If there is anyone not heartily sick of my over-posting on petty treason, here is where you can see the latest thoughts … a working paper on SSRN.
And who can resist another moody fire pic from Unsplash …
The species of ‘petty treason’ concerning women who were accused of killing their husbands is something which has interested me for some time, and I have included a number of notes on particular cases on this blog. At the moment, I am trying to think slightly more broadly, as I prepare a paper for a conference in 2022. The theme for the British Legal History Conference 2022 in Belfast is ‘Constitutional Change’, and it struck me as not too much of a stretch to do something on ‘petty treason’ there, because of the specific link which was made by the Statute of Treasons 1352 between acts against the King and his realm on the one side (which we might, slightly anachronistically, call ‘high treason’) and acts against smaller-scale ‘constitutions’, in the home, the workplace, the religious house (which come to be called ‘petty treason’, from the fifteenth century onwards). At the moment, I am working on two particular sub-issues in this area, which, though they may seem to be rather separate, do have a certain connection (to my mind at least) in that they involve complexities which are the product of choices made by common lawyers in their construction and positioning of women within the rules and procedures of the common law.
The first of these areas is that of understanding of ‘petty treason’ itself: was it ‘really’ a sort of treason, or a sort of homicide? That is not simply a problem of abstract classification, but something with potential practical effects, in terms of procedure and pleading. Looking at other systems, which did not take the slightly metaphorical route of extending treason (wholly or partially) to the ‘petty treason’ offences,[i] I do find myself questioning whether doing this may have been an unnecessary complication. What, really, was thought to be gained by partly assimilating the ‘non-regal/regnal’ offences to high treason? It was not necessary to do this, in order to punish offenders in a particularly distinctive way – since this was already happening well before the legislation. At least one of the categories (the religious one) does not seem to have been a real concern (I am yet to find any examples of charges based on it), and there do not seem to have been floods of master-servant cases (impressionistic – I need to do more digging here, but there do not seem to have been too many). Moving offences between treason and homicide might have some justification in terms of removing the possibility of benefit of clergy, but that would not explain the inclusion of wives who killed their husbands – since they could not claim clergy anyway. So, unless it is to be dismissed as ‘all talk’ and posturing, lashing out of ‘the authorities’ after the Black Death etc., etc., this is a bit of a puzzle. I think I need to see where else the extension of treason followed a similar pattern.
The second area of possibly unnecessary complexity involves the interaction between husband- killing and a series of rules and attitudes about women which had been laid down, or were being laid down, in the common law by the later medieval period. These were: misogynist views about women’s nature and capabilities; ‘property law’; rules about principal and accessory; and rules about the bringing of appeals. None of this arose by accident, and nor was it inevitable, and yet common lawyers felt themselves unable to choose not to allow it to cause complications and distortions in particular sorts of case. This is particularly evident in cases involving more than one person, including a wife, being accused of involvement in the killing of a married man. It is hard enough to decode those cases in which a wife is accused of participation with another or others, in one legal action: we cannot get much purchase on questions as to whether her participation is being exaggerated or underplayed, whether to assume or believe allegations about her sexual entanglement with other participants. Even more difficult, however, are the cases in which the wife accuses one person, and then somebody else with a decided interest in getting her out of the way, but also a likely personal interest in the deceased – his brother or heir – accuses her of having been involved. There are a couple of these mentioned in posts here, and I remain uncertain as to exactly what was going on in some such cases, as I have mentioned. I do have theories, some of which I ran past a seminar in October (you can hear something of them here if you are interested), but there is certainly room for more thought. Perhaps the most intractable sort of case was that which also brought in complications involving an heir who was the child of both the deceased husband, and also the allegedly homicidal mother – how should property questions and forfeitures be handled in such a case. There are signs that the common law was not thought up to handling these at all, in a later fifteenth century case relating to the Chaworth family,[ii] in which there was a resort to petitioning. The case is considered in Payling, S.J.,’Murder, Motive and Punishment in Fifteenth-Century England: Two Gentry Case-Studies’, EHR CXIII (1998) 1-17 (and I am trying to integrate into my account now, and to see how it relates to the several slightly inconsistent things which common law sources say on the subject of rights to bring an appeal for the death of a murdered married man).
All in all, it is hard not to see some of the complications in this area as deriving from the unresolved tension between different constructions of women: capable and incapable; persons and not-persons; objects of particular pity and protection and objects of particular fear. I would not say that this tension was unique to the common law, but perhaps – to change my physical metaphor – greater balance than some systems between the binaries I have just set up made things particularly difficult. And perhaps the common lawyers’ metaphors themselves – coverture and petty ‘treason’ and the rest – also made their own contribution to the whole complex business of legal response to intra-familial violence. Onwards I go …
[i] I have been spending some time looking at Scots law in particular – very interesting and different law of treason from that found in the common law, followed by very abusive imposition of the English rules after Jacobite scares. I think the contrast with Scotland would work well in my paper, though I am a little hesitant about blundering in as an outsider and non-expert…
[ii] KB 27/816 m. 70 (1465); KB 27/817 m.105; KB9/308 m. 82.
My own childhood was in the dwindling twilight of the age of corporal punishment: officially banned in England and Wales, it was nevertheless alive in the memory of schools. There was a thin, whippy, cane in the office of one headteacher – a slightly threatening relic – and there was one teacher in secondary school who, entirely illegally, but without anyone ever daring to report him, used an ancient dap (gymshoe!) on the backsides of offenders (boys only, in front of the class, and not in the trousers-down private school fashion: some sort of attenuated performance of former rituals, I suppose). My father, though, certainly had tales of school canings, and, for his generation and many before it, that was a normal part of educational technique. I was smacked as a child, for some of the worst of my many misdemeanours, and cartoon heroes like Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx certainly took their share of parental slipperings. All of this now seems very foreign indeed, but those just-about-retrievable memories help a little in thinking about historical cases like one I came across yesterday.
The case is a trespass case from the King’s Bench roll of Easter 1325. It is not in the educational context, though it seems to involve a young person of what we would consider school age – technically, I suppose, it is an ‘employment beating’ case rather than a ‘scholastic beating’ case. It is not earth-shatteringly different or new, but there are some interesting little snippets of information as to attitudes and assessment of behaviour in the area of reasonable chastisement and correction of children. It felt worthy of a quick note.
The marginal note tells us that the case is from Hertfordshire. It involved a complaint by Thomas, son of Edmund de Mareford, against William de Salesbury, parson of the church of Wheathampstead, and another man, William Rayemund. Thomas alleged that the two Williams, along with one other man, had assaulted him. They had, he said, in the usual, stereotyped formula, done this with force and arms and against the king’s peace: they had beaten and wounded him, and mistreated him, and done him other enormities, to his great damage (he claimed this amounted to £60). The apparent date assigned to the assault was 31st January, 1323, though there might be a slip here. In any case, the Williams did not make a thing of that. Instead, they denied that they had done anything wrong or against the king’s peace. Their version of events was that, on the day in question, Thomas was a garcio (groom or servant) of William de Salesbury, and was ‘within age’. (Quite what age this means is a bit vague, isn’t it, as there was not one ‘age of majority’ at this point). The Williams said that Thomas had been naughty, in some childish way, and had been guilty of some childish prank (quandam transgressionem puerilem). (Again, it would be good to know more – I am still stuck in Beano mode and am thinking about buckets of water on doors or sneezing powder…). Because of this naughtiness, William de Salesbury had beaten him as a punishment (causa castigacionis) with a pair of small rods or sticks (virgula). It had not been a trespass, and was not against the king’s peace.
Thomas, however, stuck to his story. Both sides agreed to put the matter to a jury, which was duly summoned, deliberated, and came down on Thomas’s side. Thomas was to recover damages – not quite what he had claimed, but still a fair bit: £20. (How nice to have an actual outcome!)
There is a bit more about moves to get the money paid, and fines to the King, but my main interests here are (1) what is said about the beating and (2) the pretty large award which is made by the jury.
The excuse which the Williams tried to use obviously didn’t work, but, equally obviously, they thought it was ‘a runner’ – something which sounded plausible and which might get them off the hook. What does their attempted argument tell us? Well … it tells us that a beating might be regarded as reasonable chastisement and not contrary to the king’s peace, when and if:
I am collecting figures for various sorts of physical injury damages, but haven’t got enough material to say anything much as to comparison (and sadly, of course, the record of Thomas’s allegation doesn’t specify quite what injuries were done to him). Using the currency calculator from the National Archives website, however, tells me that Thomas could probably have bought 44-54 cows or 23-28 horses for this amount, so not bad at all, presuming he was not injured in some permanent way.
I am not sure that the case is going to be hugely useful to my current project on mayhem – I found it when looking for mayhem cases, but it is insufficiently detailed in terms of the injury suffered, to be helpful in understanding the borderline between trespass and mayhem/wounding. It is, though, interesting to see small hints about what were perceived to be the boundaries of legitimate corporal punishment of children. They are only hints – as there is frustrating vagueness about a few key points – but still, it may contribute to wider understanding, when put together with and compared with other material about parental beatings, teacher beatings and adult employment-beatings.
I do find myself cheering on young Thomas here and hoping that things improved for him after this case.
Image: St Helen’s Church in Wheathampstead, Herts. I have never been to Wheathampstead but I am sure it is a little piece of home counties paradise (How poorly-travelled I am – like the great and problematic Charlene, I have I never (knowingly) ‘Been to Me’, but nor have I been to Paradise … nor Wheathampstead …)
Lots of interest in the merits, and historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the big new film The Last Duel. I hope to go and see it, though feeling a little unsure as to whether I want to sit in a cinema with a load of strangers during current circs. I have the book though, so planning to read it this weekend.
I am not going to presume to comment on the film’s medieval French context, since I am definitely not an expert on that, but, since I suspect that there will be some general wondering about the idea of trial by battle, a little bandwagon-jumping and a couple of quick musings on this from a common law point of view might not go amiss.
For many years, in my Legal History classes, I have included something on proof, including trials by ordeal and by battle. It tends to capture the attention of students just a touch more than the development of the strict settlement and the Bill of Middlesex, for some reason. It is one of the useful areas to push students’ imagination a little, and to try and get them to see beyond the Whiggish distinction between ordeals and battles (stupid) and juries (great and totally unproblematic). With ordeals, there is the fantastic article by Kerr et al.[i] to give them to read, and a case to be made for there having been something of value in the so-called ‘irrational’ mode of proof, when compared to contemporary alternatives. Battle is rather a harder sell, and I confess that I tend to send students off to read the articles by M.J. Russell,[ii] and then in class go for cheap shock value and do Ashford v Thornton in a slightly Horrible Histories way … There is obviously more to say than general agog-ness at the late extirpation of the possibility of TBB though. The gender aspect is, of course, important – women were not supposed to engage in TBB, and do not seem to have done so (though there is one slightly bizarre 15th C story about a duel being ordered between a female accuser and a Franciscan friar, who was supposed to fight with one hand tied behind his back![iii] I have spent vain hours trying to track that one down …) Then there are the accounts, in chronicles and legal sources of battles themselves, and the procedure which they followed, or should follow. Some of these are extremely impractical and ritualistic – with weird weapons, a lot of formulaic language and rules. I was reminded, the other day, when looking for something completely different, that another thing which is really fascinating is the fact that those fighting a TBB took an oath against sorcery.
I stumbled on this version in The Boke of Justices of Peas (printed 1506),[iv] in its little ‘how to’ guide to holding a trial by battle, and was enchanted (!). It’s prescribed for an approver (man who had ‘turned king’s evidence’ and was trying to save his skin by accusing another man of felony and then beating him in a TBB):
‘This here you iustice that I have this day neither ete ne dronke nor haue upon me Stone ne Grasse ne other enchauntement sorcery ne witchecrafte where thoroughe the power of the word of God might be enlessed or demenysshed & the deuylles power encresed and that myn appele is true so help me god and his sayntes and by this boke &c.’
[Justice, hear this: I have not eaten nor drunk today, nor do I have upon me stone, grass or other enchantment, sorcery or witchcraft which might serve to diminish the power of the word of God, and increase the devil’s power, and that my appeal is true, so help me God and his saints and by this book etc.’]
Seems a bit harsh not to let the poor devil eat or drink, but fits with the general religious ritualism of this sort of thing. What about the magic though … what ideas does that reveal about ideas as to how TBB worked, and how it could be derailed. It does seem to suggest that God could be foxed by a magic stone or grass (magic grass – new to me – I assume it is the green lawn stuff, and not some special other early modern meaning – sure somebody will tell me if I am wrong …), which is a rather interesting theological position, when you think about it. Belief in magic is one thing, thinking it could actually transcend the human world and put God off his stride, when intervening to say where the truth and right lay in a trial by battle is several steps further on, I would say. It just seems a really fascinating meeting of two sorts of supernatural belief. And it is made all the more striking as the formula for the duel goes on to bar human intervention to help one side or the other – by advice to take advantage of the opponent, or physical help. It is as if the magic thing and the weighing in of spectators are on a par, equally likely![v] Possibly the supernatural issue can be rendered a little less blasphemous by thinking that the idea behind it must be that the magic grass etc. could skew the result by acting on the bodies of the combatants, rather than on God. Seems a bit weaselish, but maybe that works. Feeling once again as if I have a lot to learn! It’s certainly something to think about as we enjoy the big film (or book …) and as we approach Halloween.
[i] Kerr, MH, Forsyth, RD, and Plyley, MJ, ‘Cold Water and Hot Iron: Trial by Ordeal in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22.4 (1992): 573-95.
[ii] Russell, M. J., ‘I Trial by Battle and the Writ of Right’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 111-34 ; ‘II Trial by Battle and the Appeals of Felony’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 135-64; ‘Trial By Battle Procedure in Writs of Right and Criminal Appeals’, Tijdschrift Voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 51.1 (1983): 123-34.
[iii] Bellamy, John G, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), 145; Eulogium Historiarum, III, 389.
[iv] Glazebrook, P. R. The Boke of Justices of Peas, 1506 : With an Introduction by the General Editor (London, 1972). It’s a book which sounds slightly unpleasant if you are a Scot (add the peas and it is all a bit graphically vomity). It is a collection of various ‘templates’ for legal proceedings which might have seemed useful to somebody acting as a JP, or one of his officials. The material is not particularly new – it’s 15th C stuff, perhaps quite a bit from the reign of Henry VII, but earlier than that too.
[v] The no sorcery rule appears in older sources too– see Russell (1983) above, p. 132.
Like just about everyone who writes about the early history of the common law, I am a heavy user of the digitised manuscripts on the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website. They were especially valuable during the worst of the pandemic, of course, but many of us had been using them regularly long before that. Even for people living in the UK, it is often not feasible to get to the National Archives (ludicrously expensive and time consuming getting to central London by rail, and then out to Kew) and that is as nothing compared to the fun and games which researchers from other parts of the world must encounter. That being so, easy online access has been an enormous bonus. I realised just how much I had come to rely upon it, when AALT was unavailable for a few days last academic year, and I felt decidedly panicky. This morning, I have been doing a bit of leisurely searching in AALT plea rolls (I know it’s Saturday, but I definitely need a distraction from the ominous sounds of offspring packing for imminent departures to university… ) and, in best Carrie Bradshaw fashion (if the ever-profound lead of Sex and the City had been a legal historian), ‘got to thinking’ about the changing experiences of legal historical research which I have had, since I started out in the 1990s.
My first real encounter with medieval manuscripts came as a PhD student – up to that point, it had mostly been transcribed and translated things in the Selden Society volumes and similar publications, with a few early modern bits and pieces to do with the Bank of England when I had a job as research assistant at the Law Commission, including working on the repeal of parts of the early legislation regulating the Bank. I designed a project for the Ph.D., making the somewhat arrogant assumption that I would be able to just bowl up to the Public Record Office (as it then was) and read eyre rolls, to locate presentments and prosecutions of usurers and offenders against price regulations. Obviously, it soon became apparent that it would take quite a while to get to grips with the great and contrary membranes, the script and the abbreviations (not to mention the springiness of some of the tightest rolled ones, and the fear of handling some of the crumblier-edged ones). It is odd to think that just about everything I traipsed down to Chancery Lane to examine is now available with a few clicks on the AALT site. Just as well for the state of the records that present day versions of Ph.D.- me can have their clumsy hands kept off precious pieces of legal heritage to a great extent.
The experience of looking at the rolls online is, of course, not quite like ‘the real thing’. There is something special in making physical contact with the work of long-ago clerks. But there are also positives in using the scans. It is possible to expand the picture, to help make out more obscure words (or make a better guess, at least…). It is easier to go back and check something than is the case when using physical records. And then there is a certain charm in the online site itself. I am sure that others could add to the list, but there are two things that strike me about it, quite regularly. The first, and more trifling, is a by-product of frequent use of the site – the odd misfire in searching for the site means that I have become unusually well acquainted with: (i) Aalto University in Finland and (ii) a Dutch serial killer nicknamed ‘Aalt’. The second is to do with hands.
‘Hands’ can mean different things to people in the nerdy manuscript-fancying community, of course: perhaps first of all we’d think of writing styles and individual quirks. A lot of puzzle-solving entertainment to be had there, for those who like that sort of thing. Then we might think of manicules – the little pointing hands we see in the margin of manuscripts, indicating cases or things that the clerk thought might need to be found again, or which should be noted. What I am mostly thinking about, though is actual, present day hands: the springy nature of the rolls sometimes makes it necessary to hold them down whilst they are photographed, with the result that the AALT shots contain numerous images of the hands of those creating the digital archive – shots like this one. That is going to be a sort of manual immortality one day, isn’t it? (Especially if the MSS themselves become more frail and less accessible). It certainly gives an inkling of the general effort involved in making these images available to anyone who wants to see them, and I find it a really interesting additional piece in the story of the handing on (!) of the information contained in the rolls, from one generation to the next.
The case concerns an indictment of rape, made against John Wheler of Bridgwater, in Somerset, chaplain. He was accused of having, on 20th March 1482, broken into the house of a certain Alice Lye[i] , at Huntspill, attacked her, raping her and ‘having carnal knowledge’ of her, against the king’s peace.[ii] The matter had been presented in a sheriff’s court – the ‘tourn’ of Richard Morton esq. – on 4th April, 1482, at Highbridge, Somerset.
It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has looked at this sort of material to find that the whole thing fell apart, and the accused chaplain walked free. In this particular case, the route to that expected conclusion was not via the blank ‘not guilty’ of a jury, but via the ‘you don’t have jurisdiction’ route: sheriffs were not supposed to hear such serious ‘criminal’ cases.
I suppose we might conclude, or muse about, a couple of things from this:
[i] There is no more information about her.
[ii] Note, no mention of her will.
Expectation management: this is not very profound, just something I saw today which struck a chord, resonated, etc. [insert other music-related references …]
It’s a line in a plea roll entry from the reign of Edward IV, from Easter term 1482.[i] The case is not a pleasant one (well, it is in a ‘criminal’ roll …). You know it’s going to be serious when the word ‘coroner’ appears early on – and this starts with an account of an inquest, on 10th January 1482, before Suffolk coroners, at Halesworth, on the body of John Hensted, who had been killed there.
John Hevnyngham, knight, and William Jenny, sjt at law, had been at Halesworth on 29th December, 1480, on a royal commission, dealing with a case about land rights, between John Laveraunce and William Goderyche, and were in a room of an inn called the Hart, in Halesworth.[ii] The inquest jury (and an indictment founded upon their narrative) said that a certain William Wingfeld, recently of Spexhall, Suffolk, got together a group of malefactors [6 men named, no amusing names, so I shall omit them – all grooms, tailors and similar] and attacked John Fayrechild, servant and clerk of William Jenney, as he was coming towards the room. They would have killed John F, had he not defended himself with a small ‘daggarr’ (note contrast with their swords and other not-small weapons …). Despite his heroic defence against the odds, the group overpowered John F and ‘decked’ him. Again, he was in peril of death, and would have been a goner, but was rescued in the nick of time by loyal types, ripped from the hands of the ne’er-do-wells and taken into the room. Wingfeld and his gang then started on John Hensted (who was in God’s and the king’s peace – it doesn’t actually say whether he was involved in the John F episode, but I imagine that is the idea …) and wounded him multipliciter et crudeliter, so much so that they killed and murdered him [never use one word where two will do …].
Afterwards [and this is the bit that grabbed me] one of William Wingfeld’s men, the groom Nicholas Petyt. celebrating John H’s death, said, in his native tongue, ‘I shall blowe a mote[iii] for his deth’ and straight away blew a high (or loud?) blast on a certain horn [which he happened to have about his person – though I suppose that is plausible …and rather appropriate with the whole hart/white hart theme …]. William Wingfield said, also in English ‘a man of Jenneys is slayn. I wold it had lighted upon his master’, and afterwards, William W and gang fled. William W received the others, knowing what they had done.
Later, in the King’s Bench, William W and four of his men turned up, waving a royal pardon which said the charge had been malicious. Who knows whether that was true or not, or what happened to Nicholas Petyt, who was not included in the pardon.[iv] An interesting bit of creative dialogue creation (‘verbals’ is the word that comes to my mind – have just been watching a rather good documentary series about ‘bent coppers’ in London in the 1960s-80s, who favoured this sort of elaborate lie when ‘framing’ individuals ..) anyway. Whether or not these words were spoken, why would they be included in the narrative? Is Petyt’s supposed remark, and celebration, about indicating definite guilt, inconsistent with the sort of hot-blooded, hot-headed killings which might be passed over as undeserving of capital punishment?[v] Might the words attributed to Wingfeld have been an attempt to suggest that he had wished to strike at a royal official, and get him into more trouble?
No answers to those at present, but here’s one I might do better with: why did this entry appeal to me? Well, I think there is something engaging, for the modern reader, in the ‘code-switching’ between Latin record and English reported speech in these records: it almost feels a bit comic, despite the situation, and it gives a sense of performance, of throwing the hands up and saying ‘do you know what, this is not going to work in scholarly Latin, here’s what was actually said …’ I know that there is a lot of work on this in literary studies – macaronic works etc. – but I think that plea rolls are a bit neglected as a linguistic/literary production, and that it would be very interesting to get legal historians and lit. scholars together to look at what these sources can tell us about English, and the sound of medieval England (or plausible versions thereof) at some point. It has been done to some extent with defamation, but there is a lot more in there, if you have the patience to do a bit of ‘listening’.
[iv] The pardon is calendared: CPR 1476-85 p. 242
[v] Note that Petyt is accused, alone, of the offence, here (and next membrane) and here. And he is called a ‘vagabond’ rather than a groom … interesting ‘spin’ going on somewhere … This one is v. close to the story on the plea roll, but implicates the others, and doesn’t call him a vagabond! The matter of ‘vagabond’ as an ‘addition is debated in a (connected?) YB report here.
A ‘query petty treason’ case today – while I am most interested in the ‘husband killed by wife’ cases, it is worth remembering that the Statute of Treasons 1352 gives other examples of ‘sort of treason because against the natural hierarchical order of things’ cases. I do have some ‘servant kills master/mistress’ cases on my ‘table of doom’, but there is much less available in the other category – killings of abbots by their monks. Here, though, on two Cambridgeshire gaol delivery rolls,[i] is a case from 1403 which is, if not quite ‘monk on abbot’, tantalisingly adjacent to that. Having been very pleased with myself for finding it, I discovered that those hard-working early 20th C local historians had been there before me: there is a one-page account of the documents (complete with old style roll numbering) in The East Anglian vol. 13.[ii] Slightly miffed for a moment, but then, actually, I quite like making this sort of connection. Maybe one day somebody will do the same with this post … (delusions of being Emily Dickinson, or something, there …).
Anyway, on with the story. The deceased in this case was William Gilbert, priory of a rather small foundation in Cambridgeshire (I confess I had never heard of it) called Spinney. A bit of basic research reveals that this was a house of Augustinian canons, and, at the relevant time, had only a handful of residents.
The inquest before a coroner was held ‘ on 19th May, 1403. The story noted down from the twelve inquest jurors[iii] was that three canons of Spinney (also said to be confratres – ‘brothers’ of the deceased), John Lode alias John Catesson, Thomas Smyth, and William Hall, had killed him that same day (note speedy start to proceedings!). The killing, as described, was fairly drawn out. John Lode stabbed William Gilbert under the left arm, Thomas Smyth stabbed him in the back. William Gilbert then managed to get away into a different room, but the trio broke the door, and Thomas stabbed William Gilbert through his left arm, and his side, to his heart. It is carefully specified that each of the first two stab wounds would have sufficed to kill WG, had there not been another one.[iv] The geographical as well as physical locations are specified – the initial stabbing was said to have taken place in the priory church, and the final wound, in the priory’s hall, to which William Gilbert had fled in his failed escape bid.
The three were found guilty by a jury, at the gaol delivery session on 20th July 1403, but escaped execution because they were able to take advantage of benefit of clergy, and were ‘claimed’ by the ecclesiastical authorities.
Petty treason: teasing out the definitional implications
What does all this tell us about petty treason? The account does use the language of treachery or treason – the trio had risen up like traitors, but note that the bond highlighted is not that between the killers and their prior, but between the killers and the king (tanquam proditores domini regis manu forte proditorie). If they were really seen as traitors against the king, it seems surprising that they were allowed benefit of clergy. What am I missing? And does this case show that canon-prior just was not seen as analogous to monk-abbot in this context? The reference to ‘fellow brethren’, as Palmer translates it, suggests a less ‘vertical’ relationship, doesn’t it?
Canon to the right of him, canon to the left of him … thoughts on the social implications
Assuming this is anywhere near true, it does make life at the priory of Spinney sound rather grim – a conspiracy against its leader involving what was probably the bulk of the others in the house. Note, though that one person did rather nicely out of it all – the sub-prior, who escaped indictment, and stepped fairly seamlessly into the top job once the dust settled …
[ii] W.M. Palmer, ‘Murder of the Prior of Spinney’, p. 104.
[iii] (who, I note, included a certain ‘Willamm Schakespeare’ … there you have it – evidence that W. S. was actually a member of the Undead …).
[iv] I am by no means an expert, but that third wound, right through an arm and side, into the heart, sounds as if it would have had to be particularly forceful. I also note that William Hall is not reported to have struck a blow at all. But then accessory liability – or treating as principals all with any sort of participation in the killing – was certainly ‘a thing’ in these cases.
Image: where the priory would have been if it was still there, but it isn’t. All sorts of symbolic ..
I came across an interesting story whilst on one of my ‘bastardy’ trawls today – something in the Close Rolls for March 1459 which has things to say about bastardy but also about other things, including marriage and mental incapacity.[i] Read on if that sounds like your sort of thing …
By his own account (in English!), Edward Sely of Ditton,[ii] husbandman, had got himself into a bit of trouble. He had allowed himself to be drawn into some litigation, fomented by a London mercer, Rauf Marche. Rauf, using Edward’s name, had gone to law, to try and disinherit a relative of Edward’s, one Simon Sely, of London. Rauf had been putting forward the claim that the rightful heir to property once held by Laurence Sely of London, a claim to which passed, indirectly, to the late John Sely of Chiseldon (JS1), was Edward, rather than Simon, because, so he said, Edward’s father (JSA) rather than Simon’s father, John Sely of London (JS2), was the legitimate heir of JS1. This, however, was not trewe.
In Edward’s narrative, JS1 had had a rather eventful life. He had fled his original home after having killied a miller ‘by ‘infortunat case’, and lived as a labourer in Cranford, Middlesex. Perhaps concerned that the law would catch up with him, he had used different names during his time in Cranford, and was known as both ‘John Bartholomew’ and ‘John Sely’. He never felt safe enough to claim his rights in the family property either. He did have a family of his own, however, albeit not in the most straightforward way. He had two sons, both called John (thank you so much for that!) – with a woman called Dionise Cranford, sister of a squire. These sons (JSA and JSB) were ‘bastards’, since JS1 and Dionise were not married. They then did get married, and had a son, called (of course) John – this was JS2, eventually to be the father of Simon. So, under the rules about legitimacy and inheritance, JS2 and then Simon were the rightful heirs to JS1, rather than and JSA (and Edward) or JSB.
It is possible that JS2 never really knew about his claim to property formerly belonging to Laurence – the narrative tells of an occasion late in JS1’s life (when he was over 80) when he tried to get the help of JSA’s wife Christian (Edward’s mother) to encourage his ‘childerne’ to ‘laboure to have recovere’ of the ‘lyvelode’ (property) to which he was entitled in London and Bristol, and to get him in contact with JS2, who was his ‘rightful here’. Christian dutifully reported to JS2 what JS1 had said, and the father and son discussed it. JS1 laid upon JS2 the responsibility of suing to recover it, giving him all of the proof he had of his entitlement, and telling him where there was further evidence. He also told JS2 what he wanted to happen to the property, if he recovered it and then JS2 had no issue – he would prefer it to go to JSA and JSB than to ‘any other straunge persones’.
JS2 does seem to have made efforts to recover the property, but it is not clear what the outcome was. What seems to come out of Edward’s narrative, however, is that there were some tensions in the relationships between the three sons of JS1: JS2, JSA and JSB. JS2 needed money to get his lawsuit(s) going, and asked for the help of his ‘bastard’ brothers. JSA – despite his wife’s earlier co-operation with JS1 and JS2 – refused outright. He would neither give nor lend JS2 any money, despite the offer of a share in any winnings. JSB, however, was prepared to make a sacrifice to help out JS2 – he sold two of his plough-oxen and gave JS2 the money.
By 1457, JS2 seems to have died, leaving Simon as the potential heir. At some point before 1459, however, Rauf Marche had entered the picture, seeking out Edward and trying to find (or concoct) a claim on his behalf (searching in ‘frary books’ to sort out JS1’s children). He also had an accomplice/partner, one ‘John Squery late of London, gentleman’. As Edward told it, Rauf and Squery (we are not going with another ‘JS’…) badgered him on different occasions, using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach – he was entitled to property in and around London (nice) and since he didn’t sue to recover it, he was ‘accursed’ (a bit nasty). Rauf, somewhat in the manner of a dodgy PPI mis-selling recovery company – told Edward he couldn’t get the property without Rauf’s help. This, of course, would not come free – thus the deal which Edward suggests he was manoeuvred into: if the claim was successful, Rauf would keep the property until he got back his expenses. Edward claimed that he had not really understood it all – ‘for as moche as he is a lewde man and not lettered’.
All of this does make Edward sound a bit ‘lewde and not lettered’, or at least unwise, since he is, essentially, admitting to having taken part in a dishonest agreement to try and disinherit his relative and the rightful heir to the property in question. Would there be mercy for him? Would there be come-uppance for Rauf? Would Simon get his inheritance? Would anyone remember poor, virtuous and self-sacrificing JSB (now, apparently, dead)? As so often, it’s a big ‘I don’t know’ on all of that. The entry is, however, still interesting in numerous respects, several of which come out in the discussion above, and one which I have kept as a bonus, because it is very interesting, though I am not quite sure what to make of it, and also because it is not entirely necessary to the tale Edward told about property and dubious litigation.
We could see this as an indication of the lack of efficacy of the machinery of ‘criminal justice’ at this point – since JS1 clealy lived for decades without being brought to trial for the death of the miller. However, another view is possible – note the lengths he went to, to avoid being tried: distance, name change, keeping his identity and family connections secret from his own sons until he was close to death. All of that suggests a degree of fear that he might be found.
The reason I looked at this was the ‘bastardy’ and inheritance angle – and that is relatively straightforward. The entry confirms contemporary lay understanding that subsequent marriage did not legitimate pre-marital children as far as inheritance to land was concerned. There is interesting material on property, though, in the interactions of JS1 and his family, and Edward and Rauf with regard to the recovery of the property. I note the argument based on a duty to try and recover family property (and the ‘accursed’ position of the person who does not do this). That strikes me as an interesting point of view to consider. Was that just flannel – a way of dressing up self interest? Or was it a real feeling that this was something owed to one’s lineage?
This is the bit I held back, though it comes up quite early in the narrative. Edward’s story about his father’s early days living in Cranford has something more to say about the relationship between JS1 and Dionise, the squire’s sister. According to the story, after the (‘illegitimate’) birth of JSA and JSB, Dionise’s brother, and other people made JS1 marry her. They were, apparently unhappy at the irregular state of this union – ‘their imperfite lyvyng’. JS1 was not at all keen – he was ‘right loth’ to marry Dionise. Why? Because she had some sort of mental incapacity. In the now-jarring language of the times she was (so it is said here) ‘an idiotte’. There is a tiny bit of additional information about this judgment, though, to be honest, it is not exactly … informative (to me at least). Dionise ‘knewe no worldly reason in so moche that she wolde calle a noble a nubble’. That does seem rather a problem with pronunciation than anything else, but I may well be missing something. Is it perhaps a vague echo of some of the older medieval tests of capacity which involve basic financial acuity – since a ‘noble’ was a unit of currency – or is the problem with a lack of respect for the entitled? I am imagining various mildly racy meanings for ‘nubble’ but haven’t found anything to back them up … Or is that some sort of proverbial expression which would convey a lot more to contemporaries? I do hope somebody better-informed will clear that up for me one day.
Finally, Edward’s choice to include this material about Dionise (his grandmother) is interesting – why would he do that? Perhaps the most obvious implication is that he was trying to justify JS1’s tardiness in getting married to Dionise. It doesn’t really make him look too good, though, to suggest he thought Dionise was fine for sex but not for marriage, does it?
[i] CCR 1454-61, 355-7. There is one other easily accesible (from home – general pandemic issues and also currently under specific order to stay at home as a close contact of an infected person … with that infected person … viral sword of Damocles or what?) record which corroborates parts of this story: it’s from 1457.
[ii] Dinton, Bucks?
[iii] (I am using ‘property’ like a modern lawyer – note that that word is not used once in the entry itself – which is quite interesting in itself, but concepts of property in the medieval common law is probably a bit too big a topic for a quick blog post).
A question which has often occurred to me is how medieval criminal justice managed to confirm people’s identities, in a world without ‘identity documents’, and with a wide margin of error (or a lack of a definite concept of error) with regard to spellings. This is probably hugely anachronstic, and no doubt the answer has something to do with small communities and good memories, but I came across a case today (after a period of rather slim pickings in my searches) which suggested another angle to this question of identity.
In a King’s Bench roll of 1368, there is a short entry relating to a homicide case in Gloucestershire. It notes that the roll of one of the Gloucestershire coroners recorded that one John Penres had been indicted for the felonious homicide of Gerard Walyssh[i] at Ockington, arrested and sent to the gaol at Gloucester castle. John Tracy, sheriff of Gloucestershire, was now ordered to bring this man before the court, to answer the charge. No John Penres could be produced, however. The sheriff contended that somebody had been executed for this crime already – he was a Penres, but his first name was not the Anglo John but the Welsh Yeuan (Ieuan as it is in modern Welsh). There was an investigation, referring to a particular previous session, at which Ieuan was said to have been tried and executed, and it was confirmed that a Ieuan Penres had been executed for the homicide of Gerard Welssh [sic]. The sheriff was off the hook therefore.
This shows that the identity question was solved in part by documentary searches, and it is a little comfort to see that care was taken to check these things. It probably also has things to say about physical and linguistic borderlands. I have noted the fun and games clerks of the English bureaucracy had with some of the more ‘difficult’ Welsh names, especially Gwenllian, but did they really find Ieuan difficult? Or would somebody of Welsh background, living or working in Gloucester, have adopted an English name as a matter of routine, for his dealings with non-Welsh-speakers? There is definitely scope for further digging and thought on this issue. Nice little research project for somebody?
And this one jumped out at me just the other day – not a Welsh one, but another apparent ‘mistaken identity’ case, from a gaol delivery session at Newgate on Wednesday 17th March 1316, A certain Ralph le Leche was in jeopardy – he was said to have been appealed by an approver of involvement in a robbery and a homicide in Northamptonshire. His story, though, was that the original accused man was some other Ralph le Leche of London – let us call this alleged miscreant Ralph 1 – while he, Ralph 2, had been in London all the time, and at the relevant period, he had been ill. A jury of London citizens confirmed his story, so Ralph 2 was saved. Does make you wonder whether less ‘together’ defendants might have ended up being executed by mistake in this way, though.
3/7/2021, updated 7/7/2021
[i] This sounds like a ‘Welsh-on-Welsh’ crime, from the names, doesn’t it? Or at least ‘Welsh-extraction on Welsh-extraction’.
Image – your actual Offa’s Dyke – symbolic border etc. etc.