Category Archives: labour law

Labour law and extremely small medieval Londoners

I have noted a few cases on labour/employment law over the years, but this is a new one for me, and a fairly secure Year Book-Plea Roll match[i] – names almost line up, though there are some changes of story …

Let’s go to the London area, in the 1350s, and observe what is clearly a fairly extreme shortage of workers …

The entry, labelled ‘Middlesex’, sets out the case against Robert Brewer de Holborn and Elena his wife, and Matilda daughter of Philip de Cornwaile, recently servant of Thomas Cheris, cutler. These three were sued on behalf of the king, and himself, by Thomas Cheris, on a writ founded on the recent labour legislation (Statute of Labourers (1349), 23 Edw. 3, ch. 2). Robert and Elena had allegedly admitted Matilda into their service before her term of service with Thomas was up, and Matilda had left Thomas’s service before the end of her term, without licence or reasonable cause. Both offences were ‘in contempt of the king’, to the damage of Thomas, and contrary to the legislation.

Thomas’s contention was that Matilda had been in his service, in St Stephen’s parish, Coleman Street ward, London, under a contract which ran from 21st June, 1349 for the next seven years, but left before the end of that term. without licence, on 5th October, 1354, and was taken on by Robert and Elena in the St Andrew’s parish, Holborn, Farringdon ward, and retained, (in contempt of the king,  to the damage of Thomas – to the tune of 20 l., according to Thomas – and against the form of the ordinance.

Robert and Elena’s answer to this, as far as the plea roll was concerned, was that they had done nothing wrong, since Matilda was too young to have made a binding contract to the effect alleged by Thomas. Having examined Matilda in court and inspected her body, the court decided that she was within age, and could only have been about three years old when Thomas said she was initially retained, so that she could not then have contracted with anyone, or entered into a covenant. As far as the case against Matilda was concerned, Thomas lost – he would take nothing and was in mercy for a false claim. We might think that the case against Robert and Elena would have to fall too, given the problem with Matilda’s ‘covenant’ with Thomas, but not so: that case went on, and Robert and Elena, in the end, put themselves on a jury on the issue of whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. [Here, the entry ends].

The Year Book tells a broadly similar tale. One character is called William Brewer of Holborn, rather than Robert, and he is bringing, rather than defending the suit, and Matilda is said to be the defendants’ daughter rather than the daughter of somebody else entirely (though possibly that relationship is forgotten later on in the report – it certainly seems odd that it is not used in argument) but still, I think this is the one.

The YB story is that a  writ on the Statute of Labourers is brought against ‘a man and his wife’ (Ds) and their daughter, ‘M’. M had allegedly covenanted to serve P for seven years, but left without reasonable cause, before the end of her term. The Ds had then retained her, contrary to the statute. As with the plea roll version, there was an inspection of the girl, and it was decided that she was too young to have made a binding contract as alleged, so that part of the case failed, but the case against the Ds continued. Year Books being Year Books, we get more of an account of the sparring before the eventual issue was reached, and it is pretty interesting.

There was, apparently, some argument about the interpretation of the Statute of Labourers: the Ds’ counsel  argued that the statute concerned covenants for usual terms, i.e. one year, not seven. Essentially, the point was that it was incorrect to build a case on the statute here. Expanding upon this, it was argued that, if this was allowed, a writ on the statute could be used for a covenant for a lifetime of service, or for a thousand years – which was clearly regarded as ridiculous.

Counsel for the Ds also, we are told, had a go at making  something of a coverture point – the writ was against both H and W, but a feme covert could not employ anyone, as ‘all would be said to be the act of the husband’, and, clearly, it would be wrong for the wife to end up in prison for her husband’s act – so using the statute, which did prescribe imprisonment for this offence, would certainly be inappropriate. Willoughby JCP was not entirely in agreement with the coverture argument, and made quite an interesting intervention, to the effect that ‘common understanding’ was that, if somebody was retained in the service of one spouse, s/he was regarded as being in the service of the other too. (So, coverture fans, I suppose that indicates more of a unity approach to coverture than a domination approach – or, indeed, just something a bit more practical and a bit less in thrall to any particular theory; something which showed an understanding of employment in small scale ‘family business’ situations).

The YB has a little more on the question of M[atilda]’s age. It was a serjeant, Finchden, who showed her to the court, asking them to observe that she was nine, and so could not bind herself contractually. The court, we are told, both ‘saw’ and ‘examined’ her (luy vist & examina – let’s hope that this was nothing traumatic, eh?), and agreed that she was nine, so not bound by a covenant. They also made the faultlessly logical comment that she would have been younger when the covenant was actually made (‘a long time past’).

That sorted out the case against Matilda, but, agreeing with the plea roll, it didn’t mean that the Ds were off the hook. Argument clustered around (i) whether M could be regarded as having been in P’s service, despite not having been working there on the basis of a binding covenant, and (ii) whether or not there was a difference between removing M from P’s service and retaining her after she had left P’s service. Both pleading and statutory interpretation aspects of those questions came into play. Sensing that the court was not on their side, the Ds were scared off these legal issues, and just went to more general pleading,[ii] though there is a slight difference here from the ending of the plea roll entry. That had made the issue for the jury one of denying that Ds had retained M. Here, it is whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. This does seem to me quite an important difference, but I suppose that it indicates that the YB report writer had lost interest once the thing seemed to take this more factual turn, and so was not really bothered about what it was exactly that the jury was to decide. What he cared about was the cut and thrust of discussion in court, rather than the lives of little people outside the ‘Westminster (Hall) bubble.’

So what?

Well, there is all sorts here – pleading and statutory interpretation for those of a technical persuasion, employment practices and the treatment of children for those with more soc. and ec. hist. interests, and some chat about coverture for gender hist. types. I am struck, as ever, by the differences between PR and YB – it really does seem, sometimes, as if there is immediate and deliberate distancing of the material put into reports from the actual case involved. Perhaps needs a warning at the start like TV shows loosely based on true historical events.  (And no, let’s definitely not get into ‘what is truth?’ … )





[i] YB Pasch. 29 Edw. III f. 27 p. 29;  Seipp 1355.085  = CP 40/381 m. 59d or a hat will be consumed … The YB account here is, of course, founded upon David Seipp’s work.

[ii] The YB report is interested, too, in the technical pleading point that this had moved from a purely legal argument to an issue of fact.

Image – site of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street … not very atmospheric, or suggestive of medieval labour law, I admit.

Childish tricks and chastisement: a few hints from a fourteenth century trespass case

My own childhood was in the dwindling twilight of the age of corporal punishment: officially banned in England and Wales, it was nevertheless alive in the memory of schools. There was a thin, whippy, cane in the office of one headteacher – a slightly threatening relic – and there was one teacher in secondary school who, entirely illegally, but without anyone ever daring to report him, used an ancient dap (gymshoe!) on the backsides of offenders (boys only, in front of the class, and not in the trousers-down private school fashion: some sort of attenuated performance of former rituals, I suppose). My father, though, certainly had tales of school canings, and, for his generation and many before it, that was a normal part of educational technique. I was smacked as a child, for some of the worst of my many misdemeanours, and cartoon heroes like Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx certainly took their share of parental slipperings. All of this now seems very foreign indeed, but those just-about-retrievable memories help a little in thinking about historical cases like one I came across yesterday.


The case is a trespass case from the King’s Bench roll of Easter 1325. It is not in the educational context, though it seems to involve a young person of what we would consider school age – technically, I suppose, it is an ‘employment beating’ case rather than a ‘scholastic beating’ case. It is not earth-shatteringly different or new, but there are some interesting little snippets of information as to attitudes and assessment of behaviour in the area of reasonable chastisement and correction of children. It felt worthy of a quick note.


The marginal note tells us that the case is from Hertfordshire. It involved a complaint by Thomas, son of Edmund de Mareford, against William de Salesbury, parson of the church of Wheathampstead, and another man, William Rayemund. Thomas alleged that the two Williams, along with one other man, had assaulted him. They had, he said, in the usual, stereotyped formula, done this with force and arms and against the king’s peace: they had beaten and wounded him, and mistreated him, and done him other enormities, to his great damage (he claimed this amounted to £60). The apparent date assigned to the assault was 31st January, 1323, though there might be a slip here. In any case, the Williams did not make a thing of that. Instead, they denied that they had done anything wrong or against the king’s peace. Their version of events was that, on the day in question, Thomas was a garcio (groom or servant) of William de Salesbury, and was ‘within age’. (Quite what age this means is a bit vague, isn’t it, as there was not one ‘age of majority’ at this point). The Williams said that Thomas had been naughty, in some childish way, and had been guilty of some childish prank (quandam transgressionem puerilem).  (Again, it would be good to know more – I am still stuck in Beano mode and am thinking about buckets of water on doors or sneezing powder…). Because of this naughtiness, William de Salesbury had beaten him as a punishment (causa castigacionis) with a pair of small rods or sticks (virgula). It had not been a trespass, and was not against the king’s peace.


Thomas, however, stuck to his story. Both sides agreed to put the matter to a jury, which was duly summoned, deliberated, and came down on Thomas’s side. Thomas was to recover damages – not quite what he had claimed, but still a fair bit: £20. (How nice to have an actual outcome!)


There is a bit more about moves to get the money paid, and fines to the King, but  my main interests here are (1) what is said about the beating and (2) the pretty large award which is made by the jury.


The excuse

The excuse which the Williams tried to use obviously didn’t work, but, equally obviously, they thought it was ‘a runner’ – something which sounded plausible and which might get them off the hook. What does their attempted argument tell us? Well … it tells us that a beating might be regarded as reasonable chastisement and not contrary to the king’s peace, when and if:

  • the person beaten was under age
  • the person beaten was in the employ of the defendant
  • the person who was beaten had done something wrong – even a ‘childish transgression’
  • the beating was done with particular instruments regarded as reasonable/restrained (here, we have ‘a pair of small rods’ – whether that is a particular, specialised, instrument for spanking, or just some useful things which were to hand, I am not sure: further investigation needed here!)



The award

I am collecting figures for various sorts of physical injury damages, but haven’t got enough material to say anything much as to comparison (and sadly, of course, the record of Thomas’s allegation doesn’t specify quite what injuries were done to him).  Using the currency calculator from the National Archives website, however, tells me that Thomas could probably have bought 44-54 cows or 23-28 horses for this amount, so not bad at all, presuming he was not injured in some permanent way.



I am not sure that the case is going to be hugely useful to my current project on mayhem – I found it when looking for mayhem cases, but it is insufficiently detailed in terms of the injury suffered, to be helpful in understanding the borderline between trespass and mayhem/wounding. It is, though,  interesting to see small hints about what were perceived to be the boundaries of legitimate corporal punishment of children. They are only hints – as there is frustrating vagueness about a few key points – but still, it may contribute to wider understanding, when put together with and compared with other material about parental beatings, teacher beatings and adult employment-beatings.

I do find myself cheering on young Thomas here  and hoping that things improved for him after this case.






Image: St Helen’s Church in Wheathampstead, Herts. I have never been to Wheathampstead but I am sure it is a little piece of home counties paradise (How poorly-travelled I am – like the great and problematic Charlene, I have I never (knowingly) ‘Been to Me’, but nor have I been to Paradise … nor Wheathampstead …)

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

Fatal peacemaking: a self-defence story from medieval York

Human minds being the odd, pattern-seeking, things they are, I expect that this one leapt out at me today because I am a little preoccupied with a recorded interview I am doing on Monday, for a podcast about rape and sexual consent. The entry is not just about sexual offences, though, but also about the composition of defences to homicide, and, perhaps, master-servant and more positive male-female interactions as well.

The entry relates to a case at a York gaol delivery session on Sat 27th July, 1364.[i] John de Skydbrok of York, had been indicted and arrested for having feloniously killed John Dees, tailor, on the night of Monday 17th July 1363. in Goodramgate, York. He pleaded not guilty and the case was tried by a jury. The jury said that things had gone like this on the day in question: John Dees came to John de Skydbrok’s house, in order to have sex with a female servant (ancilla) of JS. She had made a great noise, which had brought JS into the room where it was happening, and there ensued a classic ‘self defence fight’ in which JS ends up in a corner, and with a choice between being killed by JD’s knife, or defending himself with his own knife (having done nothing at all aggressive up to this point). Having drawn his knife, JS struck JD once in the chest, and JD died. The jury stated that the killing had occurred in self defence rather than with malice aforethought, so unsurprisingly, JS was sent off to prison to await a pardon (and this duly came).[ii]

The self defence story is all very stereotyped, but the prelimnary events are a bit more interesting. The description of the encounter between John Dees and the ancilla is not termed a rape or attempted rape, but volition is mentioned on JD’s side and objection on the ancilla’s side. I think we can rule out the idea that the noise mentioned was enthusiastic participation – it is clamor, which is exactly what a respectable woman is supposed to emit, when protesting against a rape or other attack. Note the response of John de Skydbrok: the jury says that he came in, from his part of the house, ‘to make peace’, or ‘to calm things down’. No doubt things are put this way in order not to contradict the self-defence narrative of one-sided violence. This, perhaps, is an instance of the accepted narrative of self-defence in fact effacing what we would see as commendable behaviour – intervening to help a servant, whether protecting her as a person or as an asset. If there was not any force on JS’s part, it does not really make sense that JD would attack him. If JS was so very pacific, surely making a run for it would have been the sensible option.

Medieval gender relations and sexual misconduct meeting the distorting filters of legal procedure and jury practice; intriguing and frustrating as ever.



[i] JUST 3/95 m. 43 (AALT IMG 97)

[ii] CPR 1364-7 p. 27.


Two sorts of labour: maternity and employment, medieval style

Officially not ‘work’: this is a contribution to solidarity with workers everywhere, and everywhen…

[This one seems an interesting case to note today, somehow, as my union, the UCU, is striking once more to try and do something about deteriorating working conditions, and the pitiful progress on gender and other equalities issues which appears to satisfy university management.]

The plea rolls of the fifteenth century Court of Common Pleas have a lot of ‘labour law’ cases, based on the post-Black Death labourers legislation. Although each concerns a dispute which mattered massively to the individuals involved, the records are mostly fairly repetitive: parties argue as to whether there had been an agreement to serve, or a leaving without permission, or a removal or enticing away of a servant by another employer. Occasionally, though, there is one which stands out and lets slip something which goes a small way to illustrating the world of employment relations. Such a case is that of Nicholas Welkys and Geoffrey Molde, cleric, of Royston, Hertfordshire, at CP 40/645 m.39, from Easter term 1422.

Nicholas alleged that Geoffrey had stolen away his servant, Alice Valentyne. Nicholas said that she had been employed by him, at Royston, on a one year contract, as a domestic servant (ancilla). Geoffrey’s action, on the feast of St Stephen, in the king’s eighth year,[i.e. 26th December 1420] had caused him to lose her services for ‘a long time’ (in fact 6 days) which had damaged him to the tune of ten pounds. There were the required allegations of force and arms and the whole thing being against the king’s peace, though whether or not there was likely to have been any sort of force depends on whether one believes the story of Nicholas or that of Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s story was that he had done nothing wrong because he had actually retained Alice, from the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist in year 8 [i.e. 24th June, 1420?], for a year, as an ancilla. According to his version, on the feast of [the translation of ] St Edward, King and Confessor [13th October, 1420], Alice had left Geoffrey’s service without licence or just cause, had gone to work for Nicholas until [26th December], then, of her own free will, returned to Geoffrey, who had the better right to be her employer, and had, consequently done Nicholas no damage.

Nicholas agreed that Alice had been hired by Geoffrey earlier on, but claimed that, on the feast of St Edw Conf yr 8, because Alice was heavily pregnant, near to giving birth and unable to serve Geoffrey as envisaged, Geoffrey had given her permission to leave his service, and Nicholas had hired her from that day, for the following year. She had served him in Royston, so he said, until Geoffrey had abducted her with force and arms.

Geoffrey said he had not allowed Alice to leave his service. A jury was ordered to be summoned to decide whether there had, or had not been such permission, and so whether Geoffrey could be guilty of the abduction offence alleged.

I have not yet tracked down the outcome, but, as is often the case, the pleading itself discloses some interesting nuggets about medieval employment and attitudes to women, and pregnancy. Whatever the truth as to whether Geoffrey gave Alice permission to leave, it is very clear that being heavily pregnant was seen as a reason to end the employment relationship. We would not expect a medieval employer to have much of a maternity leave policy, perhaps, but it does raise questions about how working women coped with late pregnancy and birth. If Nicholas’s story is true (and it was presumably seen as at least plausible) the implication seems to be that Alice had to, and was able to, find a new place while at an advanced stage of pregnancy. That struck me as both sad (in terms of the apparent desperation on her part) and also interesting (in the sense that Nicholas seems to have been willing to take her on whilst pregnant and unable to do much, if any, work).

There are, of course, all sorts of other questions – such as who was the father, and what happened to the baby. Inevitably we will wonder whether Alice had been subjected to abuse, or whether she might have had some sort of approximately consensual relationship with Geoffrey. Might her surname, ‘Valentine’, even indicate some involvement in sex work/concubinage? No answers to those, but intriguing all the same.


Medieval employment law: workplace sexual harassment in fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Years ago, I wrote my Ph.D. on economic regulation in medieval England, eventually turning it into my first book, Royal Regulation.  In both thesis and book, I decided to concentrate on sales and loans, and left out an obvious area of royal intervention in ‘the market’: regulation of wages and employment, especially under the Ordinance of Labourers 1349 and the Statute of Labourers 1351. This omission was due, in part to the vast body of evidence which would have had to be examined, in order to do a proper job of assessing the legislation and jurisprudence. There was also the fact that the area seemed to be well covered by works such as Bertha Haven Putnam’s still-splendid Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, and some of the ideas to be found in Palmer’s English Law in the Age of the Black Death. Working through medieval plea rolls these days, I frequently come across ‘Labourers’ cases, but, all too often, the dispute boils down to ‘You were my employee and you left before the contracted term was up’ v. ‘I was never your employee’ ‘Let’s go to proof’ ‘OK then’. and the roll says little more about the matter. Occasionally, however, there is a case in which we actually see a bit more, and learn a bit more about understanding and interpretation of the law in this area. That is certainly so with a case I turned up yesterday in the Common Pleas plea roll for Michaelmas term 1363.

Thomas de Queldale v. William de Ramkill and Elena de Hustwayt (1363) CP 40/416 m. 128d is a case brought by the former employer of Elena de Hustwayt against Elena and a chaplain, William de Ramkill. Thomas claimed that Elena was his servant, employed under a contract for one year, but left his employ before that time was up, without permission and without reasonable cause, and was thus guilty of an offence under the Ordinance of Labourers. William de Ramkill was accused of having committed another offence against the same legislation, by hiring Elena while she was under contract to another employer. Rather than the usual denial of having been employed by Thomas on the terms which he had stated, however, Elena argued that she had had reasonable cause to leave.

It was certainly possible to argue ‘reasonable cause’ on the basis of excessive beating or failure to provide for a servant, and Putnam’s book has examples of both. Elena’s objection, however, was different: Thomas, who was, she stated ‘a married man’, had often pestered her for sex. (The Latin of the text is ‘frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam’ – which is rather intriguing in terms of ideas about gender, will and sexual consent, and I plan to consider it at greater length elsewhere). Thomas denied that she had left for this reason. It appears as though he is more concerned to question causation of her departure, rather than denying that there was such lecherous behaviour on his part, but this could be a result of common law pleading rules. In any case, he managed to convince a jury that she had left without cause, and that the pestering had not happened. So Elena’s defence failed, and she and William were held both to have damaged Thomas and also to have acted in contempt of the King (because of the breach of royal legislation). It is not very surprising that this was the outcome – juries, made up of local men of some property, were not at all inclined to find in favour of employees in these Labourers cases. It may, however, be rather unexpected – bearing in mind the general difficulty in securing any kind of redress for or recognition of sexual offences – to see pestering which apparently fell short of rape or attempted rape being acknowledged to be a possible ‘reasonable cause’ for a female servant to leave her position, which could absolve her from liability under the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Year Book report of this case, so there is no evidence of the sort of conversations which lawyers might have had about the acceptability of the plea. Nevertheless, it is another piece in the very complex puzzles of (a) the attitudes of medieval men towards medieval women and (b) the ‘position of medieval women’ (e.g. should we choose to play up Elena’s ‘agency’ or her claimed victimisation?), and I will certainly be looking out to see if I come across any other comparable cases.

Here is a free translation of the case:

William de Ramkill, chaplain, and Elena de Hustwayt, recently servant of Thomas de Queldale of York, cutler, are attached to respond both to the King and also to Thomas, in a plea of why, whereas the same King and his council, for the common utility of the King’s realm, ordained that if any servant of whatever status or condition, retained in anyone’s service, should leave the same service before the end of the contracted term, without reasonable cause, or permission, s/he should be punished with imprisonment, and that, under the same penalty, nobody should receive into their service or hire such a person, William retained Elena, who was in the service of Thomas, at York, and who had left the same service before the end of the contracted term, and without reasonable cause or permission, to go into the service of William, despite William having been asked to restore her to Thomas, in contempt of the King and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance. And of a plea why Elena left the service of Thomas before the end of the term contracted between them, without reasonable cause and his licence, to the contempt of the lord King and the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc. And, in connection with this, Thomas complains that whereas Elena, was retained at York on the eighth October, [1362], to serve Thomas from [11th November 1362] for the whole year following that, taking for her salary 12 shillings, and, before the end of the term, i.e. on [2nd June, 1363], without cause etc, left for the service of William, who took her on and retained her, in contempt of the lord King, and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc.

And William and Elena come in person, and deny all force and wrong etc. And William says that he did not take in and retain Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc., as is supposed above, and puts himself on the country as to this. Thomas does the same. And  Elena says that she accepts that she was retained to serve Thomas for the aforesaid term, but she says that Thomas is a married man and often tried to persuade her to let him have sex with her against her will (frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam) so, for this [good] reason, Elena left the service of Thomas. And she asks for judgment as to whether Thomas can maintain this action against her, in this case etc. And Thomas says that Elena left his service before the end of the contracted term, going into the service of William as counted above etc., and that she did not leave his service for the reason she alleges above. And he asks that it be enquired of by the country. And Elena does the same. So the sheriff is ordered to cause 12 [men] … [On we go through the process – pledges for Wiliiam and Elena’s appearance, the case goes off to York, to be heard at Easter time,  … we get to the jury] And the jury found that William had taken in and retained Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance, as supposed above, and that Elena left her service before the end of the contracted term, entering William’s service, without reasonable cause, and without the cause alleged by her, as Thomas complained above. And they assess Thomas’s damages caused by William’s admission and retention of Elena at 60s. Elena is amerced a mark for her [illegal] departure. Therefore it is decided that Thomas shall recover the aforesaid 60s damages against William, and 1 mark from Elena. [More process – we learn that William and Elena are to be arrested, and that William does pay Thomas the 60 s – in autumn 1369, via Thomas’s attorney, Robert de Acaster – and is acquitted. No word on Elena though.]


GS 27/05/2017


If you liked this, why not try:

B.H. Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the first decade after the Black Death, 1349-1359 (Columbia, 1908).

L.R. Poos, “The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement.” Law and History Review 1 (1983), 27-52.

R.C. Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law (Chapel Hill, 1993).

G.C. Seabourne, Royal Regulation of Loans and Sales in Medieval England: Monkish Superstition and Civil Tyranny (Woodbridge, 2003).

For concern about sexual misbehaviour from the other side, i.e. attempts to ensure that young employees behaved appropriately, see Rh. Sandy, ‘The us of indentures to control apprentices’ behaviour in medieval England’, Gotffennol  5 (2017), 23-26.



Medieval Labour Law: interesting defences


Not so long ago, I noted a fifteenth century case in which an employee alleged abusive behaviour on the part of a master (See 4th January, 2014). Here’s another little nugget, this time from the fourteenth century, and a period of particular employer-employee (or master/servant) tension during the reign of Richard II.

The King’s Bench roll for Trinity term 1389 (KB 27/5513 m. 25; AALT image 59) includes the case of John Clerc of London, saddler, brought to court under the labour laws of Edward III, accused of leaving his employment with John Somervylle, without reasonable cause or permission.  He was said to have left before the end of his one year contract.

Clerc alleged that he had had reason to leave – and the reason was an interesting variation on allegations of beating. He said that Somervylle had accused (or ‘defamed’) him of having slept with Somervylle’s wife, and this had resulted in Clerc being summoned before the ecclesiastical authorities in London, where he had purged himself (gone through the ecclesiastical form of proof of innocence). Somervylle had proceeded to stab Clerc in the chest, and, said Clerc, if the knife had not hit a bone, he would have been killed. He was, therefore, in his view, fully justified in leaving Somervylle’s employ.

Unsurprisingly, Somervylle denied everything, and so matters were sent to proof with a jury. Here, medieval legal records go silent. All we hear is that the jury found in favour of the master – perhaps because Clerc’s story was a pack of lies, perhaps because jurors chosen on the basis of their property were likely to side with a master rather than his servant. Still, Clerc must have thought that this story might work, which suggests that the scenario he came up with, if it wasn’t true, was at least a plausible course of events. And that says some interesting things about expectations of violence, intimate relations and reaction to adultery in fourteenth century England.

(Clerc was ordered to pay his former master the thumping sum of 100s 7 1/2 marks, and this offence also left him liable to imprisonment),

GS 10.3.2014

The trials of service in the fifteenth century

A record which throws an interesting sidelight on the life of servants in late medieval England is to be found in the Michaelmas 1421 plea roll of the King’s Bench (KB 27/642 m. 65d:

The case was from London. Margaret Sysand of London  tapster, was attached to answer the king and Joan Cokerell as to why, against the labour legislation, she had left Joan’s service while under contract. without reasonable cause or licence.  Joan had an attorney, but Margaret made her case in person, pleading that she did have a reasonable cause for leaving – Joan had grabbed her by the throat and would have suffocated her, if Margaret had not at once escaped from her. She had left to save her life. Joan, naturally, denied this, and the relevant authorities were instructed to put this issue to proof.

Whatever was the outcome, the record shows (i) that it did not seem entirely unreasonable to suggest that a mistress would be very violent with her employee and (ii) that if this attack did take place, it would be regarded as ‘reasonable cause’ for leaving employment.

GS 4/1/2014