Tag Archives: fraud

Prophecy, ‘pagan’ magic and promises of wealth in medieval Devon

Here’s a colourful tale from fourteenth century Devon, showing an apparent scheme to fleece the locals using exotic claims to magic power, and playing on their greed.

The story comes out in the King’s Bench plea roll of Michaelmas term 1374,[i] though it refers to events of quite some years earlier – in 1345, and a presentment before justices in Devon in 1354. The tale was that  Gervase Worthy, Geoffrey Ipswich and William Kele had come to the home of Rouland Smallcumbe at Barnstaple, and had spun a yarn to his wife. Their patter was that they were rather more exotic than the sort of people she was likely to have met, being converted pagans (pagani – I’ll have to look into just what that word signifies at this period, but it’s clearly some sort of ‘non-Christians’). Presumably as a result of their claimed questionable past religious status, they were believed when they claimed special powers: they could tell fortunes, including how long a person would live. They also said that they had other gifts, and worked on Rouland’s wife in such a way as to get her to believe that they could make precious items reproduce themselves. They got her to give them all her gold, silver and jewels, and other valuables. When she handed them over, Gervase convinced the gullible woman that he had put these in a chest, but in fact, it would seem using some sleight of hand and misdirection,  he had made off with them. Getting her ‘invested’ in the magical process in a way modern magicians (or fraudsters) would appreciate,  Gervase locked the chest, and took away the key, instructing Rouland’s wife that every day for nine days she should go to the church for three masses, and that she should not open the chest, When he returned, as he promised to do after that, with the key, her jewels, in the box, would have doubled! The rogues did not come back though, and the desperate woman broke open the chest. Sadly, she did not find the promised increased hoard, but a piece of cloth full of lead and  (non-precious) stones. The presentment did not stop with this, however, but ascribed to the gang’s fraud another serious outcome: as a result of this deception, the woman became ill and soon died.  It was also noted that the gang had made 200 marks across Devon by similar ruses. There does not seem to have been a conviction, however, and who knows whether there was any truth in any of this, but there is always something to take away from these unusual entries.

The elaborate ruse, with the idea that people (women in particular?) might be bamboozled by tales of exotic magic,  says a lot about popular ideas of the existence of magic, but also its association with trickery. The combination of ‘pagan’ magic with Christian practices (note the masses), and the fact that the rogues claimed only to be former pagans – they were now safely Christian, so had the powers of the exotic pagan, but not the untrustworthiness – gives clues about ideas on non-Christians, and also their limitations. The idea of precious things breeding more precious things puts me in mind of usury (money breeding money – which was bad). And finally the idea that the poor woman’s death was thrown in as a bit of an afterthought – caused by the fraud in a sense, but not the main complaint – and the deceased never is named beyond the labelling as some absent man’s wife –  is something of a comment on the place of women in the medieval common law, isn’t it? If only somebody would write a book about that …



[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.29 (AALT IMG 340).



Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Dying of a broken heart (due to loss of land): taking advantage of the unwell in thirteenth century Devon

Earlier this month, I blogged about a case of land-fraud in medieval Yorkshire, involving people taking advantage of a woman who was physically and mentally incapable, forging a charter and taking her land, only for her to recover and take great pains to sort things out:


Today, I came across another fraudulent charter case with some nuggets about medieval health, health-care, attitudes to the unwell and ideas about causation in relation to health. It is from the other end of England, from Devon, and from a slightly earlier period than the Agnes Bertram case.

The case appears in a roll of the eyre of Devon 1269 (JUST 1/178 m. 20; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no178/aJUST1no178fronts/IMG_1319.htm ).

John son of John v. Walter de Fraunckenney is a case concerning some land and a mill on Dartmoor. John (we will call him John II) said that this land had previously been held of his father (John I) by one Henry de Fraunckenney. According to John II, the land should have come back to him (escheat), because Henry had died without a legitimate heir.

Walter argued that John’s case could not stand, because he had got the story, and the chain of land relationships, wrong – in fact, Henry had not held the land at the time of his death, but had transferred it to Walter some two years before his death.  He had a charter which showed this transfer (feoffment).

The jurors confirmed that Henry had held the land of John I, father of John II, but that, when Henry was ill (langwidus) and lying on his sick-bed, in Dorset, Walter (who was Henry’s bailiff there) had used a maid (or maiden? The word is domicella), who was looking after (custodiebat) Henry, and who attended him diligently/constantly (assidue) made the charter of feoffment, without Henry’s knowledge. Walter had then come to the land in question and had shown the charter to Henry’s bailiff there, one Michael, demanding to be let in. Michael did not let him in, however, not having had an order to that effect from Henry, his lord.  Walter went in anyway and started taking the oaths of fealty of the villeins on the land.  Henry knew nothing about this at the time, but rumour of it reached him, and he was so grieved (tantum angustiabatur pro dolore) that he died at once. The jurors were asked how long before Henry’s death Walter’s intrusion had gone on, and they said it had persisted for a third of a year. They were also asked about the charter’s provenance, and said that it had not been made in the proper open, legal, manner.

(There may be further stages to locate, as the case was sent for judgment to Westminster, though I have not found them yet).

Apart from the intrinsic interest of seeing the infinite variety of people’s bad behaviour, the case shows, again, one of the potential vulnerabilities of the medieval system of land transfer and proof of right: charters could be forged. There would appear to have been a particular opportunity to do this here, given (a) Henry’s infirmity and (b) his absence from the land in question. It also gives a glimpse into the sick-room, showing the constant attendance on Henry of the maid (even if she did turn out to be a wrong ‘un). I am interested by the word ‘custodiebat’: I have translated it as ‘looked after’ but it could also have a more, well, custodial, or controlling, aspect to it. Most fascinatingly, in one throw-away line, the jurors tell us that they think sudden death could be caused (at least to one already ‘languishing’) by grief at being cheated out of one’s land. This path from economic loss to very bad health also turned up in the case of the unfortunate furiosus noted in https://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/02/03/medieval-mental-health-describing-explaining-and-excusing-a-furiosus/

and strikes me as worth further consideration.



Fraud and fungus: a fresh look at Rochefoucauld v Boustead [1897] 1 Ch. 196

An interesting and careful reappraisal of a case very well known to teachers and students of equity and trusts is provided in G. Allan, ‘Ceylon coffee, the Comtesse and the consignee: a historical reappraisal of Rochefoucauld v Boustead’, Journal of Legal History 36:1 (2015) 43-82. This goes some years into the background of the behaviour and transactions which culminated in this important case, dealing along the way with divorce, Roman-Dutch mortgage law and agricultural catastrophe. The Comtesse of the title emerges as an intriguing figure well worth literary treatment – and a follow-up film which could include scenes in Ceylon, Paris, Baden Baden and London. Winslet? Scott-Thomas? Clearly an Oscar-worthy role. It also provides some less-obviously dramatic but careful consideration of the categorisation of trusts, and thinking about equitable fraud, at the time of the case, which is worth taking into account when looking at it for the purposes of modern legal doctrine and practice.