Days of Betrayal: Violations of Trust and Loyalty in Late Medieval England

Tensions have been running high in what, by any reckoning, has been a challenging year: a raging pandemic, social instability, and political unrest.1 And amidst all this, battle cries are heard from every corner of the political spectrum that threaten to exacerbate the situation: Plotters! Betrayers! Traitors!—the world is full of them if you believe what is written in the comment sections of media outlets.


As sociologist Sébastien Schehr points out, acts and allegations of betrayal are, and always have been, a part of human history, social experience, and imagination.2 ‘Betrayal’ is an emotive word, which most people associate with vivid and dramatic images—not only big political scandals, but also very personal stories. It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that betrayal has long been neglected as a historical phenomenon. Historians have mostly focused on its legal manifestations and paid far less attention to its social and cultural dimensions.3

Yet sociological studies of the last three decades have revealed just how complex and versatile the phenomenon of betrayal can actually be. Nachman Ben-Yehuda rightly emphasizes that the word ‘betrayal’ does not always refer to a specific, justiciable offence. Usually, it is only a subjectively perceived violation of trust and loyalty which attracts that label.4 Trust and loyalty, on the other hand, refer to normative expectations that are often highly controversial, and this is why the conditions for an action to be considered ‘treacherous’ depend in no small measure on one’s point of view.5 This ambiguity also allows for the possibility of historical change, and it is at this point that my Ph.D. project aims to break new ground.

The letters that have survived in this chancery roll provide information about the members of the royal council convicted of high treason by the so-called Merciless Parliament of 1388. The National Archives, Kew, C 54/230. Photograph by Matthias Büttner with permission of The National Archives.

I am currently writing a social and cultural history of betrayal in England from c.1265 to 1400, with case studies from various social settings (for example, the royal court, the nobility, the church, the city, England’s ‘heartland’, and its periphery). Due to wars, plagues, and heresies, the Later Middle Ages are, in the eyes of many historians, a time of crisis (or rather crises),6 and therefore a likely hotbed of betrayal.7

Three key questions guide my research. First, how can betrayal be understood as a social fact of the later Middle Ages?8 I intend to identify the participants, motives, processes, and consequences of acts of betrayal and thereby reveal basic patterns and structures. Second, I seek out the ways in which individual and collective perception, interpretation, and stigmatization of betrayal relate to one another.9 In this context it is worth considering the fundamental asymmetry of knowledge and perceptions of time between perpetrators, victims, beneficiaries, and witnesses of betrayal.10 Third, I discuss how social reality is constructed through narratives of betrayal. I want to understand how social contingency is integrated into meaning, how this subjectively perceived and/or conceived meaning is, in turn, externalized in the social world, and, finally, acquires an objective character, for example, in the form of political rituals, institutions, laws, and so on.11

Thanks to a scholarship from the German Historical Institute London, I was able to conduct research in London from September to December 2020. Although access to archives was severely limited due to the current pandemic, I was able to glimpse a fascinating range of sources during my stay.

Legal and administrative records are an essential component of my source material. Of these, the most valuable for me are the records held by the National Archives, notably the Royal Chancery’s (incredibly long and unwieldy) parchment rolls. They include the Patent Rolls and Close Rolls, which record the letters issued by the Chancery on behalf of the Crown. These letters contain official statements and general orders, but also very specific instructions.

When it comes to urban history, the London Letter-Books and the Plea and Memoranda Rolls, which are held in the London Metropolitan Archives, are particularly useful. The Letter-Books contain records of everything that concerned the city government, such as mayoral ordinances, council minutes, entries on the city’s history, and much more. The content of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls is very similar, but with a stronger emphasis on legal processes.

It is important to note that the legal and administrative handling of betrayal is not only a reflection but also an extension of socio-cultural discourses and practices. It limited or expanded what was (politically) thinkable, sayable, and doable; it was evaluated, contested, and/or enforced.12 For these reasons alone, ‘documentary’ sources are of great interest to me. But, what is more, they help us to contextualize and examine individual narratives and concepts of betrayal, thus making ‘literary’ sources more accessible and fruitful for analysis.13 Among the latter are, for example, the trenchant poems of William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Gower, the moralizing sermons of preachers such as Thomas Brinton and John Mirk, and historical works in the form of chronicles, annals, and vitae. They, too, are objects of my research.

Entry in the London Letter Book H, 1375–1399. In 1391, London’s mayor Adam Bamme attempted to put an end to the violent conflicts between the supporters of his predecessors in office, John Northampton and Nicholas Brembre, both of whom had been convicted of crimes including corruption and treason. London Metropolitan Archives, COL/AD/01/008, fo. 259r, from the Corporation of London Collection. Photograph © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London.

My early findings suggest that during the fourteenth century there was a significant expansion and differentiation of political participation, which was accompanied by diversification of betrayal as a social fact. By the end of the century, both acts and allegations of betrayal had become political resources frequently used in what could almost be described as a culture of proto-Machiavellianism. With this in mind, it does not seem too far fetched when Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400) says that in his times, deceit and falseness wolde infecte al.14 In epidemiological terms, the incidence was high indeed, and infection events were widespread and complex.


The featured image is a depiction of Amery of Pavy, English knight and captain of Calais, opening the city gates to enemy forces in exchange for a bribe on 31 December 1349. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 2643, fo. 188r. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  1. I would like to thank the German Historical Institute London for supporting my research despite the adverse circumstances, and for giving me the chance to take part in the Institute’s always lively and constructive doctoral colloquium, which helped me to come to a better understanding of my subject and source material. []
  2. Sébastien Schehr, Traîtres et trahisons de l’Antiquité à nos jours (Paris, 2008), 9. []
  3. See e.g. J. G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge Studies in English Legal History (Cambridge, 1970); S. H. Cuttler, The Law of Treason and Treason Trials in Later Medieval France, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Third Series, 16 (Cambridge, 1981); Maïté Billoré and Myriam Soria (eds.), La trahison au moyen age: De la monstruosité au crime politique (Ve-Xve siècle)(Rennes, 2009). There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, see e.g. André Krischer (ed.), Verräter: Geschichte eines Deutungsmusters (Cologne, 2019), a collection of articles deriving from a section at the 2012 German Historikertag in Mainz. []
  4. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Betrayals and Treason: Violations of Trust and Loyalty, Crime & Society (Boulder, Col., 2001),  8. []
  5. Bernhard Schlink, ‘Der Verrat’, in Michael Schröter (ed.), Der willkommene Verrat: Beiträge zur Denunziationsforschung (Weilerswist, 2007), 13–31, at 20; similarly Gerd Althoff, ‘Vertrauensbildung durch symbolisches Handeln. Einführung in die Thematik der Tagung’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 39 (2006), 247–52, at 249 . []
  6. For introductory readings, see e.g. M. H. Keen, England in the Later Middle Ages: A Political History, 2nd edn. (London, 2003), 1–20, and John Watts, The Making of Polities: Europe, 1300–1500, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge, 2009), 1–42. On the dangers of reducing the Late Middle Ages to a ‘time of crisis’, see also Peter Schuster, ‘Die Krise des Spätmittelalters: Zur Evidenz eines sozial- und wirtschafts­geschichtlichen Paradigmas in der Geschichtsschreibung des 20. Jahrhunderts’, Historische Zeitschrift, 269 (1999), 19–55, and Howard Kaminsky, ‘From Lateness to Waning to Crisis: The Burden of the Later Middle Ages’, Journal of Early Modern History, 4 (2000), 85–125. []
  7. Gabriella Turnaturi, Betrayals: The Unpredictability of Human Relations (Chicago, 2007), 104, points out that betrayal is much more wide­spread in transitional phases and times of instability or social change. []
  8. For a definition of ‘social fact’, see Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, 8th edn. (New York, 1964), 1–13. []
  9. For the most influential study on social labelling, see Howard S. Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance(New York, 1963). On stigmatization, see Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1963). []
  10. Turnaturi, Betrayals, 22–5. []
  11. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY, 1966), 119. On narration as a defining element in social practice, see Albrecht Koschorke, Fact and Fiction: Elements of a General Theory of Narrative, trans. Joel Golb, Paradigms, 6 (Berlin, 2018). []
  12. On the relation between the thinkable, sayable, and doable, see Willibald Steinmetz, Das Sagbare und das Machbare: Zum Wandel politischer Handlungsspielräume: England 1780–1867, Sprache und Geschichte, 21 (Stuttgart, 1993). []
  13. In general, I intend to follow the approach of new historicism. On this, see e.g. W. M. Ormrod, ‘The New Political History: Recent Trends in the Historiography of Later Medieval England’, in Troels Dahlerup(ed.), New Approaches to the History of Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Selected Proceedings of Two International Conferences at the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in Copenhagen 1997 and 1999, Historisk-filosofiske meddelelser, 104 (Copenhagen, 2009), 37–59, at 42–3. []
  14. Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘The Canterbury Tales’, in Larry D. Benson (ed.),  The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987), 3–328, at 275, who refers to the sleightes and infinite falsnesse of a canon. []

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Matthias Büttner

He is a doctoral candidate and research assistant of Professor Frank Rexroth at the Georg August University of Göttingen.

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