Tag Archives: petty treason

Conjugal juxtapositions: petty treason and prosecution strategy in medieval Leicestershire

After many years of comparative neglect, medieval married women (of a non-queenly, non-noble sort) have been considered with much greater care, in the historical studies of recent years.[i] It has, I think, become clear that not even classical legal historians – with their customary focus on doctrine and procedure, rather than people – ought to be muttering ‘coverture’, as if that magic word gave a straightforward answer to all possible questions relating to wives and common law, and then moving back to writs and institutions.

A glimpse of the complexity, and perhaps contradictions, involved in common law construction of the married woman can be seen in a remarkable pair of entries on a Leicester gaol delivery roll from the reign of Henry V.[ii] These entries, from a session in 1419, revolve around the death of a certain John Chaloner of Leicester, and those found to have been involved in that death. John’s wife, Margery, had brought an appeal (individual prosecution) against John Mathewe of Leicester, tailor, accusing him of killing her husband in his bed, on a Saturday night in November 1418, and accusing Richard Bargeyn as an accessory to this offence. These men were found guilty, and they were ordered to be hanged.

So far so not very surprising: bringing appeals for the deaths of husbands was an acceptable role for a wife. By this time, they no longer had to claim that they had held their dying husband in their arms, in order to justify their prosecution of his alleged killers: it was simply uncontroversial that a wife could bring such an appeal, despite the general restrictions on prosecutions by women. They had their uses.

Immediately after this un-astounding entry, there is, in fact, something of a surprise – at least to the reader. Margery, formerly appearing as the wronged and avenging widow, is cast in a different role entirely.  She herself was the subject of an appeal, by the self-declared brother and heir of John Chaloner, John Smyth of Moreton, and was accused of participation in the death of her husband. A jury found her guilty of this and she was ordered to be burned. Presumably rather desperate, Margery then asked for a respite of the execution, claiming to be pregnant. The usual procedure was performed, with the ‘jury of matrons’ assessing Margery’s body. They adjudged her not pregnant, however, so the burning was ordered to go ahead.

This second case would be grim, but not in any sense odd, were it not for the fact of its association with the first appeal, and the role-switching which all of this involved. A woman was seen as an adequate bringer of an appeal against others, despite herself being the subject of an appeal for the same offence. In some ways this looks a little like an analogue of the approver appeal, in which one member of a criminal gang turns on the others and accuses them. Unlike the successful (male) approver, however, Margery was not immune from the consequences of her alleged actions. The idea that a woman suspected to have participated in her husband’s killing, could bring an appeal against her fellow-felons is one which was put forward in a judicial aside by William Babington, one of the justices of gaol delivery in this session, just a couple of years later, in a case in the Exchequer Chamber. It seemed rather unlikely to me, until I saw this case (and I am afraid I said so, in my recent book).[iii] I still find it a bit odd, but, clearly, it happened. It shows the ‘double edged’ effect of marriage – it was her marriage which gave Margery standing to pursue her appeal, but it was also her marriage which laid her open to especially spectacular punishment, when she herself was  convicted.

I note that Margery had, as pledges for the prosecution, John Smyth and Robert Chaloner, and then John Smyth had Robert Chaloner and one other man as his pledges. This suggests that the double appeal strategy was no accident, and that there was a very strong idea that if there was a wife, she was the one who had to bring an appeal for her husband’s death.  There was, presumably a reason why John Smyth could not simply appeal against Margery, and then, once she had been burned, as heir, appeal against the other alleged perpetrators, if he so desired – I imagine that this was to do with principal/accessory issues (the entries are not very detailed on this). I am yet to work out why Margery might have been co-operating with the man who was about to prosecute her to her fiery destruction. Was force involved, or trickery, or did she think she might somehow escape conviction and execution? In any case, the moving force in the legal process seems to be John Smyth, the heir to John Chaloner, who comes out at the end of the grisly story rather better off and not under suspicion … officially.

[There is also the possibility that John Smyth was not real, but a device to bring an appeal when nobody else could/would. Was there any procedural advantage in using somebody from outside Leicestershire (I believe Moreton is in Warks)? And I wish I knew who Robert Chaloner was – I am sure he would be able to tell us! Needs more thought …._Hope I come up with an answer before giving a paper revolving around it in the summer!]



(Image: Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash. It’s not actually John Smyth watching, obviously).

[i] See references in GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, c. 2. Anyone new to the area would be well advised to start with Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World  ed. by Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) and Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. edited by
Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2013).

[ii] JUST 3/195 m. 72d. They are mentioned in Edward Powell, ‘Jury Trial at Gaol Delivery in the Late Middle Ages: The Midland Circuit, 1400-1429’ in Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800, edited by J. S. Cockburn and Thomas A. Green, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 78-116 at 106.

[iii] GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, 99.

Passion, poison, pardons … and pins: law and death in medieval London

When looking through medieval records, it is especially interesting to see the many occupations by which people (mostly men) were identified. Noting a man’s trade or position becomes essential in the fifteenth century, but is normal before that, and so we learn of various agricultural and industrial specialisms – some which seem very ‘niche’ to the modern reader. Such a specialised trade is that of ‘pinner’. The pin-making industry (pindustry?) is not something to which I have ever given much thought, though I have been doing some quick research on it today, in connection with an interesting case from the reign of Richard II, about a London pinner and his household.

This case can be seen in entries on a King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1386, telling of an inquiry which the London civic authorities were ordered to carry out, by a writ dated 20th August 1386, and which took place in the Guildhall on 27th September 1386.

From this material, we find that our pinner, Hugh Bromhill, was married to a woman called Margery, and was employer to the other main character in the story, John de Shrewsbury. Hugh, perhaps, seemed to outsiders to be well-placed both in his trade and his domestic life. That, though, was not the truth of things, at least not according to a jury of London men. Yes, it was an inquest jury. Yes, he ended up dead. And yes, those of a suspicious nature, given to salacious speculation, there was allegedly something going on between Margery and John.

The story, as told by the London jurors, went like this. The pair had killed Hugh in the parish of St Martin Pomary in Ironmonger Lane in the ward of Cheap. Why? Well – John, at that time Hugh’s employee, a cardmaker (there’s another niche trade for us)  and Margery had been involved in an illicit relationship. They had slept together often, both at Hugh and Margery’s house and also in other secret locations. Not secret enough, however: Hugh learned what was going on, and threw John out.

We do not know why, but Hugh took John on once more. This makes me warm to him rather – but it was a mistake. John and Margery now, according to the jurors,  plotted Hugh’s death. On Thursday 1st September 1384. They put arsenic powder and realgar (arsenic sulphide, according to the internet – well actually it said ‘arsenic sulfide’, but I just can’t …cool alternative name – ‘ruby of arsenic’) in Hugh’s food and drink. The unsuspecting Hugh ingested it and fell ill, declining over a period of days, and dying early in the morning of 3rd September, in his house.

John and Margery then ran off, and were received by William Coventry, pinner, in the parish of St Mary le Bow, Ward of Cheap, Robert Byssheye in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw,  Nicholas Luffenham, wiredrawer, in the parish of St Benet Fink in the ward of Broad Street. These receivers were said to have known just what Margery and John had done. An innkeeper John de Harwell had also accommodated John de Shrewsbury, at his inn in the parish of All Hallows, Bread Street ward, but the jurors were careful to say that he did not know about the felony his guest had committed.

This all looked as if it might be heading for a burning for Margery, and a drawing and hanging for John de Shrewsbury, as the wife and servant of Hugh respectively, and so petty traitors both. But no.

Margery came to court in January 1389, and produced a pardon for offences between 1st Oct 1382 and 31st May 1388. This is CPR 1385-9, 519. (We have to wonder what else she had been up to! One suggestion is that is was really concerned with the Brembre/Northampton kerfuffle. Could it be that Margery was ‘repurposing’ a pardon to cover things it was never intended to cover?). She was also waving another letter, dated 2nd December 1388, telling the justices not to molest her, which I have not yet managed to track down. This all worked to ward off the possibility of conviction and punishment. She used her status as a citizen of London to get out of jail. John was, apparently dead by the time proceedings came to an end, and the people who had received the pair walked free.

All a bit anticlimactic perhaps, but still, some things to think about.


Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

I think we have to conclude that Margery was somebody with a bit of clout in the pinning/wiredrawing community, since she got the support of a number of people, who sheltered her and John S, and helped out as sureties during the court cases. (Either that or all of the pinners just hated poor Hugh). Amongst a slightly less pin-focused group of Londoners, the evidence about Margery is equivocal. The inquest jurors were not backward in pinning (!) the blame on Margery and John S, leaving them open to the death penalty, with the extra relish of punishment for ‘petty treason’. On the other hand, however, Margery was acknowledged to be a citizen of London. If this  was a case in which she took over the status of citizen following the death of her husband, then it does seem interesting that a suspected husband-killer would not have been blocked from this, in some way.  In any case, she had enough money or (p)influence to obtain a pardon, during a period when the killing of husbands does seem to have been a particular concern to ‘the authorities’, which seems noteworthy. There is some easily-found evidence about the property interests of Hugh and Margery. Hugh had an interest in, and perhaps lived in, a tenement and shop in the parish of St Martin Pomary. Margery was his executor (which does suggest that he trusted her). I wonder if there is any more information on her, lurking about anywhere.

  1. Relationship drama

A woman committing adultery with her husband’s servant was fairly transgressive. The entry shows some interesting hints of the thinking of medieval (male) jurors about gender and hierarchy. It is one of those situations in which two different hierarchies collide – John S is the man but he is also the employee, so on the one hand he was the superior, on the other hand, the inferior, of Margery. How was the jury to understand the couple’s interactions in that case? Well, they seem to have gone with an unusually equal portrayal. As far as the sex was concerned, the pair ‘slept together’ and Margery is given some of the initiative at least. As far as the killing went, rather than the more usual story which is given in such situations, of the male doing the killing while the female procures or encourages, this was very much a joint venture. They acted with ‘unanimous assent’, and the poisoning activity is described in the third person plural.

  1. Cause of death

Poisonings – or alleged poisonings – are always interesting. The type of toxin used is not unusual really, but perhaps the separation of arsenic and realgar says something about popular understanding of poison, and we do have a few more details than usual on how it was administered, and the length of time it took to act and to prove fatal. Another one for my ‘lingering death’ spreadsheet and considerations of causation.

  1. Petty treason

How does this affect the picture of attitudes towards petty treason which I have been building up? It does trouble things a little, doesn’t it? Although wives killing husbands certainly had to be scared of being consigned to the flames, and the troubled state of England in the later fourteenth century did push authorities at various levels towards exemplary burnings of husband-slayers, not even this was immune from the prerogative of mercy. Thus Margery was left to enjoy her pins and presumed relative prosperity after the demise of her apparently unlamented spouse.


7th May, 2021.  

(Image, Photo by Lisa Woakes on Unsplash – and yes, I know they aren’t medieval – just going for a general essence of pin).

To Marry and to Burn: punishing domestic treachery in medieval England

(A version of this was posted on the Bristol Law School Blog on 24th May 2021.  I will continue to update this version, including adding to the ‘grand total’ mentioned in the sixth paragraph below, as I find new instances).

One of the less enthusiastic endorsements of marriage is to be found in the words of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘it is better to marry than to burn’. His point was that celibacy was the best way to live, but those too weak to resist the temptations of the flesh could take the second best option of monogamous marriage. Before the Protestant Reformation in England, there were those who followed what this passage portrayed as the higher path, dedicating themselves to a life of celibacy and the service of God in monasteries and convents, but for most people, the expectation was marriage. Marriage and fire were, however, not as distant, one from the other, as St Paul’s words would imply.

Marriage in medieval England was understood to be hierarchical, with the husband expected to control and correct the wife, and the wife to obey the husband. He was (again in words attributed to St Paul), ‘the head of the wife’.  No doubt, as a great deal of historical research over the past few decades has shown,  there were many variations in practice, with more and less amicable situations, more and less mutual respect.  Even so, the husband’s authority over the wife was a fundamental principle, with real consequences; and one of these was connected with fire.

We can see an example of this connection between marriage and fire in an entry on a medieval legal record from the late fourteenth century. This notes a case from Essex, dealt with by John Cavendish and others, sent to the county as royal justices, in 1378. An indicting  jury of twelve men had said that, when John Trilly junior was lying in bed one Saturday night, his wife, Margaret, and a certain  John Robat of Walden, killed him with an axe or hatchet. The suspects were arrested, brought to court, pleaded not guilty, and accepted jury trial. Unfortunately for them, the trial jury said that they were both guilty, as well as noting that, at the time of the killing, Margaret was John Trilly’s wife. It was ordered that John Robat should be hanged. Margaret, however, was to be burned.

From at least the first half of the fourteenth century, and probably from the thirteenth century, the accepted punishment for a wife who killed her husband was death by burning. This was an unusual mode of execution: most convicted felons (including husbands convicted of killing their wives) faced the rope rather than the fire. For those of us for whom capital punishment of any sort is entirely abhorrent, it may be difficult to feel particularly exercised about the use of one method of ending a life rather than another, so long ago. (We may, though. note the reference, in a document relating to the execution of Anne Boleyn, of the move from burning to decapitation as a matter of royal mercy, as some sort of indication that there was seen to be a difference, at least in the sixteenth century), and it is certainly the case that, for a legal historian, it is important to try to look into the flames, and see what can be learned from past law, past practice.

Why burn husband-killers? Three overlapping factors were relevant: sex/gender, marital status and nature of the offence. This was not, in fact, the only type of offence in which a woman might be burned while a man would face a different penalty. The same applied to counterfeiting offences, and to killings of one’s employer, and there are occasional, earlier, examples of women being burned for other felonies. The use of burning for husband-killers is, however, clearly connected with a wish to make a particular example of those who transgressed against the hierarchical understanding of marriage. For a wife to kill her husband was not simply homicide, but a form of rebellion against her natural superior. It was mentioned in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and from the fifteenth century onwards, it came to be called ‘petty treason’.

The burning of husband-killers has tended to be minimised in classical accounts of legal history, and is sometimes assumed to be associated with the Statute of Treasons. My research in this area has, however, highlighted both the longer, deeper association of husband-killing and fire, and also the greater number of examples of women consigned to the flames for this offence than had previously been suggested. While they were never numerous, there were certainly enough of them to confirm in the minds of lawyers and the population more generally, that this was the expected outcome, in the event of a conviction for husband-slaying. I have discussed the matter in a chapter of my recent book on women and common law in medieval England, and continue to collect examples of women sentenced to death by burning, from the vast corpus of medieval legal records which remain to us. The current total on my ‘spreadsheet of doom’, compiled from work on records of late medieval criminal sessions (13th-15th Cs, the majority being from the late 14th C and early 15th C), stands at 65 burnings ordered for women convicted of husband-killing. While it is not possible to elicit comprehensive, reliable, statistics from such searches, it may be of interest to note that this is considerably higher than the number of executions for rape which I have seen in the same records, though considerably lower than the number of executions for theft, for example. It is certainly high enough to be worthy of attention.

The idea that the offence was particularly heinous and should be punished in this spectacular and symbolic way was not something which was being imposed on communities by ‘the powers that be’: it was something much more pervasive. In some contrast to other areas of crime, in which jurors were willing to bend facts to let defendants avoid punishment, trial jurors, and those men in local communities in a position to initiate prosecutions by indictment or presentment, seem to have been keen to ensure that husband-killers would be burned. On occasion, we see them making it clear that a woman charged with homicide was married to the deceased at the time he was killed, though this might be obscured by the fact that she was now married to somebody else. This was done so that conviction would lead to burning, not hanging. There seems to have been no doubt in the minds of the leading men in medieval communities that it was right to mark out husband-killers in this way.

The fact that the penalty was used, and accepted as appropriate by men at different social levels, over a long period of time, would seem to make it likely to have exerted an influence on the minds and behaviour of married women. This is particularly so, if we add in other things which I have noted emerging from my archival work: accusations were sometimes made on what looks like a relatively slender basis, with rather quick leaps to an accusation that a woman whose husband was killed by somebody else was ‘in on it’, and even over-zealous prosecution when the husband was not, in fact dead at all. These findings do tend to suggest that the threat of fire as a judicial penalty, as well as an eternal punishment, is something which should receive further consideration in studies of medieval marriage and gender, as well as law.

As well as telling other people what they ought to think is worthy of investigation,  a post on a research blog  is a good place to include a little reflection on the process of conducting research. I began looking at this area as a result of being unconvinced by the accounts I had read in secondary sources, and suspicious that they were over-simplifying matters, in a way which played down the importance of the executions of women by burning. To understand what more there was to say, and how accounts might need to be adjusted, it has been necessary to trawl through a very large number of pages of medieval manuscript (in recent times, this has been via the magnificent Anglo American Legal Tradition collection of scanned images), looking for accusations of husband-killing, and orders that somebody should be burnt. Finding a needle amongst the fields of haystacks does sometimes feel like a bit of a ‘win’, each instance strengthening the emerging argument. Nevertheles, each time I come across one of the Latin abbreviations indicating that a burning has been ordered, in the margin of a roll, there is the realisation that it indicates a terrifying end to a real person, as human as the rest of us. I have come to recognise that that feeling, that discomfort, that connection, is itself important in an investigation of the people whose lives and deaths are noted in the rolls.


Here endeth the lesson.


1st May, 2021.

(Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash)

Photo by Hendrik Schlott on Unsplash

Slow Burn to No Burn: sex, death and survival in fourteenth century Somerset

How nice it is to be able to get at the treasure trove of scanned plea rolls on the AALT website (AALT Home Page (uh.edu) ) once again, after the storm/power disruption of recent weeks. Back I go to my searches of KB 27 plea rolls. I am looking for information on my projects for this year and next year, but, from time to time, other things pop up, and seem worth a brief word.

Today’s plea roll fun comes to us courtesy of the King’s Bench roll for 1359H.[i] (So we are post-appearance of Black Death, pre-royal decline and war with France going poire-shaped). It is a record of a presentment by jurors from different hundreds in Somerset, and deals with quite a long-running case.

The jurors, in summer 1358, before royal justices at Yeovil, presented that Philip de Clyfton had been involved with (adulteravit cum… carnaliter cognovit) a married woman: Joanna, wife of Philip Maubaunk[ii], during Philip M’s life. Sinful and scandalous, obviously, but the main offence which was relevant to a secular jurisdiction was the next bit: Philip C and two servants of Philip M, whose names the jurors said they did not know, had killed Philip M. Specifically, Philip C and the servants had ‘intoxicated’ Philip M, at Yeovil, with poison (unspecified, let’s be honest, it was probably supposed to be something in his food rather than the old snake in the bed, but nice pic, isn’t it? And it fits in with the whole poison-woman-Eve-serpent-sin vibe).

This, so the story went, had all been done with the encouragement and assistance of Joanna. It had, allegedly happened a long time previously, in June 1342. Joanna had been arrested and appeared in court before the King’s Bench at Westminster, in early 1359. She was asked how she pleaded to the charge of aiding and abetting the felonious homicide, and said she should not be obliged to answer until proceedings were (re)started against the alleged principal, Philip C. She was bailed to appear in the KB at Michaelmas. Proceedings against Philip C were then resumed, until, at Easter 1360, the sheriff of Somerset reported that Philip C had died in his custody at the beginning of the year. As far as the court was concerned, the fact that Philip C, who was indicted as principal, was dead, meant that he could not be convicted according to the law and custom of the realm, and that, in turn, meant that Joanna had to be acquitted.


So what?

Well, there are a number of things to think about here.

  1. The slow burn… If this is not a complete fabrication, it looks as if we are seeing action being taken against alleged killers (or some of them) 16 years or more after the alleged killing. Why? Had Joanna and Philip C gone off to a happy life of carnal knowledge somewhere else? Did nobody care about Philip M? Was there some late confession or slip, spilling the (poisoned) beans? The allegation in 1358-9 was one of poisoning, with the involvement of both wife and servants – the sort of thing which, generally, was taken extremely seriously, with added extras to the execution of convicted offenders (drawing as well as hanging for male servants, and burning for wives who killed their husbands) and which, of course, had been confirmed as a sort of treason by the Statute of Treasons 1352. It is puzzling that it took so long to be resolved (to the extent it was resolved).The passing of time allowed Joanna to avoid trial and possible conviction, and, in fact nobody actually stood trial for this alleged offence.
  2. The accessory/principal issue. It is interesting that a rule was upheld, allowing accessories a ‘get out of jail (and the risk of execution) free card’, if the principal died. It doesn’t seem entirely logical to me, and seems rather to encourage a certain amount of bumping off amongst former partners in crime. That’s one to investigate/ponder on some more. Just what was the relationship between the amenability to conviction of the principal and of the accessory?
  3. Venomous words. A smaller thing, but an interesting one. I note that ‘to poison’ and’ to intoxicate’ are used fairly interchangeably here, whereas we would now differentiate between them somewhat, in terms of deadliness, intention or focus. Another matter to bear in mind, and one which may have some bearing on the interpretation of other records which include only one of the two terms. We cannot necessarily assume precision and set boundaries of meaning in the use of these ‘medical’ terms.
  4. Oh yes, sex. The words describing sexual acts or relationships are always interesting. Here we have a description slightly different to those I usually encounter in common law records of offences: carnaliter cognovit is familiar enough (and rather unilateral), but adulteravit cum suggests bilateral activity. All rather more complex, or equivocal, than the idea that the medieval concept of sex was a man doing things to a woman. Then again, there might just not have been the words in the clerk’s Latin vocabulary to translate what was actually said (let alone what was actually going on – if anything was).


So – Joanna was ‘one who got away’ from the medieval common law; but was she also ‘one who got away with it’? As ever, we’ll never know.




[i] KB 27/394 Rex m. 16; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/E3/KB27no394/AKB27no394fronts/IMG_2821.htm

[ii] There is a Maubaunk family of a fairly high social status, appearing, e.g. in the Inquisitions Post Mortem: see TNA C 134/82/4 (earlier). There is a Philip Maubank of Dorset, whose full age is being proved in 1333: TNA C 135/35/1.  CIPM vol. 10 no. 530 (Edw III File 147) has Philip M and Joan – in summer 1333 Joan, late the wife of Philip M, is in trouble for not turning up to the proof of age of a young man whose lands she has in wardship.

A place of safety? Unconventional use of a convent in medieval Lincolnshire

I am supposed to be checking proofs and engaging with the horrors of the online proof-reading tool, but somehow am not, because I found something maddeningly fabulous and tantalising in a plea roll, which just needs a quick comment. I don’t think I can sneak it into the book (Women & Medieval Common Law – out scarily soon – dread, dread) at this stage – definitely no more than a surreptitious additional reference, if it doesn’t mess up the page layout – though it could be relevant in a couple of ways (and indeed also links up with both my last book and also a couple of blog posts for more respectable places which I have ‘on the go’ at the moment).

The entry is on the Rex roll of the KB for Trinity term 1331,[i] and it relates to the case of a woman called Agatha, who was indicted for the homicide of her husband, William del Cote. So it looked as if it might have been going in the direction of several ‘petty treason’ cases which I have found, and would end with a laconic little ‘comburr’ in the margin, indicating that the woman had been sent off for burning, but no! There may well be an entry which says just that – I have not tracked down the relevant gaol delivery roll entry, if it exists – but this King’s Bench roll is at one remove from the homicide case itself, and is a presentment by jurors from Kesteven in Lincolnshire of an alleged conspiracy to stop ‘justice’ being done.

The Kesteven jurors stated that John de Camelton, until recently prior of Sempringham, John de Irnham and Hugh de Swafham, fellow canons of the said prior, and John de Nevill of Stoke, had conspired together in relation to Agatha. She had been indicted, arrested and held in Lincoln prison, until she was brought before the justices of gaol delivery at Lincoln castle. (There are no dates for any of this – helpful!) At the gaol delivery session, she remained ‘mute’ – i.e. did not plead. She was remitted to prison by order of the justices, presumably to be ‘encouraged’ to speak via the harsh regime imposed upon such accused as ‘stood mute of malice’. It was at this point that the conspiracy allegedly sprang into action. John de Camelton and the others brought a writ to have the indictment and Agatha brought before the king’s court, and, in the meantime, she was taken to Sempringham, amongst the nuns, and the jurors reported that she was still living there, and the crime remained unpunished. They had some thoughts on why the intervention had occurred: John de Camelton had been paid 200 marks and two bottles of wine.

The sheriff was ordered to summon the alleged conspirators. John de  Irham and Hugh de Swaffham came and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and put themselves on the country. The jury of knights and others said that Hugh was not guilty, so he was acquitted, but they said that John de Irnham was guilty, so should be committed to prison. (Logically, this meant that one of the others had to be guilty as well, as John de irnham could hardly conspire with himself). The new prior of Sempringham came and made a fine for John de Irnham.

Still pretty much locked down, and supposed to be doing other things, there is a limit to how far I can take this at the moment, but it does seem interesting, in at least two respects. First, there is the possibility of it representing a show of sympathy with a woman facing the awful prospect of being burnt for the killing of her husband, and who had not managed to speak for herself at her trial. Assuming that the Kesteven presentment is not a complete lie, it may be interpreted as an instance in which the accused decided, for noble, family-saving reasons – not to co-operate with the trial, in the knowledge that she might die a mistreated prisoner, or else as a situation of such trauma that it left her unable to speak up or make a defence. Alternatively, if they are right about the money and wine, it might just have been a case of corruption (albeit one with an outcome which modern readers are likely to prefer).

The second reason for my particular interest in this is that the action allegedly concerned the priory of Sempringham, a Gilbertine house in Lincolnshire, which, at this very time, was the place of effective incarceration of a figure of my obsession –Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ‘banged up’ in this flat-land, English, convent, at a distance from her father’s power-base in Gwynedd. I delved into her history in my last book, Imprisoning Medieval Women, and have always hoped to find out more. (I also have a ‘very back-burner project’ about the many and various ways in which clerks writing records for the English crown managed to mangle ‘Gwenllian’ – the inability to handle the magnificent Welsh LL has a long history).[ii] This entry, of course, does not touch her directly, and yet it is an interesting hint both at the possibility of dubious security at Sempringham (in the sense of the crown, or royal justice, not being entirely in charge), and also at the sort of company she might have been keeping in the small community there.

The limited poking about that I have been able to do suggests that John de Camelton was an interesting fellow. He comes up in complaints and petitions suggesting further undutiful behaviour.[iii] And there seem to have been various disputes involving the priory and its (male) officials, at this point, and earlier in the century.[iv] By the time the 1331 entry was made, however, ex-prior John was described as debilis, so perhaps his rebellious days were over.[v] As for the silent centre of the story, I wonder whether I will ever find out what happened to the unfortunate (or fortunate?) Agatha. Proofreading has to come first for now, then marking, and writing other things on the January ‘to do’ list, but I will definitely be making further efforts to flesh out this story.




[i] KB 27/285 Rex m. 14 (IMG 461).

[ii] The account of Sempringham in the in VCH calls her ‘Wencilian’.

[iii] TNA SC 8/34/1671; CPR 1330-34, p. 60.

[iv] See, e.g., Joyce Coleman, ‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Raid on Sempringham Priory 1312’ (1999) The British Library Journal; KB 27/278 Rex m. 27 (IMG 403); KB 27/285 Rex mm. 6, 14 (IMG 444, 462).

[v] KB 27/285 m. 12 (IMG 456-7).

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

[There is an updated version of this here].

Something interesting turned up in my plea roll trawling today (or at least it is interesting if you are interested in medieval crime, medicine, religious houses or 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 two 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 accusation described the killing as false, felonious and treacherous. It 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. Richard Yerll, if guilty, would seem to fit reasonably snugly into the category of ‘monk and abbot’ – perhaps there might have been some scope to argue differences in the relationship between monk and abbot in other orders and canon and prior in the Augustinian order. John Leche is a bit more difficult to see as falling into the category of ‘petty traitor’. He was, in modern parlance, more of an ‘independent contractor’ than a ‘servant’ of the prior.

The common lawyers did not, however, get a chance to get their teeth into either of these thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling, 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 in this case. Obvious questions arise: was this part of a more general suspicion or criticism of what may have been aggressive surgical interventions? Was there personal animus against Leche, Yerll or both? It may be that there is more which can be found out about the leading players, but, at the moment, during our own health emergency, the records relating to the priory, in Oxford and Cornwall, which might help here, are beyond my reach. I will, therefore, have to leave it there for now, in the hope that I will be able to flesh it out in the future.


KB 9/225 mm. 39, 40 (AALT IMG 77, 79)

KB 27/681 m. 6R (AALT IMG 161); KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

GS 14/6/2020

A non-burning issue

A little gem from the archives …

A 1306 case from the Gloucestershire gaol delivery roll (National Archives JUST 3/105 m.9.) tells an intriguing tale: a dramatic scene seems to have taken place in court during a homicide trial at the session. Alice, daughter of John de Mercombe and wife of Richard de Sydenham, was accused of killing Richard. All homicides were felonies – and thus might end in capital punishment and forfeiture – in this period, but the killing of a husband by a wife was regarded as far worse than a run-of-the-mill slaying: later classed as a form of treason (petty treason), it was seen to be deserving of particularly painful and spectacular punishment – death by burning. So Alice seemed to be in a lot of trouble. She pleaded not guilty (well, you would, wouldn’t you – no likelihood of mercy if she admitted to killing her lord and master, overturning the natural order of things etc. etc.) and I was anticipating a deeply disturbing end to the episode. But Alice had a defence: rather a good one – she said her husband was alive and was in the court. And it was confirmed that he was. On the one hand, hurrah – apparent miscarriage of justice (and hideous end) avoided. On the other hand, hmm – was she indicted by mistake or through malice (whether involving Richard or not)? Somebody clearly had questions to answer.


Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash