Law Enforcement Officials and the Limits of Violence in Medieval England

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 18 August 2020.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, William Hemyng, a chaplain associated with Hereford cathedral, experienced a harrowing ordeal. Richard Rollesden, undersheriff to Thomas Parker, the county sheriff, stole 21 marks of goods and chattels from a local gentleman, then pinned the crime on Hemyng, whom he arrested and indicted by means of a jury fraudulently empaneled with jurors he had bribed. Hemyng’s time in prison was truly horrific. He tells us that they

sette a pon hym a peyre of grete gyves and boltys of iron to importable to bere and bolted his armes the space of a yerde frome other and then leyde hym yn a peyre of stockys in a depe pytte and with all this peyn ther hongyd hym frome the grounde and kepte hym frome mete and drynke and frome his frendys

(set upon him a pair of great fetters and bolts of iron too heavy to bear and bolted his arms the space of a yard from each other, and then laid him in a pair of stocks in a deep pit and with all this pain there hanged him from the ground and kept him from meat and drink and from his friends)

until he promised to pay a fine of £10, 6 shillings, and 8 pence in order to be delivered from prison. He, and the friends who stood surety for the funds, were then bound over in an obligation to the sheriff for a sum of 100 marks, promising that they would never implead, vex nor trouble the sheriff and his men for any matter relating to the above treatment. To make certain Hemyng saw the merit in silence, the undersheriffs threatened to beat him and any of his acquaintances if they spoke out.

Hemyng’s experience brings to life all the worst aspects of medieval prison from our popular imaginations. In the middle ages we see regularly on the big screen, prisoners are cast into damp, dark dungeons, replete with shackles, gruel, and rats for company. Food and rodents are the only essentials missing from Hemyng’s narrative.

Admittedly, what we don’t tend to imagine is that very same prisoner later presenting himself as a humble petitioner before the Lord Chancellor of England in his court at Westminster, to complain of this “grevous wrong and hurt.” Nor do we imagine him seeking writs of subpoena to be served to all those responsible for his torment, to have them appear before the chancellor in his court in order to be examined regarding these circumstances, with the goal of having them punished, and the petitioner’s money restored, all of which the petitioner asks the chancellor to carry out “as good feith and consciens requireth… for the love of god and in the wey of charyte.”[1]

Unfortunately, as is typical of cases in the late medieval court of Chancery, while the petitioner’s bill survived the era, the court’s judgment did not, thus we have no way of knowing whether the chancellor was equally horrified by Hemyng’s treatment at the hands of his ruthless jailers. Nonetheless, the fact that numerous other ex-prisoners also showed up in the very same court seeking justice against their jailers gives us good reason to believe that someone with legal know-how believed they might win their cases, and was thus advising them to sue.

Hemyng’s case reminds us that even in the Middle Ages there were restraints on the behavior of law enforcement officials. They were not given carte blanche to do as they saw fit; and when their behavior exceeded the limits of acceptability, there were attempts (some successful; others not) to hold them accountable.

First, we need to tackle a few fallacies perpetuated by Hollywood.

Most medieval prisoners were not held in deep pits. Jails were typically housed in castles or city gates, the only highly fortified buildings in the English landscape. The setting meant that they did not have the same kind of institutional feel as prisons do today, but they were still rigorously organized. The Fleet prison in London in many respects represents the medieval ideal. The prison was divided into six wards: (1) the barons’ 1280px-Buckingham_OldCountyGaol02ward (for the wealthy), (2) the women’s ward, (3) the two-penny ward (that is, where accommodations cost two penny per night), (4) the beggars’ ward (accommodations were free), (5) Bolton’s ward (the most fortified section of the prison where dangerous felons could be bolted to walls or floors), and (6) the tower chambers (for political prisoners).[2]

As these divisions imply, the costs associated with prison were the greatest hardship. The crown’s strategy for funding penal institutions was to shift the burden of the expenses onto the backs of those housed in the facilities. The crown appointed sheriffs to assume responsibility for the prisons within their jurisdictions. Sheriffs, in turn, appointed jailers or undersheriffs whose positions were either low-paid or unpaid. Jailers expected to support themselves out of the monies tendered by prisoners for a wide variety of fee payments. The costs associated with incarceration were multiple and varied. Prisoners doled out cash for every expense imaginable. There were entry fees, which included a round of drinks for prison personnel to celebrate one’s arrival in prison and tips for the chamberlain, porter and jailer, as well as fees for meals and bedding; wood for a fire; candles for light; a bond for good behavior, and of course a discharge fee upon deliverance. Rates were based upon one’s ability to pay, with differential pricing for lords, knights, gentry, ordinary folk, and beggars. Quality of life in prison differed considerably depending upon a prisoner’s personal wealth. For the price of 2 shillings and 4 pence per week, prisoners lodged in the barons’ ward had separate rooms with use of a parlor, servants to attend to their needs, and friends could come and go as they pleased. Affluent inmates might even find incarceration conducive to writing, as the works of Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, and Sir Thomas More would seem to imply.

Nor were most prisoners shackled, although this is only because they paid for the privilege of remaining unfettered. The sewet – the fee for removal of shackles – was supposed to be “reasonable” in price, theoretically within the reach of most prisoners’ budgets. [3] Of course, what was considered reasonable was not the same across the board. The keeper of Winchester jail in 1358 charged a one-time fee of 5 pence.[4] The prison code of Coventry issued in 1515, designated 2 pence as an acceptable sum, while the keeper of the county jail of Somerset charged one shilling per week for his prisoners to be free from irons.[5]

Despite the inconsistency in rates, prisoners still felt empowered to seek justice when sheriffs’ and wardens’ behavior leaned towards extortion. A late fifteenth-century petition sees Thomas Asplond complain because the sheriff of Cambridge demanded a fee of £10, payable at a future date, for the removal of his irons. When Asplond later refused to pay up, saying that he had only made the promise under duress, and thus such an obligation was not valid at law, the sheriff re-arrested him and tossed him back into prison, where he “will suffre none of his ffrendes to speke with hym” until Asplond paid the fee. Rather than comply with the sheriff’s demands, Asplond’s friends sought out the chancellor, demanding justice for the “great peyne and durance of prison” which Asplond had endured because of the sheriff’s “grete power and sotell [subtle] means.”[6]

Second, we discover that medieval men and women had standards, even if they were not clearly spelled out in legislation. In this respect, prisoners’ complaints inscribed in bills to the chancellor provide excellent insight into what the public generally considered unacceptable behavior by law enforcement officials. The formerly incarcerated regularly complained about the extortionate behavior of their jailers, withholding of alms meant for prisoners (not their guards!), use of excessive force, and inadequate living conditions. Many of these same concerns are echoed in petitions brought to parliament.

Some grievances, however, imply that prisoners set a higher bar for their treatment than we might expect of the era. For example, Robert Fossell of London, a brewer housed in Ludgate prison for debt, complained because he didn’t like that the guards were always watching him and they wouldn’t let him sleep.[7] Maurice Angell protested because he was arrested in a deceitful manner. Apparently, two of the sheriff’s officers requested that he help them convey a prisoner to the compter of London: it turns out that he was the prisoner.[8]

Incarcerated debtor Davy Panter sued John White, deputy to the warden of the Fleet Prison, for assault and battery because when Panter tried to escape en route to prison, the deputy manhandled him. Medieval jailers were traditionally unarmed – wardens only permitted their jailers to carry weapons if they believed a plot to escape was brewing[9]  – which meant that White used his fists to restrain Panter, although in his own petition to the chancellor he claimed only to have “leyd fast hande on hym.”[10]

The legal record highlights also that Englishmen and women expected prisoners to be treated humanely. When John Astley the younger, a gentleman[11] who had long been in prison for “great causes,” fell sick, his father petitioned the chancellor for him to be released from prison, so that he might die in the privacy of his own home.[12] Alice widow of William Tapton complained that her jailer refused to send for a surgeon to dress her wounds.[13] From the patent rolls, we know that not all jailers were so callous. When Richard Webbe, keeper of the king’s jail of Dorchester, was faced with a suspected felon in labor, he “relaxed her imprisonment” – a phrase that he does not explain but that would seem to imply putting her in more comfortable surroundings. Before the king, Webbe reported that he assumed “she would by no means escape” – not an unreasonable assumption of a woman in labor. Of course, she did escape, leaving both her incarcerated husband and newborn child behind. The king took pity on Webbe, and excused him the fine of 100 shillings normally imposed for jail break.[14]

William Bury, keeper of the jail in Cambridge, suffered a similar plight. One of the felons under his care feigned illness of such a dire nature that he called for a confessor to administer last rites. Bury not only procured the necessary chaplain, but he brought the indicted felon out into the garden of the castle and left the two of them alone so that they might have some privacy during confession. The prisoner took this as an opportunity to scale the wall, retreat to the nearest church, and claim sanctuary. The king also saw fit to pardon Bury the fine.[15]

Most importantly, jailers who caused the death of a prisoner were liable. When a coroner held an inquest into the death of a prisoner, the king required him to determine whether abuse or maltreatment was the cause of death. The legal records also reveal examples when jurors were determined to hold jailers accountable. One of the moOld_Newgatest spectacular examples comes from the year 1290. Richard of Harlow (de Herlawe), servant to John Gille the jailer of Newgate (since deceased), was indicted of the death of one of his prisoners, Philip Lauweles of Ireland. Richard kept Philip in such “grave pressing penance” (gravum pena constrictus) that he died his second day in prison. Richard was immediately arrested for homicide and imprisoned also at Newgate, presumably a dreadful experience for a former prison guard.

Despite being incarcerated for suspected homicide, Richard sought bail on the grounds that he had been accused out of hate and spite (de odio et atya). The investigation into his claim resulted in one of the rare instances in which the jury dissented with the prisoner who footed the bill for the inquest. The jury declared that Richard was wholly guilty. They claimed that

he held the prisoner out of malice and true ferocity with chains and iron devices,  to the extent that the neck of the aforesaid Philip was broken by the extreme pressure and constriction of those chains and devices, and the bones of the back of the aforesaid Philip were broken through the middle. They [the jurors] say also that the aforesaid Richard, in order to produce a greater injury in the aforesaid Philip and in order to hasten his death more greatly, seated himself on the neck of the aforesaid Philip.[16]

In this instance, the jury’s verdict was not the final word on the matter; it merely resulted in Richard being denied bail. Yet given their uncommonly tough stance, it comes as no surprise that Richard’s trial jury also found him guilty. He was hanged. [17]

All of these cases underscore that law enforcement officials did sometimes employ high levels of violence towards suspected felons in medieval England; nonetheless, even in the era whose very name has come to be a byword for “backward” and “violence” (thanks, Quentin Tarantino), law enforcement officials were still not permitted to use violence without limits. While we do not have a clear statement issued by the crown outlining general expectations for officers of the law, Richard of Harlow’s punishment makes clear that both justices and jurors expected prison staff to adhere to standards that did not include such inhumane treatment as sitting on a suspected felon’s neck. Indeed, there is good reason to believe they were expected to treat their suspected felons as human beings.


Featured Image: “Burning witches, with others held in stocks.” 14th c. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

Old County Gaol of Buckingham. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

Newgate, the Old City Gate and Prison. Public Domain. Wikipedia.

[1] TNA C 1/22/192, Hemyng v. Parker (1493-1500).

[2] Margery Bassett, “The Fleet Prison in the Middle Ages,” The University of Toronto Law Journal 5 (1944): 383-402.

[3] Jonathan Rose, “Feodo de Compedibus Vocato le Sewet: The Medieval Prison ‘oeconomy,” in Law in the City: Proceedings of the Seventeenth British Legal History Conference, ed. Paul Brand, Andrew Lewis and Paul Mitchell (London: Four Courts Press, 2005), 80.

[4] Ralph B. Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 179.

[5] Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England, 170 and 180.

[6] TNA C 1/64/986 Asplond v. Frevyle (1475-80, or 1483-85).

[7] TNA C 1/67/142, Fossell v. Mayor of London (1475-80, or 1483-85).

[8] TNA C 1/47/70, Angell v. Sheriffs of London (1472-73, or 1475).

[9] Bassett, “Fleet Prison,” 398.

[10] C 1/46/88, White v. The Sheriffs of London (1433-43, of 467-72).

[11] Presumably this is the son of John Astley, knight of the Garter.

[12] TNA C 1/64/158, Asteley v. unknown (1475-80, or 1483-85)

[13] Of course, she also complained that her jailers inflicted those wounds (among other things). See Tapton v. Colsyll (1495), in Select Cases in the Star Chamber (1477-1509), ed. I.S. Leadam (Selden Society, vol. 16, 1903), 51.

[14] Calendar of Patent Rolls (1440), Henry VI, vol. 3, 472.

[15] Calendar of Patent Rolls (1452), Henry VI, vol. 5, 551.

[16] TNA C 144/30, no. 16 (Aug 1, 1290). Many thanks to Leslie Lockett of Ohio State University for her assistance with this transcription and translation.

[17] TNA JUST 1/547A, m. 6d (1290).

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