Tag Archives: legal history

What the catafalque

Well, I meant to leave the whole royal death well alone (even though it is obviously legal history adjacent), but goat has been got by the coverage of ‘the queue’, and the idea that it is only those who perform in particular ways who are ‘part of history’. It feels important to challenge that, to disagree both with the prevailing narrative of this event (we are all in it together, Blitz spirit , etc. etc.) and also with the idea that history is predominantly about monarchs and battles, and with acts rather than omissions or choices not to act. This chimed in with a tweet this morning by an eminent history professor, and I am afraid I was tipped over into limericking (yes, that is a verb …).


The Lying in State

News bulletins beat a tattoo

of a long loyal royalist queue

but they don’t choose to say

vast crowds stayed well away

And that that’s part of history too.




Photo by Nathan Mcgregor on Unsplash

Property, ‘poysyn drynke’ and presentments: a confounding case from medieval Cornwall

It has been a while – conferencing and Covid have intervened since my last post. Here we are again, though: I’m on the mend, and ready with another cheery tale involving medieval women’s interaction with the common law. In fact this one brings together a couple of things which have interested me, over the years: petty treason (the current obsession) and an ‘old flame’ (intellectually speaking), the laws surrounding rape/ravishment and abduction in later medieval England.

The case has two distinct parts, and, as ever, it is hard to make sensible comments about the truth of any of it. What is probably true is that a ‘gentleman’ called Richard Mourton, of Southlegh in the parish of Launcells died in 1481, and he was in poor health for some time beforehand. Beyond that, who knows how he came to die, and what, if anything, was the involvement of others in his demise.

At a judicial session on 2nd October 1481, at Bodmin, twelve jurors swore that the truth went like this: Richard Mourton had been ill, and suffering physically. (Presumably knowing that this was it, and wanting to sort out the practicalities), he had appointed his wife, Matilda, and others executors of his will, custodians of his body and made a will leaving his goods and chattels to Matilda and others. He asked her for medical care. She, however, along with one William Smyth, lately of Thorne in the parish of Launcells, Cornwall, yeoman, full of evil dishonesty and seduced by the devil, and lusting to enjoy the assets of Richard sooner rather than later, took action to accelerate his demise. On 10th March 1481, William and Matilda feloniously  prepared a deadly, poisonous, intoxicating drink, commonly called poysyn drynke, and gave it to Richard, passing it off as a medicine. Because Richard had great faith in Matilda and William, he drank the deceptive drink, and died on 11th March 1481 as a result. Matilda and William had, therefore, feloniously intoxicated, killed and murdered him, against the king’s peace and the crown and dignity of the king.[i]

As I said, there is no way of knowing whether this was true or not. I have found no further records relating to the death. There is, however, another layer to the story, which is to be found in the same file, on the preceding membrane.[ii]  This one comes from a judicial session at Camelford on 18th April 1481, and the jurors here said that William Smyth (here described as a ‘labourer’) had carried off and raped Matilda on 23rd March 1481. The removal of Matilda from her home, and carrying off to Thorne, William’s home turf, was clearly described as being against her will. There is also a clear allegation of felonious ‘carnal knowledge’ straight afterwards.Nevertheless, the focus of the allegation is not so much the wrong to Matilda as (a) the property prospects for others; and (b) the dim view taken of Matilda’s alleged conduct after the violation. On 24th March 1481 (so the day after the rape) she was said to have ‘consented to and agreed (concorded) with him. This might conceivably mean that she settled with him, but I think it probably means that she married him, or agreed to marry him.

The jurors were keen to point out that this was a scenario dealt with in a statute of 1382,[iii] which would mean that it would affect the transmission of land (in brief, the woman would not be able to have her dower or other rights to land which would otherwise come her way). There has been quite a bit of work on this measure, often highlighting the possibility that women might run off with a lover quite consensually. They might do so, of course, but I have always been very wary of any suggestion that consensual (in modern terms) departures predominated. I think we just can’t know.[iv] This case would seem to me to reinforce the fact that violent and unwanted removal was also entirely within the contemplation of those applying this law.


Another aspect to ponder is how the two sets of allegations interacted. If they are to be believed, then the timeline was as follows:

10/3/1481            William and Matilda prepare the poison and Richard Mourton drinks it

11/3/1481            Richard Mourton dies as a result of the poisoning

23/3/1481            William abducts and rapes Matilda

24/3/1481           Matilda ‘consents and concords’ with William

18/4/1481            Session at Camelford, to which rape presentment is dated

2/10/1481            Session at Bodmin, to which poisoning presentment is dated


I am not quite sure what to make of the combined story. If there really was poisoning, should we be imagining that William and Matilda had differing views as to what should happen once Richard was out of the picture, leading to the abduction and rape of Matilda? Another possibility must be that Matilda was not involved in the poisoning, and William had plotted against both Richard and Matilda. Of course there may not have been any poisoning, ‘only’ the abduction and rape of a woman who had lost her husband less than a fortnight previously, followed by threats to her property rights.[v]

I am tempted to see the slightly belated petty treason accusation as an indication that the claim under the 1382 statute did not work. Such a failure would seem rather a good motive for somebody who stood to gain by her loss suddenly to start putting it about a few months later that Matilda had been a petty traitor (who, if convicted, would obviously not be enjoying her dower etc.) This is speculation, however, and I will have to end with a rather limp acknowledgement that the area remains intriguingly reluctant to divulge its truth.


9th August, 2022.


Images: St Swithin’s Church, Launcells. For once they match the period of the case, the church having been reconstructed in the 15th C, and the fittings pictured here also coming from that century. St Swithin’s sounds an absolute cracker, with a holy well and everything. Would love to visit it!


[i] KB 9/358 m. 3; see the image via AALT here.

[ii] KB 9/358 m. 2; see the image via AALT here.

[iii] 6 Richard II, st. 1, c. 6; Statutes of the Realm II, 27.

[iv] See, e.g., my Imprisoning  Medieval  Women: the non-judicial confinement and abduction of women in England, c.1170–1509, (Farnham, 2011), though there is plenty of other work in this area.

[v] m.2, which describes a raid by William and others on ‘Matilda’s house’, suggests that she had initially been able to keep the house, suggesting that there was not an immediate accusation against her.

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

Updated version of this post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update, 29th May, 2022

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

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

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

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

Update, 26th June, 2022

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


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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

[iv] KB9/363 m. 2

[v] KB 9/363 m.3

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

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

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

[This is a slightly updated version of an earlier post, from 2020, which had the same name]

This one is relevant to my continuing investigations in ‘petty treason’, as well as medical history, history of crime, religious houses and medieval Cornwall…

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The killing was described as false, felonious and treacherous. It was also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll.

The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged.

The common lawyers did not get a chance to sink their teeth into the thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling about categorising the relationships, or benefit of clergy, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic and his alleged religious accomplice in this case.

So what?

Medical history

This bundle of parchment entries gives us a bit of a glimpse into the hiring of medical men by religious houses. It seems interesting that the prior apparently entered into a long-term arrangement with John Leech, for his benefit alone (not that of the house) and the description of the terms is also quite instructive: it sounds as if there was a particular condition which was the focus of Leech’s work, rather than a general idea of keeping the prior in good nick, but that this condition was regarded as potentially amenable to a cure.

It also gives rise to questions as to whether the accusation might have been due to a general suspicion of what was in fact standard practice, or criticism of what may have been aggressive or experimental medical and surgical interventions.

‘Petty treason’

Much of the work I have done on PT has looked at the ‘wife kills husband’ subspecies, since I am interested in women. It is beginning to dawn on me, though, that there are some big and engaging questions to consider, in relation to ‘the other sorts’, i.e. ‘servant kills master’ and ‘person owing faith and obedience kills prelate’. This case touches on both of these subspecies. The description of John Leech’s contract with the prior can only be in there to suggest that he is a ‘servant’ of the type covered by the ‘master killed by servant’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’ – I can’t see that it has any other relevance. We are even given the detail that he has an initial one-year contract, then it rolls on from year to year. It may be that this was how the agreement was actually set up, but I would say that it is interesting that these one-year periods are very reminiscent of standard ‘labourers’ contracts – so their inclusion does seem to be angled towards associating a ‘medical professional’ of some sort with the ploughmen, masons etc. of the 14th century labourers legislation, giving a clearer idea of hierarchical relationship. I do find myself wondering just who was covered by the ‘master-servant’ subspecies of petty treason – and perhaps fifteenth century people were unsure about this too. The canon-prior relationship between Yerll and Honylond is rather more obviously covered by the ‘prelate’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’, unless we want to get into just what the differences might be between different forms of religious organisation. (I do have questions about that – though will leave them for another time. Suffice it to say that I would love to find a case involving nuns, but not holding my breath on that).


References: scans brought to you by the magnificent AALT …

KB 27/681 m. 6R; KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 39d, 40, 40d.



A Good Samaritan in medieval Lincolnshire?

This one is probably more interesting for its narrative qualities than its legal content, but there is enough of that to justify inclusion here … it’s from the King’s Bench indictment file of Hilary term 1464.[i]

The story which emerges is that – allegedly – Brian Talbot esquire and a group of other men – 20 of them in all, armed to the teeth, beat up John Pynchebek, leaving him for dead, then, when he was found not to be dead, and helped to an inn, threatened him. All of this would have been bad enough, but John was a commissioned justice in Holland, Lincolnshire, and had been on his way to a session of the peace at Boston, at the time of the attack.

The incident had been reported by jurors before the other justices in Holland, including one Richard Pynchebek – a relation of the victim? – at Boston on 1st October, 1463. It was said to have taken place on 20th July 1463, at Algarkirk on the Foss Dyke (Lincs).[ii] Talbot and co. attacked him and pulled him off his horse, threw him to the ground, beat, wounded and mistreated him. I rather like the added colour put in here – they kept going until Brian broke the stave he was using for the bashing, and they thought that he was dead. At this point, they left him for dead in the Wash, (‘where the sea comes in and out’).[iii]   John lay in the Wash in a very bad way (in extremis) until an unnamed stranger (extraneus) who was passing by saw John lying, cruelly beaten and wounded. This man, acting from good motives (ex pietate sua), lifted him up, and with great effort, blew into his mouth and saw, on examination, that he was alive.[iv] The stranger took him to an inn. It was not over, though – Brian’s servants and other malefactors had a go, verbally now, highlight: calling him a ‘horeson’. Then Robert Talbot and other malefactors, on Brian’s orders, pulled John out of the inn, took him to Brian, who threatened his life and/or that his members would be mutilated. To sum up, John’s life was despaired of for a long time, this being to his great damage (obvs) against the peace of the lord king (standard) and also, in a less usual phrase, it amounted to treating the king’s law with disrespect, All of this was greatly frightening both to  John and to the king’s well-disposed people in those parts, and would continue to be, unless such malefactors were punished for their offences (delicts), as an educational example.

So what?

Well, it’s not alone as an affront to royal justice in the mid-15th C, though it is quite interesting to see somebody who was a current justice allegedly treated in this brutal way – so, one for the ‘problems with the enforcement of the law’ file. I am much more interested in a couple of other aspects, though…

Questions of life and death

I have a particular interest in how these difficult issues – determining the start and end of (legally counting) life – were dealt with and described. The allegation that somebody’s ‘life was despaired of’ sometimes seems as if it’s just put in to intensify the allegation of physical damage, and ‘leaving somebody for dead’ may be doing some work in terms of making the accused seem morally bad and culpable, but in this case, the story really is that John was thought to be dead, or perhaps dying, and abandoned in water, presumably with the intention that his body would be taken by the sea. It isn’t, I suppose, a particularly medieval thing to make a mistake about this – we will all have seen sensational ‘person wakes up in body bag’ type stories – but interesting nonetheless.

That stranger

What a fascinating inclusion! I am used to strangers being seen as dodgy, one way or another, in medieval documents, but here we have a proper Good Samaritan, and a skilled one at that. If I am right that this suggests application of ‘mouth to mouth resuscitation’, if not full-on CPR, to the prone body of John, then that is definitely an important intervention. At the very least, it shows somebody taking a lot of trouble to find out whether someone apparently unknown to him was alive (and not in the unpleasant way seen in the last post), How maddening not to have his name, or a clue as to his origins!

It’s not clear how ‘strange’ this man was (just not from that part of Lincs, or your actual foreigner?) but, as the UK government distinguishes itself for cruel hostility to those who come here from other places, it was striking to see this little reminder that … gosh … they might be thoroughly decent, ‘neighbourly’ and positive presences amongst us.




[i] KB 9/305 m. 28, via AALT of course!

[ii] Not entirely sure about the geography of some of this – not somewhere I have ever been, nor studied its medieval topography/water features.

[iii] They also beat and imprisoned John’s servants – clearly of less interest to the jurors!

[iv] Do correct me if I have this wrong, anyone who knows about such things, but I think that’s he best interpretation!

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Lambs and wolves in late-medieval London: the abduction of Elizabeth Barentyn

Looking through medieval legal records involves a lot of very formulaic entries, so it is always a treat to come across something a little out of the ordinary. A bit of English sneaking in amongst the Latin is good, and, for some reason I can’t quite pin down, always seems a little funny as well. Not funny, but definitely interesting is the occasional bit of unnecessarily flowery description – something that somebody just couldn’t hold back from including, even though it was not required as part of the allegation being made. There is such a phrase in the material relating to the abduction/ravishment and mistreatment of Elizabeth, widow of John Barentyn, which first appears in a King’s Bench Indictment File for Michaelmas, 1475.

KB 9/340 m. 88 notes the allegation that John Smyth, recently of London, gentleman, on 5th August 1475, got together a gang of ne’er-do-wells and used force to seize Elizabeth from the parish of St Mary le Strand, with felonious intent, beating her up and half-carrying, half-dragging her away. This is all bad enough, and there is the usual listing of weapons, which, in this case, may have been a bit more likely that it sometimes is.  But somebody felt the need to make the contrast between Elizabeth and her abductors even more stark, describing her situation as being like ‘agnus innocens inter avidos lupos’, i.e. like an innocent lamb amongst ravenous wolves.

(A lamb, not medieval, innocence a matter of conjecture: Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash)

Clearly, no animal metaphors were required for an effective accusation of felony – so how interesting that this crept in, and was, indeed, repeated in other documentation relating to the same case. What should I make of that? Was Elizabeth Barentyn seen as especially lamb-like and innocent? Was the point that those said to have been ravished were often not believed, and it was felt to be a good idea to make clear that Elizabeth was not like all the other, lying and scheming minxes, who really wanted to be carried off by a real man … Who can say?

Anyway, what more can be said about the particular image? Lambs gambol through all sorts of Scriptural and religious sources. You’ve got your straightforward sacrificial lambs, calculated to bring in a bit of sympathy, show helplessness etc. You’ve got your actual Lamb of God, but I don’t think this was an attempt to suggest that Elizabeth was likely to take away the sins of the world. No, I think we are in the territory of Luke 10:3, and the disciples being sent out like lambs amongst wolves, or maybe Isaiah 11:6, wolves and lambs living together, or Isaiah 65:25, feeding together. True enough, we don’t get those groovy adjectives in this verse, but it is my best match after a (rather amateurish, let’s be honest) skim through the Bible. There are a few other wolf or wolf-lamb references, like Genesis 49:27,  , Ecclesiasticus 13:17,  Jeremiah 5:6,  John 10:12  But is there a closer match, I wonder? A proverb? Something literary? A medieval pop song?

Whatever the exact derivation, the inclusion of such a snippet as this does raise in my mind the possibility that this sort of material might have been a lot more common that we know, it was just that it was not usually written down. Perhaps medieval court-rooms were brimming with colourful animal-based comparisons, indicating subtle gradations of approval and disapproval of parties, but clerks could not, or would not, work their quills quickly enough to keep up. I would like to think so.




Main image: some wolves (who deny any involvement) Photo by Yannick Menard on Unsplash

Finding the words for offences involving the foetus: a medieval Midlands example

Warning: this post contains references to violent crime and sexual violence.

Something I came across today in an indictment file seems worthy of a note, though the topic is difficult in all sorts of ways. Still, I think it is important to set it out and contextualise it,

The entry comes from a Worcestershire session of the peace from Michaelmas term, 1476. The jury said on oath that Roger Bailly of Hallow, Worcs, chaplain, on Tuesday 27th July, 1473, with force and arms, i.e. with clubs, knives and  lances (though not really/necessarily – these were conventional allegations) broke and entered the close of John Chirche at Hallow, and assaulted John’s wife, Joan, knocking her down. Joan was, at that time, heavily pregnant (grossam impregnatam). Roger wanted to have sex with her (the adverb used here is illicite, but rape, in the modern sense, seems the implication). The attempt does not seem to have succeeded (this is not spelled out) but the injuries caused in the attack had the effect of killing the foetus.

The words which are used to describe the foetus, and the offence, are very interesting. It is foetus ipsius Johanne in ventre sua existent’  [Joan’s foetus, existing in her womb] and the offence was that Roger had totaliter suffocavit, destruit & murdravit [completely stifled/suffocated, destroyed and murdered] the foetus, ‘against the peace of the lord king etc.’

This wording is intriguing in what seems to be its viewing of the foetus as, at one and the same time, a separate entity and also part of Joan. Thus, for example,  we have the word ‘murdravit’, which suggests separate concern for the foetus, but it is also designated Joan’s foetus, and its location in her womb is emphasised.  This suggests to me a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the nature of the foetus-within-the-woman than we might have imagined floating about in the minds of medieval jurors. The consensus view, that, while there was one well-known statement equating pre-birth and post-birth killing, the common law had, by the mid-fourteenth century, settled on birth as the start of the application of felonious homicide, remains intact.[i] This entry may be taken to suggest that lay views on questions of pregnancy and foetal life were not identical with the legal position under the law of homicide. Might that  say interesting things about what people thought was the appropriate area of operation of the law, and what was beyond its legitimate involvement?

The document absolutely does not amount to an endorsement of the idea that ending the life of a foetus was equivalent to felonious homicide on a person after birth – so is not something to be deployed in modern drives to restrict legal abortion – this is not equivalent to a ‘normal’ medieval murder/homicide charge, and it does not set the interests of foetus and woman against each other, as is often the case in modern analysis. As I have seen in medieval legal materials concerning other complexes of personality, such as husband and wife or corporations, ‘the medieval mind’ took a different, and perhaps more flexible, approach to accommodating ‘joint and several’ personality than some modern minds are able to accomplish. Perhaps it was all of that thinking about (what I find to be) the hugely difficult concept of the Trinity that limbered them up.



[i] On this, see Sara Butler’s recent post, and works cited there.

Image – I know, but very hard to find an appropriate image for something like this.

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.


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!



[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.




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.





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.