Category Archives: Medieval Crime and Law

Pardon Recipients

I read some time ago that some men were pardoned for serious crimes if they served in one of Edward III’s armies during the Hundred Years War and I wondered how it worked. Fortunately Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition to Aquitaine, 1345-46, the book I’m reading at the moment, has some answers.

I first came across this when I was reading about the Folville gang. They were basically gangsters who kidnapped people for ransoms and weren’t above the odd murder, rape and theft in the 1320s and 1330s. They were pursued all over the country and eventually caught, or killed. Some of them were pardoned by Roger Mortimer, acting in the name of Edward III, on condition that they fight against Mortimer’s enemies in England. Crime had become a way of life, however, and they returned to their former ways. They were so successful that people were afraid to testify against them when they were caught and tried.

It seems strange that a man could receive a pardon for such serious crimes, but it would be a win-win for the king and the criminal. There was, of course, no benefit to the victims.

It was a benefit to the king because the pardon recipient paid his own costs of serving in the army for a year. If the man was a knight that would save the king at least £36 10s per annum, more if the man lost a horse or two in the course of a campaign, as the king paid compensation for horses killed in his service. Even if the pardoned man was an archer the king saved £9 2s 6d.  Edward III was constantly in debt at the beginning of the Hundred Years War and needed to save as much money as he could.

The pardon recipient, of course, received his pardon. It also gave him the chance of what we would call rehabilitation. Eustace Folville, for example, was knighted by Edward III for his services in the war during the early 1340s. As the leader of the Folville gang, Eustace had spent two decades terrorising, robbing and murdering Edward’s subjects. He was also used to commanding men and making both strategic and tactical decisions, exactly the skills needed in a soldier.

As I’ve written before, there was always the chance for soldiers in successful armies to take home plenty of booty and the campaigns of 1345 to 1346 in both the southwest of France under Lancaster and the north under Edward III were particularly successful in that regard. That might also have helped these men to decide to seek a pardon.

There was more to it for the pardon recipient, however, than paying his costs for a year. These men were outlaws and the king needed some means to make sure that they didn’t just jump ship when they reached France. The pardon recipient also had to find someone to guarantee their good behaviour. The guarantor presumably stood to lose something if the pardoned man didn’t behave. I can’t help thinking that men like the Folville gang could probably have found a guarantor simply by threatening them, or a member of their family, with physical harm. In Eustace’s case, however, it seems that he and some of his men had already decided that their lives of crime had come to an end. This doubtless had something to do with the fact that they were fast approaching middle age in the 1340s. Unlike most members of his gang, Eustace died a peaceful death the year after he fought at Crécy.

The members of Lancaster’s retinue are listed in the book. There were a surprisingly large number of pardon recipients. There were five men from Northamptonshire who had been found guilty of murder and two men from Somerset who had also been found guilty of murder. What I found interesting is that in two cases two men with the same surname had killed (or been found guilty of killing, which isn’t the same thing) a man. Although it’s possible that the men had been killed during the course of robberies, something that wasn’t that unusual in the fourteenth century, I also wonder if the victims had not done something dreadful to a member of the family, and their death was an act of revenge. I don’t know. The only information in the book is their names, their county of origin and the names of their victims.

Henry of Lancaster’s Expedition to Aquitaine, 1345-46 by Nicholas A. Gribit

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Crime and Law, Medieval Kings, Medieval Warfare

The Serjeant-At-Law

This week we’re returning to The Canterbury Tales to look at another of the pilgrims. Unlike the situation with the pardoner and the summoner, I had a vague idea of what the man of law does. It was only when I read the General Prologue that I realised that he isn’t just a lawyer. He’s a serjeant-at-law, more familiar to us these days, or to me at least, in the (fictional) form of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom’s Tudor barrister and investigator. I have read all the Shardlake novels and never quite understood what he did and why it meant that he came to the attention of important people. I have taken this opportunity to fill that gap in my knowledge.

As with many odd-looking titles, serjeant-at-law a corruption of the Latin – serviens ad legem – law servant. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of English barrister and they were a very select group. In Chaucer’s time there were rarely more than twenty of them. The king appointed them after they had completed sixteen years of study and practice, and the justices of the court were chosen from among them.

They were the only barristers who were allowed to work in the Court of Common Pleas, the principal court in England, since they were the only ones who could take pleading cases.

The Court of Common Pleas was possibly established by Henry II in 1178 as a separate entity from the King’s Bench, or it might have been the other way round. No one is entirely sure how it happened, but it’s more or less certain that there were two types of court by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The King’s Bench heard cases that involved the crown and the Court of Common Pleas heard the ones that didn’t. Originally five members of the king’s council heard the cases, but this was later amended by Magna Carta, making the court independent of the king. It was given its own place to meet in Westminster Hall and by 1272 it had a chief justice.

If you’ve read any of the Shardlake novels, you’ll know that his rank is shown by his clothing and the same thing applied in the fourteenth century. Serjeants-at-law were known by their white coifs. This was a tight-fitting cap, as you’ll see in the illustration at the top of the post. They’re possibly more familiar to you as something that nuns wear under their wimples, but they were also worn by men in the Middle Ages.

Chaucer’s serjeant-at-law would, like his peers, have been very highly-regarded in fourteenth-century England. I’m interested to find out what he’ll get up to on the pilgrimage.

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer ed. Jill Mann

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:


Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law, Medieval Life

Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, The Medieval Church

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Doorknocker in the Shape of a Lion’s Head


Doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, British Museum

This object has a cumbersome name, but it’s impressive enough to deserve it. It’s about 14 inches across and dates from around 1200.

Some time ago I wrote about how the idea of sanctuary worked in English law. The doorknocker played a vital role for the criminal who wanted sanctuary, as he had to knock on the church door to gain entry. In theory, but not always in practice, the criminal could remain in the church for forty days without harm from those pursuing him. After that time he had to leave the church and take his punishment or leave England.

Most churches in the fourteenth century had knockers, but they began to be removed and melted down when the laws about sanctuary were repealed in the seventeenth century. Few church doorknockers survive now and this one is such a lovely example.

It’s bronze and was made by the sand-casting method, which means it’s unique since the mould, made of sand, straw and manure, couldn’t be used twice. Once the molten bronze had been poured into the mould it was packed with sand, where it stayed until it had cooled. It was not a quick technique, but it was a proven one, having its roots in antiquity.

No one knows which church it belonged to, but its size and value indicate that it must have been an important one.

Lions were popular forms for ecclesiastical doorknockers and other examples have survived.

Sadly the ring is not original, so no thirteenth-century criminal grabbed it and pounded on the church door in the hope of gaining time for himself.

Here is a better photograph of the doorknocker than mine.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson


Filed under Church, Medieval Crime and Law, Thirteenth Century

Church Courts


There’s one last group of courts for us to look at to conclude this series on law-keeping in the fourteenth century. These are the church, or ecclesiastical, courts. They were a cause of bad feeling between many monarchs and archbishops of Canterbury. The kings felt that the church courts encroached too much into non-church matters, while the church wanted to spread their influence over the lives of ordinary parishioners.

The church had the right to try clerics in their own courts. They were governed by canon law, not the law of the kingdom. Each diocese had two main kinds of court: the consistory, which covered the whole diocese and was presided over by the bishop, and the archdeaconry court, which only covered an archdeaconry and was presided over by the archdeacon.

As well as trying clerics, the courts also covered lay people where the issue between them was a moral one. You could be taken to these courts if you were a drunkard, swore, slandered someone, beat your wife, traded on a Sunday, expressed heretical views, perjured yourself, ate meat on a fasting day, attacked a cleric, didn’t pay your tithes to the church, gambled during mass, lent money at interest, wanted to dissolve your marriage because of consanguinity or non-consummation, or had a case against a cleric. The courts also dealt with some issues relating to wills. These were all considered to be moral issues, or issues affecting the church or bringing it into disrepute.

Moral disputes mostly related to sex. Fornication, bigamy, adultery, bastardy, homosexuality, prostitution and incest were all within the province of the ecclesiastical courts.

For many, being tried in a church court was preferable to being tried in any of the other courts, especially for murder, since the church courts could not order capital punishment. It is said that people who were not clergy claimed that they were in order to be tried in a church court and avoid the possibility of being hanged or beheaded. This has always seemed odd to me, since I thought it unlikely that those in charge of the court would not have the means of finding out whether or not the accused person really was a cleric. I have since learned that the number of men in the church was vast. As well as monks and parish priests there were also chaplains and chantry priests scattered about the country. It’s been estimated that two percent or more of the male population was a cleric.

A man could “prove” that he was a cleric by reading a text from the Bible, which was not such an easy test as you might think. The literacy rate was low, but it was higher than two percent.

Whilst the church courts did not have the death penalty, they did have some imaginative punishments. They issued fines or ordered the guilty party to be whipped. Most of the punishments were carried out in public.  Sometimes it was to make an offering in church in front of the whole of the parish, or to stand in a white sheet by the door of the church, being passed by other parishioners as they went in and out of the church to mass. The ultimate punishment, of course, was excommunication.

The highest church court was the Convocation where the worst crimes committed by clerics were tried. For a cleric, the worst punishment was usually being defrocked.


The Time Traveler’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer

A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

A Social History of England 1200-1500 edited by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Lawyers


We’ve encountered medieval lawyers before. They drew up indentures between soldiers and their commanders when they went to war. The lawyer retained part of the contract so that there was a way for each of the parties to prove they had the correct document.

They could also draw up contracts between brothers-in-arms, setting out how they would share any booty they took and what would happen if one of them were captured while they were fighting.

Lawyers wrote contracts between men who were captured and their captors, setting out the terms for their release and the ransom to be paid.

Wills were also the province of lawyers, as they are today.

Mercenary companies often had their own lawyers with them to draw up contracts with their employers.

Sometimes there were written contracts between the father of a bride and her suitor showing what they had agreed with regard to her dowry and how the husband was going to provide for her in the case of his death.

Dukes and earls had lawyers in their households. One of their purposes was to draw up contracts with between the noble and members of his household. Just as the dukes and earls had contracts with the soldiers who served them in war, so they had contracts with the men who served them in peace.

Lawyers had become more important during the thirteenth century. Property laws became more complicated over the course of the following century and people needed more help with their wills and with challenging the claims of others to what they considered to be their property.

As is often the case today, lawyers were wealthy and were resented by those who had to pay vast sums for their services. A good lawyer could earn upwards of £10 a year and, by the fifteenth century, entering the legal profession was a good way for men of lowly origins to rise in society. With their contractual work relating to marriage contracts and property sales, many were in a good position to know which women locally had good dowries and which properties they could afford to buy. Using this information, they were sometimes able to marry well and to purchase a property which they might not otherwise have known they could afford.

Most people of wealth and property had a good working knowledge of the law. The fourteenth century was a very litigious period and people would take to the courts in order to resolve the smallest of issues.

Although recourse to the law wasn’t cheap, or necessarily quick,  even villeins and others on the lowest rung of the social ladder could take their disputes to a court for resolution. Whole villages could, and did, sue their landlord if they thought there was no legal justification for a change he made which disadvantaged them.

I have to confess that there were various kinds of lawyers and I can’t really differentiate between all of them yet. There were justices of the central courts, serjeants-at-law, apprentices at law, attorneys, solicitors and clerks in the various courts.

Amongst the many things I’ve learned which will be useful for the novel that started this particular piece of research, is that by the fifteenth century scriveners were acting, in some, cases like paralegals today. My scrivener is not an ambitious man, but I have a feeling that his legal knowledge will help him to rise in society.


England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Officers of the Law


Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the various courts of fourteenth-century England. Today it’s the turn of the officials who ran the courts.

I’ve already written about the person who managed the manorial court. This was the manor’s reeve.

At the county, or shire, level the sheriff was responsible for the court, which was held once a month or so. He was the chief officer in a shire, or the shire reeve. The sheriff represented the crown and investigated crimes in his jurisdiction. He could also try minor offences. When someone was accused of a serious crime, he had to detain them until a judge visited the county. Sheriffs collected revenue, fines, and rents. They also executed writs, put together juries, guarded prisoners and presided over the county court. It was also the sheriff’s job to investigate things other than crimes and report back to the king.  They had military as well as legal responsibilities. They gathered men to fight in the king’s wars and kept them fed.

It won’t surprise you to learn that sheriffs could be bribed. They had great power and any threat they made to extort money could probably be carried out with impunity. Despite it being illegal, it wasn’t unknown for them to torture prisoners, and they could make money by threatening well-off prisoners with torture. Should someone escape from one of his prisons or if he caught someone committing a crime, the sheriff could behead them then and there, provided the coroner was present. He was a man greatly to be feared.

The bailiff was the chief officer of a hundred. He was subsidiary to the sheriff and he also represented the crown. Of the 628 hundreds in England, 358 were in the hands of lords of the manor. Usually they allowed sheriffs access to their courts, but they didn’t have to, and some of them did not. Many of these lords had the right to appoint coroners and hang criminals without reference to the sheriff.

Judges travelled out to local courts. This was supposed to be a way of decreasing corruption. As we saw in the post about outlaws, local courts could be swayed by fear and bribery. Since the judges, their wealth and their families were not located in the areas where they were administering justice, they were supposed to be ‘untouchable’. As we saw in the case of Sir Richard Willoughby, this was not necessarily the case.

The coroner was another court official. One of his duties was to make sure that goods and chattels belonging to an executed man or any fines taken in the hundred and county courts went to the king, and not to anyone else. Coroners held inquests on dead bodies. Much as today, it was their job to find out whether the person had been murdered, committed suicide, died naturally or by accident. They heard appeals and the confessions of outlaws. They recorded and reported burglaries, arson and homicides to the royal justices.

A town was a division of a hundred. It was usually part of a manor. The town constable was responsible for making the bailiff aware of crimes and bringing cases to the hundred court. The constable watched suspicious people and organised the pursuit of wrong-doers when the hue and cry was raised. This was a loud noise telling the people of a town or village that a burglary or murder had been committed. Everyone who heard it was supposed to leave what they were doing to view the scene of the crime and to pursue the criminal.

The chief tithing-man had to report to the manorial court or the constable, depending on where the tithing was.

In 1361 the position of justice of the peace was created. This was a local lord of the manor who held quarter sessions. The trials were before juries and the justices had the ability to give the death penalty. They gradually replaced sheriffs and hundred courts. Justices of the peace could punish rioters and people who broke the peace. They could arrest and imprison them or hold their goods and money against their continued good behaviour in the future. They could try people for certain crimes. The powers of the justices of the peace increased over the rest of the century. One of their later powers included supervising laws preventing workers from overcharging for their labour, which was a common occurrence after the Black Death.



A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

England in the reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Courts of Law


The fourteenth century was a time of great change in legal proceedings in England and many things which had been important at the beginning of the century had ceased to apply by the end.

England was divided into various administrative units, of which the county was the most important. There were 39 counties (or shires) and 4 county boroughs (towns administered like counties). Below the county was the hundred, which originated as an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. There were 628 hundreds across the country and the number per county varied. Each county and hundred had their own court.

We looked at the manorial court last week. In summary, it dealt with local customs and disputes between tenants on the same manor, but there were obviously occasions when there would be a dispute with someone from another manor, or a different part of the country altogether. These disputes had to be taken to a different court.

Every manor and town had their own bylaws, but the king’s law was the common law which applied to everyone, in theory. Parliament often updated old laws and created new ones. Some of the laws created in the fourteenth century are still in force today.

A county was divided into hundreds, each of which had its own court.  The hundred court was held every three weeks. 12 freemen from across the hundred were called to make up a jury. The cases they were asked to attend included fights, fraud, disputes over small debts, and theft of household goods and animals. Most cases were dealt with by means of a fine. If you started a fight you could be fined between 6d and a shilling (12d).To put this in context, the daily wage for a skilled labourer was about 4d. If blood had been drawn in the fight the fine was over 2 shillings (24d).

The hundred court was the place to take complaints about freemen, as they were not covered by the manorial courts. Private hundred courts (i.e. those run by a lord of the manor) were court leets. These could cover a hundred or just a manor. The leet court could only issue fines. It dealt with breaches of the peace and administering the tithings within its area of jurisdiction.

Cases of murder, grievous assault, and rape were heard at the sheriff’s tourn, which was a special hundred court. The sheriff’s tourn usually took place around Easter and Michaelmas (29th September). This was the time when the sheriff appeared in the hundred court, hearing about cases that needed to go to the royal courts. He had to makes sure that all the accused were in custody. During the tourn the sheriff checked on the tithings and adjudicated minor issues. This was the place where the tithings could be fined for not reporting a crime by one of their number. The fines were huge. A tithing could be fined £10 and more. £10 was 2,400d. Even if there were 15 men in the tithing, £10 was almost an impossible sum to find between them. The villeins in a tithing were not skilled labourers and usually only made money by selling surplus crops that they had grown. Avoiding such a large fine was a great inducement to the tithing to hand over the man they thought was responsible for the crime, whether or not they wanted to protect him.

The next court was the county court. It was for small claims where the amount in dispute was less than £2. Preliminary hearings of cases going to the royal courts were held in the county court. This was the court which could declare men outlaws, if they were called and failed to appear four times. Once a man had been made an outlaw, he could be beheaded on sight. The county court also heard appeals and read out statutes, ordinances and proclamations from the king and parliament.

There were three royal courts: the Court of the Exchequer, the Court of the King’s Bench, and the Court of the Common Pleas. The first heard cases about financial arrangements with the Crown. The King’s Bench heard cases from lower courts and appeals. The Common Pleas was a court of appeal where people could sue one another for debt, theft and fraud.

Parliament was the highest court and it usually tried cases of high treason. The penalty for this was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This meant that a man was stripped and hanged until he was near death. Then he was taken down, disembowelled and emasculated. Finally he was beheaded and hacked into four pieces. It was not a punishment which was used very often in the fourteenth century. Punishment of crimes was either hanging, if it was a capital crime, or a fine.

In addition to these courts, there were also ecclesiastical courts for clerics, which we’ll look at later. The king’s forests were also outside the common law. They were under forest law, which had its own set of officials and courts. The forests were not forests full of trees, but were the king’s hunting preserves, such as the New Forest in Hampshire. William the Conqueror had towns and villages removed across the country so that there were large areas across which he could hunt. These were maintained by later kings.



A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

England in the reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Manorial Courts


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It appeared there on 8th December 2016.

The manorial courts were one step up in law enforcement from the tithings that we looked at last week. Each manor had a court and the court governed the lives of everyone who lived on the manor, even determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against one another to be judged.

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne as well as the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the manor’s land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts, which we’ll come to later.  It was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely, or they were away at war or absent for some other reason. The manorial court was one of the ways in which the manor could be managed whether the lord was there or not. He had a steward, who looked after his interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should.

The manorial court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord’s own affairs since it dealt with village problems such as loans not being repaid; men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne; theft; the erection of a fence in the wrong place; or one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the customs of the manor and the manor’s bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement. The system of justice was mostly based on the way in which society worked. People lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business and character. If you, as a villein, were asked whether your neighbour, Peter, had stolen from another neighbour, John, you would know the characters of both men and could assess whether John was making a false claim against Peter or whether Peter was a known thief. You did not have to have seen the (alleged) crime take place in order to be able to work out what had happened, nor did you need any evidence.

Villagers had to pay a fee to the lord get their case heard. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. When these things happened part of the lord’s land was transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for that transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

It is thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the Middle Ages in England. What they show, however, is the things that went wrong and not the things that happened exactly as everybody thought they should.



England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh

Medieval Lives – Terry Jones

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

Medieval Tithings

Medieval violence

Following on from last week’s post about outlaws, I thought I ought to find out about the legal system and the courts in the fourteenth century. If the outlaws in my novel are to be brought to justice, I should understand how that might happen. Somewhat predictably, this is rather complicated, so I’m going to tackle it in a piecemeal fashion over a few posts.

The tithing was the smallest and lowest unit of law enforcement in England. Every boy or man over 12 was supposed to be in a tithing. This was a group of 10 men, sometimes more, sometimes less. Together they were responsible for producing one of their number in court if required.  If they could not produce him, they were fined and the person they were supposed to bring to court would be outlawed.

Although this was supposed to apply to all men whether free or not, many groups were exempted: magnates, knights (and their kinsmen) and clerics. People who were in a household were also excluded. This would cover servants in a smaller household and soldiers as well as servants in a larger one. The head of the household was responsible for making sure anyone in it appeared in court if they were accused of a crime. The head of the household was not considered to be responsible for the crime, only for getting the accused to court.

Women were exempt because they were the responsibility of the head of the household of which they were a part: father, husband, brother, son or another male relative.

The system of tithings was known as frankpledge and had come down from the Anglo-Saxons.

The number of men in a tithing was usually related to location. If there were only 8 eligible men in a village, there would be 8. If there were 15, there would be 15. In towns all the men in one street might be in a single tithing.

The tithing was meant to be a self-policing group. Another of their responsibilities was to report crimes. If they did not, they were all fined. When a boy joined the tithing at 12 he had to take an oath to observe and uphold the law.

The leet court, the lowest of England’s courts, ensured that everyone who should be in a tithing was in one by checking once or twice a year. The members of the tithing had to pay for this inspection.

As with many other things, the tithing became less important in the time of social change after the Black Death and continued to decline thereafter.

You can probably see that the system was open to abuse. The tithing was responsible both for reporting the crime and for handing over the accused for justice. It would be a very easy matter to punish one of their number who was unpopular.

The tithing had a number of duties:

  • to ensure their members attended court as required;
  • to offer testimonies;
  • to hand over the belongings of fugitives to the crown;
  • to pursue and capture the suspects when a crime was committed in the area covered by the tithing;
  • to send representatives to the hundred court;
  • to present all crimes (including murder, assault, poaching, theft, breaches of the peace, trading offences, counterfeiting and obstructing the king’s highway) in their area to the hundred court. Minor offences were dealt with elsewhere.

Each tithing had its chief tithing-man, sometimes known as the capital pledge. He was supposed to make sure that all the men eligible to be in his tithing were in it and that they observed the law.

In my novel it would be the duty of the tithing to report the crimes of the outlaws. As we saw last week, outlaws were good at terrorising those who would bring them to justice. They also tended to be led by minor aristocrats, whilst the members of tithings were more likely to be villeins or at the lower end of society.  It would take a very brave villein to accuse an aristocrat of a crime, especially when he had many heavily-armed friends.


A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed. Horrox and Ormrod

England in the Reign of Edward III – L. Scott Waugh

The English Manor c1200 – c1500 – Mark Bailey

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law