Tag Archives: legal history

Total eclipse of the hearth: a characteristic medieval method of low-level extortion?

Something which has caught my attention when working through many, many accounts of alleged violent offences in medieval court records is a particular method of extorting money by torture, which is specifically ‘pre-modern’: making the unfortunate victim sit on a burning tripod until he or she stumps up. See, e.g., cases from rolls of: 1332, 1337, 1348, 1355, 1381, 1406, 1407 (& same incident). There is also a similar case involving burning somebody with a griddle or grate, to get them to say where some jewels were, from 1433).

I suppose that it first struck me as interesting because it sounded so odd – and so specific (and, as a kid, tripods had a special, troubling, place in my heart, both as a required construction of a ‘gadget’ for the guide Camper badge, and as the terrifying villains of the John Christopher books and TV series). A moment of reflection, however, and I realised that a tripod, and a hot tripod at that, would be a common feature of medieval homes, supporting cooking vessels in the hearth. No sci-fi or uniformed organisation reminiscing required.

I find myself asking why this appears to have been a relatively plausible tactic for those trying to get a person to cough up money or do something else to benefit the offender. Why not just use a knife to threaten? Everyone seems to have had a knife, judging by the number of deaths by stabbing on the rolls, after all. Perhaps the answer is a combination of factors:

  • the ‘sit on a tripod’ practice caused pain as well as exerting mental pressure, perhaps speeding the whole process up; might there also have been something humiliating for the victim about being injured on the buttocks?
  • as long as it wasn’t prolonged unduly, it probably wouldn’t cause death – whereas waving a knife about could always end in a stab wound, blood, death.

There are certainly signs that it was regarded as potentially very damaging, though: an unsuccessful allegation of 1330 saw three people (two men and a woman) indicted for having, at ‘Burnecestre’ (really!) , taken and tied up one Alice Garlicmonger and put her on a burning hot tripod, naked, until she made fine with them, burning her ‘enormiter’ and ‘usque ad ossa’ (the latter is interesting from an anatomical point of view – coccyx? femurs?). The three were found not guilty anyway, so no prospect of further interrogation of medieval ideas of the construction of a backside.

Some of these, e.g. the 1337 case, mention a causal connection – here, the ‘enormous’ or ‘outrageous’ burning was done in order ‘to get more money’.  ‘The entries don’t always have the burning as connected to the taking, but I think that must be the idea. Can’t rule out gratuitous cruelty, I suppose.

I am not sure that there is anything obvious to do with these, but perhaps I will find something some day. For now – it’s a little curiosity to share asynchronously with anyone who ever stumbles along this way. Pray for me, and you are welcome.




Image – sort of hearth. No, not medieval. General idea …Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

If I could Tourn Back Time: Jurisdiction in the Fifteenth Century (Again)

Another little bit of Year Book/Plea Roll matching – this came up tangentially in a bit of petty treason research today, and seemed worth a quick word and thought.

When I say matching … it is not quite an ‘X = Y’ situation: more of an X probably = Y, Z or A.

The Year Book case is YB Trin. 6 H VII f 5 pl 4 (Seipp 1491.020). The plea roll entry is one of three possibles on the King’s Bench roll for Trinity 1491.

The candidates are:

  1. KB 27/920 Rex m. 5 (AALT IMG 209) This is a case from Berkshire before John Horne, in which Richard Patte of Sulhamstead, clerk, was alleged to have raped a widow, Margaret Huys, lately wife of John Phelippe.
  2. KB 27/920 Rex m. 3d (AALT IMG 463) This also comes from Berkshire, from John Horne’s tourn. John Hyde, recently of Sonning, clerk, was alleged to have raped Elizabeth, wife of James Trell.
  3. Yes, it’s Berkshire and John Horne again! KB 27/920 m. 3d (AALT IMG 465): Stephen Bregyn, clerk, was accused of raping Alice Robyns, wife of John Robyns.

Or perhaps it is an amalgamation of all of them – since they are all saying the same thing.

The YB case is not about petty treason at all – though there is a passing reference to that in the reported argument – it is a case about jurisdiction over rape. Who could hear rape cases? Could low-level criminal courts hear them? Let me be up-front about one thing: there is a difference between YB and PR in terms of which courts are mentioned – the YB is interested in courts leet, whereas the PR entries are all about sheriffs’ tourns. Since there is nothing on the roll specifying courts leet, I think I have to assume that one of these is the best match. Possibly these tourn cases prompted a wider discussion of low-level jurisdiction.

The successful argument against lower courts having jurisdiction in this area, as it appears in the YB, is that they only have jurisdiction over felonies if they existed at common law rather than having been created by statute, and rape as a felony was a creature of statute. A choice had been made to limit such jurisdictions, and/or that it was seen to be fitting to keep them to the things they had been able to do ‘since time immemorial’, or at the time of the (certain or assumed) grant of jurisdiction.

The issue about sheriffs and rape jurisdiction was not new – I wrote a blog post about this issue as it arose in 1482, in the not-too-distant past (it’s here). A bit odd, then, that tourns are still being used in this way, and it’s still thought worth reinforcing via YB reports that this is not OK. Suggests something of a lack of influence of common lawyers on practice in the low-level criminal jurisdictions, I think (though, as ever, I am ready to be told that I am missing something important …). I do wonder what was going on with John Horne’s tourns in Berkshire.

As far as the rape cases themselves go, well, nothing very surprising. the accused  all ‘walked’ after having paid a fine to the king (to save the bother of a trial for the trespass element of the charges).Each of these fines was 5s – a pretty common amount, according to the list of fines in the plea roll – and, according to the National Archives currency converter that represented about 8 days of wages for a skilled tradesman. Moderately costly then, I suppose. Whether or not there was any other settlement, compensating the women themselves, will remain a mystery.




Image – to fit in with my contrived title, it’s a medieval clock! From Salisbury Cathedral. Yes I do know that isn’t in Berkshire, but best I could do. From Wikimedia Commons.


Death and betrayal amongst the medieval ‘Chipping Norton set’: (yet) more on petty treason

Not too long ago, I noted a case from 1418/19 in which a woman called Marjory appealed two men of offences relating to the death of her husband, John Chaloner, only to be appealed herself for this same death, and being convicted, and, apparently, burned, for ‘petty treason’ (see this blog post). Well, now another of these double appeals has turned up: cue a bit of comparing and contrasting!

A pair of entries on an Oxfordshire gaol delivery roll for 1407 tell us that Emma, widow of John Handes, had come and appealed Roger Sutton of the death of John her husband, giving the required pledges for prosecution. Her appeal alleged that, on Wednesday  6th July 1407, at Chipping Norton, Roger had killed John with a dagger (price 1d), feloniously. Rather than pleading guilty and going to jury trial, as I was expecting, Roger decided not to put up a fight – he said he could not deny this, and so all that was left for a jury to do was to appraise his assets. There was not much to appraise: there were, apparently, some clothes, worth 20d, but no land or other goods or chattels beyond the clothes. The man himself was to be hanged.

The second appeal was by William Handes, brother and heir of the deceased John. He appealed Emma of the death of John, and his pledges to prosecute were noted. His appeal explained that Roger had done the actual killing, but Emma advised and ‘consented’ to it. She was also alleged to have paid Roger for his felonious work (2s). Unlike Roger, Emma was ready to fight. The jury found her guilty though, and sentenced her to burn. Emma had no assets, it was recorded. She did not burn, however: first she had the sentence deferred, by claiming pregnancy, and having this confirmed by a ‘jury of matrons’. Generally, deferral means deferral, but, in this case, this period seems to have given Emma a chance to seek a more permanent way to avoid execution: according to the patent roll, she was pardoned.[i]

Spot the differences?

Clearly, the later Chaloner case and this one share a basic pattern: W appeals X for the death of H; H’s brother and heir appeals W. X and W are both sentenced to death; W claims pregnancy. There are obvious differences, in that the pregnancy claim is accepted in Emma Handes’s case, but not in Margery Chaloner’s, and in that Emma manages to secure a pardon (whereas, as far as my investigations have been able to establish) there was no such pardon for Margery.

Another difference is that there is not the intriguing overlap in personnel in the Handes case which we see in the Chaloner case: in the latter, both of the widow’s pledges to prosecute were apparently relatives of the deceased husband, including the brother who would appeal her; in the Handes case, that is not obviously the case. Following on from this, while I do wonder whether there might have been some pressure or deception in the Chaloner case, helping Margery to bring an appeal against others, and then appealing her too, to ensure that everyone involved was convicted, or, indeed, to get rid of somebody who would have had claims on the deceased’s property) it is harder to see that in Emma’s case. It is still hard, however, not to be suspicious that the motives of her brother in law in appealing her might not have been entirely about getting justice for his brother.

It is worth a brief word about the pregnancy deferral-pardon element of the Handes case as well. Here we see the jury of matrons in action. The fact that they found her to be pregnant suggests that she was in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy, but the months allowed to her presumably gave her a chance to make her request for a pardon. Just what lay behind that is unclear – was the allegation of her involvement found to be trumped-up nonsense, or was there some other reason for the exercise of mercy? The short note of the pardon does not tell us, unfortunately.

A final intriguing element is that, as well as her pardon for the conviction on the appeal brought by her brother in law, Emma Handes also received a pardon for another appeal, in this case brought by a certain Roger Taillour of Chipping Norton. Could this be the same man as Roger Sutton? And where is this approver appeal? I haven’t turned it up yet, though it seems unlikely that it is made up. If it does exist, it brings in yet another dimension to the case – some sort of odd vicious triangle, which certainly needs some more thinking about. There may be another instalment, if I find more …




[i] CPR 1405-8, pp. 371, 470, 10 Oct 1408.

Image – slightly gratuitous church. It’s St Mary’s Chipping Norton. Well somebody probably went there at some point, in between all of the killing and accusing, didn’t they?

Tourn-up for the [Year]Books: a Somerset sheriff’s jurisdiction

A quick Year Book-Plea Roll probable match: I think Seipp 1482.119 (YB Mich. 22 Edw. IV) is the same case as this one, from the Michaelmas 1482 King’s Bench plea roll (KB 27/884 m.1d; AALT IMG 0518).

The case concerns an indictment of rape, made against John Wheler of Bridgwater, in Somerset, chaplain. He was accused of having, on 20th March 1482,  broken into the house of a certain Alice Lye[i] , at Huntspill, attacked her, raping her and ‘having carnal knowledge’ of her, against the king’s peace.[ii] The matter had been presented in a sheriff’s court – the ‘tourn’ of Richard Morton esq. – on 4th April, 1482, at Highbridge, Somerset.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has looked at this sort of material to find that the whole thing fell apart, and the accused chaplain walked free. In this particular case, the route to that expected conclusion was not via the blank ‘not guilty’ of a jury, but via the ‘you don’t have jurisdiction’ route: sheriffs were not supposed to hear such serious ‘criminal’ cases.

I suppose we might conclude, or muse about, a couple of things from this:

  1. There does not seem to have been agreement that this was something beyond the powers of the sheriff. (As a matter of fact, the KB roll for Trinity 1482 contained another rape case from the same sheriff’s tourn, in, from a tourn on 30th April 1482. This time, the accused man was Robert Cutteclyffe of Wells, chaplain, and the alleged victim Cecilia Wever, the attack said to have taken place at Burton. In this earlier case, however, a different technical fault was found with the process.) The YB report of what I take to be the Wheler case includes a lengthy discussion of the background to rape/ravishment as an offence, its statutory or non-statutory origin being taken to be crucial in determining whether or not a sheriff had jurisdiction here.
  2. Despite the incredibly low rate of conviction, men from relatively small communities did bother to prosecute alleged (clerical) rapists. Maybe use of the sheriff’s tourn for this suggests a lack of faith that other courts would do anything. There is something of a tendency to write off such action as not in good faith, as a sort of extortion of those who kept concubines. But does it, perhaps, rest upon an assumption that clergy would not be likely to take advantage of their position to engage in abusive sexual practices? Or on a desire to find that women were more ‘agenty’ than they might appear. The accused clergymen do seem to have been able to find a number of ways of challenging cases brought against them, but it is important to accept that that doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of the allegation, one way or the other. There is, no doubt, a great deal which is lost to us, in terms of what went on out of court: compensation, private settlement, or settling of scores, and no particular reason to think that the same sorts of facts underlay all or most cases.



[i] There is no more information about her.

[ii] Note, no mention of her will.

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 ..

Neither loving, nor honouring, nor obeying the law on petty treason?

Today’s tale of less-than-happy relationships comes to you courtesy of entries on legal records from   1439.

A record of the Inquest at Bromham, Bedfordshire, on 18th May, 1439, on the body of Alice wife of William atte Halle of Bromham, labourer, notes the jurors’ view of events leading up to Alice’s death. They said that Alice had been pregnant, and suffering from a variety of complaints (whether pregnancy-related or not is unclear), and William had made the decision to kill her. On 7th May at Bromham, he had a certain dish (a posset? it would seem to involve milk curds – the word is balductam) made, and put various venemous powders in it, i.e. arsenic and resalger),[i] and gave the dish to Alice to eat, saying that it would make her well, and, believing his words, she ate, and was immediately poisoned, swelling up, being ill until 17th May, and then dying of that poisoning. He had, therefore, feloniously killed his wife. There is more: a record relating to the gaol delivery at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 notes that William was there because he had been indicted for having feloniously killed Alice, by putting poison (arsenic and resalgar) in her food on 7th May, so that she had died on 18th May. Above the entry, unless I am misreading it, we see a note that he was found guilty, and ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

  1. The medical and personal information

There are some nuggets in the inquest record which are worth noting.

The account of the poisons used suggests a knowledge, and an availability, of these substances, down to a relatively lowly level. As for the swelling effect, and the lingering for 10 days, that is something which might be of interest to medical historians – is that plausible? Can we say anything about that without knowing how much was allegedly used, and how would one know that swelling was due to poisoning as opposed to pregnancy or other pre-existing conditions?

The narrative of William’s lies about the food being likely to help Alice get better also tells us something about plausible relationship dynamics: a wife would be likely to trust her husband; a husband of ‘labourer’ status might be involved in his wife’s care. I suppose it also tells us something about accepted nutrition for sick pregnant women.

  1. The sentence

Drawing and hanging was the classic punishment for ‘petty treason’. I have been collecting examples of spousal homicide for quite a while and I had got used to seeing a nice (well, not nice at all, but you know what I mean) neat distinction between the treatment of W kills H (= petty treason, those convicted are burnt) and H kills W (= ‘just’ homicide, those convicted are hanged). This looks like a court – or somebody – ‘getting the law wrong’ then. Maybe it’s just a ‘blip’, or maybe it shows us particular distaste for this offender, or these facts. On the face of it, it is presented as a ‘normal’ homicide – all we get in terms of motive is the usual ‘malicia’. There is no use of ‘treason words’ like proditorie, as we might see in a servant kills master, or W kills H case. There is the idea of William ‘imagining’ Alice’s death, which is something of a link with ‘high’ treason jurisprudence. Other factors which might be relevant are (a) the poisoning and (b) the pregnancy. Poisoning would be singled out as particularly worthy of spectacular punishment in the next century.[ii]  Might this suggest a whisper of a previous connection between treason and poison? As for pregnancy – well, the question of the common law’s attitude to the foetus, and its possible ‘rights’ is a huge topic, which I plan to get into rather more in the coming year, but suffice it to say at this point that, while it was thought worth mentioning by the inquest, the pregnancy is not mentioned in the gaol delivery entry, which, I think, is some indication that it was not considered to be the key to the raised level of offence.

An interesting oddity then, and I will have to work out how to fit it into my ‘spreadsheet of doom’ on petty treason.




[i] We’ve come across this combination before in the lore of spouse-offing: see this post.

[ii] ‘Acte for Poysoning’ (22 Hen. VIII c. 9; SR 3, p. 326).

Image: general theme of love and such … this one is clever but just a little sinister. Or maybe that’s just me …

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

‘Four seas’ and an island delusion: some thoughts on ‘bastardy’ doctrines

[This was also posted last week on the Centre for Law and History blog]

In August 1850, a jury in Liverpool heard the case of Wright v. Holgate. The jurors’ job was to make a decision about the ‘legitimacy’ of a child, Tom Wright. Was this three-year-old the ‘lawful’ offspring of Thomas Wright, butcher and cattle dealer, and his late wife, Susannah, or was he another man’s son, and thus a ‘bastard’ (specifically, an ‘adulterine bastard’)? The question had arisen during a dispute about property of the Holgates, Susannah’s family, who were cattle dealers of some standing in the Halifax area. If Tom was ‘legitimate’, he had a share; if he was a ‘bastard’, he did not. The jury heard a selection of views on the former spouses from acquaintances and neighbours, brought in to comment on whether they had had the opportunity to have sex at the relevant time, so that Thomas might be Tom’s biological father, and on the character of Susannah. She was portrayed, in the somewhat gossipy testimony,  as ‘no better than she ought to be’, and given to entertaining a variety of men other than her husband at her house. After only a short discussion, the verdict of the twelve male jurors came back: ‘bastard’.[1]


As far as the law of the time was concerned, that was the end of Tom Wright’s importance, and, since the relevance of ‘bastardy’ in legal and social terms diminished massively over the course of the twentieth century, this case might well raise in the minds of modern legal scholars that cold dismissive phrase: ‘of no more than antiquarian interest’. Even so, I am going to use this post on our newly-launched blog to suggest that there are, in this case, and in this area, some things which are worth the attention of thoughtful legal scholars of the twenty-first century, as well as those of us who are unashamed of our antiquarian tendencies.


‘[B]ound in with the triumphant sea’ [2]

Though the case ended up in a common law court in the port city of Liverpool, much of the action had taken place inland, in Halifax and Rochdale. That being so, my maritime references might seem a bit inappropriate, but there is a justification for getting a bit nautical when considering the law of adulterine bastardy. Accounts of it often mention a particular test for whether or not a husband would be presumed to be the father of the child: had he been ‘within the four seas’ at relevant times for procreation? The phrase was mentioned in the judge’s summing up to the jury in Wright v. Holgate:

‘When a married woman has a child, the presumption is in favour of its legitimacy. Formerly, indeed, the presumption was, that if the husband continued within the four seas, and was alive at the child’s birth, such child could not be a bastard. But now the law allows inquiry…’


Here, we see the splendidly named judge, Sir Cresswell Cresswell, taking a moment to contrast the enlightened times in which he and the jurors were living with what he saw as the less perfect doctrine of former times. He felt it important to tell them that the question as to whether a husband was, or was not, ‘within the four seas’ at relevant points was once  something close to being decisive of the legitimacy of a child borne by his wife: if the opportunity of access was shown, using this criterion, no further inquiry as to the probability of there having been sex between the spouses, or the likelihood of somebody other than the husband being the child’s father, would be permitted. As well as the touch of self-satisfaction that things were so very much better in the world of 1850, we may note that there is something of a lack of specificity as to just when ‘formerly’ was. The legal past is an undifferentiated mass, unworthy of closer consideration.

In fact, the law on adulterine bastardy in general, and the place of the ‘four seas’ idea within it, had been far from unchanging over previous centuries. My research in this area has led me to conclude that the question of whether or not the husband was ‘within the four seas’ was not always – perhaps not usually – quite as central as Cresswell’s statement implies. The treatment of the ‘four seas’ phrase, from its first appearances in medieval cases,  shows different levels of emphasis, as well as movement between less and more literal understandings, and between geographical and political interpretations of the ‘seas’ and the land they were taken to enclose.

There were always difficulties with delineating the ‘four seas’. Despite Shakespeare’s best efforts to suggest that it was a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, England never has been, an ‘isle’ (‘sceptred’ or otherwise). The inconvenient existence of a land border, rather than a sea, between England and Scotland was never quite overcome, there were complications to the west: was Ireland ‘within’ or ‘without’ the western sea, and what of more distant ‘possessions’ of the English crown? The neat phrase ‘within the four seas’ did not make a very sure foundation for a rule about presumed legitimacy, and it was de-emphasised, and weakened in practical importance, from the eighteenth century onwards.

Its day was long over by 1850, yet it continued to hold the imagination of those discussing this area. Sir Cresswell Cresswell was not alone in his reference to ‘the four seas’; they continued to echo in commentary into the twentieth century. This lingering is probably due, in part, to the power of a well-turned phrase on the mind and memory of common lawyers. An attractive image or phrase may draw attemtion to one part of a more complex area of doctrine, at the expense of inconsistent or qualifying factors which are less amenable to neat encapsulation.[3]

That leads me to ask why ‘within the four seas’ was an attractive concept to common lawyers of the ninetennth and twentieth centuries. I would like to suggest that its appeal lay in its fitting in with broader currents in the self-image of the common law, as a robust, independent, intellectual ‘island’, keeping at bay the ‘foreign’ forces of civil law and canon law. The law on bastardy was marshalled as an example of the distinctive nature of common law, holding back the tide of other ideas. An account of another, more prominent, nineteenth century ‘adulterine bastardy’ case was, for example,  at pains to point out England’s defiance of attempts to introduce ‘foreign’ rules with regard to legitimation:

‘In England the sturdy independence of our ancestors soon checked the encroachments of the priesthood. Neither the civil nor the canon law ever formed part of the law of the land.’[4]

Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that there was mutual reinforcement between the idea of the common law as an intellectual island, aspects of its idiosyncratic and precocious centralised development acting somewhat as  ‘a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands’, and the idea of the pre-eminence of a test founded upon the assumed existence of England as a discrete and identifiable sea-bordered landmass.


Concluding and continuing thoughts: a father for ‘no man’s son’, dried up doctrine and Doggerland

I started with a young child, his future prospects apparently settled by a brief jury discussion and a stark verdict of ‘bastard’. Another phrase which will be familiar to those who have looked at this area, (or, indeed, at nineteenth century literature), would seem to apply: as a bastard, he was filius nullius – no man’s son. If he really was regarded as not having a father, we might have expected his care to be left to the local workhouse. I am cautiously optimistic, however, that entries I have found on the census for 1851 and 1861 show that Thomas Wright, despite having been found to be a ‘cuckolded’ husband, and not to be the father of Tom, did look after the child, providing a home for him in Rochdale, and setting him on his way to receiving at least some education. As with ‘within the four seas’, so with ‘filius nullius’:  too great a focus on a well-turned phrase, taking as literal what was understood to be at least partly metaphorical, could divert us from a more complicated reality.

Like the ‘four seas’ idea itself, much of the law which obtained in the case of Tom Wright has now been swept away, and, if we want to know who is a child’s biological father, then DNA testing can give a virtually conclusive answer. Nevertheless, I think these remnants have much to tell us about lives and thought of the past, about solutions to what seemed to be matters beyond human knowledge, about proof and policy, about how common lawyers of one era thought of and used the law of the even deeper past. Since we know that a vivid maritime image can stay with us, I will end with the one which always comes to my mind when dealing with such material: it is that of Doggerland – an area formerly of considerable human activity, now beneath the sea as a result of climate change. Most of us will never visit it, but it is important to know it is there, both for practical modern purposes, and also for deeper understanding of those who have navigated these spaces before us.

Thank you for your company on this brief voyage.

Gwen Seabourne

August, 2021.

[1] See, e.g., Times  20th July, p. 7 and 20th August 1850, p. 7, Manchester Guardian 21st August 1850, p.6. Halifax Guardian  24th  August 1850, p. 3,  27 July 1850, p. 7; Globe 20th  August 1850, p. 4; Evening Mail 22nd  July 1850, p. 3. Report: ER 175 503; 3 Car. & K 158.

[2] Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, John of Gaunt.

[3] See, e.g., Andrew Culley and Michael Salter, ‘Why study metaphors?’,  K.C.L.J. 15 (2004), 347-366.

[4] Denis Le Marchant, Report of the Proceedings on the Claim to the Barony of Gardner (London, 1828), xxx.

Images – the watery one is from the port of Liverpool, ft. a dock of the period and some water, which seemed appropriate. The bovine one is a nod and a moo to the trade of the Holgates and Wrights – cattle in the Halifax area).

This material comes from a current project on bastardy, I will be presenting a fuller version as a paper at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in September 2021 (paper all written and recorded in case of emergency – so I did something useful in recent self-isolation!), and some of it will probably feature as part of a chapter I am writing for the ‘Known Unknowns’ project, headed by Dr Andrew Bell and Dr Joanna McCunn

‘Lyvelode’ and imperfect living: a fretful family in the 1450s

I came across an interesting story whilst on one of my ‘bastardy’ trawls today – something in the Close Rolls for March 1459 which has things to say about bastardy but also about other things, including marriage and mental incapacity.[i] Read on if that sounds like your sort of thing …

By his own account (in English!), Edward Sely of Ditton,[ii] husbandman, had got himself into a bit of trouble. He had allowed himself to be drawn into some litigation, fomented by a London mercer, Rauf Marche. Rauf, using Edward’s name, had gone to law, to try and disinherit a relative of Edward’s, one Simon Sely, of London. Rauf had been putting forward the claim that the rightful heir to property once held by Laurence Sely of London, a claim to which passed, indirectly,  to the late John Sely of Chiseldon (JS1),  was Edward, rather than Simon, because, so he said, Edward’s father (JSA) rather than Simon’s father, John Sely of London (JS2), was the legitimate heir of JS1. This, however, was not trewe.

In Edward’s narrative, JS1 had had a rather eventful life. He had fled his original home after having killied a miller ‘by ‘infortunat case’, and lived as a labourer in Cranford, Middlesex. Perhaps concerned that the law would catch up with him, he had used different names during his time in Cranford, and was known as both ‘John Bartholomew’ and ‘John Sely’. He never felt safe enough to claim his rights in the family property either. He did have a family of his own, however, albeit not in the most straightforward way. He had two sons, both called John (thank you so much for that!) – with a woman called Dionise Cranford, sister of a squire. These sons (JSA and JSB) were ‘bastards’, since JS1 and Dionise were not married. They then did get married, and had a son, called (of course) John – this was JS2, eventually to be the father of Simon. So, under the rules about legitimacy and inheritance, JS2 and then Simon were the rightful heirs to JS1, rather than and JSA (and Edward) or JSB.

It is possible that JS2 never really knew about his claim to property formerly belonging to Laurence – the narrative tells of an occasion late in JS1’s life (when he was over 80) when he tried to get the help of JSA’s wife Christian (Edward’s mother) to encourage his ‘childerne’ to ‘laboure to have recovere’ of the ‘lyvelode’ (property) to which he was entitled in London and Bristol, and to get him in contact with JS2, who was his ‘rightful here’. Christian dutifully reported to JS2 what JS1 had said, and the father and son discussed it. JS1 laid upon JS2 the responsibility of suing to recover it, giving him all of the proof he had of his entitlement, and telling him where there was further evidence. He also told JS2 what he wanted to happen to the property, if he recovered it and then JS2 had no issue – he would prefer it to go to JSA and JSB than to ‘any other straunge persones’.

JS2 does seem to have made efforts to recover the property, but it is not clear what the outcome was. What seems to come out of Edward’s narrative, however, is that there were some tensions in the relationships between the three sons of JS1: JS2, JSA and JSB. JS2 needed money to get his lawsuit(s) going, and asked for the help of his ‘bastard’ brothers. JSA – despite his wife’s earlier co-operation with JS1 and JS2 – refused outright. He would neither give nor lend JS2 any money, despite the offer of a share in any winnings. JSB, however, was prepared to make a sacrifice to help out JS2 – he sold two of his plough-oxen and gave JS2 the money.

By 1457, JS2 seems to have died, leaving Simon as the potential heir. At some point before 1459, however, Rauf Marche had entered the picture, seeking out Edward and trying to find (or concoct) a claim on his behalf (searching in ‘frary books’ to sort out JS1’s children). He also had an accomplice/partner, one ‘John Squery late of London, gentleman’. As Edward told it, Rauf and Squery (we are not going with another ‘JS’…) badgered him on different occasions, using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach – he was entitled to property in and around London (nice) and since he didn’t sue to recover it, he was ‘accursed’ (a bit nasty). Rauf, somewhat in the manner of a dodgy PPI mis-selling recovery company – told Edward he couldn’t get the property without Rauf’s help. This, of course, would not come free – thus the deal which Edward suggests he was manoeuvred into: if the claim was successful, Rauf would keep the property until he got back his expenses. Edward claimed that he had not really understood it all – ‘for as moche as he is a lewde man and not lettered’.

All of this does make Edward sound a bit ‘lewde and not lettered’, or at least unwise, since he is, essentially, admitting to having taken part in a dishonest agreement to try and disinherit his relative and the rightful heir to the property in question. Would there be mercy for him? Would there be come-uppance for Rauf? Would Simon get his inheritance? Would anyone remember poor, virtuous and self-sacrificing JSB (now, apparently, dead)? As so often, it’s a big ‘I don’t know’ on all of that. The entry is, however, still interesting in numerous respects, several of which come out in the discussion above, and one which I have kept as a bonus, because it is very interesting, though I am not quite sure what to make of it, and also because it is not entirely necessary to the tale Edward told about property and dubious litigation.

  1. JS1’s lengthy period as a fugitive

We could see this as an indication of the lack of efficacy of the machinery of ‘criminal justice’ at this point – since JS1 clealy lived for decades without being brought to trial for the death of the miller. However, another view is possible – note the lengths he went to, to avoid being tried: distance, name change, keeping his identity and family connections secret from his own sons until he was close to death. All of that suggests a degree of fear that he might be found.

  1. Property matters[iii]

The reason I looked at this was the ‘bastardy’ and inheritance angle – and that is relatively straightforward. The entry confirms contemporary lay understanding that subsequent marriage did not legitimate pre-marital children as far as inheritance to land was concerned. There is interesting material on property, though, in the interactions of JS1 and his family, and Edward and Rauf with regard to the recovery of the property. I note the argument based on a duty to try and recover family property (and the ‘accursed’ position of the person who does not do this). That strikes me as an interesting point of view to consider. Was that just flannel – a way of dressing up self interest? Or was it a real feeling that this was something owed to one’s lineage?

  1. Marriage and mental incapacity

This is the bit I held back, though it comes up quite early in the narrative. Edward’s story about his father’s early days living in Cranford has something more to say about the relationship between JS1 and Dionise, the squire’s sister. According to the story, after the (‘illegitimate’) birth of JSA and JSB, Dionise’s brother, and other people made JS1 marry her. They were, apparently unhappy at the irregular state of this union – ‘their imperfite lyvyng’. JS1 was not at all keen – he was ‘right loth’ to marry Dionise. Why? Because she had some sort of mental incapacity. In the now-jarring language of the times she was (so it is said here) ‘an idiotte’. There is a tiny bit of additional information about this judgment, though, to be honest,  it is not exactly … informative (to me at least). Dionise ‘knewe no worldly reason in so moche that she wolde calle a noble a nubble’. That does seem rather a problem with pronunciation than anything else, but I may well be missing something. Is it perhaps a vague echo of some of the older medieval tests of capacity which involve basic financial acuity – since a ‘noble’ was a unit of currency – or is the problem with a lack of respect for the entitled? I am imagining various mildly racy meanings for ‘nubble’ but haven’t found anything to back them up … Or is that some sort of proverbial expression which would convey a lot more to contemporaries? I do hope somebody better-informed will clear that up for me one day.

Finally, Edward’s choice to include this material about Dionise (his grandmother) is interesting – why would he do that? Perhaps the most obvious implication is that he was trying to justify JS1’s tardiness in getting married to Dionise. It doesn’t really make him look too good, though, to suggest he thought Dionise was fine for sex but not for marriage, does it?




[i] CCR 1454-61, 355-7. There is one other easily accesible (from home – general pandemic issues and also currently under specific order to stay at home as a close contact of an infected person … with that infected person … viral sword of Damocles or what?) record which corroborates parts of this story: it’s from 1457.

[ii] Dinton, Bucks?

[iii] (I am using ‘property’ like a modern lawyer – note that that word is not used once in the entry itself – which is quite interesting in itself, but concepts of property in the medieval common law is probably a bit too big a topic for a quick blog post).

Image – tree, family, complexity and stuff … Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

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