Neither loving, nor honouring, nor obeying the law on petty treason?

Today’s tale of less-than-happy relationships comes to you courtesy of entries on legal records from   1439.

A record of the Inquest at Bromham, Bedfordshire, on 18th May, 1439, on the body of Alice wife of William atte Halle of Bromham, labourer, notes the jurors’ view of events leading up to Alice’s death. They said that Alice had been pregnant, and suffering from a variety of complaints (whether pregnancy-related or not is unclear), and William had made the decision to kill her. On 7th May at Bromham, he had a certain dish (a posset? it would seem to involve milk curds – the word is balductam) made, and put various venemous powders in it, i.e. arsenic and resalger),[i] and gave the dish to Alice to eat, saying that it would make her well, and, believing his words, she ate, and was immediately poisoned, swelling up, being ill until 17th May, and then dying of that poisoning. He had, therefore, feloniously killed his wife. There is more: a record relating to the gaol delivery at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 notes that William was there because he had been indicted for having feloniously killed Alice, by putting poison (arsenic and resalgar) in her food on 7th May, so that she had died on 18th May. Above the entry, unless I am misreading it, we see a note that he was found guilty, and ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

  1. The medical and personal information

There are some nuggets in the inquest record which are worth noting.

The account of the poisons used suggests a knowledge, and an availability, of these substances, down to a relatively lowly level. As for the swelling effect, and the lingering for 10 days, that is something which might be of interest to medical historians – is that plausible? Can we say anything about that without knowing how much was allegedly used, and how would one know that swelling was due to poisoning as opposed to pregnancy or other pre-existing conditions?

The narrative of William’s lies about the food being likely to help Alice get better also tells us something about plausible relationship dynamics: a wife would be likely to trust her husband; a husband of ‘labourer’ status might be involved in his wife’s care. I suppose it also tells us something about accepted nutrition for sick pregnant women.

  1. The sentence

Drawing and hanging was the classic punishment for ‘petty treason’. I have been collecting examples of spousal homicide for quite a while and I had got used to seeing a nice (well, not nice at all, but you know what I mean) neat distinction between the treatment of W kills H (= petty treason, those convicted are burnt) and H kills W (= ‘just’ homicide, those convicted are hanged). This looks like a court – or somebody – ‘getting the law wrong’ then. Maybe it’s just a ‘blip’, or maybe it shows us particular distaste for this offender, or these facts. On the face of it, it is presented as a ‘normal’ homicide – all we get in terms of motive is the usual ‘malicia’. There is no use of ‘treason words’ like proditorie, as we might see in a servant kills master, or W kills H case. There is the idea of William ‘imagining’ Alice’s death, which is something of a link with ‘high’ treason jurisprudence. Other factors which might be relevant are (a) the poisoning and (b) the pregnancy. Poisoning would be singled out as particularly worthy of spectacular punishment in the next century.[ii]  Might this suggest a whisper of a previous connection between treason and poison? As for pregnancy – well, the question of the common law’s attitude to the foetus, and its possible ‘rights’ is a huge topic, which I plan to get into rather more in the coming year, but suffice it to say at this point that, while it was thought worth mentioning by the inquest, the pregnancy is not mentioned in the gaol delivery entry, which, I think, is some indication that it was not considered to be the key to the raised level of offence.

An interesting oddity then, and I will have to work out how to fit it into my ‘spreadsheet of doom’ on petty treason.




[i] We’ve come across this combination before in the lore of spouse-offing: see this post.

[ii] ‘Acte for Poysoning’ (22 Hen. VIII c. 9; SR 3, p. 326).

Image: general theme of love and such … this one is clever but just a little sinister. Or maybe that’s just me …

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash