of treason the procedure on the trial is the same as upon a charge of murder. Those cases, which are statutory. exceptions from the statutory procedure prescribed for the trial of high treason and misprision thereof, are: (a) Assassination or killing of the king, or any heir or successor of the king, or any direct attempt against his life or any direct attempt against his person whereby his life may be endangered or his person may suffer bodily harm (1800, 1814); (b) attempts to injure in any manner the person of the king (1842).

In all other cases of treason the procedure is regulated by acts of 1695, 1708 and 1825. A copy of the indictment must be delivered to the accused ten days at least before his arraignment, with a list of the witnesses for the prosecution (1708) and a list of the petty jury, except in the High Court, where the petty jury list is to be delivered ten days before the trial (1825). 5 The accused is entitled to be defended by counsel, and on application to the court may have two counsel assigned to him (1695), a right extended in 1746 to impeachments for treason. Witnesses for the defence have since 1702 been examinable upon oath. The accused may by the Criminal Evidence Act 1898 consent to be called as witness for the defence. Itis doubtful whether the wife or husband of the accused is a compellable witness for the Crown (Archb. Crim. Pleading, 23rd ed., 398).

Prosecutions for treason must be begun within three years of the offence, except in cases of attempts to assassinate the king. The rules as to the indictment are stricter than in the case of felony and misdemeanour, much of the modern statutory power of amendment not extending to indictments for the graver offence. No evidence may be given of any overt act (voie de fait) not expressly stated in the indictment. The accused is entitled to peremptory challenge of thirty-five of the jurors summoned for the petty jury; but they need not now be freeholders. The accused can be convicted only on his own confession in open court, or by the oath of two witnesses either both to the same overt act charged, or one to one overt act and the other to another overt act of the same treason. If two or more treasons of different kinds are charged on the same indictment, one witness to prove one treason and another to prove another are not sufficient for a lawful conviction. Persons charged with treason are not admitted to bail except by order of a secretary of state or by the High Court (k.b.d.) or a judge thereof in vacation (Indictable Offences Act 1848, s. 23). Witnesses for the defence are examined on oath and their attendance is secured in the same way as that of witnesses for the Crown (1695, 170).

1 A case of treason out of the realm as to which alone the constable and marshal had jurisdiction (3 Howell's St. Tr. 2 See case of D. F. Marais (1902, App, Cas. 109).

3 There is no trace of recourse to the act of 1552. In 1903 Arthur Lynch was tried under the act of 1543 for high treason in South Africa, and Lord Maguire in 1645 for treason in Ireland (4 St. Tr. 653).

4 The decisions of courts of martial law appear not to be reviewable by ordinary civil courts (re Marais, 1907, App. Cas. 109).

5 In these respects persons accused of treason are in a better position than those accused of felony.

Misprision of treason consists in the concealment or keeping secret of any high treason. (a) This offence was in 1552 declared to be high treason (5 and 6 Edw. VI. C. 11, s. 8), but the Misprision former law was restored in1553-1554(1 Mary st. i. c. I o f s.I;i & 2 Ph. and Mary c. 10, s.7). The definition is vague and the exact scope of the offence uncertain, but in strictness it does not include acts which in the case of felony would constitute an accessory after the fact. In the Queensland Code of 1899 (s. 38) every person is guilty of a crime who, knowing that any person intends to commit treason, does not give information thereof with all reasonable despatch to a justice or use other reasonable endeavours to prevent the commission of that crime. The procedure for the trial of misprision of treason is the same as in the case of high treason. The punishment is imprisonment for life and forfeiture of the offender's goods and of the profits of his lands during his life. (Steph. Dig. Cr. Law, 6th ed., 121, 401.) The forfeitures are not abolished by the Forfeitures Act 1870. There is no case of prosecution of this offence recorded during the last century.

The necessity of prosecutions for treason has been greatly lessened by a series of statutes beginning in 1744 which provide for the punishment as felonies of certain acts which might fall within the definition of treason, e.g. piracies (1744, 18 Geo. II. c. 30), incitement to mutiny (1797), unlawful oaths, including oaths to commit treason (17 9 7, 1812), and aiding the escape of prisoners of war (1812). By the Treason Act 1842 it is a high misdemeanour, punishable by penal servitude for seven years, wilfully to discharge, point, aim or present at the person of the king any gun or other arms, loaded or not, or to strike at or attempt to throw anything upon the king's person, or to produce any firearms or other arms, or any explosive or dangerous matter, near his person, with intent to injure or alarm him or to commit a breach of the peace. 6 The offence is one of the few for which flogging may be awarded.

By the Treason Felony Act 1848, S. I., it was made a felony within or without the United Kingdom to plot (a) to deprive or depose the king from the style, &c., of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, (b) to levy war against the king in any part of the United Kingdom in order by force or constraint to change his measures or counsels or to put force or constraint on or to intimidate or overawe either or both houses of parliament, (c) to move or stir any foreigner with force to invade the United Kingdom or any of the king's dominions. The plot to be within the act must be expressed by publishing in printing or writing or by an overt act or deed. " Open and advised speaking," originally included as an alternative, was removed from the act in 1891. For other offences more or less nearly connected with treason reference may be made to the articles: Libel; Oaths; Petition; Riot; Sedition.

The act of 1848 does not abrogate the Treason Act of 1351, but merely provides an alternative remedy. But with the exception of the case of Lynch in 1903, all prosecutions in England for offences of a treasonable character since 1848 have been for the felony created by the act of 1848. The trials under the act, mostly in Ireland, are collected in vols. 6, 7 and 8 of the New Series of State Trials. The procedure in the case of all the offences just noticed is governed by the ordinary rules as to the trial of indictable offences, and the accused may be convicted even though the evidence proves acts constituting high treason.


Treason included treason proper, or crimes against the Crown or the state, such as rebellion, and crimes which, though not technically treasonable, were by legislation punished as treason. Scottish procedure was as a rule less favourable to the accused than English. In one matter, however, the opposite was the case. Advocates compellable to act on behalf of the accused were allowed him by 1587, c. 57, more than a century before the concession of a similar indulgence in England. At one time trial in absence and even after death was allowed, as in Roman law. In the case of Robert Leslie, in 1540, a summons after death was held by the estates to be competent, and the bones of the deceased were exhumed and presented at the bar of the court.' The act of 1542, c. 13 (rep. 1906), confined this revolting procedure to certain treasons of the more heinous kind.

This act was passed in consequence of a series of assaults on Queen Victoria. See 4 St. Tr. N. S. 1382; 7 St. Tr. N. S. 1130, and 8 St. Tr. N. S. i.

In the one instance in England - that of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw - where the bodies of alleged traitors were exhumed after death they were not brought to the bar of a court as in Scotland.

By the Treason Act 1708 trial in absence - the last instance of which had occurred in 1698 - was abolished. The same act assimilates the law and practice of treason to that of England by enacting that no crime should be treason or misprision in Scotland but such as is treason or misprision in England. The act further provides for the finding of the indictment by a grand jury as in England and that the trial is to be by a jury of twelve, not fifteen as in other crimes, before the court of justiciary, or a commission of oyer and terminer containing at least three lords of justiciary. To slay a lord of justiciary or lord of session sitting in judgment, or to counterfeit the great seal, is made treason. The act also contains provisions as to forfeiture,' qualification of jurors and procedure, which are not affected by the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1887. The punishment is the same as it was in England before the Forfeitures Act 1870, which does not extend to Scotland; and attainder and forfeiture are still the effects of condemnation for treason in Scotland.

One or two other statutory provisions may be briefly noticed. By acts of 1706 and 1825 the trial of a peer of Great Britain or Scotland for treason committed in Scotland is to be by a commission from the Crown, on indictment found by a grand jury of twelve. Bail in treason-felony is only allowed by consent of the public prosecutor or warrant of the high or circuit court of justiciary (Treason Felony Act 1848, s. 9). The term lese-majesty was sometimes used for what was treason proper (e.g. in 1524, c. 4, making it lese-majesty td transport the king out of the realm, repealed in 1906), sometimes as a synonym of leasing-making. This crime (also called verbal sedition) consisted in the engendering discord between king and people by slander of the king. 2 The earliest act against leasing-making eo nomine was in 1524. The reign of James VI. was pre-eminently prolific in legislation against this crime. It is now of no practical interest, as prosecutions for leasing-making have long fallen into desuetude. At one time, however, the powers of the various acts were put into force with great severity, especially in the trial of the earl of Argyll in 1681. The punishment for leasing-making, once capital, is now, by acts of 1825 and 1837, fine or imprisonment or both.


The Treason Act 1351 was extended to Ireland by Poyning's law, but at the union there were considerable differences between the Irish and the English law. The law and practice of Ireland as to treason were assimilated to those of England by acts of 1821 (1 & 2 Geo. IV. c. 24), 1842 (5 & 6 Vict. C. 51), 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. C. 12, S. 2), and 1854 (17 & 18 Viet. c. 56).

Prior to 1854 the provisions as to procedure in the English treason acts did not apply to Ireland (Smith O'Brien's case, 1848, 7 St. Tr. N. S. I). A series of enactments called the " Whiteboy Acts" (passed by the Irish and the United Kingdom parliaments between 1775 and 1831) was intended to give additional facilities to the executive for the suppression of tumultuous risings, and powers for dealing with " dangerous associations" are given by the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887. Prosecutions for treason in Ireland were numerous in 1848. Since that date numerous prosecutions have taken place under the Treason Felony Act 1848.

British Possessions

Numerous temporary acts were passed in India at the time of the Mutiny, one of the most characteristic being an act of 1858 making rebellious villages liable to confiscation. By the Indian Penal Code, s. 121, it is an offence punishable by death or transportation for life and by forfeiture of all property to wage or attempt to wage war against the king. By s. 125 it is an offence punishable by transportation for life (as a maximum) to wage or attempt to wage war against any Asiatic government in alliance or at peace with the king or to abet the waging of such war. By s. 121 A., added in 1870, it is an offence punishable by transportation for life (as a maximum) to conspire within or without British India to commit an offence against s. 121 or to deprive the king of the sovereignty of British India or of any part thereof, or to overawe by criminal force cr the show of criminal force the government of India or any local government in India. Other cognate offences are included in the same chapter (vi.) of the Criminal Code.

The Penal Codes of Canada (1892, ss. 65-73) and New Zealand (1893, ss. 77-82) closely follow the provisions of the English draft code of 1879. Prosecutions for treason have been rare in Canada. Those of most note were in 1837, after the rebellion (see the Canadian Prisoners case, 18 39, 9 Ad(olphus) El(les) [731]) and of Riel after I The provisions in the act as to forfeiture (now repealed) were, according to Blackstone (Comm. iv. 384), the result of a compromise between the House of Lords, in favour of its continuance and the House of Commons, supported by the Scottish nation, struggling to secure a total immunity from this disability.

2 It is called by Hallam " the old mystery of iniquity in Scots law." the Red River rising in 1884 (see Riel v. R. 1885, to App. Cas. 675).

The Commonwealth parliament of Australia has not legislated on the subject of high treason, which is in Australia governed by the laws of the constituent states, i.e. by the law of England as it stood when they were colonized, subject to local legislation. In the codes of Queensland (1899) and West Australia (1902) the offence is defined in a form which is little more than a redrafting of the English statutes. The provisions of the Treason Felony Act 1848 have been adapted by legislation to New South Wales (1900), Queensland (1899), Western Australia (1902) and Tasmania (1868). In Victoria there is legislation as to procedure but none as to the substantive law of treason. In Mauritius the offence is regulated by the Penal Code of 1838, arts. 50-61 (Mauritius Laws Revised, 1903, i. 372).

In the Asiatic colonies treason is defined on the lines of the Indian Penal Code, i.e. Ceylon, Straits Settlements, and HongKong.

In the West Indies the law of treason is defined by code in Jamaica and in British Guiana (the code superseding the Dutch Roman law).

In South Africa the law of treason is derived through Holland from the Roman law. It includes the crimen perduellionis, i.e. disturbing the security or independence of the state with hostile intent. This is spoken of as high treason, as distinct from the crimen laesae majestatis, in which the hostile intent need not be proved, and from vis publica, i.e. insurrection and riot involving danger to public peace and order. By a Cape law of 1853 passed during the Griqualand rebellion it is made treason to deliver arms or gunpowder to the king's enemies.

The Treason Felony Act 1848 was also adopted in Natal in 1868.

During the South African War of1899-1902many trials took place for treason, chiefly under martial law, including cases of British subjects who had joined the Boer forces. In some cases it was contended that the accused had been recognized by the British authorities as a belligerent (Loiiw. 1904, 21 Cape Supreme Court Reports, 36). The decisions of the ordinary courts are collected in Nathan, Common Law of South Africa, iv. 2425 (London, 1907). The decisions of courts-martial were not reviewable by the ordinary courts and are also protected by acts of indemnity. A striking feature of colonial legislation is the great number of such acts passed after rebellions and native risings. Instances of such acts occur in the legislation of Canada, Ceylon, the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, New Zealand, St Vincent and Jamaica. The most important in the history of law is the Jamaica Act of 1866, indemnifying Governor Eyre for any acts committed during the suppression of the rising in the previous year. It was finally held that this act protected Eyre from being civilly sued or criminally prosecuted in England for acts done during the outbreak (Phillips v. Eyre, 1871, L. R. 6 Q. B. 1). The validity of an act passed in 1906 after disturbances among the Kaffirs of Natal was unsuccessfully challenged in 1907 (Tilonko's case, 1907, App. Cas. 93).

United States

The law is based upon that of England. By art. 3, s. 3 of the constitution " treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court. The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason; but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood or forfeiture, except during the life of the person attainted." By art. 2, s. 4 impeachment for and conviction of treason is a ground for removing the president, vice-president and other civil officers. The punishment by an act of 1790 was declared to be death by hanging. But during the Civil War an act (July 17, 1862) was passed, providing that the punishment should be death, or, at the discretion of the court, imprisonment at hard labour for not less than five years, and a fine of not less than io,000 dollars to be levied on the real and personal property of the offender, in addition to disability to hold any office under the United States. The act of 1862 and other acts also deal with the crimes of inciting or engaging in rebellion or insurrection, criminal correspondence with foreign governments in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the government of the United States, seditions, conspiracy, recruiting soldiers or sailors and enlistment to serve against the United States. The act of 1790 further provides for the delivery to the prisoner of a copy of the indictment and a list of the jurors, for defence by counsel, and for the finding of the indictment within three years after the commission of the treason (see Story, Constitution of the United States, Rev. Stat. U.S. p. 1041). Treason against the United States cannot be inquired into by any state court, but the states may, and some of them have, their own constitutions and legislation as to treasons committed against themselves, generally following the lines of the constitution and legislation of the United States. In some cases there are differences which are worth notice. Thus the constitution of Massachusetts, pt. 1, § 25, declares that no subject ought in any case or in any time to be declared guilty of treason by the legislature. The same provision is contained in the constitutions of Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Alabama and others. In some states the crime of treason cannot be pardoned; in others, as in New York, it may be pardoned by the legislature, and the governor may suspend the sentence until the end of the session of the legislature next following conviction. In some states a person convicted of treason is disqualified for exercising the franchise. In New York conviction carries with it forfeiture of real estate for the life of the convict and of his goods and chattels.


By the Code Penal treason falls under the head of crimes against the safety of the state (bk. iii. tit. i. c. 1). It is a capital offence for a Frenchman to bear arms against France (s. 75) or to plot with a foreign power or its agents to`commit hostilities or undertake war against France whether war follows or not (s. 76), or to intrigue with the enemies of the state for facilitating their entry into French territory, or to deliver to them French ships or fortresses, or to supply them with munitions of war, or aid the progress of their arms in French possessions or against French forces by sea or land (s. 78).


The Strafgesetzbuch distinguishes between high treason (Hochverrat) and treason (Landesverrat). The offences denominated high treason are (i) murder or attempt to murder the emperor or a federal sovereign in his own state, or during the stay of the offender in the sovereign's state (s.80); (2) undertaking to kill, take prisoner, or deliver into an enemy's power, or make incapable of government a federal sovereign; to change by violence the constitution of the empire or a state thereof or the successor to the throne therein; to incorporate by force the federal territory or the territory of any such state with a foreign or another federal state (s. 81). The code treats as treason, but does not punish by death, the offences included in the French code (ss. 87-89), and under certain circumstances punishes alien residents for these offences (s. 91). The code also punishes insults on the emperor and federal sovereigns (ss. 95, 97) under the name of Majestdtsbeleidigung. Italy. - Treason in the Penal Code 1888 (tit. i. c. i) includes direct acts to subject Italy or any part thereof to foreign domination or to diminish its independence or break up its unity (s. 104), to bear arms against the state (s. 105)) or intrigue with foreign states with the object of their levying war against Italy or helping them in such war (s. 106), or to reveal political or military secrets affecting the national independence (s. 107).


The Spanish code distinguishes between treason (lesa niajestad) and rebellion (rebelien). Under the former are included assassination, or attempts on the life or personal liberty of the king (arts. 158, 159), or insults to the king (161, 162), and provisions are made as to attacks on the heir or consort of the sovereign (163, 164). Under rebellion are included violent attempts to dethrone the king or to interfere with the allegiance to him of his forces or any part of the realm (243). (W. F. C.)

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Simple English

Treason is when a person acts against his country. For example, somebody might help another country fight a war against his country by telling secrets. Treason is a common word, but different countries have different laws and punishments against it.

The word for a person who is treasonous is “traitor”. Some famous traitors are Judas, Benedict Arnold, Pétain and Quisling.

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