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

Something interesting turned up in my plea roll trawling today (or at least it is interesting if you are interested in medieval crime, medicine, religious houses or 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 two 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 accusation described the killing as false, felonious and treacherous. It 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. Richard Yerll, if guilty, would seem to fit reasonably snugly into the category of ‘monk and abbot’ – perhaps there might have been some scope to argue differences in the relationship between monk and abbot in other orders and canon and prior in the Augustinian order. John Leche is a bit more difficult to see as falling into the category of ‘petty traitor’. He was, in modern parlance, more of an ‘independent contractor’ than a ‘servant’ of the prior.

The common lawyers did not, however, get a chance to get their teeth into either of these thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling, 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 in this case. Obvious questions arise: was this part of a more general suspicion or criticism of what may have been aggressive surgical interventions? Was there personal animus against Leche, Yerll or both? It may be that there is more which can be found out about the leading players, but, at the moment, during our own health emergency, the records relating to the priory, in Oxford and Cornwall, which might help here, are beyond my reach. I will, therefore, have to leave it there for now, in the hope that I will be able to flesh it out in the future.

References

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 40 (AALT IMG 77, 79)

KB 27/681 m. 6R (AALT IMG 161); KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

GS 14/6/2020

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