Tag Archives: execution

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!”.

GS

24/4/2021.

 

 

 

 

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

 

The grim tale of a Lincolnshire tailor: sin and crime in a medieval gaol delivery roll

Well, this one’s very nasty (be warned – violence, and abusive sexual behaviour), but also interesting from a legal history point of view, so worthy of a quick note.

It’s in the gaol delivery roll for a session at Lincoln castle on 1st August, 1392, which contains a series of allegations against Robert de Spalding, tailor, living in Horbling.[i] Sadly, the roll has a big chunk missing from the right hand side, but there is still enough to reconstruct the charges.

In July 1391, Robert had been arrested for homicide, in relation to a newborn (and unbaptised) child, in a house in Horbling. That in itself is pretty horrible, but there was more. The entry notes that Robert had two (apparently living) wives, the first somewhere in Holland (Lincs, not Netherlands) and the second at Folkingham (also Lincs), but even so, on a Sunday in November 1390, he had taken his biological daughter Agnes, shut all of the windows and doors and raped her [the entry on the roll mentions force and the fact that this was conttrary to Agnes’s will]. It goes on to say that he  continued in this sin [it’s definitely singular] with the result that Agnes became pregnant. When the time came for the baby to be born, on Wednesday 28th June, 1391, in a house at Horbling, Robert shut all the windows and doors again, and drew his knife on the prostrate Agnes, swearing by the body of Christ that if she made any noise, he would kill her (so that nobody would learn of his misconduct). In this way, Agnes gave birth to the ‘creature’ which on that day, Robert killed and buried at the same house.

Robert was found ‘guilty of the felonies’ with which he was charged, and was hanged.

Points of interest

It often seems to me that the most surprising and interesting material comes out of situations like this, when we are dealing with a bit of ‘freestyling’ on the part of those who drew up the accusations. There is a fair bit here which goes beyond what was legally necessary – if we strip it all down, all that was needed for a capital trial in this case was the allegation that Robert had killed the baby, or a charge that he had raped Agnes (though, if you’ve spent any time with medieval records, you’ll know that that does not tend to end with a conviction). The rest of it – the two wives, the incest, the swearing and the threats – was not really needed. For some reason, though, those drawing up the indictment, and the clerk recording the session, decided to give us the whole story, granting us unusual access to the thoughts of medieval laymen. We see disapproval of bigamy and incest – and despite the fact that there seems to have been continuing sexual activity, only Robert, and not Agnes, is blamed for it (I don’t think that would have been the case in non-incest situations, and it is rather at odds with other statements in common law sources in which pregnancy was said to be impossible without the woman’s consent/pleasure).

Although the bigamy and incest were not strictly the felonies which ended up ending Robert, it is interesting that they were brought up. Each year, rather glibly perhaps, in the part of the Legal History unit dealing with sexual offences, I tell my students that bigamy and incest weren’t within the scope of the medieval common law: they were left to the church. It looks as if medieval people did not always make that neat jurisdictional distinction. Certainly something to think about.

From a human point of view, I do hope that things improved for Agnes after this – but rather fear that she would have been left in a poor position. She did not even get Robert’s property, for his chattels (1 mark) were forfeit, as was usual after a felony conviction.

GS

11/4/2021

 

Picture: Lincoln Castle, Lincoln © Dave Hitchborne cc-by-sa/2.0 :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

[i] JUST 3/177 m. 83 (AALT IMG 179) which you can see at AALT Page (uh.edu)

Rape: conviction and ideas

My two ‘forthcoming’ (well, one ‘forthcoming’ and one ‘forthcoming???’) publications deal with rape in medieval common law: it is a small part of Medieval Women and the Common Law (due out in April)  but the whole point of a chapter in an edited collection, (chapter title: ‘Rape and Law in Medieval Western Europe’, long since written, and the book is due out … well, let’s just say one day … ). There is already a lot of scholarship on rape/raptus in the medieval world, but still, I think, a great deal more to work out, and I keep finding new, relevant, entries in the plea rolls. One of these days, I will get around to doing a proper study of the changing nuances of formulae of accusation, for example. Anyway, here are a couple of nuggets which I don’t think I am going to work into these ‘forthcoming’ things, but seem as if they might be of interest to someone, some time, if they stumble across this.

The first one is a rarity – an actual conviction and hanging. It is hardly a new observation that almost nobody ever seems to have been found guilty of rape, and executed, in later medieval England. The plea rolls are full of the most detailed and horrendous allegations, and then an unexplained finding of ‘not guilty’. (And I have noticed that nobody ever seems to confess rape and abjure, or, as an approver, appeal another person of rape – further signs that conviction was fairly unlikely). Here, though, from the Rex section of a King’s Bench plea roll from Trinity term 1339 is a case of somebody hanged (or at least ordered to be hanged) for rape.  In KB 27/317 m. 10d (AALT IMG 297) an entry notes a case from a Norwich gaol delivery in 1339. Richard Kiriolf(?) of Holverston had been indicted that he and others on a night in 1338 broke into the house of Alice Newman in Rockland and robbed her of goods worth 12d, and then feloniously raped with her and lay with her against her will. He pleaded not guilty of ‘rape, robbery and felony’, but the jury found him guilty (it is specified in the record that they found him guilty of all three). He was ordered to be hanged, and it was stated that the vill of Holueston would answer for his chattels – worth 18d, which would be forfeit, because he was found guilty of a felony.

True, it is not an execution for rape alone, and the break in at night and theft would presumably have been enough to justify an execution, but it is of interest that rape was included in both charge and verdict, and is some evidence that capital punishment for rape was not a completely unimaginable outcome.

My blog, my rules – uninhibited by academic tutting, I also want to say something about the conflicted feelings this sort of thing gives rise to in me as a researcher and a human. To some extent, and no doubt bound up with all sort of thoughts about the deep and long history of difficulty in seeking accountability and some sort of justice in this area, there is satisfaction to see evidence of rape being seen as a serious offence. That, though, hits up against my utter horror of capital punishment (always) and also the wish not to see capital punishment, in this period, as having been a much ‘better’ outcome for the woman, or the only indicator of something being taken seriously. So it’s interesting, but not an ‘air punch moment’.

The other interesting case to mention here is on the plea roll for Easter 1335, at KB27/300 Rex m.11 (AALT IMG 309). It is a record of an indictment before the KB at Wigan in 1334, and it states that Richard son of Adam son of Alan of Mondesley and others on a date in 1315 (it definitely says this is in the reign of Edward II, so quite a long time before) came to the home of Cecilia widow of William son of Robert de Heskyn, broke in and feloniously raped her de corpore suo, contrary to the form of the statute etc. and against her will.  The dorse of the membrane shows that Richard was found not guilty (surprise!) but that is not the thing which struck me as interesting. Instead, it is those words ‘of her body’. They are stuck in just where, in many felonious rape cases, we would find the words ‘of her virginity’, and, I think show an interesting wish to include an idea that something was taken away. This opens up all sorts of cans of worms about women, bodies, (perhaps) property, and the idea that something tangible is removed when one is raped. I have no more than that, for now, but it seemed worth noting, and I will be both mulling it over, and also looking for other such phrasing in my endless, and endlessly fascinating, searches through the plea rolls.

GS

23/1/2021

Life, death, dower and the twitching of legs

I have recently been doing a lot of work on the history of proving the presence or absence of life. My particular focus has been on medieval England, and on determining whether or not a baby, now dead, was ever alive so as to qualify the father for certain property rights (tenancy by the curtesy: article on its way). That has been fascinating, and I am sure there is more to discuss and discover on that point, but it is also part of a bigger question for the law, on drawing lines between life and death. This is important in criminal cases – e.g. in working out whether a person was killed by X or by Y – but it is also crucial in relation to various succession questions. As well as the curtesy cases in which there is a need to determine whether or not a live child was produced, there are cases in which it is necessary to work out the order of deaths. How was this decision made in the past?

There are two broad issues for legal historians: by what mechanism is the question decided, and by what test is it decided. My curtesy work has shown me that neither question leads to an entirely straightforward answer. Today, I came across an ‘order of death’ case from the 16th C which has set me thinking about this in a wider context.

The case, called Broughton v. Randall in the English Reports, though more properly Morgan Broughton, armiger v. Margaret, widow of Robert ap Rondell Cro Eliz 502. 78 ER 752; appears on the King’s Bench plea roll for Trinity 1596 (38 Elizabeth I), starting at KB 27/1339 m. 876 (AALT IMG 0945).  It is in the report, however, that something is said about the ‘order of deaths’ issue. This was a dower case from Denbighshire, Wales, in which Margaret was claiming land currently held by Morgan. The land in question appears to have been held jointly by Robert and his father. Both were hanged at the same time. Margaret’s chance of dower depended on it being decided that Robert had outlived his father. She was successful, and this was, according to the report, because Robert’s legs had been observed to twitch after his father was still. I am not qualified to say whether that really is a good indication of life in a meaningful sense, though I am inclined to be doubtful.

I have drawn a blank, so far, on Robert, his father and their crime, though that does seem an interesting avenue to pursue one day. Also interesting is the fact that this is a Welsh case – since there is much to be discovered about the ways in which the Welsh were arranging their property holding in this period. As far as the pinpointing of death is concerned, however, this does show the inventive approach which might be taken to establishing the facts for legal purposes. Its use of movement as a criterion is also very interesting as a counterpoint to the test in curtesy, which was traditionally more sound-focused.