Recently I came across some details of how they dealt with crime in the Middle Ages. On the whole I....
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Murderers were forced to walk to the coast and sail away for ever

Posted on December 18, 2007

This article was published in December 2007. Please see Latest News for more recent information.

Recently I came across some details of how they dealt with crime in the Middle Ages.

On the whole I think the way they went about things would certainly cause a big decrease in crime if we used their methods today)

Contrary to popular belief, in those days the death penalty was only used very occasionally for murders. People who had committed bad crimes such as robbery had all their possessions taken from their house to be sold or disposed of.

They could also be outlawed or expelled from the country for ever. The law was that they were required to take an oath to leave England and never return unless they received permission from the king.

They had to nominate the port from which they would sail, and then dressed in sackcloth and carrying a wooden cross in their hand as a sign of the Church's protection they had to walk there.

If they could not get a ship in time they had to wade in the sea up to their knees every day, as a token of their desire to cross it.

The protection of the Church applied to people who had sought sanctuary in their local church, like Robert of Eggington, who hid in Eggington church from fear because people wanted to arrest him for thefts. He stayed there for over a month and then confessed before the coroner that he was a thief and had stolen ham worth 2s, hens, geese and many other things.

His possessions worth 2s were confiscated and he was sent to Dover and ordered to take the first ship out and never come back.

Another case, in May 1379, was that of William Palmere of Leighton Buzzard who was outlawed for causing the death of Thomas Wydenhale.

Palmere was arrested and put in the stocks. But he managed to break free and fled to Leighton Buzzard church and stayed there, for 13 days.

He confessed his crime before the coroner, and was sent to Dover with orders to leave the country and never return.

A straightforward case of murder involved a man called Henry of Cornwall who had a row with Robert Sirlock of Leighton Buzzard over money owed for hens.

Henry struck Robert a blow above the left ear with a bow causing him to fall, and he died on the following day.

Henry's chattels, consisting mainly of sheaves of wheat, were confiscated and he was arrested and outlawed.

Another man to be outlawed was William Reeve of Tilsworth who quarrelled with his brother Richard, eventually striking him on the top of his head with an axe and giving him a four inch wound "so that his brain flowed forth." Richard died after being given the rights of the Church.

A woman who was exiled was Joan Clarice of Eaton Bray who was lying in bed with her husband John when he "suddenly had madness take possession of him."

She took a small scythe and cut his throat. She also took a billhook and struck him on the right side of his head "so that his brain flowed forth and he immediately died."

Joan fled to Houghton Regis church without telling anyone her husband was dead, but the next day their son, also called John, was troubled that his father was lying in bed so late and raised the alarm when he found that he was dead.

Joan later appeared before the coroner and confessed that she had killed her husband without any help.

The dead man's chattels were distributed to his boys and Joan was ordered to walk to Dover and take the next boat out of England.

There were two coroners dispensing justice in Bedfordshire, one for the north of the county and the other for the south.

Much of their work involved inquests and these included quite a few people who had drowned falling into wells and rivers, often because they had epilepsy, known as the falling sickness.

Another common cause of accidental death was to people doing building work, who fell off roofs, or had walls fall on them. Many people also died in falls from horses and cart accidents.

Among such victims were the Abbot of Woburn's servant, William Day, who climbed an oak on the eastern side of Woburn wood and, standing on a ladder, cut a branch. The branch fell on his head and threw him from the ladder so that he fell, broke the whole of his body and immediately died.

The ladder was appraised at 1d and the branch at 2d and they were delivered to Woburn chapel.

Also at Woburn, Ralph Wye of Brought and Henry of Stewkley were in a marl-pit. Henry left the pit leaving Ralph in it washing. But then Ralph fell into a deeper part of the pit and drowned.

At the inquest the coroner said that neither Henry nor anyone else was guilty of Ralph's death, which was due to misadventure.

Other inquests included Alice Bercher aged 18 months, who was sitting by the fire in her father's house when a dish full of boiling water, which stood on a trivet on the fire, by misadventure fell on her so she died.

A woman called Emma who had been begging bread from door-to-door, came to a piece of cultivated land and died after being seized by the cold.

Another beggar was Joan, "a poor child aged five" who died from drowning after falling off a bridge.

Alice Cok, a poor woman, fell down while going from door-to-door begging food and then went to the home of her sister Agnes, who went out to get some milk for her.

While Agnes was away a fire broke out and burned the whole house with Alice inside it.

Richard Holme was transporting sheaves of barley in a cart, when the cart stuck in a ditch. Richard went to the wheel and tried to raise the cart but it fell on him, breaking his whole body and killing him.

A girl who was killed accident), was Maud Reynold, who was sitting on the doorstep outside her home, when a bob called Alfred arrived carrying a bow and arrows.

He shot at a target with a small arrow and by misadventure struck Maud in the right eye so that she lost her sight and died 15 days later.

A child of two called Cicely, went out of her father's door carrying bread. A small pig came and tried to take the bread from her hand and she fell Into a ditch and died from misadventure.

A man called Thomas Julian who was greasing the wheel of the abbot of Woburn's mill with his left hand stood too close to it and it crushed his arm, causing his death later that day.

The abbot was fined for having caused a human death.

During the 12th century there were 118 deaths by misadventure and 102 homicides, most of which were carried out on sudden impulses with the nearest weapons.

A punishment that appears to have taken place once was the cutting off of a man's ear after he had been in the stocks.

Source: Dick Dawson's local history column, Leighton Buzzard Observer, 18 December 2007

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