Criminal Chaplains in Yorkist Yorkshire?

A very nasty case from the late 15th C here, but one which gives a few half-clues to medieval English attitudes to pregnancy and the status of the foetus, an area which has interested me for a long time,[i] and which has received attention in recent years, as a result of the appeal to medieval law by US Supreme Court justices, in justification of their stance on abortion.

The case is to be found on the King’s Bench roll for Michaelmas term 1484,[ii] so during the reign of Richard II, but concerning events from the reign of his brother, Edward IV. West Yorkshire jurors had presented, in 1483, that one William Turnour, lately of Kirkby Wharfe, Yorks, chaplain, a.k.a. William Neweland of Kirkby Wharfe, chaplain, and John Atkynson of Tadcaster, Yorks, chaplain, on Friday 27th September, 1482, came with force and arms and entered the house, in Kirkby Wharfe, of Katherine Raner, widow of William Raner, and there beat Katherine and William Rayner’s daughter, Cecilia, who was the wife of William Wright of Kirkby. Cecilia was pregnant (prignant, gravida). William Turnour beat and mistreated her, and feloniously killed and murdered her. Cecilia’s body was taken away and buried in the middle of the night in the cemetery at Kirkby Wharfe, without the coroner’s view, a piece of misconduct said to be against the king’s crown and dignity. There is also material on the fate of the foetus, though it is not entirely clear what the order of events was – did Cecilia give birth and then die after a while, or did all of this happen closely together? – in any case, the record mentions the child as Cecilia’s (puerum eiusdem Cecilie) with which she was pregnant at that time (cum quo adtunc gravida erat), and that it was separated from its mother, one way or another, and then taken away by Atkynson to an unknown place. It is not made clear whether or not the child was born alive. We get the neutral ‘after the child was brought into the world from the womb of the said Cecilia’ (postquam ab utero predicte Cecilie in hunc mundum product’ fuit …). It sounds to me as if this means that she gave birth before dying, but the slightly evasive phrasing could mean removal from Cecilia’s womb, as opposed to her pushing the baby out. Given that we are not told whether or not there was a live birth, it is not possible to know whether this report should be taken as one in which (a) both mother and foetus were killed as a direct result of William Turnour’s beating, but the felony and murder words are attached only to the killing of the mother (in some contrast to the case I mentioned here) or, (b) a live child was born, and, whatever became of it – and, frankly, its prospects do not look to have been too good, in the hands of these apparently malicious chaplains – its fate could not have been considered part of the felony being presented here. In either case, we have an indication of the (all male) jurors’ knowledge of, and interest in, the pregnancy and the foetus/baby, but on their perception of its value or status, it is more equivocal. There are unanswerable questions, too, about why such an attack might have taken place – part of wider disturbances, or something more personal? Where was William Wright in all of this – it does not sound as if Cecilia was a widow, but there is none of the half-expected involvement of her husband in pursuit of the offenders.

The usual tantalising uncertainties, then, and also the almost inevitable postscript – the allegedly murderous William Turnour (or whatever his name was) walked,  as a result of a rather general pardon from Richard III, and a promise of future good behaviour. So that was all right then.





[i] Another post on this area can be seen here.

[ii] KB 27/893 Rex m.4, which you can see here, courtesy of AALT.