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The Law of Treason in the English Border Counties in the Later Middle Ages

The Law of Treason in the English Border Counties in the Later Middle Ages

By Cynthia J. Neville

Law and History Review, Vol.9:1 (1991)

England / Scotland border British Railways sign board by the east coast mainline, marking the border.  Photo by Callum Black / Wikimedia Commons
England / Scotland border British Railways sign board by the east coast mainline, marking the border. Photo by Callum Black / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: In the parliament held at Leicester in the spring of 1414, King Henry V was confronted with a long list of grievances on the part of the common folk of Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmorland. A formal petition decried the contempt with which the terms of truces made with Scotland and royal letters of safe conduct were treated. The commons further complained that men of the liberties of Tynedale, Redesdale, and Hexham daily committed “many murders, treasons, homicides… robberies, and other misdeeds,” and that “some of the said persons shelter and support many people of Scotland, counselling and comforting [them] in their robbery and despoiling.” Finally, they said, in contravention of the terms of the truce, men of Scotland “also take them prisoner, keeping them … until they make ransom of their own volition, all this with the aid, assent and comfort of the said persons so enfranchised.”

The petition of 1414 was not the first presented to the Crown in which the northerners lamented the conditions of well-nigh perpetual war under which they lived. Ever since the outbreak of open conflict with Scotland at the end of the thirteenth century, representatives of the three border shires had regularly sought remedies in parliament for the terrible destruction and deprivation caused by incessant Scottish raids. Most often these were framed in the form of requests for financial compensation, exemption from taxation, or special trade concessions. The particularly angry tone of the petition of 1414, however, prompted an unusually comprehensive response. Two distinct, though related, remedies were offered: an act “against outrages in Tynedale and Hexham” and another act, “concerning breaches of the truce.”

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The first statute gave the royal justices of assize full authority to outlaw criminal suspects in the northern liberties. These provisions greatly heartened the northerners, for they brought these traditionally independent territories firmly within the purview of the common law. The liberties had long been havens for lawless persons from all across England, but especially from the border counties. Criminals who consorted with the king’s Scottish enemies found their proximity and the legal immunity from royal agents that they afforded extremely useful; indeed, it has been said that to travel there “was as effective as fleeing to a foreign land.”

Click here to read this article from Academia.edu



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