Death and Doghethegy: homicide suits and dodgy spelling in medieval Herefordshire

Worth a brief note, I think, is a Herefordshire homicide case from the King’s Bench plea rolls of 1428 (KB 27/666 – the devil’s plea roll – mm. 81 and 81d). William ap Thomas ap Phelippe Vaghan of Talgarth in Wales, gentleman, and three other men, named in more-or-less Welsh fashion, John ap Jeuan ap Howell, Richard ap David Glyn and Jeuan ap Thomas ap Oweyn (all three of Talgarth, and each labelled ‘yeoman’), and a second list of one ‘gentleman’ and seven ‘yeomen’ of Talgarth (again, broadly Welsh-named) were attached to answer John ap Gwelym’s appeal concerning the death of Rhys [‘Resus’] ap Gwelym, his brother.

The allegation was (to summarise) that Rhys was attacked by the defendants, at Kivernoll, Herefordshire, on Wednesday 6th November, 1426, and killed (specifically, he was said to have been shot in the back and heart (x 2) with  arrows, bashed over the head with a pole-arm, and lanced in the chest and head). A bit ‘overkill’, it would seem, but this sort of account is common enough, perhaps reflecting a real series of events, perhaps semi-fictitious, as a way of tying various people into the killing.

William ap Thomas and most of the others said that they were not guilty, John ap Gwelym maintained his appeal, and everyone agreed to jury trial. So far so unexciting, from a legal historical point of view. One of the accused, however, tried a different strategy, and this is what interests me. Richard ap David objected that John ap Gwelym had no right to bring this appeal, because Rhys ap Gwelym had a wife, (and we are to understand that she ought to have brought the appeal).

I find this interesting, because the rules about appeal right are a little opaque. It is certainly clear that a wife could bring a prosecution against those she thought had killed her husband, but did that preclude others from doing so? This case seems to confirm that it did. So appeal-right by the blood, or through common law canons of inheritance,  did not trump, or sit on a par with, appeal-right by the former ‘joined flesh’ of matrimony. Interesting to ponder that. And yet, the other defendants did not go for the ‘he had a wife’ option – so was there some doubt as to the ‘trumping’ rule, or that the marriage would be found to have been valid, or did they have some other reason to prefer the straightforward ‘not guilty’ plea?

Making his argument that there was a wife, so the brother’s appeal was misconceived, Richard set things out very carefully. He noted promises to marry, from both sides, and banns, and a church-door wedding, and stated that the marriage had lasted for the rest of the life of Rhys (even if that was rather …. shortened), and that his wife was still alive, and in Kynardesley, Herefordshire. I have not seen this level of detail in such an allegation before, and it strikes me that it might have been a result of questioning, and suspicion with regard to the status of marriages amongst the Welsh, even those apparently resident in England. Could they be trusted to do the thing properly?

Anyway, whether because of this problem with his appeal or otherwise, John ap Gwelym did not see the appeal through, and it was left to the king to take up the matter. On it went, and after the usual delays, there was a jury trial. Richard and the others were acquitted. The switch to the king’s suit, rather than an appeal by a subject, would presumably put an end to investigation about the marriage of Rhys.

There is much here which is of interest beyond legal history, especially in relation to the Welsh in the very porous border area. Apart from their apparently fractious relationships amongst themselves, there is quite a lot which might be extracted, for those studying the cross-cultural aspects of border life. Possible issues about marriage I have mentioned. There is also some pretty glorious material on language. I am far from qualified to pontificate on this, but – hurrah – this is my blog, so I can do what I want, and I am going to give you a couple of quick thoughts:

  1. The names, or their recorded versions, show a fair amount of mixing of languages. I realise that I have ‘Englished’ the Latin recording of some of the names above – those are ones which were recorded just as they would be for an Englishman – i.e. ‘Willelmus’ as opposed to ‘Gwilym/ Gwelym’, unless the latter is written down, and so on. I do quite like the Latin-English-Welsh mash-up recording of the name of one of them: Mauricius Thomasservant ap Phelippe Vaghan [of Talgarth in Wales, yeoman].There is also a bit of French accent to some of these – ‘Phelippe’ for example. Truly a fun puzzle for a linguist.
  2. And then there is somebody’s apparent bewilderment as to how to deal with the name of Rhys’s wife – who, I assume, was called Dyddgu. In the plea roll, she becomes ‘Doghethegy’. It might be that this was a spelling given by Richard ap David, but my little mental reconstruction of how this ended up being the version of record is that it was the result of somebody who could pronounce it saying ‘Dyddgu’ very, very slowly to a clerk with no Welsh, and him slightly throwing his hands up in despair and slapping down the start and finish of the name, padding it out with a few extra letters and leaving it at that.[i] I suspect that anyone with this name would still be looked at with uncertainty once over Offa’s Dyke, but at least she would probably not end up being recorded with a set of letters which left Google offering a few pictures of dogs and then giving up.



[i] If nothing else, it shows that the clerk responsible was not familiar with his Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Image – near the site of the alleged murder. With genuine medieval vehicle.