The first written use of this term was by J. Foxe in Actes & Monumentes in 1570, where it was defined as: “One who changes his principles or party; a renegade; an apostate.”
Opposing armies usually wear uniforms of contrasting colors to prevent soldiers getting killed by ‘friendly fire.’ Thus the term ‘turn-coat’ indicates that an individual has changed sides and thus his uniform coat. For example, in the English Civil War during the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers turned their coats inside out to match the colours of the Royal army.
Even in a modern historical context ‘turncoat’ is often synonymous with the term ‘renegade,’ a term having its origins in the Latin word ‘renegare’ (to deny). Powerful historical currents 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.
‘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, to King John. In other words, they turned their coats (of arms) from one lord to another, hence turncoat.
There were turncoats in Canada during the War of 1812. Some Canadians felt republican democracy was a better system of government than the British Monarchy and fought on the side of the invading Americans. Conversely the United Empire Loyalists left what was to be the United States and moved north to remain under British rule.
Iran had its share of turncoats after the overthrow of the last Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s regime. At that time many people who had formerly led a life based on secular and liberal values and who had fervently supported the Iranian monarchy suddenly embraced with unbridled fervor the stern religious values imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
A mass-shift in allegiance may take place after a nation has been defeated in war or after a major social upheaval. Following the initial trauma many citizens 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 simply 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 has been kept in the dark about important events.
As time goes by, the past is rewritten and whitewashed to cover former deeds. When successful, this activity results in the distortion and falsification of historical events.
Which means that all that history I studied during high school may have been merely biased reporting. Who’s to know? After all, history is generally written by the victors.