Treason in Shropshire in the Early Fifteenth Century: The Case of Sir Richard Lacon

Guest post by Ted Powell; 7 May 2017.

Medieval English kings were very concerned to maintain the quality and integrity of their coinage, principally the silver penny, but also, from the reign of Edward III onwards, high value gold coinage.  The ability to control the coinage was a mark of royal authority, as well as an important contribution towards the economic stability of the realm.  The French wars of the late middle ages, which absorbed a substantial proportion of the kingdom’s resources, put heavy pressure on the coinage, leading to a flight of bullion from the country and a rise of clipping and counterfeiting.[1]  Such offences were formally declared to be treason in the Statute of Treasons of 1352, and the pattern of prosecutions tended to follow the most active periods of military activity.  King Henry V, who opened the final phase of the Hundred Years War in 1415, was particularly vigilant in prosecuting counterfeiters.  His reign, and the early years of his successor Henry VI, saw a surge of prosecutions.[2]

An obvious problem was the difficulty in obtaining reliable information about what was by definition a clandestine crime.  As a result, the prosecuting authorities relied heavily on offenders themselves, typically through the process of the approver’s appeal.  This was the procedure whereby an accused felon confessed his crimes before trial and turned ‘approver’ (Latin: probator), or king’s evidence. The approver made his confession before a coroner, and appealed as many of his accomplices as he could remember.  Should any of his appellees be acquitted, or his accusations prove false, then the approver could be summarily executed as a confessed felon.  The approver’s appeal was an archaic procedure by the fifteenth century, and much less frequent than it had been a century earlier.  It was one of the few areas of the criminal law in which trial by battle was still permitted and took place with any frequency.[3]  A remarkable example is the appeal of David Trefnant, tailor, of Shrewsbury, recorded in the records of King’s Bench in 1423.  This is unusual, both because it survives in English, at a time when legal records were still largely recorded in Latin, and also because it focused not on the criminal underworld, but on a leading figure in Shropshire county society, Sir Richard Lacon of Gretton.

 The Accused

Sir Richard Lacon has been the subject of an excellent potted biography by Dr Linda Clark in the History of Parliament, and I have drawn heavily on that work for Lacon’s CV.[4]  He was born in about 1380, and died about 1446.  His father, William Lacon, a retainer of Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, was murdered in London in 1397. The young Richard was closely attached to Thomas FitzAlan, earl of Arundel, one of Henry IV’s leading supporters. He must have shown early military prowess, because he was constable of  Arundel’s castle of Oswestry in the Welsh marches from 1405 at the latest, at a time when the marches were in chaos in the aftermath of the Glyn Dwr rebellion in North Wales. It is likely that he fought with Henry IV and Prince Henry his son, at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, when the rebellious Percies were defeated. With his associate John Wele, the captain of Clun castle, he commanded Arundel’s forces in Shropshire in the first decade of the fifteenth century.

As I recounted many years ago in my study of criminal justice under Henry V,  Lacon figured prominently in the indictments brought before the court of King’s Bench on its visit Shrewsbury in June 1414.[5]  Lacon was indicted, along with several other members of the Arundel affinity, including John Wele, Robert and Roger Corbet, and John Burley of Broncroft.  Much of the disorder at the beginning of Henry V’s reign stemmed from a power struggle between the dominant Arundel interest and the supporters of the young John Talbot, the future earl of Shrewsbury.  Following petitions to Parliament the new King decided to intervene personally. Lacon was granted a royal pardon for his crimes late in 1414 and was recruited for Henry’s campaign in France.  He was one of the ‘band of brothers’ who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, and was knighted in October 1415.  Later he took part in the conquest of Normandy between 1419 and 1422.

After Henry V’s death in 1422, Lacon returned to Shropshire, and was immediately caught up in a conflict with his neighbours, attacking the lordship of Whittington next to Oswestry.  Thereafter his career appeared to settle down.  He became a servant of his old enemy John Talbot, and served several times as knight of the shire for Shropshire before dying, full of years, in 1446.  One of his sons, William Lacon, became a justice of King’s Bench under Edward IV, while another was killed in 1452 in the course of a dispute between the countess of Shrewsbury and Lord Berkeley in Gloucestershire.

Lacon, then, was primarily a soldier rather than an administrator, although he did serve one term as sheriff of Shropshire in 1415-16.  In view of his clashes with the law, it is perhaps not surprising that he made only a fleeting appearance as a justice of the peace on the Shropshire bench, in 1422-23, coming off abruptly following his attack on Whittington.

The Appeal

Trefnant’s appeal was enrolled on the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1423.[6]  He made his appeal before two Shropshire coroners, William Forster and Richard Overton, presumably while in gaol in Shrewsbury.  The date of the appeal is not given, but must have been after March 1419, the date of the supposed meeting with Lacon.  The timing of the appearance of the appeal in King’s Bench is intriguing:  Parliament was sitting at Westminster during Michaelmas term 1423 – and Lacon was knight of the shire for Shropshire.  He did appear in King’s Bench, in order to put in a plea of Not Guilty to the charges, theoretically raising the prospect of trial by battle with Trefnant.  At the same time, Lacon was summoned into King’s Bench for breach of the security to keep the peace which he had given before the court in 1414.    This was in connection with the attack on Whittington in 1422.  In the Parliament of 1422, Richard Hankeford and his wife Elizabeth, the heiress of Whittington, alleged that on 13 November of that year, Lacon and William FitzWaryn (presumably a disappointed claimant to the lordship) had seized Whittington castle, ‘as if in war’, at the head of a large armed band of Welshmen.  This petition was amazingly prompt – it must have been delivered before Parliament rose on 18 December 1422.[7]

The speed with which the petition was presented may have had something to do with the fact that Richard Hankeford was the grandson of William Hankeford, the Chief Justice of King’s Bench, who had presided over the visitation of the court to Shrewsbury in 1414.[8]  It is likely that Lacon procured his election to Parliament in 1423 in order to put forward his side of the story.  At the same time, Hankeford would have recalled the security of the peace which Lacon had given in 1414, and may have requested from the sheriff of Shropshire details of any other accusations current against Lacon.  The sheriff between 1420 and 1423 was an old enemy of Lacon’s, John Bruyn of Bridgnorth, who had opposed the Arundel affinity ten years earlier.  The appearance of the approver’s appeal in King’s Bench seems clearly linked to Lacon’s enemies in his home county, and their determination to challenge him on his return from campaigning in France.

The Charges

There is a lot of local colour in Trefnant’s appeal, indicating that he did indeed live in Shrewsbury and knew, or at least knew of Lacon.  Lacon had a house in Dogpole, one of the main streets in Shrewsbury, where Trefnant alleged that he saw Lacon and Robert, his servant, making counterfeit groats.  There Lacon supposedly gave Trefnant a melting pan and an iron ladle for counterfeiting coin.

Trefnant claimed that  Lacon gave him a large quantity of false coin to pass on to another man, William Burdon the elder, to ‘utter’ it, that is, put it into circulation.  Burdon wanted payment of one penny for each penny that he uttered, and was apparently not impressed with the quality of Lacon’s counterfeiting.  According to Trefnant, Burdon said that he should “ordain him harder money, struck with a better coin [stamp]”.  Lacon then told Trefnant to visit a smith from Llangollen in North Wales, “for he is held a curious workman”, and ask him to make a penny coin.  Interestingly, William Burdon does seem to have been an associate of Lacon’s. William Burdon junior had been indicted in 1414 for smashing up the Prior of Wenlock’s mill in Corvedale, and Lacon was also indicted of giving Burdon illegal livery.

The Outcome

The circumstantial evidence of Trefnant’s accusations is quite persuasive, although it is hard to believe that a man like Lacon would personally make counterfeit coin: a counterfeiter would normally be a skilled metalworker. However, there is a problem with the dating. Trefnant alleged that one of his meetings with Lacon took place in March 1419; Lacon received letters of protection for his voyage to France in February 1419, so it is likely that he was already in Normandy.[9]

The court of King’s Bench was not impressed with Trefnant’s appeal, and neither it seems was Trefnant himself. When Lacon and Burdon appeared in court in 1423, he declared that he did not wish to prosecute the appeal; maybe the prospect of single combat with a battle-hardened soldier like Lacon was too much to contemplate! King’s Bench took on the accusations at the suit of the Crown, but found the charges against Burdon  insufficient for lack of ‘addition’ – there was no mention of his county of residence or his ‘mystery’ (occupation).  The justices found the charges against Lacon insufficient in law, presumably because they did not establish all the elements of the offence under the Statute of Treasons of 1352. As for Trefnant, his fate is not recorded on the plea roll, but having failed to pursue his accusations, he would probably have suffered immediate execution.

The Implications

So what are we to make of this source material?  Should we dismiss the appeal as the ramblings of a panic-stricken felon staring death in the face?  Topicality is always suspect.  In the 1420s the Lancastrian regime was certainly preoccupied with the problems of counterfeiting.  The integrity of the coinage was under intense pressure because of the massive export of bullion to finance the French wars, and the records of King’s Bench show that the counterfeiting, clipping and washing of coin was widespread.  There are numerous approver’s appeals surviving from the period between 1415 and 1425.  In Michaelmas term 1423, prosecutions for counterfeiting proceeded on the appeal of three other approvers, in addition to Trefnant: William Bennett, Richard Swallow and John Sperling.[10]  Numerous appeals relate to coining offences allegedly occurred in Shropshire and the Welsh Marches.  For example, the appeal of William Carswell of Herefordshire before the King’s Council in 1418 included accusations against thirty of his alleged accomplices – many for counterfeiting.  Amongst the accused were Maurice and Roger Weston of Weston in Shropshire, who had been indicted for counterfeiting in 1414 under the protection of Richard Lacon.   Other appeals included accusations against such notables as the abbot of Shrewsbury and the prior of Wenlock, for harbouring the Lollard leader Sir John Oldcastle while he was in hiding in the Welsh marches before his capture in 1417.  Carswell claimed that the prior had introduced him to Oldcastle, who had retained him to make false coin.

It is difficult to know what credence, if any, to give to accusations of this kind.  The fact that they surfaced in the official records reflects the sensitivities and insecurities of Henry V’s regime, even at the peak of its success.  No doubt they sometimes also reflect the conduct of private disputes, as one party sought to put his opponent at a tactical disadvantage.  It is highly likely that Trefnant’s appeal only appeared in King’s Bench because of Lacon’s dispute with Richard and Elizabeth Hankeford over Whittington lordship.  Finally they are a reminder that Shropshire was still a remote and disorderly border shire in the early fifteenth century, where the long-term effects of the Percy and Glyn Dwr rebellions were still being felt, and where leading supporters of the regime such as Sir Richard Lacon could plausibly be accused of armed insurrection and the treason of counterfeiting.

The National Archives, KB27/650, Rex, mm. 23d, 30d

Approver’s appeal of David Trefnant (1423)

I,  David Trefnant Taillour of Shrosbury, to fore William Forster Cronour of Shrosbury and Richard of Overton on of croners of Schropschyr, appele Sir Richard Laken Knyght of Grotynton [Gretton] in the forsayde schyr.  He upon Fryday next afore Seynt Gregorys day the yere of oure Lorde kynge Harry the V in the vj yere of his regne [10 March 1419], at Shrosbury in a street that is called dogge Pole [Dogpole] in his owne hous in a seler to fore a chimney he taught Robert, that tyme his servant to the same Sir Richard Laken knight, of Shrosbury in the same schyr, Grome, to make and to caste the coyne of grotes of fals metaill; and at that same tyme they casten ther xxs of fals grotes. And I, David Trefnant come to hem when they wroghton this money and I syee hem make hyt, and Sir Richard Laken kyght dede betake to me, David Trefnant, Taillour of Shrosbury, a meltynge pone & a ladull of Iron, the same pone and the same ladull that Sir Richard Laken knight made the kynges coyne with to fore that tyme. And Sir Richard Laken knight betoke to David Trefnant Taillour, in the vj yere of the reigne of oure liege lord the kynge thre wykes to fore Cristemas [4 December 1418], xxs in Grotynton of fales money to bere to Willim Burdon the aldur of Wemme, and y, the foreseide David Trefnant, by toke hym the smae xxs. In Condovere also withinne a fortenycht after Condulmas in the same yere [16 February 1419], the same Sir Richard Laken, knight be toke to the same David Trefnant Taillour xxvjs viijd of fals money in his owne halle in Shrosbury, and dede bydde the same David Trefnant be take this money to William Bourdon the aldur, and the same David Trefnant by toke to William Bourdon the aldur this same money withinne a sevenyth after in the stabull of Sir Richard Laken knight in Shrosbury. And whenne David be toke William Bourdon this money from Sir Richard Laken knight then seyde William Bourdon to David Trefnant that he nolde not owtre this fals money but yef he shulde have on peny to owtre another peny, and the same William Bourdon dede bydde David Trefnant that he shulde speke to Sir Richard Laken knight that he shulde ordeyne hym hardur money y smytton with a betur coyne. And whenne David Trefnant speke with Sir Richard Laken knyght and tolde hym, so thenne Sir Richard Laken knyghte dede bydde the same David, “take hed whenne thou might se in Shrosbury a smyth of thangothlyn [Llangollen, North Wales], for he is holde a curyus werkeman, and bydde hym make me a peny coyne & yef he can make that well he shall make me mo. And thenne I dede peke to the smyth as Sir Richard laken Knyght bede bydde me, and whenne the smyth had made the peny coyne the smyth brought me hit on Wenesday fourtenyght to fore Cristemas day last passed to Acton Burnell.  Also Sere Richard Laken dede bydde me whenne y hade hit of the smyth, that y shulde take hit to the same William Burdon of Wemme the aldur, and thenne with In a sevenyght aftur as I syet in my shoppe I sawe William Burdon come rydynge in to the toune of Shrosbury on hors bake; and thenne y dede gon to hym and dede be take hym the peny coyne as Sir Richard Laken knyght ded bydde me.


Dr Ted Powell is a private scholar living in Cambridge.  From 1982 to 1989 he was Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Downing College, Cambridge.  His book, Kingship, Law and Society: Criminal Justice in the Reign of Henry V (1989) has just been reprinted by Oxford.  Ted is currently researching a project on the evolution of corporation law in late medieval England.


Feature image: Depiction of a judicial combat in the Dresden codex of the Sachsenspiegel (early to mid-14th century), via Wikimedia Commons.


 

[1] J. H. Munro, Wool, Cloth and Gold (Toronto, 1972).

[2] H. Kleineke, “The Prosecution of Counterfeiting in Lancastrian England”, in Medieval Merchants and Money: Essays in Honour of James L. Bolton, ed.  M. Allen and M. Davies (London, 2016), 213-26.

[3] R. F. Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner (Cambridge, 1961), 69-74.

[4] The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark and C. Rawcliffe (Gloucester, 1992), 541-43.

[5] E. Powell, Kingship, Law and Society (Oxford, 1989), 217-24.

[6] TNA KB 27/650, Rex, mm. 23d, 30d.

[7] Rotuli Parliamentorum, 1278-1503 (6 vols, London, 1783-1832), iv, 192.

[8] “Hankeford , Sir William (c.1350–1423),” Roger Virgoe in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. David Cannadine, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/view/article/12196 (accessed April 27, 2017).

[9] Powell, Kingship, Law and Society, 224, 234.

[10] TNA KB27/650, Rex, mm. 1d, 4d, 11-12, 21-30.

[11] Punctuation has been inserted to assist with comprehension.

 

 

 

 

 

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