A birching churchman

Not an earth-shattering legal point in this one, but some nice detail…

In the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1428 (KB27/670 m.76d) , there is a case from Devon, alleging a beating. John Langeley, parson of the church of Combe Martin, was the defendant, accused of a trespass, by Walter Elyot. In the standard wording, John was said to have beaten, hurt and mistreated Walter so that his life was despaired of, against the king’s peace, at [Ashburton]. Walter was represented by his attorney, William Elyot – a relation? and claimed that his damage was £40 – so quite a severe beating was being alleged. Boiling the pleading stages down to essentials, John said that he was not guilty of a trespass, because, long before the point in question, and at that time, he was a grammar master, living there and teaching (docens, erudens, informans – nice rule of 3-ing there) those who came to him to learn. And at the time in question, John found Walter deficient in his knowledge, and all he did was to impose reasonable chastisement and correction with a stick called a Byrchynyerde. Walter disagreed, and the case was kicked on to the next term.

It is interesting how far back the case stretches – the beating was supposed to have been in 1405, so the peace which was breached was that of Henry IV, not Henry VI, who was (technically) on the throne in 1428. So a long-borne grudge, and no idea of limitation of actions, by the sound of it.

I was also quite interested in the naming of the stick (which it is tempting to equate with the more modern birch) and in the admission that the beating was imposed because of a failure in academic standards – not any clear misbehaviour on the part of Walter. The implication is that that would have been acceptable, if true. Clearly important to get your grammar right, in late medieval Devon.




Image: birch, innit? Photo by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash