Tag Archives: wives

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

(This will be on the Bristol Law School blog in June, but for those who have found their way here, you get to see it first, minus the advertising of my works and employer!)

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. Nevertheless, 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 criminal sessions, mostly from the fourteenth century, stands at 57 burnings ordered. 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)