Transgressio fidei regiae: High Treason in Visigothic Legislation

Jimena Alejandra Guardia Hernández, Philipps-Universität Marburg

Zusammenfassung: Hochverrat war bei den Westgoten ein so häufiges Verbrechen, dass kirchliches und weltliches Recht gezwungen war, sich damit ausführlich auseinanderzusetzen. Einen spezifischen Begriff für Hochverrat gab es im Westgotischen Recht allerdings nicht. In diesem Beitrag gibt Alejandra Guardia einen Einblick in die mannigfaltige Terminologie, die in westgotischen Rechtsquellen des 7. Jahrhunderts verwendet wurde, um dieses Verbrechen dennoch abzugrenzen.

Resumen: La alta traición era un crimen frecuente entre los visigodos y por lo tanto debía ser tratado en las leyes eclesiásticas y seculares. Sin embargo, no había un término exacto para la alta traición en el derecho visigodo. Aquí quiero presentar las distintas palabras utilizadas para designar este crimen en las fuentes legales visigodas del siglo VII.

Abstract: High treason was a frequent crime amongst the Visigoths, ecclesiastical and secular law had to deal with. However, there was no exact term for high treason in Visigothic law. Here Alejandra Guardia shows how different words werde used to designate this crime in the Visigothic legal sources of the 7th century.

The dissatisfaction of the Visigothic nobility with their kings often led to attacks on the Visigothic ruler: five of the 25 kings who ruled in the Visigothic kingdom between 470 and 710 were assassinated, five were dethroned and five had to face a conspiracy. Already at the end of the 6th century, Gregory of Tours wrote in his Frankish History that the Goths had the detestable habit of murdering their kings when they did not please them anymore, in order to appoint someone who pleased them.1 Furthermore in the middle of the 7th century, the tendency of the Goths to depose their kings was called in the Chronicle of Fredegar “the disease of the Goths”.2

Due to the frequent regicides, dethronements and conspiracies of the nobility in the Visigothic kingdom, the protection of the king’s life was a central topic in the Visigothic legislation. Since the Visigothic monarchy was a weak institution compared to the nobility during the first half of the 6th century, the judicial condemnation of high treason developed only after the king’s power was consolidated. Thus, only after king Leovigild’s (569 – 586) military campaigns against local warlords and king Reccared’s (580 – 601) conversion to Catholicism3 a foundation was laid for a redefinition of the notion of ruler and a new definition of the crimes against him.

In the Visigothic legal sources there is no specific word for high treason, but different concepts for the violation of the loyalty (fides) to the king. The concept of fides referring to the king appeared for the first time in the canon 75 of the fourth council of Toledo (633), which condemned the crimes against the well-being of the king, the anointed of the Lord,4 as a sacrilege.5 This notion of a sacred monarchy developed in the Visigothic kingdom under the doctrine of bishop Isidore of Seville (the leader of the fourth council of Toledo and the most significant writer of the Visigothic kingdom) and was the foundation for condemning high treason in four other councils: the fifth council of Toledo (636),6 the sixth council of Toledo (638),7 the tenth council of Toledo (656)8 and the sixteenth council of Toledo (693).9 In the records of these five councils the loyalty oath to the king was referred to as sacramentum fidei, promissio fidei, iuramentum fidei and its breach was denoted as transgressio, periurium, perfidia, infidelitas, coniuratio.

The Visigothic leges adopted these concepts for the crimes against the king and taking the loyalty oath to him gained importance in the course of the 7th century, as a king Egica’s novel in the Liber Iudiciorum (687 – 702) shows,10 the legal code of the Visigothic kingdom promulgated by king Reccesvinth (649 – 672). The law condemned those who did not take the loyalty oath to the new king. This can indicate that some refused to swear the loyalty oath in order to avoid being bound to the king, since probably only those who had sworn loyalty could be punished for crimes against the ruler. Otherwise, the criminals in question could not be liable for high treason.

Although the attacks against Visigothic kings were a problem until the 8th century, the regicides actually ceased from the middle of the first half of the 7th century on with the promulgation of canones and laws against this crime: all five Visigothic kings who were assassinated ruled before 633, which shows a certain success of the measures against high treason.

The political importance of the consolidation and sacralization of the Visigothic royalty persisted even after its collapse on the Iberian Peninsula, since the rulers of the Christian kingdoms used to trace their ancestry back to the Visigothic kings in order to legitimate their power during the political instability from the 8th to the 10th century. In my dissertation I want to show the survival of Visigothic legislation in the High Middle Ages through the analysis of Castilian and Navarrese legal documents from the 11th and 12th centuries based on the precepts of the Liber Iudiciorum and the records of the Toledan councils, the greatest contribution of the Visigothic kingdom to the legal culture of the Iberian peninsula.


Photo: Codex Vigilanus (1135)

  1. Greg. Tur. Hist. 3,30: Sumpserant enim Gothi hanc detestabilem consuetudinem, ut, si quis eis de regibus non placuisset, gladio eum adpeterent, et qui libuisset animo, hunc sibi statuerent regem. []
  2. Fred. Chr. 4,82: Cumque omnem regnum Spaniae suae dicione firmassit, cognetus morbum Gotorum quem de regebus degradandum habebant, unde sepius cum ipsis in consilio fuerat quoscumque ex eis uius viciae prumtum contra regibus qui a regno expulsi fuerant cognoverat fuesse noxius […]. []
  3. The Visigoths were Arians until the year 589. []
  4. Conc. Tolet. 4, Can. 75: Et dum Dominus dicat: ‘Nolite tangere Christos meos’ [Ps. 104,15], et David: ‘Quis, inquit, extendet manum suam in Christum Domini et innocens erit?’ [1 Sam. 26,9]. []
  5. Conc. Tolet. 4, Can. 75: Sacrilegium quippe esse, si violetur a gentibus regum suorum promissa fides, quia non
    solum in eis fit pacti transgressio
    , sed et in Deum quidem in cuius nomine pollicetur ipsa promissio. []
  6. Conc. Tolet. 5, Can. 7: De his qui sibi regnum blandiuntur spe rege supprestite. []
  7. Conc. Tolet. 6, Can. 17: De his qui rege supprestite aut sibi aut aliis ad futurum provideant regnum. []
  8. Conc. Tolet. 10, Can. 2: De non violandis iuramentis in salutem regiam datis. []
  9. Conc. Tolet. 16, Can. 10: De his qui iuramenti sui profanatores extitisse noscuntur. []
  10. Lib. Iudic. 2,1,7: De fidelitate novis principibus reddenda et pena huius transgressionis. []