Author Archives: vifgage

About vifgage

Professor Gwen Seabourne teaches and researches Legal History, with a particular focus on the medieval period. She is the author of two books and several articles, mainly on this period of Legal History. Current interests include women in legal history and legal humour. This site does not purport to reflect the views of her employer, nor to constitute legal advice.

Peas, grass and battle beyond The Last Duel

Lots of interest in the merits, and historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the big new film The Last Duel. I hope to go and see it, though feeling a little unsure as to whether I want to sit in a cinema with a load of strangers during current circs. I have the book though, so planning to read it this weekend.

I am not going to presume to comment on the film’s medieval French context, since I am definitely not an expert on that, but, since I suspect that there will be some general wondering about the idea of trial by battle, a little bandwagon-jumping and a couple of quick musings on this from a common law point of view might not go amiss.

For many years, in my Legal History classes, I have included something on proof, including trials by ordeal and by battle. It tends to capture the attention of students just a touch more than the development of the strict settlement and the Bill of Middlesex, for some reason. It is one of the useful areas to push students’ imagination a little, and to try and get them to see beyond the Whiggish distinction between ordeals and battles (stupid) and juries (great and totally unproblematic). With ordeals, there is the fantastic article by Kerr et al.[i] to give them to read, and a case to be made for there having been something of value in the so-called ‘irrational’ mode of proof, when compared to contemporary alternatives. Battle is rather a harder sell, and I confess that I tend to send students off to read the articles by M.J. Russell,[ii] and then in class go for cheap shock value and do Ashford v Thornton in a slightly Horrible Histories way … There is obviously more to say than general agog-ness at the late extirpation of the possibility of TBB though. The gender aspect is, of course, important – women were not supposed to engage in TBB, and do not seem to have done so (though there is one slightly bizarre 15th C story about a duel being ordered between a female accuser and a Franciscan friar, who was supposed to fight with one hand tied behind his back![iii] I have spent vain hours trying to track that one down …) Then there are the accounts, in chronicles and legal sources of battles themselves, and the procedure which they followed, or should follow. Some of these are extremely impractical and ritualistic – with weird weapons, a lot of formulaic language and rules. I was reminded, the other day, when looking for something completely different, that another thing which is really fascinating is the fact that those fighting a TBB took an oath against sorcery.

I stumbled on this version in The Boke of Justices of Peas (printed 1506),[iv] in its little ‘how to’ guide to holding a trial by battle, and was enchanted (!). It’s prescribed for an approver (man who had ‘turned king’s evidence’ and was trying to save his skin by accusing another man of felony and then beating him in a TBB):

‘This here you iustice that I have this day neither ete ne dronke nor haue upon me Stone ne Grasse ne other enchauntement sorcery ne witchecrafte where thoroughe the power of the word of God might be enlessed or demenysshed & the deuylles power encresed and that myn appele is true so help me god and his sayntes and by this boke &c.’

[Justice, hear this: I have not eaten nor drunk today, nor do I have upon me stone, grass or other enchantment, sorcery or witchcraft which might serve to diminish the power of the word of God, and increase the devil’s power, and that my appeal is true, so help me God and his saints and by this book etc.’]

Seems a bit harsh not to let the poor devil eat or drink, but fits with the general religious ritualism of this sort of thing. What about the magic though … what ideas does that reveal about ideas as to how TBB worked, and how it could be derailed. It does seem to suggest that God could be foxed by a magic stone or grass (magic grass – new to me – I assume it is the green lawn stuff, and not some special other early modern meaning – sure somebody will tell me if I am wrong …), which is a rather interesting theological position, when you think about it. Belief in magic is one thing, thinking it could actually transcend the human world and put God off his stride, when intervening to say where the truth and right lay in a trial by battle is several steps further on, I would say. It just seems a really fascinating meeting of two sorts of supernatural belief. And it is made all the more striking as the formula for the duel goes on to bar human intervention to help one side or the other – by advice to take advantage of the opponent, or  physical help. It is as if the magic thing and the weighing in of spectators are on a par, equally likely![v] Possibly the supernatural issue can be rendered a little less blasphemous by thinking that the idea behind it must be that the magic grass etc. could skew the result by acting on the bodies of the combatants, rather than on God. Seems a bit weaselish, but maybe that works.  Feeling once again as if I have a lot to learn! It’s certainly something to think about as we enjoy the big film (or book …) and as we approach Halloween.



[i] Kerr, MH, Forsyth, RD, and Plyley, MJ, ‘Cold Water and Hot Iron: Trial by Ordeal in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22.4 (1992): 573-95.

[ii] Russell, M. J., ‘I Trial by Battle and the Writ of Right’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 111-34 ; ‘II Trial by Battle and the Appeals of Felony’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 135-64; ‘Trial By Battle Procedure in Writs of Right and Criminal Appeals’, Tijdschrift Voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 51.1 (1983): 123-34.

[iii] Bellamy, John G,  The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), 145; Eulogium Historiarum, III, 389.

[iv] Glazebrook, P. R. The Boke of Justices of Peas, 1506 : With an Introduction by the General Editor (London, 1972). It’s a book which sounds slightly unpleasant if you are a Scot (add the peas and it is all a bit graphically vomity). It is a collection of various ‘templates’ for legal proceedings which might have seemed useful to somebody acting as a JP, or one of his officials. The material is not particularly new – it’s 15th C stuff, perhaps quite a bit from the reign of Henry VII, but earlier than that too.

[v] The no sorcery rule appears in  older sources too– see Russell (1983) above, p. 132.

Photo by Artie Kostenko on Unsplash

Study Law … it’s better than eternal damnation!

Enjoying listening to the recent radio version of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus: BBC Radio 3 – Drama on 3, Doctor Faustus. Many of us will remember the lines about kissing Helen and being made immortal etc, but I was struck by this in the first scene – when he is having a bit of angst about where to direct his studies:

‘Both law and physic are for petty wits’

and this

‘This study [i.e. Law] fits a mercenary drudge who aims at nothing but external trash; Too servile and illiberal for me.‘

Not ones anyone is likely to use in their student recruitment material! Still, granted that he would have been better off sticking with Justinian and problems about succession, maybe it could be used in a sophisticated campaign saying ‘Study Law: it’s better than getting involved in a dodgy deal with the devil and ending up eternally damned …’ [I have missed my vocation in marketing, haven’t I?]

(Image, C. Marlowe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Check out that fancy doublet!).

Hegal Listory

No doubt I risk tutting, sneering and/or wrath in pointing this out (again … see this old post) but … I am not sure that some parts of the world of legal history academia are aware of the concept of the manel and the general acceptance that diversity is a good thing …

Oh look – while the ladies may be allowed in to give the odd seminar, the speaker for the big lecture at the Cambridge Centre for English Legal History is … yup, another bloke …

It is rather worrying that there are no women legal historians (or historians of law, or former lawyers known to give a good talk…) isn’t it? I definitely can’t think of several.

[Voice offstage: Ah life was simpler in the good old days …


We would definitely never plan a big project with only men nowadays, would we …Oh …]




… and also … from this week’s reading (17/10/2021)

Another indication of the worrying lack of women who are able to do these things:

D Ibbetson, N Jones and Nigel Ramsay (eds), English Legal History and its Sources (CUP 2019) Chapters by males: females = 17:3.


Manicules and many hands: a little musing on the wonders of AALT

Like just about everyone who writes about the early history of the common law, I am a heavy user of the digitised manuscripts on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website. They were especially valuable during the worst of the pandemic, of course, but many of us had been using them regularly long before that. Even for people living in the UK, it is often not feasible to get to the National Archives (ludicrously expensive and time consuming getting to central London by rail, and then out to Kew) and that is as nothing compared to the fun and games which researchers from other parts of the world must encounter. That being so, easy online access has been an enormous bonus. I realised just how much I had come to rely upon it, when AALT was unavailable for a few days last academic year, and I felt decidedly panicky. This morning, I have been doing a bit of leisurely searching in AALT plea rolls (I know it’s Saturday, but I definitely need a distraction from the ominous sounds of offspring packing for imminent departures to university… ) and, in best Carrie Bradshaw fashion (if the ever-profound lead of Sex and the City had been a legal historian), ‘got to thinking’ about the changing experiences of legal historical research which I have had, since I started out in the 1990s.

My first real encounter with medieval manuscripts came as a PhD student – up to that point, it had mostly been transcribed and translated things in the Selden Society volumes and similar publications, with a few early modern bits and pieces to do with the Bank of England when I had a job as research assistant at the Law Commission, including working on the repeal of parts of the early legislation regulating the Bank. I designed a project for the Ph.D., making the somewhat arrogant assumption that I would be able to just bowl up to the Public Record Office (as it then was) and read eyre rolls, to locate presentments and prosecutions of usurers and offenders against price regulations. Obviously, it soon became apparent that it would take quite a while to get to grips with the great and contrary membranes, the script and the abbreviations (not to mention the springiness of some of the tightest rolled ones, and the fear of handling some of the crumblier-edged ones). It is odd to think that just about everything I traipsed down to Chancery Lane to examine is now available with a few clicks on the AALT site. Just as well for the state of the records that present day versions of Ph.D.- me can have their clumsy hands kept off precious pieces of legal heritage to a great extent.

The experience of looking at the rolls online is, of course, not quite like ‘the real thing’. There is something special in making physical contact with the work of long-ago clerks. But there are also positives in using the scans. It is possible to expand the picture, to help make out more obscure words (or make a better guess, at least…). It is easier to go back and check something than is the case when using physical records. And then there is a certain charm in the online site itself. I am sure that others could add to the list, but there are two things that strike me about it, quite regularly. The first, and  more trifling, is a by-product of frequent use of the site – the odd misfire in searching for the site means that I have become unusually well acquainted with: (i) Aalto University in Finland and (ii) a Dutch serial killer nicknamed ‘Aalt’.  The second is to do with hands.

‘Hands’ can mean different things to people in the nerdy manuscript-fancying community, of course: perhaps first of all we’d think of writing styles and individual quirks. A lot of puzzle-solving entertainment to be had there, for those who like that sort of thing. Then we might think of manicules – the little pointing hands we see in the margin of manuscripts, indicating cases or things that the clerk thought might need to be found again, or which should be noted. What I am mostly thinking about, though is actual, present day hands: the springy nature of the rolls sometimes makes it necessary to hold them down whilst they are photographed, with the result that the AALT shots contain numerous images of the hands of those creating the digital archive – shots like this one.  That is going to be a sort of manual immortality one day, isn’t it? (Especially if the MSS themselves become more frail and less accessible). It certainly gives an inkling of the general effort involved in making these images available to anyone who wants to see them, and I find it a really interesting additional piece in the story of the handing on (!) of the information contained in the rolls, from one generation to the next.



Photo by Sebastian Dumitru on Unsplash

Mustard mastered: a tortuously-explained death in medieval Kent

A King’s Bench plea roll entry for Michaelmas 1374[i]  informs us about the legal response to the death of an agricultural labourer, John Mustard, in Kent.

The entry notes that there had been an inquest on the body of one John Mustard, which resulted in the indictment of Simon de Kegworth. The inquest was taken at Earde, Kent, on 3rd August, 1374, and the inquest jury said that events had unfolded as follows…

The scene: John Mustard, who was one of Simon’s workers, along with others of Simon’s servants, was at work tying up sheaves of peas (not quite sure of my agricultural correctness there – sheaves of peas sounds a bit odd – but it’s what the words say!) at the hour of vespers in a field called Priestfield in the hundred of Litley, and vill of Earde…

Action #1 – things get a bit tasty:  Simon came to his servants and as he arrived, John Mustard, who was drunk, spoke to Simon in contemptuous words (which, of course, the record-creators felt the need to preserve for us …). John said that Simon was an idiot (fatuus) and [rough translation!] was no more use than pigshit.

John continued the insults as everyone went on with their agricultural tasks (gathering things up before an expected rain-soaking). Sadly, these ‘even more contumelious’ words are not recorded. It is a shame, because it seems to have been these unrecorded words which tipped Simon over the edge.

Action #2 – Simon loses it, but absolutely doesn’t wish to harm John, and doesn’t cause his death: Simon had a willow staff or club – we are told that this was something he carried in the autumn – and he threw it at John. This, it is pointed out, was meant to frighten John out of continuing his disrespectful words. It may have stopped the words, but it did not knock the fight out of John – he took the staff in his hand and threw it back at Simon. After this, Simon was apparently scared of John, he being so drunk, and drew out his knife, throwing it at John. This, we are told, was to make John want to flee, rather than to do him any harm, but  by misfortune the  knife ‘fell’ onto John’s back, wounding him. This wound was ‘small, neither deep, nor wide, nor mortal. John did die, but this was because the wound was widened and opened by his agricultural work, done afterwards. The jurors insisted on pointing out that John was, at the end, not drunk, and that he did not die of the (initial) wound.

Simon, presumably confident that he would not really be in danger of being hanged for this, turned himself in at once.

So what?

Well, this is interesting to me in a few ways. I do love a good insult – it feels like a real connection to the speech of the past, despite the omissions, and the translation. There is a fair helping of ‘humans don’t change that much’ in my instinctive response to reading the sort of verbal mud (and worse) they allegedly fling at each other in such cases. It gives us some useful information about what was seen as acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the master-servant relationship There is more to late 14th C labour relations than the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. I suppose it also tells us something about medieval inebriation and attitudes to it (though I have to say I don’t quite understand why we need to know about John’s level of intoxication at the time of his death – is this to do with the state of his soul?).From a legal point of view, iIt is also instructive to see fairly obvious fiddling with the path of causation assigned to the death, in order to avoid serious consequences for a favoured killer. Here, Simon responds to drunken insults with physical force – there is no way that throwing things, including throwing them at a man’s back, fits the usual stereotyped formula for self defence, but the jurors here clearly thought that John Mustard was ‘asking for it’, and did their best to soften the conduct of Simon, to explain it and to put the best possible spin on his intentions.

In the end, Simon’s confidence was well placed: though indicted for the death of John, he received a royal pardon, on 7th November, 1374, and so was sent off ‘without day’ by the King’s Bench,[ii] to return to his pea-gathering in Kent, presumably.





[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.32, AALT IMG 348

[ii] Pardon CPR 1374-7, p. 34.

Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

Dangerous driving, medieval style

A sad but informative little snippet from a 15th C coroner’s inquest … (well, I suppose you know it’s not going to be a jolly tale when you look at ‘an inquest on the body of …’).[i]

This death took place in 1419, between Whitechapel and Mile End, in modern London. John Waryn of Stratford Langthorne died in a cart accident – the two separate records describe it slightly differently, but the main point seems to be that John dozed off and the cart overturned. An obstacle or ditch may have been involved, and John may or may not have struggled to get things under control, but, one way or another, the cart and/or one of the horses squashed him.

At the risk of seeming callous, I will note that this sad little tale does, incidentally provide someOn –  interesting information about medieval transport. First of all, we learn a bit about the cart – it must have been a reasonably substantial vehicle, with its iron-clad wheels, and its team of four horses. Then we learn that one of the horses had a special designation –  ‘the Thyllehors’ (in this case, a bay). Not a horsey person, but the trusty Middle English Dictionary tells me that this was the horse which worked closest to the wheels, in between the shafts. There is some more Middle English as well – the description of the dozing is somehow rather charming: within the Latin record, we have the specific description that this is not full lack of consciousness – it is partial sleep ‘ commonly called Slomryng’. All very peaceful. Until it wasn’t. Poor John.




[i] Records can be seen here, here and here. It is also quite interesting from a deodand point of view.

Total eclipse of the hearth: a characteristic medieval method of low-level extortion?

Something which has caught my attention when working through many, many accounts of alleged violent offences in medieval court records is a particular method of extorting money by torture, which is specifically ‘pre-modern’: making the unfortunate victim sit on a burning tripod until he or she stumps up. See, e.g., cases from rolls of: 1332, 1337, 1348, 1355, 1381, 1406, 1407 (& same incident) and 1423. There is also a similar case involving burning somebody with a griddle or grate, to get them to say where some jewels were, from 1433).

I suppose that it first struck me as interesting because it sounded so odd – and so specific (and, as a kid, tripods had a special, troubling, place in my heart, both as a required construction of a ‘gadget’ for the guide Camper badge, and as the terrifying villains of the John Christopher books and TV series). A moment of reflection, however, and I realised that a tripod, and a hot tripod at that, would be a common feature of medieval homes, supporting cooking vessels in the hearth. No sci-fi or uniformed organisation reminiscing required.

I find myself asking why this appears to have been a relatively plausible tactic for those trying to get a person to cough up money or do something else to benefit the offender. Why not just use a knife to threaten? Everyone seems to have had a knife, judging by the number of deaths by stabbing on the rolls, after all. Perhaps the answer is a combination of factors:

  • the ‘sit on a tripod’ practice caused pain as well as exerting mental pressure, perhaps speeding the whole process up; might there also have been something humiliating for the victim about being injured on the buttocks?
  • as long as it wasn’t prolonged unduly, it probably wouldn’t cause death – whereas waving a knife about could always end in a stab wound, blood, death.

There are certainly signs that it was regarded as potentially very damaging, though: an unsuccessful allegation of 1330 saw three people (two men and a woman) indicted for having, at ‘Burnecestre’ (really!) , taken and tied up one Alice Garlicmonger and put her on a burning hot tripod, naked, until she made fine with them, burning her ‘enormiter’ and ‘usque ad ossa’ (the latter is interesting from an anatomical point of view – coccyx? femurs?). The three were found not guilty anyway, so no prospect of further interrogation of medieval ideas of the construction of a backside. A roughly similar attack on a male may be seen in the case entered on the KB roll of 1423. Here, a chaplain was allegedly given the hot tripod treatment, whilst naked (at least in the relevant area) – contact was made with his nude members and fundament. ‘Members’ could just about be limbs, but ‘fundament’ is pretty clearly bottom-related.

Some of these, e.g. the 1337 case, mention a causal connection – here, the ‘enormouL gs’ or ‘outrageous’ burning was done in order ‘to get more money’.  ‘The entries don’t always have the burning as connected to the taking, but I think that must be the idea. Can’t rule out gratuitous cruelty, I suppose.

I am not sure that there is anything obvious to do with these, but perhaps I will find something some day. For now – it’s a little curiosity to share asynchronously with anyone who ever stumbles along this way. Pray for me, and you are welcome.




Image – sort of hearth. No, not medieval. General idea …Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

If I could Tourn Back Time: Jurisdiction in the Fifteenth Century (Again)

Another little bit of Year Book/Plea Roll matching – this came up tangentially in a bit of petty treason research today, and seemed worth a quick word and thought.

When I say matching … it is not quite an ‘X = Y’ situation: more of an X probably = Y, Z or A.

The Year Book case is YB Trin. 6 H VII f 5 pl 4 (Seipp 1491.020). The plea roll entry is one of three possibles on the King’s Bench roll for Trinity 1491.

The candidates are:

  1. KB 27/920 Rex m. 5 (AALT IMG 209) This is a case from Berkshire before John Horne, in which Richard Patte of Sulhamstead, clerk, was alleged to have raped a widow, Margaret Huys, lately wife of John Phelippe.
  2. KB 27/920 Rex m. 3d (AALT IMG 463) This also comes from Berkshire, from John Horne’s tourn. John Hyde, recently of Sonning, clerk, was alleged to have raped Elizabeth, wife of James Trell.
  3. Yes, it’s Berkshire and John Horne again! KB 27/920 m. 3d (AALT IMG 465): Stephen Bregyn, clerk, was accused of raping Alice Robyns, wife of John Robyns.

Or perhaps it is an amalgamation of all of them – since they are all saying the same thing.

The YB case is not about petty treason at all – though there is a passing reference to that in the reported argument – it is a case about jurisdiction over rape. Who could hear rape cases? Could low-level criminal courts hear them? Let me be up-front about one thing: there is a difference between YB and PR in terms of which courts are mentioned – the YB is interested in courts leet, whereas the PR entries are all about sheriffs’ tourns. Since there is nothing on the roll specifying courts leet, I think I have to assume that one of these is the best match. Possibly these tourn cases prompted a wider discussion of low-level jurisdiction.

The successful argument against lower courts having jurisdiction in this area, as it appears in the YB, is that they only have jurisdiction over felonies if they existed at common law rather than having been created by statute, and rape as a felony was a creature of statute. A choice had been made to limit such jurisdictions, and/or that it was seen to be fitting to keep them to the things they had been able to do ‘since time immemorial’, or at the time of the (certain or assumed) grant of jurisdiction.

The issue about sheriffs and rape jurisdiction was not new – I wrote a blog post about this issue as it arose in 1482, in the not-too-distant past (it’s here). A bit odd, then, that tourns are still being used in this way, and it’s still thought worth reinforcing via YB reports that this is not OK. Suggests something of a lack of influence of common lawyers on practice in the low-level criminal jurisdictions, I think (though, as ever, I am ready to be told that I am missing something important …). I do wonder what was going on with John Horne’s tourns in Berkshire.

As far as the rape cases themselves go, well, nothing very surprising. the accused  all ‘walked’ after having paid a fine to the king (to save the bother of a trial for the trespass element of the charges).Each of these fines was 5s – a pretty common amount, according to the list of fines in the plea roll – and, according to the National Archives currency converter that represented about 8 days of wages for a skilled tradesman. Moderately costly then, I suppose. Whether or not there was any other settlement, compensating the women themselves, will remain a mystery.




Image – to fit in with my contrived title, it’s a medieval clock! From Salisbury Cathedral. Yes I do know that isn’t in Berkshire, but best I could do. From Wikimedia Commons.


Death and betrayal amongst the medieval ‘Chipping Norton set’: (yet) more on petty treason

Not too long ago, I noted a case from 1418/19 in which a woman called Marjory appealed two men of offences relating to the death of her husband, John Chaloner, only to be appealed herself for this same death, and being convicted, and, apparently, burned, for ‘petty treason’ (see this blog post). Well, now another of these double appeals has turned up: cue a bit of comparing and contrasting!

A pair of entries on an Oxfordshire gaol delivery roll for 1407 tell us that Emma, widow of John Handes, had come and appealed Roger Sutton of the death of John her husband, giving the required pledges for prosecution. Her appeal alleged that, on Wednesday  6th July 1407, at Chipping Norton, Roger had killed John with a dagger (price 1d), feloniously. Rather than pleading guilty and going to jury trial, as I was expecting, Roger decided not to put up a fight – he said he could not deny this, and so all that was left for a jury to do was to appraise his assets. There was not much to appraise: there were, apparently, some clothes, worth 20d, but no land or other goods or chattels beyond the clothes. The man himself was to be hanged.

The second appeal was by William Handes, brother and heir of the deceased John. He appealed Emma of the death of John, and his pledges to prosecute were noted. His appeal explained that Roger had done the actual killing, but Emma advised and ‘consented’ to it. She was also alleged to have paid Roger for his felonious work (2s). Unlike Roger, Emma was ready to fight. The jury found her guilty though, and sentenced her to burn. Emma had no assets, it was recorded. She did not burn, however: first she had the sentence deferred, by claiming pregnancy, and having this confirmed by a ‘jury of matrons’. Generally, deferral means deferral, but, in this case, this period seems to have given Emma a chance to seek a more permanent way to avoid execution: according to the patent roll, she was pardoned.[i]

Spot the differences?

Clearly, the later Chaloner case and this one share a basic pattern: W appeals X for the death of H; H’s brother and heir appeals W. X and W are both sentenced to death; W claims pregnancy. There are obvious differences, in that the pregnancy claim is accepted in Emma Handes’s case, but not in Margery Chaloner’s, and in that Emma manages to secure a pardon (whereas, as far as my investigations have been able to establish) there was no such pardon for Margery.

Another difference is that there is not the intriguing overlap in personnel in the Handes case which we see in the Chaloner case: in the latter, both of the widow’s pledges to prosecute were apparently relatives of the deceased husband, including the brother who would appeal her; in the Handes case, that is not obviously the case. Following on from this, while I do wonder whether there might have been some pressure or deception in the Chaloner case, helping Margery to bring an appeal against others, and then appealing her too, to ensure that everyone involved was convicted, or, indeed, to get rid of somebody who would have had claims on the deceased’s property) it is harder to see that in Emma’s case. It is still hard, however, not to be suspicious that the motives of her brother in law in appealing her might not have been entirely about getting justice for his brother.

It is worth a brief word about the pregnancy deferral-pardon element of the Handes case as well. Here we see the jury of matrons in action. The fact that they found her to be pregnant suggests that she was in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy, but the months allowed to her presumably gave her a chance to make her request for a pardon. Just what lay behind that is unclear – was the allegation of her involvement found to be trumped-up nonsense, or was there some other reason for the exercise of mercy? The short note of the pardon does not tell us, unfortunately.

A final intriguing element is that, as well as her pardon for the conviction on the appeal brought by her brother in law, Emma Handes also received a pardon for another appeal, in this case brought by a certain Roger Taillour of Chipping Norton. Could this be the same man as Roger Sutton? And where is this approver appeal? I haven’t turned it up yet, though it seems unlikely that it is made up. If it does exist, it brings in yet another dimension to the case – some sort of odd vicious triangle, which certainly needs some more thinking about. There may be another instalment, if I find more …




[i] CPR 1405-8, pp. 371, 470, 10 Oct 1408.

Image – slightly gratuitous church. It’s St Mary’s Chipping Norton. Well somebody probably went there at some point, in between all of the killing and accusing, didn’t they?

Tourn-up for the [Year]Books: a Somerset sheriff’s jurisdiction

A quick Year Book-Plea Roll probable match: I think Seipp 1482.119 (YB Mich. 22 Edw. IV) is the same case as this one, from the Michaelmas 1482 King’s Bench plea roll (KB 27/884 m.1d; AALT IMG 0518).

The case concerns an indictment of rape, made against John Wheler of Bridgwater, in Somerset, chaplain. He was accused of having, on 20th March 1482,  broken into the house of a certain Alice Lye[i] , at Huntspill, attacked her, raping her and ‘having carnal knowledge’ of her, against the king’s peace.[ii] The matter had been presented in a sheriff’s court – the ‘tourn’ of Richard Morton esq. – on 4th April, 1482, at Highbridge, Somerset.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has looked at this sort of material to find that the whole thing fell apart, and the accused chaplain walked free. In this particular case, the route to that expected conclusion was not via the blank ‘not guilty’ of a jury, but via the ‘you don’t have jurisdiction’ route: sheriffs were not supposed to hear such serious ‘criminal’ cases.

I suppose we might conclude, or muse about, a couple of things from this:

  1. There does not seem to have been agreement that this was something beyond the powers of the sheriff. (As a matter of fact, the KB roll for Trinity 1482 contained another rape case from the same sheriff’s tourn, in, from a tourn on 30th April 1482. This time, the accused man was Robert Cutteclyffe of Wells, chaplain, and the alleged victim Cecilia Wever, the attack said to have taken place at Burton. In this earlier case, however, a different technical fault was found with the process.) The YB report of what I take to be the Wheler case includes a lengthy discussion of the background to rape/ravishment as an offence, its statutory or non-statutory origin being taken to be crucial in determining whether or not a sheriff had jurisdiction here.
  2. Despite the incredibly low rate of conviction, men from relatively small communities did bother to prosecute alleged (clerical) rapists. Maybe use of the sheriff’s tourn for this suggests a lack of faith that other courts would do anything. There is something of a tendency to write off such action as not in good faith, as a sort of extortion of those who kept concubines. But does it, perhaps, rest upon an assumption that clergy would not be likely to take advantage of their position to engage in abusive sexual practices? Or on a desire to find that women were more ‘agenty’ than they might appear. The accused clergymen do seem to have been able to find a number of ways of challenging cases brought against them, but it is important to accept that that doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of the allegation, one way or the other. There is, no doubt, a great deal which is lost to us, in terms of what went on out of court: compensation, private settlement, or settling of scores, and no particular reason to think that the same sorts of facts underlay all or most cases.



[i] There is no more information about her.

[ii] Note, no mention of her will.