Tag Archives: medieval marriage

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

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

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

So what?

  1. The medical and personal information

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

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

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

  1. The sentence

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

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




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

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

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

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Truth and (a sort of) reconciliation? Scenes from a medieval Suffolk marriage

A plea roll record of a land case from the end of the reign of Edward I gives an interesting view of medieval marriage (or one particular medieval marriage at least), gender and families of different types.

JUST 1/1323 m 77d sets out an assize case heard by Retford and Spigurnel, justices of assize in various southern counties of England, in summer 1303 (with updates until 1304). It concerned land in Suffolk, in Somersham and Nettlestead, and the question was whether Ralph Norreys and his associates had been within their rights to eject John Dunning from the land, or whether John had the better right to hold the land, so that their actions had been an unjust ‘disseisin’ (more or less ‘dispossession’).

Both men’s cases involved telling the story of dealings with the land in recent times, so as to establish their family connection and right to it. Part of this story was the tale of the marriage of Alan de Bosco and Agnes Norreys. Putting together the story they told and the facts found by the jurors, this is what happened … (and yes, usual warnings about not believing everything which appears in the record applies, but there is no obvious reason to doubt this) …

Alan was married to Agnes when he (at least) was below the age of majority (this was 14 for boys, and the jurors say, very precisely, that he was 13 years and 7 weeks old at the time). They lived together for a short period – quarter of a year – and then Alan suddenly left, going off to Cambridge for three years. While he was away, Agnes took service with Robert, parson of the church of ‘Flokton’ (Flixton?). Robert and Agnes had a child, William. Then Alan came back from Cambridge. As soon as she found that he was back in Suffolk, Agnes went to Alan’s house, with the infant William, but Alan would not let her in, and swore that William was not his son, since, so he said, he had never had sex with Agnes. Agnes then sent William back to Robert, who acknowledged him as his son. Afterwards, Agnes went straight back to Alan, who took her back in as his wife kindly (benigne) and in due course, they had a child, called Geoffrey.

The key issue for the land case was whether or not William was Alan’s son. To cut a long story short, Ralph traced his right through William while John traced his through Geoffrey. If William was not Alan’s son, Ralph would have no chance of success. Although that might seem an easy legal issue, if this story is the truth, or something like it, there were complications. The rules about legitimacy, and who was to be regarded as a man’s legitimate son, were not entirely biological. In a world which had no blood or DNA testing, a lot of reliance had to be placed on probability, reputation and presumption. The starting point was that, if a child was born during the course of a marriage, then that child was the legitimate child of the spouses (with associated property rights after the death of the parents). As the common lawyers charmlessly, and repeatedly, put it ‘Whoever bulls the cow, the calf is yours’ – meaning that, even if a wife had been impregnated by somebody else, the child would be presumed to be the husband’s legitimate issue. The presumption could be rebutted, however, if it was completely impossible for the husband to be the father – e.g. if he had been imprisoned abroad for years and came back to find a child. Thus careful questions were put to the jurors to ascertain whether Alan had come back from Cambridge during the three years, or whether Agnes might have gone to meet him somewhere. Apparently not. They were also asked about local opinion – who was reputed to be William’s father (answer: Robert and not Alan). Things would seem to have been going John’s way, on the whole, though clearly this was not as watertight an ‘impossibility’ case as the ‘husband abroad in prison’ scenario. But here the legal procedure ground to a halt, and all there is is a series of additional ‘court dates’ and an instruction to the judges to get on with it. It may be that there was some uncertainty as to whether John had managed to rebut the presumption of legitimacy. Leading common lawyers had been prepared to accept some fairly fanciful suggestions as to how an apparently distant husband might have managed to father a legitimate child, in a case from an earlier term in the same year (Seipp 1304.027rs; https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=1531 ) opining that he might have come to the county in which the wife lived, by night, without anyone knowing, so that John might not have been regarded as ‘home and dry’. I hope to track down more on this litigation, but it may take some time.

As interesting as the legal point, if not more so, is the ‘social’ material here. The early marriage is not particularly surprising, perhaps, nor the young husband’s departure (did he go to Cambridge University? I am put in mind of the folk song ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ …) but what happened afterwards is less predictable. We cannot know anything about the willingness or otherwise of Agnes in relation to the sexual relationship with Robert the parson, but we can say (i) that it seems to have been well-known in the area; and (ii) that Robert was willing to acknowledge William as his son, and take him in. William would go on to have descendants of his own. The reconciliation of Agnes and Alan is fascinating: she was prepared to give up her child and he was prepared to take her back if she did so, despite the fact that all the neighbours knew him to be a ‘cuckold’. No pressure from the Church seems to have been involved. It seems to me that this story has interesting things to say about medieval men, women and communities, and the importance of engaging with initially off-putting and ‘dry’ sources like land law cases, if we want to learn all we can about medieval families and attitudes.