Prosecuting predatory chaplains: an instance of abuse from fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Deeply unpleasant, but worthy of a quick note is this Yorkshire entry from a King’s Bench plea roll, from Michaelmas term 1363.[i]

It states that the jurors of various wapentakes in the county, in the previous Michaelmas term, at York, presented that Thomas de Barkestone, chaplain, recently living at Escrick, took Alice de Hartford,[ii] aged 13 years, recently servant of the same chaplain, and extracted her from her bed in the house of John Gamul of Escrick,[iii] on [25th April, 1362], and conducted her, naked, to his (Thomas’s) chamber, with the assistance of another chaplain. Because Alice did not want to consent to fornicate with Thomas, the two chaplains tied her up, naked, using an iron chain attached to a post there, and kept her there, tied up and naked, until Thomas ‘lay with her’, feloniously and against her will. Thomas and the other chaplain pleaded not guilty, put themselves on a jury, and were bailed until Easter term following this.

Here, the trail goes cold (so far!) and, as ever, we don’t know what facts lay behind this instance, but it is clear that this was considered a plausible story, and that is noteworthy. There are a few points of particular interest, and connections with other bits and pieces I have done. Let’s think about one or two of them.

First, there is the age of Alice, and the fact that it is noted. We find it vile that a (presumably) adult man was predating upon a 13 year old girl, and the jurors seem to have been appalled too – for there is no obvious legal reason to record it. Interesting on attitudes (at least of male, respectable jurors) to women and girls, and offences against them.

Then there is the fact that Alice was formerly a servant of Thomas. This makes the whole thing even grimmer (or concurrently grim?), bringing in considerations of the particular vulnerability of female servants to the slobbering and harassment of their employers.[iv] It is hard not to speculate about why Alice left Thomas’s service, and to construct a particularly heart-breaking story in which she left because of his pressure and abuse, thought she had got away, but was ensnared once more. One of the common images used for marriage was that of the bond or chain: here, allegedly, was a very literal use of chains in a non-marital context, showing that the employer-female servant connection might also be very hard to escape.

In terms of the main offence, the details are, of course, horrific; they are also unusual amongst such accounts. The power of the offenders (two of them, presumably grown-up men, with the means to subdue Alice – and presumably having planned the whole thing) is contrasted with Alice’s youth and nakedness (three times we are told she was naked). The vocabulary around will and consent is also interesting. Medieval records very commonly use the expression of sex ‘against her will’, and I have always thought that there is an important difference between this and ‘without her consent’, although we (both lawyers and historians) tend to fall into modern legal language, based around consent. Here, however, both ‘against her will’ and the fact of her non-consent are mentioned. It seems a particularly strong indication that the jury were sympathetic towards this particular young girl, and that they believed that people like Thomas (men, chaplains) might do things like this. The other vocabulary issue which is difficult, and jarring, though perhaps explained by the need to use Latin, rather than more familiar, less formal, languages, is the use of concubuit for the act itself – its overtones of mutuality, ‘with-ness’ sitting so badly with what was clearly being told as a tale of unilateral and abusive crime.

I hope to find more on it at some point, but this case is certainly one to add to consideration of the complexities of the law on sexual offences in the medieval period, as well as the often weak position of female servants.




Image – well, what do you use for a story like this? I have gone for a road in the general area.

[i] KB 27/412 Rex m. 1d; AALT IMG 0513.

[ii] ? Hartforth: Survey of English Place-Names (

[iii] Escrick :: Survey of English Place-Names (

[iv] See, e.g., this post.