Tag Archives: land

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:


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 I 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.ilrt.org/2018/02/03/medieval-mental-health-describing-explaining-and-excusing-a-furiosus/

and strikes me as worth further consideration.