Review: “Treason: People, Power & Plot” at the National Archives

Treason. It’s a word with connotations of vindictive kings putting potential rivals to death. But, with talk of potential revisions to the existing legislation, it’s perhaps an interesting choice of subject for the new exhibition at the National Archives.

I was lucky enough to take part last week in an in-depth exploration of the exhibition with Dr Neil Johnston, one of the team behind it, as we examined key pieces of original source material and discussed how accusations of treason were used to secure and maintain power over the centuries, from the passing of the Treason Act in 1352 to the trial of William Joyce (Lord “Haw Haw”) in 1945.

What started as a tool to protect the personal power of the Sovereign in Tudor times evolved through the imposed transition to a republic in the mid-seventeenth century to become a protection for the state itself and later a means of enforcing the power of the state against those seeking their freedom.

Naturally, the Gunpowder Plot looms large over the story, and visitors will be able to see the original confession of Guido Fawkes, with its rather shaky looking signature, as well as the anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic peer, warning him to stay away from Parliament. All of this is woven into the relationship between English monarchs and the Catholic Church following Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534, making him Supreme Head of the Church of England and breaking the power of the Catholic Church over his people.

The exhibit goes on to consider the impact of the breakdown in relations between Charles I and Parliament, leading to the English Civil War and the trial and execution of the King, before allowing a gentle canter through the American Revolution, the use of the Treason Act in the colonies against rebellious slaves and culminating in the Easter Rising of 1916.

Visitors will also get to see some of the lesser known stories of treason, including that of Richard Roose, sentenced to death by a most unusual means in 1531, and Wolfe Tone, whose oration at his trial by court martial in 1798 is considered one of the foundational moments of Irish history.

There is also a book, linked to the exhibition, “A History of Treason”, which covers more ground than the exhibition can, and can be purchased via the National Archives website.

All in all, it’s a fascinating insight into a slice of political history that offers much food for thought in terms of the relationship of power and politics over nearly seven hundred years and, if you’re anywhere near Kew, it’s well worth a visit.

“Treason: People, Power & Plots” closes on 6 April, and can be seen at the National Archives, Kew, Richmond TW9 4DU. There’s also a programme of events and activities, linked to the exhibition (#treasonseason).

Mark Valladares is the Monday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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3 Comments

  • Russell Simpson 22nd Nov '22 - 9:27am

    Tom Holland and Dominick Sandbrook’s The Rest is History podcast does an episode on this exhibition whichis worth alisten. I can also recommend their World Cup history and their take on Qatar history. Frankly, all their podcasts are brilliant.

  • There is, of course a difference between threatening the government and trashing the country (as done by recent governments).

  • One could construct a good argument that this government is treasonous. Certainly, it has betrayed the British people. I agree wholeheartedly with George about the feeble line the party is taking on EU matters. Looking at the UK from Greece it seems unbelievable that both Tory and Labour seem united in their determination to continue to hamstring the UK by refusing even to consider a better deal with the EU. We really do need to tackle the sovereignty myth which is taken as gospel by too many.

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