From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A turncoat is a person who shifts allegiance from one loyalty or ideal to another, betraying or deserting an original cause by switching to the opposing side or party. In political and social history, this is distinct from being a traitor, as the switch mostly takes place under the following circumstances:

  • In groups, often driven by one or more leaders.
  • When the goal that formerly motivated and benefited the person becomes (or is perceived as having become) either no longer feasible or too costly even if success is achieved.

From a military perspective, opposing armies generally wear uniforms of contrasting colors to prevent incidents of friendly fire. Thus the term "turn-coat" indicates that an individual has changed sides and his uniform coat to one matching the color of his former enemy. For example, in the English Civil War during the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell's soldiers turned their coats inside out to match the colors of the Royal army (see Examples below).

Historical context[edit]

Even in a modern historical context "turncoat" is often synonymous with the term "renegade", a term of religious origins having its origins in the Latin word "renegare" (to deny). Historical currents of great magnitude have periodically caught masses of people, along with their leaders, in their wake. In such a dire situation, new perspectives on past actions are laid bare and the question of personal treason becomes muddled. One example would be the situation that led to the Act of Abjuration or Plakkaat van Verlatinghe, signed on July 26, 1581, in the Netherlands, an instance where changing sides was given a positive meaning.

The first written use of the term meaning was by J. Foxe in Actes & Monuments in 1570: "One who changes his principles or party; a renegade; an apostate." Cited 1571*[1]

"Turncoat" could also have a more literal origin. According to the Rotuli Chartarum 1199–1216 two barons changed fealty from William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke,[2] to King John. In other words, they turned their coats (of arms) from one lord to another, hence turncoat.


A mass-shift in allegiance by a population may take place during military occupation, after a nation has been defeated in war or after a major social upheaval, such as a revolution. Following the initial traumatic times, many of the citizens of the area in question quickly embrace the cause of the victors to benefit from the new system. This shift of allegiance is often done without much knowledge about the new order that is replacing the former one. In the face of fear and insecurity, the prime motive for a turncoat to draw away from former allegiances may be mere survival.

Often the leaders are the first to change loyalties, for they have had access to privileged information and are more aware of the hopelessness of the situation for their former cause. This is especially apparent in dictatorships and authoritarian states when most of the population has been fed propaganda and triumphalism and has been kept in the dark about important turns of events.


As time goes by, along with the embracing of life under the new circumstances comes a need of burying and rewriting the past by concealing evidence. The fear of the past coming to upset the newly found stability is always present in the mind of the turncoat. The past is rewritten and whitewashed to cover former deeds. When successful, this activity results in the distortion and falsification of historical events.

Even after the death of a turncoat his family and friends may wish to keep uncomfortable secrets from the past out of the light. There is a fear of loss of prestige as well as a wish to honor the memory of a family member from the part of those who have experienced the positive side of the person.

In certain countries, individuals and organizations have actively investigated the past to bring turncoats to justice to face their responsibilities.[3]


There were many turncoats in history, including:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary "turncoat, n. and adj." cites "John Foxe · The first volume of the ecclesiastical history containing the actes and monuments of thynges passed..in this realme · Rev. ed., 1570 (2 vols.)."
  2. ^ David Crouch. 2002. William Marshal. Knighthood, War and Chivalry, 1147–1219. Longman. London
  3. ^ Jean-Paul Cointet, Epuration légale: 400 000 dossiers, moins de 800 morts; Historia (fr) Archived 2004-09-10 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ [S03E10 Great British Railway Journeys]
  5. ^ Randall, Willard Sterne (1990). Benedict Arnold: patriot and traitor (1st ed.). New York, N.Y: Morrow. ISBN 978-1-55710-034-4.
  6. ^ http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article1934744.ece Kurt Waldheim, Austrian head of the UN who as president of his country was later tainted by charges of complicity in Nazi atrocities, Timesonline
  7. ^ md5=eb40bafdd6bb71ad4ba378a73be2eb27 Daniel F. Ziblatt The adaptation of ex-communist parties to post-communist East-Central Europe: a comparative study of the East German and Hungarian ex-communist parties[dead link]
  8. ^ Declan McGeough, Voices of the Transition, A Political History of Spain 1975–1982