Monthly Archives: March 2014

‘Stupid death’ or shameless fiction?

There’s an odd little tale in a pardon for homicide from 1236 – see CPR Henry III vol. 3 p. 167. Walter, son of Walter Stiek was in deep trouble – he was said to have killed his brother, Hugh, and, unless he could attract royal sympathy, he would be liable to capital punishment. So he came up with a rather unlikely sounding explanation, which would mean that he might be pardoned as unlucky rather than executed as homicidal. He said that it had all been a terrible accident – he had been engaged in a spot of ploughing, and had thrown the ‘swingle tree’ of the plough (what do you mean you don’t know what a swingle tree is) at an ox (such use of the ‘swingle tree’ is, I am assuming, not recommended ploughing practice) and – pyoiiiing – it rebounded from the ox’s horn, hit poor Hugh, and did for him. The physics of this seem a bit unlikely to me, but then I can claim no particular expertise in the way of swingle trees.

GS 29/3/2014.


Seventeenth century domestic violence

The Daily Mail, not at all my cup of tea politically, does seem to break the odd Legal History story. Today’s is the release of an interesting-sounding account of domestic violence in the 17th C. See

Perhaps a legal historian of the future will examine the interesting contrast between the Mail’s interest in the downtrodden of the past and its somewhat less sympathetic treatment of the downtrodden of the present.

GS 22/3/2014

Hangman hanged

Even an anti-capital-punishment-ist can appreciate the medieval poetic justice of a hangman meeting his end at the end of a rope: see the King’s Bench case from 1417 ( National Archives KB 27/623 m.15; AALT image 0211) in which one Nicholas Vesavery of ‘No Man’s Land’ (sounds nice), co. Middlesex, hangman of London,  was said by a jury to have stabbed Alice, his ‘concubine’ to the heart, on Thursday before Valentine’s day., and was hanged. It is not surprising that the job of hangman attracted some fairly unsavoury and low-ranking individuals, but it is, perhaps, surprising that Nicholas had no chattels at all to be confiscated after he was adjudged a felon (see margin of entry).

GS 21/3/2014


Recent read: R Wallace, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales 1866-1928 (Cardiff, 2009)


Yes, I know it’s not new, but I have just getting around to reading this. It was a pleasure to read something outside my usual historical period, to broaden out rather than going into ever greater detail. The book itself is clear, thorough and unquestionably filled a need. It is surprising, really, that the Welsh aspects of the suffrage campaign had not been treated in sustained form like this before 2009. Given the targeting of Lloyd George and McKenna (a Monmouthshire MP) by the WPSU and the complex interaction between nationalism, the language, trade unionism, nonconformity and the campaign for votes for women, it is a fascinating area. The chapter on anti-suffrage campaigning was particularly good, and, having seen many bone-headedly misogynist newspaper articles (and some truly Vogon-level anti- suffrage poetry) from Wales in this period, it was a revelation to me to learn about the enlightened pro-suffrage line of the Cambrian News.



Medieval Labour Law: interesting defences


Not so long ago, I noted a fifteenth century case in which an employee alleged abusive behaviour on the part of a master (See 4th January, 2014). Here’s another little nugget, this time from the fourteenth century, and a period of particular employer-employee (or master/servant) tension during the reign of Richard II.

The King’s Bench roll for Trinity term 1389 (KB 27/5513 m. 25; AALT image 59) includes the case of John Clerc of London, saddler, brought to court under the labour laws of Edward III, accused of leaving his employment with John Somervylle, without reasonable cause or permission.  He was said to have left before the end of his one year contract.

Clerc alleged that he had had reason to leave – and the reason was an interesting variation on allegations of beating. He said that Somervylle had accused (or ‘defamed’) him of having slept with Somervylle’s wife, and this had resulted in Clerc being summoned before the ecclesiastical authorities in London, where he had purged himself (gone through the ecclesiastical form of proof of innocence). Somervylle had proceeded to stab Clerc in the chest, and, said Clerc, if the knife had not hit a bone, he would have been killed. He was, therefore, in his view, fully justified in leaving Somervylle’s employ.

Unsurprisingly, Somervylle denied everything, and so matters were sent to proof with a jury. Here, medieval legal records go silent. All we hear is that the jury found in favour of the master – perhaps because Clerc’s story was a pack of lies, perhaps because jurors chosen on the basis of their property were likely to side with a master rather than his servant. Still, Clerc must have thought that this story might work, which suggests that the scenario he came up with, if it wasn’t true, was at least a plausible course of events. And that says some interesting things about expectations of violence, intimate relations and reaction to adultery in fourteenth century England.

(Clerc was ordered to pay his former master the thumping sum of 100s 7 1/2 marks, and this offence also left him liable to imprisonment),

GS 10.3.2014

Whele meet again: the continuing adventures of a suspected Scot

Whele meet again: the continuing adventures of a suspected Scot


Anglo-Scots tension and uncertainty amongst those in the south of England as to who is and is not a Scot seems to be something of a theme in cases of the last years of Edward IV’s reign. I have noted previously the case of John Marcyell v. Thomas Hannfert (1482, CP 40/882 m. 410d, AALT image 1970; see blog post 12/1/2014), a Lincolnshire case alleging trespass, removal of cattle and threats to John,  interrupting his business, in which the defendants pleaded that they did not need to answer John, because he was an alien, in Scotland, in the allegiance of the king of Scots, the king’s enemy, and had entered England without safe conduct.

Another contemporary suspected Scot, known to the Year Books, was Richard Whele, a clerk of the King’s Bench. Richard and Isabel Whele’s case (1483) appears in YB Hil. 22 Edw IV; Seipp 1483.009 and 010. Here, Whele claimed that both husband and wife had been imprisoned without proper cause, he on the supposed grounds that he was a Scot and she on suspicion of insanity, after being informed of her husband’s arrest. Both cases as reported in the Year Books spent most time discussing pleading technicalities (the ‘only obeying orders’ defence and the details of pleading an insanity-based justification) but there is also much food for thought here on the ‘national’ tensions made evident in the cases. One relevant plea roll entry is at KB 27/885 m. 39d, and there is more on Richard Whele’s problems with the allegation of being a Scot on KB 27/884 m. 91. Here, we see description of a dramatic scene – Whele accused in court, during a session before Chief Justice Huse and his fellows, of being a Scot. His accuser was one John Popley, ‘holyer’, and Holyer’s words are quoted: ‘I defy the[e], proud Scotte: thow art no better and that shall I prove.’

As with John Marcyell, who claimed that he was not an alien, but a native of England, in King Edward’s allegiance, born at Black Heddon  in the parish of Stanford[ham], co. Northumberland, Richard Whele claimed to have been born in the far north-east of England: in his case at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

In both cases, nationality was a question put to a jury from the location of the claimed birth, but while I have not found the conclusion of the Marcyell case, Richard Whele certainly managed to secure confirmation that he was English, and was able to produce documentation under the privy seal to this effect. He won his case and recovered £48 6s 8d.

The real story behind such characters and events remains murky. It may have been entirely made up in an attempt to discredit a reasonably prominent individual, but I am very interested in the possibility of there having been confusion, away from the border, over who was and who was not a Scot. It appears in other Year Book and plea roll cases, and is well worth further consideration – one of my ‘back-burner’ projects.

GCS 2/3/2014