Tag Archives: legal history

Review: Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley BBC R4

Lucy Worsley’s latest radio show/podcast gets into a bit of legal history, mostly crime, but also some other bits. Obviously, I felt duty-bound to listen to it all, and did not in any way just want to hear about a few scandalous Victorian murder cases.

So – what was the verdict? I thought it was a good thing. I do think LW is a good thing in general,[i] and her shows are generally well put-together. Of course they are aimed at an audience other than full-time academic historians, but it is hugely important to produce things for everyone with an interest in history, and I suspect that it makes sense to get some things across via a bit of a romping TV or radio show by somebody with a bit of charisma, rather than trying to turn every academic into a great communicator in that register, as the various ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ imperatives tyrannising British academia insist is essential. Also top marks for using a host of women as experts. There is quite an imbalance to be redressed in media history, so these things are important.

The series is organised around eight sensational cases of homicide by women, or possible homicide, though it branches out in two other important directions. First, it makes past-present links, with its avowedly feminist slant, and by bringing in comparisons with modern law and criminal investigation. Secondly, it uses each case as a point of departure, for consideration of the lives of nineteenth century women, including the legal changes which were beginning to dismantle some of the more egregious disadvantages they might face in terms of property and rights of citizenship.

Episodes

1:  Florence Bravo

I will confess straight away that, despite this being a bit of a sensation in its day, I had never heard of ‘the Balham mystery’ or Florence Bravo and the death by poisoning of her charmless-sounding lawyer husband, Charles, in 1876. Apart from the crime stuff – back to that in a moment – there is also (hurrah!) a little bit on property. It seems Florence had some money from a previous marriage, when she married Charmless Charles, but he could not get his paws on it, as she had used a trust (only me who would have liked more details on this? OK, fair enough …) … and a very brief not to the Married Women’s Property legislation (again … only me … OK …)

On the inquest, which sounds as if it got further into examination of Florence’s former sexploits with an old doctor than was strictly necessary, and which was reported in a fairly unrestricted way in the press, it was interesting to have the view of a modern barrister, Sasha Wass QC, pointing out some of the differences in terms of sexual history evidence and contempt rules (though also some depressing similarities across time …). I was also rather taken by the fact that there was a bit of a thing for sending the police interfering busybody letters suggesting lines of investigation they might take. Can’t imagine that they appreciated that!

(FYI, the inquest did not point to Florence as the killer, despite the impeccable logical link between shagging an older doctor and poisoning a husband’s wine … but she ended up living in hiding and died shortly afterwards, drinking herself to death on (unpoisoned) wine).

2: Madeleine Smith

I was familiar with this one: the Glasgow cocoa killer (allegedly poisoned her unsuitable ex in 1857, with arsenic, but the jury bring it in as ‘not proven’). The nice historical/legal historical point here was a bit of comparison between the story which was made to emerge from a selection of Smith’s letters, in the hands of the prosecution and that which came out after careful perusal of all 250 surviving letters. It is, perhaps, a little odd hearing somebody looking at documents on the radio, but that point was well made.

 

  1. Lizzie Borden

Off to Massachusetts for this famous axe/whacks murder case from 1892-3. Maybe a little less ‘core legal history’ here, and more ‘did she do it?’, but a couple of interesting points on the particular female interest in ‘true crime’ – the case in 1893 and now – and on gender and class.

 

  1. Grace Marks

Canada is the next location, for this ‘servant (allegedly) kills master’ story. Also quite well known, through Margaret Atwood’s novel treatment. Gory double killing. Considerable doubt about Grace’s role, and the main interest from my point of view was pondering on the way in which it was, and is, insisted upon that women defendants react in a particular emotional manner.

 

  1. Getting Away With It

This one looked back at and thought about  no.s 1-4, taking things in a slightly more ‘academic history’ direction, with greater input from Dr Rosalind Crone.  Had me at ‘It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?’ (here, in relation to the Victorian ‘angel in the house ideal).

 

  1. Amelia Dyer

In this one, we get into the murky world of baby farming, and the investigation, prosecution and conviction of industrial-level baby farmer and killer, Amelia Dyer. She was a native of Bristol, I learned – strangely not somebody we hear a great deal about here. This one sees LW stepping back a little and letting the programme be led by the excellent combination of R. Crone and a former leading police detective, Jackie Malton, who had some great insights on the investigation process). The added social/legal history material here highlighted the changed position of unwed mothers, given full responsibility for their children under the New Poor Law 1834, and thus left to try and find some way of maintaining them, and working themselves – enter the baby farmers (unregulated and clearly not always kind, or, indeed, un-murderous). Also liked the little ending in which LW warns against too much self-satisfied contempt for the past, given the continuing mess of provision for child care for those in need. Well played.

  1. Mary Ann Cotton

This is another one which is familiar to me, for slightly weird reasons – my mother’s family tree includes a ‘Mary Anne Cotton’, from near enough to the scene of the alleged crimes, and the family have always been VERY insistent that there is absolutely no connection with this woman, pointing out the different spelling of Ann/Anne! A common enough name, I suppose, but anyway, she has always been on my radar for that reason, and the little song ‘Sing, sing, what shall I sing?/ Mary Ann Cotton tied up on a string …’ (not mentioned here). So the suggestion that this is not such a well-known case was a little bit surprising. Anyway, much discussion of poisoning, including the teapot alleged to have been used (news to me that tea was good for poisoning purposes because hot things are best and cold ones problematic for dissolving arsenic … the things you learn …) and discussion with barrister Alexandra Wilson about past-present comparisons concerning the trial. Important to note the differences caused by changes in rules about character evidence since the 1870s and this case. Might have gone into the fact that the jury was all male, with a property qualification, rather than being representative of society as a whole (which probably increases the potential impact of playing up gender roles).  My mother may be annoyed at the absence of an official acknowledgement that M.A.C. was ABSOLUTELY NOT related to us …

  1. Esther Lack

This one was unfamiliar to me. Esther Lack’s alleged crimes were the killings of three of her children. There was no ‘did she do it?’ here – the focus now, as then, was on her mental state, and the way in which mental disturbance was treated. Found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1865, Lack was sent off to what sounds like a rather pleasant asylum in Wiltshire (though died shortly afterwards). We hear from  Psychiatrist/psychotherapist, Dr Gwen Adshead on infanticide and mental disorders relating to maternity, and from Dr Rosalind Crone on asylums and the squalid conditions of Lack’s life in London. And she is invited to offer the academic-heart-warming line  ‘It’s way more complicated than that!’. Hurrah! Because life is and was more complicated than any neat summary or story-arc. Viewers and listeners can cope with something other than ‘I have all the answers and will impose my narrative upon the past’. So thumbs up there.

 

  1. Hannah Mary Tabbs

I had not heard of this one either. It’s a US case, so maybe that’s less surprising. Well worth including though, for the additional insights it brings, with regard to the impacts of race on the 19th C criminal justice system, and the links drawn between that and the present, with regard to racism and policing, and incarceration.

 

  1. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

This was a bit of a round-up and discussion of general themes, especially from the second half – those who presumably ‘dunnit’. In a move calculated to annoy a certain demographic, the emphasis is on the environment which produced the situations in which the killings took place – with particular attention being paid to economic issues and the lack of support for women and maternity. There was a good bit on the press and the development of sensational headlines. I would have liked to hear a bit more about the property/trusts aspect of, and arising from Bravo – conversation could have done with a bit of a steer on that. Perhaps a separate series on those issues would be an idea? Come on, you know it makes sense!

GS

22/5/2022

[i] (did an actual doctorate, note, and worked her way up as a historian, rather than taking the ‘following Daddy’s footsteps and making programmes with Daddy’ route of some self-styled ‘history guys’ one might mention … OK, got that off my chest)

Image: a tombstone. Seemed sort of appropriate. Photo by Mr Xerty on Unsplash

Derry Girls: a shoe-horned appreciation

For those of us in the UK, this week saw the end of wildly-loved sitcom, Derry Girls, after a perfectly-judged run of three series: out on a high it went, with praise from all quarters.

So – saying it was great is hardly news (though it absolutely was, and I aspire to be somewhere on the Michelle-Sr Michael spectrum, though fear that the Clare-Jenny Joyce continuum would be more like my teenage self …). And I don’t have particular personal connections to vaunt – have in fact never been to Derry (though, if ‘being a Derry Girl is a fucking state of mind’, as Ms Mallon so memorably put it, then maybe we all have a little …) so why muse about it on a supposedly legal history-themed blog?

For anyone working on recent legal history, of course, the relevance is obvious. Working backwards from the last episode, there are all sorts of insights into  legal rules and law-enforcement or law-breaking situations – from the Good Friday Agreement, British-Irish citizenship, release of paramilitary prisoners, British military activities, the RUC,  Orange marches, canon law procedure for recognition of miracles (the crying BVM statue one…) and no doubt much more.

There is also the ‘past meets present’ point made by many, that we (and by ‘we’, I mean in particular the current, appalling, UK government) run the risk of allowing things to descend into bitterness and violence once more, unless we have a mind to the troubled past of Northern Ireland, and the huge change represented by the GFA, and Derry Girls did a massively effective job of fixing that in current consciousness.

But it’s probably the more general lessons/reminders about history which hit home the most for me in my capacity of scholar of legal history. Like the fact that the bits professional historians (legal and other) focus on – the big changes, the high politics and economic generalisations, for example – are not necessarily the main concerns of most of the people at any given time. I mean, it may even be the case that, while the Statute of Uses was being prepared, or while assumpsit was storming the great citadel of debt, teenagers of the past were more bothered about their equivalents of Take That, Fatboy Slim and finding ‘massive rides’. At times, we may all need to ‘catch on to ourselves’ and realise that, unless we are prepared to put a bit of life, good stories, and even humour into our history,  we risk sounding rather more like Uncle Colm than any of the others. For my part, I shall be endeavouring to infuse this summer’s conference paper with something of the spirit of Aunt Sarah –

possibly not at the peak of academic rigour, but, I hope, some memorable lines. Should get back to it, I suppose.

GS

21/5/2022

 

Main Image: everyone has heard of Derry Girls, right?

 

Self defence and God’s deliverance: an attempted rape indictment from Buckinghamshire

Content warning: as will be obvious from the title, this refers to sexual offences

Here is a little extra snippet for considerations of medieval women and the law. Yes, I am obsessing about a few words once again…. This time, it’s a rather interesting formulation in an indictment from Buckinghamshire, from the file of Hillary term 1440.

A certain John Snelle of Wendover, Bucks,[i] miller,  was in trouble. He had been indicted before royal officials, and the case  was now being dealt with in the KB.[ii] The allegation was that John had, on Tuesday before the feast of the translation of St Thomas [7th July] 1439 at Wendover, come to the  land of Henry, prior of St Mary Overy (Southwark), in Wendover, with force and arms, and had attacked and beaten Isabella Webbe, wife of John Webbe. The beating was said to have been so bad that her life was despaired of (not an uncommon thing to state). Less usually, there is a specific allegation with regard to John Snelle’s intention to commit a further offence: he wanted to have sex with Isabella (carnaliter concubere) there and then, (so, a rape in our terms, given the coercion) and would have managed this, had she not defended herself, through divine intervention [gratia dei mediante, se ipsam defendisset].

Not-wholly-unexpected-anticlimax spoiler – an entry on the KB plea roll for Easter 1440 notes that John was acquitted. Aren’t they always, when it’s anything to do with rape? Nevertheless, this indictment interests me because of the interlaced divine intervention and self defence aspects of the foiling of the attempted rape.

It seems to me that, while self defence was certainly ‘a thing’ in medieval law, a ‘defence’ to homicide and batteries, its application, with regard (a) to women and (b) to rape, was uncertain. In its best-known guise, in homicide cases, self-defence narratives tended towards a rather masculine paradigm: defendant was cornered, had no option but to use significant force, to preserve his life, and that his mind was full of the need to defend himself, not a felonious, and/or premeditated, intention to kill. This classic self-defence story assumes that the party who is attacked is armed and capable of inflicting a deadly injury on the attacker, and that it is credible that the attacker would be able to kill the party who is attacked. None of this is impossible in a F-F, F-M, or M-F encounter, of course, but, given average physical build and predominant gender roles, it would be significantly less likely to fit medieval women than men. It does not cover some of the more predictable deadly responses of those women attacked by somebody who sought to kill them, which might involve some time between attack and deadly defence. If we go beyond homicide, and ask whether a woman who (feared she) was about to be raped, and killed her assailant, would escape capital punishment. I tried to look at this issue a little in my recent Women and the Medieval Common Law book, and noticed a certain discomfort with regard to whether a woman was in any sense entitled to kill a man trying to rape her.[iii] In at least one case, an allegation of attempted murder was spliced into the allegation of attempted rape, to back up a possibly uncertain case.[iv]

This 1440 case may, perhaps, suggest less of a discomfort about whether women should be allowed to use deadly force in these circumstances, and more of a disbelief that they could actually resist. Isabella seems to have needed God’s help. ( I did spend a while attempting to understand how her self defence and God’s intervention would work together… did God somehow let her win, in the way trial by battle was supposed to work, or was it an independent bolt of lightning type of thing, meaning that her feeble mortal efforts at self-defence were a bit beside the point? But let’s not let our heads explode … overthinking …). Of course, the fact that God had her back would also tend to make the accused sound rather worse. Not only was he attempting to commit an offence against a mortal woman, but he was struggling against the Almighty himself.

Of course, even with the allegation of God’s involvement, it was still impossible to get a conviction of a man for a rape offence. That, of course, is not an entirely historical problem.

 

GS

16/5/2022

 

Image: St Mary’s Church, Wendover, because, like, God …

 

[i] ‘Gateway to the Chilterns’, apparently.

[ii] Order to that effect 25th Jan, 1440

[iii] pp. 131-3.

[iv] JUST 3/220/2 m. 57; JUST 3/210 m. 29d.

Sophisticated tastes in fifteenth century Rochester

Well this one appealed to me today – no particular research reason (though I suppose it links, rather vaguely, to my PhD work on regulation of victual sales etc.), just rather interesting to see some details of medieval sneakiness. And maybe having been drinking a glass or two of Law School prosecco (REF results day!) made it jump out as well …

It’s a Kent case from the King’s Bench roll for Michaelmas term 1440, (and see the indictment, here) about dishonest selling of wine. Thomas Elbrygge (also accused of other market-related offences) was indicted for having, on 3rd May, 1439, at Rochester, taken six bottles of old wine of La Rochelle, which was defective in colour and taste and unfit for human consumption, and mixed them with old Spanish wine, and then done various things to try and disguise the appearance, smell and taste of this combination. Egg white comes into the picture, in relation to making the concoction look better, there is also use of ‘gum’ – resin, I think – and pitch – mmmm! – apparently so that it would smell like the fancy Romney and Malmsey wines.  He then sold it as Romney and Malmsey, which was, of course, false and fraudulent, and obviously endangered the king’s people.

I was rather taken by the use of one particular word: along with being a fraud and a falsifier, Thomas was said to be a ‘sophisticator’ of wine. Interesting how words change in meaning over time, and this is a nice example of a real switch in terms of positive or negative implications. We would now generally like the idea of being ‘sophisticated’ – not sure I have ever achieved it, mind you – not so our predecessors. The Sophists of classical philosophy do not get a good press, and medieval people definitely did not want their wine to be sophisticated.

Cheers!

GS

12th May, 2022.

Image: some wine, not, as far as I know, adulterated/ ‘sophisticated’.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Labour law and extremely small medieval Londoners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

 

GS

18/4/2022.

 

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

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

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

Coverture points in a cause célèbre

As I have been mentioning (rather a lot!) in recent posts, I am currently pulling together a few thoughts on coverture for what one might generously describe as ‘a paper’, for a conference on that topic.[i] The content will be mostly medieval, with a few links to the law and legal history of the present.[ii] I do enjoy delving into a bit of 19th and early 20th C ‘public awareness’ stuff too though,[iii] and the thing which really strikes me about discussions of coverture in that period is the level of opposition based not on ideas about oppression and limitation of women’s lives, but about the ill effects coverture might have on men, or the ways in which women might use it to their advantage (unfairly, of course …) to escape some liability. I have touched upon this sort of thing in a previous post concerning the deployment  of coverture as a (sneaky) way of escaping debts. Another implication of coverture, which seems to have caused exaggerated fear amongst Victorian newspaper readers and writers, arose in a more felonious context: there was concern that women might take advantage of ‘marital coercion’ to weasel out of the consequences of serious crime.

Since well before the Norman conquest, English law has had some idea of taking into account the possibility that a wife might participate in offending conduct not because she chooses to do so, and is generally a bad lot, but because her husband forces her to offend, or to join in his misconduct in one way or another.[iv] Early accounts are focused upon theft, and to suggest that there was ever a broad ‘doctrine of marital coercion’, such as might be used to avoid the consequences of homicide, would be a fairly large exaggeration. This spectre was, however, raised in the 19th C press. We can definitely see it in accounts of ‘The Bermondsey Murder’ and its aftermath in newspapers of 1849.

The story of this much-discussed homicide was as follows:[v] a man called Patrick O’Connor had been shot with a pistol, and bashed over the head for good measure, in Bermondsey. Result: death. His ‘mutilated remains’ were found in August 1849, (and the corpse’s false teeth seem to have played some part in identification). Suspicion fell upon a married couple, the Mannings.[vi] Mrs (Maria) Manning was caught in Edinburgh and Mr (Frederick Charles) Manning was caught in Jersey.[vii] He then said that Mrs Manning had instigated the whole thing and fired the shot to the head of O’Connor (as he went down some stairs).  Amongst the general enjoyment of a horrible crime, and the potential of a bit of scandal, there was, apparently, some concern that ‘the law of coverture’ would let Mrs Manning off the hook (or the gallows …). That people might be concerned about this was implied by a letter to the Times by one ‘W.E.K.’ of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.[viii] Was this a response to genuine concern or a gratuitous display of having read a bit of obscure law? I am not sure. In any case, W.E.K., plonking down the authority of Hale, reassured Times readers that ‘the plea of “coverture” being urged as a shield over the acts of Mrs Manning’ would not actually work in this context. As he put it, ‘The public may rest satisfied that the plea of coverture will not shield Mrs Manning from the sword of offended justice.’  Phew – so that was all right.  The pair, having sold a lot of newspapers, were convicted and executed.[ix]

The ’marital coercion’ point was not the only ‘coverture’ point relating to this case. We also have discussion of property and allegiance aspects. The property point arose once both the Mannings had been apprehended, when there was something of a dispute as to how to deal with the money found on Mrs Manning at her arrest. Could Mr Manning have it (at least, some of the money not obviously pinched from Mr O’Connor) for his defence, because … coverture and all …[x] That whole ‘man gets all the personal property’ part of coverture could certainly be a bit of a problem in the situation in which spouses were both accused of a crime and were going a bit ‘cut throat’ in their defence, with separate representation to fund … The allegiance point related to jury composition.  ‘Coverture’ meant Mrs Manning was unable to secure a trial by a jury made up half of aliens, as she wished, because she had married an Englishman.

Finally, and more of a ‘women in general’ point than a coverture point as such, there is endless fascination in the gendered nature of reporting of criminal defendants. Far more attention is paid to the clothes and appearance of Maria Manning than is the case in relation to her husband. It also seems very important to know how attractive she was (woman accused of murder: hot or not?). The authoritative view given in the Times of 24th August, 1849 was that, while she was ‘very neatly dressed’, and had ‘easy and graceful manners’, she was not ‘by any means what may be styled beautiful, as some of the papers have asserted’. Ah, glad we cleared that up. Obviously deserved to hang then.

GS

16/4/2022.

 

Image: Maria Manning, from this.  Officially not beautiful, right?

[i] Still looks more like a collection of individual points as opposed to a coherent whole – hey, a bit like coverture itself … and I have in no way just gone in my head from the idea of a paper on coverture to the fact that, in ‘rock, paper, scissors’, paper covers rock ….

[ii] Sorry, early modernists, once again your period is being treated as ‘the flyover centuries’ … love you really …

[iii] i.e. doing lazy online searches of old newspapers …

[iv] Shameless self-citation – see c.6 of my Women in the Medieval Common Law. Other accounts are available.

[v] Times, 18th August, 1849  onwards: there seem to be daily reports,

[vi] Mrs Manning, nee Maria Rue/ de Roux,  was ‘a native of Geneva’, or of Lausanne, though I am sure that her foreignness had nothing to do with the negative attitude of the press …The suggestion was that O’Connor and she were ‘at it’.

[vii] Lots of detail on detectives, police co-operation etc., for those who like that sort of thing; also note that Mr Manning, on the run,  was tucked up in bed by 9.30 – a slightly incongruous touch?

[viii] Times, 29th August, 1849.

[ix] Times, 14th November, 1849. I am, no doubt, sounding rather flippant, but, as well as acknowledging that this is all grim beyond words, I do have a serious academic concern relating to this material, It is this – I note that a fair amount of modern scholarship on coverture takes the line that women (implicitly a fair number of them), rather than being ‘helpless victims’ of coverture rules, managed to use their artificial relegation from full personhood to their own benefit. We should, I think, at least pause to note that this idea of flipping an oppressive doctrine to one’s own advantage was present in the minds of those deeply invested in maintaining discriminatory structures.

[x] Times 5th September, 1849.

The charms of Cambridgeshire? An indictment for ignoble quackery

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

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

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

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

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

 

GS

25/3/2022

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GS

23/3/2022.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

 GS

12/3/2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GS

11/3/2022

 

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

Photo by Michael Surazhsky on Unsplash

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