Tag Archives: petty treason

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

[This is a slightly updated version of an earlier post, from 2020, which had the same name]

This one is relevant to my continuing investigations in ‘petty treason’, as well as medical history, history of crime, religious houses and medieval Cornwall…

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The killing was described as false, felonious and treacherous. It was also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll.

The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged.

The common lawyers did not get a chance to sink their teeth into the thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling about categorising the relationships, or benefit of clergy, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic and his alleged religious accomplice in this case.

So what?

Medical history

This bundle of parchment entries gives us a bit of a glimpse into the hiring of medical men by religious houses. It seems interesting that the prior apparently entered into a long-term arrangement with John Leech, for his benefit alone (not that of the house) and the description of the terms is also quite instructive: it sounds as if there was a particular condition which was the focus of Leech’s work, rather than a general idea of keeping the prior in good nick, but that this condition was regarded as potentially amenable to a cure.

It also gives rise to questions as to whether the accusation might have been due to a general suspicion of what was in fact standard practice, or criticism of what may have been aggressive or experimental medical and surgical interventions.

‘Petty treason’

Much of the work I have done on PT has looked at the ‘wife kills husband’ subspecies, since I am interested in women. It is beginning to dawn on me, though, that there are some big and engaging questions to consider, in relation to ‘the other sorts’, i.e. ‘servant kills master’ and ‘person owing faith and obedience kills prelate’. This case touches on both of these subspecies. The description of John Leech’s contract with the prior can only be in there to suggest that he is a ‘servant’ of the type covered by the ‘master killed by servant’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’ – I can’t see that it has any other relevance. We are even given the detail that he has an initial one-year contract, then it rolls on from year to year. It may be that this was how the agreement was actually set up, but I would say that it is interesting that these one-year periods are very reminiscent of standard ‘labourers’ contracts – so their inclusion does seem to be angled towards associating a ‘medical professional’ of some sort with the ploughmen, masons etc. of the 14th century labourers legislation, giving a clearer idea of hierarchical relationship. I do find myself wondering just who was covered by the ‘master-servant’ subspecies of petty treason – and perhaps fifteenth century people were unsure about this too. The canon-prior relationship between Yerll and Honylond is rather more obviously covered by the ‘prelate’ subspecies of ‘petty treason’, unless we want to get into just what the differences might be between different forms of religious organisation. (I do have questions about that – though will leave them for another time. Suffice it to say that I would love to find a case involving nuns, but not holding my breath on that).


References: scans brought to you by the magnificent AALT …

KB 27/681 m. 6R; KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

KB 9/225 mm. 39, 39d, 40, 40d.



The benefit and the doubts: a killing in the cloisters in medieval Lincolnshire

It has been a while since I turned up anything new on petty treason, but today I came across a rather interesting case in a Lincolnshire gaol delivery roll from a session in September 1416. This time, it’s not about fatal goings-on between husbands and wives, but the ‘all boys together; world of the medieval priory.

The entry on the roll indicated that John Waldyng of Nocton Park, Lincs, (a house of Augustinian canons),formerly of Markby in Lincs, canon, had been arrested for having hired Richard Kyngton of Crouland, Lincs, yeoman and Peter Appulby of Nocton Park, canon, feloniously to kill and murder Robert Frisby, formerly prior of Nocton Park. In accordance with his plan, they came to Nocton Park one Sunday night, with a stave and a ‘handspathe’ and there feloniously killed and murdered Frisby.

John Waldyng had been indicted before one of the Lincolnshire coroners {Thomas Harleston, of  Kesteven). Further details, which presumably came from the coroner’s proceedings, include the story that Robert Frisby was walking in the cloisters of the priory, at twilight, having prayers said before him, and was attacked from behind, hit in the head with knobbly clubs, and a small iron-shod mattock, ‘breaking his brain’ (and killing him).

There was more – after the killing, John hid Frisby’s body in a corner of the chapter house, and that night took it to a ditch in the woods of the priory. He buried the body, but not before taking Frisby’s purse, with money and some other goods (including his keys). The next day at dawn, John broke into the prior’s room(s) (cameram & studium) within the dormitory of the priory, and took further items – gold, jewels and chattels to value 3s 4d. On a previous occasion, he had taken other goods of the priory, including ‘a book called iornall’ (an ecclesiastical book, rather than the secret diary of Robert Frisby, I am afraid)  and weapons and fighting gear – worth 13s 4d.

John made a successful claim to benefit of clergy. In his case, this was fairly uncontroversial – he was a canon. This success meant that he was not going to face execution for his offences. Nevertheless, the (lay) jury gave a verdict, finding him guilty.  John was committed to the ecclesiastical authorities for safe custody.

So what?

Well, when I saw Frisby being described as ‘prior’, I was hoping that I had found a straightforward example of ‘killing one’s religious superior’ as mentioned in the Statute of Treasons 1351/2, which would show how the designation of that offence as ‘sort of treason’ played against the fact that benefit of clergy would be likely to be claimed in all such cases. The likelihood is that benefit of clergy would have prevailed in such a case, but I have not yet found one.

This case is not quite so straightforward an example as I had thought, though, because Robert Frisby was not actually John’s prior at the time of the killing. He had, apparently, resigned in 1400, and there was another prior at this time. We might debate whether the faith and obedience owed to a prior ever went away, but I don’t suppose that this had been sorted out. There are certain aspects of the way in which the accusation seems to have been made which suggest some uncertainty as to the classification of this offence. It is stated to have been not just a felony but a treason – the key word proditorie comes in more than once. There was an insistence on calling Frisby the master of John, and John his servant,  as well as talking about Frisby being (former) prior. This would cover two of the three species of ‘petty treason’. Of course, John may really have been Frisby’s actual servant, though I would imagine that, since he is called ‘canon’, there would not have been any sort of contract of employment of the sort which would have existed between a ‘normal’ master and servant.

So – not the clear cut example I had hoped, but still an interesting insight into ideas about the ecclesiastical species of petty treason. There was some appetite for labelling such a homicide with treason-words, even though it was probably always clear that John would not be facing any sort of execution, let alone the ignominy and added pain of the petty traitor’s death. I am also rather taken with the almost martyrdom-story-like elements of the narrative of the killing of a man walking around in prayer, in the twilight stillness of the priory, struck down by cowardly brutality, from behind.



Image: not terribly evocative, but this is where it all happened … site of Nocton Park priory.

Approvers, abjuration, accessories and adultery allegations: a Lincolnshire petty treason saga


I had left off from the petty treason work for a bit, and was looking for mayhem stuff today, but somehow petty treason doesn’t seem keen to leave me alone – and this one caught my attention, in the Easter 1377 E KB plea roll: a Lincolnshire case involving an approver (i.e. somebody telling tales in an attempt to save his own skin) and an accusation of husband-killing, with a dash of adultery…

The roll notes that Peter de Walworth of Winterton became an approver before the king’s coroners,[i] and acknowledged that, on Thursday 30th January, 1370, he had feloniously killed Geoffrey de Stokes at Winterton, and appealed Robert de Nafferton, vicar of the church of Winterton, and Thomas, Robert’s servant, of being accessories, and also appealed Katherine, Geoffrey’s wife, of having consented to the killing, and abetted it.

Before another coroner, it was presented that Robert de Nafferton, and Peter, here said to have been his servant, had confined Geoffrey in the vicarage, in relation to a loan of money, and, on the aforesaid Thursday, murdered Geoffrey (it uses this word) with a hatchet to the head, and then buried the body in the vicarage pig-sty, to hide the murder.  This presentment also apparently accused Katherine of consent and help.

The matter now came before KB, but it was said that Katherine had already been acquitted before GD Fri 28th February 1371 (and furthermore that she was ill now).  A search was made, and the relevant GD entry found, which showed that a jury had indeed acquitted her.

This entry put the narrative of the offence in similar terms, though there are some nice touches, such as the phrase on intention/malice aforethought, an area of much debate in modern scholarship, which is ‘ex malicia longo tempore pr[a]ecogitata’, and a bit of scandal-mongering, or mud-slinging, accusing Katherine of adultery with Robert the vicar.

The coroner’s rolls were also examined, and these showed that Robert de Nafferton, alleged naughty vicar, had abjured the realm for this offence. Here and here are records of this abjuration – he was sent off to go to foreign parts via the port of (Kingston upon) Hull. Katherine had been charged and found not guilty. This can be confirmed by cross-referencing the gaol delivery roll entry here.  She was now acquitted (again).

So what?

Well, briefly, there is an interesting narrative, with resort to an adultery story to tie in the woman. It is also interesting procedurally and socially, in terms of the long exposure of Katherine to the risk of being found to have killed her husband: if nothing else, it should show the extent of the impact of the law of petty treason on individual women – the apparent inability of the system to put an end to potential liability meaning that a substantial number of years of Katherine’s life are likely to have been affected. Pretty terrifying.



[i] On Peter’s wider career as an approver, see this GD entry.

Suspicion in Sussex: dower v. ‘petty treason’

Here is another case to add to the bit of my petty treason project which considers potentially instrumental use of allegations of husband-killing, as a way of clearing the widow out of the way of those whose interests would be reduced, if she was alive and able to claim her dower (or analogous interest) in the land he held. It is an early one, from the Curia Regis Roll of Easter term 13 Henry III (1229).[i]

Joscea, widow of Walter Josep sued Robert and Adam, sons of Walter Josep for land in Steyning, Sussex, as her dower. [In a primogeniture-based land system, one wonders why both sons had land, but who knows – perhaps one had alienated to the other in some form. Robert seems to be the elder son. The other thing to wonder about is whether Robert and Adam were Joscea’s sons or stepsons – it would be simpler if they were stepsons, and the way some of this is put might seem to suggest that, but, again, who knows!]. Anyway, so far, so predictable – dower disputes were very common in the 13th C. Happy families, eh?

The unusual thing about this dower dispute was the argument made for why Joscea should not have her dower. Given the topic I have trailed, it is probably obvious – Robert and Adam said that Joscea and her two brothers had killed (occiderunt)  Walter. To back this up, they said that Robert had appealed Joscea of this death in the county, and this had led to her arrest. This was a big claim, obviously, and there was a need to check it out. The sheriff was ordered to produce the record of this alleged appeal before the king’s justices at Westminster.  He did not do so, however, and Robert did not go ahead with his appeal. Was he ever serious about it, or was it just a way of hassling Joscea and disrupting her dower claim? If it was a ‘tactical appeal’, Robert and Adam might have thought that they were being clever, but the tactic backfired, because of the ‘rules of the game’ of medieval legal pleading. They had founded their case on the ‘she killed our dad’ plea, but to do that, they had effectively conceded that Joscea was Walter’s wife (something they could have challenged – this was a more common approach) and that the land in question was the right land for her dower. Once the appeal pleading fell apart, then, they had to lose, because they had conceded the things Joscea had to show, in order to get her dower. Joscea, therefore, got the rights in land which she claimed. Adam was taken into custody and Robert was in mercy for not prosecuting his appeal.

The allegation of husband-killing might still have caused Joscea some problems – the plea roll entry orders that it should be inquired into before the justices in eyre. I am not quite sure how to interpret this: was it the alleged killing which was to be investigated, or was it the bringing of the appeal?[ii] Something to think about and investigate before my summer paper on all of this.

One thing I do note is that there does not, at this point, seem to have been any difficulty with an heir bringing an appeal against his father’s wife, for (participation in) the killing of his father. Another one to throw at the puzzling issue of the relationship between the wife’s right to bring an appeal in relation to the death of her husband and the right of the heir to bring such an appeal, which I have written about in relation to later cases, e.g. here.



Image: St Andrew’s Church, Steyning.

[i] CRR vol 13: 1227-30 no. 2091; CRR 101 E 13 H III (1229) m 12.


Medieval petty treason: complexities of common lawyers’ own creation?

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.


Image: running out of ideas for petty treason images, so going with a general ‘Confusion, seeing trees as opposed to wood’ vibe. Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Death and betrayal amongst the medieval ‘Chipping Norton set’: (yet) more on petty treason

Not too long ago, I noted a case from 1418/19 in which a woman called Marjory appealed two men of offences relating to the death of her husband, John Chaloner, only to be appealed herself for this same death, and being convicted, and, apparently, burned, for ‘petty treason’ (see this blog post). Well, now another of these double appeals has turned up: cue a bit of comparing and contrasting!

A pair of entries on an Oxfordshire gaol delivery roll for 1407 tell us that Emma, widow of John Handes, had come and appealed Roger Sutton of the death of John her husband, giving the required pledges for prosecution. Her appeal alleged that, on Wednesday  6th July 1407, at Chipping Norton, Roger had killed John with a dagger (price 1d), feloniously. Rather than pleading guilty and going to jury trial, as I was expecting, Roger decided not to put up a fight – he said he could not deny this, and so all that was left for a jury to do was to appraise his assets. There was not much to appraise: there were, apparently, some clothes, worth 20d, but no land or other goods or chattels beyond the clothes. The man himself was to be hanged.

The second appeal was by William Handes, brother and heir of the deceased John. He appealed Emma of the death of John, and his pledges to prosecute were noted. His appeal explained that Roger had done the actual killing, but Emma advised and ‘consented’ to it. She was also alleged to have paid Roger for his felonious work (2s). Unlike Roger, Emma was ready to fight. The jury found her guilty though, and sentenced her to burn. Emma had no assets, it was recorded. She did not burn, however: first she had the sentence deferred, by claiming pregnancy, and having this confirmed by a ‘jury of matrons’. Generally, deferral means deferral, but, in this case, this period seems to have given Emma a chance to seek a more permanent way to avoid execution: according to the patent roll, she was pardoned.[i]

Spot the differences?

Clearly, the later Chaloner case and this one share a basic pattern: W appeals X for the death of H; H’s brother and heir appeals W. X and W are both sentenced to death; W claims pregnancy. There are obvious differences, in that the pregnancy claim is accepted in Emma Handes’s case, but not in Margery Chaloner’s, and in that Emma manages to secure a pardon (whereas, as far as my investigations have been able to establish) there was no such pardon for Margery.

Another difference is that there is not the intriguing overlap in personnel in the Handes case which we see in the Chaloner case: in the latter, both of the widow’s pledges to prosecute were apparently relatives of the deceased husband, including the brother who would appeal her; in the Handes case, that is not obviously the case. Following on from this, while I do wonder whether there might have been some pressure or deception in the Chaloner case, helping Margery to bring an appeal against others, and then appealing her too, to ensure that everyone involved was convicted, or, indeed, to get rid of somebody who would have had claims on the deceased’s property) it is harder to see that in Emma’s case. It is still hard, however, not to be suspicious that the motives of her brother in law in appealing her might not have been entirely about getting justice for his brother.

It is worth a brief word about the pregnancy deferral-pardon element of the Handes case as well. Here we see the jury of matrons in action. The fact that they found her to be pregnant suggests that she was in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy, but the months allowed to her presumably gave her a chance to make her request for a pardon. Just what lay behind that is unclear – was the allegation of her involvement found to be trumped-up nonsense, or was there some other reason for the exercise of mercy? The short note of the pardon does not tell us, unfortunately.

A final intriguing element is that, as well as her pardon for the conviction on the appeal brought by her brother in law, Emma Handes also received a pardon for another appeal, in this case brought by a certain Roger Taillour of Chipping Norton. Could this be the same man as Roger Sutton? And where is this approver appeal? I haven’t turned it up yet, though it seems unlikely that it is made up. If it does exist, it brings in yet another dimension to the case – some sort of odd vicious triangle, which certainly needs some more thinking about. There may be another instalment, if I find more …




[i] CPR 1405-8, pp. 371, 470, 10 Oct 1408.

Image – slightly gratuitous church. It’s St Mary’s Chipping Norton. Well somebody probably went there at some point, in between all of the killing and accusing, didn’t they?

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

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

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

So what?

  1. The medical and personal information

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

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

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

  1. The sentence

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

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




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

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

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

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Justice for Maud! A message from the rapid rebuttal unit for possibly maligned medieval women …

This morning, a blog about medieval divorce was drawn to my attention by Twitter. Much of it was interesting – including an account of the matrimonial misadventures of the last Warenne earl of Surrey which I have long used as an example for my Legal History students, when we look at matrimonial law. There was one point that raised the hackles a little, though: the unqualified statement that Maud Neville, wife of William de Cantilupe, had killed her husband in 1375. This is a bit questionable – but note my maturity in not blasting off a comment on Twitter, but instead noting the difficulty here, where, given the obscurity of the location, it is unlikely to cause a heated debate.

The death of Cantilupe has aroused the interest of a number of historians, and Maud was indeed accused of involvement. She was, however, acquitted (KB 27/459 Rex m. 39). While an acquittal clearly does not ‘prove innocence’, and while one can certainly interpret the documents in a way which makes of them a good story, including a bit of illicit sex and a dash of duplicity, and suggests a plausible scenario involving Maud’s guilt, however, it is questionable simply to ignore the fact that she was acquitted and to treat her guilt as obvious. Does it matter, all this time later? Well yes, I think it does.  It is worth asking why the narrative of the adulterous and schemingly murderous wife, which is  suggested by the reconstructions of modern historians, is so much more … seductive … than the evidence of a contemporary acquittal that the latter is given absolutely no weight.

Right. That needed to be said. Now I can get on with what I am supposed to be doing today.



Photo by Thomas Ashlock on Unsplash

A ‘Petty Treason’ Oddity

This really is a snippet, but, I think, worth mentioning as a little footnote to various recent posts on wives being treated as ‘petty traitors’ for killing their husbands.

A gaol delivery entry for a session at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 (JUST 3/210 m. 31) noted that William atte Halle of Bromham in Bedfordshire, labourer, had been indicted for the felonious killing of his wife, Alice. On 7th May the same year, at Bromham, he had allegedly posioned her food with ‘some deadly poison called arsenic and resalgar’. She had died on the 18th May. William’s not guilty plea was unsuccessful. He was found guilty and was ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

The marginal note here, ‘distr’ & sus’ is not the usual expression of punishment for an ‘ordinary’ felony – we would expect just the ‘sus’ – referring to the hanging. ‘Drawing and hanging’ is usually only seen in cases of ‘petty treason’ convictions of men (so, servant kills master cases and counterfeiting). A husband killing his wife was not petty treason, since this was a category which related to offences against hierarchy, so there was no conjugal symmetry here. So was this a mistake? Was this particular case seen as particularly heinous for some reason? Could it have been the poison? A mystery – perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

I am also interested in the ‘cause of death’ aspect. Those who have ever done me wrong will be pleased to know that I have no expertise in the art of arsenic poisoning, so I do not know whether a death 11 days after ingesting arsenic would be likely to have been caused by the arsenic. Either way, it is interesting that a medieval jury would think so, and it’s one for my ‘post attack lingering deaths’ spreadsheet.



(Photo by Raphiell Alfaridzy on Unsplash – OK it’s a bit random, but generally suggesting meal preparation …)