Carts, Ships, and Trains: Abusing the Deodand

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 29 May 2020.

On 28 Nov. 1313, chancery issued a royal mandate to the bishop of Ely requesting that he deliver a sum of £50 sterling to Nicholas du Vual, a merchant from Caen. The mandate was responding to a complaint lodged by the merchant. He was in England on business accompanied by his servant, Simon Basil, selling wares in the markets of Boston (Lincs.). Nicholas planned to stay on in the country, but wanted the profits sent home directly to his wife, so he sewed the money into the lining of a linen shirt. Per instruction, Simon donned the shirt and then set off for Caen. Traveling by night, presumably in the interest of speed, he made a miscalculation in his footing and drowned in the river Little (today known as the Little Ouse) at Littleport (Cambs.) in the liberty of the bishop of Ely. The bailiffs of the liberty discovered the money sewn into the shirt while performing an inquest into cause of death. The money was immediately declared deodand – and because the bishop asserted the privilege to collect all deodands in his liberty, the money was deposited directly into the bishop’s coffers. Regardless of its status, Nicholas wanted the money back, so he petitioned the king. An inquest was held in the city of London to prove that the money in fact belonged to him (as opposed to his now deceased servant). As a result, the king was asking the bishop to return it to Nicholas, so that the merchant would not have to suffer “great loss and manifest impoverishment.”[1] Acknowledgment that the bishop had indeed surrendered the money appears in another letter patent dated to 28 Jan. 1314, a letter which includes a promise from the king for compensation for his loss.[2]

These missives offer insight into the place of the deodand in medieval England’s judicial system. A deodand is a chattel, either an inanimate object, or an animal, that caused the death of a human being. More often than not, it meant a horse from which someone had fallen, or by which a person had been trampled.  It might also include a pig or a dog that mauled a child to death; a hen that started a house fire, burning its inhabitants alive; a pot full of scalding water into which a child fell and later died from the burns; a well into which someone tumbled and drowned; a cart that ran over and killed a drunk or sleeping person; or a ship from which a person stumbled and died.  The word deodand comes from deo dandum (to be given to God). As the nomenclature implies, the object was to be sold and the money applied to pious causes, typically by the king’s almoner. Indeed, the king’s correspondence regularly glosses deodand as “the king’s alms,” disbursed to the benefit of the souls not only of the king and the dead, but of all England’s subjects.[3]

In the case of Nicholas du Vual’s £50 sterling, however, the bishop’s assertion to the privilege to collect deodand made a mockery of the practice. The coins did not cause Simon to lose his way in the dark, stumble and drown in the river; it also seems hard to imagine that the money was so heavy that it prevented him from swimming to the surface. The bishop’s officials falsely declared the money the cause of Simon’s death because in doing so the bishop could lay claim to it. And his ploy worked – even if he was forced to surrender the money to the Norman merchant, the king compensated him for doing so.

Watermill from the Luttrell Psalterion

Part of the problem, of course, is that there was no law of deodand clearly spelled out for medieval coroners and their juries to implement. The one stipulation that appears in both the legal treatises and the legal record is that movement matters: omnia quae movent ad mortem sunt Deo dandum (“all things, which while in motion cause death, are to be given to God”). While this may seem a minor stipulation, it made an enormous difference in terms of exactly what was eligible for forfeiture. To offer an example: an inquest, dated 3 Sept. 1377, into the death of William Wanter of Stoke Goldington (Bucks.), recounts how the deceased went to the fulling mill at Stoke Goldington on the River Ouse and was killed there by the mill, his body later found lying in the water by his wife. Rather than pronounce the entire mill deodand, the inquest jury instead narrowed their sights on the (unspecified) moving part, which they appraised at 3s.[4] For the miller, this declaration meant the difference between an oppressive fine for unsafe conditions at his mill versus the loss of his livelihood altogether.

Compassion is apparent also in the jury’s verdict in an inquest dated to 28 Aug. 1386 over the body of Maynard Fanyeheline, a ten-year old German boy living in Boston. The boy was epileptic. While standing onboard a ship called the Mary Stantem at the port in Boston, he suffered a seizure, causing him to fall from the ship. The ship was lying between some rocks, such that when he fell, he hit the rocks and smashed his head. He did not die immediately – rather, he languished for two days before the injury finally took its toll. In this instance, the jurors could very well have declared the ship deodand and had it confiscated; instead, they placed the blame for Maynard’s death on the rocks, assessed at 4d. [5]

The jurors’ determination in the death of Maynard Fanyeheline hints at their admirable creativity in implementing the law to prevent the deodand from impoverishing fellow Englishmen and women. Something similar is evident in the 1378 inquest into the death of Thomas Ballard of the parish of Clyve (Kent). The shipman was “carelessly standing upon a manure heap” on Billingsgate wharf, trying to unfasten an empty boat called “cokbot” moored there, when the heap collapsed inward. Thomas was thrown into the Thames and drowned. The jury declared that the boat did not move throughout the process; thus, it was the bottom of the manure pile that was really to blame, and it had no value worth confiscating.[6]

A medieval cart.

Historians have long remarked on jurors’ tendency towards merciful assessments. Mercy assumed numerous forms: undervaluing goods, knowing that it was easier for the escheator to collect the value of the goods from the owners, rather than confiscate the chattel itself; asserting that there was no motion, such that when a cart ran over a child, jurors’ declared that only the wheels on the cart were moving, and thus were subject to deodand. [7] It was not only the jurors who were merciful. Occasionally, the king also took pity on those who, already wrestling with a death in their midst, also had to deal with substantial material losses. This is evident in the case of William le Roter of Shrewsbury, who begged the king for mercy. His cart and horses, valued at 33s. 1d., had been confiscated as deodand after his servant, John Strocetorteys, was killed accidentally. William sent his servant to collect brushwood in the forest of Middlewood, but he must have overloaded the cart. While he was loading it up, the cart broke open; the wood spilled out on top of the servant, killing him. Yet, William pleaded with the king that he had nothing to support himself, his wife, and his children if the cart and horses were taken from him. In a letter dated to 3 Sept. 1275, the king took pity on his impoverished subject: he ordered the cart and horses returned to William le Roter.[8]

Not everyone was so amenable as to comply with the rigors of the law. There are numerous instances in which the owner of the goods did not wait around to see how the jury would lean. At the inquest into the death of John Farnaham of North Wokyndon, dated to 29 Sept. 1367, the jurors declared that the deceased clerk had boarded the ship belonging to John Sevar of Portsoken at dusk one evening, planning to journey the following day to his home village. Yet, during the night while they were all sleeping, a storm blew in and overturned the ship, such that John Farnaham drowned. Presumably, knowing that he stood to lose his ship, John Sevar packed it up and hightailed out of town. As expected, the inquest jury declared the ship deodand, and assessed its value at 20s. – providing the king’s officials could track it down. [9]  Similarly, in 1285, when Henry de Lascy, earl of Lincoln, discovered that his horse, worth 40 marks (!), had been adjudged a deodand, rather than surrender it, his instinct was to flee with the horse. While he was eventually pardoned his rash attempt to evade the law, the impulsive earl was responsible for paying the king the 40 marks owed, in addition to a fine for abducting the horse. [10]

Others tried to weasel out of losing their goods by shifting the blame for the death. For example, in October of 1299, when Robert Gerodonis’s servant fell from his master’s horse and drowned in the river Thames, Robert refused to accept that the horse was to blame. Rather, he saw that it was the servant’s “imprudence” for watering the horse in water that was too deep. The king decided to show Robert “special favor”: he ordered the sheriff to return the horse to Robert. [11]

While sympathy played a key part in the administration of the deodand in some instances, in others, the practice functioned merely as a money grab. This is evident particularly in those cases where the king’s officials seized the cart, the horses, and the goods with which the cart was laden. While an argument can certainly be made for both cart and horses – the goods?  This happened on multiple occasions. In 1281, the king granted to the Friars Preachers of London a cart with four horses, containing wool and cheese, valued at 50s., which had recently been seized as deodand.[12] In 1302, a cart loaded with grain as well as its two horses, responsible for the death of John Whiteheved at Saltry, was granted to the prior and Austin friars of Huntedon.[13] Reynold Cartere of Gloucester complained to the king when the abbot of Crowthorne seized his cart and eight horses, as well as the tun of wine his servant William was delivering when he fell under one of the wheels and was crushed to death. Of course, what seems to have interested the king most about Reynold’s grievance is that the deodand should have gone to the king, not to the abbot. He ordered an inquest to determine which objects were in fact responsible for the servant’s death and demanded that they be delivered to the crown. [14]

And what of those instances in which the inquest jury’s assessments seem extortionate rather than merciful? At the inquest into the death of Elias Ide, a seaman aboard the

A medieval cog.

Seinte Marie Cogge, held 20 Nov. 1336, jurors determined that he climbed the mast of the vessel by a rope while drunk. In descending the rope, he slipped and fell to his death. The jurors declared that his drunkenness and the rope were the cause of his death, “neither the ship nor anything belonging on it was moving or being moved except the rope, which they appraise at 10s.”[15]  On the surface, the jury’s decision to declare just the rope, rather than the mast or the entire boat, as deodand appears merciful; yet, 10s. for a rope? Ten shillings was more than enough to buy a decent cow. Something here simply does not jibe. Was this verdict an attempt to punish the shipmaster for not supervising his men adequately? For not running a tight ship? Regardless, the jury’s verdict was overturned in the long run. The city of London supplied the king with the services of the Seinte Marie Cogge, under the ownership of William Haunsard, the ex-sheriff, the following year in his battle against the French – hinting that the entire ship was in fact forfeit to the city of London as deodand.[16]

Reading over the coroners’ rolls, one can’t help but wonder why anyone got into the carting or shipping industries in this period. Both jobs were high risk; and the practice of deodand meant that in all likelihood, every carter or ship owner would experience the anxiety of an inquest at least once, as well as the possibility of confiscation of the goods upon which their livelihoods relied. One of my favorite miracle stories succeeds in driving this point home. Drawn from the canonization of Saint Thomas de Cantilupe, the story recounts how an oxcart belonging to Robert and Leticia Russell accidentally crushed their son, Geoffrey, to death. Fearing that their cart and oxen would be declared deodand, the grief-stricken parents failed to notify the local authorities. Instead, they hid the boy’s body in bed, and prayed to Saint Thomas for assistance in their time of need. At dusk of the same day, their prayers were answered: Thomas restored the boy miraculously to life, not only saving the boy but also the cart and oxen.[17]

Petitions presented in the House of Commons demonstrate that the seizure of goods as deodand was disastrous for trade relations. In November of 1381, a petition showcased concerns about foreign merchants and their willingness to come to England to trade. For them, the deodand was a bizarre custom – nothing like it existed anywhere else in Europe – and they were sometimes reluctant to take on the added risk that trade in England involved. As the petition explains, foreign merchants needed to be treated amicably – and the forfeiture of their ships through the deodand did not fall into that category.[18] The plight of the Fredeland, a Hanseatic ship from Eastland, demonstrates just how risky trade in England might be. The Fredeland was anchored at the port of Great Yarmouth (Norfolk), when “certain men floating carelessly by night in a boat ran upon the cable thereof and were drowned.” As the complaint heard in Parliament recounts, the merchants aboard the ship knew nothing about what had happened. Nor was their behavior at all reckless or irresponsible: it was merely an accident. And yet, the ship and all its contents were seized as deodand. The appeal before Parliament held in favor of the Fredeland: they declared that the ship should not be held for deodand. [19]

Parliament also expressed numerous concerns about the deodand and its impact on domestic shipping. In 1377, they reported that many English subjects have been “greatly injured, and many of them ruined, because their ships and boats have many times in the past been forfeited to the king and to other lords of franchises” through deaths by misadventure.  And because of the forfeitures,

said lieges have no means to keep ships, or invest their money in the making or repair of the same, as they did in the past, to the great reduction of their fleet and harm to the land.

Thus, the House petitioned the king to abolish the custom, at least as it applies to ships. His answer: “The king will readily do that for all who wish to plead theron in particular, saving always his regality.”[20] That is, he would not eliminate the custom, but he might consider waiving it, if a ship’s owner complains sufficiently.

In 1381, Commons again complained that if the king did not modify the forfeiture of ships and vessels on the sea and in fresh water by way of deodand, he will see the consequences of his actions. Deodand “contributes greatly to the reluctance of men to build new vessels, and if it endure it will destroy the fleet forever.”[21]

Finally, in 1399, Commons adopted a new tack. Their complaint focused on flat-bottomed boats, used to ship wares up and down the river Thames. Noting the vast range of accidents involving these boats, “through the breaking of the cable, rope, sprit, or mast of a flat-bottomed boat,” resulting in forfeiture as deodand, the complaint explains that no one dares make flat-bottomed boats anymore,

to the great detriment of the lords and commons of the aforesaid realm, and this is a major reason why victuals and various other commodities are dearer, both in London and elsewhere in the country, because of the lack of flat-bottomed boats to transport them.

They respectfully requested that in the future, such ships not be subject to forfeiture.[22]

The crown’s response was as one might suspect: silence. Why give up such a lucrative privilege? It made more sense to keep the privilege in place and simply waive it when seizure of a ship as deodand might damage international trading relations or enrage a loyal servant. Moreover, doing so only emphasized the king’s reputation for mercy, painting him the magnanimous lord who puts his subjects’ needs before his own.

It seems somehow ironic, then, that the death blow to the deodand was eventually cast by a future branch of the transportation industry: railway companies. The Deodand Abolition Act of 1846 was pushed largely by railway interests, industrialists tired of seeing their trains confiscated as deodand by inquest jurors eager to hold companies accountable for occupational accidents. [23] What this remarkable history tells us is that the story of the deodand is, in fact, a capitalist’s success story. From carts and ships to trains, with a few tussles along the way with steamships, love of God, as expressed through the deodand, finally gave way to love of material goods.



“Henry I in a hulk ship.” Illustration from the Chronicle of John of Worcester – MS 157, fol 383r. at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

Watermill from Luttrell Psalter. MS 42130 (c. 1325-40). Public Domain. British Library.

A medieval cart. Public Domain.

Medieval depiction of a cog on a seal of Stralsund. Public Domain. Wikipedia.



[1] Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1216-1509, 55 vols. (London: HMSO, 1891-1916), Edward II, vol. 2, 52 (hereafter, CPR).

[2] CPR, Edward II, vol. 2, 80-81.

[3] Calendar of Close Rolls, 1273-1485, 45 vols. (London: HMSO, 1911-63), Edward I, vol. 2, 103-12 (hereafter, CCR); also, CCR, Edward II, vol. 2, 42-46.

[4] The National Archives, Kew, Surrey (hereafter, TNA) JUST 2/14, m. 2.

[5] TNA JUST 2/92, m. 4d.

[6] Sharpe, London Coroners’ Rolls, 275-76.

[7] Anna Pervukhin, “A Study in the Creation of Common Law Rules,” American Journal of Legal History 47, no. 3 (2005): 237-56, at 245.

[8] CCR, Edward I, vol. 1, 209-212.

[9] Reginald R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of Coroners’ Rolls of the City of London, A.D. 1300-1378 (London: R. Clay & Sons, Limited, 1913), 272-73.

[10] CCR, Edward I, vol. 2, 310-312.

[11] CCR, Edward I, vol. 4, 284.

[12] CPR, Edward I, vol. 1, 458.

[13] CPR, Edward I, vol. 4, 60.

[14] CCR, Richard II, vol. 4, 448-57.

[15] Sharpe, Calendar of Coroners’ Rolls, 177.

[16] Henry T. Riley, Memorials of London and London Life in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1868), 195 and 205.

[17] Acta Sanctorum, Tomus Octobris I (Antwerp: Petrum Joannem Vander Plassche, 1765), 621.

[18] “Richard II: November 1381,” in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. Chris Given-Wilson, Paul Brand, Seymour Phillips, Mark Ormrod, Geoffrey Martin, Anne Curry, and Rosemary Horrox (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005).

[19] “Richard II: February 1383,” in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

[20] “Richard II: October 1377,” in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

[21] “Richard II: November 1381,” in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

[22] “Henry IV: October 1399, Part 1,” in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England.

[23] See Elisabeth Cawthon, “New Life for the Deodand: Coroners’ Inquests and Occupational Deaths in England, 1830-46,” American Journal of Legal History 33, no. 2 (1989): 137-47. Cawthon also has much to say about steamships being confiscated by inquest juries as deodand.

One comment

  1. Unless Basil was carrying foreign gold coin (there was no English gold coinage in circulation between the 1260s and 1344) carrying £50 meant carrying approximately 50 pounds’ weight of silver, which is more than enough to drown a man.

    If Basil was carrying solely foreign gold coin, £50 would be about 2 2/3 pounds in weight.

    However, if English buyers are buying with silver, then even if foreign buyers (eg of wool) are buying with gold, is it likely that a foreign seller, such as Basil’s master, would be able to amass enough gold in Boston marketplace to send all his sale proceeds home in gold?

    Liked by 1 person

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