All sorts of interesting questions arise in the case of a Nottinghamshire man who ‘got off’ (eventually) after being presented for his involvement in the death of his mother, not least what actually happened in the confusion which led to her death.
The record is at JUST 1/676 m.2 (image via AALT at: http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no676/IMG_4752.htm ) This is a roll from a judicial session in Nottinghamshire in 1305-6.
The person who came under some suspicion, William under the Appelton of Harworth, was an angry young man. We are told about the ‘angry’ part, and his actions bear out the description of him as ‘iratus’ that night at least. We do not know his age, but he was young enough to have a mother still living, and, until the events of the night in question, still active enough to run. On the other hand, he was old enough to have a wife. ‘Angry young man’ seems about right.
Those from his area, Bassettlaw, given the job of reporting offences and unnatural deaths to the session said that Agnes mother of William under the Appelton of Harworth, on a date in 1304, ran onto a sword which was held by her son William and killed herself. This way of presenting the facts ascribed causation of the death to Agnes herself: she moved, took the active part, while William did nothing but hold a sword. He could not possibly be held responsible, to any extent, for his mother’s death. Even without more, one might ask whether holding a sword in such a way that somebody might collide with its point might possibly be worthy of some criticism, but in fact there is more. The jurors told a story which suggests that the death was entirely avoidable, and was mostly or entirely the result of William’s aggressive and reckless behaviour. That they chose not to interpret it in this way tells an interesting story of its own.
According to the trial jurors, on the day in question, as evening fell, William was angry (iratus) with Richard, one of his servants, and wanted to hit him with his drawn sword. Was this to be beating with the flat of the sword – unconventional, but masters did have the right to chastise their servants, up to a point – or was the intention more murderous? This is not explained, and, in any case, Richard was saved from William’s attack when Avelina, his wife, restrained William physically, helped by Thomas, William’s brother, and Isolda, his sister, who came in because of Avelina’s shouting.
Next, the scene was plunged into darkness, because a candle lighting William’s home went out. Agnes enters at this point. She had been getting ready for bed in her dower house, located nearby, in William’s court, when she heard the noise, and came over to William’s place in the dark, to investigate and calm things down. She did not see that William was (still) holding a drawn sword in his hand, and ‘suddenly’, ‘by accident’ she ran onto it, and was injured by her own movement, and died some hours later.
Concluding their account of the episode, the jurors reinforced the point that this fatal injury happened by accident, and also chose to say that the stupidity (stulticiam) of Agnes had contributed. This seems rather unjust as a judgment on Agnes’s conduct. It was, as the story shows, hardly stupid to come and try to defuse a situation caused by her aggressive son, which was clearly causing alarm to a number of people in the household. The point of defaming Agnes in this way might show some contempt for women, but the main reason to do it was to make sure that the death was not ascribed to felony or malice on William’s part. William, still alive, could soon not be, if he was found to have killed his mother feloniously, whereas Agnes was now beyond hurting, except in the most metaphorical sense.
The jurors had done their best to exculpate William, but he still had something of a wait in gaol, until a royal pardon was obtained. The pardon was forthcoming, however, and it appears in Calendar of Patent Rolls 1302-7, 421. So William was free to rage another day, now also presumably enjoying the part of his inheritance formerly assigned to his mother as dower.
Points of interest
There are, as ever, many of these. In social history terms, it might get us thinking about relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, mothers and sons. In legal terms, it is an interesting illustration of the interaction of ideas about causation and culpability and the stretching of causation ideas to bolster a case for non-culpability. Mostly, though, I am left wondering just how reckless men were allowed to be with deadly weapons before it would be regarded as their fault that somebody was killed. The efforts of the jurors to distort the likely facts (e.g. the business with Agnes running so fast, in the darkness, onto a motionless sword, that she gave herself a fatal wound, with seems much less likely than a confused struggle involving William not remaining entirely still) appears to suggest that they knew they were pretty near to the limit in this case.