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The University of Southampton

HIST2232 Treason and Plot: A History of Modern Treason

Module Overview

Anne Boleyn, Louis XVI, Roger Casement, Vidkun Quisling: these are notorious figures who have been tried and executed for treason. Through the centuries ‘treason’ has always been one of the most serious crimes, as well as being a term of abuse in politics. It is a constantly topical subject as shown in the present-day: there are the violent accusations of ‘traitor’ in the recent struggle over Brexit, and in 2018 serious proposals were put forward to modernize the current British law on treason (which dates from 1351!). Despite this, the long history of treason is little known and often misinterpreted. In this module we will explore the turbulent history of modern treason in Europe over five centuries, from the early modern era through to the present day. We will see how there was always some continuity in the meaning of treason and how regimes interpreted it. But there has also been change: for in Tudor England treason was mainly a crime against the monarch, but from the 20th century it became far more associated with espionage and the betrayal of secrets to a foreign enemy. What we can say is that treason has always been a political concept and crime, tied in some way to the urgent security of the state. Therefore it has surfaced especially in time of war or when a regime feels threatened. Yet because treason law is drawn up by the regime in power, that regime has often been able to manipulate the law to its advantage, even manufacturing ‘traitors’ in order to remove threats to itself. Treason law is therefore a flexible and dangerous tool in the hands of any regime if there are not safeguards against misuse. A key purpose of this module is to understand when and why regimes have used treason law, how that law has been interpreted, and what results emerged from such prosecutions. Through a range of case studies, we pay due attention too to the viewpoint of the ‘traitors’ themselves, how they behaved, and how their actions might be interpreted by wider society. Both the regimes and the ‘traitors’ usually took up a moral stance: claiming that God or humanity was on their side, and in turn attacked their opponents as violent and immoral. In short, treason is always both a moral and a power struggle, and the regime is usually victorious. While the theme of treason runs through the whole module, there is ample opportunity for you to focus attention on case studies of particular interest. Each of these is examined through primary sources, including trial material and treason laws. The result is a course which has dramatic content and personal histories, and is also challenging in terms of conceptual and theoretical engagement.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Conceptual and historiographical interpretations of treason, including various legal definitions
  • A comparative historical framework for treason
  • The language of treason
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Analyse and interpret historical sources on treason in new ways
  • Reflect on how a historical theme has been treated differently by contemporary observers and by historians to suit particular political agendas
  • Study primary sources critically, reading against the grain in interpreting the use of language
  • Think comparatively in historical terms, both chronologically and geographically, about case studies across several centuries
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Formulate and communicate critical judgements coherently and effectively, in formal written exercises
  • Apply analytical techniques to a wide range of evidence


Indicative topics include: The meaning of treason; treason law Language of treason: the Gunpowder Plot Treason law in Tudor England ‘Constructive treason’: 1640-1660 The legal extremes: treason fabricated and formalized The era of the French Revolution Punishments and pardons Regime crisis in WW1: nationalist traitors ‘Collaboration’ as treason Cold War traitors: the treason of extremes Is treason still a modern crime?

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods: Two weekly lectures Seminars focusing on key course themes and the analysis of primary sources, including texts and images Learning activities include: In-depth analysis of primary sources Preparatory reading and individual study Individual participation in seminars, group work and short presentations on seminar themes

Independent Study264
Total study time300

Resources & Reading list

Mark Cornwall (2019). Treason in an Era of Regime Change: the Case of the Habsburg Monarchy. Austrian History Yearbook. ,50 .

Nachman Ben-Yehuda (2001). Betrayal and Treason: Violations of Trust and Loyalty. 

F. Prochaska (1973). English State Trials in the 1790s: A Case Study. Journal of British Studies. ,13 , pp. 63-82.

John Laughland (2016). A History of Political Trials: from Charles I to Charles Taylor. 

Lisa Steffen (2001). Defining a British State: Treason and National Identity. 

John Bellamy (1979). The Tudor Law of Treason. 

Rebecca West (1982). The Meaning of Treason. 

Oddvar Hoidal (1989). Quisling: A Study in Treason. 

Stephen Alford (2013). The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay 50%
Written assignment 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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