Tag Archives: medieval

Mysterious goings-on in Clerkenwell

The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/24/england-cathedrals-back-to-middle-ages-mystery-plays-pageants-chester-st-albans .

Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.

The scene:

Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary

The cast:

The prioress

The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)

The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)

The modern reader

The plot:

The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.

The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.




References and reading

The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9149425

If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922)  (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)

A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …



Medieval Sporting Memories

The (male, football) World Cup started today. I am not much of a sport fan (missed out on the team-supporting gene and seriously disliked Fever Pitch – but will refrain from going off on a ‘New Opium of the People’ rant…) but by weird coincidence, football cropped up in my medieval legal history reading today too. There I was, reading an interesting article about 15th C proof of age inquests, and whether they were all a pack of made up nonsense (M. Holford, ‘”Testimony to some extent fictitious”: proofs of age in the first half of the fifteenth century’, Historical Research 82 (2009) 632-54 at 637) when some instances of football-related injury jumped out at me. Thought they were worth a quick blogging.

In Inquisitions Post Mortem vol. 22, inquisitions no. 189, 360, 361 and 364, all relating to Essex, some of the men who were confirming the date of birth and baptism of different, younger, men, with a view to showing that the young men were old enough to inherit land, did so by reference to injuries sustained while playing football, (ad pilam pedalem) more than two decades previously. Now, it may be that the stories were untrue, or ‘boilerplate’, but perhaps they can still show us/ remind us of a couple of interesting things:

  1. They are all (left) leg injuries. The tibia is mentioned. That seems noteworthy. Football medieval style always seems to be portrayed as something a bit more like rugby/American football, without the rules (or, in the latter case, the shiny trousers). But shin injury does suggest that the game they are talking about is actually something a bit more like your actual football.
  2. These are all men of a certain age – forty-somethings, talking about their glorious sporting exploits when they were young things in their early twenties. (Possibly, off-parchment, they regaled the assembled throng with tales of having had trials for Arsenal or medieval equivalent, and how their promising careers were ended by the aforesaid injury).
  3. It seems to be accepted that having a game of football (with or without shin-splitting) after a baptism was ‘a thing’, which is a nice little detail about medieval birth celebrations. Possibly, if mixed with celebratory alcohol, the apparent frequency of shin injuries (‘shinjuries’?) is explained.

Perhaps I am coming round to football after all. To be continued, if I find any other good football/legal history/medieval cross-over material …

14th June, 2018.

Football is a bad thing – official

World cup still on then …

There were statutory provisions against football in the later medieval period (see particularly 2 Richard II, c. 6: Statutes of the Realm II, 57, 11 Henry IV, c. 4, SR II,163). It is more complicated than that, of course: there was not a clear objection to football itself (despite its apparent danger to the shins of the English): the ‘beef’ was mainly with the fact that it distracted the lower orders of men from their archery practice, and, perhaps, that it might be the occasion for disorder. Legislation also hit out against those dreadful disrupters of society, quoits and bowls. And an investigation of many lower court rolls shows a reluctance to report and punish men for playing football (see McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 98, 133).

18th June, 2018.

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.

The Damsel of Brittany rides again


Eleanor of Brittany (1182×1184-1241) is somebody who kept popping up in my research on female imprisonment, and I tried to draw together some thoughts about her in an article back in 2007: ‘Eleanor of Brittany and Her Treatment by King John and Henry III’, Nottingham Medieval Studies 51 (2007): 73–110. Given this, I was very interested to see a very good new article focusing on this unfortunate and under-explored Angevin princess – Stephanie Russo (2016) ‘The Damsel of Brittany: Mary Robinson’s Angelina, Tyranny and the 1790s’, English Studies, 97:4 (2016), 397-411. This looks at the creative use made by the late 18th century novelist Robinson of the story of Eleanor of Brittany. Eleanor – or a fictionalised version of her – features as part of the mental world of the more modern characters in the epistolary novel Angelina, and as a point of comparison for some of the characters’ own situation.

Robinson’s Eleanor gets a bit of a romance – wouldn’t it be good if that was actually true, if there had actually been some such highlight in her life? But sadly very unlikely! It is rather intriguing that Robinson was a Bristolian by birth – did the story of the princess imprisoned in Bristol castle linger even in her day?

Anyway – good to see some attention being paid to Eleanor. I am secretly hoping that the current craze for digging up lost royals (Richard III, Henry I etc.) might mean an increased chance that somebody might have a go at locating her in Amesbury, and maybe find some clues to why she was apparently so keen to be buried there rather than Bristol (or why Henry III chose to say that she was).

Prisons and aliens: new articles of legal-historical interest, January 2016

Prisons and aliens: new articles of Legal Historical interest, January 2016

Two to note on ‘early release’ from Historical Researchhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2281/earlyview

J.M. Moore, ‘Reformative rhetoric and the exercise of corporal power: Alexander Maconochie’s regime at Birmingham prison 1849-51’, explores the wide gap between what was said and what was actually done by this former Australian penal settlement gaoler in the new prison at Birmingham, and provides an important correction to  the former positive view of his practices. Maconochie’s ‘mark system’ ideas of task-based sentences leading to mental submission are quite well known. The lack of political approval of a trial of the mark system in the domestic context is interesting, however, and the evidence on actual practice in Birmingham given here is, however, illuminating (in a dark way). Unable to link tasks/behaviour and length of sentence, Maconochie linked these things to food and conditions in a very harsh way, and was rather keen on flogging boys and imposing lengthy physical restraints on women. A lack of respect for the need to record such punishments, and the use of his family members in various unofficial roles in the prison combine to give the impression of an arrogant man who did not respond well to frustration, and was determined to try and push through his theories, despite opposition. (I would like to hear more about his wife’s attempts to use mesmerism and homeopathy in the reform of prisoners though).

B. Lambert and W.M. Ormrod, ‘A matter of trust: the regulation of England’s French residents during wartime, 1294-1377’ looks at the treatment of suspect aliens during periods of uncomfortable relations with France, under the first three Edwards. The article notes the flexible response of government at various levels to the ‘problem’ of aliens. ‘Nationality’ was not regarded as a simple or conclusive matter at this point, before the late-14th C introduction of the formal process of ‘denization’ became established. Important differences between the treatment of ‘alien priories’, nobles and those of lower social rank are noted here, with the suggestion of a move from heavy to more flexible regulation in the case of the last group which may be at odds with expectations from earlier research on alien priories and nobles. The central argument is well made and there is much hard-won and useful detail on practice. From a local point of view, it is interesting to see the lack of desire to aggravate foreigners evident in the report of a mayor of Bristol, asked in 1337 to assess and identify the property in the city which was held by Frenchmen, for purposes of confiscation, who chose to say that there just wasn’t any (which was surely untrue) (p.12). Thinking more widely, this article provides very useful ideas and material to include in historical (and current political) work on the nature of nationality and allegiance, and on immigration, beyond the medieval period.

GS 16/1/2016

The Art of Law: important article on images in rolls of the late medieval Court of Common Pleas

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 (http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_282282_en.pdf ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog (http://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2013/04/07/p-is-for-profile-henry-viii-in-the-rolls-of-the-common-pleas/ ). The appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is a welcome addition to this area, and certainly one for reading lists in medieval legal history.

Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210 looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explored the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?

Gwen Seabourne


Dealing with medieval aliens

A new article concerning the denization process in medieval England has appeared in the English Historical Review: B. Lambert and W.M. Ormrod, ‘Friendly foreigners: international warfare, resident aliens and the early history of denization in England c. 1250-1400’ EHR 130 (2015), 1-24. A major question which the article addresses is why royal intervention in this area, granting denizen status to aliens, began when it did, in the late fourteenth century.  Disagreeing with previous suggestions of Romanist influence in the Chancery, legislation and long-term developments, the authors make out a case for the influence of practices in the late 1370s, connected to dealing with citizens of enemy countries during times of hostility. Interesting reading, particularly in the current climate of heated debate about immigration.

Curtesy and crying

A Year Book note on curtesy, and the requirements which a man must meet in order to claim to hold by the curtesy of England (proof of a live birth to his wife – specifically a baby’s cry being heard) YB Trin. 20 Edw I pl 39; Seipp 1292.88 refers to the case of Richard Danyel v Richard de la Bere (Herefordshire Eyre 1292) JUST 1/303 m. 6.  Richard Danyel, claiming the land formerly held by his mother, argued that Richard had not had qualifying issue with Cecily. De la Bere claimed that Cecily had given birth to his (qualifyingly noisy) child at Bishopston. A jury was summoned (the Year Book has some comments on the appropriate place from which to draw a jury when the alleged birth was in one place and the land in another). The jury told a sad tale of a very sick baby and an emergency baptism at home, then a brief visit to the church, after which it died, without having qualified, in auditory terms, as the right kind of offspring to give the father a right to curtesy. The crying test for curtesy is being taken seriously – and, as this case shows, could be used to exclude severely unwell children, even if they appear to have been viewed alive by at least a priest. Richard Danyel did not pursue the case, and should have been amerced for this failure, but was forgiven because he was a minor. Exactly what his role was in this story is unclear, but it does not suggest a happy family.

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective Part II E: Property Law

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective

Part II E:

Property Law

Individual ownership of personal property and land (though with feudal overtones) is the norm in Westeros, and acquisition by sale, gift and inheritance is in evidence. Real property may be lost by abandonment [V:42]. Little more is revealed. One possibly problematic area is property in dragons. Daenerys Targaryen appears to see them as (her) property [II:528], but whether they can be regarded as truly under her control, or should be so regarded, is not entirely clear.

Some marginal and ‘foreign’ cultures take a different view of the appropriate relationship between people and things or land, and the appropriate modes of acquisition of property.

A notably different view persists amongst the Ironborn. Fittingly, the motto of House Greyjoy is ‘We do not sow’ [II:154], and their ‘Old Way’ praises and asserts religious justification for those who ‘reave and rape’ [ibid.]. An interesting gender distinction is made: in the Old Way, whilst ‘women might decorate themselves with ornaments bought with coin’, there was a more demanding requirement for ‘warriors’, who were allowed to wear only the jewellery they took from ‘the corpses of enemies slain by his own hand’. This was known as ‘paying the iron price’ for the jewels [II:166].

The Dothraki do not acquire property through sale, but through a system of (semi-) reciprocal gift-giving [V:73], and do not have a strong concept of individual property since they see it as appropriate for members of a former khalasar to remove the ex-khal’s herd: ‘it is the right of the strong to take from the weak’ [I:733].

Also far from Westerosi concepts is the view of the Wildings. Ygritte expresses views reminiscent of some native American or aboriginal peoples, disputing the idea of individual ownership of (some?) land and chattels, which are worth quoting in full: ‘The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings came w their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’ hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, mu daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop them off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You could call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and clever and quick. A Kneeler only has t’ kneel.’ III:462.


The feudal element

Lordship and feudal ties are much in evidence, though little explained. High lords have bannermen, bound to them by oaths, though the connection with land grants has not been explored, and no doubt there is more to say about the rights and responsibilities of lords and ‘smallfolk’. It is clear that (some?) people can choose to whom they swear themselves – e.g. Brienne of Tarth swears to Catelyn Stark [II:508] in what seems more like a personal bond than something land-related.

Wardship is a known institution, though it is not always well-distinguished from fosterage and hostageship. Thus Theon Greyjoy is said to be the ward of Ned Stark [I:12] but is in reality a hostage for his father’s good behaviour following a rebellion against Robert I Baratheon [See also I:22; I:37].

Money It is interesting to note that there is no equivalent to the medieval Christian horror of usury. The Iron Throne pays ‘usury’ on its loans [III:361] and Cersei tells merchants to pay usury on their own loans from the Iron Bank of Braavos [IV:604].


I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones

Number references refer to pages in I – V, but to Kindle locations for World.

Gwen Seabourne


Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective IID: criminal law

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective

Part II

Substantive Law


D: Criminal Law

The Song of Ice and Fire mentions a variety of different ‘criminal’ offences, many of which are broadly similar to (medieval) English offences (pleas of the crown), though often there is insufficient evidence to allow exploration of the definition of the individual crime. There are offences against the person, against property and the state or crown.


Treason is a recognised concept, though, as in medieval Europe, its definition appears somewhat uncertain or contested. It includes at least killing the king and adultery by or with the queen [IV:515, 653]. Those in power might try to extend the concept, thus Cersei Lannister states that saying that Joffrey is not the true heir to Robert Baratheon is treason [I:509] and Joffrey says failure by those instructed to swear fealty to him to do so is treason [I:598]. Ultra-loyalist Eddard Stark considers it treason not to reveal that Joffrey is not the son of Robert Baratheon, and so is not the true heir to the Iron Throne. Littlefinger, however, taking a more pragmatic approach, says it is only treason ‘if we lose’[I:495].

A glimpse into (at least popular understanding of) the law of treason by adultery can be seen in the statement of Lancel Lannister to his cousin Jaime, that while he had had sex with Cersei, he was not a traitor because he had withdrawn before emission, and ‘It is not treason unless you finish inside’ [IV:515]. Clearly, then, assuming that such withdrawal is seen as a reliable method of contraception, Lancel understands the treasonous element of this version of the offence to be activity which would endanger the purity of the royal line, rather than any sort of sexual activity with the queen.

Women and children connected with rebellious males can be adjudged traitors, suggesting, perhaps, an idea of treason by contagion, or at least, in the case of children, a low threshold for capacity for guilty intention [I:598]. Joffrey, as king, calls a woman a traitor, and has her locked up, when she comes to his court and asks for the head of an executed traitor whom she loved, as she wants to ensure that he has proper burial. The royal logic is that  ‘If you loved a traitor, you must be a traitor too’.[I:721]. The context, however, indicates that Joffrey is not acting in accordance with law or custom in his determinations.

There is, perhaps, a wider idea of offences of ‘lesser’ treason, or sedition, lurking in the popular understanding. Jaime Lannister notes that the ‘old penalty for striking one of the blood royal’ was losing a hand’ [IV:517]. This suggests that action short of ‘high’ treason, and extending beyond the persons of the king, queen, heir and heir’s wife, could be taken particularly seriously. Also, those who disparage those in power may face disabling punishment. So a tavern singer who made a song that ridiculed the late King Robert, and Queen Cersei, is subject to mutilation [1:721]. Cersei also presses for mutilation of anyone speaking of incest or calling Joffrey a bastard, though this is not accepted by others [II:208].

Perhaps to be regarded as akin to treason is the offence of ‘deicide’ with which the High Septon wants to try Cersei Lannister. Killing the High Septon (or complicity in his homicide) is so regarded because the person in this role ‘speaks on earth for the gods’ [V:727].


Killing another subject other than in war or in execution of justice is a crime, and is designated murder. A more expansive view of the conduct which can amount to murder is taken than would be found in the medieval common law – thus, not feeding one’s wife might be regarded as murder [II:474]. It is seen as a plausible defence to a murder charge that one was acting on the orders of a superior: e.g. when Beric Dondarrion’s brotherhood try the Hound, Sandor Clegane, for crimes including murder [III: 384 ff], the Hound denies guilt, and says, in relation to the accusation that he murdered the butcher’s boy, Mycah, that he ‘was Joffrey’s sworn shield. The butcher’s boy attacked a prince of the blood’, and when  Arya Stark says it was she who attacked Joffrey, the Hound argues that he ‘heard it from the royal lips. It’s not my place to question princes.’ [III:386]. This defence does not, however, convince his accusers (though, as he is successful in a trial by combat under the auspices of R’hilor, the Lord of Light, perhaps there is some approbation of his argument).

Vengeance is not regarded as an excuse or justification for homicide, so Robb Stark executes Rickard Karstark for his vengeance killing of two Lannister prisoners [III:231]. Likewise, being ‘mad with love’ is not an excuse (or not a complete excuse?) for homicide [IV:173].

There is room for differing views on the borderline between killing made lawful by war and murder. Thus Eddard Stark regarded as murder the killing of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s wife and children, during the war which led to the defeat and deposition of the Targaryens by Robert Baratheon, but Robert regarded it as legitimate action during a time of war, however troubling (and , initially at least, ordered the killing of Daenerys Targaryen and her unborn heir once he heard that she was pregnant) [I:106].

In Westeros, tournaments may end in death, without condemnation of the killer [I:286], and at Dothraki weddings, fights to the death over women are unpunished [I:97]  Beyond Westeros, some cultures enjoy homicide as a spectacle, akin to Roman gladiatorial games. This is not acceptable to (at least some) Westerosi sensibilities. Thus, Daenerys Targaryen bans the fighting pits of Meereen. She is, however, obliged  to reopen them, to ensure political  stability. There is pressure both from the populace who wish to watch ‘the mortal art’, and the fighters who want the chance to fight for glory [V:155]. She tries to make these arenas less offensive and cruel than they had been, insisting that fighters must choose freely to participate, or else be in certain classes of criminal (murderers and rapers may be forced to fight, as may slavers, but not thieves or debtors) and all fighters must be of age [V:693] She does not manage to do away with the ‘humorous’ fights of ‘cripples’ and dwarfs.

Particularly condemned are the kingslayer, the kinslayer and the killer in violation of guest-right [II:578; World: 3852; III:83]. Violations of guest-right, , under which it was forbidden to kill one who had eaten at one’s board, and for the guest to kill his host, are condemned particularly amongst the Northmen [World: 3852; III:83], but guest right is mentioned in relation to widely spread parts of Westeros, for example: the Wall [V:142]; the wildings and the North [III:83], Dorne [V:511]. There is a suggestion that it is a matter of the laws both of gods (old and new) and of men [IV:276; III:83]. Kinslaying is likewise described as an offence against the laws of gods and men [II:578].

There is some idea of sacred spaces in which special rules of peace apply. Bloodshed is forbidden in Vaes Dothrak, the sacred city of the Dothraki [I:477]. Nevertheless, there is a loophole, and traders there employ stranglers to kill thieves, so as to kill without offending against the ban [I:478], and Khal Drogo kills Viserys without offending against the ban by crowning him with molten gold [I:483]. Places sacred to the Faith are also not to be used for bloodshed. The High Septon regards the beheading of Eddard Stark on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor as a profanation {II:36, 52].

Interestingly, and unlike the situation under the laws in medieval Europe, there is no suggestion that suicide is regarded as a crime.Shara Dayne’s suicide is seen as something to pity rather than to condemn [V:879 – though note that she was ‘mad with grief’ at the time]. The supposed suicide of Ser Cortnay Penrose is not particularly condemned [II:583]. Tyrion considers killing himself with poisonous mushrooms, rather than allowing Cersei to capture him alive [V:353], and although that does not prove that suicide would not be condemned, there is no sense that he has moral reservations about it.

Cannibalism, whether or not involving homicide, however, is a capital offence, at least under Stannis Baratheon’s rule, and even if the person in question is starving [V:818]. The Dothraki clearly did not consider that any laws forbade leaving ‘deformed children’ to be eaten by feral dogs [I:314]. How Daenerys’s smothering of the living but incapable Khal Drogo {I:736] would be viewed in Dothraki  or Westerosi law is unclear. She clearly saw it as a mercy killing, and the right thing to do. Euthanasia is a contested issue, but there is some support for it. It is suggested that Bran should be put out of his misery after his fall and paralysis, and that Patchface the fool should be given milk of the poppy as a method of euthanasia when he has lost his mind, but these options are not taken up [II:7; III:823] and Val, the ‘wilding princess’ advocates killing children with greyscale – smothering, stabbing or poisoning them [V:708]. Beric Dondarrion, Sandor Clegane and others approve of giving the dying (after a fight) ‘the gift of mercy’ [III:441;728]. The House of Black and White in Braavos (in which Arya Stark ends up) also gives out the ‘gift of mercy’ or ‘gift of who shall live and who shall die [which ] belongs to Him of Many Faces’- [IV:350].

Whether or not abortion is an offence is unclear. Lysa Arryn and Littlefinger’s baby was aborted, Lysa being tricked by her father into drinking an abortifacient [III:912], but, although the dying Hoster Tully feels guilt, it is not clear whether this would be regarded as a crime.


Sexual offences

Rape is certainly a criminal offence, but it is widely practised.

It is unsurprising in a patriarchal, quasi-medieval world to see at least some men of Westeros blaming women for their own rape, if they act outside certain norms. So Lord Randall Tarly tells Brienne of Tarth that she will have ‘earned it’ if she is raped, because of her ‘folly’ of taking arms and acting as a knight. If she is raped, he tells her not to look to him for justice [IV:234]. He had made a similar statement in the past, when a group of knights had had a bet as to who could take Brienne’s ‘maidenhood’. Tarly thought they would have taken her by force eventually, but he laid the blame for the knights’ conduct squarely upon Brienne: ‘Your being here encouraged them. If a woman will behave like a camp follower, she cannot object to being treated like one…’ [IV: 238]. Jokes and bawdy stories about non-consensual sex were also current [World: 5560], and it is regarded as plausible that women make false claims of rape [I:261].

The description of bawdy stories concerning Lann, trickster ancestor of the Lannisters, which have him ‘stealing in night after night to have his way with the Casterly maidens whilst they sleep’ do not use the word ‘rape’ about this conduct, and it seems unlikely that it would be so regarded [World, 5560].

Rape is regarded as normal after a battle victory, though Daenerys Targaryen is unhappy with this practice, and tries to rein in the Dothraki when they behave in this way [I:644]. Stannis Baratheon actually manages to keep his soldiers in check during the fighting in the North, and it is remarked that only three wilding women were raped after his victory [III: 858].

It is accepted, even by the ‘abolitionist’ Daenerys Targaryen, that a master having sex with his slave does not commit rape, because the slave is his property [V:42].

Signs of changes over time and different views on the relevance of women’s consent to sex can be seen in discussions of the ‘right of the First Night’. This seems to have been present in at least some parts of Westeros, was valued by ‘many lords’ and was banned by King Jaehaerys I Targaryen, at the behest of his sister/wife [World: 1620]. Even at the time of the Song cycle, however, some lords maintain the right. Roose Bolton states that ‘where the old gods rule, old customs linger’ – and suggests that this justified his raping a miller’s wife, who became the mother of his bastard, Ramsay Snow [V:429]. Bolton said that another northern family, the Umbers, also keep the first night rule (though there is a suggestion that they are secretive about this) as do some of the mountain clans and those on Skagos [ibid.]. The potentially savage enforcement of the right is shown in Bolton’s description of his treatment of the mother of Ramsay. Since the marriage of the miller to this woman had been conducted without the permission or knowledge of Roose, the lord had been cheated. He therefore had the miller hanged and chained ‘and claimed my rights beneath the tree where he was swaying [V:429].

Abduction of women, perhaps linked to the old ‘wife stealing’ custom maintained by the wildings, was made a crime by Aegon the Dragon, apparently ‘at the urging of Queen Rhaenys [World: 5065]. Such crimes could be destabilising, as was the case with Prince Rhaegar’s ‘infamous absduction of Lyanna Stark, which contributed to a war and the overthrow of the Targaryens [World, 3691].

Homosexuality is disapproved in Westeros (thus the former rent boy, Satin, is despised on the Wall, and a chronicler notes with surprise that the Dornish are not concerned by either male or female homosexual acts [World:6893]), but there is no sign that it is contrary to the law, except, perhaps amongst the Ironmen. Thus, Victarion Greyjoy, finding himself in charge of a group of slaves, weighs the ‘perfumed boys’ down with chains and throws them into the sea, regarding them as ‘unnatural creatures’ [V:832]. Septon Utt hanged by Beric for killing boys he molested. III:441

Prostitution is generally legal, and brings in tax revenue for the Crown. Cersei Lannister justifies allowing prostitution as a safeguard against ‘common men’s tendency to ‘turn to rape’ if prostitutes are not available to them [IV:606]. Others had not taken the same view. The pious Targaryen king Baelor I the Blessed had tried to outlaw prostitution within King’s Landing, expelling the prostitutes and their children [World: 2552]. Stannis Baratheon similarly wanted to outlaw brothels [I:265]. Neither was successful. The guilt for spreading sexually transmitted diseases might be attached to prostitutes, leading to their punishment, as when Lord Randyll Tarly, orders that ‘a haggard grey faced whore’, accused of giving the pox to four … soldiers’ be punished [IV:233].


Piracy and smuggling

These are crimes in most of Westeros, [II:11] but piracy in particular was regarded as admirable by one group – the Ironborn. There were attempts by Harmund the Handsome, a convert to the Faith, to make sea-reaving a capital offence, but this did not catch on [World: 5248].

Offences of dishonesty

Theft is an offence, and its definition is wide enough to include such conduct as cheating at dice [IV:233].

There is evidence of regulations concerning adulteration of food, or cheating customers – as in many medieval European cities. Thus Tywin Lannister, acting as Hand for Aerys II (Mad) ‘sternly punished bakers found guilty of adding sawdust to their bread and butchers selling horsemeat as beef.’ [World: 3312], and Lord Randyll Tarly sentences a baker, found guilty of mixing sawdust in his flour, to a fine of fifty stags or whipping [IV:232].


Punishment for crime

Mutilation and capital punishment are the expected consequences of a conviction for serious crimes.

Those found guilty of murder or treason might be hanged or beheaded, often with a sword on a block of wood [I:12].or, in the reign of ‘Mad King’ Aerys II, or under Stannis Baratheon, burned [World: 3519; V:818]. The Eyrie has its own rule or custom with regard to execution – convicted felons are ‘sent out through The Moon Door’ [I:406] – falling to their death from this lofty exit. An alternative – though whether this is to be considered a post-conviction punishment, or an extra-judicial method of disposal is unclear – is confinement in the ‘sky cells’, cells open on one side over a sheer and fatal drop. This was the fate of Marillion the singer, who confessed to having killed Lysa Arryn, (though he had not) when mad with love. It was thought that ‘the blue would call to him’ (i.e. he would have an insane longing to die) and he would jump [IV:173]. On one occasion, in the Iron Throne jurisdiction, a man who has killed his wife by beating is sentenced to be beaten a hundred times, by the dead woman’s brothers – which, presumably, resulted in his death [World: 1313].

Execution seems always to be done publicly. One custom which has no obvious medieval parallel is the Starks’ practice of the man who passes the sentence also carrying it out [I:12].. This, claims Eddard Stark, dates to the times of the First Men, whose blood he claims runs in the veins of the Starks. [I:14]. Stark justifies this by saying ‘If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die…. A ruler who hides behind executioners soon forgets what death is’ (ibid.). He insists that his seven year old son, Bran, watches him execute a deserter from the Night’s Watch, to familiarise himself with the practice and gain experience for the day when he has to ‘do justice’ in this way. Clearly, Eddard Stark finds it an unpleasant, unsettling experience, since after he has executed somebody, he goes to ‘seek the quiet of the godswood’ [I:19]. Robb Stark also executes in person, beheading Rickard Karstark with an axe [III:231]. This episode tells us that the formula for such Stark executions is to ask the prisoner before he is killed if he wishes to speak a final word. The Starks do not keep up ‘aspects of the of culture of the North’ such as hanging the bodies and entrails of executed criminals and traitors from the branches of weirwoods [World: 3836]. In the Iron Throne’s jurisdiction, bodies, or body parts, may be exhibited after an execution, to deter others from committing crimes [e.g. IV:232]. It is not clear that the Starks perform mutilations in person, though Stannis Baratheon did amputate Davos Seaworth’s fingers himself, at the insistence of Davos [I:913].

Joffrey beheads Eddard Stark for treason[I:718], though he claims that he could have had him torn or flayed [I:718]. Special dishonour is done to the bodies of traitors, so, for example, after execution, Stark’s head is held aloft by the hair for the crowd to see, by Janos Slynt II:39], and Joffrey has it exhibited, though Tyrion orders the removal of spiked traitors’ heads[II:56].

Tyrion is sentenced to death when his champion loses in the trial by battle to determine his guilt or innocence of poisoning Joffrey [III:791]. Men are burned as traitors by the regime of Stannis Baratheon – thus Alester Florent is burned as a traitor [IV:800]. This is likely to have been influenced by Stannis’s conversion to the religion of R’hilor, Lord of Light, which emphasises sacrifice by burning. Differential punishment for treason, by gender, is noted in IV: 151 – the male rebels of Duskendale, in the time of King Aerys, were beheaded, while the lord’s wife was mutilated and burned alive. Some traitors and rebels might be pardoned, once they come to the king’s allegiance [see, e.g. III:819, pardons temp. Tommen ‘Baratheon’].

In addition to corporal penalties, traitors (and rebels, if there is a distinction) are subject to property penalties, their lands and titles being forfeit to the crown [I:598]. Joffrey passes bills of attainder against various people who rebelled against him as their lawful king, stripping them of their lands and incomes [III:818]

Gelding appears to be the accepted punishment for rape. Daenerys assumes this [V:42],though after the fall of Meereen, she  ‘had decreed that …. rapists [were to lose] their manhood.’ [III:806]. Gelding as a punishment for rape is noted in Westeros, [I:114]. Stannis Baratheon gelded the soldiers in his army who raped wilding women after his victory in the North [III:858]. Removal of fingers was the punishment meted out by Stannis on Davos ‘to pay for all his yrs of smuggling’[II:11.]. A cheat is sentenced to lose a little finger, though is allowed to choose which hand should be mutilated [IV:233, Lord Randyll Tarly]. Losing a hand might be the consequence of poaching [I:2], and was formerly the penalty for ‘striking one of the blood royal’ [IV:517]. A sailor who had stabbed an archer through the hand for cheating at dice is sentenced to have a nail driven through his palm (even though it seems to have been accepted that the archer had, in fact, been cheeting [Lord Randyll Tarly, IV:233]. Those criticising or ridiculing people in power may be disabled from repeating their offence in future. This can be seen in the treatment of a tavern singer and harpist accused of making a song ridiculing Robert and Cersei: he is put to his election of keeping his tongue or his fingers [1:721], and tongue-ripping is suggested by Cersei for anyone who questions Joffrey’s legitimacy [II:208]. Alleged responsibility for spreading ‘the pox’ could be punished by rough and painful cleaning followed by (indefinite) incarceration, as when Lord Randyll Tarly, sentences a ‘whore’, to have ‘her private parts’ washed out with lye before she is thrown in a dungeon [IV:233]. Punishment mutilations do not seem to be done in public, or at least not immediately after sentence, though it is noted that Joffrey, as king, dispensing ‘what it please[s] him to call justice’ from the Iron Throne [I:720]  has a thief’s hand chopped off in court.

Financial penalties may be deemed appropriate for offences of economic dishonesty – so Lord Randyll Tarly sentences a baker, found guilty of mixing sawdust in his flour, to a fine of fifty stags. Corporal punishment in the form of whipping could be substituted if the baker could not pay, at the rate of one lash per stag unpaid [IV:232].

An element of religious symbolism can be seen in several punishments. A good example is the sentence by Lord Randyll Tarly, doing justice Maidenpool, on a man who has stolen from a sept. While the customary sentence for theft is apparently loss of a finger, this man is to lose seven fingers, since he has stolen from the (seven) gods. [IV:232]. Similar religious symbolism can be seen in the sentence passed by Rhaenys Targaryen on the man who beat his wife to death [World: 1313]. Other ‘meanings’ can be attached by varying punishment. For example, Robb Stark  condemns a man who complains that he was  ‘only a watcher’ of treason to be hanged last – so that he can watch the others die [III:227].

Enlisting in the Night Watch might be an alternative to corporal or capital punishment. Those who take the black to escape punishment include poachers [I:2], ‘rapers’ [I:114], ‘debtors, killers and thieves’ [I:498]. Even traitors may hope to be allowed to take the black [I:542; IV:656]. Deserting the Night’s Watch is itself an offence, and appears to be one of very strict liability. Eddard Stark condemns such a deserter as an oathbreaker, and executes him, even though he seems not to be wholly sane [I:14].

There is room for discretion in sentencing convicts. An interesting exchange occurs between two Lannisters and the Master of Whisperers over the appropriate penalty for goldcloaks who deserted during the battle of the Blackwater battle. Cersei Lannister wants them put to death (as oathbreakers). Varys suggests the Wall. Tywin, whose view prevails, orders their knees to be broken with hammers. His argument is that, if this is done, they ‘will not run again. Nor will any man who sees them begging in the streets’ [III:216]. His aim, therefore, is deterrence as well as retribution.

There is a suggestion that punishments are less severe in other jurisdictions. Thus Ollo Lophand, a man of the Night’s Watch, wants to return to Tyrosh ‘where he claimed men didn’t lose their hands for a bit of honest thievery, nor get sent off to freeze their life away for being found in bed with some knight’s wife’ [III:5].

‘The Faith’ in its criminal jurisdiction is not allowed to impose death sentences, and uses humiliatory punishments, as when Cersei has to perform a naked ‘walk of shame’ through her people for her fornication, her hair being cut and shaved, as was the custom with medieval prostitutes, [V:849].

Note that the wild Mountain Clans such as the Stone Crows and Moon Brothers, encountered and used by Tyrion, operate some sort of feud/blood price system in the event of homicide [I: 652]


I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones

Number references refer to pages in I – V, but to Kindle locations for World.

Gwen Seabourne