Tag Archives: Gwen Seabourne

Blood and Brothers


One of the matters I touch on in the forthcoming Women and Medieval Law book is the basis for the right to bring an appeal – an individual prosecution – in the medieval period. Appeals are important in a consideration of women and the common law, because they were a way that women could initiate a ‘criminal’ case, though they were shut out from participation in other methods – especially presentment/indictments. To cut a long story short, there are various statements which purport to set out accepted limitations on the matters women could appeal (most prominently mentioned as allowed are homicide of a husband and rape) but there are also many, many examples of women bringing other appeals; and a little study makes it apparent that the ideas about why women can ever bring appeals (in a system which prevents them from other routes of prosecution) are not at all clear. There are a number of different ideas floating about, including revenge, particular damage and likely physical proximity to the offence.

Because the book was about women, I did not get into a related issue: if a single man is killed, who has the right of appeal? This is an interesting one, partly in terms of the ‘answer’, but mainly in terms of the way arguments are made about it, so it deserves a short exploration here (no doubt to be updated as and when I find new cases on it).

At least in 14th and 15th C cases, a definite ‘pecking order’ was understood, as between the brothers or sons of a slain man, and somebody accused by the appeal of a younger brother could legitimately say that this was invalid, because this was the wrong person to be bringing the appeal: the right lay in the older brother.  In a case in 1314, for example, (KB27/218 Rex m. 10 (IMG 24)) from Worcestershire, a woman, Margery, wife of John I,  and John II, were accused by one William of killing his brother, Thomas. Margery was accused of killing Thomas by hitting him in the head with a stone, while John II held him by the throat. Apart from denying wrongdoing, Margery argued that she should not have to answer the appeal, because William had an older brother, John III , and it was this John III  who should have brought the appeal. It ‘naturally pertained’ to John III to prosecute it, and he was ‘nearer in blood etc.’  It seems to have been another point on which the appeal failed, but it was at least an outing for this idea about ‘the wrong brother’.

It is not proximity, but ‘worthiness’ of blood which is the justification given for preference of the elder over the younger brother in cases from the 1330s:  KB 27/310 Rex m. 6d (AALT IMG 333), KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245)  and KB 27/312  m.3 (AALT IMG 290). (KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245) features an argument as to whether the alleged elder brother exists (was inventing an elder brother a tactic which might, or buy some time?). The matter was raised in some later Year Book reports too. Seipp 1467.041 and 1468.007 – and Markham J was apparently concerned about whole blood and half blood relationships (only the former would do, so must be mentioned, tracing the blood of victim and prosecutor in the appeal).

An earlier fifteenth century case showed a difficulty which could arise for younger brothers – what if there was an older brother, but he was not interested in bringing an appeal, or not able to do so? Seipp 1412.047abr notes a case in which the older son of an allegedly murdered man was a monk, and the upshot seems to have been that there was nothing to be done – the younger son did not have a right to appeal here.

So what?

Well – as a younger sibling, I am not happy at the idea that the older sibling has ‘worthier blood’ (though would that work with women, or would they have some coparcenry-equivalent pattern, with any sister being as good as any other?).

Less self-centredly, it has got me thinking about blood, and how it figures in different areas of law (free/unfree status, bastardy, succession more generally, attainder and ‘corruption of the blood’, rape, assault and ‘drawing blood’ as a threshold or evidential requirement… probably more).  And how does ‘blood’ relate to ‘flesh’: how do lineal and matrimonial relationships interact one with another? Maybe one day this will all fall into place in my mind and end up as a paper on ‘The Law of Blood’. Interesting, anyway to try and work out what ideas about blood were present here. Clearly it would need to bring in theological and medical ideas too. But probably not vampires.



Categories of incapacity in medieval common law: the ‘fatuous’ Warwickshire killer

As small footnotes to the work of others on medieval law and mental capacity, I have noted a few interesting cases of medieval individuals being excused or pardoned their felonies by reason of their insanity – most recently focusing on a couple of cases of ‘lunacy’ which were expressly linked to the waxing and waning of the moon. Here is another case which goes a little outside the usual categories and vocabulary of lunacy, idiocy, fury and frenzy, which came up in a Plea Roll search today.

The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1334 incorporates, in its Rex section, the gaol delivery pleas from the session in Warwick. One of the Warwickshire cases,[i] from the hundred of Kington has in the margin beside it not one of the usual process notes – acquitted, hanged, sent to prison etc. – but the big, bold, word ’fatuus’. The entry states that Richard Kyng of Herberbury (Harbury?) chapman, was arrested for killing Robert Deyvilla at Moreton (Daubney) at some point earlier in 1334. He had been indicted for felony before the coroner. He was brought into court by the sheriff and asked how he wished to plead, he answered ‘fatuously’, his speech and actions showing diversa signa fatua. Enquiries were made, so the entry tells us, as to whether the accused had been ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and before, subsequently and now, whether he was feigning this in order to excuse himself from a finding of felony, whether he might get better (‘fury’ is mentioned here). The jury responded that Richard had become ‘fatuous’ two years before the killing, he was ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and still was, and had been consistently ‘fatuous’ for the whole period, and his apparent ‘fatuous’ state was neither feigned nor the result of some other infirmity. Richard therefore went ‘without day’ (i.e. he was not found a felon). His relations were told to look after him (that tricky word custodia is used here, with all of its potential for confinement as well as care) with dark hints that it would not go well for them if his custody was neglected (so that he caused further danger).

Points of interest

Well, it is no surprise that a medieval court would not regard as a felon one who was not mentally capable, nor, really, that he would be entrusted to the care (or ‘care’?) of his relatives, but it is interesting to see some of the vocabulary and ideas here.

I have mentioned that ‘fatuus’ is not common. What did it mean? It is almost impossible to equate with modern ideas – either legal or medical – in this area. I was proceeding on the basis that it was a similar idea to ‘idiocy’ (very roughly, learning disabilities) rather than lunacy/fury/frenzy (which seem to indicate violent, flaring, conditions), but then there was use of ‘fury’ as well, and the fact that the jury said that the ‘fatuity’ had come on at a particular time, rather than having been present throughout life, as one would perhaps expect with ‘idiocy’. The lack of information in the entry about the homicide itself makes it more difficult to get an idea of how Richard was being perceived. So, for the moment, big question mark, and a slight suspicion that these words and ideas were not as neatly separated as I would like to make them. Instructive in itself, I suppose.

I was also interested to note the questioning as to whether the condition might be feigned, in order to avoid a finding of felony, and the awful consequences of that. There is a parallel here with questions which were asked about people who said nothing at all, when they were asked to respond to a charge of felony. Jurors would be asked whether this was because they were unable to speak, or whether they were perfectly able to speak, but were keeping silent in an effort not to allow the case to proceed to a conviction (‘standing mute of malice’, in later parlance). In both cases, juries were considered able to weigh up the reality of the apparent affliction. To a certain extent, this can be explained in terms of the jurors’ identity as some sort of neighbour-witnesses (yes, I know there is a debate about that, but they were at least able to bring in outside knowledge) in that they would be likely to be aware if the accused had suddenly and suspiciously become mentally incapable, or unable to speak. Another way of looking at it is that mental incapacity was considered something fairly ordinary and apparent to one’s community.

So – another little puzzle-piece in to add to the heap. Off went Richard to the tender care of his relatives, and the court went on to the next case.






[i] KB 27/296 m. 13d (AALT IMG 331)

A place of safety? Unconventional use of a convent in medieval Lincolnshire

I am supposed to be checking proofs and engaging with the horrors of the online proof-reading tool, but somehow am not, because I found something maddeningly fabulous and tantalising in a plea roll, which just needs a quick comment. I don’t think I can sneak it into the book (Women & Medieval Common Law – out scarily soon – dread, dread) at this stage – definitely no more than a surreptitious additional reference, if it doesn’t mess up the page layout – though it could be relevant in a couple of ways (and indeed also links up with both my last book and also a couple of blog posts for more respectable places which I have ‘on the go’ at the moment).

The entry is on the Rex roll of the KB for Trinity term 1331,[i] and it relates to the case of a woman called Agatha, who was indicted for the homicide of her husband, William del Cote. So it looked as if it might have been going in the direction of several ‘petty treason’ cases which I have found, and would end with a laconic little ‘comburr’ in the margin, indicating that the woman had been sent off for burning, but no! There may well be an entry which says just that – I have not tracked down the relevant gaol delivery roll entry, if it exists – but this King’s Bench roll is at one remove from the homicide case itself, and is a presentment by jurors from Kesteven in Lincolnshire of an alleged conspiracy to stop ‘justice’ being done.

The Kesteven jurors stated that John de Camelton, until recently prior of Sempringham, John de Irnham and Hugh de Swafham, fellow canons of the said prior, and John de Nevill of Stoke, had conspired together in relation to Agatha. She had been indicted, arrested and held in Lincoln prison, until she was brought before the justices of gaol delivery at Lincoln castle. (There are no dates for any of this – helpful!) At the gaol delivery session, she remained ‘mute’ – i.e. did not plead. She was remitted to prison by order of the justices, presumably to be ‘encouraged’ to speak via the harsh regime imposed upon such accused as ‘stood mute of malice’. It was at this point that the conspiracy allegedly sprang into action. John de Camelton and the others brought a writ to have the indictment and Agatha brought before the king’s court, and, in the meantime, she was taken to Sempringham, amongst the nuns, and the jurors reported that she was still living there, and the crime remained unpunished. They had some thoughts on why the intervention had occurred: John de Camelton had been paid 200 marks and two bottles of wine.

The sheriff was ordered to summon the alleged conspirators. John de  Irham and Hugh de Swaffham came and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and put themselves on the country. The jury of knights and others said that Hugh was not guilty, so he was acquitted, but they said that John de Irnham was guilty, so should be committed to prison. (Logically, this meant that one of the others had to be guilty as well, as John de irnham could hardly conspire with himself). The new prior of Sempringham came and made a fine for John de Irnham.

Still pretty much locked down, and supposed to be doing other things, there is a limit to how far I can take this at the moment, but it does seem interesting, in at least two respects. First, there is the possibility of it representing a show of sympathy with a woman facing the awful prospect of being burnt for the killing of her husband, and who had not managed to speak for herself at her trial. Assuming that the Kesteven presentment is not a complete lie, it may be interpreted as an instance in which the accused decided, for noble, family-saving reasons – not to co-operate with the trial, in the knowledge that she might die a mistreated prisoner, or else as a situation of such trauma that it left her unable to speak up or make a defence. Alternatively, if they are right about the money and wine, it might just have been a case of corruption (albeit one with an outcome which modern readers are likely to prefer).

The second reason for my particular interest in this is that the action allegedly concerned the priory of Sempringham, a Gilbertine house in Lincolnshire, which, at this very time, was the place of effective incarceration of a figure of my obsession –Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ‘banged up’ in this flat-land, English, convent, at a distance from her father’s power-base in Gwynedd. I delved into her history in my last book, Imprisoning Medieval Women, and have always hoped to find out more. (I also have a ‘very back-burner project’ about the many and various ways in which clerks writing records for the English crown managed to mangle ‘Gwenllian’ – the inability to handle the magnificent Welsh LL has a long history).[ii] This entry, of course, does not touch her directly, and yet it is an interesting hint both at the possibility of dubious security at Sempringham (in the sense of the crown, or royal justice, not being entirely in charge), and also at the sort of company she might have been keeping in the small community there.

The limited poking about that I have been able to do suggests that John de Camelton was an interesting fellow. He comes up in complaints and petitions suggesting further undutiful behaviour.[iii] And there seem to have been various disputes involving the priory and its (male) officials, at this point, and earlier in the century.[iv] By the time the 1331 entry was made, however, ex-prior John was described as debilis, so perhaps his rebellious days were over.[v] As for the silent centre of the story, I wonder whether I will ever find out what happened to the unfortunate (or fortunate?) Agatha. Proofreading has to come first for now, then marking, and writing other things on the January ‘to do’ list, but I will definitely be making further efforts to flesh out this story.




[i] KB 27/285 Rex m. 14 (IMG 461).

[ii] The account of Sempringham in the in VCH calls her ‘Wencilian’.

[iii] TNA SC 8/34/1671; CPR 1330-34, p. 60.

[iv] See, e.g., Joyce Coleman, ‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Raid on Sempringham Priory 1312’ (1999) The British Library Journal; KB 27/278 Rex m. 27 (IMG 403); KB 27/285 Rex mm. 6, 14 (IMG 444, 462).

[v] KB 27/285 m. 12 (IMG 456-7).

‘Lunacy’ and legal records

Deep in ‘the Before Times’, back in 2019, I posted something on a medieval ‘criminal’ case with a specific and detailed ‘defence’ of lunacy, that of Alice Brytyene, from 1309. Since I have just found another one, it seemed a good opportunity to revamp and update the post, adding in the new case.

See the source image

Alice’s case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6 (AALT IMG 136). The record tells us that Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur], i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).

The second case comes from the King’s Bench plea roll of Trinity term 1328 – in the ‘Isabella and Mortimer’ period of Edward III’s reign. It is to be found at KB 27/273 Rex m. 29d (AALT IMG 318), and is from a gaol delivery session at York castle, on Monday [13th June, 1328].

The report tells us that Agnes, wife of Roger Moyses was on trial for the killing of Adam son of William Moyses, at Harwood [Dale?] on Monday [16th May, 1328], having been indicted for this at a coroner’s inquest. She was asked how she would defend herself, and said that she was not guilty, putting herself on a jury. The jurors said that, for a long time before the incident, and after, and at the time, Agnes had suffered from a mental illness linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, which caused her to lose her mind to such an extent that she acted without being able to tell the difference between right and wrong (sepius prout luna crescit & decrescit tali infirmitate consueta est gravari quod ipsa amens sepius devenit penitus ignorans quid agit non discernendo malum et bono). They said that on the day in question, Adam, a 12 year old, came into the house in Harwood where Agnes was on her own, and she was suffering from the condition at that time. (laborans in infirmitate). When Agnes became aware that Adam had come in, she grabbed him by the throat and held him so tightly that he died. Afterwards, Agnes simply remained in the house until the constable and bailiffs came and arrested her. The jurors were asked whether Agnes had killed Adam felioniously and with malice aforethought, or without intention (ex amencia … vexebatur), and responded that Adam was killed through per amenciam and not through felony or malice/intention. Agnes was therefore to be sent to prison to await the king’s grace.

So what?

It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, I have not turned up a pardon for either Alice or Agnes, but I am reasonably hopeful that they would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been their fate after these grisly episodes.

Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, but usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that the word is regarded in a mundane way, as a general label for people with some obvious mental disorder, and was rather cut off from its etymological association with the moon. These two records, however, show at least some people going further into the matter, and emphasising the lunar explanation of (some, episodic) mental disorder, explaining odd, violent, behaviour on the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. They make the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about the killers having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.

There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well. In the case of Alice, her community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, before the incident in question. Agnes was alone in a house – was this some sort of precautionary confinement, or did she live alone?) It is interesting to note that a woman was assumed capable of throttling a twelve year old male, and that Agnes’s condition must have been well enough known and accepted for it to be regarded as having persisted during the killing of Adam, despite the fact that it would appear that there were no immediate witnesses (since we are told she was alone in the house).

It is also worth pondering the fact that these were both women. My impression has been that ‘violent insanity words’ are more usually found in relation to males – furiosus, freneticus etc. are more commonly found than their female equivalents. These two ‘violent insanity’ cases which bring in the moon, are, however, about women. Now, two cases hardly amount to a basis for a theory, but it is hard not to start going off on a train of thought concerning ideas about women, the moon, menstrual cycles etc. Worth bearing in mind, and seeing whether future finds fit in with it at all. [Oh, and if we want to get really spooky and conspiracy theoryish about it, we might note that … everything seemed to happen on a Monday in these cases, that I am writing about it on a Monday, and I am .. OK, too far. But interesting, no?]


Untruth in wine: a snippet of medieval medical thinking


See the source image

On a King’s Bench roll from Michaelmas 1434, there is an entry telling of accusations made against James Gentill or Gentyll, a broker of London [though perhaps he was a native of Genoa rather than London].[i]

The entry is an ‘error’ case – roughly an appeal in the modern sense – and notes that, in In Trinity 1432, a presentment had been made, accusing Gentyll of offences relating to the illegal export of gold to Bruges, and also with an offence involving the adulteration of wine. The latter accusation was that James and others had conspired to damage the king’s people and inflict a variety of illnesses upon them. Specifically, on 6th October 1431, and various days before and after, in the parish of St Clement Danes outside Temple Bar and elsewhere in Middlesex, they had mixed and brewed up twenty tuns of Rumney wine and twenty tuns of Malmsey wine with other corrupt wines  – Osey and other wines –  and with pitch and resin, producing 100 tuns of corrupt and unhealthy wine. They took some of it this to Westminster and Shoreditch on the 6th October, and on various days afterwards sold it to various lieges of the king, including John Taverner, John Boysse, John Bramsston, Margaret Bosworth, fraudulently affirming it to be good and healthy,  causing those who drank it to be troubled and damaged by various afflictions (diversis perpetuis langoribus), and it was particularly noted that pregnant women drinking it were harmed, their children (pueri – foetuses, presumably) poisoned and rendered putrid (extoxicati & corrupti) and then destroyed, to the great deception and destruction of the king’s people.

And …?

As ever, who knows whether the allegation was true, mistaken or vexatious, but, leaving that aside, this has a number of possible points of interest. It illustrates the action taken locally in London, and at the ‘national’ level, against dishonesty in sales, and the sale of dangerous, as well as substandard, food and drink. This took me back to long-ago research for my PhD, during which I learned some good wine vocabulary, and took a few detours away from usury and pricing laws, and into the colourful world of London punishments for the sale of dodgy food and drink (they went in for ‘educational’ and shaming penalties such as having somebody stand with a rotten fish around his neck for selling putrid produce). The suspicion that wine-merchants or wine-sellers would pass off lower quality wine as something with a higher price and reputation, perhaps disguising their misconduct by introducing other substances, in order to mimic the colour of the supposed type of wine, can be seen in London and royal regulations and pronouncements.[ii] There are some references to the fear that this sharp practice could damage health in general. This is the first time, however, that I have seen the specific allegation about damage to pregnant women and the foetuses they were carrying. There is no reason to think that medieval people would have been unable to make a link between the ingestion of contaminated nutrients and foetal damage and death, but this fleeting reference is the first I have seen specifying damage to foetuses through pregnant women’s consumption of adulterated produce as a concern for the common law.  It is one I will ponder in two of my 2021-2 research leave projects: on legal ideas about pregnancy, foetuses and newborns, and on causation of death or bodily harm.





[i] KB 27/694 m. 7d (AALT IMG 327). See CCR 1447-54, 517, though this is some years later, in 1454.

[ii] For a 1419 London proclamation on adulteration of wines, see H.T. Riley (ed.), Memorials of London and London Life in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, (London, 1868), 669.  [Hoarderish policy of not throwing away old notes hereby vindicated]. For ‘national’ concern, see e,g, CCR 1302-1307 , 526.

Stabbing stories: a Lincolnshire brawl

Travelling justices in Lincolnshire in 1287 dealt with a complaint of violent misconduct brought by Robert Salemon or Saleman, against Hugh de Mixerton (Misterton?).[i] This rough translation [Covid, no access to the big Medieval Latin dictionary …] gives an idea of how matters proceeded.

See the source image

Robert’s story was that, on a particular day just before the hearing,  he had been on the royal highway in the parish of St Benedict, Lincoln, when Hugh had got in his way and first abused him,  then he had taken out his knife and given Robert a really large wound in the arm, in contempt of the king and his justices, who were in the town, against the king’s peace and damaging Robert to the tune of £40.

Hugh denied that he had done anything which amounted to force and injury, anything in contempt or against the king’s peace, and any trespass against Robert. He said that it was in fact Robert who blocked his way and abused him, rather than the other way round. Robert, he said, had threatened to kill him and had drawn his knife, knocked him to the ground and attempted to stab him in the neck, but the knife thrust had failed to hit flesh, instead ripping Hugh’s hood. Hugh said that while he was being held down on the ground, he stabbed Robert to avoid being killed, this stab being quick and barely scratching Robert. He insisted that he could not have avoided his own death in any other way.

Both men put themselves on the jury.

The jurors (including, it is noted, some who had seen and heard the brawl) gave, on oath, a third version of the events in question. They said that Robert was on the high road and found Hugh’s wife standing with Hugh, that Robert lifted this woman’s clothes up, part of the way up her lower leg (usque ad dimidiam tibiam). At this, Hugh asked him to stop, and Robert grabbed Hugh by the arms, threw him to the ground, slashed at him with his dagger and ripped his hood, but did not wound him. Hugh, getting up, wounded Robert with his own dagger, but he could have got away without using his dagger on Robert, if he had wanted. The justices examined the wound in court and decided that it did not amount to a mayhem, and could easily be healed.

For this reason and also because the jury found that Robert had started the fight, it was decided that both Robert and Hugh should be custodiatur for a trespass done while the justices were present in town. Afterwards, both Hugh and Robert made fine with a mark (each).


And this is interesting because ….?

Well, it is always instructive to see records in which we actually get a flavour of opposing cases being put. Here, the two protagonists presented opposed versions of events (Hugh attacked Robert, Robert attacked Hugh) but neither told a tale much resembling that of the jurors. Both men left out the involvement of Hugh’s wife and Robert’s apparently predatory behaviour towards her. It is easy to see why Robert left it out – he wanted the story to be about a totally unprovoked attack. Perhaps the reason why Hugh left it out is a little less obvious – it would seem that he felt it was a safer bet to construct a story of self defence against Robert’s attack on him, rather than suggesting that he was acting in defence of his wife’s reputation. The law on self-defence pleas in homicide was by no means settled at this point (see, e.g., Green, Verdict According to Conscience), and it seems likely that the contours of self-defence as a saving plea in other areas was at least as unsettled. The simple, two-man, story may have seemed the best tactic. Alternatively, we might speculate as to whether the jury might have considered Hugh’s wife to be ‘no better than she ought to be’ one way or another. In any case, it was a bold strategy to tell a story contrary to events which had taken place in the sight and hearing of jurors.

I also find interesting the way in which the wound is discussed here. One of my projects for next year’s study leave will involve mayhem offences, so I am on the lookout for references to it. Here, we have an inspection in court, in which judges seem perfectly happy that they can determine whether or not a wound will easily be cured (no idea of ‘expert’ assessment) and a sense that the borderline between mayhem and trespass is defined partly in terms of permanence, as well as seriousness, of injury.

Finally, it shows the difference in outcome, depending when an offence occurred: Robert and Hugh were in particular trouble because all of this happened while the royal justices were in town, and was therefore worse than an everyday low-level brawl, since it was taken to be a contempt of the justices, and, through them, the king whose law was being administered.




[i] JUST 1/503 m. 37 (IMG 7961). Mettingham’s Lincolnshire assize roll 1285-9, hearing in 1287.

Private compensation and fear of castration in medieval Nottinghamshire

An entry on the Nottinghamshire trailbaston roll for 1305-6 tells an intriguing tale of certainly illicit, possibly unwelcome, advances made by one Master William de Newark, to a girl or woman called Beatrix, daughter of Walter Touk, the response of Beatrix’s family to this, and the way in which this was eventually resolved.[i] Once I am free to get to libraries once more, I look forward to being able to check up on some of the personalities involved, but, for now, the entry itself is worth noting.

In the trailbaston session (an ad hoc, mostly ‘criminal’ judicial session, one of several sent out at this time), jurors of the wappentake of Newark presented Walter Touk, Henry his son, and others, for an assault on Master William de Newark, parson of the church of North Muskham. They were accused of having imprisoned and detained him with force and arms and against the king’s peace until he made fine with them for 50 marks, and of having made off with two swords, worth four shillings, belonging to Richard Cauwode, a servant of Master William.

Walter and Henry told a different story, denying that they had committed any trespass against the king’s peace. Exactly how the more detailed tale came out is unclear – was it volunteered by Walter and Henry, who thought that there was nothing wrong with what they had done, or did the jurors learn about it in some other way? Anyway, the jurors told it this way …

Walter Touk, his wife (who doesn’t get a name here), his daughter (Beatrix), and Henry, went to Master William’s house, in North Muskham, to ask him to eat with them. (The Touks and Master William would therefore seem to have been on good terms, but it was not to last …) William spoke secret and unseemly words of love to Beatrix (oculta et indecentia verba de amore), and then he came to Walter’s manor of Kelham at twilight. Secretly, William entered the house. Henry (Walter’s son, Beatrix’s brother) became aware of this incursion. Henry and John de Dunwyche, his groom, followed William, and entered the room where he was, to find William and Beatrix sitting together (with Richard Cauwode, William’s servant, there as well). Henry and John took out their swords and hit William and Richard. John wounded them both. Walter heard some shouting. He came and did not allow any more damage to be done to the intruders. Nevertheless, the Touks made it clear that they thought William had wronged them in a serious way, and had, in particular, damaged Beatrix’s reputation (enormiter defamavit & … scandalizavit) and they demanded that he compensate them at once for this with 50 marks, or else he would face serious consequences (not exactly specified, but sounding severe and physical). William, terrified by these threats, and fearing that they would otherwise castrate him,  agreed to pay. Henry wrote in his own hand a document obliging William to pay him 50 marks. William authenticated it with Henry’s seal, because he did not have his own seal there, and delivered the deed to Henry. The document was made in the presence of Walter, Henry’s father, who, according to the jury,  consented to the requiring of emends and the making of the document of obligation. On the matter of the alleged taking of two swords, the jurors said that John took from Richard a sword, a bow and arrows (worth 9 ½ d) so that Richard did him no damage with them, and that, if Richard had asked for their return, this would have happened.

Rather than continuing to a straightforward finding of culpability or acquittal, the roll notes that the matter was referred upwards to Parliament, and, on a date in 1306, Henry Touk came to Westminster before the council and made a fine for himself and Walter with £20. It says no more of Master William, nor of the two servants, nor of Beatrix.


So What?

Well so quite a lot. This case has several interesting or suggestive legal historical nuggets.

I have found that these trailbaston rolls are particularly rewarding in their illustration of the location of certain borderlines, uncertainties and arguable issues in the common law. To a greater extent than in ordinary plea rolls, in these rolls, we often see people bringing cases, and jurors, showing what they thought the law should be, or where they were unsure as to what it was. Here, it would appear that there was some doubt as to whether the tale of the events of that evening in Nottinghamshire was enough to mean that the defendants were not guilty of an offence. The jurors clearly did not dismiss it, and the whole thing was sent off to be dealt with by a higher power, rather than by the common law. This may have something to do with the relative wealth of the defendants, but the nature of the case itself was probably also debatable. It seems likely that there was considerable sympathy with the efforts of the Touks to make Master William pay for his misconduct – clearly seen as a grave wrong against them all. At what point did forceful action against somebody who had sneaked into one’s house and was perhaps making moves towards violation of a daughter  cross the line into (social or legal) unacceptability?  Castration of sexual offenders was not an unknown response (and may have been official policy in some earlier periods, though not by this point), and settlement of quarrels by financial payment was likewise often tolerated. In a world which assumed a certain degree of self help, was the ‘privatised compensation plan’ thought up by the Touks completely indefensible?

The roll deals with the criminal assault side of things, and so does not go into the question of the compensation agreement. Presumably Master William would have been able to avoid paying by claiming duress of imprisonment. As a social fact, though, it is quite revealing. First, we should note the degree of literacy and technical skill which is implied in Henry’s ability to draw up an obligation, to insist on its being sealed (even if, surely, having William use his seal would have invalidated it) and delivered.

In terms of the background, it is impossible not to be frustrated at the lack of information about Beatrix and her role. We do not know Beatrix’s age, but can assume that she was unmarried, and therefore probably quite young. Was she in any sense a willing participant in events with Master William? Did she understand what was going on? How did she come to see things after the intervention of her brother and father? Perhaps all that can be deduced is that the evidence about the secret and indecent words of love must have come from her (otherwise they would not have been secret, would they?) so that suggests at least a later preference for family and reputation over an involvement with Master William. To a modern reader, it is difficult not to see this as something of a ‘grooming’ situation – man of God and trusted friend of the family, ‘our little secret’, etc. The truth, however, cannot be judged at this distance.



[i] JUST 1/675 m. 2 (AALT IMG 4702).

A Planetary Kiss Goodbye to 2020


Gwen Seabourne on Twitter: “Jupiter and Saturn thinking about getting friendly.#GreatConjunction #Kiss https://t.co/m9qRX5KRBB” / Twitter

Tonight, I finally found a good place to go and look at the night sky event of 2020, the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Semi-confined as we still are, here in Bristol (now Tier 2 rather than Tier 3, but, apart from it still not being OK to lick doorknobs, or indeed people, I have lost track of what that means…) it took a bit of thought to come up with a decent lookout spot, and it started to … persist … down with rain just as I was setting off, but the view from the Downs was not bad at all.

Of course, apart from just enjoying the phenomenon, with my birdwatching binoculars (I am a strictly part-time stargazer) my mind could not help but run over various DEEPER MEANINGS: about things appearing to be touching, but in fact being spectacularly distant, about human longing to see and feel connections – life, the universe and everything.  (Never quite left the angsty sixth form phase).

And then, equally ‘of course’, off my thoughts went to LEGAL HISTORY – because one of the reasons this celestial event is so cool is that it comes around very infrequently. What, I asked myself, was going on in the world of history/legal history at other points when this conjunction could be seen? Which historical heroes and villains might have seen it? Well, my old chum Edward Coke (ruffs, bad temper, casual relationship with the truth …) was around the last time the internet says it happened (in 1623) but would not have been able to see it, since on that occasion, it was too close to the sun. We are told that the last time it would have been possible to see the event was much further back, on 4th March 1226. The resonance which this has for me, and where I am now, is that, at this date, Eleanor of Brittany, unfortunate Angevin noblewoman and subject of an article I wrote long ago (Gwen, Eleanor of Brittany and her Treatment by King John and Henry III https://ssrn.com/abstract=3609270) as well as cropping up in other works, was involuntarily resident in Bristol, confined in the castle, and, not that she knew it, never again to be allowed her liberty. No doubt other interesting things were going on at the time (Carpenter’s Henry III Part I is earmarked for reading when I get a bit of spare time over the holiday, so I will be better informed shortly) but that rather self-centred connection is the one which suggests itself this evening.

Anyway, it seems appropriate, somehow, that 2020 should be rounded off by a celestial marvel, the ‘purblind Doomsters’ putting piffling humans in our rightful place good and proper. Here’s hoping that 2021 becomes calmer and less interesting for historians of the future.




Not entirely ‘perswasive’?

In between teaching and admin., at the moment, I am working on something touching on decisions relating to the presence of life and legitimacy. Today, I am pursuing bits and pieces on the legitimacy/’bastardy’ side of it, and looking at the splendidly titled Lex Spuriorum by a very early 18th C lawyer.[i] Usually, in this enquiry, I have found my mind occupied by the disturbingly condemnatory attitudes and language, and the writing-off of so many children, people, as ‘bastards’, and somehow not as good as others, despite self-evident lack of personal guilt in the ‘sinful’ nature of their conception. Today, however, I have been ‘going off on one’ in a different direction, after looking at the preface of this book.


In this preface, Brydall felt it necessary to justify himself – why was he writing the book? What ‘perswaded’ him (love that spelling!) to publish it? His specific answer to that is interesting (and a little hard not to laugh at): his alleged motives include writing ‘To let the People of this prefent Age fee, what great Difadvantages Children born out of Holy Matrimony do lie under, which might … very much deter Men and Women from ever purfuing unlawful and exorbitant Embraces, of which this Nation, as well as foreign Countries, have been deeply guilty.’ Unlawful and exorbitant Embraces should, obviously, be discouraged, but the idea that people intent on a bit of exorbitant Embracing would stop, read a treatise, find it ‘perswasive’ and think better of their plans, seems … just a little far-fetched.

Postscript – It is a measure of my current preoccupation with all things REF that my mind immediately went to ‘ooh – that’s a bold claim for the potential “impact” of a piece of writing’.


GS 22/11/2020


[i] John Brydall of Lincoln’s Inn, esq., Lex Spuriorum or the Law Relating to Bastardy (London, 1703).

Bastardy, Presumptions and a Plague of Beatrixes

(Sheldon arms, apparently: see VCH reference, below)

I am writing something about difficult questions at the start of life – determining whether (legally recognised) life is present in a foetus or newborn, and determining legitimacy – from periods before the development of some important medical techniques and instruments (to c. 1900 –  in 10,000 words …). One of the aspects I am investigating is the use of presumptions, to help come to an answer, when everyone accepted that there was a high level of uncertainty. An important presumption in the area of determinations of legitimacy was the common law’s long-lasting and rather strong presumption of legitimacy for a child born to married parents. I have just spent quite some time chasing down a Year Book/Plea roll match for an interesting case from the later years of Edward III, which has a bearing on this, and, since it won’t get more than a short mention, perhaps no more than a footnote, in the paper itself, I thought I’d write it up here.

The Year Book report is Seipp 1370.044 or YB Pasch. 44 Edw. III pl. 21 f. 12b. The Plea Roll record is CP 40/438 m. 370d (AALT IMG 5516). It is a Common Pleas case. As is often the way, the names in YB and PR don’t match up, but I think we can be pretty certain that these documents refer to the same case. There is also  information in other sources which gives some indications about the people involved in the case.[i] This is my reconstruction of the whole story, based on all of this.

There was a need to determine whether or not a girl was to be classed as ‘legitimate’ or ‘a bastard’ at common law, in order to deal with a land dispute. The land in question was in the West Midlands of England, in Warwickshire, centred on the manor of Sheldon, and included different parcels of land and associated rights. Once upon a time, it had been held by Henry de Sheldon and Beatrix his wife (HS and B1) and John Murdak had been granted an interest which would come into play if HS and B1 died without heirs of their bodies.

This had all happened in the 1330s. The central characters in the 1370 dispute were Thomas Murdak, knight (TM), son of John, who claimed that he should hold the land, and  a married couple, (Sir) John de Peyto and Beatrix his wife, who  were in fact holding some of the relevant land and rights. John and Beatrix (JP and B2) argued that they held a tenancy for life in the land, from one Beatrix (B3), eventual successor of HS (as daughter of John de Sheldon, JS, who was HS’s son and heir). When they wished to use B3’s superior right as the foundation of their own right, and against TM’s claim to it, TM made the argument that they could not do so, because B3 was a bastard. (And bastards were outside the scheme of succession at common law).

Why was there a doubt about B3’s legitimacy? Well, it seems that the circumstances of her birth were slightly unusual: she was said by JP and B2 to be the posthumous child of JS, born to his wife after a short marriage (at most fifteen days), though conceived before the marriage. TM told it rather differently: in his version, there had been some very dubious behaviour, which could mean that there was no real marriage, and so no presumption of legitimacy, and also, in fact, B3 was the child of another man entirely. His tale was of a very unwell JS, sick to death with plague, and not in his right mind, being physically carried to the church in Yardley, to marry (desponsare de facto) ‘some woman’ (not named – the odds seem to be in favour of her having been called Beatrix, like everyone else …) who was, at the time ‘grossly pregnant’.  As he told it, this was part of a fraudulent plan, essentially to do him out of his rights, which, remember, would come into play on the death of HS and B1 and their legitimately procreated heirs, and to protect the holding of JP and B2. JP and B2, however, expanded on their version, stating that B3 was in fact the biological child of JS: he and B3’s mother had been lovers (and had had two previous children) and he had promised to marry her, then impregnated her with B3 before going off to Calais for three months, and, on his return, he had fulfilled that promise. Though he had been ill, he had been sane and had married her at the behest of his conscience (presumably wishing to ‘make an honest woman of her’, and secure her future provision). They had lived together for a fortnight, then he had died. B3 had been born afterwards (interestingly, neither a date of birth, nor a gestation period, is included). Essentially, their tale denied both the ‘not JS’s biological child’ and the ‘not a valid marriage’ aspects of TM’s case.

Argument continued, with the aim of narrowing things down to one issue which could go to proof. According to the Year Book report, there followed some back and forth about exactly how pregnancy, espousals and legitimacy worked together, as far as the common law was concerned. TM’s side had a go at saying that the fact that it was accepted that B3’s mother was very pregnant before the espousals meant that Alice was a bastard. This seems to imply an argument that pregnancy had to start, as well as end, after espousals had been made.  This argument did not prevail, but it is interesting that it could be made, since it suggests the possibility of insisting on very exacting standards of continence and of ‘bastardising’ quite a number of children born within a marriage. The orthodox, less exacting, rule was stated by Fyncheden JCP: a child would be found to be legitimate, if the mother was pregnant by the man she then married, and she married him before the birth. Interestingly for my investigation, though, his reported words also suggest that a child conceived in the period between promise to marry and actual marriage (I have been doing too much Land Law because I automatically think of this as ‘conception between contract and conveyance’) does not automatically get the benefit of the strong presumption of legitimacy which would have applied to a child conceived after marriage.

In the end, rather than deciding B3 was definitely a bastard, (either because she was admittedly conceived before marriage, or because the marriage was invalid), or deciding that the conclusion would rest upon her presumed legitimacy as a result of having been born after the espousals, it was decided that the issue to be put to a jury was to be (effectively) whether the biological father of Alice was HS or the ‘other man’. This strikes me as a rather difficult thing for a jury to conclude upon, and it is interesting that it was thought feasible that they could do so. Also of interest is the point that the fact of there having been espousals did not blot out the possibility of B3 being found to be a bastard. My inquiries into later versions of the presumption of legitimacy within marriage show some interesting ups and downs in terms of its strength, and what sort of doubts might be entertained about paternity after the mother’s marriage, but it seems that, at least at this point, challenging legitimacy in these circumstances was a real possibility: if the ‘unloaded’, neutral, question ‘was X or Y the biological father of Z’ could be left to a jury, there would seem to be a fairly even chance of a finding of bastardy or of legitimacy. I am also pondering the issue of there having been a particular fascination amongst common lawyers at this point for the question of bastardy/legitimacy within marriage – another project I have done looked at a case from just before this one, Tyryngton v Beauchamp (1369),[ii]  the report of which saw common lawyers introducing a gratuitous discussion of just this issue (that case did not concern a child whose legitimacy was in dispute, but the report shows lawyers ‘going off on one’ about this).

The reporter loses interest once the issue is identified, as is usual, but the record tells us (some of) what happened in the end. The record includes later stages of procedure, which went on for some terms, and, to cut a long story short, TM dropped out, and so the case came to an end, leaving JP and B2 in possession of the land. There never was a jury verdict. It may be that some deal was struck, or it may be that TM decided that a jury would not have believed that B3 was the biological child of the mysterious ‘other man’.

So there we have it – for my immediate purposes, it represents an interesting stage in the development of doctrine around determinations and presumptions of legitimacy. More broadly, it is fascinating both legally and socially. The legal structure is set up so that it is in order – and perhaps it is an early resort – for claimants to land to cast aspersions about the sexual behaviour of non-party individuals. We see insights into a plausible story of a long term non-marital relationship which might be regularised on the point of death, and also a deep-seated suspicion of deathbed marital dealings (generally of the ‘woman as gold-digger’ variety: given the unequal system of real property, such marriages would tend to be for the benefit of women rather than men). If the background to this case was indeed a recurrence of plague, it is also interesting to ponder the effects of such crises of mortality on law and practice with regard to marriage, legitimacy and succession.

[And then of course there is the oblique evidence provided for the otherwise unknown ‘Statute of Beatrixes’ (or should it be ‘Beatrices’?), under which all female children in the West Midlands were required to be called Beatrix.]



(For more on bastardy in common law and canon law, and jurisdictional issues, in medieval England, including a 1364 case which might also support the idea of particular attention on this issue in this era, see, e.g. R. H. Helmholz, ‘Bastardy Litigation in Medieval England’, American Journal of Legal History 13, (1969): 360-83).

[i] VCH Warkwickshire (not going to pretend I can get to libraries at the moment): https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol4/pp200-205

[ii] William de Tyryngton and Johanna his wife v. John Beauchamp del Holte and Joan his wife (1369).CP 40/435 m.387, 387d (IMG 773 and 1857(; Seipp 1369.059; YB 43 Edw. III Trin. pl. 5.