Category Archives: land law

Regency Villas v Diamond Resorts [2018] UKSC 57 Easements in the Supreme Court: a few thoughts

Now, where were we? Sporting and recreational easements, some weird assumptions about general familiarity with golf courses …

Not one of its more earth-shattering judgments, and no more dodgy golf-focused worldviews in evidence, but the Supreme Court has now brought this long-running case to an end, to the delight of Land Law text book writers and law students studying this particular part of compulsory Land Law units.

The judgment came out (I refuse to use the slimily deferential ‘handed down’ and am not sufficiently down with the kids to say that it was ‘dropped’, despite the involvement of the so-called ‘Beyonce of the Law’ in the case …) in November 2018, and can be found (alongside summaries) via

Law students will be delighted to learn that the SC did not come up with a unanimous view – I know you love it when they disagree and you have to get to grips with the differences! Lady Hale, Lord Kerr and  Lord Sumption agreed with Lord Briggs, whilst Lord Carnwath did not, and gave his views in a dissent at the end.

The overall result was that the appeal was dismissed: the argument that the recreational rights in question could not be easements did not find favour with the SC. It is, therefore clear that it will not be a sufficient challenge to a claimed easement to say ‘it can’t be an easement: it’s recreational’. So far, so unsurprising. The case also shows that the scope of allowable recreational easements is being stretched to include rights beyond walking and using the servient tenement as a garden, and also (at least on the facts of this case) to include the use of a wide array of facilities not in existence, perhaps not contemplated, at the time of grant.  It illustrates the lack of ‘teeth’ of the classic ‘requirement’ of accommodation of a dominant tenement and the ‘non-ouster’ idea which has arisen under the heading of ‘lying in grant’.

Much turns on the convoluted history of the land in question and on the wording of transfers. Lord Briggs gives a summary, (from [3] onwards).

In 1981, at the time of a key transfer, facilities in the alleged ST included:

  • golf course
  • outdoor heated swimming pool
  • three squash courts
  • two tennis courts
  • a restaurant, billiard/snooker room and TV room
  • gymnasium, including sauna and solarium
  • Italianate gardens
  • putting green
  • croquet lawn
  • outdoor jacuzzi/spa pool
  • ice/roller skating rink
  • platform tennis courts
  • a soft ball court (sic – softball?)
  • riding stables.


There were some difficulties and changes. In particular, the pool was closed and filled in. An indoor pool replaced the gymnasium. The putting green, croquet lawn, jacuzzi/spa pool and roller skating rink were closed and the riding stables demolished. The number of timeshare appartment was increased substantially. A dispute arose as to the rights of the timeshare owners to use the facilities without charge. The dispute took legal shape in the main issue of whether they had an easement or easements to use the facilities on the ‘ST’.

At first instance, the answer was that they did have easements. In the Court of Appeal, that was upheld in a general sense, though there was some variation in terms of the content of the easements: there was a net reduction, with the removal of rights to the new swimming pool and facilities in the basement of the mansion house. In the SC, the ‘servient owners’ sought a decision that none of the alleged rights were easements, and the ‘dominant owners’ wanted to hear that all of them were (i.e. that there were easements in relation to both ‘existing’ and ‘post-transfer’ facilities).

Lord Briggs’s account continued with a run through the familiar ‘rules’ as to which rights may be easements, referring to Re Ellenborough Park, and the source for its fourfold test, Cheshire’s textbook (that’s IMPACT for you, REF fans). Singled out for discussion are ‘accommodation’ and ‘ouster’. The idea that ‘accommodation’ is a useful criterion has never convinced me. Except in ‘land support’ cases, it really is a matter of value judgment. The strategy of many writers and judges is to say what sort of thing does not accommodate (usually with a reference to cricket grounds, about which we are all, naturally, well-informed: tiresome cultural assumptions) and to make not-terribly-helpful statements about the matter being one of facts, context etc. etc. Following this pattern, Lord Briggs [40] gives us some mention of the Oval and makes it clear that accommodation is only ‘in a sense’ a legal concept, and mostly a question of fact [43].

Having slightly ducked defining ‘accommodation’, he goes on to decide whether ‘recreational and sporting rights’ such as those in issue here, can be ruled out as not ‘accommodating’ (whatever that may mean) [44]. This is an important point: does it matter that a claimed right amounts to ‘an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (ie to the more enjoyable or full use of the dominant tenement)’. One would imagine that it might. But not so. Because the mode of tenure of the DT at a particular time is to be fed into the calculation of accommodation – so because these were (at the moment) timeshare appartments, the right to use sporting and recreational facilities on adjacent land (whatever they may be at any given time) accommodated them in such a way as to justify a permanent right. [53] No argument of proportionality, nor tails wagging dogs, was to defeat this [54]. It does seem a significant reduction in the utility of the ‘accommodation’ criterion – but then a fairly vacuous criterion can be given whatever meaning we desire. Perhaps people should be able to make whatever deal they wish, to burden their land to whatever extent they wish. If so, however, we should stop pretending that property principles impose definite limits.

Lord Briggs did not consider that the rights amounted to an ouster of the servient owner, depite the suggestion that the dominant owner might have ‘step in’ rights to come in and manage and maintain the facilities if the servient owner did not [62]. Nor did the argument that classing the rights in issue as easements would impose obligations on the servient owner, in the view of Lord Briggs, hold water [66].

He recognised that this was something of an extension to the concept of an easement, but thought that the law ought to allow it. One argument in favour was that the ‘common law should, as far as possible, accommodate itself to new types of property ownership and new ways of enjoying the use of land’ [76]. This, of course, means being open to intensification of the use of land. It is interesting to consider how such a ‘principle’ (which also underpins Making Land Work) interacts with ideas of public good, planning and environmental concerns. Secondly [77] he notes developments in other common law jurisdictions which have indeed allowed some extension to recreational easements (though not obviously involving the sort of intensive artificial and perhaps environmentally harmful management required to maintain a  golf course).

Part of the route to arriving at approval of these rights as easements involved going against the Court of Appeal’s approach of ‘unbundling’ the various rights and treating them as separate, depending on date of creation of the relevant facilities, amongst other criteria. Instead, Lord Briggs reverts [85] to the first instance policy of treating them as a bundle of rights over such facilities as exist on the ST at any given time. This avoids potential issues of futurity and perpetuity (at which we may breathe a sigh of relief) but does also introduce some new artificiality, in creating the idea of rights associated with a country club [89]. Is there an agreed list of such rights? Not being likely ever to be associated with such an organisation, I would not know, but would suggest that there might be arguments around the edges.

Lord Carnwath dissents from paragraph 94 onwards. He is concerned about the extent of the imposition on the ST: [95] …’An easement is a right to do something, or to prevent something, on another’s land; not to have something done… The intended enjoyment of the rights granted in this case, most obviously in the case of the golf course and swimming-pool, cannot be achieved without the active participation of the owner of those facilities in their provision, maintenance and management. … Thus the doing of something by the servient owner is an intrinsic part of the right claimed.’ He is not convinced that the authorities cited justify the extension required to make easements from the rights claimed [96]: ‘In effect what is claimed is not a simple property right, but permanent membership of a country club.’ He also makes light work of the ‘non-ouster’ conclusion [102] and expresses concern at the potential extent of ‘future’ rights over the ST [109-114]. All of this seems very fair comment to me.

Anyway, the decision has been made. The climate seems to be in favour of expansion of the sorts of rights which can be easements. It will be interesting to see how far this stretches. Does recreation have to be ‘active’? Could it in fact involve spectating at sporting events (and allow us to put an end to the tedious cricket examples …)? And why should somebody be allowed a right to play golf free of charge on the ST, but not be allowed an easement to have a lovely (and golfer-free) view over it? Is the positive/negative distinction above challenge, if ‘accommodation’ can be reduced to this feeble level?


Disclaimer – these are my own musings, not legal advice, and subject to revision (except the negative views of cricket and golf, which will be with me until my last breath).

Don’t estop me now: credibility and comments on intelligence

-Warning: explicit Land Law content. If you do not want to read musings on land law, stop right now …

James v James [2018] EWHC 43 (Ch)

Having had a year away from land law teaching, I am catching up on recent cases, including this one on proprietary estoppel (as well as testamentary capacity). I am not going to say anything about the actual legal points, despite the fact that this is what I am supposed to be preparing, but will comment on another interesting aspect of the approved judgment: a tendency to elaborate upon and explain the decision making process in terms of views about individuals (I think of this as the Eggheads tendency – after the quiz show where people can’t just say the answer is b, they have to ‘talk us through’ the thought-process which has led to that conclusion).

There is detailed discussion of  various witnesses:  HHJ Paul Matthews does not restrict himself to saying he believes X or believes X more than Y, and some of this material seems to go beyond credibility and into intelligence or education. For example, one of the major characters was, the judge found,  ‘a slow but clear witness. He was not good at reading. He was dogmatic, sometimes rather contrary, and not good at following legal reasoning’. [8] And ‘For the most part, I think that [S.] had convinced himself that he was in the right, and interpreted all the material available to him in a way which demonstrated that he was. In some cases, I am afraid I think he went further, and told me things that were simply not true.’[9] Some of this is honesty/credibility-related, but calling somebody ‘slow’ and criticising their reading seems to go beyond that.


In relation to a group of female witnesses, the judge shared his impressions at [11] that two were ’quiet and calm’. One ‘rather shy but clear and straightforward, but another, while she ‘gave evidence in a quiet tone’ also ‘ avoided eye contact and her body language suggested internal conflict.’  Some material for consideration of appropriate female witness behaviour there, I think – plus signs of great self confidence on the judge’s part of his ability to ‘read’ mental state from ‘body language’. I am not entirely convinced that has a place in an official account like this. Another ‘good’ female witness was ‘loyal.. to her husband,’ but ‘distressed by the litigation and wanted it to be over’ [12]. Yet another female witness was ‘a slow witness, with clear, trenchant views’ [13].


In relation to an older female witness, there is some doubt, but it is not expressed in quite such critical terms: [14] ‘[S.J.], … although she often took her time to answer, was clear and decisive when she did. Despite her advancing years, she was generally very much on the ball. But she was confused as to [a particular point]. On the other hand, she had little or no trouble in following accounts. It is plain that she had a head for business. Sometimes her answer was that she could not remember things, though I noted that that was the answer more often given when the question was a difficult one, not susceptible of a simple answer in her side’s favour. She also appeared confused about [another point]. Her answers did not square with what she said in her witness statement…. I have accepted her evidence without reserve where corroborated by other independent evidence, but otherwise with more caution.’ The first part of this sounds a bit like ‘She’s marvellous, considering …’ – a little patronising?


Also interesting is the decision of the judge to mention his views as to the competence and intelligence of a female solicitor in the case: ‘She struck me as a highly competent, intelligent solicitor …’ [16] while in  dealing with a male solicitor-witness, [17], there was, apparently, no need to affirm his intelligence. Likewise the male experts were ‘as one would expect … highly professional’ [18]. Might have been best avoided?


Clearly, the format of a civil trial requires a judge to make decisions about credibility, and comments on parties are not new, but I do wonder how it helps to hear that the judge does not rate a party’s speed of thought, and whether the study of ‘body language’ is now a respected and scientific subject, taught at judge school.

For a contrasting approach, see another proprietary estoppel case, Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch), in which the judge is much less … well … judgey about individuals, and almost entirely sticks to saying which evidence he prefers on particular points. We don’t learn who is intelligent and who is ‘slow’, and yet it doesn’t detract from our understanding …  [no idea why this bit has gone red!]

Park up your troubles: newspaper coverage of neighbour dispute cases

Land law thoughts: warning – almost completely not about Legal History!

Two areas of legal interest which are more frequently covered by the right wing press than the rest of what used to be called ‘Fleet Street’ are (i) succession (when there is a family dispute); and (ii) neighbour disputes. I think there’s a Ph.D. or at least a dissertation for somebody on the way these are covered, but until it appears, here is a start in pulling together some thoughts on the neighbour disputes ones, prompted by a report in this morning’s Mail:

The case involved use of a parking space at a property in Berkshire. If the owner parked in a particular part of the space, that restricted or denied access to the neighbouring property’s back garden.

As it’s the Daily Mail, and I have read a number of such articles there, I was not surprised to see the piece highlighting the following:

  • The amount of money spent on legal action (£120,000)
  • The length of the dispute (10 years)
  • Descriptions of the disputed land: ‘a 30 inch parking space’ (imperial, obviously) and ‘a thin strip of concrete’ (concrete – a bit modern and insignificant). In fact, although it almost suggests this is an ownership issue, it isn’t: it’s an easement case.
  • A kick for lawyers, even though the piece also makes it clear that it could have been settled amicably, and the parties are ‘stubborn pensioners’ (not quite on-brand there, Daily Mail) who have engaged in ‘bickering’ and a ‘frenzy’ of legal action. The implication seems to be that lawyers encouraged the legal action (those ‘pettifogging’ slurs go deep into history) even though I would be very surprised if lawyers involved in such a case did not try and encourage the parties to come to a sensible agreement.
  • Legal bills described as ‘eye watering’ – without any context as to what was provided by the lawyers (over ten years?). It may be that they over-charged, but it isn’t possible to tell from this. The disproportion is really between the value of the land/right in question and the amount of money: and unless the evil lawyers were forcing the parties to litigate against all reason, that’s hardly their fault.
  • A photograph of the ‘winner’, who gets the right to use the path: pictured with a walking aid, though, in fact, according to the story, he does not live at the property, but rents it out. In a way, this makes the story look like ‘nasty people stop mobility-impaired man using access to his house’, when it is more ‘people use car space in a way which potentially reduces financial gain on second home’.
  • Extra facts – the applicant ‘lives with his wife’ in an ‘impressive £1.5 million 5 bedroomed house in nearby village of Cookham. The losing respondents, however, had moved down South from Scotland. This may help the DM reader to decide who is the more sympathetic ‘stubborn pensioner’ in the dispute.

A more legal explanation (including the fact that it’s about easements and prescription – lost modern grants, Prescription Act and all that getting an airing) can be seen at:

This is the judgment of the Land Registration Tribunal. Here, we have metric measurements (the horror!) and some ‘nice points’ about exactly how acquiescence is to be understood (still a bit unsatisfactory, it seems to me, but let’s leave that for now), but  almost no criticism of lawyers (it does in fact speak of solicitors ‘taking up the cudgels’ after initial disputes between the parties (para 12) – which seems a little unnecessarily fighting talk-ish). Nothing about Scotland, or the applicant’s ‘impressive’ home.

Lots to compare and contrast, and the makings of an interesting study, if more examples were included.

Shaming and sheep (Baa baa black … ram?)

Reading some early modern material, in the (forlorn) hope that I might find something useful on tenancy by the curtesy (a recent obsession), I came across more than one reference to a strange procedure allegedly used in relation to free-bench (the equivalent to dower, for land held by ‘unfree tenure’, according to various manorial customs.

The procedure was allegedly used in cases in which a widow, who would, in the usual course of things, be entitled to free-bench, had had an illegitimate child after her husband’s death. ‘Incontinence’ (and, indeed, remarriage) would often mean that she lost the right. But there was, apparently, a way out: all she had to do was present herself in the manor court, riding (possibly backwards) on a (possibly black) ram, (possibly holding its tail) and reciting the following verse:

“Here I am

Riding upon the back of a black ram,

Like a whore as I am;

And for my Crincum Crancum

I have lost my Binkum Bankum;

And for my tail’s game

Have done this worldly shame;

Therefore pray, Mr Steward, let me have my land again.”


This would, so we are told, act as condign penance, and she would not be forfeited.

The sources in which I have seen this are 17th and 18th C, and the procedure is sometimes linked to particular manors in Berkshire, Devon and ‘parts of the West’. [See, e.g., Anon., A Treatise of femes coverts or the Lady’s Law (London, 1732), 128; G. Jacob, A New Law Dictionary 6th ed. (London, 1750) under ‘free bench’; G. Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature vol. I (London, 1994), 333].

Is this just ‘horrible legal history’ or was it really ‘a thing’? It does chime in with various rough music and carnivalesque/misrule practices, but it is hard to see that performing a humiliating verse in this manner would have been thought to cancel out the ‘shame’ of producing an illegitimate child, evidence of sexual misbehaviour by a widow which was frequently seen as serious and deserving of severe property consequences. (And is it actually possible to ride backwards on a ram?) Early modern England – bit of a mystery.



Mysterious goings-on in Clerkenwell

The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: .

Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.

The scene:

Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary

The cast:

The prioress

The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)

The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)

The modern reader

The plot:

The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.

The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.




References and reading

The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website:

If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922)  (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)

A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …



Dying of a broken heart (due to loss of land): taking advantage of the unwell in thirteenth century Devon

Earlier this month, I blogged about a case of land-fraud in medieval Yorkshire, involving people taking advantage of a woman who was physically and mentally incapable, forging a charter and taking her land, only for her to recover and take great pains to sort things out:

Today, I came across another fraudulent charter case with some nuggets about medieval health, health-care, attitudes to the unwell and ideas about causation in relation to health. It is from the other end of England, from Devon, and from a slightly earlier period than the Agnes Bertram case.

The case appears in a roll of the eyre of Devon 1269 (JUST 1/178 m. 20; ).

John son of John v. Walter de Fraunckenney is a case concerning some land and a mill on Dartmoor. John (we will call him John II) said that this land had previously been held of his father (John I) by one Henry de Fraunckenney. According to John II, the land should have come back to him (escheat), because Henry had died without a legitimate heir.

Walter argued that John’s case could not stand, because he had got the story, and the chain of land relationships, wrong – in fact, Henry had not held the land at the time of his death, but had transferred it to Walter some two years before his death.  He had a charter which showed this transfer (feoffment).

The jurors confirmed that Henry had held the land of John I, father of John II, but that, when Henry was ill (langwidus) and lying on his sick-bed, in Dorset, Walter (who was Henry’s bailiff there) had used a maid (or maiden? The word is domicella), who was looking after (custodiebat) Henry, and who attended him diligently/constantly (assidue) made the charter of feoffment, without Henry’s knowledge. Walter had then come to the land in question and had shown the charter to Henry’s bailiff there, one Michael, demanding to be let in. Michael did not let him in, however, not having had an order to that effect from Henry, his lord.  Walter went in anyway and started taking the oaths of fealty of the villeins on the land.  Henry knew nothing about this at the time, but rumour of it reached him, and he was so grieved (tantum angustiabatur pro dolore) that he died at once. The jurors were asked how long before Henry’s death Walter’s intrusion had gone on, and they said it had persisted for a third of a year. They were also asked about the charter’s provenance, and said that it had not been made in the proper open, legal, manner.

(There may be further stages to locate, as the case was sent for judgment to Westminster, though I have not found them yet).

Apart from the intrinsic interest of seeing the infinite variety of people’s bad behaviour, the case shows, again, one of the potential vulnerabilities of the medieval system of land transfer and proof of right: charters could be forged. There would appear to have been a particular opportunity to do this here, given (a) Henry’s infirmity and (b) his absence from the land in question. It also gives a glimpse into the sick-room, showing the constant attendance on Henry of the maid (even if she did turn out to be a wrong ‘un). I am interested by the word ‘custodiebat’: I have translated it as ‘looked after’ but it could also have a more, well, custodial, or controlling, aspect to it. Most fascinatingly, in one throw-away line, the jurors tell us that they think sudden death could be caused (at least to one already ‘languishing’) by grief at being cheated out of one’s land. This path from economic loss to very bad health also turned up in the case of the unfortunate furiosus noted in

and strikes me as worth further consideration.



Land, fraud and vulnerability in medieval Yorkshire

Just in case anyone is not convinced that medieval land cases are worth the bother, here’s a tale of fairly outrageous behaviour from Yorkshire, found in a plea roll of the eyre of 1293-4 (JUST 1/1084 m. 48; AALT image 4715; ), which might have something of interest for those looking at several different aspects of medieval history.

The record tells us that the Prioress of Yedingham (a Benedictine house) had previously appeared before the royal justices by attorney and claimed some land on behalf of her foundation, from Agnes daughter of Raph Bertram. Agnes had defaulted and the Prioress had been awarded seisin (more or less possession in this context) of the land. This was thought to be a little fishy, and possibly a collusive transfer, done in this way to get around Edward I’s legislation against transfers into ‘mortmain’. The mischief being fought in this legislation was the sort of transfer which meant that lords would lose the windfalls they usually received in connection with the normal human lifecycle (death, marriage, wardship): i.e. transfers to the ‘dead hand’ of an ecclesiastical institution. One way of trying to do this without being obvious about it would be by pretending to have lost the land to the transferee in a legal case, rather than making a straightforward transfer. To find out what had happened in this case, an inquiry was to be held, and 12 jurors were sworn to tell the truth of the matter.

They said that the land had indeed been lost by agreement and collusion, then went on to tell a rather strange tale. Agnes had been unwell (infirmabatur) for six months before the enactment of ‘the statute’ (this might refer to the Statute of Mortmain 1279, but more likely to mean the statute Quia Emptores 1290, which also dealt with mortmain). The description of the illness is no more specific than that, but the effect of it is stated to be that she was not in good mental health: quasi non compos mentis sue. During this period, a clerk with whom (they said) she used to sleep came and found her in that state, and at once had her taken away from her own land to another house. Once there, he made a charter in Agnes’s name, then used that to transfer Agnes’s land to the predecessor of the current Prioress.  Afterwards, Agnes returned to full mental health (revenit ad statum suum). A servant (ancilla) who was living with her told her what had happened. As soon as Agnes heard and understood this, she had herself put in what seems to be a basket (in quodam corbello; I assume this is a slightly unusual twist on corbis, and it certainly makes more sense than my initial guess of ‘crow’…] and had herself taken to the manor of one Richard de Breaus, chief lord of the tenement. Richard reseised her of the land, which she held for three years before the collusive action with the new Prioress.

There seem to be some annoying gaps in the narrative here. What was the naughty clerk’s game? Was the business with a basket a way of concealing herself and escaping from the house to which she had been taken (in the manner of St Paul in Acts 9) or was she physically incapacitated and unable to move without being carried?  And why, after making heroic efforts to get the land back, would Agnes arrange to transfer it to the priory in any case? I hope she was being well paid, either in temporal or spiritual currency, not being bullied out of it. Still – despite the usual holes, there is some good material in this case on mental health and ideas about it, on the vulnerability of those in ill-health, but also on the possibility of recovery of mind and determination to get back control of land out of which one had been cheated.





Truth and (a sort of) reconciliation? Scenes from a medieval Suffolk marriage

A plea roll record of a land case from the end of the reign of Edward I gives an interesting view of medieval marriage (or one particular medieval marriage at least), gender and families of different types.

JUST 1/1323 m 77d sets out an assize case heard by Retford and Spigurnel, justices of assize in various southern counties of England, in summer 1303 (with updates until 1304). It concerned land in Suffolk, in Somersham and Nettlestead, and the question was whether Ralph Norreys and his associates had been within their rights to eject John Dunning from the land, or whether John had the better right to hold the land, so that their actions had been an unjust ‘disseisin’ (more or less ‘dispossession’).

Both men’s cases involved telling the story of dealings with the land in recent times, so as to establish their family connection and right to it. Part of this story was the tale of the marriage of Alan de Bosco and Agnes Norreys. Putting together the story they told and the facts found by the jurors, this is what happened … (and yes, usual warnings about not believing everything which appears in the record applies, but there is no obvious reason to doubt this) …

Alan was married to Agnes when he (at least) was below the age of majority (this was 14 for boys, and the jurors say, very precisely, that he was 13 years and 7 weeks old at the time). They lived together for a short period – quarter of a year – and then Alan suddenly left, going off to Cambridge for three years. While he was away, Agnes took service with Robert, parson of the church of ‘Flokton’ (Flixton?). Robert and Agnes had a child, William. Then Alan came back from Cambridge. As soon as she found that he was back in Suffolk, Agnes went to Alan’s house, with the infant William, but Alan would not let her in, and swore that William was not his son, since, so he said, he had never had sex with Agnes. Agnes then sent William back to Robert, who acknowledged him as his son. Afterwards, Agnes went straight back to Alan, who took her back in as his wife kindly (benigne) and in due course, they had a child, called Geoffrey.

The key issue for the land case was whether or not William was Alan’s son. To cut a long story short, Ralph traced his right through William while John traced his through Geoffrey. If William was not Alan’s son, Ralph would have no chance of success. Although that might seem an easy legal issue, if this story is the truth, or something like it, there were complications. The rules about legitimacy, and who was to be regarded as a man’s legitimate son, were not entirely biological. In a world which had no blood or DNA testing, a lot of reliance had to be placed on probability, reputation and presumption. The starting point was that, if a child was born during the course of a marriage, then that child was the legitimate child of the spouses (with associated property rights after the death of the parents). As the common lawyers charmlessly, and repeatedly, put it ‘Whoever bulls the cow, the calf is yours’ – meaning that, even if a wife had been impregnated by somebody else, the child would be presumed to be the husband’s legitimate issue. The presumption could be rebutted, however, if it was completely impossible for the husband to be the father – e.g. if he had been imprisoned abroad for years and came back to find a child. Thus careful questions were put to the jurors to ascertain whether Alan had come back from Cambridge during the three years, or whether Agnes might have gone to meet him somewhere. Apparently not. They were also asked about local opinion – who was reputed to be William’s father (answer: Robert and not Alan). Things would seem to have been going John’s way, on the whole, though clearly this was not as watertight an ‘impossibility’ case as the ‘husband abroad in prison’ scenario. But here the legal procedure ground to a halt, and all there is is a series of additional ‘court dates’ and an instruction to the judges to get on with it. It may be that there was some uncertainty as to whether John had managed to rebut the presumption of legitimacy. Leading common lawyers had been prepared to accept some fairly fanciful suggestions as to how an apparently distant husband might have managed to father a legitimate child, in a case from an earlier term in the same year (Seipp 1304.027rs; ) opining that he might have come to the county in which the wife lived, by night, without anyone knowing, so that John might not have been regarded as ‘home and dry’. I hope to track down more on this litigation, but it may take some time.

As interesting as the legal point, if not more so, is the ‘social’ material here. The early marriage is not particularly surprising, perhaps, nor the young husband’s departure (did he go to Cambridge University? I am put in mind of the folk song ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ …) but what happened afterwards is less predictable. We cannot know anything about the willingness or otherwise of Agnes in relation to the sexual relationship with Robert the parson, but we can say (i) that it seems to have been well-known in the area; and (ii) that Robert was willing to acknowledge William as his son, and take him in. William would go on to have descendants of his own. The reconciliation of Agnes and Alan is fascinating: she was prepared to give up her child and he was prepared to take her back if she did so, despite the fact that all the neighbours knew him to be a ‘cuckold’. No pressure from the Church seems to have been involved. It seems to me that this story has interesting things to say about medieval men, women and communities, and the importance of engaging with initially off-putting and ‘dry’ sources like land law cases, if we want to learn all we can about medieval families and attitudes.



Almaric, (not quite) the Champion of the World

A Year Book report of a Common Pleas case of Easter term 1364 YB Pasch. 38 Edw. III pl. 16 f. 10b (Seipp 1364.046) can be identified with the plea roll record: Abbot of St Peter of Gloucester v. Almaric le Botiller CP 40/ 417 m. 111. Here, Almaric was accused of having trespassed against the Abbot’s rights by going into some of land in Gloucestershire in which he had rights of free warren (a species of exclusive property right in certain animals located there), and taking away his rabbits, hares, partridges and pheasants.

Almaric denied most of the accusation, and made an interesting defence in relation to the hunting and retrieval from the Abbot’s land of a pheasant, saying that the pheasant had originally been on Almaric’s own land, when the falcon (in the record, it’s a sparrowhawk) was loosed to chase it, but the pheasant had retreated to the Abbot’s land, and the falcon had followed and killed it there; Almaric had gone in to retrieve his falcon’s prey. This defence seems to show that there would only be a warren trespass offence if the hunt had begun within the Abbot’s warren. The Abbot’s next plea seems to confirm that, since it argues that the pheasant was within the warren when the falcon was set on it. It was this issue of the pheasant’s starting point which was arrived at as the matter to put before a jury,although Knyvet, a Common Pleas judge, observed that, wherever the unfortunate pheasant had begun, Almaric’s entry into the land to retrieve it would have put him in the wrong.

Clearly, the answer would have been further training of the sparrowhawk to get it to bring its prey back to the falconer. Almaric could then have stood outside the warren, waiting for the abbot’s pheasants to stray, hunt them with his trusty sparrowhawk and cause no end of annoyance to the man of God.

GS 31/5/2017

A Liverpool Elopement

An issue I looked at in a couple of articles, and which remains of interest to me, is the use of allegations of elopement and adultery to oppose medieval widows’ attempts to claim dower (a life interest in an allotted proportion of land), following the death of their husbands. When a widow made a dower claim in a common law court, those holding the land could form an ‘exception’ to the widow’s claim based on c.34 of the Statute of Westminster II (1285), arguing that the widow’s action should not be allowed, because, during her former husband’s life, she had left him of her own free will, and had gone to live with the adulterer, and there had not been a freely agreed reconciliation between husband and wife before the husband’s death.

This area is important from both legal and social history points of view. Legally, it illustrates the difficulties lawyers saw in applying a statutory provision with a number of sub clauses (on leaving, staying away, and there not having been a voluntary reconciliation), within the rules of the game of common law pleading (with all the delights of general and special pleading, and such splendid vocabulary as traverses, demurrers, rejoinders and surrejoinders). This was not just a clever intellectual pastime, however: the conclusions which lawyers reached as to exactly what each side had to allege and prove could have a great impact on the chances of a widow obtaining the important resources of dower, to support herself in widowhood, or to bring to a new marriage. One issue which could have an important impact was that of the widow who had left not of her own free will – having been abducted or forced out. If she later lived with another man, did that mean that the c.34 exception could be used, or was it necessary, in order to succeed under c.34, for her opponent to be able to say both that she had left of her own free will and also that she had then lived in adultery?

Another possible argument about the correct use of c.34 was whether it was necessary to allege that the wife had left the husband with her adulterer (rather than just having left him, and then later on lived with ‘her adulterer’): the Latin of the chapter leaves both possibilities open. A Lancashire case which I have recently found in the Common Pleas plea roll for Hillary term 1363 Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool v. Robert de Sefton,  Margery his wife and another,  CP 40/413 m. 193, gives an example of use of the exception without suggesting that the wife left with ‘her adulterer’. A free translation follows:



Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool, pleaded against Robert de Sefton and Margery his wife, for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in Liverpool, and against Hugh son of William le Clerk of Liverpool for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in the same vill, as her dower, from the endowment of her former husband, Thomas.

And Robert and Margery and Hugh, by John de Blakeburn, their attorney, said that the same Maria should not have dower in these tenements, because they said that, long before the said Thomas, former husband etc. died, the said Maria had eloigned herself from her husband, and lived with William de Maghell, chaplain, her adulterer, in adultery, in Liverpool in the same county, without ever being reconciled with her said husband, from whom she is claiming dower etc., and they are ready to prove this, and ask for judgment etc.

And Maria said that she should not be excluded from her action by virtue of this allegation, because, at the time of the death of the said Thomas, and long before, she was living with him, and reconciled without the coercion of Holy Church. And she prays that this be inquired of, and the said Robert, Margery and Hugh similarly. So the sheriff is ordered to make 12 [jurors] come etc., by whom etc., a month after Easter, to [swear to the truth] etc.”


Aside from its legal interest in terms of the elements of pleading, two further points are worth mentioning. First, it is noteworthy that the alleged ‘other man’ is a chaplain: a great deal of suspicion seems to have existed in relation to the sexual mores of chaplains, with their supposed celibacy and their privileged access to women, and this is not the only chaplain/adultery case in the c.34 jurisprudence (see, e.g., CP 40/192 m. 233d), Secondly, the idea that a woman might leave her husband to live with another man for a time, and then might be reconciled – whether or not true in this case, it must at least have seemed a plausible set of circumstances – raises some interesting queries with regard to medieval marriage and gender relations. As the statute itself suggested, it does seem that at least some medieval men might be prepared to forgive and take back their wives, and we see this being claimed here. Why might men do this? The statute suggests that some reconciliations were achieved through the Church’s coercion of the husband. The coercion of others – family, neighbours – would be another possibility. But it is also conceivable that at least some strands of medieval thought took a rather less ‘once lost, always lost’ (T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, c. XV!) view of chastity than would come to be the case in later eras.

GS 22/5/2017.


See on this area of medieval law:

P. Brand, ‘“Deserving” and “undeserving” wives: earning and forfeiting dower in medieval England’, Journal of Legal History, 22 (2001), 1-20.

G. Seabourne, ‘Copulative complexities: the exception of adultery in medieval dower actions’. in M. Dyson and D. Ibbetson (eds), Law and Legal Process: substantive law and legal process in English Legal History (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), 34-55.

G. Seabourne, ‘Coke, the statute, wives and lovers: routes to a harsher interpretation of the Statute of Westminster II c. 34 on dower and adultery’, Legal Studies 34 (2014), 123-42.