A Brief History
On October 14, 1586, Mary Queen of Scots went on trial for conspiracy against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Apparently Mary and her supporters saw Mary as the legitimate heir to the English throne, but of course, Liz saw differently! (No surprise there.) Mary ended up being executed for her machinations against Elizabeth, just as many other traitors have before and since. Here we list 7 of the most notorious traitors to end up executed or otherwise forced to die. (Note: There is no significance to the order as listed.)
7. Mary Queen of Scots, 1587.
Executed after 18 and a half years in prison at the age of 44, Mary was also involved in intrigue against her second husband, Henry Stuart (aka Lord Darnley) whom she allegedly had murdered in 1567. Ever the opportunist, Mary married the alleged murderer of Lord Darnley and found herself locked up after an uprising against her and her new husband. Failing to regain the throne of Scotland, Mary turned her eye to the throne of England, her ultimate undoing. (Her first husband was heir to the throne of France, and she became Queen consort of France in 1559, only to have the new king die in 1560, leaving her back in Scotland as Queen of Scots.) Mary met her end at the hands of an executioner that beheaded her.
6. Francois Darlan, 1942.
The French Admiral in charge of the entire French Navy at the start of World War II, he was a collaborator with the victorious Nazi’s and served in the Vichy French puppet regime. When the Allies invaded North Africa in 1942, this traitor negotiated his appointment as head of all French Forces in Africa in exchange for dumping the Germans and rejoining the Allied cause. The people did not have the patience to wait for a trial after the war, and Darlan was summarily executed by assassination in December of 1942 by a 20 year old French Royalist that sought a restoration of the French throne. The young assassin was himself executed only 2 days after the assassination. Darlan is remembered as a vain and pompous idiot. Dis-Honorable mention to Phillipe Petain, the French World War I general that headed up the Vichy French government for the Germans who was sentenced to death, but allowed to die in prison instead.
5. Vidkun Quisling, 1945.
Another World War II collaborator, this military officer and politician served the occupying German forces as puppet head of the Norwegian government after the Germans invaded Norway in World War II. Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor” met his end by firing squad in October of 1945 after being found guilty of treason, embezzling, and murder. Dis-Honorable mention to Benedict Arnold, the American General that went over to the British during the American Revolutionary War, forever earning his name to become synonymous with “traitor” to Americans.
4. Guy Fawkes, 1606.
Famous and almost revered in Britain, Fawkes was a devout Catholic that fought for Catholic Spain against Protestant countries in mainland Europe during the 80 Years War. Returning to England, he plotted to remove King James I and replace him with a Catholic King, and was involved in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords. Captured before the Parliament was blown up, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but he either fell off or jumped off the scaffold when the hanging part was to be performed and he died from snap of his neck instead of being choked nearly to death prior to the other tortures that awaited him. He is known to Americans largely due to the comic books and movie V For Vendetta (film 2006) set in a dystopian future where anarchists wear Guy Fawkes masks while resisting the evil government of Britain.
3. Marcus Junius Brutus, 42 BC.
Another name synonymous with “traitor,” Brutus was the friend of Julius Caesar, making his treachery all the worse. As the most famous of Caesar’s assassins, Brutus was in a fight for his life against the real friends of Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra. When the forces led by Brutus were defeated at the Battle of Phillipi in 42 BC two years after the murder of Caesar, Brutus committed suicide to avoid capture and the sure prospect of torture and execution.
2. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, 1944.
The German Admiral in charge of German Military Intelligence (Abwehr) during the Nazi regime of World War II, Canaris became disillusioned with Hitler and the Nazi’s and became active in a counter government movement, including a desire to distance himself from the persecution of the Jews. Canaris even intervened on behalf of some intended victims of Nazi violence and also attempted to plot with the Allies as early as 1942 a surrender of Germany with an overthrow of Hitler. (The Allies demanded Unconditional Surrender with negotiated accommodation for Canaris.) Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS, found out Canaris and had him arrested and the Abwehr disbanded. Released, Canaris was soon rearrested when interrogation of his underlings revealed his guilt. Canaris suffered the bizarre execution in 1945 of being garroted by a violin string! Canaris had stated at his trial and interrogations that he was not a traitor, but was loyal to the German state and people, not the Nazi regime. He was killed only days before the end o the War.
Dis-Honorable mention to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, forced to commit suicide in 1944 for his involvement in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler.
1. Dona Marina (aka La Malinche), 1529.
A Native American Nahua woman from the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Marina betrayed her people by becoming an interpreter for the Conquistadores of Hernando Cortez. Taken as a slave by Cortez in 1519 at the age of 18, Marina made herself useful as a mistress to the Spanish leader and as an interpreter that helped bring about the downfall of the Aztec Empire. Reviled by her own people, her death was faked by her family, but she led a short life of fear and persecution, dying of unknown means at the young age of 28 years in 1529. Though initially reviled as a traitor, she is sometimes remembered today as a victim of circumstances, a defense often made on behalf of collaborators.
Dis-Honorable mention to all those Native Americans that served as scouts for the US Cavalry in the war of extermination against Native Americans.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you consider to be the worst traitor in history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Series in History and Culture). Bedford/St Martin’s, 1998.
The featured image in this article, a watercolour on paper of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 8 February 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, England, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.