Category Archives: petty treason

Medieval petty treason: complexities of common lawyers’ own creation?

The species of ‘petty treason’ concerning women who were accused of killing their husbands is something which has interested me for some time, and I have included a number of notes on particular cases on this blog. At the moment, I am trying to think slightly more broadly, as I prepare a paper for a conference in 2022. The theme for the British Legal History Conference 2022 in Belfast is ‘Constitutional Change’, and it struck me as not too much of a stretch to do something on ‘petty treason’ there, because of the specific link which was made by the Statute of Treasons 1352 between acts against the King and his realm on the one side (which we might, slightly anachronistically, call ‘high treason’) and acts against smaller-scale ‘constitutions’, in the home, the workplace, the religious house (which come to be called ‘petty treason’, from the fifteenth century onwards). At the moment, I am working on two particular sub-issues in this area, which, though they may seem to be rather separate, do have a certain connection (to my mind at least) in that they involve complexities which are the product of choices made by common lawyers in their construction and positioning of women within the rules and procedures of the common law.

The first of these areas is that of understanding of ‘petty treason’ itself: was it ‘really’ a sort of treason, or a sort of homicide? That is not simply a problem of abstract classification, but something with potential practical effects, in terms of procedure and pleading. Looking at other systems, which did not take the slightly metaphorical route of extending treason (wholly or partially) to the ‘petty treason’ offences,[i] I do find myself questioning whether doing this may have been an unnecessary complication. What, really, was thought to be gained by partly assimilating the ‘non-regal/regnal’ offences to high treason? It was not necessary to do this, in order to punish offenders in a particularly distinctive way – since this was already happening well before the legislation. At least one of the categories (the religious one) does not seem to have been a real concern (I am yet to find any examples of charges based on it), and there do not seem to have been floods of master-servant cases (impressionistic – I need to do more digging here, but there do not seem to have been too many). Moving offences between treason and homicide might have some justification in terms of removing the possibility of benefit of clergy, but that would not explain the inclusion of wives who killed their husbands – since they could not claim clergy anyway. So, unless it is to be dismissed as ‘all talk’ and posturing, lashing out of ‘the authorities’ after the Black Death etc., etc., this is a bit of a puzzle. I think I need to see where else the extension of treason followed a similar pattern.

The second area of possibly unnecessary complexity involves the interaction between husband- killing and a series of rules and attitudes about women which had been laid down, or were being laid down, in the common law by the later medieval period. These were: misogynist views about women’s nature and capabilities; ‘property law’; rules about principal and accessory; and rules about the bringing of appeals. None of this arose by accident, and nor was it inevitable, and yet common lawyers felt themselves unable to choose not to allow it to cause complications and distortions in particular sorts of case. This is particularly evident in cases involving more than one person, including a wife, being accused of involvement in the killing of a married man. It is hard enough to decode those cases in which a wife is accused of participation with another or others, in one legal action: we cannot get much purchase on questions as to whether her participation is being exaggerated or underplayed, whether to assume or believe allegations about her sexual entanglement with other participants. Even more difficult, however, are the cases in which the wife accuses one person, and then somebody else with a decided interest in getting her out of the way, but also a likely personal interest in the deceased – his brother or heir – accuses her of having been involved. There are a couple of these mentioned in posts here, and I remain uncertain as to exactly what was going on in some such cases, as I have mentioned. I do have theories, some of which I ran past a seminar in October (you can hear something of them here if you are interested), but there is certainly room for more thought. Perhaps the most intractable sort of case was that which also brought in complications involving an heir who was the child of both the deceased husband, and also the allegedly homicidal mother – how should property questions and forfeitures be handled in such a case. There are signs that the common law was not thought up to handling these at all, in a later fifteenth century case relating to the Chaworth family,[ii] in which there was a resort to petitioning. The case is considered in Payling, S.J.,’Murder, Motive and Punishment in Fifteenth-Century England: Two Gentry Case-Studies’, EHR CXIII (1998) 1-17 (and I am trying to integrate into my account now, and to see how it relates to the several slightly inconsistent things which common law sources say on the subject of rights to bring an appeal for the death of a murdered married man).

All in all, it is hard not to see some of the complications in this area as deriving from the unresolved tension between different constructions of women: capable and incapable; persons and not-persons; objects of particular pity and protection and objects of particular fear. I would not say that this tension was unique to the common law, but perhaps – to change my physical metaphor – greater balance than some systems between the binaries I have just set up made things particularly difficult. And perhaps the common lawyers’ metaphors themselves – coverture and petty ‘treason’ and the rest – also made their own contribution to the whole complex business of legal response to intra-familial violence.  Onwards I go …





[i] I have been spending some time looking at Scots law in particular – very interesting and different law of  treason from that found in the common law, followed by very abusive imposition of the English rules after Jacobite scares. I think the contrast with Scotland would work well in my paper, though I am a little hesitant about blundering in as an outsider and non-expert…

[ii] KB 27/816 m. 70 (1465); KB 27/817 m.105; KB9/308 m. 82.


Image: running out of ideas for petty treason images, so going with a general ‘Confusion, seeing trees as opposed to wood’ vibe. Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Death and betrayal amongst the medieval ‘Chipping Norton set’: (yet) more on petty treason

Not too long ago, I noted a case from 1418/19 in which a woman called Marjory appealed two men of offences relating to the death of her husband, John Chaloner, only to be appealed herself for this same death, and being convicted, and, apparently, burned, for ‘petty treason’ (see this blog post). Well, now another of these double appeals has turned up: cue a bit of comparing and contrasting!

A pair of entries on an Oxfordshire gaol delivery roll for 1407 tell us that Emma, widow of John Handes, had come and appealed Roger Sutton of the death of John her husband, giving the required pledges for prosecution. Her appeal alleged that, on Wednesday  6th July 1407, at Chipping Norton, Roger had killed John with a dagger (price 1d), feloniously. Rather than pleading guilty and going to jury trial, as I was expecting, Roger decided not to put up a fight – he said he could not deny this, and so all that was left for a jury to do was to appraise his assets. There was not much to appraise: there were, apparently, some clothes, worth 20d, but no land or other goods or chattels beyond the clothes. The man himself was to be hanged.

The second appeal was by William Handes, brother and heir of the deceased John. He appealed Emma of the death of John, and his pledges to prosecute were noted. His appeal explained that Roger had done the actual killing, but Emma advised and ‘consented’ to it. She was also alleged to have paid Roger for his felonious work (2s). Unlike Roger, Emma was ready to fight. The jury found her guilty though, and sentenced her to burn. Emma had no assets, it was recorded. She did not burn, however: first she had the sentence deferred, by claiming pregnancy, and having this confirmed by a ‘jury of matrons’. Generally, deferral means deferral, but, in this case, this period seems to have given Emma a chance to seek a more permanent way to avoid execution: according to the patent roll, she was pardoned.[i]

Spot the differences?

Clearly, the later Chaloner case and this one share a basic pattern: W appeals X for the death of H; H’s brother and heir appeals W. X and W are both sentenced to death; W claims pregnancy. There are obvious differences, in that the pregnancy claim is accepted in Emma Handes’s case, but not in Margery Chaloner’s, and in that Emma manages to secure a pardon (whereas, as far as my investigations have been able to establish) there was no such pardon for Margery.

Another difference is that there is not the intriguing overlap in personnel in the Handes case which we see in the Chaloner case: in the latter, both of the widow’s pledges to prosecute were apparently relatives of the deceased husband, including the brother who would appeal her; in the Handes case, that is not obviously the case. Following on from this, while I do wonder whether there might have been some pressure or deception in the Chaloner case, helping Margery to bring an appeal against others, and then appealing her too, to ensure that everyone involved was convicted, or, indeed, to get rid of somebody who would have had claims on the deceased’s property) it is harder to see that in Emma’s case. It is still hard, however, not to be suspicious that the motives of her brother in law in appealing her might not have been entirely about getting justice for his brother.

It is worth a brief word about the pregnancy deferral-pardon element of the Handes case as well. Here we see the jury of matrons in action. The fact that they found her to be pregnant suggests that she was in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy, but the months allowed to her presumably gave her a chance to make her request for a pardon. Just what lay behind that is unclear – was the allegation of her involvement found to be trumped-up nonsense, or was there some other reason for the exercise of mercy? The short note of the pardon does not tell us, unfortunately.

A final intriguing element is that, as well as her pardon for the conviction on the appeal brought by her brother in law, Emma Handes also received a pardon for another appeal, in this case brought by a certain Roger Taillour of Chipping Norton. Could this be the same man as Roger Sutton? And where is this approver appeal? I haven’t turned it up yet, though it seems unlikely that it is made up. If it does exist, it brings in yet another dimension to the case – some sort of odd vicious triangle, which certainly needs some more thinking about. There may be another instalment, if I find more …




[i] CPR 1405-8, pp. 371, 470, 10 Oct 1408.

Image – slightly gratuitous church. It’s St Mary’s Chipping Norton. Well somebody probably went there at some point, in between all of the killing and accusing, didn’t they?

Canons and knives: death (and treason?) in a medieval priory

A ‘query petty treason’ case today – while I am most interested in the ‘husband killed by wife’ cases, it is worth remembering that the Statute of Treasons 1352 gives other examples of ‘sort of treason because against the natural hierarchical order of things’ cases. I do have some ‘servant kills master/mistress’ cases on my ‘table of doom’, but there is much less available in the other category – killings of abbots by their monks. Here, though, on two Cambridgeshire gaol delivery rolls,[i] is a case from 1403 which is, if not quite ‘monk on abbot’, tantalisingly adjacent to that. Having been very pleased with myself for finding it, I discovered that those hard-working early 20th C local historians had been there before me: there is a one-page account of the documents (complete with old style roll numbering) in The East Anglian vol. 13.[ii] Slightly miffed for a moment, but then, actually, I quite like making this sort of connection. Maybe one day somebody will do the same with this post … (delusions of being Emily Dickinson, or something, there …).

Anyway, on with the story. The deceased in this case was William Gilbert, priory of a rather small foundation in Cambridgeshire (I confess I had never heard of it) called Spinney. A bit of basic research reveals that this was a house of Augustinian canons, and, at the relevant time, had only a handful of residents.

The inquest before a coroner was held ‘ on 19th May, 1403. The story noted down from the twelve inquest jurors[iii] was that three canons of Spinney (also said to be confratres – ‘brothers’ of the deceased), John Lode alias John Catesson, Thomas Smyth, and William Hall, had killed him that same day (note speedy start to proceedings!). The killing, as described, was fairly drawn out. John Lode stabbed William Gilbert under the left arm, Thomas Smyth stabbed him in the back. William Gilbert then managed to get away into a different room, but the trio broke the door, and Thomas stabbed William Gilbert through his left arm, and his side, to his heart. It is carefully specified that each of the first two stab wounds would have sufficed to kill WG, had there not been another one.[iv] The geographical as well as physical locations are specified – the initial stabbing was said to have taken place in the priory church, and the final wound, in the priory’s hall, to which William Gilbert had fled in his failed escape bid.

The three were found guilty by a jury, at the gaol delivery session on 20th  July 1403, but escaped execution because they were able to take advantage of benefit of clergy, and were ‘claimed’ by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Petty treason: teasing out the definitional implications

What does all this tell us about petty treason? The account does use the language of treachery or treason – the trio had risen up like traitors, but note that the bond highlighted is not that between the killers and their prior, but between the killers and the king (tanquam proditores domini regis manu forte proditorie). If they were really seen as traitors against the king, it seems surprising that they were allowed benefit of clergy. What am I missing? And does this case show that canon-prior just was not seen as analogous to monk-abbot in this context? The reference to ‘fellow brethren’, as Palmer translates it, suggests a less ‘vertical’ relationship, doesn’t it?

Canon to the right of him, canon to the left of him … thoughts on the social implications

Assuming this is anywhere near true, it does make life at the priory of Spinney sound rather grim – a conspiracy against its leader involving what was probably the bulk of the others in the house. Note, though that one person did rather nicely out of it all – the sub-prior, who escaped indictment, and stepped fairly seamlessly into the top job once the dust settled …





[i] JUST 3/8/6 m.58 (AALT IMG 106);  JUST 3/190 m. 5 (AALT IMG 13).

[ii] W.M. Palmer, ‘Murder of the Prior of Spinney’, p. 104.

[iii] (who, I note, included a certain ‘Willamm Schakespeare’ … there you have it – evidence that W. S. was actually a member of the Undead …).

[iv] I am by no means an expert, but that third wound, right through an arm and side, into the heart, sounds as if it would have had to be particularly forceful. I also note that William Hall is not reported to have struck a blow at all. But then accessory liability – or treating as principals all with any sort of participation in the killing – was certainly ‘a thing’ in these cases.

Image: where the priory would have been if it was still there, but it isn’t. All sorts of symbolic ..

Neither loving, nor honouring, nor obeying the law on petty treason?

Today’s tale of less-than-happy relationships comes to you courtesy of entries on legal records from   1439.

A record of the Inquest at Bromham, Bedfordshire, on 18th May, 1439, on the body of Alice wife of William atte Halle of Bromham, labourer, notes the jurors’ view of events leading up to Alice’s death. They said that Alice had been pregnant, and suffering from a variety of complaints (whether pregnancy-related or not is unclear), and William had made the decision to kill her. On 7th May at Bromham, he had a certain dish (a posset? it would seem to involve milk curds – the word is balductam) made, and put various venemous powders in it, i.e. arsenic and resalger),[i] and gave the dish to Alice to eat, saying that it would make her well, and, believing his words, she ate, and was immediately poisoned, swelling up, being ill until 17th May, and then dying of that poisoning. He had, therefore, feloniously killed his wife. There is more: a record relating to the gaol delivery at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 notes that William was there because he had been indicted for having feloniously killed Alice, by putting poison (arsenic and resalgar) in her food on 7th May, so that she had died on 18th May. Above the entry, unless I am misreading it, we see a note that he was found guilty, and ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

  1. The medical and personal information

There are some nuggets in the inquest record which are worth noting.

The account of the poisons used suggests a knowledge, and an availability, of these substances, down to a relatively lowly level. As for the swelling effect, and the lingering for 10 days, that is something which might be of interest to medical historians – is that plausible? Can we say anything about that without knowing how much was allegedly used, and how would one know that swelling was due to poisoning as opposed to pregnancy or other pre-existing conditions?

The narrative of William’s lies about the food being likely to help Alice get better also tells us something about plausible relationship dynamics: a wife would be likely to trust her husband; a husband of ‘labourer’ status might be involved in his wife’s care. I suppose it also tells us something about accepted nutrition for sick pregnant women.

  1. The sentence

Drawing and hanging was the classic punishment for ‘petty treason’. I have been collecting examples of spousal homicide for quite a while and I had got used to seeing a nice (well, not nice at all, but you know what I mean) neat distinction between the treatment of W kills H (= petty treason, those convicted are burnt) and H kills W (= ‘just’ homicide, those convicted are hanged). This looks like a court – or somebody – ‘getting the law wrong’ then. Maybe it’s just a ‘blip’, or maybe it shows us particular distaste for this offender, or these facts. On the face of it, it is presented as a ‘normal’ homicide – all we get in terms of motive is the usual ‘malicia’. There is no use of ‘treason words’ like proditorie, as we might see in a servant kills master, or W kills H case. There is the idea of William ‘imagining’ Alice’s death, which is something of a link with ‘high’ treason jurisprudence. Other factors which might be relevant are (a) the poisoning and (b) the pregnancy. Poisoning would be singled out as particularly worthy of spectacular punishment in the next century.[ii]  Might this suggest a whisper of a previous connection between treason and poison? As for pregnancy – well, the question of the common law’s attitude to the foetus, and its possible ‘rights’ is a huge topic, which I plan to get into rather more in the coming year, but suffice it to say at this point that, while it was thought worth mentioning by the inquest, the pregnancy is not mentioned in the gaol delivery entry, which, I think, is some indication that it was not considered to be the key to the raised level of offence.

An interesting oddity then, and I will have to work out how to fit it into my ‘spreadsheet of doom’ on petty treason.




[i] We’ve come across this combination before in the lore of spouse-offing: see this post.

[ii] ‘Acte for Poysoning’ (22 Hen. VIII c. 9; SR 3, p. 326).

Image: general theme of love and such … this one is clever but just a little sinister. Or maybe that’s just me …

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Justice for Maud! A message from the rapid rebuttal unit for possibly maligned medieval women …

This morning, a blog about medieval divorce was drawn to my attention by Twitter. Much of it was interesting – including an account of the matrimonial misadventures of the last Warenne earl of Surrey which I have long used as an example for my Legal History students, when we look at matrimonial law. There was one point that raised the hackles a little, though: the unqualified statement that Maud Neville, wife of William de Cantilupe, had killed her husband in 1375. This is a bit questionable – but note my maturity in not blasting off a comment on Twitter, but instead noting the difficulty here, where, given the obscurity of the location, it is unlikely to cause a heated debate.

The death of Cantilupe has aroused the interest of a number of historians, and Maud was indeed accused of involvement. She was, however, acquitted (KB 27/459 Rex m. 39). While an acquittal clearly does not ‘prove innocence’, and while one can certainly interpret the documents in a way which makes of them a good story, including a bit of illicit sex and a dash of duplicity, and suggests a plausible scenario involving Maud’s guilt, however, it is questionable simply to ignore the fact that she was acquitted and to treat her guilt as obvious. Does it matter, all this time later? Well yes, I think it does.  It is worth asking why the narrative of the adulterous and schemingly murderous wife, which is  suggested by the reconstructions of modern historians, is so much more … seductive … than the evidence of a contemporary acquittal that the latter is given absolutely no weight.

Right. That needed to be said. Now I can get on with what I am supposed to be doing today.



Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

A ‘Petty Treason’ Oddity

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

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

So what?

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

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



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

Conjugal juxtapositions: petty treason and prosecution strategy in medieval Leicestershire

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

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

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

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

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

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

[There is also the possibility that John Smyth was not real, but a device to bring an appeal when nobody else could/would. Was there any procedural advantage in using somebody from outside Leicestershire (I believe Moreton is in Warks)? And I wish I knew who Robert Chaloner was – I am sure he would be able to tell us! Needs more thought …._Hope I come up with an answer before giving a paper revolving around it in the summer!]



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

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

[ii] JUST 3/195 m. 72d. They are mentioned in Edward Powell, ‘Jury Trial at Gaol Delivery in the Late Middle Ages: The Midland Circuit, 1400-1429’ in Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800, edited by J. S. Cockburn and Thomas A. Green, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 78-116 at 106.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

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

  1. Relationship drama

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

  1. Cause of death

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

  1. Petty treason

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


7th May, 2021.  

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

To Marry and to Burn: punishing domestic treachery in medieval England

(A version of this was posted on the Bristol Law School Blog on 24th May 2021.  I will continue to update this version, including adding to the ‘grand total’ mentioned in the sixth paragraph below, as I find new instances).

One of the less enthusiastic endorsements of marriage is to be found in the words of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘it is better to marry than to burn’. His point was that celibacy was the best way to live, but those too weak to resist the temptations of the flesh could take the second best option of monogamous marriage. Before the Protestant Reformation in England, there were those who followed what this passage portrayed as the higher path, dedicating themselves to a life of celibacy and the service of God in monasteries and convents, but for most people, the expectation was marriage. Marriage and fire were, however, not as distant, one from the other, as St Paul’s words would imply.

Marriage in medieval England was understood to be hierarchical, with the husband expected to control and correct the wife, and the wife to obey the husband. He was (again in words attributed to St Paul), ‘the head of the wife’.  No doubt, as a great deal of historical research over the past few decades has shown,  there were many variations in practice, with more and less amicable situations, more and less mutual respect.  Even so, the husband’s authority over the wife was a fundamental principle, with real consequences; and one of these was connected with fire.

We can see an example of this connection between marriage and fire in an entry on a medieval legal record from the late fourteenth century. This notes a case from Essex, dealt with by John Cavendish and others, sent to the county as royal justices, in 1378. An indicting  jury of twelve men had said that, when John Trilly junior was lying in bed one Saturday night, his wife, Margaret, and a certain  John Robat of Walden, killed him with an axe or hatchet. The suspects were arrested, brought to court, pleaded not guilty, and accepted jury trial. Unfortunately for them, the trial jury said that they were both guilty, as well as noting that, at the time of the killing, Margaret was John Trilly’s wife. It was ordered that John Robat should be hanged. Margaret, however, was to be burned.

From at least the first half of the fourteenth century, and probably from the thirteenth century, the accepted punishment for a wife who killed her husband was death by burning. This was an unusual mode of execution: most convicted felons (including husbands convicted of killing their wives) faced the rope rather than the fire. For those of us for whom capital punishment of any sort is entirely abhorrent, it may be difficult to feel particularly exercised about the use of one method of ending a life rather than another, so long ago. (We may, though. note the reference, in a document relating to the execution of Anne Boleyn, of the move from burning to decapitation as a matter of royal mercy, as some sort of indication that there was seen to be a difference, at least in the sixteenth century), and it is certainly the case that, for a legal historian, it is important to try to look into the flames, and see what can be learned from past law, past practice.

Why burn husband-killers? Three overlapping factors were relevant: sex/gender, marital status and nature of the offence. This was not, in fact, the only type of offence in which a woman might be burned while a man would face a different penalty. The same applied to counterfeiting offences, and to killings of one’s employer, and there are occasional, earlier, examples of women being burned for other felonies. The use of burning for husband-killers is, however, clearly connected with a wish to make a particular example of those who transgressed against the hierarchical understanding of marriage. For a wife to kill her husband was not simply homicide, but a form of rebellion against her natural superior. It was mentioned in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and from the fifteenth century onwards, it came to be called ‘petty treason’.

The burning of husband-killers has tended to be minimised in classical accounts of legal history, and is sometimes assumed to be associated with the Statute of Treasons. My research in this area has, however, highlighted both the longer, deeper association of husband-killing and fire, and also the greater number of examples of women consigned to the flames for this offence than had previously been suggested. While they were never numerous, there were certainly enough of them to confirm in the minds of lawyers and the population more generally, that this was the expected outcome, in the event of a conviction for husband-slaying. I have discussed the matter in a chapter of my recent book on women and common law in medieval England, and continue to collect examples of women sentenced to death by burning, from the vast corpus of medieval legal records which remain to us. The current total on my ‘spreadsheet of doom’, compiled from work on records of late medieval criminal sessions (13th-15th Cs, the majority being from the late 14th C and early 15th C), stands at 65 burnings ordered for women convicted of husband-killing. While it is not possible to elicit comprehensive, reliable, statistics from such searches, it may be of interest to note that this is considerably higher than the number of executions for rape which I have seen in the same records, though considerably lower than the number of executions for theft, for example. It is certainly high enough to be worthy of attention.

The idea that the offence was particularly heinous and should be punished in this spectacular and symbolic way was not something which was being imposed on communities by ‘the powers that be’: it was something much more pervasive. In some contrast to other areas of crime, in which jurors were willing to bend facts to let defendants avoid punishment, trial jurors, and those men in local communities in a position to initiate prosecutions by indictment or presentment, seem to have been keen to ensure that husband-killers would be burned. On occasion, we see them making it clear that a woman charged with homicide was married to the deceased at the time he was killed, though this might be obscured by the fact that she was now married to somebody else. This was done so that conviction would lead to burning, not hanging. There seems to have been no doubt in the minds of the leading men in medieval communities that it was right to mark out husband-killers in this way.

The fact that the penalty was used, and accepted as appropriate by men at different social levels, over a long period of time, would seem to make it likely to have exerted an influence on the minds and behaviour of married women. This is particularly so, if we add in other things which I have noted emerging from my archival work: accusations were sometimes made on what looks like a relatively slender basis, with rather quick leaps to an accusation that a woman whose husband was killed by somebody else was ‘in on it’, and even over-zealous prosecution when the husband was not, in fact dead at all. These findings do tend to suggest that the threat of fire as a judicial penalty, as well as an eternal punishment, is something which should receive further consideration in studies of medieval marriage and gender, as well as law.

As well as telling other people what they ought to think is worthy of investigation,  a post on a research blog  is a good place to include a little reflection on the process of conducting research. I began looking at this area as a result of being unconvinced by the accounts I had read in secondary sources, and suspicious that they were over-simplifying matters, in a way which played down the importance of the executions of women by burning. To understand what more there was to say, and how accounts might need to be adjusted, it has been necessary to trawl through a very large number of pages of medieval manuscript (in recent times, this has been via the magnificent Anglo American Legal Tradition collection of scanned images), looking for accusations of husband-killing, and orders that somebody should be burnt. Finding a needle amongst the fields of haystacks does sometimes feel like a bit of a ‘win’, each instance strengthening the emerging argument. Nevertheles, each time I come across one of the Latin abbreviations indicating that a burning has been ordered, in the margin of a roll, there is the realisation that it indicates a terrifying end to a real person, as human as the rest of us. I have come to recognise that that feeling, that discomfort, that connection, is itself important in an investigation of the people whose lives and deaths are noted in the rolls.


Here endeth the lesson.


1st May, 2021.

(Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash)