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Unravelling a medieval murder mystery

In the ultimate cold case an Aberdeen historian has re-examined a 600 year old murder, fitting of a plot for Game of Thrones.

Text on the vice of treachery, surrounded by scenes of murder, from British Library, Egerton 3127, f. 2

Setting the scene

On the evening of Friday 23 March 1375, the young nobleman William Cantilupe was attacked and murdered by his cook and squire at his manor in Scotton, Lincolnshire.  His body was then cleaned, put into a sack and taken seven miles away on horseback where the scene was staged to look like a highway robbery.

Roger Cook and Richard Gyse, William’s cook and squire, were convicted of the crime and became the first people be tried and then hung under the 1351 Treason Act,

But rumours were rife that the pair had acted under the direction of William’s wife, together with his chambermaid. So thick was the plot that some 15 members of William’s household were initially indicted for the murder.

The plot thickens

Now an Aberdeen historian has picked up where others have failed in unravelling the medieval murder mystery.  Dr Frederik Pedersen has found the plot to run even deeper, with the finger of suspicion pointing beyond the walls of the Cantilupe stronghold of Greasley Castle.

Dr Pedersen suggests that Ralph Paynel, a magnate with strong royal connections and the father in-law of William’s brother, Nicholas, may have had a greater hand in the murder than previously thought.  In a volume of essays dedicated to the memory of Angelo Forte, professor of law at Aberdeen until 2010, Dr Pedersen uncovers a tangled web of legal wrangling and a bitter contest between the victim’s brother and the ‘new suspect’s’ daughter which casts the case in a very different light and raises questions about Nicholas Cantilupe’s gender identity.

“Such is the intrigue of this case there have been a number of attempts to ‘solve’ William’s murder,” said Dr Pedersen. “In 1936 a historian, Rosamund Sillem, suggested that the Lincoln sheriff Thomas Kydale and his lover Maud Nevil – William’s wife – had planned the murder and she suspected that Ralph Paynel, an influential nobleman, landowner and retainer of the King’s brother also played a prominent role in the planning and aftermath of the murder.

“Sillem had no problem presenting evidence of a romantic liaison between Thomas Kydale and Maud Nevil that satisfied her that they ruthlessly planned William’s murder so they might marry but she found it difficult to account for Paynel’s involvement.”

Searching for clues

Dr Pedersen has uncovered a simple error in the records which left Sillem stumped but led him to a tale of conspiracy and deception on a par with the murder itself and which he believes holds the key to understanding the mystery.

“The plot and the involvement of Paynel begins to make sense once you understand why there was friction between the families and for that we need examine the marriage of William’s elder brother Nicholas and Paynel’s daughter Katherine which was annulled six years before the murder.

“Sillem found evidence to show that Nicholas accused his father in-law, Sir Ralph Paynel, of having led an armed attack on Nicholas’s Nottinghamshire home, Greasley Castle, during which Paynel allegedly ‘ravished’ Nicholas’ wife. But she could find no further evidence in regard to the case.

“I discovered that her lack of success was due to a simple error in recording the year of the attack. Once I discovered this, it opened up archive material which paints an extraordinary picture of their separation and the ever-increasing tension between the families.”

Dr Pedersen found that two years after their marriage, Katherine Paynel requested an annulment from the archbishop’s court in York because her husband Nicholas had ‘insufficient genitals’ and could not consummate their union. Nicholas contested this and, in an attempt to prevent to force his wife to abandon her case, he had Katherine kidnapped ‘weeping and wailing’ and held her against her will in Greasley Castle.

“Once we understand this, the raid of February 1368 begins to make a lot more sense,” Dr Pedersen continues. “Far from ‘ravishing’ Nicholas’ wife, Ralph Paynel was in fact rescuing his daughter from an abusive husband. When it heard how Nicholas abused her and interfered with the case the archbishop’s court decided that the marriage should be annulled

“Unwilling to accept the decision, Nicholas moved to have the case heard at the papal court but he died before the case could be heard.”

Uncovering new evidence

Initially, it was suspected that he had been poisoned by his brother, William. However, Dr Pedersen argues that a more likely cause of death was that Nicholas suffered the effects of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (C.A.H.), an inborn condition which leads to ambiguous genitalia. His condition not only explains Katherine’s sensational court claims but also his premature death aged just 28 or 29. The Cantilupe family’s extensive lands then passed to his younger brother William.

“Nicholas’ actions and the appalling treatment meted out to Katherine may have been enough to turn Ralph Paynel against the Cantilupes but William added insult to injury. He reclaimed three castles from the Paynels, by arguing that the castles with which Nicholas had endowed Katherine would only have come into her possession if she had borne Nicholas an heir, an event that Nicholas – and possibly his family – knew would never happen when he celebrated his marriage to Katherine in 1366.

“These events and the fact that the two assassins, the wife and the chambermaid travelled across ninety miles of open country to seek refuge with Ralph Paynel in Caythorpe in southwest Lincolnshire strongly points to him playing a larger role in the bloody plot and suggests that two servants have long shouldered the blame for a medieval murder which may have been performed by the cook and the squire but which appears to have been planned by William’s wife, her lover and his brother’s aggrieved father in-law.”

The article “Motives for Murder: The Role of Sir Ralph Paynel in the Murder of William Cantilupe (1375),” by Frederik Pedersen, appears in Continuity, Pragmatism and Change in the Law: Essays in memory of Professor Angelo Forte (Aberdeen University Press, 2016).

Click here to read the article from Aberdeen University

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