Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Plague, fire and ‘lunacy’: arson and acquittal in medieval Yorkshire

Here is another record which has something of interest to say on lay and legal ideas about mental capacity and responsibility.

We are in 1349 – all a bit plaguey, not though you would always know it, since the rolls are still rolling, with many of the usual sorts of litigation – in the King’s Bench. On the Rex section of the roll, there is a case of arson, from a gaol delivery at York, in which mental state becomes crucial. (KB 27/355 Rex m.29d; AALT IMG 8327).

The jurors of Harthill wapentake presented that John son of William son of Henry of Nafferton was indicted before Thomas de Rokeby, sheriff of Yorkshire, that on 10th January 1349, he feloniously burned the house of Robert Dreng of Driffield, along with 40s worth of goods which were inside it. He pleaded not guilty and put himself on the jury. The jury stated on oath that John was a lunatic, and that, three or four times a year, he was troubled (vexatus) by a disease of the mind (infirmitate demencie), and that he had been affected by it on the day in question, and for eight days before and eight days afterwards, so that he was not aware of the difference between good and evil, nor of his own actions. They found that he had burned the house in question during this period, and had not done so feloniously or by ‘malice aforethought), as was alleged against him, and nor had he fled. And because the jury held that John had been non compos mentis at the relevant time, he was acquitted. Four named men came forward as security for his good behaviour.

So what?

It is not unexpected that somebody with a severe mental problem, defined as lunacy’, would avoid the severe penalties for felony, and that, by this period, this would not be by the cumbersome method of waiting for a royal pardon, but would be a straight acquittal. There is, though, some interesting detail here, in terms of the apparent understanding of mental capacity and the conditions which might affect it. John’s disordered states appear to have been noted, and their frequency was a matter of community knowledge. We do not have the link to the moon made in other cases of ‘lunacy’, but there is a suggestion that the disorder recurred on a more or less regular pattern (was it almost seasonal?). There is also a good explanation of the effect of the disorder on his responsibility – specifically, it diminished his ability to tell right from wrong, and even his awareness of his own acts. The jurors were making a very strong case for his acquittal. The fact that they mentioned that the incapacity had lasted from eight days before the incident to eight days after it could almost sound as if they want to leave no room for argument that John might, in fact, have been experiencing a lucid interval (though I wonder whether this information was elicited by questioning by the court, or whether it was volunteered).

Finally, it is interesting that this is not – as most ‘lunacy’ cases seem to be – a homicide, but a case of arson (in which nobody died). What role might have been played by the nature of the offence? I found myself wondering whether it took more preparation and forethought to burn down a medieval house, or to stab or beat somebody to death, but I am not sure that an answer to that could be obtained easily. As with so much else on medieval ideas of mental capacity and disorder, our understanding is very incomplete, and needs to be built up piece by piece. I find, in this area as a whole, it is a big challenge to think myself back into a world in which mental disorders were not seen as a matter for ‘expertise’,  but one on which ordinary, respectable, jurors could be expected to make a definite judgment. That, though, is my problem rather than theirs.



Is this burning an eternal flame? Probably not, no, or: the shearman’s mysterious appeals

A case to round off January, which turned up in today’s file sorting. I think I came across this when I was writing about dwale a few years ago, and have never found a place for it, so here’s a bit of a weird one, from a King’s Bench roll of 1346: KB 27/343 m. 28 and m. 28d (AALT IMG 8042, 8397)

It’s a record of the accusations made by an approver – i.e. a man who confessed his own felony, but brought accusations (appeals) against another or others, in the hope that he could secure a conviction and be spared execution. Clearly, this process is likely to have encouraged a certain degree of untruthful accusation, so that, even more than usual, we can make no deductions about truth in these cases. Nevertheless, in an ontological-argument-for-God’s-existence fashion, there is something of value to learn in accounts of what the human mind could imagine.

Our approver was William de Ludham, shearman, and he was doing his approving in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Before the coroner, he recognised that he was a thief and a felon, and made a number of accusations – some fairly run of the mill robberies, But William’s appeals also included accusations against a clerk called Robert of Leicester, clerk, and Bertram of St Omer, Fleming. They had, he said, been part of a gang wandering about, in London, Bristol, Sandwich, Norwich, and elsewhere in cities and boroughs of England, and in Norwich at Trinity 1346, they had planned to follow the king as he went abroad, to burn him and his household, when an opportunity arose, either in England or abroad. Perhaps in connection with this fiendish plan, William said that Bertram carried with him sulphur and other materials to set off an inextinguishable fire, and Robert carried with him two containers, one full of poison, and another full of a powder which would make men sleep for three days, or else kill them, at the user’s choice.

[As so often, the ending is delayed – I am yet to find any sort of resolution]

So what?

Come on – treacherous plots, eternal flames and three day sleeping powder: obviously interesting. Working out what the flamey bit might have been does not seem impossible (firearms/artillery were just coming in at this point, remember … Greek fire … etc.), the sleeping/killing powder is a bit more mysterious. At first, I was thinking along the lines of blowing it under a door (clearly reading too many mystery novels) but I suppose it is more likely to mean something to put in a drink. What would that be? Some poppy product, perhaps? Processed dwale? I am intrigued at the idea of expertise implicit in William’s accusation – he assumed that a dodgy clerk would be in a position to understand the dosage which would work to cause sleep (and for how long) or death. All a bit wizardy, isn’t it?

Very much hoping to come across William, Robert and Bertram once more, and see whether this did ever go to proof.



Photo by Rahadiansyah on Unsplash

The price of contempt? Menacing a King’s Bench jury

It has been a while since I managed to marry up a record and report, but I am sure this is a Yearbook/Plea Roll match, despite some details which differ – and it’s quite a case! The Yearbook, is Seipp 1345.237rs, and the Plea Roll entry is KB 27/341 Rex m. 30 (AALT IMG 334) (roll of Trinity 1345, with later additions).

The case involved the misdeeds of (according to the YB) ‘N. the tailor of Carlisle’, and (according to the Plea Roll), Richard de Karliol of London, tailor, and Alan of Cambridge, tailor, with others unknown. They were in serious trouble for having menaced and hit inquest jurors in front of the royal justices. The Plea Roll has details: there had been a trespass case in the King’s Bench in June 1345, Alice de Legh of Tottenham v. William Brangwayn. [This is on the main roll at m. 48d,  at AALT IMG 99 – a short entry about a break in at Alice’s place, and removal of goods – with William obliged to pay damages and a fine to the king] Richard de Karliol of London, tailor, and Alan of Cambridge, tailor, with others unknown, threatened the jurors when the jurors were at the bar before the king’s justices, in order to give their verdict, and, when the verdict had been given, pursued them to the gates of the king’s palace of Westminster towards the Thames, and beat up and mistreated the jurors (one is named – John de Edelmerton) against the king’s peace and in contempt of his court, to the hurt and nullification of the laws of the land, and the king’s people. The sheriff was ordered to have Richard and Alan before the court. Richard was there in Michaelmas 1345. At first, he pleaded not guilty of all of this, and the matter was set to be put to a jury, but Richard (either because he realised that there were quite a few credible witnesses to what had happened, or else because he JUST REALLY HAD A THING ABOUT JURIES, OK?) then changed his plea and admitted that he had done it after all. He put himself on the king’s mercy. He was imprisoned while it was decided what to do with him, and the sheriff of London was ordered to take his land and chattels into the king’s hand. He was brought back into court a few days afterwards, to hear his doom. The Plea Roll notes that there had been discussions in the Chancery with the justices of Common Pleas and King’s Bench, and other faithful men of the king, while the Year Book says it was ‘the Council’ [quite what the difference was at this point, I leave to those who know their way around these royal institutions rather better than I do]. The court was sure that the trespass had been in great contempt of the king and his crown, to the injury of his peace, in prejudice of and detraction from the laws and statutes of the land, (iuris et legis), and the manifest terror of the population. The Year Book attributes the pronouncement of judgment to Thorp J. There is agreement in both sources that the sentence passed was that Richard would have perpetual imprisonment, and would be committed to the king’s prison in the Tower of London, to remain there as long as he lived. In addition, his right hand would be amputated, and his land and chattels would be seized for the king (‘into the king’s hand’, as this is put – perhaps somewhat tactlessly in the circumstances). He was committed to the constable of the Tower’s deputy/locum. The judges put off execution of the amputation, however, to check with the king what his will was.

But there it ends. Did Richard lose his hand in the end, or had he chosen wisely in recognising his misdeeds and asking for mercy? No news on that one yet! Perhaps he might have had reason for optimism – at least one other roughly contemporary episode of rowdiness in court had ended up in a pardon.[i]

There is a reference to the background of this incident in a roll for 1346 – KB 27/344 m. 2d (AALT IMG 9147). Here, William Brangwayn (who is identified as a vintner) is accused of having been behind the misconduct of Richard and the others. While it was found that Richard was working with or for William, and was in his pay, and it sounds as if there might have been some attempt at influencing the the jury in the earlier case, the later jury acquitted him on the charge actually brought here – which was to do with the assault outside court, saying that this was not on William’s orders, but on Richard’s own initiative. I wonder whether they might, perhaps have been a little scared to do anything else,

So what?

It seems to me that the two big (and intertwined) aspects of medieval law to which this speaks are (i) offences against the crown/justice and (ii) punishment.

This is all going on just before the big restatement/reorganisation of the law of treason which would take place in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and it shows some interesting thought around which offences should be considered so closely associated with the king/crown that they must result in particularly notable and symbolic punishment. This case does not use ‘treason words’, but it does include an unusual sentence of imprisonment for life, and the amputation. Why amputation of the right hand? Well, clearly this was a seriously damaging thing to do to somebody, but presumably there was some symbolism going on there too – he raised his hand against royal justice and the law, so off the hand must come.

We should bear in mind that, in terms of the offences themselves, considered apart from their setting, this does not sound especially serious violence – no ‘maiming’ wounds, no deaths, as far as the details tell us. Context, therefore, is all, and both proximity to royal justices, and to royal justice, are seen as serious aggravating factors, as well, presumably, as proximity to the king as represented by the judges, and the common law. The conversations between judges and other advisers suggests a high degree of concern, and a fair amount of doubt as to what to do with those who would disrupt legal proceedings in the king’s courts. Richard of Carlisle and his case probably deserve some more attention.



[i] CPR 1343-5 p 270.

Discord, fraud and an attack of conscience? Some dodgy dealings with land in the fourteenth century 

As I prepare materials for modern Land Law teaching, it is interesting to think of the potential difficulties medieval people might have in guarding against losing their rights in land, in a world without the sort of registration and record-keeping which my students love hearing about so much …

The source: a 1339 King’s Bench plea roll. KB 27/315 m. 13d (AALT IMG 262)

The scene: mid-fourteenth century Cambridgeshire (and, as all pretentious reviews of films and books say, the land itself is a sort of character too. And the law. And the plea roll. Enough – on with the alleged facts …)

In Michaelmas 1338, jurors of various hundreds presented that John Allberd and his wife Nicolaa[i] held 20 acres of land in Hokyton, in right of Nicolaa, but there was discord between them, and Nicolaa went away from her husband and the area. [Alas, as our esteemed PM would say] John then died. [At this point, Nicolaa should have had the land back, or, if she had died, as seems to have been the case, then it should have gone to her heir, BUT… there was a conspiracy between an observant/nosy local and some ‘incomers’, from Norfolk, and even that London]: John son of John Riston of Hokyton, John Godefeld, citizen of London, and a certain Margaret of Norwich conspired together and in 1334, Margaret was passed off as Nicholaa (de Kelm, wife of John Allberd of Hokyton) and, acting as Nicolaa, Margaret had a false charter drawn up in favour of John son of John Riston, transferring the land to him, not to William de Kelm, nephew and heir of Nicolaa. John Riston entered by virtue of this false feoffment. [And he would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for her meddlesome conscience]. Confessione ducta, she had gone along to the church of Hokyton and coughed to her misconduct. After this, William de Kelm had got the land as the result of a concord (no details), and the law was put on to the two male alleged conspirators.

The sheriff was ordered to bring the parties into court to hear about the misconduct. John Riston and John Godefeld pleaded not guilty (and things are still rumbling on, trying to get these two into court in 1347 – KB 27/348 m.32d (AALT IMG 1590) – I am yet to get to the end of the matter.

So what?

I know – just another unfinished case, but …

Well, you have to admire the cunning of such a plan, if it happened. It does rather point to a weakness in the system of land holding: identifying individuals who had not been seen for some time. Presumably it was plausible that one woman might be passed off as another, even in relatively close-knit areas with small populations.

I am also quite taken by the throwaway line that there was discord between the spouses and Nicolaa just exited the scene. Seems somewhat at odds with what we think we know about conjugal debts and the need to get a divorce a mensa et thoro before doing this. I suppose we would have to presume that women could leave if men were not bothered. As this case shows, though, there might be a cost to them, in terms of the risk of losing rights to the land they left behind.

(All rather far away from the bureaucracy and formality of modern Land Registration schemes, to which, I suppose, I had better return …)




[i] A moment of appreciation, please, for this fabulous medieval spelling, and I take my hat off to anyone who is able to resist pronouncing it pirate-style as NicholAAAAAAH!

Livestock and a laughing stock? Tormenting a medieval Yorkshireman

I claim no expertise in the area of medieval animals, and have usually shied away from medieval human-animal interaction (almost life-long vegetarian … and yes it does feel weird dealing with records written on the skins of dead beasts) but here is a trail to follow for those who work in this area, and/or in medieval violence  …

A Yorkshire trailbaston roll from the end of the reign of Edward I contains, at JUST 1/1107 m. 2 (AALT IMG 8501), a record of a case brought before the royal justices in 1305. The jury of Hang (N. Yorks) had presented that, on a date in 1304,  a group of men, (Thomas de Colevile, Nicholas de Holteby, Adam Skakelok, William son of Emma, Richard Des, Robert Cote, John Forestar and Richard Forestar) broke into an enclosure belonging to William Des of Great Fencote and took away cattle which William was keeping in that fold, which he seems to have acquired as a result of a judgment in a local tribunal. So far, so banal – unpleaseant, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the fact that they beat William up (apparently also grabbing him by the hood and half-throttling him. What was extremely odd and interesting was the other allegation – that Thomas de Colevile and company had made William Des kiss the mare’s backside[i] – specifically its anus (yes, checked my translation – it really does say in ano osculari coegerunt, and, in one of the three retellings in the report, enormiter in ano osculari coegerunt). William Des said that they had also committed ‘other enormities’ against him, which may just be a bit of verbiage, but it does raise questions as to whether things might have got even odder and more unpleasant. Anyway, William Des said that he had suffered damage to the tune of 100 marks, the defendants denied everything, and it went to a jury. I was all ready to read a big old ‘not guilty’, but no – the jury thought at least some of this really happened, and although William Des was only awarded 20 marks, there were some substantial fines to the king as well.

So what?

Well, I will confess the reason that I zoned in on this entry was that I thought it might be a rare case of male-male sexual assault being recorded, but I soon saw that that wasn’t it at all. Intriguing in its own unpleasant way though. The usual ‘who knows what really happened’ caveat applies, but the idea that this was a conceivable way of behaving to somebody being ‘done over’ is very interesting. It suggests links with all sorts of other ‘obscene kisses’ – Chaucer, accusations against the Templars and Cathars, and, broadening out from kisses to other sorts of familiarity with animals, my mind goes to the goings-on between Greek and Norse gods and animals. What was the symbolism, the mockery, here? I also wonder about it in another sense – how did such a thing come to light, and, given that one presumes the idea of making a man do this was supposed to be a deep humiliation, how would William have felt about it all coming out like this? No answers, just a lot of questions and musings. Plea rolls really do have all human (and animal) life in them.


Pictured below, a cow (no relation) – c/o Wikimedia Commons

See the source image

[i] There is a minim counting issue here. I think it’s iumentum, though if I’m wrong and it’s iuvencum, we would be in the bovine rather than the equine world. Slightly comforted to realise I am not alone in my uncertainty here – see, in the context of French, J.M. Kaye (ed.), Placita Corone, SS Supp. Ser. (1966), 16-17.

Rape: conviction and ideas

My two ‘forthcoming’ (well, one ‘forthcoming’ and one ‘forthcoming???’) publications deal with rape in medieval common law: it is a small part of Medieval Women and the Common Law (due out in April)  but the whole point of a chapter in an edited collection, (chapter title: ‘Rape and Law in Medieval Western Europe’, long since written, and the book is due out … well, let’s just say one day … ). There is already a lot of scholarship on rape/raptus in the medieval world, but still, I think, a great deal more to work out, and I keep finding new, relevant, entries in the plea rolls. One of these days, I will get around to doing a proper study of the changing nuances of formulae of accusation, for example. Anyway, here are a couple of nuggets which I don’t think I am going to work into these ‘forthcoming’ things, but seem as if they might be of interest to someone, some time, if they stumble across this.

The first one is a rarity – an actual conviction and hanging. It is hardly a new observation that almost nobody ever seems to have been found guilty of rape, and executed, in later medieval England. The plea rolls are full of the most detailed and horrendous allegations, and then an unexplained finding of ‘not guilty’. (And I have noticed that nobody ever seems to confess rape and abjure, or, as an approver, appeal another person of rape – further signs that conviction was fairly unlikely). Here, though, from the Rex section of a King’s Bench plea roll from Trinity term 1339 is a case of somebody hanged (or at least ordered to be hanged) for rape.  In KB 27/317 m. 10d (AALT IMG 297) an entry notes a case from a Norwich gaol delivery in 1339. Richard Kiriolf(?) of Holverston had been indicted that he and others on a night in 1338 broke into the house of Alice Newman in Rockland and robbed her of goods worth 12d, and then feloniously raped with her and lay with her against her will. He pleaded not guilty of ‘rape, robbery and felony’, but the jury found him guilty (it is specified in the record that they found him guilty of all three). He was ordered to be hanged, and it was stated that the vill of Holueston would answer for his chattels – worth 18d, which would be forfeit, because he was found guilty of a felony.

True, it is not an execution for rape alone, and the break in at night and theft would presumably have been enough to justify an execution, but it is of interest that rape was included in both charge and verdict, and is some evidence that capital punishment for rape was not a completely unimaginable outcome.

My blog, my rules – uninhibited by academic tutting, I also want to say something about the conflicted feelings this sort of thing gives rise to in me as a researcher and a human. To some extent, and no doubt bound up with all sort of thoughts about the deep and long history of difficulty in seeking accountability and some sort of justice in this area, there is satisfaction to see evidence of rape being seen as a serious offence. That, though, hits up against my utter horror of capital punishment (always) and also the wish not to see capital punishment, in this period, as having been a much ‘better’ outcome for the woman, or the only indicator of something being taken seriously. So it’s interesting, but not an ‘air punch moment’.

The other interesting case to mention here is on the plea roll for Easter 1335, at KB27/300 Rex m.11 (AALT IMG 309). It is a record of an indictment before the KB at Wigan in 1334, and it states that Richard son of Adam son of Alan of Mondesley and others on a date in 1315 (it definitely says this is in the reign of Edward II, so quite a long time before) came to the home of Cecilia widow of William son of Robert de Heskyn, broke in and feloniously raped her de corpore suo, contrary to the form of the statute etc. and against her will.  The dorse of the membrane shows that Richard was found not guilty (surprise!) but that is not the thing which struck me as interesting. Instead, it is those words ‘of her body’. They are stuck in just where, in many felonious rape cases, we would find the words ‘of her virginity’, and, I think show an interesting wish to include an idea that something was taken away. This opens up all sorts of cans of worms about women, bodies, (perhaps) property, and the idea that something tangible is removed when one is raped. I have no more than that, for now, but it seemed worth noting, and I will be both mulling it over, and also looking for other such phrasing in my endless, and endlessly fascinating, searches through the plea rolls.



Blood and Brothers


One of the matters I touch on in the forthcoming Women and Medieval Law book is the basis for the right to bring an appeal – an individual prosecution – in the medieval period. Appeals are important in a consideration of women and the common law, because they were a way that women could initiate a ‘criminal’ case, though they were shut out from participation in other methods – especially presentment/indictments. To cut a long story short, there are various statements which purport to set out accepted limitations on the matters women could appeal (most prominently mentioned as allowed are homicide of a husband and rape) but there are also many, many examples of women bringing other appeals; and a little study makes it apparent that the ideas about why women can ever bring appeals (in a system which prevents them from other routes of prosecution) are not at all clear. There are a number of different ideas floating about, including revenge, particular damage and likely physical proximity to the offence.

Because the book was about women, I did not get into a related issue: if a single man is killed, who has the right of appeal? This is an interesting one, partly in terms of the ‘answer’, but mainly in terms of the way arguments are made about it, so it deserves a short exploration here (no doubt to be updated as and when I find new cases on it).

At least in 14th and 15th C cases, a definite ‘pecking order’ was understood, as between the brothers or sons of a slain man, and somebody accused by the appeal of a younger brother could legitimately say that this was invalid, because this was the wrong person to be bringing the appeal: the right lay in the older brother.  In a case in 1314, for example, (KB27/218 Rex m. 10 (IMG 24)) from Worcestershire, a woman, Margery, wife of John I,  and John II, were accused by one William of killing his brother, Thomas. Margery was accused of killing Thomas by hitting him in the head with a stone, while John II held him by the throat. Apart from denying wrongdoing, Margery argued that she should not have to answer the appeal, because William had an older brother, John III , and it was this John III  who should have brought the appeal. It ‘naturally pertained’ to John III to prosecute it, and he was ‘nearer in blood etc.’  It seems to have been another point on which the appeal failed, but it was at least an outing for this idea about ‘the wrong brother’.

It is not proximity, but ‘worthiness’ of blood which is the justification given for preference of the elder over the younger brother in cases from the 1330s:  KB 27/310 Rex m. 6d (AALT IMG 333), KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245)  and KB 27/312  m.3 (AALT IMG 290). (KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245) features an argument as to whether the alleged elder brother exists (was inventing an elder brother a tactic which might, or buy some time?). The matter was raised in some later Year Book reports too. Seipp 1467.041 and 1468.007 – and Markham J was apparently concerned about whole blood and half blood relationships (only the former would do, so must be mentioned, tracing the blood of victim and prosecutor in the appeal).

An earlier fifteenth century case showed a difficulty which could arise for younger brothers – what if there was an older brother, but he was not interested in bringing an appeal, or not able to do so? Seipp 1412.047abr notes a case in which the older son of an allegedly murdered man was a monk, and the upshot seems to have been that there was nothing to be done – the younger son did not have a right to appeal here.

So what?

Well – as a younger sibling, I am not happy at the idea that the older sibling has ‘worthier blood’ (though would that work with women, or would they have some coparcenry-equivalent pattern, with any sister being as good as any other?).

Less self-centredly, it has got me thinking about blood, and how it figures in different areas of law (free/unfree status, bastardy, succession more generally, attainder and ‘corruption of the blood’, rape, assault and ‘drawing blood’ as a threshold or evidential requirement… probably more).  And how does ‘blood’ relate to ‘flesh’: how do lineal and matrimonial relationships interact one with another? Maybe one day this will all fall into place in my mind and end up as a paper on ‘The Law of Blood’. Interesting, anyway to try and work out what ideas about blood were present here. Clearly it would need to bring in theological and medical ideas too. But probably not vampires.



Archival Amour

It’s not quite the season of compulsory romance, but Valentine’s Day, and, for those lucky enough to be Welsh, the problematic Dydd Santes Dwynwen (Jan 25th – none of your Burns Night here, thank you very much)[i] will soon be upon us. There is, therefore, half an excuse to write about the online National Archives online exhibition about documents relating to love, which can be found at  With Love – The National Archives

It includes:

  • one of Ramsay Macdonald’s love letters (nice handwriting, no obv. LH content, though suggestion of fantasies of husbandly chastisement – rather questionable);
  • one of Robert Dudley’s letters to Elizabeth I (scratchy-quilled Early Modern writing, bit grovelling tbh, and no LH);
  • a letter of 1851 by a man called Daniel Rush, to the Poor Law Board (Law! Here we go! An absolute corker – commentary on the cruelty of those administering the law, and also citing the 1847 Consolidated General Order, ruling that there is no requirement to separate ‘pauper’ married couples to put them into the workhouse – really interesting on ‘lay’ knowledge of the law);
  • the Instrument of Abdication of Edward VIII (constitutional law, I suppose, but, oh, what appalling people);
  • a 1966 letter by Harry Houghton to Ethel Gee (perhaps ignorantly, I had not heard of these two – they were found to be Soviet spies, part of the Portland Spy Ring. This was a very kind letter consoling Ethel when her mother died, written from prison).
  • a 1541 letter from Catherine Howard to Thomas Culpeper (obvious LH link – treason charge etc. It signs off with ‘Yours as long as life endures’ – not that long, as it turned out.)
  • two anonymous letters from the 1740s (seeking ‘Romantick happiness’; an argument as to where this lies, with a particular woman or with L.H. – clearly, to my mind, not another woman but Legal History!)
  • a love letter from the 1930s, from Cyril to Morris, from (LH!) a period when homosexual relationships were likely to fall foul of the law (awkward and intense and very English)
  • a love song from the later 15th C or 16th C (The song itself doesn’t do anything for me, other than making me hum ‘Alone’ by Heart under my breath, but it’s apparently on the back of a document about a riot which – LH – would float my boat rather more)
  •  a letter from James Gillespie to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, from 1919 (terrible circumstances – following race riots in South Wales – this black resident of Barry wanted to leave, but not without the family he had started there).
  • Wills – obvious LH interest just in the nature of the documents. We have Anne Lister’s will (1841) (She of ‘Gentleman Jack’ fame –interesting bit about provision disappearing if Ann Walker should marry – but some such idea was often present in provision for ‘widows’, certainly in local jurisdictions) and Nelson’s will (1803).


A very nice idea, and well presented. Sadly, I must report that it is inflaming rather than soothing my own particular pining – for the archives themselves. Very much looking forward to The After Times when I can get my hands on some MSS once again.

[i] All is explained here: How St Dwynwen wrongly became known as the Welsh Valentine… – Blog Ysgol y Gymraeg / School of Welsh blog – Cardiff University

Great Historical Escapes

I have a heap of notes, long laid by, on the subject of escape. Many of them were collected as ‘by-catch’ in trawls for other matters to do with the history of crime, and imprisonment, and I can’t entirely explain why I have never done anything much with them. Partly it was knowing that there wasn’t really an academic book in it all, but perhaps there was also a certain unease with my own liking for these stories. The problem with them, of course, is that, exciting as they are, there is a discomfort in identifying with the escapee, who may also have committed serious offences.

Anyway, now seems to be the time – as I come out of a long term relationship with another project, I am in a mood for a bit of adventure, without too much deep thinking or commitment. I just like them, and if there is something deeper and more psychologically concerning about an enthusiasm for escape stories, I do not care to explore it. I hope that they bring some entertainment to someone, somewhere, sometime, and it’s rather nice to be chucking them out into the great webby void without worrying  about vicious reviews or proofs, or proper referencing … all of which is, I suppose, another sort of escape. I think my inspiration here is less F.W. Maitland, more one of my childhood favourites The Day it Rained Mashed Potato. 

So: enjoy, or ignore, as you wish. I, at least, will get some pleasure from bringing this all together at last. And I have no doubt I will keep tinkering away with it, as I find new material, and feel the urge to academic it up.

As befits all adventure stories, it will be coming out as a serial, as I get each section into some sort of shape.


10th October, 2020.

First instalment:

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Third instalment

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And while I sort out the later notes – here is a BBC podcast on top 18th C escaper, Jack Sheppard, which is a lot of fun.




Categories of incapacity in medieval common law: the ‘fatuous’ Warwickshire killer

As small footnotes to the work of others on medieval law and mental capacity, I have noted a few interesting cases of medieval individuals being excused or pardoned their felonies by reason of their insanity – most recently focusing on a couple of cases of ‘lunacy’ which were expressly linked to the waxing and waning of the moon. Here is another case which goes a little outside the usual categories and vocabulary of lunacy, idiocy, fury and frenzy, which came up in a Plea Roll search today.

The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1334 incorporates, in its Rex section, the gaol delivery pleas from the session in Warwick. One of the Warwickshire cases,[i] from the hundred of Kington has in the margin beside it not one of the usual process notes – acquitted, hanged, sent to prison etc. – but the big, bold, word ’fatuus’. The entry states that Richard Kyng of Herberbury (Harbury?) chapman, was arrested for killing Robert Deyvilla at Moreton (Daubney) at some point earlier in 1334. He had been indicted for felony before the coroner. He was brought into court by the sheriff and asked how he wished to plead, he answered ‘fatuously’, his speech and actions showing diversa signa fatua. Enquiries were made, so the entry tells us, as to whether the accused had been ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and before, subsequently and now, whether he was feigning this in order to excuse himself from a finding of felony, whether he might get better (‘fury’ is mentioned here). The jury responded that Richard had become ‘fatuous’ two years before the killing, he was ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and still was, and had been consistently ‘fatuous’ for the whole period, and his apparent ‘fatuous’ state was neither feigned nor the result of some other infirmity. Richard therefore went ‘without day’ (i.e. he was not found a felon). His relations were told to look after him (that tricky word custodia is used here, with all of its potential for confinement as well as care) with dark hints that it would not go well for them if his custody was neglected (so that he caused further danger).

Points of interest

Well, it is no surprise that a medieval court would not regard as a felon one who was not mentally capable, nor, really, that he would be entrusted to the care (or ‘care’?) of his relatives, but it is interesting to see some of the vocabulary and ideas here.

I have mentioned that ‘fatuus’ is not common. What did it mean? It is almost impossible to equate with modern ideas – either legal or medical – in this area. I was proceeding on the basis that it was a similar idea to ‘idiocy’ (very roughly, learning disabilities) rather than lunacy/fury/frenzy (which seem to indicate violent, flaring, conditions), but then there was use of ‘fury’ as well, and the fact that the jury said that the ‘fatuity’ had come on at a particular time, rather than having been present throughout life, as one would perhaps expect with ‘idiocy’. The lack of information in the entry about the homicide itself makes it more difficult to get an idea of how Richard was being perceived. So, for the moment, big question mark, and a slight suspicion that these words and ideas were not as neatly separated as I would like to make them. Instructive in itself, I suppose.

I was also interested to note the questioning as to whether the condition might be feigned, in order to avoid a finding of felony, and the awful consequences of that. There is a parallel here with questions which were asked about people who said nothing at all, when they were asked to respond to a charge of felony. Jurors would be asked whether this was because they were unable to speak, or whether they were perfectly able to speak, but were keeping silent in an effort not to allow the case to proceed to a conviction (‘standing mute of malice’, in later parlance). In both cases, juries were considered able to weigh up the reality of the apparent affliction. To a certain extent, this can be explained in terms of the jurors’ identity as some sort of neighbour-witnesses (yes, I know there is a debate about that, but they were at least able to bring in outside knowledge) in that they would be likely to be aware if the accused had suddenly and suspiciously become mentally incapable, or unable to speak. Another way of looking at it is that mental incapacity was considered something fairly ordinary and apparent to one’s community.

So – another little puzzle-piece in to add to the heap. Off went Richard to the tender care of his relatives, and the court went on to the next case.






[i] KB 27/296 m. 13d (AALT IMG 331)