When trying to understand acts of violence in the Middle Ages, historians often have to turn to government records. Here are five official accounts of murders that took place in the city of Oxford at turn of the 14th century.
When an unexplained death took place in medieval England, a royal official known as a Coroner would be responsible for finding out what had occurred. Often these deaths were caused by violence, and the Coroner would swear in a jury made of local men to provide answers about how the victim died, who was the accused and what became of that person(s). By the 13th century records were being kept by the coroners and some of these have survived to the present day. One should keep in mind these ‘official’ records are supposedly the result of an investigation done by local men. We don’t know how thorough they were, what biases they had, or even if they were just simply guessing on the events they describe.
The Coroners records below are from Oxford, an important city in medieval England that was home to the country’s first university. These five cases, dating from the late 13th and early 14th century, reveal that homicides and other acts of violence could start in many different ways. These are the translations of the actual records, and one should note that records are always a little different, sometimes including particular details about the crime and the investigation, and sometimes not.
The Death of David de Trempedhwy on December 22, 1296
It came to pass on Saturday, the morrow of St. Thomas the Apostle, in the 25th year of King Edward, that a clerk named David de Trempedhwy died in his lodging, where he abode towards the east gate of Oxford. And the same day he was viewed by Adam de Spalding, Coroner of Oxford; and he had a wound with a long knife under the left breast, very deep.
An inquest was held thereon the same day before the said coroner by means of the four neighbouring parishes, to wit, St. Peter’s-in-the-East, St. Mary’s, St. Mildred’s, and All Saints. And all the sworn men in the said inquest say upon their oath that on Sunday next after the feast of St. Nicholas the said David, about the hour of curfew, took a harlot named Christiana, of Worcester, with him, even to a street called Scolestrete, and entered one of the schools, and there certain clerks, whose names are unknown, came upon him, who were lying in wait for the said David, and made an assault on him, and so in that assault he was wounded, whereof he died on the Saturday aforesaid, and so he lived for twelve days, and had all church rights, and never after could it be found out who were guilty of his death.
The Death of John Laurence on April 22, 1297
It came to pass on Monday, before the feast of St.George-the-Martyr, in the 25th year of King Edward, that John Laurence died in his lodging, where he abode, in the parish of St. Peter-in-the-Bailey. And the same day he was viewed by Adam de Spalding, coroner, and he had no wound, but he was grievously beaten throughout his whole body.
An inquest was held thereon the same day before the said coroner by means of the four nearer parishes, to wit, St. Peter’s-in-the-Bailey, St. Michael’s North, St. Martin’s, and All Saints. And all the sworn men in that inquest say upon their oath that on Palm Sunday a clerk named David de Northampton, when it was late, was in the street over against his lodging, where he abode in the parish of St. Michael North, beneath the north wall of the town, and as he walked he was saying his prayers and orisons; and the said John Laurence came there, meeting him, and to cause a strife pushed him with his shoulder once and again. And the said David asked him to leave him in peace, and so entered his lodging, and immediately the said John came to the door of the lodging, and smote upon it twice. And the said David came forth with a staff and smote him on the head, so that he fell to the earth, and beat him with the staff on his shoulders and back and reins and throughout his whole body, whereof he died on the Monday aforesaid. And so he lived through 15 days, and had all church rights.
However, meanwhile the said David was summoned before Master John Bloyow, at that time commissary of the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and the said John Laurence likewise; and by an inquest held thereon before the said commissary both parties were sentenced to prison. And while they were in prison concord was made between them by the counsel of the said commissary, and they were both delivered by him from prison, and immediately the said David went away from the town, so that he was never afterwards seen or found therein, nor could anything at all be inquired or found about his goods.
The Death of John Burel on September 19, 1298
It came to pass on Thursday after the Exaltation of Holy Gross, in the 26th year of King Edward, that John Burel died in the town gaol about the hour of curfew; and on the Friday following in the morning he was viewed by Adam de Spalding, coroner, and he had a mortal wound on the crown of his head, six inches long and in depth reaching to the brain, and on the forehead another wound, but not mortal.
An inquest was held thereon the same day before the said coroner by means of the four nearer parishes, to wit, St. Michael’s North, St. Mildred’s, St. Martin’s, and All Saints. And all the sworn men in that inquest say upon their oath that the said John Burel on the said Thursday was at a beer-tavern late at night, at the house of Thomas de Stauntone, with other clerks from Ireland ; and one Nicholas de Uilere, a clerk from Ireland, and one John de Suthfolk, with certain other clerks, were sitting in the same house drinking in a fellowship apart and not with the others. At length there arose a strife of words between the said parties, and so all went forth from the house in contention; and immediately after they came into the street, John Burel drew his sword and instantly assaulted the said Nicholas, and he, as best he could, fled away, raising the hue ; and likewise John de Buthfolk fled; and the said John Burel ever pursued them with all his might with his sword drawn, and would have killed them.
And the said Nicholas, seeing that he could in no way escape the peril of death, drew his sword, and, repelling force by force in self defence, lest he should be slain, he smote the said John Burel on the forehead, but not mortally; and none the less the said John attacked the said Nicholas with his sword more violently, swiftly, and bitterly than he had done before; and when he would, and should, have slain the said Nicholas, there came John de Suthfolk, and with a hatchet called “a sparthe,” which he had in his hand, he smote the said John Burel on the crown of the head, so that from that wound he died, as is aforesaid; and at once by reason of the hue that had before been raised by the said Nicholas a multitude of people came up, and so all were secured and imprisoned, and there John Burel died, as aforesaid.
And afterwards the said Nicholas, before H. de Brantestone and I. Neyrimyt, justices assigned for a gaol-delivery at Oxford, was delivered by a verdict of the district; and John de Suthfolk before the same justices was convicted of the murder by a verdict of the district, and because he was a clerk he was delivered to the Bishop of Lincoln.
The Death of Philip Port on March 8, 1305
It came to pass on Monday after the feast of St. Gregory, pope, in the thirty-third year of King Edward, that Philip Port of Westwall was found dead in the parish of St. Peter-in-the-East about the ninth hour beneath the north wall of the town; and Richard de Cantebrigg first found him dead and at once raised the hue; and the same day he was viewed by Ralf de Hampton and John Fraunceys who had been chosen in the presence of the mayor and bailiffs to view him, because the coroners of the town by the King’s writ were at that time gone to the King’s Parliament. And the said Philip was wounded in the front of his head from one ear to another, so that all his brain was scattered outside; and he had another wound across his face to within the teeth, four inches long and one inch wide, and his right hand was cut off and lay beside him, and as it seemed to all who were there he had been wounded on the head with a hatchet, called in English sparth.
And the same day an inquisition was held before the same Ralf and John by the oath of Robert de Wyleby, Walter Culverd, Henry de Roi, John de Aldeburgh, William Attenoke, William le Barber, Simon de Pencote, Hugh de Barton, Adam de Towe, Henry de Yftele, sworn men of the parish of St. Peter-in-the-East; William de Milton, John de Stafford, William de Stourton, Richard de Hethrop, Robert le Grasier, and John de Campden, sworn men of the parish of St. Mary-the- Virgin ; Geoffrey de Manneby, Robert de Ocle, Eudo le Gaunter, Thomas le Loksmyth, Ralf de Stokenchirch, Henry de Lichfeld, Thomas Aungel, and Thomas le Chamre, sworn men of the parish of All Saints; Simon le Barber, Nicholas de Cornubia, John de la March tailor, Reginald le Tayllur, Geoffrey and Thomas de Roulesham.
And all the said jurors say upon their oath that John de Berdon, of the county of Leicestershire, in Kibald Street, on Sunday last, late in the dusk of the evening, came to the lodging where the said Philip abode, in the parish of St. Peter-in-the-East, and as he was in his chamber called him and asked him to come with him to a beer tavern, promising that he would give him drink; and he came out and went with him; and John after drinking withdrew; and so Philip began to go towards his lodging after curfew, and when he came to the corner under the wall towards East Gate, five clerks whose names they knew not came and made an assault on him ; and he would have fled from them; and they followed him and caught him and wounded him as aforesaid, and slew him, and at once they fled. And they say that they know not the names of any of them, nor where they dwelt; but they say certainly that John de Berdon was the principal cause of his death, and that it was through him that the five clerks committed the said felony.
Pledges of Richard, the finder, that he will appear before the judges when they come into those parts for the next assizes, are Adam de Essex and Hugh de Burton.
The Death of Thomas de Weston on June 26, 1306
It came to pass on Saturday the morrow of the Nativity of St. John Baptist, in the 34th year of the reign of King Edward, that Thomas de Weston, hayward of the abbot of Oseney, died in the grange of the said abbot at Walton, near Oxford, at the ninth hour; and on the Sunday next following, in the morning, he was viewed by John Wyth, king’s coroner of the town of Oxford ; and he had two wounds on the top of his head, in length each of them four inches and in depth to the bone, but not mortal wounds ; and he had another wound in his back close to the spine on the right side with a small arrow; it was one inch in breadth and reached to the heart and was mortal.
And immediately thereafter an inquest was held thereon before the said coroner, by the oath of Hugh Rolvea, William Jones, Nicholas Colbes, Hugh Nichol, John le Chapman, and William Person, sworn men of the hamlet of Binsey; Reginald le Fre, John le Carpenter, David Aylun, Walter Trice, Richard de Boteley, Hugh Stamp, Robert Brumman, Simon Attewell, Edmund Atteweil, John Attewyke, Andrew de Walton, and Nicholas Aylun, sworn men of the hamlet of Walton ; Thomas Pynke, William le Chapman, William Aylun, Thomas Botte, William Pinke, Gregory de Walton, sworn men of the parish of St. Giles; Nicholas Crabbe, William de Barton, Richard de Tiwe, William Tropinel, John Attemore, and Philip le Noble, sworn men of the parish of St. Thomas the Martyr.
And all the said jurors say upon their oath that on the Thursday preceding, late at night, the said Thomas de Weeton went to watch the meadows of his lord towards Godstow, as he was wont to do by day and night, lest any mischief should be done in them, and so he tarried there until the hour of midnight, and then began to return towards his lodging where he abode in the said grange; and when he came at the entering in of Walton, wishing to go towards his lodging aforesaid, there came Louis de Marchia, John de Pekeford, and Henry de Sutton, clerks, and others with them whose names are unknown, bearing swords, bows and arrows, and other arms, and met the said Thomas, and at once assaulted him, and John de Pekford smote him with a sword and gave him the said wounds on the head. And Thomas seeing that he was in peril of death by the greatest effort escaped from their hands and fled from them; and as he was fleeing Louis, who had a strung bow in his hand, shot him with a small arrow in the back even to the heart, whereof he died at the hour aforesaid, but he had all his church rights.
They say also that the said Henry de Sutton was in their company and consenting to the deed; yet he did him no evil. And the bailiffs are commanded to secure the said Louis, John de Pekford and Henry de Sutton, if they maybe found, and keep them safe until the King’s justices shall visit these parts.
You can read these and more records of homicides and unusual deaths in Records of Mediaeval Oxford. Coroners’ Inquests, the Walls of Oxford, Etc., edited by H. E. Salter (Oxford Chronicle Company, 1912). It is available online at Archive.org
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: Murder of Abel in a medieval manuscript – British Library MS Royal 19 D II f. 10v