Tag Archives: Cornwall

Property, ‘poysyn drynke’ and presentments: a confounding case from medieval Cornwall

It has been a while – conferencing and Covid have intervened since my last post. Here we are again, though: I’m on the mend, and ready with another cheery tale involving medieval women’s interaction with the common law. In fact this one brings together a couple of things which have interested me, over the years: petty treason (the current obsession) and an ‘old flame’ (intellectually speaking), the laws surrounding rape/ravishment and abduction in later medieval England.

The case has two distinct parts, and, as ever, it is hard to make sensible comments about the truth of any of it. What is probably true is that a ‘gentleman’ called Richard Mourton, of Southlegh in the parish of Launcells died in 1481, and he was in poor health for some time beforehand. Beyond that, who knows how he came to die, and what, if anything, was the involvement of others in his demise.

At a judicial session on 2nd October 1481, at Bodmin, twelve jurors swore that the truth went like this: Richard Mourton had been ill, and suffering physically. (Presumably knowing that this was it, and wanting to sort out the practicalities), he had appointed his wife, Matilda, and others executors of his will, custodians of his body and made a will leaving his goods and chattels to Matilda and others. He asked her for medical care. She, however, along with one William Smyth, lately of Thorne in the parish of Launcells, Cornwall, yeoman, full of evil dishonesty and seduced by the devil, and lusting to enjoy the assets of Richard sooner rather than later, took action to accelerate his demise. On 10th March 1481, William and Matilda feloniously  prepared a deadly, poisonous, intoxicating drink, commonly called poysyn drynke, and gave it to Richard, passing it off as a medicine. Because Richard had great faith in Matilda and William, he drank the deceptive drink, and died on 11th March 1481 as a result. Matilda and William had, therefore, feloniously intoxicated, killed and murdered him, against the king’s peace and the crown and dignity of the king.[i]

As I said, there is no way of knowing whether this was true or not. I have found no further records relating to the death. There is, however, another layer to the story, which is to be found in the same file, on the preceding membrane.[ii]  This one comes from a judicial session at Camelford on 18th April 1481, and the jurors here said that William Smyth (here described as a ‘labourer’) had carried off and raped Matilda on 23rd March 1481. The removal of Matilda from her home, and carrying off to Thorne, William’s home turf, was clearly described as being against her will. There is also a clear allegation of felonious ‘carnal knowledge’ straight afterwards.Nevertheless, the focus of the allegation is not so much the wrong to Matilda as (a) the property prospects for others; and (b) the dim view taken of Matilda’s alleged conduct after the violation. On 24th March 1481 (so the day after the rape) she was said to have ‘consented to and agreed (concorded) with him. This might conceivably mean that she settled with him, but I think it probably means that she married him, or agreed to marry him.

The jurors were keen to point out that this was a scenario dealt with in a statute of 1382,[iii] which would mean that it would affect the transmission of land (in brief, the woman would not be able to have her dower or other rights to land which would otherwise come her way). There has been quite a bit of work on this measure, often highlighting the possibility that women might run off with a lover quite consensually. They might do so, of course, but I have always been very wary of any suggestion that consensual (in modern terms) departures predominated. I think we just can’t know.[iv] This case would seem to me to reinforce the fact that violent and unwanted removal was also entirely within the contemplation of those applying this law.

 

Another aspect to ponder is how the two sets of allegations interacted. If they are to be believed, then the timeline was as follows:

10/3/1481            William and Matilda prepare the poison and Richard Mourton drinks it

11/3/1481            Richard Mourton dies as a result of the poisoning

23/3/1481            William abducts and rapes Matilda

24/3/1481           Matilda ‘consents and concords’ with William

18/4/1481            Session at Camelford, to which rape presentment is dated

2/10/1481            Session at Bodmin, to which poisoning presentment is dated

 

I am not quite sure what to make of the combined story. If there really was poisoning, should we be imagining that William and Matilda had differing views as to what should happen once Richard was out of the picture, leading to the abduction and rape of Matilda? Another possibility must be that Matilda was not involved in the poisoning, and William had plotted against both Richard and Matilda. Of course there may not have been any poisoning, ‘only’ the abduction and rape of a woman who had lost her husband less than a fortnight previously, followed by threats to her property rights.[v]

I am tempted to see the slightly belated petty treason accusation as an indication that the claim under the 1382 statute did not work. Such a failure would seem rather a good motive for somebody who stood to gain by her loss suddenly to start putting it about a few months later that Matilda had been a petty traitor (who, if convicted, would obviously not be enjoying her dower etc.) This is speculation, however, and I will have to end with a rather limp acknowledgement that the area remains intriguingly reluctant to divulge its truth.

GS

9th August, 2022.

 

Images: St Swithin’s Church, Launcells. For once they match the period of the case, the church having been reconstructed in the 15th C, and the fittings pictured here also coming from that century. St Swithin’s sounds an absolute cracker, with a holy well and everything. Would love to visit it!

 

[i] KB 9/358 m. 3; see the image via AALT here.

[ii] KB 9/358 m. 2; see the image via AALT here.

[iii] 6 Richard II, st. 1, c. 6; Statutes of the Realm II, 27.

[iv] See, e.g., my Imprisoning  Medieval  Women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170–1509, (Farnham, 2011), though there is plenty of other work in this area.

[v] m.2, which describes a raid by William and others on ‘Matilda’s house’, suggests that she had initially been able to keep the house, suggesting that there was not an immediate accusation against her.

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

[This is a slightly updated version of an earlier post, from 2020, which had the same name]

This one is relevant to my continuing investigations in ‘petty treason’, as well as medical history, history of crime, religious houses and medieval Cornwall…

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The killing was described as false, felonious and treacherous. It was also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll.

The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged.

The common lawyers did not get a chance to sink their teeth into the thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling about categorising the relationships, or benefit of clergy, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic and his alleged religious accomplice in this case.

So what?

Medical history

This bundle of parchment entries gives us a bit of a glimpse into the hiring of medical men by religious houses. It seems interesting that the prior apparently entered into a long-term arrangement with John Leech, for his benefit alone (not that of the house) and the description of the terms is also quite instructive: it sounds as if there was a particular condition which was the focus of Leech’s work, rather than a general idea of keeping the prior in good nick, but that this condition was regarded as potentially amenable to a cure.

It also gives rise to questions as to whether the accusation might have been due to a general suspicion of what was in fact standard practice, or criticism of what may have been aggressive or experimental medical and surgical interventions.

‘Petty treason’

Much of the work I have done on PT has looked at the ‘wife kills husband’ subspecies, since I am interested in women. It is beginning to dawn on me, though, that there are some big and engaging questions to consider, in relation to ‘the other sorts’, i.e. ‘servant kills master’ and ‘person owing faith and obedience kills prelate’. This case touches on both of these subspecies. The description of John Leech’s contract with the prior can only be in there to suggest that he is a ‘servant’ of the type covered by the ‘master killed by servant’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’ – I can’t see that it has any other relevance. We are even given the detail that he has an initial one-year contract, then it rolls on from year to year. It may be that this was how the agreement was actually set up, but I would say that it is interesting that these one-year periods are very reminiscent of standard ‘labourers’ contracts – so their inclusion does seem to be angled towards associating a ‘medical professional’ of some sort with the ploughmen, masons etc. of the 14th century labourers legislation, giving a clearer idea of hierarchical relationship. I do find myself wondering just who was covered by the ‘master-servant’ subspecies of petty treason – and perhaps fifteenth century people were unsure about this too. The canon-prior relationship between Yerll and Honylond is rather more obviously covered by the ‘prelate’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’, unless we want to get into just what the differences might be between different forms of religious organisation. (I do have questions about that – though will leave them for another time. Suffice it to say that I would love to find a case involving nuns, but not holding my breath on that).

 

References: scans brought to you by the magnificent AALT …

KB 27/681 m. 6R; KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 39d, 40, 40d.

GS

18/6/2022.

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

[There is an updated version of this here].

Something interesting turned up in my plea roll trawling today (or at least it is interesting if you are interested in medieval crime, medicine, religious houses or Cornwall). …

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As two indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The accusation described the killing as false, felonious and treacherous. It also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll. The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged. Richard Yerll, if guilty, would seem to fit reasonably snugly into the category of ‘monk and abbot’ – perhaps there might have been some scope to argue differences in the relationship between monk and abbot in other orders and canon and prior in the Augustinian order. John Leche is a bit more difficult to see as falling into the category of ‘petty traitor’. He was, in modern parlance, more of an ‘independent contractor’ than a ‘servant’ of the prior.

The common lawyers did not, however, get a chance to get their teeth into either of these thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic in this case. Obvious questions arise: was this part of a more general suspicion or criticism of what may have been aggressive surgical interventions? Was there personal animus against Leche, Yerll or both? It may be that there is more which can be found out about the leading players, but, at the moment, during our own health emergency, the records relating to the priory, in Oxford and Cornwall, which might help here, are beyond my reach. I will, therefore, have to leave it there for now, in the hope that I will be able to flesh it out in the future.

References

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 40 (AALT IMG 77, 79)

KB 27/681 m. 6R (AALT IMG 161); KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

GS 14/6/2020