12 Pages

The King's Peace

T HE key to these contrasts, and much else that we are slow to imagine in medieval life, lies in the comparative simplicity of that earlier civilization. We must indeed beware of exaggerating this simplicity; there were already many complex threads of social development; again, the subtle tyranny of custom and opinion has in all primitive societies a power which we find it hard to realize. But certainly work and play were far less specialized in Chaucer's day than in ours; far less definitely sorted into different pigeon-holes of life. The drinking-bouts and rough games which scandalized the reformers of the 13th century had once been religious ceremonies themselves; and the two ideas were still confused in the popular mind. If, again, Justice was so anxious to forbid popular sports, this was partly because some of her own proceedings still smacked strongly of the primeval sporting instinct for which her growing dignity now began to blush. The scenic penances of the pillory and cucking-stool were among the most popular spectacles in every town; and a trial by battle /I till the stars began to appear" must often have been a better show than a tournament, even without such further excitement as would be afforded by the match between a woman and a one-armed friar, or the searching of a bishop's champion for the contraband prayers and incantations sewn under his

clothes, or the miracle by which a defeated combatant, who was supposed to have been blinded and emasculated in due course of justice, was found afterwards to be perfectly whole again by saintly intercession. Still more exciting were the hue and cry after a felon, his escape to some sanctuary, and his final race for life or II abjuration of the realm." What vivid recollections there must have been in Chaucer's family, for instance, of his great-uncle's death under circumstances which are thus drily recorded by the coroner (November 12, 1336): II The Jurors say that Simon Chaucer and one Robert de Upton, skinner, ... after dinner, quarrelled with one another in the high street opposite to the shop of the said Robert, in the said parish, by reason of rancour previously had between them, whereupon Simon wounded Robert on the upper lip; which John de Upton, son of Robert, perceiving, he took up a I dorbarre,' without the consent of his father, and struck Simon on the left hand and side, and on the head, and then fled into the church of St. Mary of Aldermarichirche; and in the night following he secretly escaped from the same. He had no chattels. Simon lived, languishing, till the said Tuesday, when he died of the blows, early in the morning .... The Sheriffs are ordered to attach the said John when he can be found in their bailiwick, ... " There was an evident sporting element in this race for sanctuary, and the subsequent secret escape; and we cannot help feeling some sympathy with the son whose dorbarre had intervened so unwisely, yet so well. But this affair, except for its Chaucerian interest, is commonplace; to realize the true humours of criminal justice one needs to read through a few pages of the records published by the Surtees Society, Professors Maitland and Thorold Rogers, Dr. Gross, and Mr. Walter Rye. We may there find how Seman the hermit was robbed, beaten, and left for dead by Gilbert of Niddesdale; how Gilbert unluckily fell next day into the hands of the King's

serjeant, and the hermit had still strength enough to behead his adversary in due form of law, the Northumberland custom being that a victim could redeem his stolen goods only by doing the executioner's dirty work; how, again, Thomas the Reeve wished to chastise his concubine with a cudgel, but casually struck and killed the child in her arms, and the jury brought it in a mere accident; how an unknown woman came and bewitched John of Kerneslaw in his own house one evening, so that the said John used to make the sign of the cross over his loins when any man said BenediC£te ,. how in a fit of fury he thrust the witch through with a spear, and her corpse was solemnly burned, while he was held to have done the deed "in self-defence, as against the Devil;" or, again, how Hugh Maidenlove escaped from Norwich Castle with his fellow sheepstealer William the Clerk, and carried him stealthily on his back to the sanctuary of St. John in Berstreet, by reason that the said William's feet were so putrefied by the duress of the prison that he could not walk. * Let us take in full, as throwing a more intimate light on law and police, another case with a different beginning and a different ending to Simon Chaucer's eN ovember 6, 131 I). "I t came to pass at Y el vert oft . . . that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain of Yelvertoft, sent John his parish clerk to John Cobbler's house to buy candles, namely a pennyworth. But the same John would not send them without the money; wherefore the aforesaid William waxed wroth, took a stick, and went to the house of the said John and broke in the door upon him and smote this John on the fore part of the head with the same stick, so that his brains gushed forth and he died forthwith. And [William] fled hastily

to the Church of Yelvertoft. ... Inquest was made before ]. of Buckingham by four neighbouring townships, to wit, Yelverton, Crick, Winwick and Lilbourne. They say on their oath as aforesaid, that they know no man guilty of John's death save the said William of Wellington. He therefore came before the aforesaid coroner and confessed that he had slain the said John; wherefore he abjured the realm of England in the presence of the said four townships brought together [for this purpose]. And the port of Dover was assigned to him." *

This" abjuration of the realm," a custom of English growth, which our kings transplanted also into Normandy, was one of the most picturesque scenes of medieval life. It was designed to obviate some of the abuses of that privilege of sanctuary which had no doubt its real uses in those days of club-law. What happened in fact to William of Wellington, we may gather not only from legal theorists of the Middle Ages, but from the number of actual cases collected by Reville. t The criminal remained at bay in the church; and no man might as yet hinder John his clerk from bringing him food, drink, or any other necessary. The coroner came as soon as he could, generally within three or four days at longest; but he might possibly be detained for ten days or more, and meanwhile (to quote from an actual case in 1348) "the parish kept watch over him ... and the coroner found the aforesaid William in the said church, and asked him wherefore he was there, and whether or not he would yield himself to the King's peace." The matter was too plain for William to deny; his confession was duly registered, and he took his oath to quit the realm within forty days. t Coming to the gate of the church or churchyard, he

swore solemnly before the assembled crowd: "Oyez, oyez, oyez! Coroner and other good folk: I, William de Wellington, for the crime of manslaughter which I have committed, will quit this land of England nevermore to return, except by leave of the kings of England or their heirs: so help me God and His saints!" The coroner then assigned him a port, and a reasonable time for the journey; from Yelverton it would have been about a week. His bearing during this week was minutely prescribed: never to stray from the high-road, or spend two nights in the same place; to make straight for his port, and to embark without delay. If at Dover he found no vessel ready to sail, then he was bound daily to walk into the sea up to his knees-or, according to stricter authorities, up to his neck-and to take his rest only on the shore, in proof that he was ready in spirit to leave the land which by his crimes he had forfeited. His dress meanwhile was that of a felon condemned to death-a long, loose white tunic, bare feet, and a wooden cross in his hand to mark that he was under protection of Holy Church.