Tag Archives: trailbaston

Private compensation and fear of castration in medieval Nottinghamshire

An entry on the Nottinghamshire trailbaston roll for 1305-6 tells an intriguing tale of certainly illicit, possibly unwelcome, advances made by one Master William de Newark, to a girl or woman called Beatrix, daughter of Walter Touk, the response of Beatrix’s family to this, and the way in which this was eventually resolved.[i] Once I am free to get to libraries once more, I look forward to being able to check up on some of the personalities involved, but, for now, the entry itself is worth noting.

In the trailbaston session (an ad hoc, mostly ‘criminal’ judicial session, one of several sent out at this time), jurors of the wappentake of Newark presented Walter Touk, Henry his son, and others, for an assault on Master William de Newark, parson of the church of North Muskham. They were accused of having imprisoned and detained him with force and arms and against the king’s peace until he made fine with them for 50 marks, and of having made off with two swords, worth four shillings, belonging to Richard Cauwode, a servant of Master William.

Walter and Henry told a different story, denying that they had committed any trespass against the king’s peace. Exactly how the more detailed tale came out is unclear – was it volunteered by Walter and Henry, who thought that there was nothing wrong with what they had done, or did the jurors learn about it in some other way? Anyway, the jurors told it this way …

Walter Touk, his wife (who doesn’t get a name here), his daughter (Beatrix), and Henry, went to Master William’s house, in North Muskham, to ask him to eat with them. (The Touks and Master William would therefore seem to have been on good terms, but it was not to last …) William spoke secret and unseemly words of love to Beatrix (oculta et indecentia verba de amore), and then he came to Walter’s manor of Kelham at twilight. Secretly, William entered the house. Henry (Walter’s son, Beatrix’s brother) became aware of this incursion. Henry and John de Dunwyche, his groom, followed William, and entered the room where he was, to find William and Beatrix sitting together (with Richard Cauwode, William’s servant, there as well). Henry and John took out their swords and hit William and Richard. John wounded them both. Walter heard some shouting. He came and did not allow any more damage to be done to the intruders. Nevertheless, the Touks made it clear that they thought William had wronged them in a serious way, and had, in particular, damaged Beatrix’s reputation (enormiter defamavit & … scandalizavit) and they demanded that he compensate them at once for this with 50 marks, or else he would face serious consequences (not exactly specified, but sounding severe and physical). William, terrified by these threats, and fearing that they would otherwise castrate him,  agreed to pay. Henry wrote in his own hand a document obliging William to pay him 50 marks. William authenticated it with Henry’s seal, because he did not have his own seal there, and delivered the deed to Henry. The document was made in the presence of Walter, Henry’s father, who, according to the jury,  consented to the requiring of emends and the making of the document of obligation. On the matter of the alleged taking of two swords, the jurors said that John took from Richard a sword, a bow and arrows (worth 9 ½ d) so that Richard did him no damage with them, and that, if Richard had asked for their return, this would have happened.

Rather than continuing to a straightforward finding of culpability or acquittal, the roll notes that the matter was referred upwards to Parliament, and, on a date in 1306, Henry Touk came to Westminster before the council and made a fine for himself and Walter with £20. It says no more of Master William, nor of the two servants, nor of Beatrix.


So What?

Well so quite a lot. This case has several interesting or suggestive legal historical nuggets.

I have found that these trailbaston rolls are particularly rewarding in their illustration of the location of certain borderlines, uncertainties and arguable issues in the common law. To a greater extent than in ordinary plea rolls, in these rolls, we often see people bringing cases, and jurors, showing what they thought the law should be, or where they were unsure as to what it was. Here, it would appear that there was some doubt as to whether the tale of the events of that evening in Nottinghamshire was enough to mean that the defendants were not guilty of an offence. The jurors clearly did not dismiss it, and the whole thing was sent off to be dealt with by a higher power, rather than by the common law. This may have something to do with the relative wealth of the defendants, but the nature of the case itself was probably also debatable. It seems likely that there was considerable sympathy with the efforts of the Touks to make Master William pay for his misconduct – clearly seen as a grave wrong against them all. At what point did forceful action against somebody who had sneaked into one’s house and was perhaps making moves towards violation of a daughter  cross the line into (social or legal) unacceptability?  Castration of sexual offenders was not an unknown response (and may have been official policy in some earlier periods, though not by this point), and settlement of quarrels by financial payment was likewise often tolerated. In a world which assumed a certain degree of self help, was the ‘privatised compensation plan’ thought up by the Touks completely indefensible?

The roll deals with the criminal assault side of things, and so does not go into the question of the compensation agreement. Presumably Master William would have been able to avoid paying by claiming duress of imprisonment. As a social fact, though, it is quite revealing. First, we should note the degree of literacy and technical skill which is implied in Henry’s ability to draw up an obligation, to insist on its being sealed (even if, surely, having William use his seal would have invalidated it) and delivered.

In terms of the background, it is impossible not to be frustrated at the lack of information about Beatrix and her role. We do not know Beatrix’s age, but can assume that she was unmarried, and therefore probably quite young. Was she in any sense a willing participant in events with Master William? Did she understand what was going on? How did she come to see things after the intervention of her brother and father? Perhaps all that can be deduced is that the evidence about the secret and indecent words of love must have come from her (otherwise they would not have been secret, would they?) so that suggests at least a later preference for family and reputation over an involvement with Master William. To a modern reader, it is difficult not to see this as something of a ‘grooming’ situation – man of God and trusted friend of the family, ‘our little secret’, etc. The truth, however, cannot be judged at this distance.



[i] JUST 1/675 m. 2 (AALT IMG 4702).

Adultery and violence in the medieval West Midlands

Here’s a case I found in a roll relating to theWorcestershire trailbaston sessions of 1306 (JUST 1/1032), when looking for something else entirely – so interesting it deserved a blog post.

On m. 4d (AALT image 2700), we are told that Johanna, wife of Edmund Sneed was indicted for having gouged out (extraxit) the eyes of Christiana daughter of Thomas de la Twychene at Hampton Lovett. The sheriff of Worcestershire had been ordered to have Edmund and Johanna before the Justices ‘to respond to the King for this trespass’, but he had to report that Edmund had not been found. The coroner and several credible members of the county community gave evidence that Edmund was on his way to the Curia in Rome. Johanna came, though, and was asked how she wished to plead to the trespass. She said that she was not guilty and submitted to a trial by jury.

Many medieval records are less than expansive after this point in proceedings, but, here we get some interesting material from the jury, rather than the all-too-frequent blank ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. It is reported that the jury said Edmund Sneed had been involved in an adulterous liaison with Christiana (tenuit … in adulterio) and often withdrew himself from  Johanna, beat and mistreated her, and moved her from the house in Worcestershire to another house he had in Warwickshire. There seems to have been a partial reconciliation, since they said that Johanna came back to Edmund and lived with him at Hampton Lovett, but Edmund was still involved with Christiana. Johanna was said to be aggrieved and provoked (gravata et commota) by this state of affairs (as it were) that, on a day which the jury could not specify, but which was in the year 30 Edward I (i.e. 1301-2), she asked Christiana around to Edmund’s house to discuss the adultery. Christiana came as requested, but rather than a civilised discussion of their situation, a fight broke out between them. Johanna is said to have hit Christiana and put out her eyes. (I am a bit puzzled as to exactly how to imagine that happening: surely actually removing somebody’s eyes requires something other than a blow? How inappropriate would it be to ask about this next time I am at the Eye Infirmary?)

The jury also felt moved to say that Edmund and Johanna had always provided for Christiana, and continued to do so, (which would indicate a fairly long term commitment, considering the date they said the eye-gouging had occurred) but noted the insecurity of Christiana’s position. This is certainly an interesting passage in relation to provision of care for those with disabilities and impairments. It suggests some form of informal taking of responsibility by Edmund and Johanna, outside legal proceedings. We might wonder, however, just how desperate Christiana must have been, to accept help from the very person who had caused her very serious injuries.

There seem to be traces of sympathy for Johanna (and lack of sympathy for Christiana as no better than she ought to be?) on the part of the tribunal, and perhaps an effort to find a way to excuse Johanna’s actions. The report tells us that the jury was asked how old Johanna was at the time of the eye-ripping, and whether she had been in her right mind. The jury, however, did not take the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘pious perjury’ to let her off the hook: they said that she was twenty years old, and sane. Johanna was therefore committed to jail, with the instruction that the case was to be heard at Westminster on Monday in Pentecost week.

Most unfortunately, I have found no trace of the case in the relevant plea roll, so, unless and until some other evidence turns up, the story ends there, with no answer as to how the justices at Westminster would have handled it. Nevertheless, there is a lot to think about here. There is a fair amount of reported sexual misbehaviour in medieval legal records, but the story of the supposed summit meeting between two women who had been involved with the same man, and then the extreme violence, is very unusual. In relation to Johanna’s violence, there is thinking to be done about what was expected, and countenanced, in terms of the behaviour of a wronged wife towards ‘the other woman’. Interesting that the medieval Welsh legal triadic literature suggests some leeway for wives hitting ‘the other woman’ (though certainly not eye-gouging).

Then there is also the report that the married couple were in some sense looking after the ‘other woman’ in her impaired state, and the intriguing story of Edmund’s trip to Rome – not, we might note, some sort of repentance pilgrimage to Rome in general, but specifically to the Curia. Something matrimonial seems most likely – though going in person to the Curia would not be standard practice.

So – lots of loose ends, but, apart from anything else, this record shows just how useful trailbaston (and plaint) rolls of this period can be in giving glimpses of a world of facts and legal ideas often effaced in the increasingly standardised forms in King’s Bench and Common Pleas rolls.



Allegations of women being hit so that their eyes are said to fall out can be seen in S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: marital violence in later-medieval England (Leiden, 2007), e.g. at 161 and 177-8. While some descriptions of such extreme and horrifying episodes may have been somewhat exaggerated attempts to portray a woman in conformity with saintly models, this case, with the subsequent apparently impaired and needy state of Christiana, probably records a genuine incident of eye-gouging.


8th May, 2017.