Tag Archives: homicide

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

Death and Doghethegy: homicide suits and dodgy spelling in medieval Herefordshire

Worth a brief note, I think, is a Herefordshire homicide case from the King’s Bench plea rolls of 1428 (KB 27/666 – the devil’s plea roll – mm. 81 and 81d). William ap Thomas ap Phelippe Vaghan of Talgarth in Wales, gentleman, and three other men, named in more-or-less Welsh fashion, John ap Jeuan ap Howell, Richard ap David Glyn and Jeuan ap Thomas ap Oweyn (all three of Talgarth, and each labelled ‘yeoman’), and a second list of one ‘gentleman’ and seven ‘yeomen’ of Talgarth (again, broadly Welsh-named) were attached to answer John ap Gwelym’s appeal concerning the death of Rhys [‘Resus’] ap Gwelym, his brother.

The allegation was (to summarise) that Rhys was attacked by the defendants, at Kivernoll, Herefordshire, on Wednesday 6th November, 1426, and killed (specifically, he was said to have been shot in the back and heart (x 2) with  arrows, bashed over the head with a pole-arm, and lanced in the chest and head). A bit ‘overkill’, it would seem, but this sort of account is common enough, perhaps reflecting a real series of events, perhaps semi-fictitious, as a way of tying various people into the killing.

William ap Thomas and most of the others said that they were not guilty, John ap Gwelym maintained his appeal, and everyone agreed to jury trial. So far so unexciting, from a legal historical point of view. One of the accused, however, tried a different strategy, and this is what interests me. Richard ap David objected that John ap Gwelym had no right to bring this appeal, because Rhys ap Gwelym had a wife, (and we are to understand that she ought to have brought the appeal).

I find this interesting, because the rules about appeal right are a little opaque. It is certainly clear that a wife could bring a prosecution against those she thought had killed her husband, but did that preclude others from doing so? This case seems to confirm that it did. So appeal-right by the blood, or through common law canons of inheritance,  did not trump, or sit on a par with, appeal-right by the former ‘joined flesh’ of matrimony. Interesting to ponder that. And yet, the other defendants did not go for the ‘he had a wife’ option – so was there some doubt as to the ‘trumping’ rule, or that the marriage would be found to have been valid, or did they have some other reason to prefer the straightforward ‘not guilty’ plea?

Making his argument that there was a wife, so the brother’s appeal was misconceived, Richard set things out very carefully. He noted promises to marry, from both sides, and banns, and a church-door wedding, and stated that the marriage had lasted for the rest of the life of Rhys (even if that was rather …. shortened), and that his wife was still alive, and in Kynardesley, Herefordshire. I have not seen this level of detail in such an allegation before, and it strikes me that it might have been a result of questioning, and suspicion with regard to the status of marriages amongst the Welsh, even those apparently resident in England. Could they be trusted to do the thing properly?

Anyway, whether because of this problem with his appeal or otherwise, John ap Gwelym did not see the appeal through, and it was left to the king to take up the matter. On it went, and after the usual delays, there was a jury trial. Richard and the others were acquitted. The switch to the king’s suit, rather than an appeal by a subject, would presumably put an end to investigation about the marriage of Rhys.

There is much here which is of interest beyond legal history, especially in relation to the Welsh in the very porous border area. Apart from their apparently fractious relationships amongst themselves, there is quite a lot which might be extracted, for those studying the cross-cultural aspects of border life. Possible issues about marriage I have mentioned. There is also some pretty glorious material on language. I am far from qualified to pontificate on this, but – hurrah – this is my blog, so I can do what I want, and I am going to give you a couple of quick thoughts:

  1. The names, or their recorded versions, show a fair amount of mixing of languages. I realise that I have ‘Englished’ the Latin recording of some of the names above – those are ones which were recorded just as they would be for an Englishman – i.e. ‘Willelmus’ as opposed to ‘Gwilym/ Gwelym’, unless the latter is written down, and so on. I do quite like the Latin-English-Welsh mash-up recording of the name of one of them: Mauricius Thomasservant ap Phelippe Vaghan [of Talgarth in Wales, yeoman].There is also a bit of French accent to some of these – ‘Phelippe’ for example. Truly a fun puzzle for a linguist.
  2. And then there is somebody’s apparent bewilderment as to how to deal with the name of Rhys’s wife – who, I assume, was called Dyddgu. In the plea roll, she becomes ‘Doghethegy’. It might be that this was a spelling given by Richard ap David, but my little mental reconstruction of how this ended up being the version of record is that it was the result of somebody who could pronounce it saying ‘Dyddgu’ very, very slowly to a clerk with no Welsh, and him slightly throwing his hands up in despair and slapping down the start and finish of the name, padding it out with a few extra letters and leaving it at that.[i] I suspect that anyone with this name would still be looked at with uncertainty once over Offa’s Dyke, but at least she would probably not end up being recorded with a set of letters which left Google offering a few pictures of dogs and then giving up.



[i] If nothing else, it shows that the clerk responsible was not familiar with his Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Image – near the site of the alleged murder. With genuine medieval vehicle.

Wine o’clock in Whitby: dodgy drink and creative indicting in medieval Yorkshire

The picturesque town of Whitby is, of course, inextricably linked with one famous danger to humanity…

Yes, him …

OK, that was gratuitous vampire-inclusion. It is, in fact,  a less well-known, and possibly less fictional, Whitby resident and dealer of death I will be considering here. A certain Richard Cowper was in the area in the late 15th century, and, apparently, he had murder in mind.

According to an entry in the King’s Bench Indictment File for Michaelmas 1478 (KB 9/349 m. 77), Richard Cowper, a monk, was suspected of having mixed an unspecified poison in the wine he gave to William Colson, abbot of the (Benedictine) abbey of SS Peter and Hild at Whitby, and others (another monk, John Langthawe, and John [Mason], Thonas Gateshede and Richard Ledys – none of whom were specifically said to be monks). The deed was said to have been done on 20th September 1477, at a time when, so the entry is careful to specify, the imbibers were in good physical health. Not for long, however. They were unwell (languebant) from 20th September until 6th October, at which point, one of them (Richard Ledys) died. We hear no more of the others. The abbot at least survived, as he is reported dying only in 1499 – and so it is safe to say that the cause would not have been the questionable beverage supplied by R. Cowper.

The indictment is interesting – and a little odd – in its inclusion of the whole story involving he group of victims, when only one of them died. It is relevant to my research on petty treason, though, as ever, it raises just as many questions as it answers.

The relationship between the abbot and Cowper is worth considering. Cowper is called a ‘fellow-monk’ (comonachus) of the abbot, though the abbot is also called his master (magister) and the offence is said to have been committed proditorie as well as falsely and feloniously. Proditorie is generally a word seen in treason/’petty treason’ contexts. Leaving aside the fact that the abbot did not die, an offence against one’s abbot could certainly be brought under the heading of ‘petty treason’, in that it could be thought of as either a ‘servant v. master’ offence, or a ‘person owing obedience v. prelate’ case, under the categories in the 1352 Statute of Treasons. True, the use of ‘comonachus’ muddies the waters a little, but hierarchy is emphasised with the use of ‘master’ to describe Cowper’s relationship with the abbot. The relationship with Richard Ledys, the poor fellow who did die, cannot, however, really be seen as a ‘petty treason’ relationship. It is not clear that Richard Ledys was a monk at all, but, if he was, he was not the abbot, so that the relationship looks more horizontal than vertical.  Was the proditorie justified on a sort of ‘transferred intention’ basis – i.e. that Cowper intended to kill the abbot, and that intention was in the nature of treason, and applied over to the death of another person? Seems a little far-fetched. Could it be that it was being suggested that poisoning was something which made the offence petty treason? Certainly, poisoning was, in the next century, singled out as especially heinous (st. 22 Hen. VIII, c. 9), but I am not aware of any such doctrine existing in the fifteenth century.  So – a bit mysterious.

The alleged and apparently unsuccessful attempt to kill the abbot and the others who drank the wine, apart from poor old Richard Ledys, is also described as having been committed proditorie. This might be even more interesting. One of the intriguing aspects of petty treason is its position in between ‘normal’ homicide and ‘high’ treason. Generally speaking, with the exception of the penalties, it is treated as being closer to homicide than to treason. Here, though, it appears that an attempt is being assimilated to the completed act – something which probably would not have been the case in contemporary homicide but would certainly have been the case in ‘high’ treason (generally, plots and attempts at treason did not succeed …).

According to the description of Whitby Abbey in the relevant Victoria County History volume, its history was ‘devoid of exceptional interest or importance’. Well – not to legal historians, I would say!

Iechyd da!




Wine image – Photo by Max Tutak on Unsplash

Book image c/o Wikimedia Commons

Rough and ready music: listening to the records

Expectation management: this is not very profound, just something I saw today which struck a chord, resonated, etc. [insert other music-related references …]

It’s a line in a plea roll entry from the reign of Edward IV, from Easter term 1482.[i] The case is not a pleasant one (well, it is in a ‘criminal’ roll …). You know it’s going to be serious when the word ‘coroner’ appears early on – and this starts with an account of an inquest, on 10th January 1482, before Suffolk coroners, at Halesworth, on the body of John Hensted, who had been killed there.

John Hevnyngham, knight, and William Jenny, sjt at law, had been at Halesworth on 29th December, 1480, on a royal commission, dealing with a case about land rights, between John Laveraunce and William Goderyche, and were in a room of an inn called the Hart, in Halesworth.[ii] The inquest jury (and an indictment founded upon their narrative) said that  a certain William Wingfeld, recently of Spexhall, Suffolk, got together a group of malefactors [6 men named, no amusing names, so I shall omit them – all grooms, tailors and similar] and attacked John Fayrechild, servant and clerk of William Jenney, as he was coming towards the room. They would have killed John F, had he not defended himself with a small ‘daggarr’ (note contrast with their swords and other not-small weapons …).  Despite his heroic defence against the odds, the group overpowered John F and ‘decked’ him. Again, he was in peril of death, and would have been a goner, but was rescued in the nick of time by loyal types, ripped from the hands of the ne’er-do-wells and taken into the room.  Wingfeld and his gang then started on John Hensted (who was in God’s and the king’s peace – it doesn’t actually say whether he was involved in the John F episode, but I imagine that is the idea …) and wounded him multipliciter et crudeliter, so much so that they killed and murdered him [never use one word where two will do …].

Afterwards [and this is the bit that grabbed me] one of William Wingfeld’s men, the groom Nicholas Petyt. celebrating John H’s death, said, in his native tongue, ‘I shall blowe a mote[iii] for his deth’ and straight away blew a high (or loud?) blast on a certain horn [which he  happened to have about his person – though I suppose that is plausible …and rather appropriate with the whole hart/white hart theme …]. William Wingfield said, also in English ‘a man of Jenneys is slayn. I wold it had lighted upon his master’, and afterwards, William W and gang fled. William W received the others, knowing what they had done.

Later, in the King’s Bench, William W and four of his men turned up, waving a royal pardon which said the charge had been malicious. Who knows whether that was true or not, or what happened to Nicholas Petyt, who was not included in the pardon.[iv] An interesting bit of creative dialogue creation (‘verbals’ is the word that comes to my mind – have just been watching a rather good documentary series about ‘bent coppers’ in London in the 1960s-80s, who favoured this sort of elaborate lie when ‘framing’ individuals ..) anyway. Whether or not these words were spoken, why would they be included in the narrative? Is Petyt’s supposed remark, and celebration, about indicating definite guilt, inconsistent with the sort of hot-blooded, hot-headed killings which might be passed over as undeserving of capital punishment?[v] Might the words attributed to Wingfeld have been an attempt to suggest that he had wished to strike at a royal official, and get him into more trouble?

No answers to those at present, but here’s one I might do better with: why did this entry appeal to me? Well, I think there is something engaging, for the modern reader, in the ‘code-switching’ between Latin record and English reported speech in these records: it almost feels a bit comic, despite the situation, and it gives a sense of performance, of throwing the hands up and saying ‘do you know what, this is not going to work in scholarly Latin, here’s what was actually said …’ I know that there is a lot of work on this in literary studies – macaronic works etc. – but I think that plea rolls are a bit neglected as a linguistic/literary production, and that it would be very interesting to get legal historians and lit. scholars together to look at what these sources can tell us about English, and the sound of medieval England (or plausible versions thereof) at some point. It has been done to some extent with defamation, but there is a lot more in there, if you have the patience to do a bit of ‘listening’.




[i] KB 27/882 Rex m.9; AALT IMG 173,

[ii] Excitingly, there is an old pub called the White Hart in Halesworth. A quick scan shows claims that it goes back to the 17th C – could it be the same one? Image above is its sign.

[iii] According to the ME Dictionary online, a ‘mote’ is one note on a hunting horn. New one on me.

[iv] The pardon is calendared: CPR 1476-85 p. 242

[v] Note that Petyt is accused, alone, of the offence, here (and next membrane) and here. And he is called a ‘vagabond’ rather than a groom … interesting ‘spin’ going on somewhere … This one is v. close to the story on the plea roll, but implicates the others, and doesn’t call him a vagabond! The matter of ‘vagabond’ as an ‘addition is debated in a (connected?) YB report here.

Canons and knives: death (and treason?) in a medieval priory

A ‘query petty treason’ case today – while I am most interested in the ‘husband killed by wife’ cases, it is worth remembering that the Statute of Treasons 1352 gives other examples of ‘sort of treason because against the natural hierarchical order of things’ cases. I do have some ‘servant kills master/mistress’ cases on my ‘table of doom’, but there is much less available in the other category – killings of abbots by their monks. Here, though, on two Cambridgeshire gaol delivery rolls,[i] is a case from 1403 which is, if not quite ‘monk on abbot’, tantalisingly adjacent to that. Having been very pleased with myself for finding it, I discovered that those hard-working early 20th C local historians had been there before me: there is a one-page account of the documents (complete with old style roll numbering) in The East Anglian vol. 13.[ii] Slightly miffed for a moment, but then, actually, I quite like making this sort of connection. Maybe one day somebody will do the same with this post … (delusions of being Emily Dickinson, or something, there …).

Anyway, on with the story. The deceased in this case was William Gilbert, priory of a rather small foundation in Cambridgeshire (I confess I had never heard of it) called Spinney. A bit of basic research reveals that this was a house of Augustinian canons, and, at the relevant time, had only a handful of residents.

The inquest before a coroner was held ‘ on 19th May, 1403. The story noted down from the twelve inquest jurors[iii] was that three canons of Spinney (also said to be confratres – ‘brothers’ of the deceased), John Lode alias John Catesson, Thomas Smyth, and William Hall, had killed him that same day (note speedy start to proceedings!). The killing, as described, was fairly drawn out. John Lode stabbed William Gilbert under the left arm, Thomas Smyth stabbed him in the back. William Gilbert then managed to get away into a different room, but the trio broke the door, and Thomas stabbed William Gilbert through his left arm, and his side, to his heart. It is carefully specified that each of the first two stab wounds would have sufficed to kill WG, had there not been another one.[iv] The geographical as well as physical locations are specified – the initial stabbing was said to have taken place in the priory church, and the final wound, in the priory’s hall, to which William Gilbert had fled in his failed escape bid.

The three were found guilty by a jury, at the gaol delivery session on 20th  July 1403, but escaped execution because they were able to take advantage of benefit of clergy, and were ‘claimed’ by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Petty treason: teasing out the definitional implications

What does all this tell us about petty treason? The account does use the language of treachery or treason – the trio had risen up like traitors, but note that the bond highlighted is not that between the killers and their prior, but between the killers and the king (tanquam proditores domini regis manu forte proditorie). If they were really seen as traitors against the king, it seems surprising that they were allowed benefit of clergy. What am I missing? And does this case show that canon-prior just was not seen as analogous to monk-abbot in this context? The reference to ‘fellow brethren’, as Palmer translates it, suggests a less ‘vertical’ relationship, doesn’t it?

Canon to the right of him, canon to the left of him … thoughts on the social implications

Assuming this is anywhere near true, it does make life at the priory of Spinney sound rather grim – a conspiracy against its leader involving what was probably the bulk of the others in the house. Note, though that one person did rather nicely out of it all – the sub-prior, who escaped indictment, and stepped fairly seamlessly into the top job once the dust settled …





[i] JUST 3/8/6 m.58 (AALT IMG 106);  JUST 3/190 m. 5 (AALT IMG 13).

[ii] W.M. Palmer, ‘Murder of the Prior of Spinney’, p. 104.

[iii] (who, I note, included a certain ‘Willamm Schakespeare’ … there you have it – evidence that W. S. was actually a member of the Undead …).

[iv] I am by no means an expert, but that third wound, right through an arm and side, into the heart, sounds as if it would have had to be particularly forceful. I also note that William Hall is not reported to have struck a blow at all. But then accessory liability – or treating as principals all with any sort of participation in the killing – was certainly ‘a thing’ in these cases.

Image: where the priory would have been if it was still there, but it isn’t. All sorts of symbolic ..

Justice for Maud! A message from the rapid rebuttal unit for possibly maligned medieval women …

This morning, a blog about medieval divorce was drawn to my attention by Twitter. Much of it was interesting – including an account of the matrimonial misadventures of the last Warenne earl of Surrey which I have long used as an example for my Legal History students, when we look at matrimonial law. There was one point that raised the hackles a little, though: the unqualified statement that Maud Neville, wife of William de Cantilupe, had killed her husband in 1375. This is a bit questionable – but note my maturity in not blasting off a comment on Twitter, but instead noting the difficulty here, where, given the obscurity of the location, it is unlikely to cause a heated debate.

The death of Cantilupe has aroused the interest of a number of historians, and Maud was indeed accused of involvement. She was, however, acquitted (KB 27/459 Rex m. 39). While an acquittal clearly does not ‘prove innocence’, and while one can certainly interpret the documents in a way which makes of them a good story, including a bit of illicit sex and a dash of duplicity, and suggests a plausible scenario involving Maud’s guilt, however, it is questionable simply to ignore the fact that she was acquitted and to treat her guilt as obvious. Does it matter, all this time later? Well yes, I think it does.  It is worth asking why the narrative of the adulterous and schemingly murderous wife, which is  suggested by the reconstructions of modern historians, is so much more … seductive … than the evidence of a contemporary acquittal that the latter is given absolutely no weight.

Right. That needed to be said. Now I can get on with what I am supposed to be doing today.



Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

Between cause and effect: the length of lingering deaths

There is an interesting (if, obviously, horrible) local murder case in the press today, for anyone looking at the issue of causation, and the potential time-gap between offending action and death, which action may still be amenable to prosecution as homicide. Rather than simply being a matter of later discovery of, and prosecution of, a murder, the death of Jacqueline Kirk was relatively recent (2019), but the criminal action being assigned as its cause (setting her on fire) occurred 21 years before that. This leapt out at me today, quite apart from its horror and human interest, as connecting to an academic interest which I have long had in ideas about causation of death, and the issues surrounding ascribing criminal culpability in cases of ‘lingering death’, in so far as we can gather them from medieval legal records – and on which I plan to work in 2021-2. There are differences, of course, in that there can now be considerably greater certainty about factual causation than would have been the case in the ‘premodern world’, but causation in the law of homicide is never just a matter of fact, but mixes in all sorts of judgments about blame and appropriateness of bringing belated legal proceedings, so this recent case, and the discussion which it will no doubt encourage, will be an interesting lens through which to examine my material (though I have to say that, while there are certainly some very belated prosecutions, I have not found any attempts to argue for a ‘lingering death homicide’ of anything like this length, in older materials – no doubt to a great extent because people subjected to serious violence such as being set on fire would be unlikely to survive long, without modern medical interventions, but there are fascinating changes in ideas about the moral/legal aspects of causation to track as well).



Image (and yes I know this is not the court where the accused appeared yesterday, but the new one is a bit ugly: also good to see a statue in Bristol which is not obviously in need of a toppling): Stone statue of Justice by Edward Sheppard, the old Magistrates Court, Bridewell St., Bristol, dated 1879

Medieval monastic mental disorder: an ‘insanity plea’ from Tavistock Abbey

A few more ‘insane felony’ cases have come up in recent trawls of gaol delivery rolls, in the last part of the fourteenth century, bringing with them some variations on vocabulary, procedure or facts, which seemed worth noting.[i] At some point, I will get around to pulling all of this together, but, until then, these occasional posts will at least put them ‘out there’ for anyone with an interest.

Today’s intriguing entry is in a gaol delivery roll for a session in February 1369. It involves the tale of a monk, said to have killed a cook. Walter Thynnewode, a monk of Tavistock Abbey, had been arrested for the killing of Stephen Lyoun, a cook from the abbey kitchen. The killing was reported to have occurred in Tavistock on Sunday 5th February 1368, and Walter had been indicted before a coroner for the deed. Walter pleaded not guilty and put himself upon a jury. The jury said that, on the relevant day, Walter had been a lunaticus and insane memorie. He had left the Abbey at night (the implication is, I think, that he wanted to depart on a more than temporary basis). He encountered Stephen, who tried to bring him back to the abbey. Walter, being, at that time, non compos mentis, stabbed Stephen in the abdomen with a knife, and Stephen died. Walter was to be sent back to prison ‘until the next &c’.[ii]


So what?

Well, it’s the first time I have seen a monk in this context, so that is a little bit interesting. On the whole, the legal stuff is nothing particularly new: we know that insanity of particular kinds worked to avoid the consequences of actions usually deemed felonious. We might wonder, though, at the willingness of the jury to overlook the fact that Walter does seem to have been able to form an intention to leave the abbey, though they decided his mental disorder explained the killing of poor Stephen the cook. It is noteworthy that it is assumed that Walter had, by the time of the case, made a  recovery from his serious mental disorder: he is now pleading competently, for himself, and care is taken to restrict the ‘madness words’ to his past self. Another piece of evidence suggests that he was re-integrated into the community at Tavistock Abbey quite quickly, and not held in any sort of confinement there, since (unless there were two men with the same name) he was accused of illicit hunting on Dartmoor, in the company of his abbot, two other monks and various other local men, in 1371.[iii] Of the cook, Stephen, whose apparent attempt to enforce monastic discipline on the erring Walter (or, perhaps, to restrain him in his disordered state), no further trace appears to remain.






[i] For previous posts on this topic, see: Mental incapacity | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

[ii] AALT Page (uh.edu) JUST 3/156 m. 36 (AALT IMG 83).

[iii] See G.H. Radford, ‘Tavistock Abbey’, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association 46 (1914) 119-45, 128; CPR 1370-4, p. 172.

Extra memoriam existens: investigating the mental state of a medieval Gloucestershire killer

Today’s find is another for my growing collection of posts on medieval common law, felony and mental disorders.[i]  This time, we are in Gloucestershire, looking at a case in the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term, 1378,[ii] and the accused is a certain John le Botyler.

John was indicted as having committed two recent, violent and disturbing homicides. On the same day in 1378, he was said to have killed Elianor, daughter of Agnes Sheppester of Gloucester, at Hardwicke,[iii]  and Nicholas Roger at Haresfield. The story was that both killings had been carried out using the same sword. He had hit Elianor in the back of the head with the sword, and, when she fell down under this blow, had stabbed her in the back. In the case of Nicholas, it had apparently been a face-to-face attack, as John stabbed Nicholas in the right hand part of his abdomen. It was noted, however, that John had done all of this whilst out of his right mind (extra memoriam existens).

Before the royal justices, John was asked how he pleaded, but he did not respond. The record noted that he appeared to be insane (tanquam furiosus & omnino extra memoriam apparet). An inquiry was ordered to be made into the matter of his mental state, using a jury made up both of those in Gloucester castle who had had charge of John following his arrest, and also of those from the locations of the two homicides. These jurors said that John was furiosus and extra memoriam. He was sent back to prison, in Gloucester castle, and the sheriff was responsible for his safe-keeping.

In the next Hilary term, the court was informed that John had become sane – devenit sane memorie – so the sheriff was ordered to bring him to court to answer the charges. After various delays, he came and seemed sane (apparet sane memorie). He pleaded not guilty and accepted jury trial. He was bailed to appear for the trial, with four men, including a ‘knight’ acting as security for his reappearance and good behaviour in the interim (on pain of losing £10). Eventually, there was a jury trial before assize justices, and the jury said he was not guilty of the felonies charged, so he was acquitted.

So what?

It’s hardly news that somebody rated mentally incapable would not suffer the punishment of a felon, nor, that, by this point, mercy would be delivered via a ‘not guilty’ verdict rather than going through the process of waiting for a pardon, as would have been the case in previous generations. Still, though, there are a couple of points of interest here.

As ever, we have the puzzle of just how disturbed a person would have to be before he would not be held liable for his crimes. In this case, the language is almost all about ‘memory’, and not being of sane/healthy ‘memory’. There is a bit of ‘fury’ talk as well, but the main impression relates to being in or out of ‘sane memory’. Retrospective diagnosis is both pointless and beyond me, but I do note this variation in the language used in these cases, the fact that there does seem to have been some ability to form a plan – in the first case, he did not just lash out wildly once, but hit the girl or woman when she was down from his first blow – and the interesting idea of his restoration to full ‘memory’ at some point after his killing spree and imprisonment. There is no suggestion that somebody is appointed to keep him under surveillance, or under lock and key, afterwards – he is simply free to go, assumed to be able to be reintegrated into Gloucestershire life. One wonders what would have been the view on this of the victims’ families.

I am also interested in the process of using John’s gaolers as well as other local men, as a sort of special jury, to give a view on his mental state. This process is reminiscent of both the ‘jury of matrons’ in claims of pregnancy, and also that used for people who stood mute when charged with a crime, to say whether they were unable to speak, or were ‘mute of malice’. It is an interesting hybrid of – in modern terms – witnesses and neighbours. It is probably not a surprise that there is no trace of an ‘expert’ assessment of John’s condition – this case is a good reminder that varied mental states were something assumed to be understood by, and clear to, ordinary men.  For all that is difficult and disturbing about the treatment of those with mental disorders in the past, that idea that such problems were seen as an expected part of everyday experiences is a stimulating point of contact between people of the deep past and the present world in which we are (gradually) becoming a little more open to the idea of the normality of mental difference.






(image courtesy of Gloucester castle and gaol © Pauline E :: Geograph Britain and Ireland )

[i] (see also:  Plague, fire and ‘lunacy’: arson and acquittal in medieval Yorkshire | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

Categories of incapacity in medieval common law: the ‘fatuous’ Warwickshire killer | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

‘Lunacy’ and legal records | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

Medieval mental health: describing, explaining and excusing a ‘furiosus’ | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk) )

[ii] KB 27/471 m. 13 d (AALT IMG 362).

[iii] ‘the Hollywood of Gloucester’, so Wikipedia says – will have to visit once we are free again and I can cadge a lift.

Photo by Hendrik Schlott on Unsplash

Slow Burn to No Burn: sex, death and survival in fourteenth century Somerset

How nice it is to be able to get at the treasure trove of scanned plea rolls on the AALT website (AALT Home Page (uh.edu) ) once again, after the storm/power disruption of recent weeks. Back I go to my searches of KB 27 plea rolls. I am looking for information on my projects for this year and next year, but, from time to time, other things pop up, and seem worth a brief word.

Today’s plea roll fun comes to us courtesy of the King’s Bench roll for 1359H.[i] (So we are post-appearance of Black Death, pre-royal decline and war with France going poire-shaped). It is a record of a presentment by jurors from different hundreds in Somerset, and deals with quite a long-running case.

The jurors, in summer 1358, before royal justices at Yeovil, presented that Philip de Clyfton had been involved with (adulteravit cum… carnaliter cognovit) a married woman: Joanna, wife of Philip Maubaunk[ii], during Philip M’s life. Sinful and scandalous, obviously, but the main offence which was relevant to a secular jurisdiction was the next bit: Philip C and two servants of Philip M, whose names the jurors said they did not know, had killed Philip M. Specifically, Philip C and the servants had ‘intoxicated’ Philip M, at Yeovil, with poison (unspecified, let’s be honest, it was probably supposed to be something in his food rather than the old snake in the bed, but nice pic, isn’t it? And it fits in with the whole poison-woman-Eve-serpent-sin vibe).

This, so the story went, had all been done with the encouragement and assistance of Joanna. It had, allegedly happened a long time previously, in June 1342. Joanna had been arrested and appeared in court before the King’s Bench at Westminster, in early 1359. She was asked how she pleaded to the charge of aiding and abetting the felonious homicide, and said she should not be obliged to answer until proceedings were (re)started against the alleged principal, Philip C. She was bailed to appear in the KB at Michaelmas. Proceedings against Philip C were then resumed, until, at Easter 1360, the sheriff of Somerset reported that Philip C had died in his custody at the beginning of the year. As far as the court was concerned, the fact that Philip C, who was indicted as principal, was dead, meant that he could not be convicted according to the law and custom of the realm, and that, in turn, meant that Joanna had to be acquitted.


So what?

Well, there are a number of things to think about here.

  1. The slow burn… If this is not a complete fabrication, it looks as if we are seeing action being taken against alleged killers (or some of them) 16 years or more after the alleged killing. Why? Had Joanna and Philip C gone off to a happy life of carnal knowledge somewhere else? Did nobody care about Philip M? Was there some late confession or slip, spilling the (poisoned) beans? The allegation in 1358-9 was one of poisoning, with the involvement of both wife and servants – the sort of thing which, generally, was taken extremely seriously, with added extras to the execution of convicted offenders (drawing as well as hanging for male servants, and burning for wives who killed their husbands) and which, of course, had been confirmed as a sort of treason by the Statute of Treasons 1352. It is puzzling that it took so long to be resolved (to the extent it was resolved).The passing of time allowed Joanna to avoid trial and possible conviction, and, in fact nobody actually stood trial for this alleged offence.
  2. The accessory/principal issue. It is interesting that a rule was upheld, allowing accessories a ‘get out of jail (and the risk of execution) free card’, if the principal died. It doesn’t seem entirely logical to me, and seems rather to encourage a certain amount of bumping off amongst former partners in crime. That’s one to investigate/ponder on some more. Just what was the relationship between the amenability to conviction of the principal and of the accessory?
  3. Venomous words. A smaller thing, but an interesting one. I note that ‘to poison’ and’ to intoxicate’ are used fairly interchangeably here, whereas we would now differentiate between them somewhat, in terms of deadliness, intention or focus. Another matter to bear in mind, and one which may have some bearing on the interpretation of other records which include only one of the two terms. We cannot necessarily assume precision and set boundaries of meaning in the use of these ‘medical’ terms.
  4. Oh yes, sex. The words describing sexual acts or relationships are always interesting. Here we have a description slightly different to those I usually encounter in common law records of offences: carnaliter cognovit is familiar enough (and rather unilateral), but adulteravit cum suggests bilateral activity. All rather more complex, or equivocal, than the idea that the medieval concept of sex was a man doing things to a woman. Then again, there might just not have been the words in the clerk’s Latin vocabulary to translate what was actually said (let alone what was actually going on – if anything was).


So – Joanna was ‘one who got away’ from the medieval common law; but was she also ‘one who got away with it’? As ever, we’ll never know.




[i] KB 27/394 Rex m. 16; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/E3/KB27no394/AKB27no394fronts/IMG_2821.htm

[ii] There is a Maubaunk family of a fairly high social status, appearing, e.g. in the Inquisitions Post Mortem: see TNA C 134/82/4 (earlier). There is a Philip Maubank of Dorset, whose full age is being proved in 1333: TNA C 135/35/1.  CIPM vol. 10 no. 530 (Edw III File 147) has Philip M and Joan – in summer 1333 Joan, late the wife of Philip M, is in trouble for not turning up to the proof of age of a young man whose lands she has in wardship.