Tag Archives: coroner

Mustard mastered: a tortuously-explained death in medieval Kent

A King’s Bench plea roll entry for Michaelmas 1374[i]  informs us about the legal response to the death of an agricultural labourer, John Mustard, in Kent.

The entry notes that there had been an inquest on the body of one John Mustard, which resulted in the indictment of Simon de Kegworth. The inquest was taken at Earde, Kent, on 3rd August, 1374, and the inquest jury said that events had unfolded as follows…

The scene: John Mustard, who was one of Simon’s workers, along with others of Simon’s servants, was at work tying up sheaves of peas (not quite sure of my agricultural correctness there – sheaves of peas sounds a bit odd – but it’s what the words say!) at the hour of vespers in a field called Priestfield in the hundred of Litley, and vill of Earde…

Action #1 – things get a bit tasty:  Simon came to his servants and as he arrived, John Mustard, who was drunk, spoke to Simon in contemptuous words (which, of course, the record-creators felt the need to preserve for us …). John said that Simon was an idiot (fatuus) and [rough translation!] was no more use than pigshit.

John continued the insults as everyone went on with their agricultural tasks (gathering things up before an expected rain-soaking). Sadly, these ‘even more contumelious’ words are not recorded. It is a shame, because it seems to have been these unrecorded words which tipped Simon over the edge.

Action #2 – Simon loses it, but absolutely doesn’t wish to harm John, and doesn’t cause his death: Simon had a willow staff or club – we are told that this was something he carried in the autumn – and he threw it at John. This, it is pointed out, was meant to frighten John out of continuing his disrespectful words. It may have stopped the words, but it did not knock the fight out of John – he took the staff in his hand and threw it back at Simon. After this, Simon was apparently scared of John, he being so drunk, and drew out his knife, throwing it at John. This, we are told, was to make John want to flee, rather than to do him any harm, but  by misfortune the  knife ‘fell’ onto John’s back, wounding him. This wound was ‘small, neither deep, nor wide, nor mortal. John did die, but this was because the wound was widened and opened by his agricultural work, done afterwards. The jurors insisted on pointing out that John was, at the end, not drunk, and that he did not die of the (initial) wound.

Simon, presumably confident that he would not really be in danger of being hanged for this, turned himself in at once.

So what?

Well, this is interesting to me in a few ways. I do love a good insult – it feels like a real connection to the speech of the past, despite the omissions, and the translation. There is a fair helping of ‘humans don’t change that much’ in my instinctive response to reading the sort of verbal mud (and worse) they allegedly fling at each other in such cases. It gives us some useful information about what was seen as acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the master-servant relationship There is more to late 14th C labour relations than the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. I suppose it also tells us something about medieval inebriation and attitudes to it (though I have to say I don’t quite understand why we need to know about John’s level of intoxication at the time of his death – is this to do with the state of his soul?).From a legal point of view, iIt is also instructive to see fairly obvious fiddling with the path of causation assigned to the death, in order to avoid serious consequences for a favoured killer. Here, Simon responds to drunken insults with physical force – there is no way that throwing things, including throwing them at a man’s back, fits the usual stereotyped formula for self defence, but the jurors here clearly thought that John Mustard was ‘asking for it’, and did their best to soften the conduct of Simon, to explain it and to put the best possible spin on his intentions.

In the end, Simon’s confidence was well placed: though indicted for the death of John, he received a royal pardon, on 7th November, 1374, and so was sent off ‘without day’ by the King’s Bench,[ii] to return to his pea-gathering in Kent, presumably.





[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.32, AALT IMG 348

[ii] Pardon CPR 1374-7, p. 34.

Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash