Tag Archives: London

Hangman hanged

Even an anti-capital-punishment-ist can appreciate the medieval poetic justice of a hangman meeting his end at the end of a rope: see the King’s Bench case from 1417 ( National Archives KB 27/623 m.15; AALT image 0211) in which one Nicholas Vesavery of ‘No Man’s Land’ (sounds nice), co. Middlesex, hangman of London,  was said by a jury to have stabbed Alice, his ‘concubine’ to the heart, on Thursday before Valentine’s day., and was hanged. It is not surprising that the job of hangman attracted some fairly unsavoury and low-ranking individuals, but it is, perhaps, surprising that Nicholas had no chattels at all to be confiscated after he was adjudged a felon (see margin of entry).

GS 21/3/2014


Medieval Labour Law: interesting defences


Not so long ago, I noted a fifteenth century case in which an employee alleged abusive behaviour on the part of a master (See 4th January, 2014). Here’s another little nugget, this time from the fourteenth century, and a period of particular employer-employee (or master/servant) tension during the reign of Richard II.

The King’s Bench roll for Trinity term 1389 (KB 27/5513 m. 25; AALT image 59) includes the case of John Clerc of London, saddler, brought to court under the labour laws of Edward III, accused of leaving his employment with John Somervylle, without reasonable cause or permission.  He was said to have left before the end of his one year contract.

Clerc alleged that he had had reason to leave – and the reason was an interesting variation on allegations of beating. He said that Somervylle had accused (or ‘defamed’) him of having slept with Somervylle’s wife, and this had resulted in Clerc being summoned before the ecclesiastical authorities in London, where he had purged himself (gone through the ecclesiastical form of proof of innocence). Somervylle had proceeded to stab Clerc in the chest, and, said Clerc, if the knife had not hit a bone, he would have been killed. He was, therefore, in his view, fully justified in leaving Somervylle’s employ.

Unsurprisingly, Somervylle denied everything, and so matters were sent to proof with a jury. Here, medieval legal records go silent. All we hear is that the jury found in favour of the master – perhaps because Clerc’s story was a pack of lies, perhaps because jurors chosen on the basis of their property were likely to side with a master rather than his servant. Still, Clerc must have thought that this story might work, which suggests that the scenario he came up with, if it wasn’t true, was at least a plausible course of events. And that says some interesting things about expectations of violence, intimate relations and reaction to adultery in fourteenth century England.

(Clerc was ordered to pay his former master the thumping sum of 100s 7 1/2 marks, and this offence also left him liable to imprisonment),

GS 10.3.2014

Kissing and trespass in the fifteenth century King’s Bench

In early 1422, Amice Everard brought a trespass case against John Bennet of London, servant [KB 27/643 m.5 AALT image 10]. Her allegation was that, on Sunday next before the feast of St Bartholomew the apostle, in the ninth year of King Henry V [August 24th, 1422],  he had, with force and arms, i.e. swords, clubs, and daggers, broken into her home, in the parish of St Olave, in the ward of Colman Street, in London, and had assaulted, beaten and mistreated her, and committed other enormities, against the king’s peace, causing her £40 worth of damage. This allegation followed a stereotyped formula which had evolved over the previous couple of centuries, and is not therefore particularly informative. All we really know is that she was saying that he had come into her house and committed some sort of trespass to her person. The defence, however, is more than usually full, and of some interest in relation to medieval gender relations.

John made his defence in person (in contrast to Amice, who spoke through her attorney). He denied most of Amice’s allegation outright. As far as the entry into her home was concerned, he said that he had, at the time concerned, Amice’s permission to enter the house when he wished, so that, on this occasion, he was in the house with her consent. As for the assault on Alice, he said that, at the time of the supposed trespass, he entered the house as stated, and had a romantic tryst (colloquium … causa Amoris) with Amice. With Amice’s agreement, consent and free will, he took her in his arms, put her on her bed and kissed her. He said that this was the assault of which Amice complained in her writ, and asked for judgment whether she should be allowed such an action against him. Amice stuck to her story that there had been a wrongful entry and assault, without such cause as John alleged, and the matter was referred to a jury for trial in a future term – sadly then disappearing from the record.

As usual, there is no way of knowing the truth of allegation and counter-allegation. Was Amice complaining about a kiss, some other intimate assault, or about some other assault entirely? Were the two parties known to each other at all, and, if so, in what capacity? Nevertheless, there is useful material here. From the point of view of social history, it is welcome to find some hints of what was thought of as plausible romantic conduct, and to note that John was a ‘servant’ while Amice appears to have been a householder. From the point of view of legal history, it is interesting to obtain some small insights into views on consent in the sexual context, beyond what can be gleaned from ‘criminal’ cases of rape or cases of ravishment of wives with their husbands’ goods. In particular, it noteworthy that John is so insistent on Amice’s willingness that he uses not one but three terms to signify consent to his presence and actions. There may be some contrast here to the apparently low level required for consent in cases of alleged felonious rape.

Gwen Seabourne