Tag Archives: common law

That which we call ‘rhosyn’ … names and language in medieval common law records

A question which has often occurred to me is how medieval criminal justice managed to confirm people’s identities, in a world without ‘identity documents’, and with a wide margin of error (or a lack of a definite concept of error) with regard to spellings. This is probably hugely anachronstic, and no doubt the answer has something to do with small communities and good memories, but I came across a case today (after a period of rather slim pickings in my searches) which suggested another angle to this question of identity.

In a King’s Bench roll of 1368, there is a short entry relating to a homicide case in Gloucestershire. It notes that the roll of one of the Gloucestershire coroners recorded that one John Penres had been indicted for the felonious homicide of Gerard Walyssh[i] at Ockington, arrested and sent to the gaol at Gloucester castle. John Tracy, sheriff of Gloucestershire, was now ordered to bring this man before the court, to answer the charge. No John Penres could be produced, however. The sheriff contended that somebody had been executed for this crime already – he was a Penres, but his first name was not the Anglo John but the Welsh Yeuan (Ieuan as it is in modern Welsh). There was an investigation, referring to a particular previous session, at which Ieuan was said to have been tried and executed, and it was confirmed that a Ieuan Penres had been executed for the homicide of Gerard Welssh [sic]. The sheriff was off the hook therefore.

This shows that the identity question was solved in part by documentary searches, and it is a little comfort to see that care was taken to check these things. It probably also has things to say about physical and linguistic borderlands. I have noted the fun and games clerks of the English bureaucracy had with some of the more ‘difficult’ Welsh names, especially Gwenllian, but did they really find Ieuan difficult? Or would somebody of Welsh background, living or working in Gloucester, have adopted an English name as a matter of routine, for his dealings with non-Welsh-speakers? There is definitely scope for further digging and thought on this issue. Nice little research project for somebody?


And this one jumped out at me just the other day – not a Welsh one, but another apparent ‘mistaken identity’ case, from a gaol delivery session at Newgate on Wednesday 17th March 1316, A certain Ralph le Leche was in jeopardy – he was said to have been appealed by an approver of involvement in a robbery and a homicide in Northamptonshire. His story, though, was that the original accused man was some other Ralph le Leche of London – let us call this alleged miscreant Ralph 1 – while he, Ralph 2, had been in London all the time, and at the relevant period, he had been ill. A jury of London citizens confirmed his story, so Ralph 2 was saved. Does make you wonder whether less ‘together’ defendants might have ended up being executed by mistake in this way, though.


3/7/2021, updated 7/7/2021

[i] This sounds like a ‘Welsh-on-Welsh’ crime, from the names, doesn’t it? Or at least ‘Welsh-extraction on Welsh-extraction’.

Image – your actual Offa’s Dyke – symbolic border etc. etc.

Done or in dereliction of duty? A medical dispute in medieval Sussex

Well, looking at this sort of thing during the awful events of the present does make me feel as if my skill-set qualifies me for Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B* (*If you don’t know what that is, you are not my friend. Read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at once!) but I hope it does something for general morale and the gaiety of nations. It’s certainly keeping me going today.

Join me for another little tale from the Plea Rolls and Year Books – this time with a medical theme.

Master Simon of Bredon v. Prior of Lewes (1367)

Back we go to 1367, reign of Edward III (characterised by some terrible sweeps of infectious disease, but that’s not where this is going). England and France at war, off and on, all sorts of chivalrous things happening. Down in Lewes, in Sussex (site of a big 13th C battle, later to be home of a dubious Guy Fawkes parade), there is a house of Cluniac monks. They are much aggrieved to be taken to court by a medical man (or former medical man) called Simon, who claims that they owe him money.

Simon is Master Simon of Bredon, a doctour de physick, and he is bringing an action of annuity. He claims that the monks are in arrears with payment of sums they had undertaken to pay him, to the tune of £30. The prior (who I take to be John de Caroloco) and monks, however, argue that they should not have to pay the money. Both sides accept that there was an agreement to pay Simon some money – £20 per year, in two tranches – but there is disagreement as to whether this came with strings attached. The prior argued that it was a sum in recognition of Simon’s obligation to offer medical assistance to the house and its brethren, and Simon had utterly failed to do so, in the case of a former prior, Gerard (Gerald Rothonis was prior in 1363, according to the Victoria County History entry). Gerard had fallen ill, and Simon, who was at Mayfield (?), not regarded as too distant, had been sent for. He had refused to come.

Simon appears to have tried more than one line of argument for his position that the money should be paid. According to the Plea Roll, he argued that the money had not been conditional on his medical attendance or advice, and that he was, and had been, in poor health, having been struck by an illness called ‘gutta’ (I am tempted to say ‘gout’, but, in current circs, can’t get to a dictionary of medieval medical terms to check that; whatever it was, it made him helpless at some times, but able to function at other times). The same source also shows him claiming that the annuity was not a payment for future medical services, but a ‘reward’ for having given up to the prior the church of which he had previously been parson. The Year Book account includes additional technical pleas (to do with ‘doubleness’ of some of the other side’s pleading, and the wording of the original deal – did it oblige Simon to come in person and give medical advice, or something less than this; did it require medical advice or some more general counsel, since it did not specify). There is more detail on the prior’s pleading, including the idea that what was expected for a private, or internal, ailment like Gerard’s was examination of the urine – a classic medieval diagnostic procedure. There is a lot of interesting debate on the place of medical professionals, and the nature of expertise (of medics and lawyers). Simon gets into difficulties because his case about giving up the church does not have the sort of gold-standard evidence that the priory can produce: it is not mentioned in the parchment-work, while he is described as a doctor of physic in that document, and has not denied that he is one.

There is less difference between plea roll and year book than is sometimes the case, but the vocabulary and detail varies, so that those interested in this sort of arrangement will find it rewarding to look at both.

In the end (and, for once, we do have a result) Simon lost. He did not recover the ‘arrears’, and, what is more, had to pay for having brought a false claim. As ever, it’s impossible to know the truth – was Simon a poor infirm former medic who had given up his church and was supposed to be supported by this annuity, out of which the priory managed to weasel, or was he an arrogant and negligent doctor who would not attend his monastic clients? If he really was old and infirm, and needed to be looked after in his final years, he would probably not have chosen to approach the Priory of St Pancras for charity.






Plea Roll: CP 40/426 m. 433, 433d http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/E3/CP40no426/aCP40no426fronts/IMG_0635.htm


Year Book: see Seipp 1367.014 http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=13743 for the case, and a link to the ‘black letter’ report.

On the Priory of Lewes, see https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol2/pp64-71#anchorn99