Mirrors and Borderlands: some Lockdown reflections on a recent project

In what now seems like the very far-off pre-lockdown part of 2020, an article of mine was published, the culmination of a project I had been working on for two years or more, and had presented, at different stages in its development, to audiences at the International Medieval Congress in 2017 and the British Legal History Conference in 2019. Before the current crisis began, I had decided to write something about it for the Law School research blog. In this post, I will do that, but since this unexpected period of locked-down working has prompted more general reflections upon work and life, I will also offer some personal reflections on the project, and some of the more general thoughts about law, history and scholarship which are presenting themselves to me with some force at the moment.

I: The Article

Judging a Hereford hanging: Agnes Glover v. Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others (1457)[i] considered the events of a few days in the spring of 1456, when the English city of Hereford was taken over by a mixed Welsh and English force, led by notable men of south east Wales and Herefordshire. William Herbert and Walter Devereux, along with their kin and connections, the Vaughans. A member of the Vaughan family – Watkin Vaughan – had been killed in Hereford, slain with an arrow through the heart, as one record has it, and the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan allies came to Hereford to seek justice or revenge for this outrage. They obliged local citizens to try and convict six Hereford men for the killing, then proceded to hang them. Legal action followed, as Agnes Glover, the widow of one of the hanged Hereford men attempted to prosecute the main offenders. The case went on for some legal terms, but, in the end, there was a spate of pardoning, and nobody was punished in accordance with the full rigour of the law.

Perhaps it may seem unremarkable that there would have been an episode of disorder at this point in time (as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ period geared up) or in this particular area (the English-Welsh border having a reputation for tension), and unsurprising that nothing much came of the widow’s attempts to bring to justice those who had caused the death of her husband (since so many medieval ‘criminal’ cases ended without conviction and punishment). Nevertheless, this incident and associated cases seemed to me to be worthy of further investigation, and discussion, partly because of the unusual nature of the available records, and partly because of some issues relating to ciminal law and ideas about law which were striking to a legal historian, but had been left out of political historians’ treatment of the Hereford incident.

 

i: The records

The documents in this case are much richer than those available in relation to many medieval offences. There are records from ‘the centre’ – the plea rolls and indictments which make a formal note of the (many) stages of legal proceedings. There are law reports in the ‘Year Books’. These were accounts of arguments in cases deemed to be of special interest, made and circulated by lawyers. Putting together report and record can really expand understanding of the proceedings, and it is always very satisfying to be able to match up the different sources. A great bonus in this case is that there is actually even more contemporary material besides these ‘legal’ sources. Most importantly, the incident and its aftermath have left a trail in Welsh poetry, and there is also a reference in an English source, the Paston Letters. Welsh poets of this, ‘the golden century of praise-poetry’ were predisposed to favour the Herberts and Vaughans, as powerful figures in Wales and the borderlands, and also important patrons of the Welsh bards. Perhaps not surprisingly, all things considered, the literary evidence proceeding from this school of poetry gives a positive spin on what might otherwise look like banditry. The relevant section in the English Paston Letters, on the other hand, shows considerable contempt for the Welsh, and ignorance of their language and customs.[ii]

 

From my own point of view, this was by some distance the best treasury of contemporary sources I have ever worked with in my legal historical investigations, and it was backed up by some very fine secondary scholarship. The work of Dylan Foster Evans and Helen Fulton on the relevant praise poetry, and on William Herbert, was essential.[iii] There was also the rewarding experience of working with an excellent thesis from the 1970s, on fifteenth century Hereford, which I had out on loan from Swansea University.[iv] Holding and reading that physical volume, typed on one side of the paper only and corrected with Tippex and painful care, and with a ‘borrowed by’ list at the front containing the signatures of several of the most prominent late-medievalists of the twentieth century, brought an unexpectedly vivid connection with more recent history, with things which have passed away in my own lifetime.

 

ii: Borders and centres

My research, particularly in integrating the law reports into the story, showed me that the common law struggled to fit cases like this – cases of wrongful execution following some sort of legal proceedings – into the available modes of prosecution. It seemed as if some sort of limit to the ordinary law of felonious homicide, centred around a simple ‘man 1 hits or stabs man 2, man 2 dies instantly’ paradigm, was being reached. The reports show lawyers grappling with whether this could really be treated just like any other killing, and whether someone like Agnes Glover should have a right to bring a criminal prosecution. In a criminal justice system which relied on private initiative for some prosecutions, and which had not wholly accepted that dealing with killers was the crown’s business alone, these questions could be troubling. Previous political historical treatment of the 1450s has tended to pass over this, its accounts of the weakness of central control emphasising local corruption and royal incompetence, but I argue that at least part of the problem was caused by the common law’s uncertainty and the flaws in its procedure.

 

In terms of geographical borders and centres, this research gave me much to consider in relation to the attitudes of different groups to the common law and its reach within the realm of the king of England. While the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan faction were prepared to make some concession to co-operation with common law processes, their main strategy was forceful and extra-legal. It might be seen as inflected with a Welsh sensibility, given the particular emphasis placed upon the duty of kinsmen to respond to the death of one of their own which is to be found in native Welsh laws, but this distinction should probably not be taken too far: Cyfraith Hywel, the collected laws of the Welsh, did not favour forced show-trial and execution, and kin-vengeance was still part of the thinking behind some aspects of English common law procedure as well.

 

One of the additional perspectives which a legal historian can bring to this area comes from consciousness of the ‘time travelling dimension’of law reports, as they are handed on from one generation to the next, their arguments to be re-used and developed. When a case such as Agnes Glover’s appeal of Herbert and Devereux is made the subject of law reports, it takes on a life of its own, being cited in future legal works and cases, shedding what are considered unnecessary details and, in the process, changing in meaning. Within the common law tradition, the case soon dispensed with the need to name the claimant, and mangled some other names. It also cast off its geographical moorings, so that, in printed Year Books, it looks as if the location was Hertfordshire rather than Herefordshire. This may be a slip of just one letter, but it does demonstrate that the root of the dispute, in violence on the English-Welsh border, was not regarded as particularly crucial by the common lawyers in and around Westminster. Central control might not be terribly effective on the ground at this period, but it had a strong grip on the minds of the elite members of the legal profession.

 

 

II The Reflective Bit: the historical and the personal

In my early years as a lecturer and researcher, mentioning that my area of investigation held not only intellectual but personal fascination would have been unthinkable, so wedded was I to the idea of academic objectivity that any admission of emotional engagement with the subject of my research would have struck me as entirely unprofessional. I have learned since – from colleagues, from scholars I admire, from life – that detachment is not always the Holy Grail. Thus, I no longer have a problem with putting a few personal reflections ‘out there’ in this form (I did edit them from this for the Law School blog, mind you! Still some work to do …)

First of all, it’s worth explaining that I have particular reason to find all this interesting. The Herberts and their relations the Vaughans were based in what really is the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Places such as Abergavenny, Raglan and Tretower, which feature amongst the relevant locations of the raiders, are deeply familiar from childhood, and resonate from the parchment. The language of the poets resonates too, and presenting this paper to the British Legal History Conference was the first time I dared to recite a line or two of Welsh poetry in that decidedly Anglo-centric gathering. It felt a little like speaking the language of the Elven realm, if not in the land of Mordor (where the shadows lie), at least in the Shire. As J.R.R.T. had it in the 1950s, ‘Welsh is beautiful’.

The other thing I find extremely satisfying in projects like this is bringing to light the stories of women of the past. It was good to be able to bring Agnes Glover out into the open, and to show both her determination to try and do something about the loss she had suffered, and also what she was up against, in this attempt.

 

Concluding thoughts: moving on from Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin

As is so often the way, and despite the unusually full range of records relating to her case, Agnes Glover gives us the slip in the end, disappearing from the record as her litigation ground to a halt, and Herbert and Devereux, pardoned, lived to raid on other days. Watkin Vaughan was commemorated by praise poets and avenged with impunity.[v] It feels a little ungrateful, having got a couple of conference papers and an article (as well as some good teaching material for the undergraduate Legal History unit) out of these characters, to bid them farewell, now, but it is time to move on. I will, however, be expanding on two of the themes raised in this research in future projects, currently at an early stage, one on wrongful execution, and the other on insulting the Welsh, so Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin may be back for the odd cameo appearance.

Gwen Seabourne

May, 2020.

[i] Midland History 45:1 (2020) 2-17 https://www-tandfonline-com.bris.idm.oclc.org/doi/abs/10.1080/0047729X.2020.1712077

[ii] N. Davis (ed) Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 172.

[iii] H. Fulton, ‘Guto’r Glyn and the Wars of the Roses’, in ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’ Ysgrifau ar Guto’r Glyn a Chymru’r bymthegfed ganrif; essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, ed. D. Foster Evans, B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013), c.2; D. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan (d. 1469) family history and personal identity’, same volume, c. 4; D. Foster Evans, ‘Murder in the marches: poetry and the legitimisation of revenge in fifteenth century Wales’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18/19 (1998-9), pp. 42-72.

[iv] A. E. Herbert, ‘Public Order and Private Violence in Herefordshire, 1413-61’, M.A. Thesis, University of Wales, Swansea 1978.

[v] Elegy to Watkin Vaughan of Bredwardine. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan’, p. 100; D. Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a’i Deulu (Aberystwyth 2000), poem 23

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