Tag Archives: confession

Minor discrepancies: crime, confession and capital punishment in medieval Cambridgeshire

This one is on a new topic for this blog, I think – ideas about minority in relation to medieval ‘criminal’ law and procedure.

It’s from a gaol delivery roll for a session in Cambridge castle, on Wednesday 24th September 1354,[i] and it tells us that John le Northerne had been arrested at the suit of Margaret, widow of John Andreu of Little Wilbraham. She accused him of  having, on Monday 9th December 1353, at Little Wilbraham, feloniously robbed her of money and a variety of valuable (yet conveniently portable) goods. Margaret appealed John of this felony, before a coroner. Later, John confessed before the same coroner, that he had in fact committed this felonious theft, and the coroner recorded this confession. The entry notes, however, that, at the gaol delivery session, the court saw that John was clearly under age, so that his confession was of no effect at law. Did that end matters? No, it did not. John was then asked how he pleaded to the appeal of Margaret, and he pleaded not guilty. The jury on which he put himself said that he was guilty, and so it was ordered that he be hanged. Margaret was to have her chattels back, and John’s other chattels, valued at 6d, were forfeit.


So what?

In terms of fixing of the boundary between minority and majority, we might want to note that the judges of gaol delivery thought that John was manifestly under age, whilst the coroner had not seen a problem. This might of course mean that the coroner was dodgy in some way, or else ignorant of a rule known to others, but it seems most likely that there was not a settled rule on the matter. In a world in which there could be doubt as to somebody’s chronological age, perhaps definite ‘cliff edges’ would not make sense.

In my view, the main point of interest is what feels like an inconsistency between, on the one hand saying that, however old John was thought to be, that was too young to confess to the theft, and yet old enough to stand trial and face execution by hanging. What am I missing, and why the difference? Should I be seeing an idea that confession of an offence requires a higher level of maturity and capacity than that required for the assignment of responsibility, and prescription of punishment, for felony? And if that is the case, where does that leave us with ideas about intention and culpability for these purposes? What differences might there have been between the sort of intent, and capacity, required before a homicide would be regarded as felonious, and that required in relation to a theft offence? (I note that there are other instances of people found to have confessed and abjured at too young an age for it to count – see, e.g. JUST 3/141A m. 18d (AALT IMG 143), though there the consequence of a court finding that the young man in question must have been too young to abjure was that he was acquitted).

Whatever might be the theory of the thing, John did not seem to be in line for mercy – there is no suggestion by the jury of a lack of felony,  nor of awaiting royal mercy and a pardon (and no later intervention and pardon on the Patent Roll, as far as I can see). I think we have to assume, then, that this young offender did go to the gallows as a result of the decisions made at the gaol delivery. Allow me an anachronistic “Grim!”.







[i] JUST 3/139 m. 12d (AALT IMG 100).