Death and Doghethegy: homicide suits and dodgy spelling in medieval Herefordshire

Worth a brief note, I think, is a Herefordshire homicide case from the King’s Bench plea rolls of 1428 (KB 27/666 – the devil’s plea roll – mm. 81 and 81d). William ap Thomas ap Phelippe Vaghan of Talgarth in Wales, gentleman, and three other men, named in more-or-less Welsh fashion, John ap Jeuan ap Howell, Richard ap David Glyn and Jeuan ap Thomas ap Oweyn (all three of Talgarth, and each labelled ‘yeoman’), and a second list of one ‘gentleman’ and seven ‘yeomen’ of Talgarth (again, broadly Welsh-named) were attached to answer John ap Gwelym’s appeal concerning the death of Rhys [‘Resus’] ap Gwelym, his brother.

The allegation was (to summarise) that Rhys was attacked by the defendants, at Kivernoll, Herefordshire, on Wednesday 6th November, 1426, and killed (specifically, he was said to have been shot in the back and heart (x 2) with  arrows, bashed over the head with a pole-arm, and lanced in the chest and head). A bit ‘overkill’, it would seem, but this sort of account is common enough, perhaps reflecting a real series of events, perhaps semi-fictitious, as a way of tying various people into the killing.

William ap Thomas and most of the others said that they were not guilty, John ap Gwelym maintained his appeal, and everyone agreed to jury trial. So far so unexciting, from a legal historical point of view. One of the accused, however, tried a different strategy, and this is what interests me. Richard ap David objected that John ap Gwelym had no right to bring this appeal, because Rhys ap Gwelym had a wife, (and we are to understand that she ought to have brought the appeal).

I find this interesting, because the rules about appeal right are a little opaque. It is certainly clear that a wife could bring a prosecution against those she thought had killed her husband, but did that preclude others from doing so? This case seems to confirm that it did. So appeal-right by the blood, or through common law canons of inheritance,  did not trump, or sit on a par with, appeal-right by the former ‘joined flesh’ of matrimony. Interesting to ponder that. And yet, the other defendants did not go for the ‘he had a wife’ option – so was there some doubt as to the ‘trumping’ rule, or that the marriage would be found to have been valid, or did they have some other reason to prefer the straightforward ‘not guilty’ plea?

Making his argument that there was a wife, so the brother’s appeal was misconceived, Richard set things out very carefully. He noted promises to marry, from both sides, and banns, and a church-door wedding, and stated that the marriage had lasted for the rest of the life of Rhys (even if that was rather …. shortened), and that his wife was still alive, and in Kynardesley, Herefordshire. I have not seen this level of detail in such an allegation before, and it strikes me that it might have been a result of questioning, and suspicion with regard to the status of marriages amongst the Welsh, even those apparently resident in England. Could they be trusted to do the thing properly?

Anyway, whether because of this problem with his appeal or otherwise, John ap Gwelym did not see the appeal through, and it was left to the king to take up the matter. On it went, and after the usual delays, there was a jury trial. Richard and the others were acquitted. The switch to the king’s suit, rather than an appeal by a subject, would presumably put an end to investigation about the marriage of Rhys.

There is much here which is of interest beyond legal history, especially in relation to the Welsh in the very porous border area. Apart from their apparently fractious relationships amongst themselves, there is quite a lot which might be extracted, for those studying the cross-cultural aspects of border life. Possible issues about marriage I have mentioned. There is also some pretty glorious material on language. I am far from qualified to pontificate on this, but – hurrah – this is my blog, so I can do what I want, and I am going to give you a couple of quick thoughts:

  1. The names, or their recorded versions, show a fair amount of mixing of languages. I realise that I have ‘Englished’ the Latin recording of some of the names above – those are ones which were recorded just as they would be for an Englishman – i.e. ‘Willelmus’ as opposed to ‘Gwilym/ Gwelym’, unless the latter is written down, and so on. I do quite like the Latin-English-Welsh mash-up recording of the name of one of them: Mauricius Thomasservant ap Phelippe Vaghan [of Talgarth in Wales, yeoman].There is also a bit of French accent to some of these – ‘Phelippe’ for example. Truly a fun puzzle for a linguist.
  2. And then there is somebody’s apparent bewilderment as to how to deal with the name of Rhys’s wife – who, I assume, was called Dyddgu. In the plea roll, she becomes ‘Doghethegy’. It might be that this was a spelling given by Richard ap David, but my little mental reconstruction of how this ended up being the version of record is that it was the result of somebody who could pronounce it saying ‘Dyddgu’ very, very slowly to a clerk with no Welsh, and him slightly throwing his hands up in despair and slapping down the start and finish of the name, padding it out with a few extra letters and leaving it at that.[i] I suspect that anyone with this name would still be looked at with uncertainty once over Offa’s Dyke, but at least she would probably not end up being recorded with a set of letters which left Google offering a few pictures of dogs and then giving up.



[i] If nothing else, it shows that the clerk responsible was not familiar with his Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Image – near the site of the alleged murder. With genuine medieval vehicle.

Mr. Men and Little Mistresses?

While there is much attention on correct usage of gendered pronouns and cis- and trans- and so on, it is worth highlighting the fact that there are older word-disputes rumbling on, and some linguistic zombies which just seem to refuse to depart. Top of my list of terms which we could really jettison are the metaphorical use of ‘emasculate’ and the description of a woman as a ‘mistress’. The latter term has come up once again in relation to Carrie Symonds/Johnson, designating her role in relation to Boris Johnson in the period before their marriage, during his second marriage. The allegation about his attempt to secure a well-paid job for her in this period, if true, suggests dreadful behaviour, but it seems entirely unnecessary, and certainly inappropriate, to use ‘the m-word’ in this context.

Why do I have a problem with ‘mistresses’? Well, if it’s not obvious, it is a very sexist term. What do you call the male partner in this context? Probably ‘man’ or ‘lover’, I suppose, neither of which carries the same level of opprobrium. There is just no symmetry, and all sorts of unpleasant power-related implications. It suggests a past world in which there was an understanding that rich men would have a wife and ‘keep’ a mistress’, or indeed that an unmarried man might have a ‘mistress’; it focuses any condemnation on the woman involved, whatever may be the marital status matrix, and locus of infidelity, in the particular instance.

I have thought about the word, off and on, for years. No – relax – there is no great personal revelation about to appear. In the early part of my career as a legal academic, one of the predictable disputes in the annual meeting to go over the year’s exam papers was whether it was acceptable to use the term ‘mistress’ in problem questions about wills and inheritances. The usual view was that this should be avoided. There was a slight counter-argument, which was that, if we were setting up scenarios going back some time, and so importing some of the attitudes of a person whose views had been formed in an earlier age, it was not unrealistic to include a ‘storyline’ which involved a person with some considerable property (likely to be a man) ‘keeping a mistress’ at some point, ready to cause disputes with his wife and/or children when he died. Still, we generally thought it best to avoid the whole thing.

Nevertheless, students looking at cases would find quite a lot of mistresses, and I regret to say that, as with newspaper descriptions of Johnson’s relationships, ‘mistress’ is still encountered in judgments, in the 2020s. A five-minute search turned up what seem to be entirely avoidable usage of ‘mistress’ in Jackson v Song [2021] EWHC 1636 (Ch) and Ali v. Luton BC [2022] EWHC 132 (QB). I have no doubt that there are more. These recent comments are not quite up there with the suggestion of a man having ‘a secret bolt hole for his mistress’ found in HHJ David Cooke’s judgment in Downes v. Downes [2019] EWHC 491 (Ch) para. 60, but don’t seem at all necessary to the point being made, As I tell my land law students, legal practice and legal scholarship are all about words and their many shades of meaning: there are better and worse choices, and I am not convinced that there is ever any need to use ‘mistress’ in describing modern life and relationships.

If we go back to the Johnson/Symonds story, though, if I am not too impressed by the use of the m-word, there might also be problems with the usage by the Guardian amongst others of the description ‘his ‘now-wife‘. Deploying this in this context might seem to add a bit of a Whiggish twist to the whole thing – suggesting that hey were always going to be married, so let’s not concern ourselves with the little matter of infidelity and sneaking around at the (allegedly) critical time. Writing about recent history – complicated, isn’t it?



Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

[This is a slightly updated version of an earlier post, from 2020, which had the same name]

This one is relevant to my continuing investigations in ‘petty treason’, as well as medical history, history of crime, religious houses and medieval Cornwall…

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The killing was described as false, felonious and treacherous. It was also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll.

The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged.

The common lawyers did not get a chance to sink their teeth into the thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling about categorising the relationships, or benefit of clergy, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic and his alleged religious accomplice in this case.

So what?

Medical history

This bundle of parchment entries gives us a bit of a glimpse into the hiring of medical men by religious houses. It seems interesting that the prior apparently entered into a long-term arrangement with John Leech, for his benefit alone (not that of the house) and the description of the terms is also quite instructive: it sounds as if there was a particular condition which was the focus of Leech’s work, rather than a general idea of keeping the prior in good nick, but that this condition was regarded as potentially amenable to a cure.

It also gives rise to questions as to whether the accusation might have been due to a general suspicion of what was in fact standard practice, or criticism of what may have been aggressive or experimental medical and surgical interventions.

‘Petty treason’

Much of the work I have done on PT has looked at the ‘wife kills husband’ subspecies, since I am interested in women. It is beginning to dawn on me, though, that there are some big and engaging questions to consider, in relation to ‘the other sorts’, i.e. ‘servant kills master’ and ‘person owing faith and obedience kills prelate’. This case touches on both of these subspecies. The description of John Leech’s contract with the prior can only be in there to suggest that he is a ‘servant’ of the type covered by the ‘master killed by servant’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’ – I can’t see that it has any other relevance. We are even given the detail that he has an initial one-year contract, then it rolls on from year to year. It may be that this was how the agreement was actually set up, but I would say that it is interesting that these one-year periods are very reminiscent of standard ‘labourers’ contracts – so their inclusion does seem to be angled towards associating a ‘medical professional’ of some sort with the ploughmen, masons etc. of the 14th century labourers legislation, giving a clearer idea of hierarchical relationship. I do find myself wondering just who was covered by the ‘master-servant’ subspecies of petty treason – and perhaps fifteenth century people were unsure about this too. The canon-prior relationship between Yerll and Honylond is rather more obviously covered by the ‘prelate’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’, unless we want to get into just what the differences might be between different forms of religious organisation. (I do have questions about that – though will leave them for another time. Suffice it to say that I would love to find a case involving nuns, but not holding my breath on that).


References: scans brought to you by the magnificent AALT …

KB 27/681 m. 6R; KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 39d, 40, 40d.



A Good Samaritan in medieval Lincolnshire?

This one is probably more interesting for its narrative qualities than its legal content, but there is enough of that to justify inclusion here … it’s from the King’s Bench indictment file of Hilary term 1464.[i]

The story which emerges is that – allegedly – Brian Talbot esquire and a group of other men – 20 of them in all, armed to the teeth, beat up John Pynchebek, leaving him for dead, then, when he was found not to be dead, and helped to an inn, threatened him. All of this would have been bad enough, but John was a commissioned justice in Holland, Lincolnshire, and had been on his way to a session of the peace at Boston, at the time of the attack.

The incident had been reported by jurors before the other justices in Holland, including one Richard Pynchebek – a relation of the victim? – at Boston on 1st October, 1463. It was said to have taken place on 20th July 1463, at Algarkirk on the Foss Dyke (Lincs).[ii] Talbot and co. attacked him and pulled him off his horse, threw him to the ground, beat, wounded and mistreated him. I rather like the added colour put in here – they kept going until Brian broke the stave he was using for the bashing, and they thought that he was dead. At this point, they left him for dead in the Wash, (‘where the sea comes in and out’).[iii]   John lay in the Wash in a very bad way (in extremis) until an unnamed stranger (extraneus) who was passing by saw John lying, cruelly beaten and wounded. This man, acting from good motives (ex pietate sua), lifted him up, and with great effort, blew into his mouth and saw, on examination, that he was alive.[iv] The stranger took him to an inn. It was not over, though – Brian’s servants and other malefactors had a go, verbally now, highlight: calling him a ‘horeson’. Then Robert Talbot and other malefactors, on Brian’s orders, pulled John out of the inn, took him to Brian, who threatened his life and/or that his members would be mutilated. To sum up, John’s life was despaired of for a long time, this being to his great damage (obvs) against the peace of the lord king (standard) and also, in a less usual phrase, it amounted to treating the king’s law with disrespect, All of this was greatly frightening both to  John and to the king’s well-disposed people in those parts, and would continue to be, unless such malefactors were punished for their offences (delicts), as an educational example.

So what?

Well, it’s not alone as an affront to royal justice in the mid-15th C, though it is quite interesting to see somebody who was a current justice allegedly treated in this brutal way – so, one for the ‘problems with the enforcement of the law’ file. I am much more interested in a couple of other aspects, though…

Questions of life and death

I have a particular interest in how these difficult issues – determining the start and end of (legally counting) life – were dealt with and described. The allegation that somebody’s ‘life was despaired of’ sometimes seems as if it’s just put in to intensify the allegation of physical damage, and ‘leaving somebody for dead’ may be doing some work in terms of making the accused seem morally bad and culpable, but in this case, the story really is that John was thought to be dead, or perhaps dying, and abandoned in water, presumably with the intention that his body would be taken by the sea. It isn’t, I suppose, a particularly medieval thing to make a mistake about this – we will all have seen sensational ‘person wakes up in body bag’ type stories – but interesting nonetheless.

That stranger

What a fascinating inclusion! I am used to strangers being seen as dodgy, one way or another, in medieval documents, but here we have a proper Good Samaritan, and a skilled one at that. If I am right that this suggests application of ‘mouth to mouth resuscitation’, if not full-on CPR, to the prone body of John, then that is definitely an important intervention. At the very least, it shows somebody taking a lot of trouble to find out whether someone apparently unknown to him was alive (and not in the unpleasant way seen in the last post), How maddening not to have his name, or a clue as to his origins!

It’s not clear how ‘strange’ this man was (just not from that part of Lincs, or your actual foreigner?) but, as the UK government distinguishes itself for cruel hostility to those who come here from other places, it was striking to see this little reminder that … gosh … they might be thoroughly decent, ‘neighbourly’ and positive presences amongst us.




[i] KB 9/305 m. 28, via AALT of course!

[ii] Not entirely sure about the geography of some of this – not somewhere I have ever been, nor studied its medieval topography/water features.

[iii] They also beat and imprisoned John’s servants – clearly of less interest to the jurors!

[iv] Do correct me if I have this wrong, anyone who knows about such things, but I think that’s he best interpretation!

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Endangering life and making sure of death: lessons from a medieval indictment

Today’s rather late case note comes from the King’s Bench file for Hilary term 1467.[i] A jury in Sussex reported to justices at Lewes a serious assault upon a man called Richard Broun, which was said to have happened in 1465.

The story was that, on Wednesday 16th October, 1465, Thomas Balbyn, lately of Balcombe, Sussex, clerk, along with Ralph Canon, also lately of Balcomne, boatman (I think!) and other unknown malefactors, acting with force and arms, i.e. bows, arrows, bills, glaives, and staves,[ii]  lay in wait to assault, wound, kill and murder a certain Richard Broun, attendant (famulus) of  Thomas [Bourgchier], Archbishop of Canterbury, near Lewes. They took, assaulted, wounded and mistreated him, giving him a very serious (gravissima) head wound, and completely breaking his left arm and his right leg, deeply injuring his head, arm and leg, leaving him lying on the ground, as if dead. Wanting to find out whether he actually was alive or dead, they stuck their daggers in his leg, dreadfully (horribiliter), and, feloniously, robbed him of his goods, worth 3d, i.e. a staff called a ‘warderer’.[iii] Their actions, it was noted, caused the Archbishop to lose the services of his attendant for a long time, i.e. for a year and a half after the attack. All of this was ‘ against the peace of the lord king etc.’

So what?

Well, a few things leap out at me, no doubt based on current research obsessions as much as anything else. Here are the main ones …

The injuries

I am looking at mayhem, so the use of mayhem language in the description of Richard’s injuries drew me in. There may be a point to make about permanent and temporary injury – it appears that Richard recovered (since there is a time limit on the Archbishop’s loss, and since there is no mention of his death) so would that have been a mayhem such as might be appealed? I presume not, and that the word is being used in a more general sense, but I would be happy to take correction, if that is not right. Further thought required!

Whose damage matters?

Of course Richard Broun himself could have brought a trespass action against the perpetrators, and maybe he did, but it is quite hard not to take away from this document the impression that his interests are subordinated to those of others: the general interest of the king in maintaining his peace, and the specific economic interest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lost the services of his ‘famulus’, for a time.

Testing for death/life

This prodding with swords is nasty, but interesting in underlining the difficulty of working out whether or not life was present. I have looked at the other end of this quite a bit (the ‘has a child been born alive?’ point) but determination of death was clearly something which could be tricky as well. Presumably, the point of the prodding would be to see whether there would be a reaction. It might seem a slightly risky thing to do – why not just run?

Other medical aspects

It is most interesting that the story is that Richard survived, though he was out of action for 18 months. It does suggest that he might have had access to above-average care, as a member of the household of the archbishop, and perhaps, further, that he was in high favour.[iv]



[i] KB 9/315 m.5 – via AALT

[ii] You know the drill, not necessarily meant to be taken as true, but may have been partly true in this case, if it happened at all.

[iii] I feel unable not to direct you to the additional smutty nuance associated with this word.

[iv] Rather a shame that he has a pretty run-of-the mill name, and would probably be quite hard to track down. Planning to have a look in the relevant C & Y Soc register next week.

Image – just in case anyone does not know … arms of Canterbury impaled with those of Thomas Bourgchier, c/o Wikimedia Commons  – a little fussy, it seems to me – and, yes, I do reaslise that, in choosing this picture, I am lazily emphasising the loss to the Archbishop, just like this case! It’s all planned and not at all through laziness.

Lambs and wolves in late-medieval London: the abduction of Elizabeth Barentyn

Looking through medieval legal records involves a lot of very formulaic entries, so it is always a treat to come across something a little out of the ordinary. A bit of English sneaking in amongst the Latin is good, and, for some reason I can’t quite pin down, always seems a little funny as well. Not funny, but definitely interesting is the occasional bit of unnecessarily flowery description – something that somebody just couldn’t hold back from including, even though it was not required as part of the allegation being made. There is such a phrase in the material relating to the abduction/ravishment and mistreatment of Elizabeth, widow of John Barentyn, which first appears in a King’s Bench Indictment File for Michaelmas, 1475.

KB 9/340 m. 88 notes the allegation that John Smyth, recently of London, gentleman, on 5th August 1475, got together a gang of ne’er-do-wells and used force to seize Elizabeth from the parish of St Mary le Strand, with felonious intent, beating her up and half-carrying, half-dragging her away. This is all bad enough, and there is the usual listing of weapons, which, in this case, may have been a bit more likely that it sometimes is.  But somebody felt the need to make the contrast between Elizabeth and her abductors even more stark, describing her situation as being like ‘agnus innocens inter avidos lupos’, i.e. like an innocent lamb amongst ravenous wolves.

(A lamb, not medieval, innocence a matter of conjecture: Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash)

Clearly, no animal metaphors were required for an effective accusation of felony – so how interesting that this crept in, and was, indeed, repeated in other documentation relating to the same case. What should I make of that? Was Elizabeth Barentyn seen as especially lamb-like and innocent? Was the point that those said to have been ravished were often not believed, and it was felt to be a good idea to make clear that Elizabeth was not like all the other, lying and scheming minxes, who really wanted to be carried off by a real man … Who can say?

Anyway, what more can be said about the particular image? Lambs gambol through all sorts of Scriptural and religious sources. You’ve got your straightforward sacrificial lambs, calculated to bring in a bit of sympathy, show helplessness etc. You’ve got your actual Lamb of God, but I don’t think this was an attempt to suggest that Elizabeth was likely to take away the sins of the world. No, I think we are in the territory of Luke 10:3, and the disciples being sent out like lambs amongst wolves, or maybe Isaiah 11:6, wolves and lambs living together, or Isaiah 65:25, feeding together. True enough, we don’t get those groovy adjectives in this verse, but it is my best match after a (rather amateurish, let’s be honest) skim through the Bible. There are a few other wolf or wolf-lamb references, like Genesis 49:27,  , Ecclesiasticus 13:17,  Jeremiah 5:6,  John 10:12  But is there a closer match, I wonder? A proverb? Something literary? A medieval pop song?

Whatever the exact derivation, the inclusion of such a snippet as this does raise in my mind the possibility that this sort of material might have been a lot more common that we know, it was just that it was not usually written down. Perhaps medieval court-rooms were brimming with colourful animal-based comparisons, indicating subtle gradations of approval and disapproval of parties, but clerks could not, or would not, work their quills quickly enough to keep up. I would like to think so.




Main image: some wolves (who deny any involvement) Photo by Yannick Menard on Unsplash

Finding the words for offences involving the foetus: a medieval Midlands example

Warning: this post contains references to violent crime and sexual violence.

Something I came across today in an indictment file seems worthy of a note, though the topic is difficult in all sorts of ways. Still, I think it is important to set it out and contextualise it,

The entry comes from a Worcestershire session of the peace from Michaelmas term, 1476. The jury said on oath that Roger Bailly of Hallow, Worcs, chaplain, on Tuesday 27th July, 1473, with force and arms, i.e. with clubs, knives and  lances (though not really/necessarily – these were conventional allegations) broke and entered the close of John Chirche at Hallow, and assaulted John’s wife, Joan, knocking her down. Joan was, at that time, heavily pregnant (grossam impregnatam). Roger wanted to have sex with her (the adverb used here is illicite, but rape, in the modern sense, seems the implication). The attempt does not seem to have succeeded (this is not spelled out) but the injuries caused in the attack had the effect of killing the foetus.

The words which are used to describe the foetus, and the offence, are very interesting. It is foetus ipsius Johanne in ventre sua existent’ and the offence was that Roger had totaliter suffocavit, destruit & murdravit the foetus, ‘against the peace of the lord king etc.’

This wording is intriguing in what seems to be its viewing of the foetus as, at one and the same time, a separate entity and also part of Joan. Thus, for example,  we have the word ‘murdravit’, which suggests separate concern for the foetus, but it is also designated Joan’s foetus, and its location in her womb is emphasised.  This suggests to me a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the nature of the foetus-within-the-woman than we might have imagined floating about in the minds of medieval jurors. The consensus view, that, while there was one well-known statement equating pre-birth and post-birth killing, the common law had, by the mid-fourteenth century, settled on birth as the start of the application of felonious homicide, remains intact.[i] This entry may be taken to suggest that lay views on questions of pregnancy and foetal life were not identical with the legal position under the law of homicide. Might that  say interesting things about what people thought was the appropriate area of operation of the law, and what was beyond its legitimate involvement?

The document absolutely does not amount to an endorsement of the idea that ending the life of a foetus was equivalent to felonious homicide on a person after birth – so is not something to be deployed in modern drives to restrict legal abortion – this is not equivalent to a ‘normal’ medieval murder/homicide charge, and it does not set the interests of foetus and woman against each other, as is often the case in modern analysis. As I have seen in medieval legal materials concerning other complexes of personality, such as husband and wife or corporations, ‘the medieval mind’ took a different, and perhaps more flexible, approach to accommodating ‘joint and several’ personality than some modern minds are able to accomplish. Perhaps it was all of that thinking about (what I find to be) the hugely difficult concept of the Trinity that limbered them up.



[i] On this, see Sara Butler’s recent post, and works cited there.

Image – I know, but very hard to find an appropriate image for something like this.

Abuse of weapons on the king’s highway

Here’s one that’s socially unpleasant but interesting in terms of the ideas about law that might be found amongst those preparing indictments.

An entry in the King’s Bench Indictment File for Easter term 1478 (KB 9/346 m. 42) notes that a Middlesex jury presented that Thomas Wyche of London, tailor, with various other, unknown, malefactors, on 2nd August 1475, with force and arms, i.e. bows and arrows etc. attacked a girl called Anna, daughter of Katherine Milner, widow of John Huchyn, Anna being described as ‘of tender age’, i.e. two years old. This took place on the king’s highway at Holloway, Middlesex. Thomas put an arrow to his bow and hit Anna’s neck, beside her throat, and left her for dead, frightening her a great deal and putting her in danger of death, against the peace of the lord king,

This was found to be a ‘true bill’, according to the endorsement.

Well, why is that interesting?

Aside from the horrible thought of a two year old perhaps having been shot, deliberately, and left in a bad state.  It seems interesting to me, in relation to early ideas about non-fatal injury. Here we have an assault with a deadly weapon, in a potentially vulnerable area of a small child’s body, but the child recovers. It is not the sort of thing which would count as a mayhem, and there is no mention of compensation for trespass – it is framed as a ‘criminal’ offence. Clearly it was thought to be a serious wrong, which deserved some punishment, but the fact that it was felt necessary to labour the point that the misdeed had occurred on the king’s highway perhaps shows some understanding that this was not something which would necessarily succeed in the normal course of things.

There are also two more interesting little touches relating to the child. First, the description of Anna as being ‘of tender age’ is touching, and cannot have been strictly necessary, given that we are also told that she was two. Secondly, as well as the physical damage, we are told that all of this caused the child to be very frightened. Probably an understatement, but an interesting bit of ‘emotional’ content, and perhaps a distant precursor of tort ideas relating to psychiatric harm?

Anyway, as ever, who knows what actually happened – a deliberate attack? A stupid accident? Nothing at all? But there is always something to learn from the way these unusual indictments were put together.





Photo by Paul Alnet on Unsplash

Wine o’clock in Whitby: dodgy drink and creative indicting in medieval Yorkshire

The picturesque town of Whitby is, of course, inextricably linked with one famous danger to humanity…

Yes, him …

OK, that was gratuitous vampire-inclusion. It is, in fact,  a less well-known, and possibly less fictional, Whitby resident and dealer of death I will be considering here. A certain Richard Cowper was in the area in the late 15th century, and, apparently, he had murder in mind.

According to an entry in the King’s Bench Indictment File for Michaelmas 1478 (KB 9/349 m. 77), Richard Cowper, a monk, was suspected of having mixed an unspecified poison in the wine he gave to William Colson, abbot of the (Benedictine) abbey of SS Peter and Hild at Whitby, and others (another monk, John Langthawe, and John [Mason], Thonas Gateshede and Richard Ledys – none of whom were specifically said to be monks). The deed was said to have been done on 20th September 1477, at a time when, so the entry is careful to specify, the imbibers were in good physical health. Not for long, however. They were unwell (languebant) from 20th September until 6th October, at which point, one of them (Richard Ledys) died. We hear no more of the others. The abbot at least survived, as he is reported dying only in 1499 – and so it is safe to say that the cause would not have been the questionable beverage supplied by R. Cowper.

The indictment is interesting – and a little odd – in its inclusion of the whole story involving he group of victims, when only one of them died. It is relevant to my research on petty treason, though, as ever, it raises just as many questions as it answers.

The relationship between the abbot and Cowper is worth considering. Cowper is called a ‘fellow-monk’ (comonachus) of the abbot, though the abbot is also called his master (magister) and the offence is said to have been committed proditorie as well as falsely and feloniously. Proditorie is generally a word seen in treason/’petty treason’ contexts. Leaving aside the fact that the abbot did not die, an offence against one’s abbot could certainly be brought under the heading of ‘petty treason’, in that it could be thought of as either a ‘servant v. master’ offence, or a ‘person owing obedience v. prelate’ case, under the categories in the 1352 Statute of Treasons. True, the use of ‘comonachus’ muddies the waters a little, but hierarchy is emphasised with the use of ‘master’ to describe Cowper’s relationship with the abbot. The relationship with Richard Ledys, the poor fellow who did die, cannot, however, really be seen as a ‘petty treason’ relationship. It is not clear that Richard Ledys was a monk at all, but, if he was, he was not the abbot, so that the relationship looks more horizontal than vertical.  Was the proditorie justified on a sort of ‘transferred intention’ basis – i.e. that Cowper intended to kill the abbot, and that intention was in the nature of treason, and applied over to the death of another person? Seems a little far-fetched. Could it be that it was being suggested that poisoning was something which made the offence petty treason? Certainly, poisoning was, in the next century, singled out as especially heinous (st. 22 Hen. VIII, c. 9), but I am not aware of any such doctrine existing in the fifteenth century.  So – a bit mysterious.

The alleged and apparently unsuccessful attempt to kill the abbot and the others who drank the wine, apart from poor old Richard Ledys, is also described as having been committed proditorie. This might be even more interesting. One of the intriguing aspects of petty treason is its position in between ‘normal’ homicide and ‘high’ treason. Generally speaking, with the exception of the penalties, it is treated as being closer to homicide than to treason. Here, though, it appears that an attempt is being assimilated to the completed act – something which probably would not have been the case in contemporary homicide but would certainly have been the case in ‘high’ treason (generally, plots and attempts at treason did not succeed …).

According to the description of Whitby Abbey in the relevant Victoria County History volume, its history was ‘devoid of exceptional interest or importance’. Well – not to legal historians, I would say!

Iechyd da!




Wine image – Photo by Max Tutak on Unsplash

Book image c/o Wikimedia Commons

Weapons and words: revisiting an issue from medieval sexual offence records

(This post contains references to sexual offences and sexual violence).

Despite the lack of interest in this area which is shown in the leading textbook on medieval English legal history, (you have a look at Baker’s Introduction to English Legal History editions 1-5 …), the study of sexual offences has seemed to the better sort of social historians and history-based legal historians to be something worthy of considerable attention, just as it has done to many modern legal scholars. There has been some excellent work, examining the implications of the word raptus (summary: it’s complicated) and differences over time, in terms of the basic allegations which appear in legal records. One aspect which has not been to the fore is the very occasional use of metaphorical language in these records, in relation to sexual offences, specifically the use of the image of weaponry to stand in for male genitalia.

I mused about this in a previous post. Since then, I have found some more examples, and it seems worth revisiting, and perhaps trying to discuss the matter with those who might have wider, relevant, expertise (over a longer time-span, or else a broader knowledge of other sources – literary, theological … than is possible for a legal scholar stepping out of her lane quite enough by taking on medieval history…).

In the earlier post, to summarise, I noted an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 relating to proceedings against a clerk, Thomas Harvy, for alleged offences in Norfolk, including a sexual offence (which was probably understood to be ‘consensual’ – at least in contemporary terms of an absence of overt physical struggle).[i] Jurors had presented before the justices of the peace that, on 1st October 1433, Thomas Harvy of Testerton, clerk, … broke into the house of  John Serjeant of Colkirk, at Colkirk, and attacked Margaret, John’s wife,  wounding her shamefully (turpiter) with a certain carnal lance called, in English, a ‘ballokhaftitdagher’, and so he continued to do until that day, setting a bad example etc., to John’s great damage and against John’s will.’[ii]

I did, at first, question my reading of the carnal lance/ ballokhaftitdagher’: could the lance perhaps have been some sort of butchery implement? But both terms being used together made a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and to refer to male genitalia.

I had come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.[iii] Now, though the number remains small, I have a couple more. There is another ‘carnal lance’ reference  in a  1483 Devon indictment.[iv]  This one does seem to separate the attack with the lance and the sexual penetration, so did make me wonder once more whether I might be talking fanciful nonsense, but yet another, from the same county and roll, mentions the use in an attack on a female servant of both ‘carnal lance’ and two ‘stones’.[v] A metaphorical link between testicles and stones was certainly present in the medieval period, and appears, for example, in the Mirror of Justices, in a discussion of mayhem (Book I c. 9). It is, of course, hard to be sure that this was not a real lance and real stones, but the more examples I find of the link between weapon-talk and sexual offence cases, the less likely that seems.

I have not gone out looking for references in a systematic way, and it seems unlikely that I have, by chance, found all of them. The best view which I can give at the moment is that this was a known idiom/image in later medieval England, and an unusual, but not unknown,  inclusion in legal records.

Update, 29th May, 2022

I found another reference to carnal lances and stones, from Devon, from an indictment file for Hilary term 1482 – this time I think it really does confirm that carnal lances were not actual lances, and stones were not actual stones, in some legal records. It is a deeply unpleasant sexual assault accusation, in which a certain William Gamon, clerk, was accused of what would now be called  a rape (though no ‘rape term’ is used, and neither are words of felony) on Joan, wife of John Stonehewer, on two separate occasions.   

A rough-and-ready translation of The case on KB 9/359 m.2 would be:

‘[A Devon jury on 12 October 1480] said on oath that Wm Gamon, [ff] recently of [Denbury], Devon, on 2nd July and 10th October 1479, with force and arms and against the peace of the lord king, with staves and knives and also a carnal lance, broke and entered  the houses of John Stonehewer at Denbury and Ottery St Mary, hit John’s wife, Joan, several times, and then hit and penetrated her with the aforesaid lance and two stones hanging in the said William’s nether regions, in a certain hairy opening between her two thighs, in the rear, so that her life was despaired of and against the peace of the lord king.’

Aside from confirming the lance/stones metaphor usage, this introduces further examples of figurative language for body parts in the sexual context. The woman’s body is discussed in particularly demeaning terms here, which is not very surprising really, but which reinforces the everyday misogyny which would have pervaded the atmosphere of medieval courts.


Why is this interesting, and what does it all mean?

If the ‘weapons’ are metaphorical, what then? First it is worth noting that a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls. It was not necessary to describe the (alleged) offences in this way. Secondly, it should be acknowledged that  the use of weapon-imagery is a well-known practice in literary sources.[vi] What are the implications of this weapon imagery in the legal context?  Several things occur to me, all a little tentative just now – I would certainly be interested to know what others think. Here are some of them:

  1. I wonder whether we can read into the occasional intrusion of this sort of imagery in entries on the legal record something of the mood of discussion about such offences, amongst the men involved in making records, or those in court. Is there validity to my intuitive reaction that it sounds like joking about and diminishing the seriousness, or the wrong, of sexual assault and rape? Might it be argued to show the exact opposite: since we know that these prosecutions almost never ‘succeeded’ in the sense of ending with a conviction and punishment according to secular law, aligning it more closely with the ‘ordinary’ sort of violence (and especially categorising the harm as a ‘wound’, as in ‘ordinary’ batteries etc.) showed a greater-than-usual degree of concern. The ‘rape: an offence (predominantly) of sex or violence?’ question is something of an ‘old chestnut’ in modern legal scholarship, but I think that there is some worth in considering linking up those debates with the work on rape/sexual offences in historical studies, which does not always deal with this point.
  2. What does the weapon imagery say about ideas of men, rape and sex?
    1. Does associating offending sex with a weapon in some sense dissociate man and penis, and, if so, is this something which serves to minimise – or ‘outsource’ – culpability?
    2. How does the association work with ideas/reality of rape as a weapon in (medieval) warfare?
    3. What does it all say about contemporary ideas of (socially sanctioned) sex? We are well used to the medieval idea of heterosexual encounters as asymmetrical, perhaps with a ‘playful’ combat aspect. Does using the weapon idea in sexual offence cases suggest an acceptance of a continuity between offending and non-offending sex?
    4. If weapon-imagery is to be used, what is the reason to choose one type of weapon rather than another? What implications might there be in choosing a lance rather than a dagger, a Latin/French term or an English one?

As ever with medieval legal records, far more loose ends and questions than concrete findings, but, I will stick my neck out a tiny bit and make one statement based on all of this. It does seem to me that one thing the use of weapon-words must have done was to reinforce the connections between the men involved in the legal process (jurors, clerks, those in court) and place them in opposition to the woman against whom, or with regard to whose body, the offence had, allegedly, been committed. The wielding of such weapons was a thing clearly gendered male, and, as such, something drawing men together in exclusion of women. Probably not, therefore, something conducive to a receptive attitude to allegations of a crime against a woman’s body.



[i] KB 27/697 Rex m.5 AALT IMG 0183. You can see a scan of the record here on the AALT website.

[ii] For the ‘ballock hafted dagger’ (a real weapon), see the earlier post, and Ole-Magne Nøttveit, ‘The Kidney Dagger as a Symbol of Masculine Identity – The Ballock Dagger in the Scandinavian Context’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 39, no. 2 (2006), 138-50.

[iii] KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442); KB 9/359/mm 67, 68 (these two also mentions stones); AALT IMG 141 (1482). There are two on KB 9/359 m.3

[iv] KB9/363 m. 2

[v] KB 9/363 m.3

[vi] See, e.g., D. Izdebska, ‘Metaphors of weapons and armour through time’, in W. Anderson, E.  Bramwell, C. Hough, Mapping English Metaphor Through Time (Oxford, 2016), c. 14; C. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2001), 42; R. Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, third edn, (Abingdon, 2017), 26, 151, 172; Robert Clark ‘Jousting without a lance’, in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn (eds), Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001), 143-77, 166. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Brepols, 2018) suggests this meaning too, in its sixth variation on ‘hasta’.

Note on terminology: I have generally stuck to ‘sexual offences’ here, because of an imperfect mapping on to modern conceptions of ‘rape’ of the ideas and definitions current in the medieval common law. There is probably not a satisfactory way of dealing with this mismatch, or at least I have not found one, and my choice is not intended to minimise the severity of the harm suffered, or the culpability of offenders of the past.

Image: I am going for a general suggestion of ‘puzzling’ here: a maze, Photo by Ben Mathis Seibel on Unsplash