Tag Archives: medieval legal history

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.



Medieval mental health: describing, explaining and excusing a ‘furiosus’

Today’s tale comes from Sussex, and from the latter years of Edward I’s reign. It is to be found in a roll of ‘criminal’ proceedings of 1306 (JUST /934 m.3; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no934/aJUST1no934fronts/IMG_5655.htm)  and associated Patent Roll records (CPR 1301-7 p. 416: https://archive.org/details/calendarpatentr00offigoog ). The longer record is in the roll of pleas and gaol delivery before Bereford, Hengham and Mallore, justices commissioned to hear certain cases in Sussex, in Hillary term 1306.

The record states that Nigel Coppedone of Pende had been indicted for the death of Henry Rosselyn of Bradewater, killed in the field of Lancing, on a date in 1305. Nigel pleaded ‘not guilty’, and accepted jury trial.

It tells us that the jury swore the following to be the true story of events surrounding Henry’s killing:

Nigel had recently been a sailor, taking his own ship in the fleet which was supplying the English in Gascony, fighting there against the king of France. Unfortunately, Nigel’s ship, along with others, was captured by the enemies of the king of England, and he lost all of his goods which were on the ship. Nigel was also beaten and wounded. As a result of the beating, the wounds, and the loss of such a large quantity of goods, he was injured, exhausted and mentally incapable or ‘insane’ (in demencia… furore…) for a long time. Grieving, his friends tied him up, as one does with a mad person (furiosus). Tied up in this way, he was brought to these parts, and entrusted to other friends and neighbours of his. They kept him tied up for a long time, because he continued to exhibit the behaviour of a furiosus, but he broke free of his chains, and escaped their custody. He ate raw meat and ran about naked all over the place. Henry got in his way when he was on the run, and, in a state of madness (furiose), Nigel killed him. And afterwards he ran about in the same way (i.e. furiosus). And they specified that he did not kill Henry through malice or by pre-planned felony, but was led to do it by madness (furore tantum ad hoc ipsum inducente). They backed this up by linking it to the statement that before the deed, during and after it, he was in a continuous state of madness (furor). Therefore he was to be sent to jail to await a royal pardon. This pardon was forthcoming, and is reproduced in the record. It accepts the explanation that Nigel had killed Henry through madness (furore ductus). A summary appears in the Calendar of Patent Rolls (above).

Why is this interesting?

Clearly, it is a striking and tragic story. It is also a valuable source for ‘lay’ and ‘official’ attitudes to mental disorders and appropriate responses to them. Some things are not new: it is well-known that a person who was in an obvious state of mental disorder when committing homicide could expect a pardon (see, e.g. N. Hurnard, The King’s Pardon for Homicide (Oxford, 1969). The tying up – or chaining- of violently unwell people is also known. What is a little different to other accounts I have seen, however, is (i) the thoroughness of the jury’s explanation and (ii) what that allows us to deduce about their ideas of the causes and effects of mental disorder. We could note that they see a causal link between Nigel’s mistreatment and the loss of his goods on the one hand, and his descent into ‘fury’ on the other. Their care to ensure that Nigel is not held criminally responsible for his actions also leads them to talk about the periods before and after the killing, adding fascinating details about the sort of behaviours thought to indicate ‘fury’ – the raw meat, the nakedness, the running around. They portray ‘fury’ as something which entirely removes responsibility – and is, in a sense, a cause of the killing: Nigel is led by ‘fury’ into doing what he does.

Another little glimpse of a much bigger subject is afforded by the description of those around Nigel as he becomes disordered: his shipmates are grieved by this. And, although chaining up does not strike the modern reader as a kind way to treat somebody like Nigel, we should note that those doing the chaining are described as his ‘friends’,  indicating that he was not cast off by those who had known him before, and that they were probably trying to do their best for him. One wonders, of course, what would have been the perspective on all of this of the friends and family of the unfortunate Henry.



Land, fraud and vulnerability in medieval Yorkshire

Just in case anyone is not convinced that medieval land cases are worth the bother, here’s a tale of fairly outrageous behaviour from Yorkshire, found in a plea roll of the eyre of 1293-4 (JUST 1/1084 m. 48; AALT image 4715; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no1084/aJUST1no1084fronts/IMG_4715.htm ), which might have something of interest for those looking at several different aspects of medieval history.

The record tells us that the Prioress of Yedingham (a Benedictine house) had previously appeared before the royal justices by attorney and claimed some land on behalf of her foundation, from Agnes daughter of Raph Bertram. Agnes had defaulted and the Prioress had been awarded seisin (more or less possession in this context) of the land. This was thought to be a little fishy, and possibly a collusive transfer, done in this way to get around Edward I’s legislation against transfers into ‘mortmain’. The mischief being fought in this legislation was the sort of transfer which meant that lords would lose the windfalls they usually received in connection with the normal human lifecycle (death, marriage, wardship): i.e. transfers to the ‘dead hand’ of an ecclesiastical institution. One way of trying to do this without being obvious about it would be by pretending to have lost the land to the transferee in a legal case, rather than making a straightforward transfer. To find out what had happened in this case, an inquiry was to be held, and 12 jurors were sworn to tell the truth of the matter.

They said that the land had indeed been lost by agreement and collusion, then went on to tell a rather strange tale. Agnes had been unwell (infirmabatur) for six months before the enactment of ‘the statute’ (this might refer to the Statute of Mortmain 1279, but more likely to mean the statute Quia Emptores 1290, which also dealt with mortmain). The description of the illness is no more specific than that, but the effect of it is stated to be that she was not in good mental health: quasi non compos mentis sue. During this period, a clerk with whom (they said) she used to sleep came and found her in that state, and at once had her taken away from her own land to another house. Once there, he made a charter in Agnes’s name, then used that to transfer Agnes’s land to the predecessor of the current Prioress.  Afterwards, Agnes returned to full mental health (revenit ad statum suum). A servant (ancilla) who was living with her told her what had happened. As soon as Agnes heard and understood this, she had herself put in what seems to be a basket (in quodam corbello; I assume this is a slightly unusual twist on corbis, and it certainly makes more sense than my initial guess of ‘crow’…] and had herself taken to the manor of one Richard de Breaus, chief lord of the tenement. Richard reseised her of the land, which she held for three years before the collusive action with the new Prioress.

There seem to be some annoying gaps in the narrative here. What was the naughty clerk’s game? Was the business with a basket a way of concealing herself and escaping from the house to which she had been taken (in the manner of St Paul in Acts 9) or was she physically incapacitated and unable to move without being carried?  And why, after making heroic efforts to get the land back, would Agnes arrange to transfer it to the priory in any case? I hope she was being well paid, either in temporal or spiritual currency, not being bullied out of it. Still – despite the usual holes, there is some good material in this case on mental health and ideas about it, on the vulnerability of those in ill-health, but also on the possibility of recovery of mind and determination to get back control of land out of which one had been cheated.





Truth and (a sort of) reconciliation? Scenes from a medieval Suffolk marriage

A plea roll record of a land case from the end of the reign of Edward I gives an interesting view of medieval marriage (or one particular medieval marriage at least), gender and families of different types.

JUST 1/1323 m 77d sets out an assize case heard by Retford and Spigurnel, justices of assize in various southern counties of England, in summer 1303 (with updates until 1304). It concerned land in Suffolk, in Somersham and Nettlestead, and the question was whether Ralph Norreys and his associates had been within their rights to eject John Dunning from the land, or whether John had the better right to hold the land, so that their actions had been an unjust ‘disseisin’ (more or less ‘dispossession’).

Both men’s cases involved telling the story of dealings with the land in recent times, so as to establish their family connection and right to it. Part of this story was the tale of the marriage of Alan de Bosco and Agnes Norreys. Putting together the story they told and the facts found by the jurors, this is what happened … (and yes, usual warnings about not believing everything which appears in the record applies, but there is no obvious reason to doubt this) …

Alan was married to Agnes when he (at least) was below the age of majority (this was 14 for boys, and the jurors say, very precisely, that he was 13 years and 7 weeks old at the time). They lived together for a short period – quarter of a year – and then Alan suddenly left, going off to Cambridge for three years. While he was away, Agnes took service with Robert, parson of the church of ‘Flokton’ (Flixton?). Robert and Agnes had a child, William. Then Alan came back from Cambridge. As soon as she found that he was back in Suffolk, Agnes went to Alan’s house, with the infant William, but Alan would not let her in, and swore that William was not his son, since, so he said, he had never had sex with Agnes. Agnes then sent William back to Robert, who acknowledged him as his son. Afterwards, Agnes went straight back to Alan, who took her back in as his wife kindly (benigne) and in due course, they had a child, called Geoffrey.

The key issue for the land case was whether or not William was Alan’s son. To cut a long story short, Ralph traced his right through William while John traced his through Geoffrey. If William was not Alan’s son, Ralph would have no chance of success. Although that might seem an easy legal issue, if this story is the truth, or something like it, there were complications. The rules about legitimacy, and who was to be regarded as a man’s legitimate son, were not entirely biological. In a world which had no blood or DNA testing, a lot of reliance had to be placed on probability, reputation and presumption. The starting point was that, if a child was born during the course of a marriage, then that child was the legitimate child of the spouses (with associated property rights after the death of the parents). As the common lawyers charmlessly, and repeatedly, put it ‘Whoever bulls the cow, the calf is yours’ – meaning that, even if a wife had been impregnated by somebody else, the child would be presumed to be the husband’s legitimate issue. The presumption could be rebutted, however, if it was completely impossible for the husband to be the father – e.g. if he had been imprisoned abroad for years and came back to find a child. Thus careful questions were put to the jurors to ascertain whether Alan had come back from Cambridge during the three years, or whether Agnes might have gone to meet him somewhere. Apparently not. They were also asked about local opinion – who was reputed to be William’s father (answer: Robert and not Alan). Things would seem to have been going John’s way, on the whole, though clearly this was not as watertight an ‘impossibility’ case as the ‘husband abroad in prison’ scenario. But here the legal procedure ground to a halt, and all there is is a series of additional ‘court dates’ and an instruction to the judges to get on with it. It may be that there was some uncertainty as to whether John had managed to rebut the presumption of legitimacy. Leading common lawyers had been prepared to accept some fairly fanciful suggestions as to how an apparently distant husband might have managed to father a legitimate child, in a case from an earlier term in the same year (Seipp 1304.027rs; https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=1531 ) opining that he might have come to the county in which the wife lived, by night, without anyone knowing, so that John might not have been regarded as ‘home and dry’. I hope to track down more on this litigation, but it may take some time.

As interesting as the legal point, if not more so, is the ‘social’ material here. The early marriage is not particularly surprising, perhaps, nor the young husband’s departure (did he go to Cambridge University? I am put in mind of the folk song ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ …) but what happened afterwards is less predictable. We cannot know anything about the willingness or otherwise of Agnes in relation to the sexual relationship with Robert the parson, but we can say (i) that it seems to have been well-known in the area; and (ii) that Robert was willing to acknowledge William as his son, and take him in. William would go on to have descendants of his own. The reconciliation of Agnes and Alan is fascinating: she was prepared to give up her child and he was prepared to take her back if she did so, despite the fact that all the neighbours knew him to be a ‘cuckold’. No pressure from the Church seems to have been involved. It seems to me that this story has interesting things to say about medieval men, women and communities, and the importance of engaging with initially off-putting and ‘dry’ sources like land law cases, if we want to learn all we can about medieval families and attitudes.



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; http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=6228 https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=6327,

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!)


Medieval mayhem: the correction of wives, rather hard bread and ‘stupid jumping’

Here is a striking story from the plea rolls of the time of Henry IV, which throws a few glimmers of light on several shadowy areas of medieval law and social history: the law of mayhem, domestic relations and domestic violence, and the consistency of medieval bread.

Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby  is an appeal of mayhem (private prosecution for infliction of certain sorts of wound) appearing in the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1400. The parties were both described as tailors, and the location is London (more precisely, ‘in the parish of St Gregory in the ward of Baynard’s Castle’). The other character appearing in the record is John Barnaby’s wife, whose name is not given.

Dalton brought the case against Barnaby in relation to an injury to his (Dalton’s) right eye. The accusation was that Barnaby had hit him in the eye, leaving him with complete lack of sight in that eye. Thus far, this is all quite standard: true, most mayhem actions seem to be about injuries to arms and hands (with no end of ‘mortified nerves and veins’), but loss or diminution of sight fits within the overall idea of a mayhem as a serious injury, perhaps to be understood as centring on the concept of damage to a man who might potentially fight for the king. Things swiftly become a bit odd, however, as the ‘weapon’ which Dalton alleges Barnaby used against him was not the usual knife, sword, pole-axe etc., but … half a loaf of white bread. Dalton said that Barnaby had thrown this at him, hitting his right eye and causing his injury.

Barnaby told things somewhat differently, denying that he had done anything felonious. He described events from a slightly earlier point, saying that, on the day in question, Dalton and Barnaby’s unnamed wife had been in the city together. As soon as they got back to Barnaby’s house, Barnaby ordered his wife to sort out the dinner, which involved laying out a tablecloth, and putting the bread (and presumably other items) out. Barnaby said that he intended to chastise his wife for having been out in the city, and away from home, for a long time. This chastisement was supposed to take the form of Barnaby throwing bread at his wife’s head, and this was what he was trying to do. He threw the bread at his wife, and Dalton stupidly got up and jumped in the way of the flying half loaf, so ending up with his injury, through his own stupidity (rather than through Barnaby’s wrongdoing, as had been alleged).

Predictably, we do not get a straightforward conclusion to the case – a jury was to be summoned, matters dragged on for another couple of terms, and then we see Dalton being fined for failing to turn up and press on with his case.  Nevertheless, what we have in the record is quite interesting in a number of ways.

As far as the law relating to mayhem is concerned, Dalton v Barnaby provides: a good example of a defence of ‘your own stupidity caused the injury’and an unusual weapon. Unfortunately for medical historians, there is no questioning about the medical care which was, or could have been provided after Dalton was hit by the loaf-projectile, but the rules of medieval common law procedure meant that Barnaby had no need to go into that.

There are also some interesting nuggets with regard to marriage, domestic relations, domestic violence. It is well known that husbands were allowed and, indeed, expected to correct their wives’ misbehaviour, but this episode, at least as Barnaby tells it, shows something a little different to the standard examples of beating (with fists, sticks, clubs). If Barnaby was telling anything like the truth (and that’s debatable – I can’t stop thinking that this was all a food fight which got out of hand) then he thought it a plausible view of ‘reasonable chastisement’ that it might include throwing bread at his wife’s head – was this humiliatory and.or regarded as humorous? Within his story, there is also the germ of a contradictory idea – perhaps Dalton, if he did jump in front of the loaf, was demonstrating that he thought Barnaby was going beyond appropriate husbandly correction. Also on the marriage front, it is interesting that Mrs Barnaby and Dalton appear to have been out and about in London together – the more suspicious reader might wonder whether there was something going on there, and if there was an extra-marital relationship, it might make Dalton’s ‘stupid jumping’ seem rather less of a general intervention to stop a colleague from abusing his wife, and more of a personal  defence of somebody to whom he was devoted. Much to ponder. ‘The wife’ of course, apart from not being named, is not allowed much action in either man’s version of events.

And finally, there is that bread! It was part of a white loaf – the more expensive type of wheaten bread – rather than the poor person’s darker fare. Nevertheless, it clearly can’t have been a light and airy creation, if it was thought plausible that it was capable of causing this sort of injury. Again, however, the ‘rules of the game’ would have meant that nobody would have had the opportunity to ask questions about this: since the argument was framed as ‘You injured me with bread’ v. ‘You may have been injured with bread, but it was your own fault’, there was no space within which to test the question of whether that loaf could have caused that injury, or whether, in fact, it did cause the injury. Such are the joys and frustrations of medieval legal records.





Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby KB 27/556 m.12d (The National Archives); see this online, AALT image 0163 via the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website at http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT.html ). Further stages of proceedings can be seen at: KB 27/557 m. 54 and KB 27/557, fine roll.

On medieval domestic violence, see, in particular S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England  (Leiden, Boston, 2007).

Those whose appetite for medieval bread has been whetted may wish to see (ahem), G.C. Seabourne, ‘Assize matters: regulation of the price of bread in medieval London’, Journal of Legal History 27 (2006), 29-52.


Finding myself wondering whether that proverb about half a loaf being better than no bread was current in medieval London …

A Liverpool Elopement

An issue I looked at in a couple of articles, and which remains of interest to me, is the use of allegations of elopement and adultery to oppose medieval widows’ attempts to claim dower (a life interest in an allotted proportion of land), following the death of their husbands. When a widow made a dower claim in a common law court, those holding the land could form an ‘exception’ to the widow’s claim based on c.34 of the Statute of Westminster II (1285), arguing that the widow’s action should not be allowed, because, during her former husband’s life, she had left him of her own free will, and had gone to live with the adulterer, and there had not been a freely agreed reconciliation between husband and wife before the husband’s death.

This area is important from both legal and social history points of view. Legally, it illustrates the difficulties lawyers saw in applying a statutory provision with a number of sub clauses (on leaving, staying away, and there not having been a voluntary reconciliation), within the rules of the game of common law pleading (with all the delights of general and special pleading, and such splendid vocabulary as traverses, demurrers, rejoinders and surrejoinders). This was not just a clever intellectual pastime, however: the conclusions which lawyers reached as to exactly what each side had to allege and prove could have a great impact on the chances of a widow obtaining the important resources of dower, to support herself in widowhood, or to bring to a new marriage. One issue which could have an important impact was that of the widow who had left not of her own free will – having been abducted or forced out. If she later lived with another man, did that mean that the c.34 exception could be used, or was it necessary, in order to succeed under c.34, for her opponent to be able to say both that she had left of her own free will and also that she had then lived in adultery?

Another possible argument about the correct use of c.34 was whether it was necessary to allege that the wife had left the husband with her adulterer (rather than just having left him, and then later on lived with ‘her adulterer’): the Latin of the chapter leaves both possibilities open. A Lancashire case which I have recently found in the Common Pleas plea roll for Hillary term 1363 Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool v. Robert de Sefton,  Margery his wife and another,  CP 40/413 m. 193, gives an example of use of the exception without suggesting that the wife left with ‘her adulterer’. A free translation follows:



Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool, pleaded against Robert de Sefton and Margery his wife, for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in Liverpool, and against Hugh son of William le Clerk of Liverpool for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in the same vill, as her dower, from the endowment of her former husband, Thomas.

And Robert and Margery and Hugh, by John de Blakeburn, their attorney, said that the same Maria should not have dower in these tenements, because they said that, long before the said Thomas, former husband etc. died, the said Maria had eloigned herself from her husband, and lived with William de Maghell, chaplain, her adulterer, in adultery, in Liverpool in the same county, without ever being reconciled with her said husband, from whom she is claiming dower etc., and they are ready to prove this, and ask for judgment etc.

And Maria said that she should not be excluded from her action by virtue of this allegation, because, at the time of the death of the said Thomas, and long before, she was living with him, and reconciled without the coercion of Holy Church. And she prays that this be inquired of, and the said Robert, Margery and Hugh similarly. So the sheriff is ordered to make 12 [jurors] come etc., by whom etc., a month after Easter, to [swear to the truth] etc.”


Aside from its legal interest in terms of the elements of pleading, two further points are worth mentioning. First, it is noteworthy that the alleged ‘other man’ is a chaplain: a great deal of suspicion seems to have existed in relation to the sexual mores of chaplains, with their supposed celibacy and their privileged access to women, and this is not the only chaplain/adultery case in the c.34 jurisprudence (see, e.g., CP 40/192 m. 233d), Secondly, the idea that a woman might leave her husband to live with another man for a time, and then might be reconciled – whether or not true in this case, it must at least have seemed a plausible set of circumstances – raises some interesting queries with regard to medieval marriage and gender relations. As the statute itself suggested, it does seem that at least some medieval men might be prepared to forgive and take back their wives, and we see this being claimed here. Why might men do this? The statute suggests that some reconciliations were achieved through the Church’s coercion of the husband. The coercion of others – family, neighbours – would be another possibility. But it is also conceivable that at least some strands of medieval thought took a rather less ‘once lost, always lost’ (T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, c. XV!) view of chastity than would come to be the case in later eras.

GS 22/5/2017.


See on this area of medieval law:

P. Brand, ‘“Deserving” and “undeserving” wives: earning and forfeiting dower in medieval England’, Journal of Legal History, 22 (2001), 1-20.

G. Seabourne, ‘Copulative complexities: the exception of adultery in medieval dower actions’. in M. Dyson and D. Ibbetson (eds), Law and Legal Process: substantive law and legal process in English Legal History (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), 34-55.

G. Seabourne, ‘Coke, the statute, wives and lovers: routes to a harsher interpretation of the Statute of Westminster II c. 34 on dower and adultery’, Legal Studies 34 (2014), 123-42.

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

A non-burning issue

A little gem from the archives …

A 1306 case from the Gloucestershire gaol delivery roll (National Archives JUST 3/105 m.9.) tells an intriguing tale: a dramatic scene seems to have taken place in court during a homicide trial at the session. Alice, daughter of John de Mercombe and wife of Richard de Sydenham, was accused of killing Richard. All homicides were felonies – and thus might end in capital punishment and forfeiture – in this period, but the killing of a husband by a wife was regarded as far worse than a run-of-the-mill slaying: classed as a form of treason (petty treason), it was seen to be deserving of particularly painful and spectacular punishment – death by burning. So Alice seemed to be in a lot of trouble. She pleaded not guilty (well, you would, wouldn’t you – no likelihood of mercy if she admitted to killing her lord and master, overturning the natural order of things etc. etc.) and I was anticipating a deeply disturbing end to the episode. But Alice had a defence: rather a good one – she said her husband was alive and was in the court. And it was confirmed that he was. On the one hand, hurrah – apparent miscarriage of justice (and hideous end) avoided. On the other hand, hmm – was she indicted by mistake or through malice (whether involving Richard or not)? Somebody clearly had questions to answer.

Brand on medieval judges and juries

Paul Brand (2016) ‘Judges and Juries in Civil Litigation in Later Medieval England: The Millon Thesis Reconsidered’, Journal of Legal History, 37:1, 1-40.

Professor Brand takes a less pessimistic view than did Millon of whether medieval juries actually followed what appeared to be the ‘official’ legal rules (as seen in legal texts) as opposed to making decisions based on their own discretion. Looking at plea roll cases c. 1300, he finds a clear connection between what the rules appear to have said should happen, and what did happen. Judges and courts helped keep decisions consistent with the rules, and the pleading process, in framing issues sent to the jury, also ensured some control.

Impeccably argued and bristling with hard-won documentary evidence, this needs the reader’s full attention, but is worth the effort. It will be an important point of reference for anyone looking at medieval law, and a check on the common temptation to look for exceptions to rules, to emphasise dissent and resistance, in legal history. This article is a powerful reminder that medieval judges and juries often pulled together, and law texts might be reflected in practice.