Tag Archives: medieval torture

Of pears and periwinkles: a snippet on medieval torture

I don’t want to go all ‘pear of anguish’ here, and/or play into the lazy and tiresome stereotypes of medieval brutality, but … I did come across a tantalising little snippet on torture devices in a recent search of plea rolls, which I think is worth sharing with anyone who happens upon this.

It came up in an entry relating to an approver (approvers being those who ‘turned king’s evidence’ and accused their former associates, in the – usually forlorn – hope that they would escape punishment themselves).[i] There were relatively frequent assertions by these approvers that they had been coerced into taking on this very dicey role, confessing to their own guilt of a capital offence, probably having to take part in a judicial combat,  and running the risk of immediate execution if they failed to make the accusation stick and their former associate was acquitted. Not a great option, in most cases, we might think (leaving aside the whole ‘confession is good for the soul’ thing). Such instances have been noted by others, including allegations of torture as a method of coercion, but I have not seen reference to the interesting and specific detail provided in one 14th C Yorkshire case.

In the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1343,[ii] we find a presentment by jurors of several wapentakes[iii] in Yorkshire regarding treatment of one William Cholle. William had, so they said, been in a prison (not specified where), and William de Rymyngton and John de Nessefeld, cleric,[iv] in whose custody he was, had taken him to the tower of York castle, and, once there, had drawn him on a rope and ‘on his fingers, put certain torments called pyrewynkes’ in order to force him to become an approver. He did not, however, become an approver.  The jurors then went from specific to vague and general, stating that the accused had made many prisoners in their custody become approvers by the use of such tortures (though the jurors did not know the names of these unfortunates) and that William caused a number of men to be accused in sheriffs’ tourns, for profit (using false testimony and oaths, and then extorting money from them to have them let off).

I was expecting a quick ‘not guilty’, but no – the law caught up with William R, and he seems to have accepted his guilt (I trust, without the use of torture). He made fine with the king – the tariff was 20s. This, however, was offset by the expenses William declared for repairs to the doors and windows, and other repairs to the king’s hall of pleas at York castle. William was keen for this to be enrolled – presumably to protect him from any further action and/or attempts to recover the 20s fine.

So what?

Well, an interesting tale in relation to the two Williams. William C is, so far, a mystery: there may well be more to be found out, but it is at least interesting that somebody was known to have withstood torture. William R does not come out of it well, does he, but it is interesting that this was not treated as a massive abuse. What does that say about royal attitudes to the approver system? I think it supports the suggestions of earlier scholars that this was a fairly merciless thing, and also something seen as necessary for achieving an acceptable level of prosecution of offenders. If somebody like William R went a bit far, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Finally, what about those ‘pyryewynkes’? Others may have come across this term in the past: I have not. They don’t seem to feature in the work of Musson, Hamil or Summerson. I can only speculate about their nature – they are plural: was there one for each finger? We will all be familiar with the thumbscrew – was this something like that, only multiple, and not just for thumbs? I assume that it was some sort of crushing or stretching device, but that may be a lack of imagination on my part. What is suggested by the name – it looks rather like ‘periwinkle’, so could it be a device which looked like small seashells? Or flowers? Or a word garbling Latin elements indicating tight binding? The flower seems more likely than the shell, given easily accessible definitions and etymologies.[v] Hard to imagine quite why the device was like a flower, if that is the idea. Probably a dead end, and perhaps more interesting anyway are two other things: first that it is named in English by the jurors, and, second, that it has a specific name at all.  Both of these suggest, it seems to me, that this was something people in the wider community beyond the legal system knew about, talked about. So maybe, just maybe, it is a tiny signal that we medievalists should not take the defensive attitude towards ‘our patch’ too far, and be so quick to bat away all torture horror stories as ignorant modern nonsense, or shunt them forwards to the early modern period (that’s a favourite move with anything negative, isn’t it?). There may not ever have been a ‘pear of anguish’, other than in the minds of later fantasists,  but a fair number of medieval people in York at least believed in the existence of ‘the fearsome pyrewynke’ …





Image – pretty, inoffensive, non-torturing, flower, vinca minor by Lydia Penrose, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


[i] See, in particular, A. Musson, “Turning King’s Evidence: The Prosecution of Crime in Late Medieval England.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 19 (1999), 467–79; F. C. Hamil, ‘The King’s Approvers’, 11 Speculum (1936), 238-58; H. R. T. Summerson, ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’  17 Journal of Legal History (1996). 197-224; And I found this one useful on torture: L Tracy, ‘Wounded Bodies: Kingship, National Identity and Illegitimate Torture in the English Arthurian Tradition’, in D.E. Clark, L. Robeson, M. Nievergelt et al. (eds) Arthurian Literature XXXII (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer; 2015) 1-30. No doubt there is more I could read. My internet search engine did express concern, though …

[ii] KB 27/334 m. 17; AALT IMG 0320.

[iii] Wapentakes are jurisdictionally-relevant geographical subdivisions: this term is specific to the northern part of England.

[iv] He comes up now and again in official documents, e.g. here there’s a man of that name, county and time who has a job as keeper of the hospital of the Holy Innocents – and see the end of the next note.

[v] The trusty Middle English Compendium gives three meanings for ‘pervinkle’, including the shell. The flower seems to be the earlier ‘periwinkle’ though, and there is an intriguing association between the flower and execution, from Lydgate, in the MEC:  pervink and pervinke – Middle English Compendium (umich.edu) ‘Thou hast … crowned oon with laureer hih on his hed upset, Other with peruynke maad for the gibet’- J. Lydgate, Fall of Princes (Bod. MS 264) vi. 126. I am not pretending I have read this – I haven’t – but intriguing nonetheless. And let me just go all-out conspiracist … there is an ecclesiastical document relating to a John de Nessefeld which is decorated with … flowers … Coincidence? I think not!

(And a quick ‘pear of anguish’ update … I am currently working through the complete ‘box set’ of detection drama, Bones (don’t judge: I find the puzzle solving very cathartic) and was intrigue/disappointed to see the POA featuring as a murder weapon in 4:15, with no correction about historical accuracy by Dr Brennan. It’s making me doubt the total authenticity of other aspects of the show …)

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

28th April, 2017.