Category Archives: Women

The grim tale of a Lincolnshire tailor: sin and crime in a medieval gaol delivery roll

Well, this one’s very nasty (be warned – violence, and abusive sexual behaviour), but also interesting from a legal history point of view, so worthy of a quick note.

It’s in the gaol delivery roll for a session at Lincoln castle on 1st August, 1392, which contains a series of allegations against Robert de Spalding, tailor, living in Horbling.[i] Sadly, the roll has a big chunk missing from the right hand side, but there is still enough to reconstruct the charges.

In July 1391, Robert had been arrested for homicide, in relation to a newborn (and unbaptised) child, in a house in Horbling. That in itself is pretty horrible, but there was more. The entry notes that Robert had two (apparently living) wives, the first somewhere in Holland (Lincs, not Netherlands) and the second at Folkingham (also Lincs), but even so, on a Sunday in November 1390, he had taken his biological daughter Agnes, shut all of the windows and doors and raped her [the entry on the roll mentions force and the fact that this was conttrary to Agnes’s will]. It goes on to say that he  continued in this sin [it’s definitely singular] with the result that Agnes became pregnant. When the time came for the baby to be born, on Wednesday 28th June, 1391, in a house at Horbling, Robert shut all the windows and doors again, and drew his knife on the prostrate Agnes, swearing by the body of Christ that if she made any noise, he would kill her (so that nobody would learn of his misconduct). In this way, Agnes gave birth to the ‘creature’ which on that day, Robert killed and buried at the same house.

Robert was found ‘guilty of the felonies’ with which he was charged, and was hanged.

Points of interest

It often seems to me that the most surprising and interesting material comes out of situations like this, when we are dealing with a bit of ‘freestyling’ on the part of those who drew up the accusations. There is a fair bit here which goes beyond what was legally necessary – if we strip it all down, all that was needed for a capital trial in this case was the allegation that Robert had killed the baby, or a charge that he had raped Agnes (though, if you’ve spent any time with medieval records, you’ll know that that does not tend to end with a conviction). The rest of it – the two wives, the incest, the swearing and the threats – was not really needed. For some reason, though, those drawing up the indictment, and the clerk recording the session, decided to give us the whole story, granting us unusual access to the thoughts of medieval laymen. We see disapproval of bigamy and incest – and despite the fact that there seems to have been continuing sexual activity, only Robert, and not Agnes, is blamed for it (I don’t think that would have been the case in non-incest situations, and it is rather at odds with other statements in common law sources in which pregnancy was said to be impossible without the woman’s consent/pleasure).

Although the bigamy and incest were not strictly the felonies which ended up ending Robert, it is interesting that they were brought up. Each year, rather glibly perhaps, in the part of the Legal History unit dealing with sexual offences, I tell my students that bigamy and incest weren’t within the scope of the medieval common law: they were left to the church. It looks as if medieval people did not always make that neat jurisdictional distinction. Certainly something to think about.

From a human point of view, I do hope that things improved for Agnes after this – but rather fear that she would have been left in a poor position. She did not even get Robert’s property, for his chattels (1 mark) were forfeit, as was usual after a felony conviction.




Picture: Lincoln Castle, Lincoln © Dave Hitchborne cc-by-sa/2.0 :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

[i] JUST 3/177 m. 83 (AALT IMG 179) which you can see at AALT Page (

Prophecy, ‘pagan’ magic and promises of wealth in medieval Devon

Here’s a colourful tale from fourteenth century Devon, showing an apparent scheme to fleece the locals using exotic claims to magic power, and playing on their greed.

The story comes out in the King’s Bench plea roll of Michaelmas term 1374,[i] though it refers to events of quite some years earlier – in 1345, and a presentment before justices in Devon in 1354. The tale was that  Gervase Worthy, Geoffrey Ipswich and William Kele had come to the home of Rouland Smallcumbe at Barnstaple, and had spun a yarn to his wife. Their patter was that they were rather more exotic than the sort of people she was likely to have met, being converted pagans (pagani – I’ll have to look into just what that word signifies at this period, but it’s clearly some sort of ‘non-Christians’). Presumably as a result of their claimed questionable past religious status, they were believed when they claimed special powers: they could tell fortunes, including how long a person would live. They also said that they had other gifts, and worked on Rouland’s wife in such a way as to get her to believe that they could make precious items reproduce themselves. They got her to give them all her gold, silver and jewels, and other valuables. When she handed them over, Gervase convinced the gullible woman that he had put these in a chest, but in fact, it would seem using some sleight of hand and misdirection,  he had made off with them. Getting her ‘invested’ in the magical process in a way modern magicians (or fraudsters) would appreciate,  Gervase locked the chest, and took away the key, instructing Rouland’s wife that every day for nine days she should go to the church for three masses, and that she should not open the chest, When he returned, as he promised to do after that, with the key, her jewels, in the box, would have doubled! The rogues did not come back though, and the desperate woman broke open the chest. Sadly, she did not find the promised increased hoard, but a piece of cloth full of lead and  (non-precious) stones. The presentment did not stop with this, however, but ascribed to the gang’s fraud another serious outcome: as a result of this deception, the woman became ill and soon died.  It was also noted that the gang had made 200 marks across Devon by similar ruses. There does not seem to have been a conviction, however, and who knows whether there was any truth in any of this, but there is always something to take away from these unusual entries.

The elaborate ruse, with the idea that people (women in particular?) might be bamboozled by tales of exotic magic,  says a lot about popular ideas of the existence of magic, but also its association with trickery. The combination of ‘pagan’ magic with Christian practices (note the masses), and the fact that the rogues claimed only to be former pagans – they were now safely Christian, so had the powers of the exotic pagan, but not the untrustworthiness – gives clues about ideas on non-Christians, and also their limitations. The idea of precious things breeding more precious things puts me in mind of usury (money breeding money – which was bad). And finally the idea that the poor woman’s death was thrown in as a bit of an afterthought – caused by the fraud in a sense, but not the main complaint – and the deceased never is named beyond the labelling as some absent man’s wife –  is something of a comment on the place of women in the medieval common law, isn’t it? If only somebody would write a book about that …



[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.29 (AALT IMG 340).



Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Less of a ‘honey trap’, more of a cake trap? Bakes and fakes in fourteenth century Essex

Possibly due to the presence of all sorts of lovely baked goods and confectionery in the post-term exhaustion/lead up to Easter, this intriguing little allegation jumped out at me today – from the Rex section of the King’s Bench Michaelmas 1367 Plea Roll. For once, it’s not some piece of egregious and grievous violence – violence there is, but that’s not the main thing to think about: this is one to direct the mind towards far more interesting things –  love and relationships, vocabulary …  and cake.

The allegation in question was one amongst several indictments against a certain Robert Sterlyng or Starlyng of Essex,[i] also, in this case, involving the participation of his wife, Margery.

According to the indictment, back in 1362, Robert had had his  wife secretly get Roger, rector of the church of Little Birch, to come to Robert’s house, also in Little Birch, to eat a turtellum or cake [there are different wordings in different versions of the charge] pro amore. There was not much amor for the foolish Roger, however. He came as he was bidden, and once he was in the house, in the company of Margery, Robert popped up, waving a sword, and beat Roger. He also menaced Roger into cancelling a debt which Robert owed him, and handing over to Robert and his wife the 40d which Roger had on him. It was also alleged that Margery, on Robert’s order, asked Roger to come to a secret place called ‘Everardesdossous’ [one to think about – tempting to think ‘doss house’, but surely that’s far too late]  in the vill of Copford, that Roger came along and surprise, there was Robert! The latter drew his sword and attacked Roger. Roger, fearful of death, agreed to pay Robert 40s. [There were also other, unconnected allegations against Roger, of a more normal beating and robbing type.]

It is all fairly low-level, small town bullying by the sound of it, but there are a couple of interesting points. First, there is this business with cake, tarts and love. Was it just an offer of free cake (tempting enough, obviously)? Was the suggestion that Roger was being invited for some sort of sealing or mending of friendship ceremony, with Robert (in the manner of a ‘love-day’ – but with cake)? Was there a particular tradition of cake-sharing at the Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, which was the nearest big holiday to the first alleged incident, or is the ‘pro amore’ thing about something a bit steamier (yes my mind did just go to steamed puddings) between Margery and Roger? Obviously, it would also be good to know what sort of baked item it was supposed to be, and what difference there might be between a ‘cake’ and a ‘turtellum’ (tart? tartlet?). The other thing which interests me is the role of Margery. We may note that the indictment is brought against Robert alone, despite the fact that Margery seems to have taken a quite active role, at times including taking action when Robert was not present. This choice, bringing the indictment against Robert alone, is a tiny piece in the puzzle of the development of the ‘doctrine of marital coercion’, something I dealt with to some extent in Women in the Medieval Common Law, and which was still very much under construction (or being baked?) in the fourteenth century. On that front, this is a good example of the husband’s orders (as opposed to his immediate presence and active pressure) apparently sufficing to shield the wife from joint responsibility, as far as those drawing up indictments were concerned. There is definitely room for further work on this issue. (My working theory is that there were rather different ideas in different sorts of offence, rather than one general doctrine, at this point in time).

We should return to the adventures of Robert Starlyng. Eventually, the Plea Roll entry tells us, Robert was acquitted on all charges, via a combination of jury verdicts and technical failings in the indictments. So, I can’t help but wonder, did Robert and Margery get away with extortion (have their cake and eat it?) or were the accusations a lot of ‘half-baked’ nonsense?



[i] KB 27/428 m17, AALT image 249.

Image: Reconstruction – a cakey/tartletty thing with raspberries. No idea what sort of tempting foodstuff I should have in my mental picture of this case, but this one looked rather desirable. Photo by Alexandra Kusper on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GS 18/3/2021

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

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

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

Discourtesy about curtesy: land squabbles in Victorian ‘Brecknockshire’

Another set of documents on the list for the next National Archives trip involves a raid into the nineteenth century, to tie up some loose ends relating to tenancy by the curtesy (widower’s right to hold land after wife’s death, which, at common law, depended on the birth of a living child to the parents). (It may also involve a pleasant field-trip to Powys). I need to know more about the case of Jones v Ricketts (judgment: 5th May, 1862).[i]

This was a case with two main points, and seems to have drawn contemporary attention principally for the ‘other point’, i.e. the one not relating to curtesy. This concerned sale at an undervalue of an interest in land. It seems to me, though, that there are probably some interesting gleanings to be had, on attitudes to curtesy, and the big question of life, and how to prove it, in the case, and the papers relating to it, which seem to be available in the National Archives.[ii]

The case involved a farm. Its recent history was that, in 1850, one Catherine Jones had been the freeholder. She had then married Ricketts (the defendant in this case).  In August 1852, it was said that they had a child. (The report, in slightly judgey fashion, sniffs that ‘one child only’ was ‘born of the marriage’). This alleged live birth was disputed by the plaintiff, Jones. The plaintiff, according to the report ‘insisted [that the child] was not born alive’. The defendant, on the other hand, claimed to be tenant by curtesy by virtue of this birth, and said that the child was ‘born alive but died shortly after its birth’. It was not disputed that Catherine had not lived very much longer – dying in April 1853, nor that, at that time, the right to the remainder was with Thomas Jones, Catherine’s father.

Not long after his wife’s death, Ricketts bought Thomas Jones’s interest for £ 200, and it was conveyed to him (using the correct formalities: by deed, on 11th June, 1853. Clearly not too deep in grief to be unable sort out his property rights … I am rather taking against Mr Ricketts …)

The next relevant point with regard to the interests was in December 1859, when Thomas Jones died. He died intestate, and the plaintiff, Jones (a Jones in Wales – that’s going to be a fun search …) was his heir under the intestacy. Jones the Plaintiff then sued Ricketts, challenging his right as tenant by the curtesy (on the basis that there was never any live issue of the marriage), and alleging that the sale had been at a serious undervalue, so should be set aside.

On the undervalue point, the plaintiff stressed that, in 1853, Thomas Jones was ‘in reduced circumstances’ and was ‘living with the defendant in a dependent position’, and, furthermore had had no independent professional advice (all sounds a bit Barclays Bank v. O’Brien/undue influence, doesn’t it, Land Law fans?). He claimed that the freehold of the property, Brechfa-Isha, was worth at least £1000, and the reversion much more than £200. He also suggested that the £200 had not actually been paid. He asked that the deed conveying Brechfa-Isha to Ricketts ‘might be declared fraudulent and void, that the Plaintiff might be let into possession, and that the Defendant might account for the rents’.

There was, apparently, evidence for and against the live birth, though the court came down in favour of it. (This is where I am hoping the papers will give some more information as to just how the argument went, and what sort of proof was regarded as sufficient). Ricketts was tenant by the curtesy.

On the undervalue point, the court agreed with Jones the Plaintiff that the reversion had been undervalued – it was worth £238. There may be something of interest in the method of valuation of the land, and on the costs points, for those who like that sort of thing, but I am not sufficiently ‘up’ on either aspect to make any informed comment.  It does seem to have been the ‘sale at an undervalue’ aspect which got the attention of the press in Wales (including one of my favourite publications, The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – sounds a jolly paper, doesn’t it?).[iii] The curtesy point seems to have been uncontroversial, which is interesting for the common narrative of dower and curtesy being rather irrelevant, and perceived as a silly hang-over from the past, at this point. The question of ascertaining whether there had been life, or not, in the unfortunate child of Catherine and her husband really does not seem to have grabbed people’s attention. It is a lesson, I suppose, in the distance there may be between the questions we find important, and those which engaged the interest and critical faculties of lawyers, and journalists, of the past.

There is some accessible evidence about the characters involved. The Welsh census of 1851, shows an entry for ‘Llandefalley, Breconshire’, (now Llandefalle) with a household including John Ricketts, aged 45, a farmer, Catherine Ricketts, 27, his wife, her father, Thomas Jones, widower, 62, labourer, plus four Ricketts sons and several servants, and a visiting elderly stocking-knitter.[iv] The name of the house is Trebarried, and it looks to have been a very substantial place.[v] There is also a record of Catherine’s burial, in April 1853, at the church in Llandefalle, in ‘Brecknockshire, Wales, Anglican Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1994 (p. 39).  I am yet to find a record of the child’s birth or burial – which is not to say it does not exist (just – lockdown). And there may be a cemetery tourism trip on the cards, to see if I can track down any of the adults involved (would the birth be mentioned on Catherine’s gravestone, if it exists, I wonder). Also not irrelevant to this plan is the fact that the relevant church in Llandefalle (St Matthew’s or St Maelog’s according to allegiance) has medieval paintings![vi] Now I’m definitely going to have to persuade somebody who can drive to take me there, when all this is over.



[i] Jones v Ricketts (1862) 31 Beavan 130; 54 E.R. 1087  Curtesy case, Brecon. investigate. S. C. 31 L. J. Ch. 753; 8 Jur. (N. S.) 1198 ; 10 W. E. 576.

[ii] Cause number: 1860 I/J96. Short title: Jones v Ricketts. Documents: Bill,… | The National Archives

[iii] ABERDARE.|1863-03-20|The Cardiff Times – Welsh Newspapers (

OUTLINES OF THE HISTORY OF POLAND.|1863-03-21|The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – Welsh Newspapers (

[iv] subdistrict of Merthyr Cynog, 6b piece 2489, folio 669, p.1, household 1,

[v] Trebarried, Llandefalle | Coflein I have not managed to turn up ‘Brechfa Isha’ as a place name in the area – though we do see upper and lower Brechfa (Uchaf and Isaf – lit. superlatives, but would translate as comparatives) on this map: Brechfa-isaf – Recorded name – Historic Place Names ( ‘Isha’ is, presumably a corruption of the latter.

[vi] Llandefalle | Felinfach Community Council St Maelog, Llandefalle © Philip Pankhurst :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

The Barmaid’s Belly: a late case of de ventre inspiciendo

Today, I am researching (in so far as it is possible, without usual access to libraries, archives etc.) a late instance of the writ de ventre inspiciendo – ordering the inspection of a woman claiming pregnancy, by women, in civil proceedings. It has come up in my research on ‘Unknowns at the Start of Life’ for a swiftly approaching paper (April), and needs a bit of thought.  The case was heard in Knight Bruce VC’s court, on 8th May, 1845.[i]

It involved a dispute about a trust. A ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’ had some property – he held it as tenant for life, and the remainder was held by trustees on a thousand year term, on trust to provide money for Blakemore’s issue, and the remainder was for the people bringing the action here.

The petitioners were not able simply to have the property, however, because there was a competing claim, from the ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’s wife: this woman claimed to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child, and, if that was so, then the child would be entitled to money from the trust. It was therefore in the interest of the petitioners to cast doubt on this claim to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child.

The petitioners proceeded with the doubt-casting by portraying both Blakemore and his widow as dubious characters. It is not altogether clear why they needed to have a go at Blakemore himself, but apparently there were affidavits which ‘represented [him] to have been a man of dissolute and intemperate habits’. It was probably with a view to having a go at both of the spouses that they stressed that he had ‘married the barmaid of an inn in Wales’ (not just some barmaid, but a Welsh barmaid – just at the time that Welsh women were about to be insulted quite horrendously in the treacherous Blue Books, as being of extremely easy virtue). Blakemore had, so they said, come to London, leaving his Welsh barmaid wife behind, and died in January 1845. He was dead then, so the petitioners couldn’t have a go at him any further, but they had not finished with the widow Blakemore. They said that she had ‘carried on adulterous intercourse’ with the groom of her husband, during the latter’s absence before his death, and after she was widowed, had started to live with the groom ‘as man and wife’ (and as if that was not bad enough ‘at a certain public-house in Wales’, and the ‘subsisting connection’ was ‘one of sin’ (rather than there having been a second marriage).

The report is a little telegraphic (v. much the latest thing – see how on point my tech reference is?) but it is clear that an order was made for an inspection of the widow, by a ‘jury of women’. Although some of the evidence on behalf of the petitioners seems to have been not that the widow was not pregnant, but that she was not pregnant with her dead husband’s child, the inspection would not have been of any value in relation to that issue. Perhaps the point is that they were trying to discredit both the existence of a pregnancy which had begun during the marriage, and also, if that failed, to do the more difficult job of rebutting the presumption that the child of a married woman was her husband’s issue. This had become a little less difficult in the first part of the 19th C, but very strong evidence was still required.

So, the petitioners’ case can, perhaps be understood. The puzzle, from my point of view, is that there does not seem to have been much interest in the press. Why did I expect that there would be? Well, sex, adultery, class, bashing the Welsh – good ways of getting people to read your paper, I would have thought. Then there is also the de ventre inspiciendo process itself – now something of a rarity in civil cases, and, when it was proposed in a case in 1835 (of which more in a later post) it was considered quite, quite scandalous, and cruel. Could the difference possibly have been that between a respectable English tradesman’s wife – easily believed to be too delicate to be poked and prodded (the situation in the Fox case of 1835)– and a Welsh barmaid, who could not be imagined to have any finer feelings? Surely not.

Further details on the parties, the story, and whether there ever was an inspection of the body of the much-maligned Welshwoman will have to await the great re-opening of the archives. Another one for the pile!



(Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash)

[i] Blakemore v Blakemore 1 Holt Eq. 328; 71 ER 769; In re Blakemore, 14 L.J. (NS) Ch. 336 (1845).

Photo by Sophie Mikat on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


So what?

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

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

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






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

Photo by Hendrik Schlott on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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


So what?

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

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


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




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

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

Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash

Mining and undermining: a ‘lady lawyer’ at the Glamorgan Assizes of 1908

(Normal medieval service will be resumed soon, but here is a last one from Welsh Newspapers Online for the moment, found on one of my searches during the recent AALT disruption).

In the few years before Covid 19 came into our lives, there was a lot of activity in relation to the centenaries, first, of militant suffrage campaigns, then the gaining of the vote for (some) women, and then the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. (I had a small role in some of that, especially looking at how suffrage campaigning interacted with/clashed with ideas of Cymreictod (‘Welshness’), and, even more specifically, at events in my native town, Abergavenny). I am sure we have all become familiar with certain stories and images over the course of all this activity – iconic shots of the Pankhursts and that one picture of Helena Normanton and Rose Heilbron as silks in particular. It is comforting, in an unjust world, to see a fight in which ‘the good guys’ (sort of) (eventually) won – a reasonably straightforward cause and a definite ‘victory’. Nevertheless, it always seems to me that it is important not only to remember the winners – however impressive they may be – but also those who didn’t manage to smash down walls or transcend the limits placed upon them, those who experienced ridicule without eventual recompense, and who often seem to be lost in shadowy ‘before’, as we focus on the struggles we know to be connected to the attainment of particular equality goals. The thing is, there was a lot of ‘before’, and most of us probably have less in common with the ‘winners’ in these stories than with the shadowy multitude, whatever we may like to think.

It is harder, of course, to tell these other stories. They are likely to be less well documented: it is a question of looking for hints and snippets, and trying to interpret them, often ‘against the grain’ of the particular source, its tone and assumptions. Here is just one, which I found quite telling, and useful in thinking about narratives around the removal of the bar on women working as lawyers.

An article in the Weekly Mail for 11th  April 1908 is headed ‘Young Lady Lawyer’.[i] It is not, obviously, about a woman officially employed as a legal professional – that would not be conceded as a possibility until after the passing of the 1919 Act –  but about a woman acting in a somewhat analogous fashion. The legal matter was a case at Glamorgan Assizes, between William Watkins and William Burchell Rees (the two men identified geographically, in classic Welsh style –  ‘William Watkins, Crofte, Brynamman’ and ‘William Burchell Rees, Godregraig, [=Godre’r Graig] Ystalyfera’) over mineral rights (i.e. coal – it’s South Wales, after all) in Camarthenshire. There were professional lawyers, including a KC, on the plaintiff’s side, but the defendant acted ‘in person’. The newspaper report, however, though it found much of the case ‘dry and uninteresting’, makes much of the assistance given to William Burchell Rees by ‘a young lady’.  It notes, but with less interest, the fact that the defendant himself had clearly become familiar with quite a lot of law in this area, preferring to concentrate on the fact that his daughter ‘a girl of about nineteen summers’ was ‘at his side, prompting him’ as he questioned witnesses ‘on the intricate legal and technical details involved’. What an interesting juxtaposition – daughterly duty, properly assisting rather than speaking, and yet (somewhat unnaturally?) conversant with legal and technical detail, to a greater extent than her father, and (shrewishly?) ‘prompting’ him. She also ‘took copious notes’ during the hearing.

The report notes that this was not the only occasion on which ‘Miss Rees’ (we get no more) had been involved in legal business. In another legal case from the same area, she had been said to have ‘extraordinary legal knowledge’, and a certain Mr Abel Thomas had said that he had had ‘great pleasure’ in cross examining her. Furthermore, apparently, one judge (Bray J) was said to have wanted to be in charge of the case, in order to see her, but it had been assigned to another judge. So it sounds as if Miss Rees was a curiosity, a strange prodigy, and perhaps a focus of creepy desire from male lawyers and judges.

Miss Rees was called as a witness, by her father (I warm to him somewhat – he clearly thought highly of her). The judge asked, charmingly, ‘What is she?’, and her father responded ‘I hope some day she will be called to the Bar.’ This was greeted by incredulity on the part of the judge, and laughter in court.

This, then, was the sort of reception given in 1908 to the idea of a ‘young lady’ aspiring to be a professional lawyer. In this environment, the change which would come in 1919 was far from inevitable, and I think that this low-level ridicule, and belittling, and those on whom it was focused, should be integrated into overall narratives of the beginnings of women’s entry into the legal profession. How wearing it must have been. Not only could she not act as a barrister, but even her informal help to her father was met with a fragile hostility and an undermining focus on her as an object of unseemly male fascination.



Update 4/3/2021

There is a portrait of this ‘interesting Welsh girl’ in another edition of the paper, in April 1908: AN INTERESTING WELSH GIRL.\|1908-04-11|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (

Miss Burchell Rees seems to have been familiar with the inside of a court room, and with her father’s litigation: in a report from 1906, relating to Langer Anthracite Co. (Llandilo) v William Burchell Rees and Edgard Rees, her father is reported to have been accompanied to court by ‘a young girl’: A LLANDILO CHANCERY ACTION|1906-03-24|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers ( (I am assuming that it is the same ‘young girl’). Possibly by way of explanation of her presence, her father is reported to have said that he was ‘a Welshman, and rather deaf’ and ‘could not afford counsel’. This seems to be evoking ideas of women as carers, rather than (entirely) presenting her as some sort of legal assistant. Earlier still, as a ‘schoolgirl’, her ‘remarkable knowledge of law’ was remarked, with regard to yet more family litigation, in 1904: STARTLING CHARGESI|1904-08-17|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (

This last report has some very interesting material on gender and coal mining, and also gives us this: ‘An interesting witness was Florence Mary Rees, a girl of sixteen, who showed such a remarkable familiarity with legal formula [sic] and documents that the judge elicited from her that she studied law as a hobby, had a law library, attended police courts, because that was her delight, and hoped eventually to turn the knowledge she thus acquired to good account by becoming a lady lawyer’. I wonder if she might have been inspired by reports such as those relating to aspiring lawyer (and one who ‘made it’, Ivy Williams: LADY LAWYER AGAIN.I|1903-12-16|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (  It sounds as if Florence’s father was something of a self-taught lawyer himself. More details of the rather bullying questioning of Florence can be seen here: ^°0LGIKL’S KNOWLEDGE OF LAW.|1904-08-20|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers (

Certainly, William Burchell Rees was no stranger to litigation: his name appears in several other law-related reports, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, e.g. IA WOMAN’S LOANS.1|1904-08-16|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers ( IERASURE IN THE DEED|1906-07-28|Weekly Mail – Welsh Newspapers ( . If this is also him, he was still at it in 1916: LOCAL COLLIERY ACTION.|1916-11-18|Llais Llafur – Welsh Newspapers ( He seems to have scandalised the community with his personal life: UNPLEASANT CASE.I – i|1904-08-18|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (

(Inevitably, by the way, there was a racehorse called ‘Lady Lawyer’ in the 1920s, which has featured heavily in my searches!).


The Cambrian, 14th September, 1839, p.3.

A little bit of nunsense

Proud to have a post on the excellent Legal History Miscellany blog this week: about medieval nuns.

To be honest, I have not spent that much of my life thinking about nuns – academically speaking, they have always seemed to be pretty much covered by ‘proper’ historians, church historians, and scholars of literature, art and music (Hildegard …), and a Presbyterian upbringing meant I didn’t come into contact with nuns very much at all in real life (still not sure I have ever spoken to one). But they are interesting from a common law legal history point of view. There is the stuff I touched on in the LHM post, but also a lot more in terms of working out how to enable them to act at common law, if they were enclosed and unable to come to court, and issues around women being forced into convents to allow other family members to snaffle up their property rights. And then there is the fact that all of the common law learning must, presumably, have become more or less redundant after the dissolution of religious houses in the 16th C. It would be quite a fascinating project to trace what happened to it – were nuns still referred to, or used as examples, in common law treatises after that? How did it compare, e.g., to the ways in which law about Jews was referred to, after the 1290 Expulsion? Another one for the queue for the back-burner …

In the meantime – and it’s a bit of a nun sequitur (I’m trying to make that one happen ..) – in a trawl of the Welsh Newspapers Online archive, I found a ‘so-terrible-it’s-great’ poem about nuns in an issue of The Cambrian from 1839 which deserves much wider publicity: the gem at the head of the post.(1) Even by the standards of the day, it is mawkish in the extreme, and the last line is an absolute corker. Ka-blam – she wasn’t sad, she was dead! I love the idea of some hard nosed Swansea businessman sitting and reading his paper, moving between the price of copper (which is just above it) and this fabulous work. Surely ‘F.C.N.’ deserves to be better known.



(And PS – look up any word in this database, and there will be a racehorse with that name. There was one called Defamation, in my last search, relating to that subject. This time, we have the late 19th C horse ‘Nun Nicer’ – good to see a bit of nun-punning going on there … And there’s even a ‘Seabourne’ in the early 1900s – oh come on, as if we don’t all look our names up in these things – though in my case it is to find some of the ne’er do wells of my family in court records – nothing serious, other than being thrown out of a workhouse, and being caught for chicken stealing because of suspicious feathery debris on his clothes – Ymlaen Wncl Joseph!)

(1) Copper Ore sold at Swansea, Sept. 11, 1839.|1839-09-14|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (