Category Archives: medieval

Licence, Denial and Disobedience: a ravishment case from fifteenth-century Oxfordshire

Today I tracked down the Plea Roll entry corresponding to Anon. (1461) YB Mich. 1 Edw. IV pl. 2 f.1a; Seipp 1461.018: the King’s Bench report, Thomas Wilcotes v John Newers, can be found at KB 27/802 m. 43. It is a ‘ravishment of wife and goods’ case, in which the plaintiff is complaining that the defendant has taken away both his wife and also some of his goods. The offence was well-established, having been introduced under Edward I, and there are many examples of its use in medieval plea rolls, although there is debate as to what we should understand ravishment or raptus to mean in this context. Much attention has been paid to the idea that a proportion of these cases might, in fact, have been consensual on the part of the wife, who wanted to leave her husband. Wilcotes v. Newers is relevant to the idea of consent – but it is the consent of the husband which is alleged, not that of the wife.

The story, briefly, is that Eleanor, wife of Thomas Wilcotes, had been taken away from his house and kept for an unspecified period at the house of her kinsman, John Newers.  Wilcotes alleged that this taking was against his will, (and also listed a number of items which he said had gone missing with his wife) but Newers had a different version of events: he said that Wilcotes and his wife had been at odds for some time, and Wilcotes had given him permission to take Eleanor away to his (John’s) house, and to try and encourage and cajole her to be obedient to her husband. As far as Newers was concerned, he had done nothing which was against the law, since he had this permission. Wilcotes’s side had tried to argue that, even if there had been permission, Newers would still have been guilty of an offence, but this did not seem to go down well with the court, and so the issue which would go to the jury was whether or not there had in fact been a granting of permission by Wilcotes to Newers.

What I am going to say next will be all too familiar to those who have had dealings with plea rolls: it is not clear what the end result was. The entry peters out after listing steps taken to have the case tried in Oxfordshire, where there were problems with finding an appropriate jury, and noting that it was to come back to King’s Bench, and, so far, I have not found any sign of later episodes (though Thomas Wilcotes is involved in litigation with another Newers in 1462).

Even so, having this much is very interesting. Whether or not Wilcotes had given Newers any sort of licence or encouragement to become involved, it is notable that it seemed a plausible story that a kinsman might be brought in in this way, and might hold and pressurise his kinswoman to be obedient to her husband. This suggests an interesting collaboration between men in enforcing women’s obedience, and at the same time it is based on the idea that some husbands are not capable of keeping their wives appropriately subservient: so there is a rather equivocal message here about the situation of women (nothing new there then). There are also some good comparisons to be made between the information in the two different documents, Year Book and Plea Roll, and I hope to have time to include these in a paper I am writing for a fast-approaching conference in Swansea in June.

To go back to the story, I would really like to know why Thomas Wilcotes brought the case: was the story about planning and permission a lie – or did the plan just make an unhappy marriage even worse, leading him to lash out in frustration against his partner in the failed Operation Make My Wife Do What I Want?

GS 12th May, 2017

Adultery and violence in the medieval West Midlands

Here’s a case I found in a roll relating to theWorcestershire trailbaston sessions of 1306 (JUST 1/1032), when looking for something else entirely – so interesting it deserved a blog post.

On m. 4d (AALT image 2700), we are told that Johanna, wife of Edmund Sneed was indicted for having gouged out (extraxit) the eyes of Christiana daughter of Thomas de la Twychene at Hampton Lovett. The sheriff of Worcestershire had been ordered to have Edmund and Johanna before the Justices ‘to respond to the King for this trespass’, but he had to report that Edmund had not been found. The coroner and several credible members of the county community gave evidence that Edmund was on his way to the Curia in Rome. Johanna came, though, and was asked how she wished to plead to the trespass. She said that she was not guilty and submitted to a trial by jury.

Many medieval records are less than expansive after this point in proceedings, but, here we get some interesting material from the jury, rather than the all-too-frequent blank ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. It is reported that the jury said Edmund Sneed had been involved in an adulterous liaison with Christiana (tenuit … in adulterio) and often withdrew himself from  Johanna, beat and mistreated her, and moved her from the house in Worcestershire to another house he had in Warwickshire. There seems to have been a partial reconciliation, since they said that Johanna came back to Edmund and lived with him at Hampton Lovett, but Edmund was still involved with Christiana. Johanna was said to be aggrieved and provoked (gravata et commota) by this state of affairs (as it were) that, on a day which the jury could not specify, but which was in the year 30 Edward I (i.e. 1301-2), she asked Christiana around to Edmund’s house to discuss the adultery. Christiana came as requested, but rather than a civilised discussion of their situation, a fight broke out between them. Johanna is said to have hit Christiana and put out her eyes. (I am a bit puzzled as to exactly how to imagine that happening: surely actually removing somebody’s eyes requires something other than a blow? How inappropriate would it be to ask about this next time I am at the Eye Infirmary?)

The jury also felt moved to say that Edmund and Johanna had always provided for Christiana, and continued to do so, (which would indicate a fairly long term commitment, considering the date they said the eye-gouging had occurred) but noted the insecurity of Christiana’s position. This is certainly an interesting passage in relation to provision of care for those with disabilities and impairments. It suggests some form of informal taking of responsibility by Edmund and Johanna, outside legal proceedings. We might wonder, however, just how desperate Christiana must have been, to accept help from the very person who had caused her very serious injuries.

There seem to be traces of sympathy for Johanna (and lack of sympathy for Christiana as no better than she ought to be?) on the part of the tribunal, and perhaps an effort to find a way to excuse Johanna’s actions. The report tells us that the jury was asked how old Johanna was at the time of the eye-ripping, and whether she had been in her right mind. The jury, however, did not take the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘pious perjury’ to let her off the hook: they said that she was twenty years old, and sane. Johanna was therefore committed to jail, with the instruction that the case was to be heard at Westminster on Monday in Pentecost week.

Most unfortunately, I have found no trace of the case in the relevant plea roll, so, unless and until some other evidence turns up, the story ends there, with no answer as to how the justices at Westminster would have handled it. Nevertheless, there is a lot to think about here. There is a fair amount of reported sexual misbehaviour in medieval legal records, but the story of the supposed summit meeting between two women who had been involved with the same man, and then the extreme violence, is very unusual. In relation to Johanna’s violence, there is thinking to be done about what was expected, and countenanced, in terms of the behaviour of a wronged wife towards ‘the other woman’. Interesting that the medieval Welsh legal triadic literature suggests some leeway for wives hitting ‘the other woman’ (though certainly not eye-gouging).

Then there is also the report that the married couple were in some sense looking after the ‘other woman’ in her impaired state, and the intriguing story of Edmund’s trip to Rome – not, we might note, some sort of repentance pilgrimage to Rome in general, but specifically to the Curia. Something matrimonial seems most likely – though going in person to the Curia would not be standard practice.

So – lots of loose ends, but, apart from anything else, this record shows just how useful trailbaston (and plaint) rolls of this period can be in giving glimpses of a world of facts and legal ideas often effaced in the increasingly standardised forms in King’s Bench and Common Pleas rolls.

 

Postscript

Allegations of women being hit so that their eyes are said to fall out can be seen in S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: marital violence in later-medieval England (Leiden, 2007), e.g. at 161 and 177-8. While some descriptions of such extreme and horrifying episodes may have been somewhat exaggerated attempts to portray a woman in conformity with saintly models, this case, with the subsequent apparently impaired and needy state of Christiana, probably records a genuine incident of eye-gouging.

GS

8th May, 2017.

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

GS
28th April, 2017.

Surviving an execution

The law relating to executions is in the news at the moment, as pharmaceutical companies battle to dissociate themselves and their drugs from killing as opposed to healing (see, e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/13/arkansas-executions-lethal-injection-drug-makers ). Over in my world of medieval study, as a side-note to a current project on unauthorised hanging, I have been turning my attention to botched or failed – or successful and yet not final – executions. The first fruit of this is my ‘work in progress’ list of those who survived executions. It’s into double figures and no doubt there are many more instances out there: I am sure I will be adding to the list over time.

The victims (or not) are mostly male, mostly thieves, and many of the stories involve hanging, removal and revival in a church. Few are very detailed, but there are some interesting themes emerging. First, although there has been a lot of attention on the best-reported case, that of William Cragh of c. 1290, and the idea of miraculous resurrection after definite death (in that case, through the intervention of proto-saint Thomas de Cantilupe: see Bartlett, The Hanged Man: a story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University, 2006), most cases are not quite on that model. In more ‘secular’ sources, a few of those who survived excited talk of miracles, but even these instances do not seem to have been regarded as full resurrections.

They may be seen as miraculous escapes, or, at times, the result of blunders by others. Ropes breaik or people revive after having been taken down from the gallows. It is generally impossible to know whether there were interventions meant to defeat the intention of killing the convict – interference with ropes, or deliberate early removal from the gallows – as opposed to blunders and mistakes (certainly, there are other, clear, examples of deliberate rescue), but some, at least, of the stories suggest genuine surprise at the survival of a condemned person, as well as a lack of reliable testing for the expiry of life.

These cases certainly underline the important observation made by Henry Summerson: “It may be a sign of the extent to which present-day society has distanced itself from the realities of capital punishment that the word ‘execution’ is commonly misused to describe a killing that has been carried out in a manner quick, clean and efficient. A medieval execution at least was commonly a messy business, unskilfully carried out.” (H. Summerson, ‘Attitudes to capital punishment in England 1200-1350’, in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), 123-34, 132). Aside from the fact that modern systems generally do not allow their blunders to affect the ultimate outcome, by tending to reprieve those who have somehow managed to survive, the criticism is applicable to modern death-dealing legal systems as well.

GS

19th April, 2017.

A non-burning issue

A little gem from the archives …

A 1306 case from the Gloucestershire gaol delivery roll (National Archives JUST 3/105 m.9.) tells an intriguing tale: a dramatic scene seems to have taken place in court during a homicide trial at the session. Alice, daughter of John de Mercombe and wife of Richard de Sydenham, was accused of killing Richard. All homicides were felonies – and thus might end in capital punishment and forfeiture – in this period, but the killing of a husband by a wife was regarded as far worse than a run-of-the-mill slaying: classed as a form of treason (petty treason), it was seen to be deserving of particularly painful and spectacular punishment – death by burning. So Alice seemed to be in a lot of trouble. She pleaded not guilty (well, you would, wouldn’t you – no likelihood of mercy if she admitted to killing her lord and master, overturning the natural order of things etc. etc.) and I was anticipating a deeply disturbing end to the episode. But Alice had a defence: rather a good one – she said her husband was alive and was in the court. And it was confirmed that he was. On the one hand, hurrah – apparent miscarriage of justice (and hideous end) avoided. On the other hand, hmm – was she indicted by mistake or through malice (whether involving Richard or not)? Somebody clearly had questions to answer.

Brand on medieval judges and juries

Paul Brand (2016) ‘Judges and Juries in Civil Litigation in Later Medieval England: The Millon Thesis Reconsidered’, Journal of Legal History, 37:1, 1-40.

Professor Brand takes a less pessimistic view than did Millon of whether medieval juries actually followed what appeared to be the ‘official’ legal rules (as seen in legal texts) as opposed to making decisions based on their own discretion. Looking at plea roll cases c. 1300, he finds a clear connection between what the rules appear to have said should happen, and what did happen. Judges and courts helped keep decisions consistent with the rules, and the pleading process, in framing issues sent to the jury, also ensured some control.

Impeccably argued and bristling with hard-won documentary evidence, this needs the reader’s full attention, but is worth the effort. It will be an important point of reference for anyone looking at medieval law, and a check on the common temptation to look for exceptions to rules, to emphasise dissent and resistance, in legal history. This article is a powerful reminder that medieval judges and juries often pulled together, and law texts might be reflected in practice.

The Damsel of Brittany rides again

 

Eleanor of Brittany (1182×1184-1241) is somebody who kept popping up in my research on female imprisonment, and I tried to draw together some thoughts about her in an article back in 2007: ‘Eleanor of Brittany and Her Treatment by King John and Henry III’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 51 (2007): 73–110. Given this, I was very interested to see a very good new article focusing on this unfortunate and under-explored Angevin princess – Stephanie Russo (2016) ‘The Damsel of Brittany: Mary Robinson’s Angelina, Tyranny and the 1790s’, English Studies, 97:4 (2016), 397-411. This looks at the creative use made by the late 18th century novelist Robinson of the story of Eleanor of Brittany. Eleanor – or a fictionalised version of her – features as part of the mental world of the more modern characters in the epistolary novel Angelina, and as a point of comparison for some of the characters’ own situation.

Robinson’s Eleanor gets a bit of a romance – wouldn’t it be good if that was actually true, if there had actually been some such highlight in her life? But sadly very unlikely! It is rather intriguing that Robinson was a Bristolian by birth – did the story of the princess imprisoned in Bristol castle linger even in her day?

Anyway – good to see some attention being paid to Eleanor. I am secretly hoping that the current craze for digging up lost royals (Richard III, Henry I etc.) might mean an increased chance that somebody might have a go at locating her in Amesbury, and maybe find some clues to why she was apparently so keen to be buried there rather than Bristol (or why Henry III chose to say that she was).

Law in space (but no rockets)

There is a very thought-provoking and bold legal history related article in the latest Past and Present: R. A. Houston, ‘People, Space, and Law in Late Medieval and Early Modern Britain and Ireland’, Past and Present 2016 230: 47-89

The article argues for a significant difference between English law on the one hand and the laws of Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the other, based on the relative importance attached to personal and territorial jurisdiction. In brief, it is contended that territoriality was more important in England, while the other parts of the British Isles emphasised jurisdiction based on personal links.

The argument is made with spirit (and is rather more nuanced than might seem from my summary above) and there is a lot in it to interest legal historians from all parts of these islands. As a good article should, it also leaves room for debate in several areas – e.g.

  1. To what extent would it upset the argument to factor in gender (since women in all areas were arguably more affected by personal links with male family members and their powers and rights than they were by territorial jurisdiction)
  2. Are territorial jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction best considered as a linear ‘continuum’ (p.89) or as something more 3D?
  3. Exactly how does the common law ‘doctrine of estates’ relate to the idea of territoriality? (I have been teaching Land Law too long …)

Prisons and aliens: new articles of legal-historical interest, January 2016

Prisons and aliens: new articles of Legal Historical interest, January 2016

Two to note on ‘early release’ from Historical Researchhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2281/earlyview

J.M. Moore, ‘Reformative rhetoric and the exercise of corporal power: Alexander Maconochie’s regime at Birmingham prison 1849-51’, explores the wide gap between what was said and what was actually done by this former Australian penal settlement gaoler in the new prison at Birmingham, and provides an important correction to  the former positive view of his practices. Maconochie’s ‘mark system’ ideas of task-based sentences leading to mental submission are quite well known. The lack of political approval of a trial of the mark system in the domestic context is interesting, however, and the evidence on actual practice in Birmingham given here is, however, illuminating (in a dark way). Unable to link tasks/behaviour and length of sentence, Maconochie linked these things to food and conditions in a very harsh way, and was rather keen on flogging boys and imposing lengthy physical restraints on women. A lack of respect for the need to record such punishments, and the use of his family members in various unofficial roles in the prison combine to give the impression of an arrogant man who did not respond well to frustration, and was determined to try and push through his theories, despite opposition. (I would like to hear more about his wife’s attempts to use mesmerism and homeopathy in the reform of prisoners though).

B. Lambert and W.M. Ormrod, ‘A matter of trust: the regulation of England’s French residents during wartime, 1294-1377’ looks at the treatment of suspect aliens during periods of uncomfortable relations with France, under the first three Edwards. The article notes the flexible response of government at various levels to the ‘problem’ of aliens. ‘Nationality’ was not regarded as a simple or conclusive matter at this point, before the late-14th C introduction of the formal process of ‘denization’ became established. Important differences between the treatment of ‘alien priories’, nobles and those of lower social rank are noted here, with the suggestion of a move from heavy to more flexible regulation in the case of the last group which may be at odds with expectations from earlier research on alien priories and nobles. The central argument is well made and there is much hard-won and useful detail on practice. From a local point of view, it is interesting to see the lack of desire to aggravate foreigners evident in the report of a mayor of Bristol, asked in 1337 to assess and identify the property in the city which was held by Frenchmen, for purposes of confiscation, who chose to say that there just wasn’t any (which was surely untrue) (p.12). Thinking more widely, this article provides very useful ideas and material to include in historical (and current political) work on the nature of nationality and allegiance, and on immigration, beyond the medieval period.

GS 16/1/2016

Articles of interest for legal historians in the latest edition of Historical Research

There are three articles of particular interest for legal historians (as well, of course, as other historians) in the latest edition of Historical Research. (2015, online preview). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2281/earlyview

First of all, we have Helen Killick, ‘Treason, felony and Lollardy: a common petition in the hand of Richard Osbarn, common clerk of the chamber of the Guildhall’ This makes interesting points about the role of scribes in the petitioning process, so supplementing the interesting work done by several scholars (particularly Gwilym Dodd) in the area of petitioning in recent years. For legal historians,and in the year of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, a particular interest will be in the light thrown upon the problem of long imprisonment without trial. There are also some good points in relation to the mechanics of imprisonment and its organisation, and on perceptions and treatment of accused felons, traitors and heretics.

Then there is Francis Calvert Boorman, ‘The “stormy latitude of the law”: Chancery Lane and street improvement in late Georgian London’. This is a period and topic with which I am less familiar, but which will certainly be useful for setting the scene – complete with runaway oxen, bad cart-driving and the crazy paving of London local jurisdictions – for my students as they consider the world of the legal profession in this era.

Finally, and of particular interest to those of us who have contributed to the forthcoming collection, M. Bennett and K. Weikert (eds), Hostage-Taking and Hostage Situations: The Medieval Precursor to a Modern Phenomenon (Routledge, 2016/2017) is Jacqueline Bemmer, ‘The early Irish hostage surety and inter-territorial alliances’. This is a very scholarly treatment of a complex, and very old, body of law on relations between different polities, and methods of securing peace between them. (It also brings up the very intriguing figure of the ‘lord of slaughter’, an official enforcer of vengeance).

GS 18/12/2015