The murder of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral (source: wikicommons)
The study of the supernatural is inextricably linked with the concept of ‘bad’ death. Although this isn’t the time or place to dwell too much on the minutiae of anthropological theory and its application in medieval contexts, it suffices to say that death can only be considered ‘bad’ if judged against its opposite. For medieval populaces, ‘good’ death was said to occur at home, in bed, following the reception of Last Rites from a priest. Very rarely did everyday death performances live up to this ideal. As I have discussed previously, mourners often used a variety of strategies to ensure the soul of the deceased had an unimpeded passage into heaven. Even so, examples of deaths that were particularly ill-performed or ill-timed – suicide, murder, drowning – appear time and again in the English eyre rolls (ca.1198–1348). These records, which detail the cases heard by itinerant royal judges as they travelled from county to county presiding over local courts (eyres), provide a fascinating insight into the types of accidental and not-so accidental deaths that beset local village life.
Drowning seems to have been a common cause of death. To pick but one example, a case recorded in the Berkshire pleas of 1248 notes how four men attempted to cross a river in a boat that also contained a horse. Owing to the ‘agitation’ of the horse, the boat capsized and three of the four men drowned. The horse survived. A sense of tragi-comedy can also be detected in an unusual case from the Shropshire rolls of 1256, where it was said a certain William, son of Robert Seys, accidentally killed Thomas of Worthen by throwing a javelin at his head. Despite being a child of 8-9 years, William was known to be of ‘ill-repute’ and thus outlawed.
The Murder of Antiochus III (c.1415) (source: wikicommons)
Investigations into cases of suspected suicide are another common feature of the eyre rolls, with the prosecution of self-murder often leading to the forfeiture of the deceased’s chattels – hence why many of the cases often concluded with the less financially-ruinous verdicts of temporary insanity or ‘misadventure’. It was while investigating such cases in the Warwickshire Eyre Roll of 1221 that, purely by chance, I came across the following:
“Thomas the clerk of Sutton Coldfield, William son of Hasculf the chaplain, William the turner, Robert de Bromhal, Osbert the charcoal burner, and Geoffrey his brother robbed a house in Sutton Coldfield and carried off two loads of cloth. Thomas, William and William were taken in flight with the cloth and hanged, and the others are outlawed by suit of Hugh of Bordseley for another deed, namely for the death of Arnold the Reeve. Thomas’ chattels, 12 shillings, whence let the sheriff answer. The others were of the county of Worcester and therefore no chattels…”
So far, so interesting. Domestic robberies feature heavily in criminal pleas from this era. Much later, while examining the Worcestershire eyre roll of the same year (1221), a reference to ‘Robert de Bramhal’ caught my eye:
“John Colfox, Obsert the charcoal burner and Geoffrey his brother, and Robert de Bramhal came to Roger the beadle of Beoley’s house by night and broke into it and took Roger and his wife and cut off Roger’s foot and his wife’s finger-nails and fled. And it is said that Geoffrey the charcoal burner was taken at Hereford. Speak about it there. John was living in Warwickshire at Beoley [i.e. Beoley was on the county line]. They are all suspected, and therefore let them be interrogated and outlawed…”
Had I stumbled upon two crimes committed by the same group of people? It certainly seems that this plea refers to the same Robert, Geoffrey, and Osbert as reported in the Warwickshire eyre. Reading between the lines, the evidence suggests that the gang had embarked on a quite significant crime spree, ranging from robbery to maiming and murder. The pointed absence of Thomas the clerk and the two Williams from the second plea, combined with the offhand remark that Geoffrey had been apprehended in Hereford, suggests that the gang – or what was left of them – were travelling westwards. The records do not specify if anything was taken from Roger of Beoley’s house, but the very act of cutting off his foot and removing his wife’s fingernails suggests that extortion was most definitely on the criminals’ minds. With the Warwickshire pleas being heard before the royal justices in the autumn and the Worcestershire cases in June, it can be presumed that the events took place within the first few months of 1221.
Getting a glimpse into the everyday lives of past peoples is one of the most gratifying aspects of studying history. I started off my investigations into the eyre records intending to find cases of ‘bad’ death and the unusual treatment of the body. In the end, I found myself on the trail of a gang of murderous outlaws. If anyone has any information about what happened to Robert de Bromhal and Osbert the charcoal maker, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Lincolnshire 1218-9 and Worcestershire 1221, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 53 (London: Quaritch, 1934)
Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, 1221, 1222, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 59 (London: Quaritch, 1940)
The Roll of the Shropshire Eyre of 1256, ed. Alan Harding, Seldon Society 95 (London: Seldon, 1981)