Tag Archives: Gwen Seabourne

Causing, confusion? A medieval case from the Isle of Wight

[Warning: This post concerns an instance of sexual violence]

Documents in the King’s Bench indictment file for Hilary term 1448, and an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll, deal with the death of a woman, Joan wife of John Couke, and with accusations against a vicar on the Isle of Wight, with regard to Joan’s last few hours.[i]

Joan’s death had been the subject of a coroner’s inquest at Newport on the Isle of Wight, on Tuesday 12th September, 1447. At this inquest, the twelve jurors said on oath that John Hunter, vicar of the chapel of St Nicholas within the castle of Carisbrooke,[ii] came to Newport with force and arms (sample arms specified), against the peace of the lord king, and broke into and entered the close of a certain Edward Brutte, wrongfully, between the hours of nine and ten at night on Monday 11th Sept, 1447. There and then, he raped[iii] Joan, feloniously, and lay with her carnally. On encountering the pair in the act of intercourse,[iv] John Couke raised the hue and cry. At this, Joan fled, for shame and fear,[v] through the street called Holyrodstret, to the stream called Douks Brouke. She was found dead, with her throat cut, in this stream at around 7 a.m. on 12th September, by one John Mabyll of Newport, glover. The jurors did not know who had killed her. ‘Therefore  they said that John Hunter had caused her death.’[vi]

The matter was brought before the King’s Bench fairly swiftly – in late January, 1448, for once, an accused person who did not attempt to delay things. John Hunter said that he did not need to answer this accusation, because the indictment was not sufficient in law: the coroner did not have the power to inquire into such a matter. The court agreed that it was insufficient, and John Hunter was acquitted.

So what?

Following the usual monotonous pattern, we see yet another man (and yet another churchman) accused of sexual misconduct going free. It is important to register that. There are, however, some quite unusual aspects, hints of thinking by those involved in medieval ‘criminal justice’ which seem worth pointing out.

First, there is the narrative around the sexual offence. It features that lack of conformity with modern, consent-based, definitions of rape, and that disturbing tendency towards assigning culpability to the penetrated woman, through linguistic implication of willed action on her part. Joan is portrayed – presumably with some plausibility – as having been shamed as well as afraid, and running from the hue and cry, as if to suggest that she would be held to have been at fault.

Then there is the causation point, and it could be argued that this goes against the ideas of ‘victim-blaming’, or adoption of the rape myth that all or most women actually are complicit in their own violation. Although their attempt to form a workable indictment was, in the end, rejected by the court, the inquest jurors did choose to tell the story of the rape of Joan, in a forum which was, strictly, supposed to be confined to ‘how the deceased came by her death’ – i.e. the immediate context of that throat-slitting which occurred some hours after the rape, and which was perpetrated by person or persons unknown, and they did attempt to place blame for the death on the rapist, John Hunter, not in the sense of saying that he slit Joan’s throat, but in the broader sense that he had been culpable in creating the situation which led to her death. Ideas about causation are often rather hard to discern in the brief records of the medieval common law, so it is very interesting to see them emerging above the surface here. Causation is far from a straightforward issue, and continues to be debated in criminal law, and in tort. In truth, there is a large degree of moral choice as opposed to clear, logical, inevitability, about decisions that A caused B. This does seem to be something of an outlier, in arguing that a person should be held culpable in relation to a death perpetrated by another, on a person he harmed in a terrible but non-fatal way, at some distance in space and time from the scene of his crime. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to see how they arrived at this interpretation?

Of course, it is possible to reconcile these two apparently inconsistent aspects of the case, by imagining that, although the jurors would often in fact have been unsympathetic to a woman who was raped, their allegation that Hunter had caused Joan’s death was caused by the fact that they were really, really hostile to this particular vicar, and wished to do him a bad turn.




[i] Completists may also want to see this.

[ii] As pictured – sort of – the medieval chapel was demolished and rebuilt, as can be seen from  this,.

[iii] It’s a rapuit, with all of the potential uncertainty of that word. It seems appropriate to me to translate it as ‘raped’ here.

[iv] carnaliter communicantibus, I think.

[v] pro pudore et timore

[vi] fuit causa mortis prefate Johanne

‘If you’re going to write [legal] histories … you have to do the research’

Weird when what seemed to be disparate bits of life come together, isn’t it? Just happened to me when scrolling through Twitter. Context: off (Covid and travel chaos permitting) to the British Legal History Conference in Belfast next week, and the Irish Legal History Society is sending helpful suggestions as to touristy things which conference-goers might do. The latest was highlighting the fact that parts of the TV series ‘Game of Thrones‘ were filmed in Northern Ireland, and there is stuff to see. A comment was made about GoT not being legal history, and I was reminded of the fact that I did once do a bit of a LH analysis of it (based on the books, not the series, granted, but it counts …). Time to collect and stick them up again, I think.

So, here, here, here,  here, here, and here for your delectation, are my pontifications on the subject. Clearly I was living a fulfilling and happy life in 2014 …

Now wondering how to find a tie-in for my similar great works on Star Trek, The Vampire Diaries and Lord of the Rings … (would work if next BLHC were to be at the University of Mordor, I suppose …). And possibly a few more thoughts on Derry Girls leading up to the SLSA conference there next year?



[And the quote, if you are wondering, is, apparently from s.7 of the TV series, to Tarly, by Ebrose. Thank you internet. May have altered it for added topic-relevance).

Picture: adding general royal vibe – Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash

Weapons and words: revisiting an issue from medieval sexual offence records

Updated version of this post

(This post contains references to sexual offences and sexual violence)

Despite the lack of interest in this area which is shown in the leading textbook on medieval English legal history, (you have a look at Baker’s Introduction to English Legal History editions 1-5 …), the study of sexual offences has seemed to the better sort of social historians and history-based legal historians to be something worthy of considerable attention, just as it has done to many modern legal scholars. There has been some excellent work, examining the implications of the word raptus (summary: it’s complicated) and differences over time, in terms of the basic allegations which appear in legal records. One aspect which has not been to the fore is the very occasional use of metaphorical language in these records, in relation to sexual offences, specifically the use of the image of weaponry to stand in for male genitalia.

I mused about this in a previous post, and updated it a little here,* when I found some more examples, and it seemed worth revisiting, and perhaps trying to discuss the matter with those who might have wider, relevant, expertise (over a longer time-span, or else a broader knowledge of other sources – literary, theological … than is possible for a legal scholar stepping out of her lane quite enough by taking on medieval history…).

In the first post, to summarise, I noted an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 relating to proceedings against a clerk, Thomas Harvy, for alleged offences in Norfolk, including a sexual offence (which was probably understood to be ‘consensual’ – at least in contemporary terms of an absence of overt physical struggle).[i] Jurors had presented before the justices of the peace that, on 1st October 1433, Thomas Harvy of Testerton, clerk, … broke into the house of  John Serjeant of Colkirk, at Colkirk, and attacked Margaret, John’s wife,  wounding her shamefully (turpiter) with a certain carnal lance called, in English, a ‘ballokhaftitdagher’, and so he continued to do until that day, setting a bad example etc., to John’s great damage and against John’s will.’[ii]

I did, at first, question my reading of the carnal lance/ ballokhaftitdagher’: could the lance perhaps have been some sort of butchery implement? But both terms being used together made a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and to refer to male genitalia.

I had come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.[iii] Another ‘carnal lance’ reference, in a 1483 Devon indictment,[iv] does seem to separate the attack with the lance and the sexual penetration, so did make me wonder once more whether I might be talking fanciful nonsense, but yet another, from the same county and roll, mentions the use in an attack on a female servant of both ‘carnal lance’ and two ‘stones’.[v] A metaphorical link between testicles and stones was certainly present in the medieval period, and appears, for example, in the Mirror of Justices, in a discussion of mayhem (Book I c. 9). It is, of course, still hard to be sure that this was not a real lance and real stones, but the more examples I find of the link between weapon-talk and sexual offence cases, the less likely that seems.

I have not gone out looking for references in a systematic way, and it seems unlikely that I have, by chance, found all of them. The best view which I can give at the moment is that this was a known idiom/image in later medieval England, and an unusual, but not unknown,  inclusion in legal records.

Update, 29th May, 2022

I found another reference to carnal lances and stones, from Devon, from an indictment file for Hilary term 1482 – this time I think it really does confirm that carnal lances were not actual lances, and stones were not actual stones, in some legal records. It is a deeply unpleasant sexual assault accusation, in which a certain William Gamon, clerk, was accused of what would now be called  a rape (though no ‘rape term’ is used, and neither are words of felony) on Joan, wife of John Stonehewer, on two separate occasions.   

A rough-and-ready translation of The case on KB 9/359 m.2 would be:

‘[A Devon jury on 12 October 1480] said on oath that Wm Gamon, [ff] recently of [Denbury], Devon, on 2nd July and 10th October 1479, with force and arms and against the peace of the lord king, with staves and knives and also a carnal lance, broke and entered  the houses of John Stonehewer at Denbury and Ottery St Mary, hit John’s wife, Joan, several times, and then hit and penetrated her with the aforesaid lance and two stones hanging in the said William’s nether regions, in a certain hairy opening between her two thighs, in the rear, so that her life was despaired of and against the peace of the lord king.’

Aside from confirming the lance/stones metaphor usage, this introduces further examples of figurative language for body parts in the sexual context. The woman’s body is discussed in particularly demeaning terms here, which is not very surprising really, but which reinforces the everyday misogyny which would have pervaded the atmosphere of medieval courts.

Update, 26th June, 2022

Another one – going back to the 1440s: KB 9/293 m. 2 shows a Kent jury swearing that Richard Kay, parson of the church of Hartley, on 20th November 1439, broke into and entered the house of Thomas Cotyer in Hartley, with force and arms, and, in a barn, assaulted Rose, Thomas Cotyer’s wife, beat and wounded and mistreated her, and hit her so severely with a certain carnal lance between her thighs, that she fell to the floor onto her back, and then he lay with her, against the king’s peace. They added that Richard was ‘a common adulterer etc.’[vi]


Why is this interesting, and what does it all mean?

If the ‘weapons’ are metaphorical, what then? First it is worth noting that a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls. It was not necessary to describe the (alleged) offences in this way. Secondly, it should be acknowledged that  the use of weapon-imagery is a well-known practice in literary sources.[vii] What are the implications of this weapon imagery in the legal context?  Several things occur to me, all a little tentative just now – I would certainly be interested to know what others think. Here are some of them:

  1. I wonder whether we can read into the occasional intrusion of this sort of imagery in entries on the legal record something of the mood of discussion about such offences, amongst the men involved in making records, or those in court. Is there validity to my intuitive reaction that it sounds like joking about and diminishing the seriousness, or the wrong, of sexual assault and rape? Might it be argued to show the exact opposite: since we know that these prosecutions almost never ‘succeeded’ in the sense of ending with a conviction and punishment according to secular law, aligning it more closely with the ‘ordinary’ sort of violence (and especially categorising the harm as a ‘wound’, as in ‘ordinary’ batteries etc.) showed a greater-than-usual degree of concern. The ‘rape: an offence (predominantly) of sex or violence?’ question is something of an ‘old chestnut’ in modern legal scholarship, but I think that there is some worth in considering linking up those debates with the work on rape/sexual offences in historical studies, which does not always deal with this point.
  2. What does the weapon imagery say about ideas of men, rape and sex?
    1. Does associating offending sex with a weapon in some sense dissociate man and penis, and, if so, is this something which serves to minimise – or ‘outsource’ – culpability?
    2. How does the association work with ideas/reality of rape as a weapon in (medieval) warfare?
    3. What does it all say about contemporary ideas of (socially sanctioned) sex? We are well used to the medieval idea of heterosexual encounters as asymmetrical, perhaps with a ‘playful’ combat aspect. Does using the weapon idea in sexual offence cases suggest an acceptance of a continuity between offending and non-offending sex?
    4. If weapon-imagery is to be used, what is the reason to choose one type of weapon rather than another? What implications might there be in choosing a lance rather than a dagger, a Latin/French term or an English one?

As ever with medieval legal records, far more loose ends and questions than concrete findings, but, I will stick my neck out a tiny bit and make one statement based on all of this. It does seem to me that one thing the use of weapon-words must have done was to reinforce the connections between the men involved in the legal process (jurors, clerks, those in court) and place them in opposition to the woman against whom, or with regard to whose body, the offence had, allegedly, been committed. The wielding of such weapons was a thing clearly gendered male, and, as such, something drawing men together in exclusion of women. Probably not, therefore, something conducive to a receptive attitude to allegations of a crime against a woman’s body.



Note on terminology: I have generally stuck to ‘sexual offences’ here, because of an imperfect mapping on to modern conceptions of ‘rape’ of the ideas and definitions current in the medieval common law. There is probably not a satisfactory way of dealing with this mismatch, or at least I have not found one, and my choice is not intended to minimise the severity of the harm suffered, or the culpability of offenders of the past.

Image: I am going for a general suggestion of ‘puzzling’ here: a maze, Photo by Ben Mathis Seibel on Unsplash


[i] KB 27/697 Rex m.5 AALT IMG 0183. You can see a scan of the record here on the AALT website.

[ii] For the ‘ballock hafted dagger’ (a real weapon), see the earlier post, and Ole-Magne Nøttveit, ‘The Kidney Dagger as a Symbol of Masculine Identity – The Ballock Dagger in the Scandinavian Context’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 39, no. 2 (2006), 138-50.

[iii] KB 9/359/mm 67, 68 (these two also mention stones); AALT IMG 141 (1482). There are two on KB 9/359 m.3

[iv] KB9/363 m. 2

[v] KB 9/363 m.3

[vi] This also appears on the KB plea roll: KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442), in which Richard pleaded not guilty, but made fine, ‘in order to save everyone trouble’.[vi] The fine was 40s, according to the roll.

[vii] See, e.g., D. Izdebska, ‘Metaphors of weapons and armour through time’, in W. Anderson, E.  Bramwell, C. Hough, Mapping English Metaphor Through Time (Oxford, 2016), c. 14; C. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2001), 42; R. Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, third edn, (Abingdon, 2017), 26, 151, 172; Robert Clark ‘Jousting without a lance’, in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn (eds), Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001), 143-77, 166. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Brepols, 2018) suggests this meaning too, in its sixth variation on ‘hasta’.

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.



Endangering life and making sure of death: lessons from a medieval indictment

Today’s rather late case note comes from the King’s Bench file for Hilary term 1467.[i] A jury in Sussex reported to justices at Lewes a serious assault upon a man called Richard Broun, which was said to have happened in 1465.

The story was that, on Wednesday 16th October, 1465, Thomas Balbyn, lately of Balcombe, Sussex, clerk, along with Ralph Canon, also lately of Balcomne, boatman (I think!) and other unknown malefactors, acting with force and arms, i.e. bows, arrows, bills, glaives, and staves,[ii]  lay in wait to assault, wound, kill and murder a certain Richard Broun, attendant (famulus) of  Thomas [Bourgchier], Archbishop of Canterbury, near Lewes. They took, assaulted, wounded and mistreated him, giving him a very serious (gravissima) head wound, and completely breaking his left arm and his right leg, deeply injuring his head, arm and leg, leaving him lying on the ground, as if dead. Wanting to find out whether he actually was alive or dead, they stuck their daggers in his leg, dreadfully (horribiliter), and, feloniously, robbed him of his goods, worth 3d, i.e. a staff called a ‘warderer’.[iii] Their actions, it was noted, caused the Archbishop to lose the services of his attendant for a long time, i.e. for a year and a half after the attack. All of this was ‘ against the peace of the lord king etc.’

So what?

Well, a few things leap out at me, no doubt based on current research obsessions as much as anything else. Here are the main ones …

The injuries

I am looking at mayhem, so the use of mayhem language in the description of Richard’s injuries drew me in. There may be a point to make about permanent and temporary injury – it appears that Richard recovered (since there is a time limit on the Archbishop’s loss, and since there is no mention of his death) so would that have been a mayhem such as might be appealed? I presume not, and that the word is being used in a more general sense, but I would be happy to take correction, if that is not right. Further thought required!

Whose damage matters?

Of course Richard Broun himself could have brought a trespass action against the perpetrators, and maybe he did, but it is quite hard not to take away from this document the impression that his interests are subordinated to those of others: the general interest of the king in maintaining his peace, and the specific economic interest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lost the services of his ‘famulus’, for a time.

Testing for death/life

This prodding with swords is nasty, but interesting in underlining the difficulty of working out whether or not life was present. I have looked at the other end of this quite a bit (the ‘has a child been born alive?’ point) but determination of death was clearly something which could be tricky as well. Presumably, the point of the prodding would be to see whether there would be a reaction. It might seem a slightly risky thing to do – why not just run?

Other medical aspects

It is most interesting that the story is that Richard survived, though he was out of action for 18 months. It does suggest that he might have had access to above-average care, as a member of the household of the archbishop, and perhaps, further, that he was in high favour.[iv]



[i] KB 9/315 m.5 – via AALT

[ii] You know the drill, not necessarily meant to be taken as true, but may have been partly true in this case, if it happened at all.

[iii] I feel unable not to direct you to the additional smutty nuance associated with this word.

[iv] Rather a shame that he has a pretty run-of-the mill name, and would probably be quite hard to track down. Planning to have a look in the relevant C & Y Soc register next week.

Image – just in case anyone does not know … arms of Canterbury impaled with those of Thomas Bourgchier, c/o Wikimedia Commons  – a little fussy, it seems to me – and, yes, I do reaslise that, in choosing this picture, I am lazily emphasising the loss to the Archbishop, just like this case! It’s all planned and not at all through laziness.

Labour law and extremely small medieval Londoners

I have noted a few cases on labour/employment law over the years, but this is a new one for me, and a fairly secure Year Book-Plea Roll match[i] – names almost line up, though there are some changes of story …

Let’s go to the London area, in the 1350s, and observe what is clearly a fairly extreme shortage of workers …

The entry, labelled ‘Middlesex’, sets out the case against Robert Brewer de Holborn and Elena his wife, and Matilda daughter of Philip de Cornwaile, recently servant of Thomas Cheris, cutler. These three were sued on behalf of the king, and himself, by Thomas Cheris, on a writ founded on the recent labour legislation (Statute of Labourers (1349), 23 Edw. 3, ch. 2). Robert and Elena had allegedly admitted Matilda into their service before her term of service with Thomas was up, and Matilda had left Thomas’s service before the end of her term, without licence or reasonable cause. Both offences were ‘in contempt of the king’, to the damage of Thomas, and contrary to the legislation.

Thomas’s contention was that Matilda had been in his service, in St Stephen’s parish, Coleman Street ward, London, under a contract which ran from 21st June, 1349 for the next seven years, but left before the end of that term. without licence, on 5th October, 1354, and was taken on by Robert and Elena in the St Andrew’s parish, Holborn, Farringdon ward, and retained, (in contempt of the king,  to the damage of Thomas – to the tune of 20 l., according to Thomas – and against the form of the ordinance.

Robert and Elena’s answer to this, as far as the plea roll was concerned, was that they had done nothing wrong, since Matilda was too young to have made a binding contract to the effect alleged by Thomas. Having examined Matilda in court and inspected her body, the court decided that she was within age, and could only have been about three years old when Thomas said she was initially retained, so that she could not then have contracted with anyone, or entered into a covenant. As far as the case against Matilda was concerned, Thomas lost – he would take nothing and was in mercy for a false claim. We might think that the case against Robert and Elena would have to fall too, given the problem with Matilda’s ‘covenant’ with Thomas, but not so: that case went on, and Robert and Elena, in the end, put themselves on a jury on the issue of whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. [Here, the entry ends].

The Year Book tells a broadly similar tale. One character is called William Brewer of Holborn, rather than Robert, and he is bringing, rather than defending the suit, and Matilda is said to be the defendants’ daughter rather than the daughter of somebody else entirely (though possibly that relationship is forgotten later on in the report – it certainly seems odd that it is not used in argument) but still, I think this is the one.

The YB story is that a  writ on the Statute of Labourers is brought against ‘a man and his wife’ (Ds) and their daughter, ‘M’. M had allegedly covenanted to serve P for seven years, but left without reasonable cause, before the end of her term. The Ds had then retained her, contrary to the statute. As with the plea roll version, there was an inspection of the girl, and it was decided that she was too young to have made a binding contract as alleged, so that part of the case failed, but the case against the Ds continued. Year Books being Year Books, we get more of an account of the sparring before the eventual issue was reached, and it is pretty interesting.

There was, apparently, some argument about the interpretation of the Statute of Labourers: the Ds’ counsel  argued that the statute concerned covenants for usual terms, i.e. one year, not seven. Essentially, the point was that it was incorrect to build a case on the statute here. Expanding upon this, it was argued that, if this was allowed, a writ on the statute could be used for a covenant for a lifetime of service, or for a thousand years – which was clearly regarded as ridiculous.

Counsel for the Ds also, we are told, had a go at making  something of a coverture point – the writ was against both H and W, but a feme covert could not employ anyone, as ‘all would be said to be the act of the husband’, and, clearly, it would be wrong for the wife to end up in prison for her husband’s act – so using the statute, which did prescribe imprisonment for this offence, would certainly be inappropriate. Willoughby JCP was not entirely in agreement with the coverture argument, and made quite an interesting intervention, to the effect that ‘common understanding’ was that, if somebody was retained in the service of one spouse, s/he was regarded as being in the service of the other too. (So, coverture fans, I suppose that indicates more of a unity approach to coverture than a domination approach – or, indeed, just something a bit more practical and a bit less in thrall to any particular theory; something which showed an understanding of employment in small scale ‘family business’ situations).

The YB has a little more on the question of M[atilda]’s age. It was a serjeant, Finchden, who showed her to the court, asking them to observe that she was nine, and so could not bind herself contractually. The court, we are told, both ‘saw’ and ‘examined’ her (luy vist & examina – let’s hope that this was nothing traumatic, eh?), and agreed that she was nine, so not bound by a covenant. They also made the faultlessly logical comment that she would have been younger when the covenant was actually made (‘a long time past’).

That sorted out the case against Matilda, but, agreeing with the plea roll, it didn’t mean that the Ds were off the hook. Argument clustered around (i) whether M could be regarded as having been in P’s service, despite not having been working there on the basis of a binding covenant, and (ii) whether or not there was a difference between removing M from P’s service and retaining her after she had left P’s service. Both pleading and statutory interpretation aspects of those questions came into play. Sensing that the court was not on their side, the Ds were scared off these legal issues, and just went to more general pleading,[ii] though there is a slight difference here from the ending of the plea roll entry. That had made the issue for the jury one of denying that Ds had retained M. Here, it is whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. This does seem to me quite an important difference, but I suppose that it indicates that the YB report writer had lost interest once the thing seemed to take this more factual turn, and so was not really bothered about what it was exactly that the jury was to decide. What he cared about was the cut and thrust of discussion in court, rather than the lives of little people outside the ‘Westminster (Hall) bubble.’

So what?

Well, there is all sorts here – pleading and statutory interpretation for those of a technical persuasion, employment practices and the treatment of children for those with more soc. and ec. hist. interests, and some chat about coverture for gender hist. types. I am struck, as ever, by the differences between PR and YB – it really does seem, sometimes, as if there is immediate and deliberate distancing of the material put into reports from the actual case involved. Perhaps needs a warning at the start like TV shows loosely based on true historical events.  (And no, let’s definitely not get into ‘what is truth?’ … )





[i] YB Pasch. 29 Edw. III f. 27 p. 29;  Seipp 1355.085  = CP 40/381 m. 59d or a hat will be consumed … The YB account here is, of course, founded upon David Seipp’s work.

[ii] The YB report is interested, too, in the technical pleading point that this had moved from a purely legal argument to an issue of fact.

Image – site of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street … not very atmospheric, or suggestive of medieval labour law, I admit.

The charms of Cambridgeshire? An indictment for ignoble quackery

Here’s an interesting little story which caught my attention this morning …

It comes from the record of a gaol delivery at Cambridge castle, on Monday 25th February,1387, and the narrative emerges from an indictment before justices of the peace. The story was that a certain John de Toft had, on Thursday 26th April, 1386, come to Elsworth (apparently a ‘small and lovely south Cambridgeshire village’) to the house of a man called John Cowhird. John Cowhird was probably not able to hird any cows at that point, as, we are told, he was very ill (maxima infirmitate detentus fuit). John Toft allegedly said that he could and would cure John Cowhird of this illness. What was more, he would do this ‘for the love of god and for charity’. A good deal, so John Cowhird probably thought … all he had to do was let John Toft borrow two golden nobles (coins as opposed to those with inherited titles, you understand …). These were not for John Toft’s personal use – perish the thought – but to make a charm. He said that he had enclosed the two nobles in a sheet of lead, and made a charm which he hung around John Cowhird’s neck. In reality, it was said, John Toft had taken the nobles.

The jury found him not guilty, so matters end abruptly, and we hear no more of poor John Cowhird and his malady (nor of how it was that a ‘cowhird’ – if, indeed that was JC’s actual job – had gold coins lying about the place). Did John Toft ‘get away with it’ and live to cheat another day? As ever, we can’t know.

We legal historians are used to such frustrations, and have to be fairly ‘glass half full’ types in research, taking what we can from the provoking records left so us. In that spirit, here are a few quick observations:

  • On offences: this seems a rather interesting example of indictment for an offence of dishonesty beyond the usual mundane robberies and breakings and entries which are ten a (stolen) penny in these rolls. It is not dressed up as felony, despite the fact that two golden nobles would undoubtedly take it over the line into capital punishment territory: worth considering what that says about the contours of the various theft/fraud-adjacent offences in medieval common law.
  • On ‘medicine’: well, there is a lot going on here! We don’t find out what poor old John Cowhird’s illness was, but we do see something about beliefs and practices relating to medicine at a fairly low social level. It is not hugely surprising that it was thought plausible for serious illness to be cured by charms and masses, or the intervention of an individual who is not described as having any sort of ‘professional’ qualification. The complaint here is not that JC was tricked by a clearly fraudulent promise, it is that JT did not create the charm in the way he promised, and in fact made off with the nobles. It would seem to have been seen as a plausible method of securing a cure, to hide away some valuable for a period of time. This sort of trick has come up in another 14th C magic/fraudulent practice case I spotted a while ago – and clearly this sort of ruse depended on people accepting the idea of a ‘hide something valuable’ route to a (miraculously!) positive outcome. From an amateur psychological point of view, that seems fascinating – in the context of this case, it tells us something about medieval ideas relating to ill health and recovery from it, doesn’t it? It seems to me as if the idea is that the supposedly temporary renunciation of contact with one’s valuable chattels  is thought to have some influence over the course which the illness will take. Is this because it is a sacrifice/offering, or a demonstration of faith, both, neither? It also, perhaps, says something about medieval people’s attitude to their personal property: if being separated from it for a period, being unable to touch or see it,  was a significant sacrifice, then doesn’t that tell us that they felt a very strong link to it? One of the things in legal history about which I often wonder is whether we underestimate the intimacy of the loss felt by those of past societies whose personal property was stolen: it is easy to read back the strict distinction now felt between offences against the person and against property, but is that accurate, when we travel back to earlier periods? I do wonder about this for various reasons. This case may well demonstrate a blurring of the border which modern lawyers and others would see between bodily harm and harm to property: somebody like John Cowhird might well accept that his  physical wellbeing was linked to chattels, and, of course, there is a sense in which bodily survival and thriving is linked to the chattels which can be traded for food and shelter, even leaving aside the whole question of charms, magic and religion.





Image: more relevant than my usual efforts, isn’t it? It’s your actual noble, from the time of Richard II, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The miller and his (alleged) killers: an approver’s appeal of petty treason

A little bit more petty treason trivia In this case from a gaol delivery roll for a delivery at Warwick, Wednesday 20th February, 1381, and subsequent proceedings…

The entry tells us that John Basset of Huntingdonshire had come before the sheriff of Warwickshire and one of the coroners, on Wednesday 6th February, 1381, and confessed, with details, to relatively small scale theft. and to being ‘a common thief’. He turned approver – accusing others of offences, in order to try and save his own skin –  and appealed John Wright of having been involved, with him, in attacking and killing one Ralph, miller of ‘Hulle Mulle’[i], on Saturday 20th February, 1378. He also appealed Juliana, Ralph’s wife, of consenting to this killing. John Wright and Juliana were therefore arrested. All three were brought before the court, by the gaoler. John Basset repeated his appeal. John Wright pleaded not guilty and declared himself ready to defend himself by his body, as was usual in approver appeal cases. Battle was to be at Warwick, Monday 22nd July, 1381. In the interim, both men were sent back to gaol.

Juliana also pleaded not guilty, but battle was not seen as a fit form of trial for women, so jury trial was agreed to there. Jurors were summoned for the same day as the battle. Juliana, too, was sent back to prison until then. It did not in fact go on on the day in question, for technical reasons, but it is noted that, on Monday 21st July, 1382, the two Johns were brought to court by the gaoler, all ready for the fight. They fought, and John Wright won. The approver, John Basset, was therefore hanged,[ii] and John Wright acquitted. Juliana was also acquitted (without jury trial) de accessorio.

This confirms, rather neatly, that, despite being later called ‘petty treason’. and being, from the mid-14th C, called ‘a sort of treason’, the allegation that a wife had killed her husband was treated more like a ‘regular homicide’ than treason, in so far as the non-principal was concerned. In treason, we would expect each person to be treated more or less separately – at least as far as the law was concerned. In homicide, though, a difference was made between the killer and those who assisted in some way, or agreed to the deed. Clearly, this is the way Juliana’s alleged offence was treated – as dependent upon that of John Wright – so that, when he was acquitted, she had to be, too.

It does add a bit of a footnote to my thinking on petty treason, in the context of approver appeals, and joint participation petty treasons. When women are accused of involvement in the killing of their husbands, it is quite often as accessory rather than principal, and such accusations, depending, as they did, on actions which might be read in different ways, or even just on ‘consent’, were relatively ‘easy to make’, at least the woman accused in this way by an approver would be acquitted if the ‘principal’ could beat the approver in battle. If the ‘principal’ was a strapping chap, that might feel like a bit of a better bet than trusting the case to the decision of a jury – the process in regular indictments. For a woman wanting to ‘bump off’ her husband, it might be quite a good strategy to work with a pair of assassins, one beefy and the other scrawny, to ensure that the scrawny one was caught, and rely on him turning approver against the beefy one, losing, and then logic dictating that you would be off the hook, if the principal ‘walked’.

No doubt I read too many twisty mysteries and detective novels and should get out more.




[i] Feels as if it should be ‘Mill Hill’, but I am not wholly confident. Said to be near Castle Ashby, anyway.

[ii] We might wonder whether John Basset in fact made a very serious error here – he admitted involvement in a homicide, which put him at risk of execution, when it is not clear he needed to do so, since, if there was such a homicide, it seems to have been a bit of a ‘cold case’. And the value of his admitted thefts was not huge …

Image – some grain. Such as might be milled. Yes, a bit desperate/lazy, but nice picture, with, for me, suggestions of the fine ‘death by grain’ scene in the film Witness, Photo by Lutz Wernitz on Unsplash

Approvers, abjuration, accessories and adultery allegations: a Lincolnshire petty treason saga


I had left off from the petty treason work for a bit, and was looking for mayhem stuff today, but somehow petty treason doesn’t seem keen to leave me alone – and this one caught my attention, in the Easter 1377 E KB plea roll: a Lincolnshire case involving an approver (i.e. somebody telling tales in an attempt to save his own skin) and an accusation of husband-killing, with a dash of adultery…

The roll notes that Peter de Walworth of Winterton became an approver before the king’s coroners,[i] and acknowledged that, on Thursday 30th January, 1370, he had feloniously killed Geoffrey de Stokes at Winterton, and appealed Robert de Nafferton, vicar of the church of Winterton, and Thomas, Robert’s servant, of being accessories, and also appealed Katherine, Geoffrey’s wife, of having consented to the killing, and abetted it.

Before another coroner, it was presented that Robert de Nafferton, and Peter, here said to have been his servant, had confined Geoffrey in the vicarage, in relation to a loan of money, and, on the aforesaid Thursday, murdered Geoffrey (it uses this word) with a hatchet to the head, and then buried the body in the vicarage pig-sty, to hide the murder.  This presentment also apparently accused Katherine of consent and help.

The matter now came before KB, but it was said that Katherine had already been acquitted before GD Fri 28th February 1371 (and furthermore that she was ill now).  A search was made, and the relevant GD entry found, which showed that a jury had indeed acquitted her.

This entry put the narrative of the offence in similar terms, though there are some nice touches, such as the phrase on intention/malice aforethought, an area of much debate in modern scholarship, which is ‘ex malicia longo tempore pr[a]ecogitata’, and a bit of scandal-mongering, or mud-slinging, accusing Katherine of adultery with Robert the vicar.

The coroner’s rolls were also examined, and these showed that Robert de Nafferton, alleged naughty vicar, had abjured the realm for this offence. Here and here are records of this abjuration – he was sent off to go to foreign parts via the port of (Kingston upon) Hull. Katherine had been charged and found not guilty. This can be confirmed by cross-referencing the gaol delivery roll entry here.  She was now acquitted (again).

So what?

Well, briefly, there is an interesting narrative, with resort to an adultery story to tie in the woman. It is also interesting procedurally and socially, in terms of the long exposure of Katherine to the risk of being found to have killed her husband: if nothing else, it should show the extent of the impact of the law of petty treason on individual women – the apparent inability of the system to put an end to potential liability meaning that a substantial number of years of Katherine’s life are likely to have been affected. Pretty terrifying.



[i] On Peter’s wider career as an approver, see this GD entry.

Casting the first stone, and then a few more: contemptuous trespass in Westminster Hall

A very brief comment this time, but this Middlesex entry from the King’s Bench plea roll for  has got me thinking …

It’s one which has some bearing on my mayhem project, but also resonates with other areass which interest me – women, assessment of injury, and no doubt more.

The entry notes that Katherine de Coresle was attached to answer the king and Thomas de Slene in a plea of contempt and trespass. Thomas complained that, on the Saturday after the feast of the Ascension, 31 Edward III, attacked Thomas with force and arms, i.e. with stones etc.,[i] in Westminster Hall, in the presence of the king and his justices, hurting him (Thomas, not the king), in contempt of the king and damaging Thomas to the extent of ten pounds.

Katherine denied everything, pleaded not guilty. She put herself on the country. Thomas did likewise. The jury said that Katherine was guilty of the trespass, and set damages at 6s 8d. Having viewed Thomas’s wounds, the court decided that the jury had been very mean, and raised the damages to 20s. Katherine was to be taken into the custody in the Marshalsea prison.

I have not found any additional information on this, so far, but it certainly seems an arresting incident (assuming that it happened … obviously, we can never be sure, but this does sound like something which was supposed to have been done in such an open manner that a lot of people would have to have been lying through their teeth – or something else fairly outrageous would have to have been going on – for the jury to come to the conclusion that Katherine was guilty of inflicting the wounds Thomas was confirmed to have sustained). If it is true, then, we have to get our heads around the idea of a woman lobbing stones at a man, hard enough to cause serious harm, within Westminster Hall, apparently without concern for the august personages also present there.

Another thing which leaps out is the differences between the various sums put forward as appropriate damages for Thomas’s injuries. We have:

  • the sum Thomas claimed – ten pounds
  • the sum awarded by the jury – six shillings and eight pence
  • the sum awarded to Thomas after the court inspected his injury – twenty shillings.

… or, if we feed this information into the National Archives currency converter (one of my absolute favourite things …) that would be (roughly …): (i) 27 cows/50 days of wages for a skilled tradesman; (ii) no cows but 16 days of wages for a skilled tradesman; (iii) 2 cows/50 days of wages for a skilled tradesman. (I assume that the reason that the maths looks a bit odd is that it is assumed you would not be able to buy seven tenths of a cow …). It does suggest a high degree of both over-claiming and under-valuation by juries. There is so much to think about, in terms of how sums of money were attached to particular offenders, victims and injuries – hard to say much at the moment, but I am compiling a bit of a database … slowly! It does always strike me as interesting that there is a level of confidence amongst common lawyers that a court is capable of assessing somebody’s level of injury. Worth bearing in mind in the history of the development of medical expertise/ forensic medicine.




Image: some stones. In case anyone is not sure what they look like …

Photo by Michael Surazhsky on Unsplash

[i] The stones might have been fictitious/conventional, but they were not the usual weapons/projectiles encountered in trespass weapons lists, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that they actually meant that stones were involved.