Contract, coercion and concubinage: a rape case from medieval Westmorland

On the Michaelmas 1402 plea roll of the King’s Bench, there is a case with things to say about both ‘criminal’ law with regard to sexual offences, and also the commercial/contractual aspects of sexual misbehaviour in the medieval period.

The case, from Westmorland in the north of England, is to be found at KB 27/566 m.21 and, via AALT, here. It is an appeal of rape, brought by Joan London of [Maulds Meaburn] against Henry del Croft of Westmorland, Sir William de Threlkeld,[i] and John his son, and Thomas de Faucet, together with John Williamsservant Threlkeld, William Cook de Threlkeld, Thomas de Bowes, chaplain, and William Aliceson de Threlkeld.

Joan said that she had been in the king’s peace at [Maulds Meaburn] on 19th April [1402], when Henry came at about 11 pm and raped her, feloniously, deflowering her of her complete/pure virginity, and, feloniously, having carnal knowledge of her. The others were accessories.

There are a lot of standard form elements to the entry (the usual statements about pursuit etc.) and I will pass over these. What is unusual, however, is the defence. Rather than just saying ‘Not guilty’, Henry said that he and Joan, after discussion, agreed that Joan would be his concubine, in return for 6s 8d, he paid her this sum, and slept with her. He denied felony. All of the defendants were acquitted.[ii]  Despite the utterly predictable outcome, (for those of us who are familiar with these cases, anyway), there are a few of interesting points:


  1. The wording of the accusation

This is of interest for those who look at crime/sexual offences in historical context, There is one slightly unusual word here – the accusation is not just the usual rape/deflowering/virginity vocabulary, but adds pura to virginitate. ‘Purity’ is more commonly found next to ‘widowhood’, in ‘civil’ cases in which there is some argument about whether a woman did something during her marriage (and thus bringing in the ‘coverture’ rules) or afterwards, when she was able and obliged to take legal responsibility for her own actions. An interesting variant, then, and one which we might just take as suggesting some general ideas about women at different stages of life. That needs some further thought, but it’s worthy of note.


  1. The defence

Note that this is not the familiar ‘she must have consented this time as well’ defence based on previous sex with the defendant: it is ‘she did consent in advance, and so cannot use the common law to complain about having been penetrated’.


  1. The alleged transaction

On a more ‘crime meets contract’ theme, there is something to say about the alleged bargain here,

The narrative about the agreement between Henry and Joan has the role, in the context of the appeal of felony, of defending Henry against the allegation that he raped her (modern sense) thus the reference to her assent and her will in this matter. We might note that the assent and will are ranged with an agreement to be his concubine, not with the particular penetration with which the appeal charges Henry. This raises the issue of just what it meant to be a ‘concubine’. It is a word which comes up from time to time in legal records, often in connection with ‘priests’ women’. It is not inevitably sexual, though clearly, in this context it is. It is something which could bear greater scrutiny in terms of its implications and its interesting location on the borderline between status and contract, as this case seems to illustrate.

We must pass over the question of whether there actually was a ‘deal’, between Henry and Joan, but, as ever, even if the story was a lie, it must at least have been a plausible lie, so, what can we learn?

The deal was said to have been reached between Henry and Joan. There is no hint of the involvement of a pimp, bawd, madam, or even a family member negotiating on her behalf. It was, therefore, considered plausible for a woman to strike her own bargain with a man, to become his concubine. The entry portrays an orderly, businesslike, procedure: Henry and Joan discuss the matter (they have a colloquium about Joan becoming Henry’s concubine), and reach agreement, Henry gives her 6s 8d and Joan agrees to be his concubine (the term is not given, but this surely represented the price of more than one encounter). The deal is expressed in both unilateral and mutual terms: Joan se aggreavit and they had an agreement (concordati fuerunt). Henry took Joan as his concubine with her assent and will, and [‘only then’ is, it seems to me, implied] slept with her.

It is interesting to see the use of this businesslike, contractual, narrative in this context. Two things, in particular, strike me. First of all, to work as a defence, the story really has to place Joan as being on a level playing field with Henry, able to strike a bargain. We would need more facts about the parties to know whether that was remotely likely to have been true, though I do wonder about the tension between the two-parties-bargaining-freely version of events in Henry’s defence and the allegation by Joan that there were rather a lot of other people involved, before, during and for a month after the event. Secondly, although we are deep in the period of central regulation of ‘contracts of employment’ and wages, the terms on which a ‘concubine’ might ‘work’ were clearly not part of this area of legal prescription and enforcement. It is interesting to reflect on what this meant. Although they were ‘free from the red tape’ of the labourers legislation, and did not have to sign up to fixed terns, so that one might have thought they could leave their ‘employment’ at any time (and so refuse sex), this was not, apparently, the case. Whether or not developments towards the more coercive in employment which was covered by the labour laws had an impact upon areas like this, not covered but possibly analogous, must, for the moment, remain in the realms of speculation – but it isn’t particularly fanciful to imagine that it might have done.

Anyway, this record suggests that a deal, even a sinful deal, was not something that could be called off, at least once money had been handed over. While I presume the common law would not have enforced such a deal in a straightforward ‘contract law’ manner, we can see that the way in which the law of felonious rape was treated in practice meant that it afforded no protection for a woman who might want to get out of such an arrangement.


Some tentative conclustions: ‘free’ contracts and contracting unfreedom

Joan’s disadvantageous position bears obvious comparison with another ‘freely contracted’ status, that of marriage, with its consequences under the emerging rules of ‘coverture’. Just like a wife, a concubine would seem to have bound herself for the future in terms of sexual compliance, so that she would not be able to succeed in an appeal of rape. The way in which Henry’s case was put – admitting sex and founding his defence on the alleged concubinage agreement – is strongly suggestive of this being accepted.

One might also compare the ‘concubine’ with the prostitute/whore  (the terminology here is very difficult, but I mean somebody entering into one-off transactions). Bracton II, 415 lumps these together to some extent, as women who can be raped (albeit that this will attract a less serious punishment than rape of a virgin). Though the ‘concubine’ seems to be less disapproved of than the prostitute here, it may be that the common law’s increasing interest in and respect for contractual bargaining, possibly reinforced by ideas about ‘making the lower orders stand to their obligations’, as Robert Palmer had it,  even if not strictly covered by the labour laws, left the concubine in a rather worse position than the ‘common whore’, free to transact her business on an encounter-by-encounter basis, and presumably not obliged into the future to do the bidding of her customer/master.

This case should, if nothing else, remind us: (a) that it is essential not to tell ‘de-gendered’ stories about the development of legal categories and doctrines; and (b) that material from what is now generally seen as one discrete area of legal doctrine and practice may be relevant to another. Here, we have the use by a man, against a woman, of the idea that the common law should take account of, and accord force to, private contracts. The negative effect of contract ideas upon ‘criminal’ law protections for women is not something which should be ignored by legal historians. For all of the ‘rises’ and ‘triumphs’ of the history of the law of contract, we should remember that the impact of legal development is not to be measured only with regard to the experience of (free, capable) men.




[i] Could this be this man?

[ii] Joan was said to have brought a false appeal, for which she was financially liable. A jury found that she was not able to pay the damages assessed, and the former defendants now went after a man, Richard de Threlkeld, said to have helped her bring the allegedly false appeal.

A vicious beating or a vicious lie? A fifteenth century Somerset case

Content warning: infant death

Carrying on the occasional posts relating to medieval ideas about the foetus, and about pregnancy (you can follow back from here to see earlier ones, should you so desire), here is an accusation within an accusation, which might have a couple of things to say to us on this topic.

There is an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1412 (KB 27/606 m. 20d – here via AALT – which concerns an alleged piece of malicious prosecution, in which a group of people, including Thomas Morle and his wife, Elizabeth, accused John Cokkes and others of having taken the opportunity of Thomas’s absence on business in Bristol to break into his house in Milverton, Somerset, drag Elizabeth, who was pregnant, out by the legs and then beat her up. This beating was said to have injured her ‘so that her life was despaired of’, a detail so common as to be ‘boilerplate’. Far from ‘boilerplate’, however, was the elaboration of the damage said to have been caused: some time after this, she gave birth to her twins, who were severely injured by the beating (the back of one, and the legs of the other being broken), and died shortly after they were born. For good measure, perhaps, it was also alleged that a significant amount of property had been taken from the house, and that there had been threats against Thomas and Elizabeth, so that they dared not go about their business.

Back to the pregnancy/foetus/newborn angle, however … let’s note some interesting aspects of this…

  1. Language

There is a ‘backdating’ of terminology here: before the birth, the twin foetuses are described using a word usually associated with post-birth life: infans. They are infantes in utero suo existentes. This does give a sense of blurring of pre- and post-birth life, I would say.

  1. Ideas about gestation

This may not be terribly surprising, except to those who have seen the sometimes preposterous ideas about the length of human gestation in later cases on adulterine bastardy, but medieval people had an idea of the right length for a pregnancy – and it was said that the twins were born before their time. It would be nice to know if they had any idea about how a multiple pregnancy would affect length of gestation, or likelihood of survival, but, of course, that would be expecting a lot of such records.

  1. Suggestion of post mortem examination

We know from coroners’ records that there could be an examination and description of a deceased baby or foetus, at least in terms of size, but this seems to suggest some touching and feeling to ascertain that bones were broken, which is grimly informative.

  1. ‘Spin’ strategy

We cannot, of course, know what was the truth of this tale. Was it a complete fabrication, entirely true, or something in between? If it was made up, then we must assume that throwing in the details about the damage to the foetuses, and loss of viable foetuses, would have been seen to make John Cokkes and his associates look more culpable. So – not something confirming ‘personhood’ in the foetus, by any means, but certainly suggesting value.






A Cornish compensation claim

Content warning: miscarriage/abortion

Here is another snippet on that vexed question: how did medieval law regard the foetus (something I have blogged about a bit.[i]

Much of the attention in this regard – including mine – has been on the law of homicide. That’s understandable, since we tend to think of the big question being ‘was it regarded as homicide, to end the life of a foetus?’. But here, in KB 27/590 m. 15d, is a Cornish case in which the aim is not to convict a person who had caused foetal death, but to obtain compensation for a ‘tort’.

It is from the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas 1408. John Archer and his wife, Alice, brought a trespass action against David Renawedyn and seven other men, accusing them of having, (on a date the same year which seems to be May 16th, with a woman, not a defendant here, at ‘Aransawyth’[ii]), assaulted Alice, so that she miscarried (abortum fecit) to the great damage of John and Alice and against the king’s peace. They claimed that they should recover £100.

The defendants pleaded not guilty and the matter rested there, awaiting a jury. No end found just yet.

One is struck by the fact that both husband and wife brought the action. But then a married woman had to bring this sort of action in conjunction with her husband: we cannot really read into this a particular statement about the foetus being the man’s ‘property’, or the loss ‘really’ being his, since this is the way all trespass cases would have to be brought, when damage was done to the person of a woman.  Unhelpful, too, for the historian, is the fact that the damage to Alice from the external force, and that from the consequent loss of the foetus, or the pregnancy, are not disentangled. We certainly can’t say that this is putting a particular financial value on the life or worth of a foetus in itself. However, it is an interesting indication that the loss to the expectant parents when a pregnancy was ended in a violent, wrongful, manner, could be calculated, and a claim for substantial compensation was plausible.

The existence of such a claim might be seen to confirm the impossibility of the homicide route with regard to a foetus, especially where the pregnant woman had not, herself, died. It could, though, simply be a case of choosing one of a number of overlapping modes of legal response to an offence. I still think much remained unclear and ‘up for grabs’ in the law on the foetus in medieval England, but there is certainly more thinking and research to be done on this point.




Image – Perranporth: probably not where any of this took place, but a fine view.



[i] E.g.: here, here, here

[ii] Not sure about this name – it looks like some mangled Kernewek to me, but someone else may have a better idea.

Bracton’s Sister Beats the Bots (come on, let’s see what you do with that …)

Like all university lecturers involved in marking student papers, my mind is much upon AI – how to spot it, how to stop it … a very troubling business. On a lighter, but connected, note, I am quite enjoying the odd things that AI turns out when I look up my own site or research (no doubt I should bookmark things, but never quite get round to it).

One thing that sticks out is that AI can’t do ‘tone’, and it definitely can’t understand sarcasm, satire or whatever you would call naming a blog after a fictitious medieval woman, with a nod to the Blloomsbury set…

For example, I got this at the beginning of the year …

Almost seemed to be evolving as it was being written. JB was a real woman from the medieval period. Then she was also a modern legal historian exploring the works of JB, who had now become a jurist in her own right ….

Now, Bracton’s sister has changed state once again and become a medieval case – see main image.

In a weird way, ‘what AI does with “Bracton’s sister” could be an interesting little area of study.

Also not bad as a warning to students that AI really can come up with complete and utter rubbish …



And here is a little experiment. Will the following end up making it into an AI search for Judith Bracton …

Judith Bracton, who was married to Arthur of Brittany in a secret ceremony, is said, in one monastic chronicle to have been the first person to swim the Channel. She did so accompanied by Henry III’s polar bear, Gerald.



Offensive weapons: some thoughts on a violent image

Content warning: concerns historical records relating to sexual violence, and historical attitudes to such violence which are, without question, offensive. 

An entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 tells us about proceedings against a Norfolk clerk, Thomas Hervy of Testerton.[1] Amongst other things, he was alleged to have broken into the house of John Serjeant of Colkirk, on 1st October 1433, and to have wounded Margaret, John’s wife, by stabbing her with a lance or dagger. He was, eventually, acquitted. So far, so run-of-the-mill: medieval legal records are full of accusations of non-fatal injuries of one sort or another, comparatively few of them resulting in conviction, and we know that carrying a knife or dagger (if not a lance) was commonplace. The reason for drawing attention to this case, is that it is one in which it really is neither a dagger, nor yet a lance, that we should see before us, and that may have some important implications.

Allegations of misconduct involving the use of weapons are strewn through the records of the medieval English central courts, even when we can be fairly sure that nobody thought they had actually been used. They appear as ‘boilerplate’ text, in litigation relating to what a modern common lawyer would regard as torts, a fearsome list of swords, staves, bows, arrows and sometimes other weapons featuring, routinely, and often incongruously, in allegations of trespass of even a relatively mild sort, as a means of gaining entry to the king’s courts.[2]  Given this background, it may appear rather banal to point out that I do not think anybody ever believed Thomas had actually attacked Margaret with a bladed implement, but this short record does take us in a disturbing new direction. The entry is not an embellished version of a lesser offence, done for jurisdictional reasons, but one offence presented as another, for what we must probably see as entertainment, for the real allegation was not one of stabbing, but of a sexual offence.

Let us take a closer look at the record of the Hervy case. It gives more specific names to the weapons alleged to have been used, breaking from Latin into English as it does so. Hervy ‘wounded’ Margaret with a ‘carnal lance, called in English a ballokhaftitdagher’, (a ‘bollock-hafted dagger’ in more modern English). I believe that this would have been understood to be neither a lance nor a dagger but a penis: the offence was not a ‘wounding’ in the conventional sense, but sexual penetration of John’s wife.[3]

This position needs some justification. Lances, of course, were real weapons, though a ‘carnal lance’ seems rather obviously phallic. As for the dagger, while there was a real weapon called a ‘bollock-hafted dagger’ (also known as a ‘ballock dagger’ or ‘ballock knife’) in medieval and early modern Europe, named for its distinctive two-lobed hilt, [4] I do not think that this was understood as a real bladed implement either. The juxtaposition of a ‘lance’ and a dagger (which would seem to be things of rather different dimensions) suggests that there has been a slip into a metaphorical mode, and the equation of the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘bollock-hafted dagger’ is hard to explain other than in their common representation of male genitalia.

There are a few cases mentioning ‘carnal lances’, unaccompanied by reference to ‘bollock-hafted daggers’ (though sometimes they are accompanied by a reference to ‘stones’, strongly suggesting testicles).[5] An indictment which mentions the ‘bollock-hafted dagger’ alone, and which discloses that the allegation is one of sexual violation, can be seen in a 1454 file. This states that a certain William Shepley, tailor, on 31st October 1453, broke into Henry Smith’s house near Campsall, Yorkshire, stole some items, and raped Henry’s wife, Agnes, ‘with force and arms, i.e. with a … ballokhafted dagger’, penetrating her ‘secrets’.[6] This does all seem to make a good case for saying that both ‘carnal lances’ and ‘bollock-hafted daggers’ were meant to be understood as penises. Further support might be derived from the additional details in the Shepley record: it notes that William’s ‘bollock-hafted dagger’: is ‘a large instrument of very little value’, putting that low value at one penny (much lower than the values assigned to most real weapons of the time),[7] and elaborating on the length of the ‘instrument’. We might wonder whether it is conceivable that the allegation is one of violation with a real knife, but there is no sign that violation with an object would have been labelled raptus in medieval England. Those familiar with literary history will be aware of the long tradition of imagery centring on fighting and weapons, in connection with sex and with male genitals: medieval people were likely to have been used to this switching back and forth between body part and weapon, in the sexual context.[8]

We cannot be sure by what route this imagery came to be included in the record: was it a transcription of the initial accusation, or an elaboration by the clerk who recorded it? We can be sure, though, that it was a choice: most medieval rape or sexual offence entries do not include such material, so clearly it was not a requirement. If it had no formal function, though, why include it? Highly questionable as it seems to us, these accounts of ‘carnal lances’,‘bollock-hafted daggers’ and ‘large instruments’ were probably included in the record because they were considered humorous. Discussion of penis size and quality, as well as the connection between penis and suggestive dagger form, in the context of sexual offences, would certainly seem to have something in common with the tone of some of the ‘jokes’ about women, sex and rape seen in the clubby, men-only conversations reportedly carried on by serjeants and judges at Westminster, and passed down to legal posterity, in the Year Books.[9]

What more does the inclusion of this inessential material tell us about attitudes to the accused men? Although we may detect some ridicule of the defendant in the ‘low value’ part of the 1454 description, the ‘large instrument’ is presumably not similarly negative, and, taken overall, the use of the ‘penis-as-weapon’ image is not likely to have been damaging to an alleged offender; perhaps quite the reverse. In a world in which even socially-acceptable sex was seen as something a man did to a woman, in which a degree of male aggression was expected,[10] which knew ‘playful’ combat imagery in discussions of sex, and in which men carried real and aggressively suggestive ‘bollock-hafted daggers’, an image of unlawful sex as wounding with a weapon would be far less damning of the alleged perpetrator than it now appears.

Some of the ideas incorporated in these records are certainly offensive from the point of view of the modern scholar, but they may also be illuminating, in the quest to understand the mental world of medieval men, and the attitudes faced by medieval women in their encounters with the legal system. Much scholarly attention has been paid to the interpretation of entries relating to raptus, and whether or not particular allegations so designated concerned rape as we would understand it today, but cases such as that of Thomas Hervy, with which I began should alert us to the possibility that there are also cases not labelled raptus, which may, in fact, have involved allegations of sexual misconduct. Beyond that, though the number of cases which mention these suggestive weapons seems, thus far, to be small, the insights they can provide for our understanding of the interplay between wider culture and legal proceedings, in this difficult and important context, may prove to be of more than minimal value.[11]


Gwen Seabourne

11th May, 2024.



[1] KB 27/697 Rex m.5. All linked scans are from AALT.

[2] See, in particular, S.F.C. Milsom, ‘Trespass from Henry III to Edward III,’ Law Quarterly Review 74 (1958), 195-224; 407-436; 561-590.

[3] In this instance, the suggestion is that this was with some degree of consent on her part.

[4] See Ole-Magne Nøttveit, ‘The kidney dagger as a symbol of masculine identity – the ballock dagger in the Scandinavian context’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 39 (2006), 138-50. Note that the dagger’s ‘bollocks’ were renamed as kidneys by nineteenth century-antiquarians.

[5] See, e.g.: KB 9/359/mm. 67, 68KB9/363 m. 2; KB 9/363 m.3  Sometimes there is additional information linking the lance to penetration of a woman’s body: see, e.g. KB 27/725 m. 31d For the stones-testicles link, see, e.g., W.J. Whittaker (ed.), Mirror of Justices (London: B. Quaritch, 1895), book I c. 9.

[6] KB9/149 m. 21

[7] The offence was committed ‘[cum] … magne instrumento minime valoris’. For the use of instrumentum for the penis, see Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Brepols, 2018), s.v. ‘instrumentum’, 6c.

[8] 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; Robert Clark ‘Jousting without a lance’, in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn (eds), Same Sex Love and Desire Am407-436ong Women in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001), 143-77, 166; Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, s.v. ‘hasta’, 6.

[9] See, e.g., G. Seabourne, ‘Et Subridet etc.’: smiles, laughter and levity in the medieval Year Books. In T. Baker (ed.), Law and Society in Later Medieval England and Ireland: Essays in honour of Paul Brand (London: Routledge, 2018), 201-224, which you can see here. See also the contention that the inclusion of a particularly detailed fourteenth century rape case in medieval lawyers’ instructional manuscripts indicates that it was seen as having ‘titillatory’ value: B.A. Hanawalt, ‘Whose story was this? Rape narratives in medieval English courts’, in her ‘Of Good and Ill Repute’: gender and social control in medieval England (Oxford University Press: New York, 1998), 124-141.

[10] See, e.g., R. Mazo Karras and K. Pierpont, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 4th edn, (Routledge: London, 2017).

[11] There is a copious literature on the medieval literature of sexual misconduct. For those new to it, S. McSheffrey and  J. Pope, ‘Ravishment, legal narratives, and chivalric culture in fifteenth-century England’, Journal of British Studies 48 (2009), 818-836, and references therein, would be a good entry point.

Yet more on the ‘Eunuch Maker’ trial

With regard to the ‘Eunuch Maker’ case (briefly discussed here), we have finally arrived at sentencing – here is the Guardian report.

Previous reports failed to get into the legal idea of mayhem, though there is at least use of the word ‘maim’ in the most recent material. It is not used as part of the description of the offences, but as part of the journey towards the offences. Will the sentencing remarks say anything about mayhem? Waiting with bated breath,




Here are the remarks. Some bits on consent, but nothing on mayhem/maim. Was it discussed in the trial itself, I wonder.


Procedure and pregnancy: a Middlesex appeal


The question of how medieval people regarded and valued the foetus, and whether they saw abortion as being homicide or not, was raised, and debated, quite a lot, following the Dobbs case in the United States. The opinion of those who know about medieval law has generally come down against the selective and otherwise questionable use of medieval English authority by judges in the case.[i] I have many issues with the ways in which judges in the common law world cherry-pick and simplify past legal materials, or accept without appropriate questioning the contentions of advocates regarding their meaning: the misuse of such materials in modern courts is a multi-faceted problem. One aspect of the problem, when it comes to the foetus/pregnant woman issue is the failure to take seriously the impact which procedural matters might have on the way a case appears in the remaining documents. It is all too easy to conclude that we are seeing a substantive rule, when, in fact, the ‘rules of the game’ of pleading, or ‘form of action’ may actually have dictated what could be argued or included.

A nice example (in the legal sense, thoroughly nasty if the things described actually happened) is in a 1454 King’s Bench plea roll: KB 27/771 m. 35 (see it here on AALT). This concerns an appeal (individual prosecution) against Walter Fairstede lately of London, a yeoman or glover, Agnes his wife, and William Couper, a London yeoman, brought by John Stanford, for the death of Margaret, widow of John Henry.

The accusation was that, on 26th October, 1452, somewhere in Westminster, Walter and Agnes had assaulted Margaret and killed her. The attack was not, for once, said to have been carried with weapons, but with punches to the belly of Margaret, who was pregnant, or ‘great with child’. Both Walter and Agnes were accused of punching Margaret, Walter going first, with a right-handed punch to the left part of Margaret’s belly, and then Agnes punching her in the middle of the belly. Each of the blows was alleged to have been sufficient to kill Margaret (meaning that both assailants were ‘principals’). William was an accessory: said to have  assisted but not said to have thrown any punches. Margaret was said to have died following the assault, but not immediately: she ‘languished from 26th Oct to 7th December, 1452, and then died, in Westminster.

All of the accused were found not guilty by a jury – as ever, who knows about the truth of any of this, and who knows what the accusation was supposed to indicate, in terms of motive – a random stranger attack, robbery gone wrong, abortion (whether consensual or not) … much is beyond us. Nevertheless, there are things to consider. While we are told, more than once, that Margaret was pregnant, and visibly so – showing that this was something seen as important – nothing direct is said about the fate of the foetus. We may imagine that it would be unlikely that there would be a live birth, in the circumstances, however, and may deduce that there was no live baby, from the fact that the man bringing the appeal, described as Margaret’s relation (in fact an uncle on her father’s side), was also stated to be her heir. That would not have been correct, presumably, had she had a living child (assuming it would have been legitimate – we do not know how long Margaret had been a widow, of course)..[ii] What can we read into the non-mention of the foetus/baby? One view might be that the foetus was unimportant, so not worth mentioning. I think that the better view is that the loss of a niece’s baby would probably not have been something for which an uncle could bring an appeal, since it would be too far removed from him to be seen as his loss.[iii]  So, an example of ‘form of action’ setting the limits of what might be alleged, and not necessarily saying anything about the value, or not, of a foetus, in the medieval period. This remains a very difficult question – and I do not think that there was one clear ‘medieval legal view’ (let alone ‘medieval view’) on this.

One last thing which seems to me to hint at the complexity, and perhaps tensions, of medieval views in this area is the interesting difference in the way in which the two relevant dates are given. The date of the attack is given by day, month and regnal year, but the date of death is given in the old-style ‘by reference to a holy day’ manner – as ‘the following Thursday next before the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: a complicated maternity-and-foetus-related feast if ever there was one. Simply indicative of a transitional period in legal dating, or something more interesting, in terms of attitudes and concerns?




[i] See this, for example.

[ii] It is possible that she did have a live-born child, which died before the proceedings were brought: I am not sure that we know the critical date for appeal right. This case is quite interesting from the appeal right point of view too.

[iii] In this case, I suppose he is the heir because there was no living child, so in a sense he gained from these events. That is not unique to uncle appeals, however.

Had Margaret’s husband not been dead, perhaps he might have brought an appeal framed in a different way.


Image: Westminster – yes, I am embracing radical anachronism. It’s symbolic of past-present confusion, or something.

Drawn-out in Devon: a mayhem match

Here’s Another Year Book/Plea Roll match: YB Pasch. 6 Henry VII pl 1 f 41b appears to be KB 27/919 m. 29.[i] It is a case from Devon, Walter Chapman v. Thomas Preston and others, and it’s one of those in which there is a line of argument/pleading in the YB which was clearly given up, so does not appear in the PR.

According to the plea roll, Walter Chapman appealed Thomas Preston of Teynton Drew [Drewsteignton], husbandman, John Wheddon of Chagford, yeoman; and Robert Blakehey of Teynton Drew, husbandman, for mayhem and breach of the king’s peace – though it was breach of the peace not of Henry VII, who, in 1491, was on the throne, but of Edward IV, who had been in charge in 1481, when the injury was allegedly inflicted.

Walter’s case was that he was in the peace of God and Edward IV, at Spreyton, on 22nd March, 21 Edw IV (1481) at about 8 a.m., when Thomas, John and Robert came,[ii]  feloniously, contrary to the king’s dignity etc, lying in wait and assaulting Walter. They attacked his legs in a slightly jarringly non-symmetrical way: while Thomas went for his right leg, with a bill worth 2s (evidently a two handed weapon) the three others went for the left leg, John wielded a clubbe bound with iron (8d), Robert used a more basic clubbe (2d), and Richard brought to bear a Welsh bill (20d). The same thing happened to both legs as a result, however, the veins and nerves were ‘restricted and mortified’ and his leg became useless. Thus they feloniously mayhemed him.

After the usual words about pursuit, and offer to prove things, Thomas and Robert denied it and put themselves on a jury. John came up with a different plea, however, saying that he and Walter had reached a settlement, giving Walter 40s in full satisfaction for the wrong. This, he said, had happened quite soon after the injury, on 1st May 1481. Walter denied that a concord had been made.

The YB report ends up focused on an argument about a possible concord as well, but also discloses a ‘non-runner’ line of argument: it was about the injury itself, with a defendant (which seems to be John) praying that the court view the injury and see whether or not the plaintiff (Walter) was maimed. There seemed to be some doubt, and certainly a view that the defendant would necessarily lose if the court found that the injury was indeed a mayhem (so would not be able to plead a lack of guilt, for example). In this version, the defendant retreated from this to plead a concord instead – a less risky plea.

The YB also has some material on the offence itself, which does not correspond to the plea roll account. It says that the defendant could not be bailed because of the heinous nature of the offence – the plaintiff’s legs had been broken on a threshold. Quite why that is particularly bad is not clear to me. In addition, and perhaps inconsistently with its own story, it says that the bones were shown to the court. This is inconsistent if this was part of a viewing at the behest of the defendant, but might not be if either it was the plaintiff who insisted on showing his injuries, or if the bones shown were body-parts which had been separated from the plaintiff himself.

So what? Well:

  • quite interesting to see a leg mayhem case: there aren’t too many of those
  • also quite interesting to see the differences between YB and PR
  • a good confirmation that such actions could be settled
  • tantalising evidence about investigation of physical injury
  • indication that these actions could go on for a very long period of time.

And, of course, there is also just the trainspotterish joy in coming up with a PR/YB ‘snap’.




[i] Earlier stages: AALT Page ( AALT Page (

[ii] (with another man, Richard Michel, miller, but he was not present here)


Image – pretty church somewhere near the scene of the alleged crime.

The butcher, the bridge and the blame

This was an interesting one, I thought: a trespass case with a pretty distinctive defence.

KB 27/669 m. 91 puts us in Trinity term 1428, in the King’s Bench. Richard Perot of Alcestrer, Warwickshire, butcher, is being sued for assault at Stratford upon Avon, by Edward Toky.

The allegation was that, on Thursday 9th November, 1424, Richard had assaulted Edward, with force and arms, and the usual range of weapons, against the king’s peace (so a run-of-the-mill trespass allegation). Edward claimed that his damages amounted to £20.

Richard, via his attorney, hit back. He pleaded not guilty, and gave a rather different version of events on the day in question. It wasn’t the usual boring and blank self-defence allegation. Both he and Edward had, he said, been riding their horses on the bridge over the Avon, and Edward’s horse fiercely jumped on Richard’s horse. Richard and his horse almost fell into the water, and, to save his life, and not fall into the water, Richard took hold of Edward by the neck and arms, and held on tightly, and that was what Edward was calling trespass.

So – if true, that does sound like a pretty good explanation, and suggests that a trespass claim for £20 was a bit of a stretch for Edward. But was Edward just trying it on, or was Richard’s story a pack of lies? Who can say. We can note, though, a feeling that it was a decent defence to a trespass action to say (a) I did what I did to save my life, and/or (b) your horse started it.



Image – Clopton Bridge, Stratford. Ferocious horse not pictured.

Kentish conundrums

(CW miscarriage)

It seems quite a long time since I looked at this one in TNA in Kew – on a nice foray in summer 2022. I just found it when sorting through some papers for a big clear-out, and it seems a shame not to put it ‘out there’, with a few comments. I can’t see when I am going to be able to write it up properly, so, for what it’s worth, here goes …

C1/14/44 has a catalogue reference which dates it to 1443-50.[i] This states that Richard, bishop of Rochester, (probably not really a Richard – see further below) examined on oath in the Chancery, said that whereas Reginald Pekham of Kent, esquire, had claimed that there had been some dispute with the men of the Archbishop of Canterbury[ii], and his (Reginald’s) wife, children, servants and familia had been attacked at Ightham, Kent,[iii] by men and servants of, Sibill, daughter of Reginald and wife of Richard Culpeper esquire, who, at the time of the said attack was pregnant,[iv] within a short time after this, gave birth to an ‘abortive foetus’,[v] [in fact] the Bishop, together with John Bamburgh & lady Elizabeth Culpeper, wife of Hugh Godewyne, at Wrotham, baptised[vi] the infant Sibill had borne, naming him Richard, and, after being born,[vii] the infant lived[viii] for about a year.[ix]

The context of the document is unknown. Such an inquiry might indicate some sort of attempt to discredit the bishop of Rochester: if he had indeed baptised a miscarried foetus, this would clearly be very bad practice. There are other possibilities though. It might be something which was produced in the context of a contested claim to tenancy by the curtesy. We can imagine a dispute in which Reginald was trying to say that the attack at Aldham had had dire consequences, including the death of this potential grandchild, and somebody else was trying to minimise that, and dissociate the death from the attack. Moving the two a year apart would do that effectively. Another possible context would be a claim by Richard Culpeper to tenancy by the curtesy of Sibilla’s family lands, if and when she predeceased him: to qualify for a life interest of this sort, a man had to have produced live, legitimate, issue. Again, it would be useful to be able to have evidence of a baptism by a high-ranking churchman, to support such a claim. Using the father’s name for the child’s christening adds that extra bit of dynastic connection, and perhaps suggests that this was the heir presumptive.[x]  The possible snag with this theory was Kent’s special land law, which included different rules for curtesy, and did not require the birth of live offspring – so this would not work for gavelkind lands.

I find myself asking, in a less legally-focused way, if it was plausible that there was a child which had lived for a year, what does that say about the nature of the relationships expected between a grandfather and grandchild in the same county? I am also at a bit of a loss to come up with any reason why Bishop Richard would lie about the child’s survival (unless he had, in fact, participated in a dodgy baptism of the not-alive).

Just possibly, there may be more evidence to find on all that, but it might be a while before I get to it.



[i] The catalogue entry includes ‘stillbirth’, and that is what drew me to it at first: that particular term is an interesting one in the present day, contrasting in its nuances with the ‘born dead’ terms ubiquitous in other languages, and, I am keen to trace its origins. Anyway, the document itself does not use the term ‘stillbirth’, but it is very interesting in other ways.

[ii] ‘The Venerable father John Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of the Lord King’. This would presumably be John Stafford, if the catalogue date is right – though there was not a Richard as bishop of Rochester at that point. However, if Bishop Richard is Richard Young, 1404-18, then there was not a John as Archbishop of Canterbury/Chancellor at that point – a puzzle, and clearly some mistake somewhere! A copying mistake, influenced by all of the other Richards, perhaps? There was a prior of Rochester called Richard in the 1460s, but that probably doesn’t work…

[iii] ‘Aldham’

[iv] There is language of ‘supposition’ and ‘claim’ here, but this is not a case in which it is suggested that there was a false claim of pregnancy, so this must be associated with Reginald’s narrative.

[v] (fetum peperit abortiuum)

[vi] (lifted from the holy font)

[vii] (post partum suum)

[viii] (vitam duxit in humanis)

[ix] There is nothing on the dorse

[x] We will not get into lurid speculation about Bishop Richard’s involvement being more than just doing the honours at the baptism!


Image: Rochester Cathedral – isn’t it lovely! I have never been – one more for the bucket list.