The other disadvantage of excommunication…

A Cambridgeshire case from the early part of the reign of Edward III shows the other disadvantage of excommunication (apart from the whole ‘no communion, going to Hell…’ side of things, that is) and also contributes to the rich and fascinating picture of women’s participation in medieval ‘criminal justice’.

The case was an appeal of robbery, brought by a woman, in which an objection was raised by the accused man, contending that he should not have to face such an accusation brought by a woman he claimed to be in a state of excommunication. It qualified for Year Book reports – it is both YB Pasch. 3 Edw III pl 33 f. 19a;  Seipp 1329.072  and also 3 Edw. III Lib. Ass. 12 f. 5b; Seipp 1329.171ass;,

and I have found the plea roll entry in the King’s Bench roll for Easter term 1329: KB 27/276 Rex m.9; see also m.9d.

As is often the case, the reports are light on, or inconsistent as to, details. Putting it all together allows us to get a little nearer to what was going on.

The plea roll entry clears up the reports’ disagreements on the parties: it should be Margaret le Hornere v. Master Richard Badowe, Stephen Bedel and Thomas Bedel. It tells us that this is an appeal of robbery and breach of the king’s peace. It seems to be from Cambridgeshire rather than Kent, as the reports suggest (‘Cant.’ for Cambridgeshire could easily be misread as indicating ‘Canterbury’). Margaret had brought a trespass case against Richard, alleging that he had locked her up and taken some goods from her, and she had been faced with the argument that she could not do this, as she was an excommunicate, an official ecclesiastical letter to this effect (from John [Hotham] Bishop of Ely) appears to have been produced, and that put a stop to the action (at least until Margaret’s status should be improved.  Not to be put off, Margaret also tried the ‘criminal’ procedure available for ‘theft’ facts – the appeal of robbery – as noted. The KB record of this action gives a more detailed account of the robbery – which she said took place on a stretch of water between Barnwell and Cambridge – and a longer list of the items allegedly taken (much of it fancy  clothing). But the defence and the outcome were similar to the trespass case: Margaret could not pursue the case in her current state of lack of grace, and so the appeal could not proceed.

The case is interesting in a number of respects. In terms of jurisdiction and spiritual-temporal procedural matters, it is worth noting as an example of the effects of excommunication on ability to litigate in the secular courts. If one were able to have potential accusers excommunicated, that might be a very good way to hold them up, or even discourage them from pursuing their suit. In terms of the law on appeals, it looks as if there was some doubt about what should be done with the defendant in a case like this, once it was established that the woman bringing the appeal was excommunicate. The record shows a slightly makeshift looking series of securities being used, while Margaret was allowed time to show she had been absolved.

Things trundled on, with requests for Margaret to produce evidence of absolution, security for Richard’s appearance and several court dates, but in the end, Margaret seems to have given up, and never did manage to show that she had been readmitted as a communicant. Richard prevailed in the end. Nevertheless, Margaret did show an interesting flexibility in what action to bring, as well as clearly being rather keener to bring Richard to justice than to make sure that her soul was safe.


25/1/218 (Dydd Santes Dwynwen!)