Category Archives: crime

A Bad Man called Bonehomme? Crime and non-punishment (?) in medieval Yorkshire

This snippet from the 1360s has some interesting sub-snippets relating to crime, (non-) punishment, marriage, women and pardons. (Great build-up, I know, but stick with it…)

The patent rolls for May 1364 contain a pardon for one Master Hugh Bonehomme of Bugthorpe (Yorks). The Rex roll of the King’s Bench for Trinity term 1364 shows that Hugh had been indicted (under slightly different versions of his name) on some serious charges – the homicide of Gilbert son of John Grayve of Bugthorpe, and the ravishment/abduction (raptus) of Agnes, daughter of John Gyles of York, as well as allegedly having committed a currency export offence, and having challenged another man to a duel, or perhaps attacked him (there is mention of a shield and lance).[i]

The homicide is interesting in that the KB entry has a variety of different charges, with different variations of the alleged victim’s name – at first sight, it seemed to be suggesting that Hugh was something of a serial killer, but there seems to be some repetition. Otherwise there is nothing noteworthy in it. It is the abduction of Agnes which is my focus It was alleged that Hugh had acted with others in this, that it had happened in Lent 1362, at York, and that the abduction had been part of a dastardly plan. The offenders had used coercion and threats to make Agnes consent to marry a man called Simon Porter. Forced marriage is not unknown in this period (I have at least one example in Women in the Medieval Common Law (c.6), and it was enough of a perceived problem, at least in so far as it concerned well-off women, that there was specific legislation on the matter in the fifteenth century (which I considered somewhat in Imprisoning Medieval Women). This was not just any forced marriage, however, it was, allegedly, a forced invalid marriage – since Agnes already had a husband: Thomas Gillyng. Thomas was allegedly down some goods as well as a wife, because the entry and the pardon on the patent roll both note that Hugh and his associates removed some of Thomas’s chattels.[ii]

In the case of Agnes, there is, for once, no suggestion of ‘not unwillingness’ or complicity with regard to the leaving of her husband. In the plea roll, we have the allegation that the offenders took, ravished and abducted her with force and arms, and then used compulsion and threats: per cohercionem et minas, they made her consent (consentire) to contract an unjust marriage (matrimonium iniustuminiustum because of ‘the other husband’, presumably).[iii] I think it is very much worth noting that ‘consent’ here is used to mean something far from free, far from voluntary. It should be a further warning against assuming we know what these words apparently denoting an exercise of free will mean, when we see them used in shorter, less contextualised, entries.

I have not come across quite such an outrageous forced ‘marriage’ before – and it will be interesting to see whether there is any further information to be had from the perspective of the Church – did any sort of matrimonial proceedings follow, to ensure that the position was clear? Did she get back to her real husband, or did he die too soon? Did she actually end up with (apparently) dodgy Simon?

Following the case through to its bitter end at common law, though, surprise, surprise, there are no serious consequences for Hugh. Clearly a man with influential friends, his pardon is said to have been granted after requests by  John II of France (d. April 1364) and by certain cardinals. He was a man of some learning – called ‘Master’ (sometimes), and the Plea Roll describes him as a proctor/procurator. He had, perhaps, endeared himself to the hostage king in this capacity. The pardon – again, surprise, surprise – has absolutely nothing to say about Agnes. Jurisdictional responsibilities would, of course, dictate that the (in)validity of her marriage to Simon was something for the Church to sort out, if there was a dispute about it. Nevertheless, the entries on the patent roll and plea roll relating to Hugh and Agnes do underline the gendered nature of the concerns of common law, and its exercise.

GS 18/3/2021

[i] CPR Edw III 1361-4, 515; KB 27/415 m. 35d (IMG 455)

[ii] He is described as having been her husband ‘then’ – so possibly he also lost his life after these events.

[iii] Roman law has much to say about matrimonium iniustum, but I think the intention here is simply to call it against the rules, because of the existence of a husband.

Photo by Sophie Mikat on Unsplash

Arrest, authority and a poisoning allegation: excusing trespass in fourteenth-century Leicestershire

Here is what looks like a YB-Plea Roll match. It took some finding, in a long roll with lots of very dull, terse, entries in writing which is on the turn towards (shudder) early modern style (a little enlivened, it is true, by some great footnote doodles). The case is Richard Wynslowe v. John Cleypole (1489),[i] a Common Pleas trespass case which starts off in fairly banal fashion, but gets quite intriguing, quite soon.

We are in Leicestershire, and John Cleypole, of Halloughton, gentleman, is answering a case of trespass. It was alleged that, on 4th March 1488 he had broken into the house of Richard Wynslowe, clerk, of Halloughton, and assaulted and threatened his servants, Robert Tyrlyngton and Isabelle his wife; whose services Richard lost for a month, which, so he claimed, caused him loss of 10 marks). Thus far, this is fairly common-or-garden stuff. The interesting bit comes with the defence argument.

John denied most of the allegations, except for the part about entering Richard’s property. As far as this was concerned, however, he argued that Richard should not succeed in bringing this action, because his entry had been to arrest a felony suspect. He explained that Isabelle was suspected of poisoning one Thomas Shepherd at Houghton. According to John, ‘long before’ the day of the alleged trespass, Thomas had been poisoned (intoxicatus), and Thomas, languishing on his deathbed at Halloughton, had contacted John and had told him, openly, that Isabelle had given him a poisoned draught (potum venenosum), of which he died, before the alleged trespass, at Uppingham in Rutland. John said that, after that, suspecting Isabelle of causing the death, he had gone to Richard’s property, had entered to arrest Isabelle, and had then taken her to the king’s gaol of Leicester. The thrust of his argument was that this was not the trespass alleged by Richard, and Richard should not succeed.

There are small variations in the Year Book. For example, the report simplifies the facts, making the allegation that it was the plaintiff (Richard) who was suspected of the poisoning, rather than a servant of his. Both Robert and Isabelle disappear from view. In addition, there is some difference in the way the two sources deal with the way the poisoning allegation was supposed to have reached John. The YB describes this as coming via ‘common voice and fame’. There seems to have been some dispute as to whether this was sufficient (perhaps leading to the version we see in the plea roll, with the idea of a specific report by Thomas to John).

The YB deals in more detail than does the PR with the question of authority. In the YB there is discussion of the fact that John was acting on the orders of the sheriff, which does not appear in the PR. The YB shows discussion of whether John should be allowed to interpose the sheriff and his command here, and apparently it was resolved that he needed to remove the sheriff from the equation, basing his conduct on his own suspicion of Isabelle’s felony. There is also discussion of the way in which the poisoning allegation itself should be handled: was it acceptable to use it as a basis for John’s conduct, without allowing an opportunity for it to be denied? Here, discussion in the YB suffers from its simplification: having treated the plaintiff and the alleged poisoner as identical, this distorts what appears to have been the true situation – a justification of conduct complained of by X, on the ground of a serious allegation against Y. Basing themselves on their simplified model of the case, so the YB tells us, ‘All the Court’ thought that John ought to have put the poisoning allegation in such a way that Richard could have traversed it: he had to be given the opportunity to say it simply did not happen. It is not clear, though, that they agreed on what this meant: did it need to be amenable to a traverse under normal pleading rules  within this case, or was it enough that there was a theoretical possibility of bringing a separate writ de odio et atia, as one judge was reported to have said?

The PR entry ends with Richard’s final gambit. Careful not to admit that Thomas had been poisoned as John alleged, he made the argument that Thomas did not notify John that Isabelle gave him the potum venenosum, as John had said, and that John had trespassed in the way he, Richard, had stated. This was the issue which went to the jury.


So what?

In terms of Legal History, and the development of law, I think there are a couple of Interesting points. I have noted above some of the differences between YB and PR. Looking at them together gives snapshots of the process of formulating issues, and the way in which medieval lawyers worked by simplifying complex facts – sometimes, we might think, over-simplifying them.

It is worth thinking about what all of this reveals about attitudes to ‘policing’ and (massive anachronism alert …) ‘civil liberties’. In relation to the arrest power which features in John’s defence, the thinking does not seem to be that a person could not arrest another on the (to us, nebulous) ‘fame of the country’, even though, in the end, John conveniently seems to find that there was actually a direct communication to him from the languishing poison victim, but that, for ‘common fame’  to be an acceptable basis for arrest, defeating a claim of trespass, the person doing the arresting had to take responsibility, as an ordinary citizen, rather than shielding behind the authority of the sheriff. We see, I think, co-existing ideas of community and official responsibility, and perhaps some tension between them. Richard certainly decided to proceed with caution, in framing a narrow issue based on John’s claim of actual notification by the deceased.

There are, of course, questions about the real story, and how it ended. It may be possible to find out whether Isabelle was convicted of the poisoning, and it may be possible to find an ending for this trespass case. I will certainly be looking. Other things may well remain murky – in particular, why was Richard so keen to protect an alleged poisoner, what was the role and relevance of Robert, and was there some other ‘beef’ (poisoned or otherwise) between Richard and John lying behind this?






[i] CP 40/910 m. 340 (IMG 665); Seipp 1489.041; BU Law | Our Faculty | Scholarship | Legal History: The Year Books : Report #1489.041

Photo by Hendrik Schlott on Unsplash

Slow Burn to No Burn: sex, death and survival in fourteenth century Somerset

How nice it is to be able to get at the treasure trove of scanned plea rolls on the AALT website (AALT Home Page ( ) once again, after the storm/power disruption of recent weeks. Back I go to my searches of KB 27 plea rolls. I am looking for information on my projects for this year and next year, but, from time to time, other things pop up, and seem worth a brief word.

Today’s plea roll fun comes to us courtesy of the King’s Bench roll for 1359H.[i] (So we are post-appearance of Black Death, pre-royal decline and war with France going poire-shaped). It is a record of a presentment by jurors from different hundreds in Somerset, and deals with quite a long-running case.

The jurors, in summer 1358, before royal justices at Yeovil, presented that Philip de Clyfton had been involved with (adulteravit cum… carnaliter cognovit) a married woman: Joanna, wife of Philip Maubaunk[ii], during Philip M’s life. Sinful and scandalous, obviously, but the main offence which was relevant to a secular jurisdiction was the next bit: Philip C and two servants of Philip M, whose names the jurors said they did not know, had killed Philip M. Specifically, Philip C and the servants had ‘intoxicated’ Philip M, at Yeovil, with poison (unspecified, let’s be honest, it was probably supposed to be something in his food rather than the old snake in the bed, but nice pic, isn’t it? And it fits in with the whole poison-woman-Eve-serpent-sin vibe).

This, so the story went, had all been done with the encouragement and assistance of Joanna. It had, allegedly happened a long time previously, in June 1342. Joanna had been arrested and appeared in court before the King’s Bench at Westminster, in early 1359. She was asked how she pleaded to the charge of aiding and abetting the felonious homicide, and said she should not be obliged to answer until proceedings were (re)started against the alleged principal, Philip C. She was bailed to appear in the KB at Michaelmas. Proceedings against Philip C were then resumed, until, at Easter 1360, the sheriff of Somerset reported that Philip C had died in his custody at the beginning of the year. As far as the court was concerned, the fact that Philip C, who was indicted as principal, was dead, meant that he could not be convicted according to the law and custom of the realm, and that, in turn, meant that Joanna had to be acquitted.


So what?

Well, there are a number of things to think about here.

  1. The slow burn… If this is not a complete fabrication, it looks as if we are seeing action being taken against alleged killers (or some of them) 16 years or more after the alleged killing. Why? Had Joanna and Philip C gone off to a happy life of carnal knowledge somewhere else? Did nobody care about Philip M? Was there some late confession or slip, spilling the (poisoned) beans? The allegation in 1358-9 was one of poisoning, with the involvement of both wife and servants – the sort of thing which, generally, was taken extremely seriously, with added extras to the execution of convicted offenders (drawing as well as hanging for male servants, and burning for wives who killed their husbands) and which, of course, had been confirmed as a sort of treason by the Statute of Treasons 1352. It is puzzling that it took so long to be resolved (to the extent it was resolved).The passing of time allowed Joanna to avoid trial and possible conviction, and, in fact nobody actually stood trial for this alleged offence.
  2. The accessory/principal issue. It is interesting that a rule was upheld, allowing accessories a ‘get out of jail (and the risk of execution) free card’, if the principal died. It doesn’t seem entirely logical to me, and seems rather to encourage a certain amount of bumping off amongst former partners in crime. That’s one to investigate/ponder on some more. Just what was the relationship between the amenability to conviction of the principal and of the accessory?
  3. Venomous words. A smaller thing, but an interesting one. I note that ‘to poison’ and’ to intoxicate’ are used fairly interchangeably here, whereas we would now differentiate between them somewhat, in terms of deadliness, intention or focus. Another matter to bear in mind, and one which may have some bearing on the interpretation of other records which include only one of the two terms. We cannot necessarily assume precision and set boundaries of meaning in the use of these ‘medical’ terms.
  4. Oh yes, sex. The words describing sexual acts or relationships are always interesting. Here we have a description slightly different to those I usually encounter in common law records of offences: carnaliter cognovit is familiar enough (and rather unilateral), but adulteravit cum suggests bilateral activity. All rather more complex, or equivocal, than the idea that the medieval concept of sex was a man doing things to a woman. Then again, there might just not have been the words in the clerk’s Latin vocabulary to translate what was actually said (let alone what was actually going on – if anything was).


So – Joanna was ‘one who got away’ from the medieval common law; but was she also ‘one who got away with it’? As ever, we’ll never know.




[i] KB 27/394 Rex m. 16;

[ii] There is a Maubaunk family of a fairly high social status, appearing, e.g. in the Inquisitions Post Mortem: see TNA C 134/82/4 (earlier). There is a Philip Maubank of Dorset, whose full age is being proved in 1333: TNA C 135/35/1.  CIPM vol. 10 no. 530 (Edw III File 147) has Philip M and Joan – in summer 1333 Joan, late the wife of Philip M, is in trouble for not turning up to the proof of age of a young man whose lands she has in wardship.

Friar Tuck in the Fifteenth Century

Here is a by-catch snippet from a King’s Bench plea roll which might appeal to the more train-spotting completist type of Robin Hood fan (not judging you!) … what seems to be an additional reference to Robert Stafford, naughty Sussex chaplain, who conducted a life of crime under the alias Friar Tuck (or, at least, a reference to a Friar Tuck being up to no good in Sussex).[i]

The name of Stafford (if that’s who this was – as seems likely) is not mentioned, but the description of the offence in the KB plea roll for Michaelmas term 1421 (KB 27/642 m. 32 (AALT IMG 305) might be of interest: at Lewes in 1420, it was presented that Robert Southe of Laughton in co. Sussex, gentleman, Thomas Wodhacche of Horsham, yeoman, and John Pyttekene of Laughton, yeoman, on February 1417, at Plumpton in a place called Lynterygge, with weapons including bows and arrows, their faces hidden, and painted with various colours (make up or camouflage paint? RuPaul’s Drag Race or Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins?) beat up Walter atte Brome and Simon Martyn, shouting, amongst other things, that they were the servants of their reverend master, Friar Tuck – and they rampaged around the countryside for some time, terrifying the populace.

There is something of the carnivalesque about this, and perhaps the presence of the ‘gentleman’ amongst the gang suggests that this was not quite a band of desperate starving men. Nevertheless, this seems to be a tale of violence, at some distance from the true story of Robin Hood (which, as we all know, is about cute Disney animals in a forest).

Anyway – hope that is useful to somebody. Off to ride through a glen … or would be, if Covid permitted.

GS 13/2/2021

[i] See Holt, Robin Hood (London, 1982) 58, for reference to this man and his band of followers in 1417 and 1429 (CPR 1429-36, 10) Note that current circumstances mean no library access, so I am fairly sure I haven’t seen this reference before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already ‘out there’ somewhere! For more Robin Hoody goodness from the same time – clearly a key point in the Robin Hood myth-making – see Seipp 1429.051  http://BU Law | Our Faculty | Scholarship | Legal History: The Year Books : Report #1429.051 For another 15th C emulation of Robin Hood and co., see TNA SC8/27/1317A

Taking the long and winding road to mercy? A Norfolk woman’s route through medieval criminal justice

In the middle of the reign of Edward III, Margaret Clerk of Norfolk found herself in deep trouble with the law. She appears in an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1353.[i] This, though, was not her first encounter with medieval criminal justice. As the entry makes clear, she was in peril at this point as a result of an alleged breach of rules relating to abjuration of the realm, a process by which a person in danger of being convicted and executed for a serious offence could stay alive, at the cost of agreeing to leave the country swiftly, and according to particular instructions. Margaret had agreed to abjure after confessing to offences of theft, committed alongside a male offender. She had not, however, left the realm.

The entry states that there had been an indictment relating to Edward Clerk of Caston, parson of the church of Lingwood, and Margaret Clerk,of the same place (their relationship, if any,  is unclear) for various felonies. The sheriff of Norfolk had brought them before the king’s justices and John atte Wode, the king’s coroner of Norfolk, came and said that Edward and Margaret had confessed to him, in the church of St Peter at Lingwood, that they were thieves, and so abjured the realm of England. Apparently, he produced a record of this abjuration, which is copied down, and dated [5th April 1353]. The offences confessed to were burglaries at two houses, making off with a quantity of grain and pulses, and bread, worth 18s and 5s 15d respectively. They were asked if they abjured, and assented, Edward being assigned the port of Sandwich to depart within 15 days and Margaret was assigned Dover, to depart within 12 days. Edward’s chattels were forfeit, Margaret had no chattels.

Clearly, given that they were in court now, Edward and Margaret had not in fact departed the realm. They were asked if there was any reason why the law should not be carried out on them (i.e. why they should not be executed). Both told a tale of having set off properly for their ports, but being captured by their enemies at Swardeston, with force and arms, and asked to be put back on the road, to continue to the ports and leave the realm. The court sought the view of a  jury as to whether this story was true, and a jury from Swardeston said it was not – they had left the king’s highway for Swardeston of their own free will. (The record does not state what was so great about Swardeston…).

After that, Edward said that he was a clerk, and passed a reading test to demonstrate this to the court’s satisfaction. A local churchman came and asked the court for him. He was delivered into ecclesiastical custody. Margaret then said that she was pregnant, and inspection and examination by a jury of matrons confirmed this. Her hanging was ‘put in suspense’ as the Calendar of Patent Rolls has it (slightly tactless – let us say ‘respited’) ‘until etc.’ and she was to be held in the Marshalsea prison.

Later, in early 1354, Margaret showed a royal pardon, letting her off the execution. This is dated 20th  November 1353.[ii] The reason given for the grant of the pardon is interesting – those who had had custody of her in the Marshalesa  – Robert Bullore, deputy of Walter Mauny is named – testified that she was lunatica and that she had made a false confession because of her disturbed mental state.  As a result of this intervention, Margaret was allowed to go free.


So what?

This set of proceedings tells us a lot (including, for once, an outcome of sorts) but also raises numerous questions.

I would pick out for notice the fact that there was a significant difference between the ways in which the two co-defendants escaped execution. For Edward, the route to safety was via ‘benefit of clergy’. Off he went to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction and custody once he had passed the reading test and secured the support of local ecclesiastical authorities. This was simply not available to Margaret. She pleaded her pregnancy – the plea which later commentators called ‘benefit of the belly’. The plea of pregnancy would not have provided as permanent an escape from capital punishment as would Edward’s benefit of clergy plea: it gave a respite, not a cancellation of the execution at this period. There was no automatic pardon – and we should note that the pardon secured for Margaret had nothing to do with her pregnancy or maternity, nor was it some sort of favour to her as a woman – the reason was her current ‘lunacy’ and the statement that this condition was the cause of her making a false confession to crimes she had not committed.

I suppose this says something quite interesting about pardons as well – this, essentially is a pardon being used as a (modern sense) appeal on the facts: she was in fact not guilty of even the acts complained of. A little different to the ‘average lunacy pardon’, in which X has killed Y, but is held to have done so whilst a ‘lunatic’. It illustrates rather well the fact that the medieval  pardon performed a variety of functions.

In addition, it is an interesting illustration of the plausibility of disruption of abjuration. Although it was not believed here, presumably it was not out of the question that annoyed neighbours or victims of the abjurers’ crime might attempt to cause them problems by ensuring that they broke the rules. Those bound for these assigned ports were supposed to go straight there, via the king’s highway (and in prescribed outfits and manner).[iii] Leaving the king’s highway was a move outside the prescribed route, and could end with the imposition of the death penalty, if it was not merely trivial. In this case, the suggestion is that Edward and Margaret were indeed making a break for it, preferring a Norfolk village to ‘abroad’, probably not a surprising preference in medieval English people.

As for the questions, well, there are many. Uppermost in my mind are three sets of questions, relating to the relationship between Edward and Margaret (kin, lovers … both …? Neither?); to the pregnancy, and to whether she was in fact ‘a lunatic’ (and, of course, rolled up in that one is ‘and what exactly did that mean’)? Upon the answers to these questions depends any real evaluation of just how ‘merciful’ all of this was. I am left wondering, in particular, about  the role of the various juries and officials involved in the abjuration saga – if Margaret was indeed a ‘lunatic’ at the time of the confession and abjuration, why did nobody notice, and why was there no provision for her future custody, as one might expect (perhaps because there is no suggestion she was violent, in contrast to the usual ‘insane homicide’ cases?). On a more selfish note, I am getting a little ‘what might have been’ (personal superpower) about not having found this before finishing the Women and the Medieval Common Law book – not that it would have brought entirely new points, but it would have been a nice opening case for a chapter. It was a nice one to ponder on a cold and locked down morning today, however. For once, a (sort of) happy ending – and nobody died!


[i] KB 27/371 m. 41 (AALT IMG 544).

[ii] This pardon can be seen in CPR 1350-4 p. 535.

[iii] Karl Shoemaker, Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages 400-1500 (Fordham UP, 2011) c7, especially at p. 121.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Plague, fire and ‘lunacy’: arson and acquittal in medieval Yorkshire

Here is another record which has something of interest to say on lay and legal ideas about mental capacity and responsibility.

We are in 1349 – all a bit plaguey, not though you would always know it, since the rolls are still rolling, with many of the usual sorts of litigation – in the King’s Bench. On the Rex section of the roll, there is a case of arson, from a gaol delivery at York, in which mental state becomes crucial. (KB 27/355 Rex m.29d; AALT IMG 8327).

The jurors of Harthill wapentake presented that John son of William son of Henry of Nafferton was indicted before Thomas de Rokeby, sheriff of Yorkshire, that on 10th January 1349, he feloniously burned the house of Robert Dreng of Driffield, along with 40s worth of goods which were inside it. He pleaded not guilty and put himself on the jury. The jury stated on oath that John was a lunatic, and that, three or four times a year, he was troubled (vexatus) by a disease of the mind (infirmitate demencie), and that he had been affected by it on the day in question, and for eight days before and eight days afterwards, so that he was not aware of the difference between good and evil, nor of his own actions. They found that he had burned the house in question during this period, and had not done so feloniously or by ‘malice aforethought), as was alleged against him, and nor had he fled. And because the jury held that John had been non compos mentis at the relevant time, he was acquitted. Four named men came forward as security for his good behaviour.

So what?

It is not unexpected that somebody with a severe mental problem, defined as lunacy’, would avoid the severe penalties for felony, and that, by this period, this would not be by the cumbersome method of waiting for a royal pardon, but would be a straight acquittal. There is, though, some interesting detail here, in terms of the apparent understanding of mental capacity and the conditions which might affect it. John’s disordered states appear to have been noted, and their frequency was a matter of community knowledge. We do not have the link to the moon made in other cases of ‘lunacy’, but there is a suggestion that the disorder recurred on a more or less regular pattern (was it almost seasonal?). There is also a good explanation of the effect of the disorder on his responsibility – specifically, it diminished his ability to tell right from wrong, and even his awareness of his own acts. The jurors were making a very strong case for his acquittal. The fact that they mentioned that the incapacity had lasted from eight days before the incident to eight days after it could almost sound as if they want to leave no room for argument that John might, in fact, have been experiencing a lucid interval (though I wonder whether this information was elicited by questioning by the court, or whether it was volunteered).

Finally, it is interesting that this is not – as most ‘lunacy’ cases seem to be – a homicide, but a case of arson (in which nobody died). What role might have been played by the nature of the offence? I found myself wondering whether it took more preparation and forethought to burn down a medieval house, or to stab or beat somebody to death, but I am not sure that an answer to that could be obtained easily. As with so much else on medieval ideas of mental capacity and disorder, our understanding is very incomplete, and needs to be built up piece by piece. I find, in this area as a whole, it is a big challenge to think myself back into a world in which mental disorders were not seen as a matter for ‘expertise’,  but one on which ordinary, respectable, jurors could be expected to make a definite judgment. That, though, is my problem rather than theirs.



Is this burning an eternal flame? Probably not, no, or: the shearman’s mysterious appeals

A case to round off January, which turned up in today’s file sorting. I think I came across this when I was writing about dwale a few years ago, and have never found a place for it, so here’s a bit of a weird one, from a King’s Bench roll of 1346: KB 27/343 m. 28 and m. 28d (AALT IMG 8042, 8397)

It’s a record of the accusations made by an approver – i.e. a man who confessed his own felony, but brought accusations (appeals) against another or others, in the hope that he could secure a conviction and be spared execution. Clearly, this process is likely to have encouraged a certain degree of untruthful accusation, so that, even more than usual, we can make no deductions about truth in these cases. Nevertheless, in an ontological-argument-for-God’s-existence fashion, there is something of value to learn in accounts of what the human mind could imagine.

Our approver was William de Ludham, shearman, and he was doing his approving in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Before the coroner, he recognised that he was a thief and a felon, and made a number of accusations – some fairly run of the mill robberies, But William’s appeals also included accusations against a clerk called Robert of Leicester, clerk, and Bertram of St Omer, Fleming. They had, he said, been part of a gang wandering about, in London, Bristol, Sandwich, Norwich, and elsewhere in cities and boroughs of England, and in Norwich at Trinity 1346, they had planned to follow the king as he went abroad, to burn him and his household, when an opportunity arose, either in England or abroad. Perhaps in connection with this fiendish plan, William said that Bertram carried with him sulphur and other materials to set off an inextinguishable fire, and Robert carried with him two containers, one full of poison, and another full of a powder which would make men sleep for three days, or else kill them, at the user’s choice.

[As so often, the ending is delayed – I am yet to find any sort of resolution]

So what?

Come on – treacherous plots, eternal flames and three day sleeping powder: obviously interesting. Working out what the flamey bit might have been does not seem impossible (firearms/artillery were just coming in at this point, remember … Greek fire … etc.), the sleeping/killing powder is a bit more mysterious. At first, I was thinking along the lines of blowing it under a door (clearly reading too many mystery novels) but I suppose it is more likely to mean something to put in a drink. What would that be? Some poppy product, perhaps? Processed dwale? I am intrigued at the idea of expertise implicit in William’s accusation – he assumed that a dodgy clerk would be in a position to understand the dosage which would work to cause sleep (and for how long) or death. All a bit wizardy, isn’t it?

Very much hoping to come across William, Robert and Bertram once more, and see whether this did ever go to proof.



Photo by Rahadiansyah on Unsplash

The price of contempt? Menacing a King’s Bench jury

It has been a while since I managed to marry up a record and report, but I am sure this is a Yearbook/Plea Roll match, despite some details which differ – and it’s quite a case! The Yearbook, is Seipp 1345.237rs, and the Plea Roll entry is KB 27/341 Rex m. 30 (AALT IMG 334) (roll of Trinity 1345, with later additions).

The case involved the misdeeds of (according to the YB) ‘N. the tailor of Carlisle’, and (according to the Plea Roll), Richard de Karliol of London, tailor, and Alan of Cambridge, tailor, with others unknown. They were in serious trouble for having menaced and hit inquest jurors in front of the royal justices. The Plea Roll has details: there had been a trespass case in the King’s Bench in June 1345, Alice de Legh of Tottenham v. William Brangwayn. [This is on the main roll at m. 48d,  at AALT IMG 99 – a short entry about a break in at Alice’s place, and removal of goods – with William obliged to pay damages and a fine to the king] Richard de Karliol of London, tailor, and Alan of Cambridge, tailor, with others unknown, threatened the jurors when the jurors were at the bar before the king’s justices, in order to give their verdict, and, when the verdict had been given, pursued them to the gates of the king’s palace of Westminster towards the Thames, and beat up and mistreated the jurors (one is named – John de Edelmerton) against the king’s peace and in contempt of his court, to the hurt and nullification of the laws of the land, and the king’s people. The sheriff was ordered to have Richard and Alan before the court. Richard was there in Michaelmas 1345. At first, he pleaded not guilty of all of this, and the matter was set to be put to a jury, but Richard (either because he realised that there were quite a few credible witnesses to what had happened, or else because he JUST REALLY HAD A THING ABOUT JURIES, OK?) then changed his plea and admitted that he had done it after all. He put himself on the king’s mercy. He was imprisoned while it was decided what to do with him, and the sheriff of London was ordered to take his land and chattels into the king’s hand. He was brought back into court a few days afterwards, to hear his doom. The Plea Roll notes that there had been discussions in the Chancery with the justices of Common Pleas and King’s Bench, and other faithful men of the king, while the Year Book says it was ‘the Council’ [quite what the difference was at this point, I leave to those who know their way around these royal institutions rather better than I do]. The court was sure that the trespass had been in great contempt of the king and his crown, to the injury of his peace, in prejudice of and detraction from the laws and statutes of the land, (iuris et legis), and the manifest terror of the population. The Year Book attributes the pronouncement of judgment to Thorp J. There is agreement in both sources that the sentence passed was that Richard would have perpetual imprisonment, and would be committed to the king’s prison in the Tower of London, to remain there as long as he lived. In addition, his right hand would be amputated, and his land and chattels would be seized for the king (‘into the king’s hand’, as this is put – perhaps somewhat tactlessly in the circumstances). He was committed to the constable of the Tower’s deputy/locum. The judges put off execution of the amputation, however, to check with the king what his will was.

But there it ends. Did Richard lose his hand in the end, or had he chosen wisely in recognising his misdeeds and asking for mercy? No news on that one yet! Perhaps he might have had reason for optimism – at least one other roughly contemporary episode of rowdiness in court had ended up in a pardon.[i]

There is a reference to the background of this incident in a roll for 1346 – KB 27/344 m. 2d (AALT IMG 9147). Here, William Brangwayn (who is identified as a vintner) is accused of having been behind the misconduct of Richard and the others. While it was found that Richard was working with or for William, and was in his pay, and it sounds as if there might have been some attempt at influencing the the jury in the earlier case, the later jury acquitted him on the charge actually brought here – which was to do with the assault outside court, saying that this was not on William’s orders, but on Richard’s own initiative. I wonder whether they might, perhaps have been a little scared to do anything else,

So what?

It seems to me that the two big (and intertwined) aspects of medieval law to which this speaks are (i) offences against the crown/justice and (ii) punishment.

This is all going on just before the big restatement/reorganisation of the law of treason which would take place in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and it shows some interesting thought around which offences should be considered so closely associated with the king/crown that they must result in particularly notable and symbolic punishment. This case does not use ‘treason words’, but it does include an unusual sentence of imprisonment for life, and the amputation. Why amputation of the right hand? Well, clearly this was a seriously damaging thing to do to somebody, but presumably there was some symbolism going on there too – he raised his hand against royal justice and the law, so off the hand must come.

We should bear in mind that, in terms of the offences themselves, considered apart from their setting, this does not sound especially serious violence – no ‘maiming’ wounds, no deaths, as far as the details tell us. Context, therefore, is all, and both proximity to royal justices, and to royal justice, are seen as serious aggravating factors, as well, presumably, as proximity to the king as represented by the judges, and the common law. The conversations between judges and other advisers suggests a high degree of concern, and a fair amount of doubt as to what to do with those who would disrupt legal proceedings in the king’s courts. Richard of Carlisle and his case probably deserve some more attention.



[i] CPR 1343-5 p 270.

Discord, fraud and an attack of conscience? Some dodgy dealings with land in the fourteenth century 

As I prepare materials for modern Land Law teaching, it is interesting to think of the potential difficulties medieval people might have in guarding against losing their rights in land, in a world without the sort of registration and record-keeping which my students love hearing about so much …

The source: a 1339 King’s Bench plea roll. KB 27/315 m. 13d (AALT IMG 262)

The scene: mid-fourteenth century Cambridgeshire (and, as all pretentious reviews of films and books say, the land itself is a sort of character too. And the law. And the plea roll. Enough – on with the alleged facts …)

In Michaelmas 1338, jurors of various hundreds presented that John Allberd and his wife Nicolaa[i] held 20 acres of land in Hokyton, in right of Nicolaa, but there was discord between them, and Nicolaa went away from her husband and the area. [Alas, as our esteemed PM would say] John then died. [At this point, Nicolaa should have had the land back, or, if she had died, as seems to have been the case, then it should have gone to her heir, BUT… there was a conspiracy between an observant/nosy local and some ‘incomers’, from Norfolk, and even that London]: John son of John Riston of Hokyton, John Godefeld, citizen of London, and a certain Margaret of Norwich conspired together and in 1334, Margaret was passed off as Nicholaa (de Kelm, wife of John Allberd of Hokyton) and, acting as Nicolaa, Margaret had a false charter drawn up in favour of John son of John Riston, transferring the land to him, not to William de Kelm, nephew and heir of Nicolaa. John Riston entered by virtue of this false feoffment. [And he would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for her meddlesome conscience]. Confessione ducta, she had gone along to the church of Hokyton and coughed to her misconduct. After this, William de Kelm had got the land as the result of a concord (no details), and the law was put on to the two male alleged conspirators.

The sheriff was ordered to bring the parties into court to hear about the misconduct. John Riston and John Godefeld pleaded not guilty (and things are still rumbling on, trying to get these two into court in 1347 – KB 27/348 m.32d (AALT IMG 1590) – I am yet to get to the end of the matter.

So what?

I know – just another unfinished case, but …

Well, you have to admire the cunning of such a plan, if it happened. It does rather point to a weakness in the system of land holding: identifying individuals who had not been seen for some time. Presumably it was plausible that one woman might be passed off as another, even in relatively close-knit areas with small populations.

I am also quite taken by the throwaway line that there was discord between the spouses and Nicolaa just exited the scene. Seems somewhat at odds with what we think we know about conjugal debts and the need to get a divorce a mensa et thoro before doing this. I suppose we would have to presume that women could leave if men were not bothered. As this case shows, though, there might be a cost to them, in terms of the risk of losing rights to the land they left behind.

(All rather far away from the bureaucracy and formality of modern Land Registration schemes, to which, I suppose, I had better return …)




[i] A moment of appreciation, please, for this fabulous medieval spelling, and I take my hat off to anyone who is able to resist pronouncing it pirate-style as NicholAAAAAAH!

Livestock and a laughing stock? Tormenting a medieval Yorkshireman

I claim no expertise in the area of medieval animals, and have usually shied away from medieval human-animal interaction (almost life-long vegetarian … and yes it does feel weird dealing with records written on the skins of dead beasts) but here is a trail to follow for those who work in this area, and/or in medieval violence  …

A Yorkshire trailbaston roll from the end of the reign of Edward I contains, at JUST 1/1107 m. 2 (AALT IMG 8501), a record of a case brought before the royal justices in 1305. The jury of Hang (N. Yorks) had presented that, on a date in 1304,  a group of men, (Thomas de Colevile, Nicholas de Holteby, Adam Skakelok, William son of Emma, Richard Des, Robert Cote, John Forestar and Richard Forestar) broke into an enclosure belonging to William Des of Great Fencote and took away cattle which William was keeping in that fold, which he seems to have acquired as a result of a judgment in a local tribunal. So far, so banal – unpleaseant, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the fact that they beat William up (apparently also grabbing him by the hood and half-throttling him. What was extremely odd and interesting was the other allegation – that Thomas de Colevile and company had made William Des kiss the mare’s backside[i] – specifically its anus (yes, checked my translation – it really does say in ano osculari coegerunt, and, in one of the three retellings in the report, enormiter in ano osculari coegerunt). William Des said that they had also committed ‘other enormities’ against him, which may just be a bit of verbiage, but it does raise questions as to whether things might have got even odder and more unpleasant. Anyway, William Des said that he had suffered damage to the tune of 100 marks, the defendants denied everything, and it went to a jury. I was all ready to read a big old ‘not guilty’, but no – the jury thought at least some of this really happened, and although William Des was only awarded 20 marks, there were some substantial fines to the king as well.

So what?

Well, I will confess the reason that I zoned in on this entry was that I thought it might be a rare case of male-male sexual assault being recorded, but I soon saw that that wasn’t it at all. Intriguing in its own unpleasant way though. The usual ‘who knows what really happened’ caveat applies, but the idea that this was a conceivable way of behaving to somebody being ‘done over’ is very interesting. It suggests links with all sorts of other ‘obscene kisses’ – Chaucer, accusations against the Templars and Cathars, and, broadening out from kisses to other sorts of familiarity with animals, my mind goes to the goings-on between Greek and Norse gods and animals. What was the symbolism, the mockery, here? I also wonder about it in another sense – how did such a thing come to light, and, given that one presumes the idea of making a man do this was supposed to be a deep humiliation, how would William have felt about it all coming out like this? No answers, just a lot of questions and musings. Plea rolls really do have all human (and animal) life in them.


Pictured below, a cow (no relation) – c/o Wikimedia Commons

See the source image

[i] There is a minim counting issue here. I think it’s iumentum, though if I’m wrong and it’s iuvencum, we would be in the bovine rather than the equine world. Slightly comforted to realise I am not alone in my uncertainty here – see, in the context of French, J.M. Kaye (ed.), Placita Corone, SS Supp. Ser. (1966), 16-17.