Tag Archives: king’s bench

Licence, Denial and Disobedience: a ravishment case from fifteenth-century Oxfordshire

Today I tracked down the Plea Roll entry corresponding to Anon. (1461) YB Mich. 1 Edw. IV pl. 2 f.1a; Seipp 1461.018: the King’s Bench report, Thomas Wilcotes v John Newers, can be found at KB 27/802 m. 43. It is a ‘ravishment of wife and goods’ case, in which the plaintiff is complaining that the defendant has taken away both his wife and also some of his goods. The offence was well-established, having been introduced under Edward I, and there are many examples of its use in medieval plea rolls, although there is debate as to what we should understand ravishment or raptus to mean in this context. Much attention has been paid to the idea that a proportion of these cases might, in fact, have been consensual on the part of the wife, who wanted to leave her husband. Wilcotes v. Newers is relevant to the idea of consent – but it is the consent of the husband which is alleged, not that of the wife.

The story, briefly, is that Eleanor, wife of Thomas Wilcotes, had been taken away from his house and kept for an unspecified period at the house of her kinsman, John Newers.  Wilcotes alleged that this taking was against his will, (and also listed a number of items which he said had gone missing with his wife) but Newers had a different version of events: he said that Wilcotes and his wife had been at odds for some time, and Wilcotes had given him permission to take Eleanor away to his (John’s) house, and to try and encourage and cajole her to be obedient to her husband. As far as Newers was concerned, he had done nothing which was against the law, since he had this permission. Wilcotes’s side had tried to argue that, even if there had been permission, Newers would still have been guilty of an offence, but this did not seem to go down well with the court, and so the issue which would go to the jury was whether or not there had in fact been a granting of permission by Wilcotes to Newers.

What I am going to say next will be all too familiar to those who have had dealings with plea rolls: it is not clear what the end result was. The entry peters out after listing steps taken to have the case tried in Oxfordshire, where there were problems with finding an appropriate jury, and noting that it was to come back to King’s Bench, and, so far, I have not found any sign of later episodes (though Thomas Wilcotes is involved in litigation with another Newers in 1462).

Even so, having this much is very interesting. Whether or not Wilcotes had given Newers any sort of licence or encouragement to become involved, it is notable that it seemed a plausible story that a kinsman might be brought in in this way, and might hold and pressurise his kinswoman to be obedient to her husband. This suggests an interesting collaboration between men in enforcing women’s obedience, and at the same time it is based on the idea that some husbands are not capable of keeping their wives appropriately subservient: so there is a rather equivocal message here about the situation of women (nothing new there then). There are also some good comparisons to be made between the information in the two different documents, Year Book and Plea Roll, and I hope to have time to include these in a paper I am writing for a fast-approaching conference in Swansea in June.

To go back to the story, I would really like to know why Thomas Wilcotes brought the case: was the story about planning and permission a lie – or did the plan just make an unhappy marriage even worse, leading him to lash out in frustration against his partner in the failed Operation Make My Wife Do What I Want?

GS 12th May, 2017

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

28th April, 2017.

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.

Hangman hanged

Even an anti-capital-punishment-ist can appreciate the medieval poetic justice of a hangman meeting his end at the end of a rope: see the King’s Bench case from 1417 ( National Archives KB 27/623 m.15; AALT image 0211) in which one Nicholas Vesavery of ‘No Man’s Land’ (sounds nice), co. Middlesex, hangman of London,  was said by a jury to have stabbed Alice, his ‘concubine’ to the heart, on Thursday before Valentine’s day., and was hanged. It is not surprising that the job of hangman attracted some fairly unsavoury and low-ranking individuals, but it is, perhaps, surprising that Nicholas had no chattels at all to be confiscated after he was adjudged a felon (see margin of entry).

GS 21/3/2014


Whele meet again: the continuing adventures of a suspected Scot

Whele meet again: the continuing adventures of a suspected Scot


Anglo-Scots tension and uncertainty amongst those in the south of England as to who is and is not a Scot seems to be something of a theme in cases of the last years of Edward IV’s reign. I have noted previously the case of John Marcyell v. Thomas Hannfert (1482, CP 40/882 m. 410d, AALT image 1970; see blog post 12/1/2014), a Lincolnshire case alleging trespass, removal of cattle and threats to John,  interrupting his business, in which the defendants pleaded that they did not need to answer John, because he was an alien, in Scotland, in the allegiance of the king of Scots, the king’s enemy, and had entered England without safe conduct.

Another contemporary suspected Scot, known to the Year Books, was Richard Whele, a clerk of the King’s Bench. Richard and Isabel Whele’s case (1483) appears in YB Hil. 22 Edw IV; Seipp 1483.009 and 010. Here, Whele claimed that both husband and wife had been imprisoned without proper cause, he on the supposed grounds that he was a Scot and she on suspicion of insanity, after being informed of her husband’s arrest. Both cases as reported in the Year Books spent most time discussing pleading technicalities (the ‘only obeying orders’ defence and the details of pleading an insanity-based justification) but there is also much food for thought here on the ‘national’ tensions made evident in the cases. One relevant plea roll entry is at KB 27/885 m. 39d, and there is more on Richard Whele’s problems with the allegation of being a Scot on KB 27/884 m. 91. Here, we see description of a dramatic scene – Whele accused in court, during a session before Chief Justice Huse and his fellows, of being a Scot. His accuser was one John Popley, ‘holyer’, and Holyer’s words are quoted: ‘I defy the[e], proud Scotte: thow art no better and that shall I prove.’

As with John Marcyell, who claimed that he was not an alien, but a native of England, in King Edward’s allegiance, born at Black Heddon  in the parish of Stanford[ham], co. Northumberland, Richard Whele claimed to have been born in the far north-east of England: in his case at Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

In both cases, nationality was a question put to a jury from the location of the claimed birth, but while I have not found the conclusion of the Marcyell case, Richard Whele certainly managed to secure confirmation that he was English, and was able to produce documentation under the privy seal to this effect. He won his case and recovered £48 6s 8d.

The real story behind such characters and events remains murky. It may have been entirely made up in an attempt to discredit a reasonably prominent individual, but I am very interested in the possibility of there having been confusion, away from the border, over who was and who was not a Scot. It appears in other Year Book and plea roll cases, and is well worth further consideration – one of my ‘back-burner’ projects.

GCS 2/3/2014



Not sparing the rod: a fifteenth century schoolmaster’s defence

The King’s Bench plea roll for Trinity term 1410 has a trespass case which sheds a little light on ideas about discipline in medieval education.

John Bolter v John Fferlogh (1410 KB 27/597 m. 44d; AALT image 0382) is a Devon case. John Bolter alleged that Fferlogh had assaulted and beaten him in Ottery St Mary, on Monday after the feast of All Saints in the first year of Henry IV (Monday 3rd November, 1399). Fferlogh’s attorney denied any wrongdoing, saying that, at the time in question, Bolter had been ‘of tender age’ and had been his pupil, learning grammar, living with him at Ottery St Mary. Bolter, he said, had frequently got himself into the company of bad boys, and company which did not befit his status, was not learning either grammar or good morals nor obeying Fferlogh. Fferlogh had taken action to chastise and inform Bolter, had removed him from the bad company he had been frequenting, told him off and had chastised him with a small rod on a number of occasions, and it was stressed that he (Fferlogh) had not beaten him through malice, but only in this way.   Bolter stuck to his story that this was a trespass and Fferlogh to his excuse, and so the matter was sent out to proof.

As ever, it is impossible to say whether or not Fferlogh was telling the truth that he had acted only in the manner he stated, or whether he might have acted with a different intention, or more violently. It is interesting, however, to see what both sides presumably regarded as appropriate chastisement. Fferlogh’s story would not have been stated in this fashion, had such chastisement, for such causes, at such a level, been regarded as inappropriate. Note in particular the insistence that the rod in question was ‘small’ – suggesting a degree of thought about what was legitimate practice in informal corporal punishment, and the construction of a test in terms of size of weapon as opposed to damage to the person being punished. Such a rule would later be said to have applied in the context of marital chastisement.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the former pupil had waited so long to bring this action – perhaps only doing so once he was of an age to start his own litigation. No limitation principle operated to stop him doing so.

GS 31/1/2014

For an earlier ‘school corporal punishment’ case, see William Cornewalle of London, taverner,  v. Adam Aas, vicar of the church of Oakley (Beds) CP 40/430 m.241d (1368). This is also an allegation from some time before – from 25 Edw III (1351-2). Adam claimed that William was his pupil, and he had his him as was customary, with a rod, (no size specified) for his faults. The jury did not agree with Adam’s defence, and William was awarded damages.  Both cases are quite illuminating on the subject of what was regarded as ‘reasonable chastisement’ in the educational context, and show that grudges could be borne over long periods for perceived brutality. Also, it is interesting to note that the jury here found it perfectly plausible that a cleric might be brutal to his pupil.

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.