Category Archives: crime

‘Lunacy’, lucidity and the extent of exculpation

Continuing my off-and-on consideration of ‘lunacy’ and mental incapacity in the medieval criminal law, I’d like to note another case which expands a little on our knowledge in this area (or mine, anyway).

The case comes from a 1315 gaol delivery roll, from a session at Norwich castle (see it here). It is a grisly double homicide – and there seems to have been no argument about the basic facts: a man called Robert Angot had killed two others, William Maille and Thomas de Riston. Nevertheless, Robert pleaded not guilty, and all the signs are that he was not going to suffer the standard penalties for convicted felonious killers.

The jury gave a comparatively lengthy account to explain why this was not an appropriate case for capital punishment – Robert was a lunatic. More specifically, they explained, he enjoyed lucid intervals, but, for twenty years and more, he had become ‘furious’ at the start of a new moon. Over this long period, his family and friends had worked out a way to cope, and regularly confined him. On the fateful date of 3rd December (1314), at the beginning of a new moon, Robert was in Thomas’s custody. Somehow, he got hold of Thomas’s knife and stabbed him in the hand. Thomas (understandably) cried out. The noise brought William to his aid, and there was an attempt to restrain Thomas. This failed, however, and Thomas stabbed William in the breast and Thomas in the testicles. You know the outcome – both Thomas and William died. The jury, however, saw the fact that, at the relevant time, Robert was detained by fury, as exculpating him (though he was sent back to prison to await a royal decision – I am yet to find a pardon, but it would seem unlikely that this would not have been forthcoming).

There is much that is interesting here. We see the extension of a merciful/ understanding attitude to very serious offences against more than one person, committed by the defendant. I was also struck by the lengthy provision of care – or at least containment – of this man by those in his community, and also by what the record reveals about contemporary understanding of the causes of ‘lunacy’ and ‘fury’. There may be something to probe in terms of just which part of the lunar cycle was thought to be the problem – other cases mention waxing, whereas this pinpoints the new moon – I have to confess I am not quite sure whether those would have been understood to be different things, or how long such a condition would be expected to last. I will, I hope, at some point, get round to checking (there must be a way to do this!) what the state of the moon actually was on the date given. I assume that Robert’s friends and neighbours would have had to be more than usually conscious of the moon’s phases, so my guess is that this the assessment here is probably accurate.

One other tiny snippet is less to do with ‘lunacy’ and more to do with lay (in the sense of non-lawyer) understanding of ‘criminal law’: I note that the jury refer to the killings as ‘felonies’ even though are also saying that Robert was not really culpable. Is that a little sign of an instinct to focus on damage rather than the guilt or innocence of the mind? Many fascinating puzzles – I am sure I will be coming back to this.



Photo by Sanni Sahil on Unsplash

That which we call ‘rhosyn’ … names and language in medieval common law records

A question which has often occurred to me is how medieval criminal justice managed to confirm people’s identities, in a world without ‘identity documents’, and with a wide margin of error (or a lack of a definite concept of error) with regard to spellings. This is probably hugely anachronstic, and no doubt the answer has something to do with small communities and good memories, but I came across a case today (after a period of rather slim pickings in my searches) which suggested another angle to this question of identity.

In a King’s Bench roll of 1368, there is a short entry relating to a homicide case in Gloucestershire. It notes that the roll of one of the Gloucestershire coroners recorded that one John Penres had been indicted for the felonious homicide of Gerard Walyssh[i] at Ockington, arrested and sent to the gaol at Gloucester castle. John Tracy, sheriff of Gloucestershire, was now ordered to bring this man before the court, to answer the charge. No John Penres could be produced, however. The sheriff contended that somebody had been executed for this crime already – he was a Penres, but his first name was not the Anglo John but the Welsh Yeuan (Ieuan as it is in modern Welsh). There was an investigation, referring to a particular previous session, at which Ieuan was said to have been tried and executed, and it was confirmed that a Ieuan Penres had been executed for the homicide of Gerard Welssh [sic]. The sheriff was off the hook therefore.

This shows that the identity question was solved in part by documentary searches, and it is a little comfort to see that care was taken to check these things. It probably also has things to say about physical and linguistic borderlands. I have noted the fun and games clerks of the English bureaucracy had with some of the more ‘difficult’ Welsh names, especially Gwenllian, but did they really find Ieuan difficult? Or would somebody of Welsh background, living or working in Gloucester, have adopted an English name as a matter of routine, for his dealings with non-Welsh-speakers? There is definitely scope for further digging and thought on this issue. Nice little research project for somebody?


And this one jumped out at me just the other day – not a Welsh one, but another apparent ‘mistaken identity’ case, from a gaol delivery session at Newgate on Wednesday 17th March 1316, A certain Ralph le Leche was in jeopardy – he was said to have been appealed by an approver of involvement in a robbery and a homicide in Northamptonshire. His story, though, was that the original accused man was some other Ralph le Leche of London – let us call this alleged miscreant Ralph 1 – while he, Ralph 2, had been in London all the time, and at the relevant period, he had been ill. A jury of London citizens confirmed his story, so Ralph 2 was saved. Does make you wonder whether less ‘together’ defendants might have ended up being executed by mistake in this way, though.


3/7/2021, updated 7/7/2021

[i] This sounds like a ‘Welsh-on-Welsh’ crime, from the names, doesn’t it? Or at least ‘Welsh-extraction on Welsh-extraction’.

Image – your actual Offa’s Dyke – symbolic border etc. etc.

Penalising medieval poetry

The other day, whilst looking through the scanned plea rolls on the AALT website, I thought I might have made a bit of a discovery – a long poem in English, in the midst of a Latin entry. Probably unsurprisingly, it had long since been discovered and written up, more than a hundred years ago, in fact. Nevertheless, I think it deserves another outing.

The case concerned some Yorkshire men who had come to the attention of the authorities for their disruptive behaviour. It was written up from the indictment, and commented upon, by a man with more titles than one might consider strictly necessary – ‘the Reverend Professor Skeat Litt. D’,[1] in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal vol. 15 for 1900.[2] The indictment is here, and the corresponding plea roll entry here.[3] The indictment is from 1392 and the plea roll entry from 1393, both in the latter part of the reign of Richard II.

As indictment and plea roll entry note, jurors of Yorkshire wappentakes made a number of accusations, including various sorts of disorderly conduct. Those accused included John Berdwald of Cottingham, and at least 31 others, said to have formed some sort of organisation to support each other in litigation and quarrels, six years previously, contrary to laws against maintenance, and some of them had been unruly and violent. The specific poem-related accusation was that John Berwald junior composed a rhyme in English, and had it spoken in public at Beverley on Sunday 21st July 1392, and at Hull the following Sunday, and at various other places in Yorkshire that year. The rhyme was set out in the indictment and the plea roll, going like this,[4]  …

‘In the countrè heard was we that in our soken shrewes shuld be, with-al for to bake.

Among this Frer[e]s it is so, and other ordres many mo, whether they slepe or wake.

And yet wil ilkan hel[d] up other, and meynten him als his brother, bothe in wrong and right.

And so will we in stond and stoure, meynten oure negheboure, with al oure myght.

Ilk man may come and goo among us both to and froo, I say you sikyrly.

But hethyng wil we suffre non, neither of Hobbè ne of Johan, with what man that he be.

For unkynde we ware yif we suffird of lesse or mare any vilans hethyng.

But it were quit double agayn, and [he] a-corde and be ful fayn to byde oure dressyng.

And on that purpos yet we stand; who-so do us any wrang in what plas [that] it fall,

Yet he might als[o] wel, als[o] I hap and hele, do a-geyn us all.’


The overall sense is that these men want to behave like friars and stand together against all comers, taking each other’s part in quarrels.

It seems interesting to me in a number of respects. First, it is clearly not a vote of confidence in the system of justice generally available: such alliances would not be needed if normal legal processes were considered appropriate. Secondly, assuming that there is some truth in it, the declaration of mutual support is an interesting counter-current to the anti-maintenance views of more literary authors, noted in Jonathan Rose’s book on maintenance.[5] Here, the confederacy is announced, celebrated, justified in terms of its similarity to the behaviour of friars and in terms of a positive idea of natural solidarity.

Secondly, there is the matter of the authorities’ strategy. It seems to me that they may have run into what might be termed the ‘Mike Read/Frankie Goes To Hollywood problem’, after a notable incident in the 1980s when a BBC Radio 1 presenter drew everyone’s attention to the rather rude words of the song ‘Relax’  – promptly helping the song to rise to chart domination. Was it really necessary to give the whole rhyme in indictment and plea roll? Could some phrase like ‘seditious rhyme’ not have been sufficient? The inclusion of the rhyme does make me wonder what would have been the reaction to it amongst those involved in making these records – did they repeat it to each other, or tap a foot along with its rhythm? I have to say, as a complete non-expert (I actually find medieval literature a bit scary, always feeling that I am missing allusions, references, the point …) that I think it’s quite catchy.[i]



[1] (‘So you’re a cleric and a leading academic …’ as I believe H.R.H. Shania Twain had it, in an early iteration of country-pop classic ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’, before going for the Brad Pitt verse …).

[2] (a journal which manages expectations of readers by including in its preface the following slightly gloomy line: ‘It is hoped that the contents of the volume are not inferior in interest to those of its predecessors.’)

[3] The front of this membrane is here.

[4] (after Skeat, checked against the plea roll text – there are only very small differences).

[5] Rose, J. (2017). Maintenance in Medieval England (Cambridge Studies in English Legal History). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781107358324, c.7,

Image – Beverley Minster, which must be somewhere near the site of the alleged naughty poetry reading. And, OK, some of that is post-Ric. II, but it’s very pretty, isn’t it? Never been. Hope I can visit it one day.

[i] and rather better than this effort at political protest which an anonymous bard of our own days was unable to suppress, on the subject of more recent political events  …

Unhealthy ministrations

He’s come to a sticky end, Matt

the pound-shop BJ, pant, slip, splat;

his back-hand- jobs sleaze –

the old Tory disease –

just how could anyone fancy that?

Unfinished business: sexual misconduct in medieval Middlesex

I have found some additional material relating to an indictment I mentioned in Women in the Medieval Common Law,[i] though no conclusion. The indictment, from Middlesex, from 1385, related to a rape on Margaret. servant or maid (ancilla) of one Matilda Wherewell.[ii] It stated, on a night in 1385, Adam Matte, leprosus, had come to the house of Matilda Wherewell, in the parish of St Clements outside the bar of the old Temple in London, and bargained with Matilda to sleep with her that night,[iii] for 10 shillings. Matilda told Adam that she did not want to do this, but that she had a certain very beautiful servant called Margaret,[iv] who was lying in one of Matilda’s chambers, and he could sleep with Margaret if he paid Matilda the sum mentioned. Adam agreed and paid the money to Matilda. Straight afterwards, Matilda led him to the chamber where Margaret was lying. She told Adam he could do what he wanted, and locked the two in the room. Adam, feloniously, grabbed Margaret around the neck, threw her to the ground and raped her. Straight after this felony, because of the foulness of the rape, and Adam’s disease, Margaret became unwell, ‘losing her mind’, and continued in this state until she died, three days later. It was emphasised that Matilda had consented to, aided and abetted the commission of the felony.

Matilda’s first tactic, when she was tried in 1386, was to say that she should not have to answer this charge, since she was an accessory, and Adam, as principal, had not been convicted or outlawed. This worked, and Margaret was bailed to appear at future sessions. Later that year, another tactic emerged: flight. Her sureties were fined for failing to produce her,[v] and the sheriff of Middlesex was to track her down,[vi] and so it goes on until 1387,[vii] but then the trail fades away, and as is all too common, Matilda seems to disappear.


So what?

Well, I used it in the book to illustrate the reach of common law beyond principal offenders, to include those facilitating offences, and to note that this could make women amenable to prosecution as accessories, even when they were not regarded as capable of committing an offence as a principal. I think there is more here, though.

Prostitution/sex for sale

If the indictment is anything resembling the truth, it is an example of commercial sexual exploitation of an entirely unwilling servant – and perhaps a situation in which ‘prostitution’ seems a more appropriate term  than ‘sex work’, with the element of at least some exercise of will which seems to be bound up in that latter term. The picture given is one of an unaware servant exploited by Matilda, for her own financial benefit, who is unconsenting to the point of having to be locked up in a room with her ‘client’.

‘Leper’ as sexual predator

The story also brings together ‘lepers’ and illicit sex, in a way which will chime in with other ideas about lascivious ‘lepers’, from polemic and literature. It also seems quite interesting from the point of view of regarding it as plausible that somebody with leprosy might be wandering around looking for sex in a highly populated area. I cannot claim expertise in medieval disease or response to it, but this strikes me as unexpected. If this was indeed a person with leprosy/Hansen’s disease, then the idea that Margaret might have contracted it from him in a few days is beyond unlikely. The idea that she might be traumatised and ‘lose her mind’ seems rather more plausible, given the circumstances, and the horror of this disease in medieval Europe.

Legal points

It is, as noted in the book, interesting to see a woman accused as an accessory to rape, though she could not be a principal. Matilda’s contribution to the rape is significant, according to the indictment. It would not have happened without her, it would appear.

Given the structure of the offence and indictment, Matilda’s argument about principal and accessory was logical enough. If the man accused did in fact have leprosy, or was thought to have it, however, could he have been prosecuted? I don’t think that common law procedure had a strategy for trying those with feared and contagious conditions like this. In a sense, a ‘leper’ might be the perfect principal for an exploitative employer like Matilda (or the version of Matilda suggested by the indictment) – one the common law would not touch.




(image, halfpenny of Richard II, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

[i] KB 9/167 m. 8 (IMG 17), mentioned at p. 126 of Women in the Medieval Common Law.

[ii] (The indictment looks like ‘Whorewell’, at least to those of us with very questionable eyesight. The materials discussed here show that it was  ‘Wherewell’, however, and thus probably a simple geographical name, relating to Wherwell, Hants, rather than, as I had imagined, a sort of occupational designation/jeer, attached to a woman who appears to have been involved in selling sex, one way or another).

[iii] These terms are notoriously difficult to translate, perhaps impossible in terms of capturing the nuances. It is clear that this is about sex, not accommodation.

[iv] (Or, as the KB 27 version has it, a servant called Margaret Pulcheriman. Makes a difference, doesn’t it? The latter suggests the sort of ‘trade name’ which might be used by a sex worker, and would seem to relate the unwillingness to the state of the particular man, rather than to the more general unwillingness of a servant not generally selling sex).

[v] AALT Page (

[vi] AALT Page (

[vii] AALT Page (

Between cause and effect: the length of lingering deaths

There is an interesting (if, obviously, horrible) local murder case in the press today, for anyone looking at the issue of causation, and the potential time-gap between offending action and death, which action may still be amenable to prosecution as homicide. Rather than simply being a matter of later discovery of, and prosecution of, a murder, the death of Jacqueline Kirk was relatively recent (2019), but the criminal action being assigned as its cause (setting her on fire) occurred 21 years before that. This leapt out at me today, quite apart from its horror and human interest, as connecting to an academic interest which I have long had in ideas about causation of death, and the issues surrounding ascribing criminal culpability in cases of ‘lingering death’, in so far as we can gather them from medieval legal records – and on which I plan to work in 2021-2. There are differences, of course, in that there can now be considerably greater certainty about factual causation than would have been the case in the ‘premodern world’, but causation in the law of homicide is never just a matter of fact, but mixes in all sorts of judgments about blame and appropriateness of bringing belated legal proceedings, so this recent case, and the discussion which it will no doubt encourage, will be an interesting lens through which to examine my material (though I have to say that, while there are certainly some very belated prosecutions, I have not found any attempts to argue for a ‘lingering death homicide’ of anything like this length, in older materials – no doubt to a great extent because people subjected to serious violence such as being set on fire would be unlikely to survive long, without modern medical interventions, but there are fascinating changes in ideas about the moral/legal aspects of causation to track as well).



Image (and yes I know this is not the court where the accused appeared yesterday, but the new one is a bit ugly: also good to see a statue in Bristol which is not obviously in need of a toppling): Stone statue of Justice by Edward Sheppard, the old Magistrates Court, Bridewell St., Bristol, dated 1879

Musing on mayhem

Unable to get settled into marking after the excitement of this morning’s ‘French trip’, I have spent an hour or two this afternoon doing a little bit of preliminary reading for next year’s project on mayhem. May have been slightly distracted by references to Norwegian black metal and a film about loss of inhibition, but the actual relevant legal material is also interesting – the changing nature of an offence which was never quite pinned down, and then faded into a strange twilight, overtaken by various statutory provisions, and civil actions of trespass. My initial interest in it came from the very gendered early statements about it, which came to be ignored, allowing women to proceed for mayhem, and with the relationship between ‘crime’ and ‘tort’ here. Today’s reading, though,  has also got me thinking a little bit about categories of offence, and the weight of labels. ‘Mayhem’ feels more condemnatory than ‘trespass’, or wounding, or ‘an offence against statute X’. There’s something about its venerability, something about its … I don’t know … presumption of discrete existence … which demands attention and care. I am sure that a better way of articulating that will emerge as I read on.

In the end, more tightly drawn offences and processes seem to have fitted the needs of the law and those turning to it rather better than mayhem. But was anything lost when the category was de-emphasised and allowed to dwindle? I wonder whether there were victims who would have wanted to see their assailant labelled a mayhem-er (is there even a labelling noun like that?). Questions, questions! But … marking …



(Later re-musing: the more I ponder, the more it seems as if this might end up as something like ‘Mayhem: the long decay of an always-ailing concept’ … with or without the sick body imagery).

Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Lechery, pressure and escape in medieval Lincolnshire?

The entry I am interested in today is from the Michaelmas 1371 King’s Bench plea roll,[i] arising as part of a series of indictments relating to an alleged ne’er-do-well of Lincolnshire, Robert Gascall of Wold Newton. A Lincolnshire jury had accused Robert of a series of offences, some of them dating back several years, to 1364, ranging from homicide, through theft, to general menacing behaviour. The one I am interested in is a little more unusual, however.

Robert was accused of what we might define as sexual harassment or using sexual harassment as pressure for financial gain. The story was that one Joan Fettys of Bondeby had come to Glanford Brigg, apparently having business with an ecclesiastical court, on 3rd October, 1368, and Robert somehow got her into his room (I am assuming bedroom). Joan was said not to have known anything to Robert’s discredit (though by this point, according to the list of allegations, he had committed a number of offences, including homicide). When Robert had her in his room, he said he should have her as his concubine, and she refused. That, though, was not an end to the matter. Robert would not allow her to leave until she paid him off. The deal involved three pounds of silver and a purse with a silver clasp, price 40d.

There was difficulty, or reluctance, about getting him to appear for trial, but eventually Robert did appear to face this and the other charges. He was (surprise!) acquitted. A royal pardon was involved in relation to the homicide,[ii] but for the offence relating to Joan, and the other offences, he was simply found not guilty.


So what?

This one is interesting to me, in relation to the general picture of the treatment of women in medieval common law, but also, in particular, in relation to a paper I am preparing on traces of ideas about sexual misconduct/harassment other than rape, in medieval common law records, for the AVISA project. Such traces are rather scarce, and this one has some interesting aspects and hints, which I am currently turning over in my mind.

What can I do with it? Well, obviously there’s no way of getting anywhere with the ‘truth question’.  I think, though, that I can at least say that the entry shows that people (men) thought:

  • that the law might, or should, act here;
  • that this was unacceptable treatment of Joan
  • that it was something which added to their other accusations of Robert, who was clearly seen as a trouble-maker.

(It also strikes me that there might be a worthwhile investigation of the ways in which such multi-part indictments were put together, and their overall narrative. One interesting little touch here is the description of the exchange between Robert and Joan, when he is suggesting that he should have her as his concubine: reference is made to God’s help, as being involved in her resistance to this proposition. This does seem both to raise sympathy for Joan, and also to condemn Robert further).

In terms of the project aim to try and elucidate a historical background to condemnation of sexual misconduct, it is one of the fragments of evidence which show that ‘popular’ understanding of the relationship between law and sexual misconduct was much more complex and interesting than we might imagine, from the grim procession of appeals and indictments of rape. I look forward to discussing this further.





(Featured image – somewhere in the general vicinity. Hard to know what sort of image to use with a story of sexual harassment/pressure, so geography seemed a half-decent option).



[i] KB 27/443 Rex m. 34 (IMG 0223).

[ii] I have not found this yet. The homicide charge is mentioned in CPR 1367-70 p. 262.

[iii] (You know you are a dyed-in-the-wool legal history obsessive when all that is keeping you going through a hugely tiring and stressful time with ‘it all kicking off’ in the day job is the thought of that interesting little case which is crying out for a quick think and write up … That has very much been me today: good to get to it at last!)

A ‘Petty Treason’ Oddity

This really is a snippet, but, I think, worth mentioning as a little footnote to various recent posts on wives being treated as ‘petty traitors’ for killing their husbands.

A gaol delivery entry for a session at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 (JUST 3/210 m. 31) noted that William atte Halle of Bromham in Bedfordshire, labourer, had been indicted for the felonious killing of his wife, Alice. On 7th May the same year, at Bromham, he had allegedly posioned her food with ‘some deadly poison called arsenic and resalgar’. She had died on the 18th May. William’s not guilty plea was unsuccessful. He was found guilty and was ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

The marginal note here, ‘distr’ & sus’ is not the usual expression of punishment for an ‘ordinary’ felony – we would expect just the ‘sus’ – referring to the hanging. ‘Drawing and hanging’ is usually only seen in cases of ‘petty treason’ convictions of men (so, servant kills master cases and counterfeiting). A husband killing his wife was not petty treason, since this was a category which related to offences against hierarchy, so there was no conjugal symmetry here. So was this a mistake? Was this particular case seen as particularly heinous for some reason? Could it have been the poison? A mystery – perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

I am also interested in the ‘cause of death’ aspect. Those who have ever done me wrong will be pleased to know that I have no expertise in the art of arsenic poisoning, so I do not know whether a death 11 days after ingesting arsenic would be likely to have been caused by the arsenic. Either way, it is interesting that a medieval jury would think so, and it’s one for my ‘post attack lingering deaths’ spreadsheet.



(Photo by Raphiell Alfaridzy on Unsplash – OK it’s a bit random, but generally suggesting meal preparation …)

Conjugal juxtapositions: petty treason and prosecution strategy in medieval Leicestershire

After many years of comparative neglect, medieval married women (of a non-queenly, non-noble sort) have been considered with much greater care, in the historical studies of recent years.[i] It has, I think, become clear that not even classical legal historians – with their customary focus on doctrine and procedure, rather than people – ought to be muttering ‘coverture’, as if that magic word gave a straightforward answer to all possible questions relating to wives and common law, and then moving back to writs and institutions.

A glimpse of the complexity, and perhaps contradictions, involved in common law construction of the married woman can be seen in a remarkable pair of entries on a Leicester gaol delivery roll from the reign of Henry V.[ii] These entries, from a session in 1419, revolve around the death of a certain John Chaloner of Leicester, and those found to have been involved in that death. John’s wife, Margery, had brought an appeal (individual prosecution) against John Mathewe of Leicester, tailor, accusing him of killing her husband in his bed, on a Saturday night in November 1418, and accusing Richard Bargeyn as an accessory to this offence. These men were found guilty, and they were ordered to be hanged.

So far so not very surprising: bringing appeals for the deaths of husbands was an acceptable role for a wife. By this time, they no longer had to claim that they had held their dying husband in their arms, in order to justify their prosecution of his alleged killers: it was simply uncontroversial that a wife could bring such an appeal, despite the general restrictions on prosecutions by women. They had their uses.

Immediately after this un-astounding entry, there is, in fact, something of a surprise. Margery, formerly appearing as the wronged and avenging widow, is cast in a different role entirely.  She herself was the subject of an appeal, by the self-declared brother and heir of John Chaloner, John Smyth of Moreton, and was accused of participation in the death of her husband. A jury found her guilty of this and she was ordered to be burned. Presumably rather desperate, Margery then asked for a respite of the execution, claiming to be pregnant. The usual procedure was performed, with the ‘jury of matrons’ assessing Margery’s body. They adjudged her not pregnant, however, so the burning was ordered to go ahead.

This second case would be grim, but not in any sense odd, were it not for the fact of its association with the first appeal, and the role-switching which all of this involved. A woman was seen as an adequate bringer of an appeal against others, despite herself being the subject of an appeal for the same offence. In some ways this looks a little like an analogue of the approver appeal, in which one member of a criminal gang turns on the others and accuses them. Unlike the successful (male) approver, however, Margery was not immune from the consequences of her alleged actions. The idea that a woman suspected to have participated in her husband’s killing, could bring an appeal against her fellow-felons is one which was put forward in a judicial aside by William Babington, one of the justices of gaol delivery in this session, just a couple of years later, in a case in the Exchequer Chamber. It seemed rather unlikely to me, until I saw this case (and I am afraid I said so, in my recent book).[iii] I still find it a bit odd, but, clearly, it happened. It shows the ‘double edged’ effect of marriage – it was her marriage which gave Margery standing to pursue her appeal, but it was also her marriage which laid her open to especially spectacular punishment, when she herself was  convicted.

I note that Margery had, as pledges for the prosecution, John Smyth and Robert Chaloner, and then John Smyth had Robert Chaloner and one other man as his pledges. This suggests that the double appeal strategy was no accident, and that there was a very strong idea that if there was a wife, she was the one who had to bring an appeal for her husband’s death.  There was, presumably a reason why John Smyth could not simply appeal against Margery, and then, once she had been burned, as heir, appeal against the other alleged perpetrators, if he so desired – I imagine that this was to do with principal/accessory issues (the entries are not very detailed on this). I am yet to work out why Margery might have been co-operating with the man who was about to prosecute her to her fiery destruction. Was force involved, or trickery, or did she think she might somehow escape conviction and execution? In any case, the moving force in the legal process seems to be John Smyth, the heir to John Chaloner, who comes out at the end of the grisly story rather better off and not under suspicion … officially.



(Image: Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash. It’s not actually John Smyth watching, obviously).

[i] See references in GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, c. 2. Anyone new to the area would be well advised to start with Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World  ed. by Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) and Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. edited by
Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2013).

[ii] JUST 3/195 m. 72d.

[iii] GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, 99.

Passion, poison, pardons … and pins: law and death in medieval London

When looking through medieval records, it is especially interesting to see the many occupations by which people (mostly men) were identified. Noting a man’s trade or position becomes essential in the fifteenth century, but is normal before that, and so we learn of various agricultural and industrial specialisms – some which seem very ‘niche’ to the modern reader. Such a specialised trade is that of ‘pinner’. The pin-making industry (pindustry?) is not something to which I have ever given much thought, though I have been doing some quick research on it today, in connection with an interesting case from the reign of Richard II, about a London pinner and his household.

This case can be seen in entries on a King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1386, telling of an inquiry which the London civic authorities were ordered to carry out, by a writ dated 20th August 1386, and which took place in the Guildhall on 27th September 1386.

From this material, we find that our pinner, Hugh Bromhill, was married to a woman called Margery, and was employer to the other main character in the story, John de Shrewsbury. Hugh, perhaps, seemed to outsiders to be well-placed both in his trade and his domestic life. That, though, was not the truth of things, at least not according to a jury of London men. Yes, it was an inquest jury. Yes, he ended up dead. And yes, those of a suspicious nature, given to salacious speculation, there was allegedly something going on between Margery and John.

The story, as told by the London jurors, went like this. The pair had killed Hugh in the parish of St Martin Pomary in Ironmonger Lane in the ward of Cheap. Why? Well – John, at that time Hugh’s employee, a cardmaker (there’s another niche trade for us)  and Margery had been involved in an illicit relationship. They had slept together often, both at Hugh and Margery’s house and also in other secret locations. Not secret enough, however: Hugh learned what was going on, and threw John out.

We do not know why, but Hugh took John on once more. This makes me warm to him rather – but it was a mistake. John and Margery now, according to the jurors,  plotted Hugh’s death. On Thursday 1st September 1384. They put arsenic powder and realgar (arsenic sulphide, according to the internet – well actually it said ‘arsenic sulfide’, but I just can’t …cool alternative name – ‘ruby of arsenic’) in Hugh’s food and drink. The unsuspecting Hugh ingested it and fell ill, declining over a period of days, and dying early in the morning of 3rd September, in his house.

John and Margery then ran off, and were received by William Coventry, pinner, in the parish of St Mary le Bow, Ward of Cheap, Robert Byssheye in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw,  Nicholas Luffenham, wiredrawer, in the parish of St Benet Fink in the ward of Broad Street. These receivers were said to have known just what Margery and John had done. An innkeeper John de Harwell had also accommodated John de Shrewsbury, at his inn in the parish of All Hallows, Bread Street ward, but the jurors were careful to say that he did not know about the felony his guest had committed.

This all looked as if it might be heading for a burning for Margery, and a drawing and hanging for John de Shrewsbury, as the wife and servant of Hugh respectively, and so petty traitors both. But no.

Margery came to court in January 1389, and produced a pardon for offences between 1st Oct 1382 and 31st May 1388. This is CPR 1385-9, 519. (We have to wonder what else she had been up to! One suggestion is that is was really concerned with the Brembre/Northampton kerfuffle. Could it be that Margery was ‘repurposing’ a pardon to cover things it was never intended to cover?). She was also waving another letter, dated 2nd December 1388, telling the justices not to molest her, which I have not yet managed to track down. This all worked to ward off the possibility of conviction and punishment. She used her status as a citizen of London to get out of jail. John was, apparently dead by the time proceedings came to an end, and the people who had received the pair walked free.

All a bit anticlimactic perhaps, but still, some things to think about.


Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

I think we have to conclude that Margery was somebody with a bit of clout in the pinning/wiredrawing community, since she got the support of a number of people, who sheltered her and John S, and helped out as sureties during the court cases. (Either that or all of the pinners just hated poor Hugh). Amongst a slightly less pin-focused group of Londoners, the evidence about Margery is equivocal. The inquest jurors were not backward in pinning (!) the blame on Margery and John S, leaving them open to the death penalty, with the extra relish of punishment for ‘petty treason’. On the other hand, however, Margery was acknowledged to be a citizen of London. If this  was a case in which she took over the status of citizen following the death of her husband, then it does seem interesting that a suspected husband-killer would not have been blocked from this, in some way.  In any case, she had enough money or (p)influence to obtain a pardon, during a period when the killing of husbands does seem to have been a particular concern to ‘the authorities’, which seems noteworthy. There is some easily-found evidence about the property interests of Hugh and Margery. Hugh had an interest in, and perhaps lived in, a tenement and shop in the parish of St Martin Pomary. Margery was his executor (which does suggest that he trusted her). I wonder if there is any more information on her, lurking about anywhere.

  1. Relationship drama

A woman committing adultery with her husband’s servant was fairly transgressive. The entry shows some interesting hints of the thinking of medieval (male) jurors about gender and hierarchy. It is one of those situations in which two different hierarchies collide – John S is the man but he is also the employee, so on the one hand he was the superior, on the other hand, the inferior, of Margery. How was the jury to understand the couple’s interactions in that case? Well, they seem to have gone with an unusually equal portrayal. As far as the sex was concerned, the pair ‘slept together’ and Margery is given some of the initiative at least. As far as the killing went, rather than the more usual story which is given in such situations, of the male doing the killing while the female procures or encourages, this was very much a joint venture. They acted with ‘unanimous assent’, and the poisoning activity is described in the third person plural.

  1. Cause of death

Poisonings – or alleged poisonings – are always interesting. The type of toxin used is not unusual really, but perhaps the separation of arsenic and realgar says something about popular understanding of poison, and we do have a few more details than usual on how it was administered, and the length of time it took to act and to prove fatal. Another one for my ‘lingering death’ spreadsheet and considerations of causation.

  1. Petty treason

How does this affect the picture of attitudes towards petty treason which I have been building up? It does trouble things a little, doesn’t it? Although wives killing husbands certainly had to be scared of being consigned to the flames, and the troubled state of England in the later fourteenth century did push authorities at various levels towards exemplary burnings of husband-slayers, not even this was immune from the prerogative of mercy. Thus Margery was left to enjoy her pins and presumed relative prosperity after the demise of her apparently unlamented spouse.


7th May, 2021.  

(Image, Photo by Lisa Woakes on Unsplash – and yes, I know they aren’t medieval – just going for a general essence of pin).