Tag Archives: plea roll

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. 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.

GS

10/5/2021.

(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.

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

Dying of a broken heart (due to loss of land): taking advantage of the unwell in thirteenth century Devon

Earlier this month, I blogged about a case of land-fraud in medieval Yorkshire, involving people taking advantage of a woman who was physically and mentally incapable, forging a charter and taking her land, only for her to recover and take great pains to sort things out:

https://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/02/02/land-fraud-and-vulnerability-in-medieval-yorkshire/

Today, I came across another fraudulent charter case with some nuggets about medieval health, health-care, attitudes to the unwell and ideas about causation in relation to health. It is from the other end of England, from Devon, and from a slightly earlier period than the Agnes Bertram case.

The case appears in a roll of the eyre of Devon 1269 (JUST 1/178 m. 20; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no178/aJUST1no178fronts/IMG_1319.htm ).

John son of John v. Walter de Fraunckenney is a case concerning some land and a mill on Dartmoor. John (we will call him John II) said that this land had previously been held of his father (John I) by one Henry de Fraunckenney. According to John II, the land should have come back to him (escheat), because Henry had died without a legitimate heir.

Walter argued that John’s case could not stand, because he had got the story, and the chain of land relationships, wrong – in fact, Henry had not held the land at the time of his death, but had transferred it to Walter some two years before his death.  He had a charter which showed this transfer (feoffment).

The jurors confirmed that Henry had held the land of John I, father of John II, but that, when Henry was ill (langwidus) and lying on his sick-bed, in Dorset, Walter (who was Henry’s bailiff there) had used a maid (or maiden? The word is domicella), who was looking after (custodiebat) Henry, and who attended him diligently/constantly (assidue) made the charter of feoffment, without Henry’s knowledge. Walter had then come to the land in question and had shown the charter to Henry’s bailiff there, one Michael, demanding to be let in. Michael did not let him in, however, not having had an order to that effect from Henry, his lord.  Walter went in anyway and started taking the oaths of fealty of the villeins on the land.  Henry knew nothing about this at the time, but rumour of it reached him, and he was so grieved (tantum angustiabatur pro dolore) that he died at once. The jurors were asked how long before Henry’s death Walter’s intrusion had gone on, and they said it had persisted for a third of a year. They were also asked about the charter’s provenance, and said that it had not been made in the proper open, legal, manner.

(There may be further stages to locate, as the case was sent for judgment to Westminster, though I have not found them yet).

Apart from the intrinsic interest of seeing the infinite variety of people’s bad behaviour, the case shows, again, one of the potential vulnerabilities of the medieval system of land transfer and proof of right: charters could be forged. There would appear to have been a particular opportunity to do this here, given (a) Henry’s infirmity and (b) his absence from the land in question. It also gives a glimpse into the sick-room, showing the constant attendance on Henry of the maid (even if she did turn out to be a wrong ‘un). I am interested by the word ‘custodiebat’: I have translated it as ‘looked after’ but it could also have a more, well, custodial, or controlling, aspect to it. Most fascinatingly, in one throw-away line, the jurors tell us that they think sudden death could be caused (at least to one already ‘languishing’) by grief at being cheated out of one’s land. This path from economic loss to very bad health also turned up in the case of the unfortunate furiosus noted in https://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2018/02/03/medieval-mental-health-describing-explaining-and-excusing-a-furiosus/

and strikes me as worth further consideration.

GS

18/2/2018

Curtesy and crying

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

Year Book/Plea Roll matches: Mayhem and medical evidence

Reporters in the King’s Bench in 1354 seem to have been interested in defining mayhem and refining the rules relating to proving and pleading in this area. There are three reports in the Seipp database.

Seipp 1354.043 is probably KB 27/376 m. 10 [AALT IMG 3179], Robert de Yakesle v. Thomas de Ribbeford  (KB 1354T). In both roll and report, there is a request that the wound in question should be looked at by two London doctors, to see whether or not it amounts to mayhem. The Year Book makes it clear that this is at the defendant’s risk – he is putting himself entirely on this issue.  This does seem to put quite a burden on the defence, and is worth thinking about with regard to the balance between accusers and accused. The facts of 1354.099ass also deal with medical evidence in a mayhem case, though with some more details, and suggesting a degree of recognition by the court of its own lack of expertise in terms of assessing the fresh wound. Might this be the same case?

Seipp 1354.044 looks to me like KB 27/376 m.10 (AALT IMG 2925), John, parson of the Church of Stowe v Hugh the Ironmonger of Daventry (KB, 1354T). since both cases involve injury to the finger next to the little finger. The Year Book suggests a querying by D of whether this could amount to mayhem, followed by a clear ruling that it could, and an alternative plea of self-defence. The Plea Roll, as one would expect, only records the self-defence plea actually relied upon.  My immediate thoughts on seeing this pleading were that mayhem seems to have been a slightly ill-defined concept at this period, and that this is something of a contrast with all those specific penalties/ sums due in conpensation for different injuries which are listed in the Leges Henrici Primi.

Chobham’s Broken Bell

I have matched the plea roll record of John Payn and Richard atte Felde, wardens of fabric of the church of Chobham (Surrey) v. Robert, vicar of that church (1409) KB 27/594 m.20 (AALT image 47) with the Year Book report – Seipp 1409.036, YB Mich. 11 Henry IV pl. 25 f. 12a-12b

This is a King’s Bench trespass case involving, amongst other things, breaking a bell. The legal interest for the Year Book reporter comes in an argument about who should be the plaintiffs. Those who brought the case considered that they were entitled to do so because the bell had been entrusted to them. The defendants argued that the writ ought to have been brought by all of the parishioners because all of the parishioners owned the bell (as it had been bought from parish funds). There was also some interesting discussion which seems to be tending towards a fixtures/chattels point. Once the bell was in the church, was it part of the church so that in fact it would be the parson who should have the action? The court decided that it was still an ‘ornament’, so that avenue of pleading was closed down to Robert.

The Plea Roll adds detail as to parties, and the price of the bell (20 l). It does not explain how Robert was supposed to have broken it. The entry expands the grievance to include other property besides the bell – Robert was alleged to have made off with another 20 l. worth of chattels, including clerical vestments. Robert denied everything. He disputed the value of the objects, and, as to the vestments and equipment, claimed to have been using them in his work. The churchwardens disagreed – he had taken them out of the church, they said. An issue had been reached and a jury was ordered to be summoned.

It seems likely that there was some underlying squabble which the rolls do not disclose. The bells of the Church of St Lawrence, Chobham, are, however, apparently still ringing despite this early difficulty.

GS 29/1/2014.

 

Crowns, wreaths and warts: Oliver Cromwell in the ‘King’s Bench’ Rolls

A future project, now that I have looked at most of the medieval and Tudor KB and CP rolls initial membranes, is an examination of the rolls of the ‘Interregnum’. From the photographs which are available on the ever-useful  AALT (http://aalt.law.uh.edu/ ), it is clear that there is much of interest, particularly in the rolls of the Upper Bench.
The clerks seem to have been a little unsure how to alter the format of the initial membrane to reflect the new political settlement. For more than 100 years, the first membrane of King’s Bench rolls (KB 27) had featured a picture of the monarch(s), a crown and a form of words indicating the regnal year. How should that be altered once there was no longer a king or queen?
As far as the crown was concerned, old habits clearly died hard, and it featured, as usual, over the P of ‘Placita’ (Pleas) in 1653 (KB 27/1750 m.1 – from Hillary term, and thus before Cromwell became Lord Protector).  Once he had become Protector, a wreath replaced the crown in some rolls ( KB 27/1760 and 1763), suggesting a view of Cromwell as a leader in the classical republican tradition,  but, interestingly, the crown is back from  KB 27/1764 onwards. There is neither crown nor wreath in KB 27/1784, (1756) and this becomes the new norm, even during 1657, when there were moves to have him crowned.  The rolls do not generally go as far as including a portrait of Cromwell in the P. (though there is one rather unflattering, crowned, sketch of the Protector in the P in 1656 (KB 27/1789 m.1) -iIf this was not, in fact, sketched in at some point after the Restoration, then the ‘artist’ was taking something of a risk). The to-ings and fro-ings with regard to inclusion (or not) of a crown and the general omission of depictions of Cromwell  are interesting comments on the perceived role of Cromwell in the evolving polity.