Alternative Constructions of Treason in the Angevin Political World: Traïson in the History of William Marshal
By Stephen D. White
e-Spania: Revue interdisciplinaire d’études hispaniques médiévales, Vol.3 (2007)
Abstract: After some nobles and other fighting men surrendered Rochester castle to King John in 1215, John wanted to hang the nobles but refrained from doing so on the advice of one of his military captains. Would hanging the nobles for making war on the king have been lawful? This question about the law of treason has provoked inconclusive debate among historians who have sought to determine whether, in this period, making war against the English king was legally classified as lèse-majesté (crimen laesae majestatis), proditio or infidelitas. This article, however, asks whether the nobles whom John wanted to hang were guilty of traïson, as this vernacular term was used in the History of William Marshal (c.1230). On this basis, the paper concludes that in all probability, the nobles who held Rochester against the king would not have been condemned as traitors, at least by their aristocratic peers.
Introduction: In September of 1215, according to the chronicler Roger of Wendover, a group of nobles and other fighting men led by William d’Albini of Belvoir took over the castle of Rochester, resisted a long siege by King John’s forces, but finally surrendered to him at the end of November. Because the siege had cost the king so much money and the lives of so many men, he was furious and angrily ordered his own men to hang all the nobles who had just surrendered to him. However, one of John’s own followers, Savari de Mauléon – a military leader who had previously fought against the king and later abandoned him – objected. Because “our war (guerra) is not yet over”, Savari said, the king should
carefully consider how the fortunes of war might turn. For if you now order us to hang these men, the barons who are our enemies may, under similar circumstances, take me or other nobles in your army and follow your example by hanging us. Do not let this happen, for in such a case, no one will fight for your cause.
Reluctantly accepting this advice, which other prudent men endorsed, King John had William d’Albini and the other nobles imprisoned; he also permitted the men in his own service to ransom all of those serving the nobles in William’s group, except for the crossbowmen, who had killed many of John’s followers during the siege and who, at John’s command, were all hanged.