Does treason still carry the death penalty? UK law, how it’s evolved, what’s considered treason - explained

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The historic law is still in use in the UK, with a man pleading guilty to the charge after breaking into the Queen’s bedroom with a crossbow in 2021

A man has pleaded guilty to acharges of treason after attempting to break into the Queen’s bedroom with a crossbow. Jaswant Singh Chail, 21, was arrested at Windsor Palace on Christmas Day in 2021 after he “informed officers at the scene that he intended to kill the Queen”.

Chail admitted to threatening to kill the Queen and possessing an offensive weapon in a public place, as well as having intent to harm or kill the monarch. He has become the first person in the UK to be tried for treason since 1981.

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The lesser-seen charge of treason is often thought to be from a time long ago. One of the most famous examples of a person committing treason in the UK was Guy Fawkes, after he was arrested for his part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

However the offence is still set in law in the current day and can carry a hefty punishment for those guilty. The Treason Act 1842 is still in use, and was used in Chail’s case as prosecuters accused him of the act against the crown.

But what punishment does treason carry in the 21st century - and how has the law evolved over the years? Here’s everything you need to know about the UK’s treason laws.

What is treason in the UK?

The 1842 Treason Act still applies in moder-day law. It states that it is an offence for any person to assault the Queen, to have a firearm or offensive weapon in their prescence of the Queen or to be in breach of the peace. It was first introduced under Queen Victoria’s reign and was adapted from the previous 1351 act.

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Queen Victoria had many attempts against her life which lead to the introduction of the new legislation. This included when John Francis aimed a pistol at her while she was riding in a carriage along The Mall in London.

Attempts on Queen Victoria’s life led to the creation of the 1842 Treason Act. (Credit: Getty Images)Attempts on Queen Victoria’s life led to the creation of the 1842 Treason Act. (Credit: Getty Images)
Attempts on Queen Victoria’s life led to the creation of the 1842 Treason Act. (Credit: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Francis susqeuntly shot at the monarch the next day as she made the same journey along The Mall. He was arrested, but only two days after this incident, John William Beam shot at Queen Victoria - a third man, Edward Oxford shot at her in 1840.

These attempts had been covered by the previous 1351 act, which mean that the crime was punishable by death, although neither Franics, Beam or Oxford were sentenced to death for their crimes. However, a new law was encouraged by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who felt that the punishment was too harsh.

Is treason punishable by death in the UK?

Under the 1842 act, treason is not punishable by death in the UK. This marked a change from the 1351 legislation, which can still apply in some instances.

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In the modern day, the crime of treason carries a punishment of a jail term of no longer than seven years. When the 1842 was first instroduced, the punishment for attemting to assault or alarm the Queen was punishable by up to seven years in prison and flogging, however no one who was guilty of treason under the act was ever actually flogged.

How many people have been convicted of treason?

Chail was the first person to be convicted of treason in the UK in 42 years. In 1981, Marcus Sarjeant was sentenced to five years in prison after he shot blanks at Queen Elizabeth II while she was on parade.

He joined the crowds in London as she began to parade as part of the Trooping The Colour event. The Queen was unharmed by the incident, with only her horse being spooked by the sounds of the blanks being fired.

Sarjeant was apprehended by members of the Scots Guard who were in attendance. He told officers after the incident: “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody”.

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Court sketch of Jaswant Singh Chail, the first man in 42 years to be convicted of treason in the UK. (Credit: Getty Images)Court sketch of Jaswant Singh Chail, the first man in 42 years to be convicted of treason in the UK. (Credit: Getty Images)
Court sketch of Jaswant Singh Chail, the first man in 42 years to be convicted of treason in the UK. (Credit: Getty Images) | PA

Chail is said to have made the decision to travel to Windsor Castle in 2021 with a loaded crossbow over his distain for the British Empire and its treatment of India. In a video posted to social media before the incident, he said: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry for what I’ve done and what I will do. I will attempt to assassinate Elizabeth, Queen of the Royal Family.

“This is revenge for those who have died in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. It is also revenge for those who have been killed, humiliated and discriminated on because of their race.”

He pleaded guilty to three charges. A sentencing for Chail is due to take place at the Old Bailey on 31 March.

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