Trouble with the In-laws? Marriage and Murder in Thirteenth-Century England

Posted by Sara M. Butler; 25 November 2020.

On Saturday, June 15, 1287, an inquest was held at the king’s prison of Carlisle (Cumbria) into accusations against William le Macegrene of Langrigg, arrested and imprisoned for the homicide of Richard de la Ferete, for which he stood indicted. The inquest had been assembled to establish whether the indictment had been procured legitimately or maliciously, as the defendant claimed. The defendant’s objective was to be released from prison on bail. The next general eyre was five years away. Five years in prison was a dangerous and expensive proposition at a time when prisoners regularly died from “gaol fever,” malnutrition, or just outright starvation. Thus, while it was English policy to detain all defendants accused of homicide without bail, exceptions might be made if the accusation was found to have sprung from hate and spite (de odio et atya) and the suspected felon was willing to foot the bill for the inquest.

Man killing Another.

The deliberations of the inquest jurors are carefully recorded. They declared on oath that William le Macegrene had indeed slain the victim, as reported; however, he did so in defense of his life. From their perspective, then, it was excusable homicide. While he still needed to undergo an actual trial to clear him of the charges, the jurors felt confident that he should be released from prison until that time, with the expectation that he would eventually be pardoned de cursu

The jurors then proceeded to explain the circumstances that led up to Richard’s homicide and William’s involvement in it. They explained that William’s unnamed wife had sold tainted meat to a customer, an act that violated municipal regulations, put William at risk of public humiliation in the pillory and payment of a costly fine, as well as jeopardizing the future reputation of his business. When William realized what his wife had done, he beat her – and while the record does not say where that beating took place, presumably it was in public, because while he was in the process of beating her, the woman’s father, our victim Richard, seemingly materialized out of nowhere to intervene.

The jurors reported that upon seeing his daughter being thrashed by her husband, Richard felt “anger stirring in his heart.” He extracted his sword and struck William on the head so that he fell to the earth, wounded. He must have hit William with the flat of the sword, and with a good degree of restraint, because William immediately leapt up, and ran to his home, with his indignant father-in-law in hot pursuit.

The four walls of his own house did little to protect William: once again, Richard pulled out his sword and in his wrath (ira) struck William with it so that he was knocked to the ground. At this point, fearing the worst, William retaliated: he plucked his knife from his belt and stabbed his irate father-in-law in self-defense. The record does not spell it out, but presumably Richard died soon after the fact. The jurors’ focus was on William, whom they reported “scarcely escaped with his life.”

One can only imagine what daily life was like in the Macegrene household after William publicly beat his wife and slew her father. The inquest, whose report does not end with William’s narrow escape, goes on to tell us that he and his wife continued to live together for five weeks after Richard’s death, when William turned up at his diocesan church to initiate divorce proceedings (on what grounds, the record does not indicate; though, it is noteworthy that murdering your father-in-law is not actually grounds for divorce). He declared that while the case was ongoing, he did not wish to have custody of his wife; she needed to live elsewhere.[1] And again, while the jury’s report does not explicitly make the statement, the manner in which this is relayed very much gives the impression that throwing his wife out of the conjugal home may have been just the motivation his neighbors needed to report him to the authorities as a murderer and secure an indictment against him.

Husband beating his wife with a stick.

The inquest into the circumstances surrounding William le Macegrene’s indictment does not belong to the usual category of cases ransacked by historians for evidence of medieval marriage disputes. And yet, as we can see from its findings, there is much to learn about marriage, and medieval perceptions of the power relationship upon which it is founded, from the jurors’ account. That the jurors’ sympathies lay firmly with the defendant is evidenced by the fact that William’s wife is never even given a name in this inquest. Further, the language of wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, was reserved exclusively for descriptions of his father-in-law’s behavior. William, on the other hand, is presented as rational and calm: even when he beat his wife, he did so without any emotion. The jurors’ depiction brings to mind Alain de Lille’s advice regarding household government. A husband who administers beatings in anger (ira) must atone for his sin, but a beating for the purpose of discipline is laudatory.[2]  As the jurors present it, William’s violence towards his wife was not an assault, but compulsory discipline for his wife’s dishonest business practices. William was just protecting his business, after all.

The tale of self-defense produced by the jurors seems also to have undergone some creative sanitizing: it neatly conforms to the common law’s unreasonably rigid expectations of self-defense. The defendant could not be the one to provoke the confrontation; rather, he must be attacked repeatedly, fleeing each time, and then only once he is backed into a corner, with no other alternative and in defense of his life, might he pull out his own (lesser) weapon to strike one (and only one) lucky mortal blow. As Thomas Green’s Verdict According to Conscience (Chicago, 1985) observes, the willingness of medieval England’s jurors to construct wholesale such fabulous accounts of self-defense reveals not only a deep rift between official and communal sensibilities about the application of capital punishment; it also hints at a more extended definition of self-defense in which a man might defend his honor by standing his ground.

In the case of William le Macegrene, his father-in-law was challenging his right as a husband to keep his household in order however he saw fit. The jury’s finding in favor of the defendant hints that its members saw merit in William’s position – at least, merit enough to allow him out of prison on bail until a trial jury, constituted of twelve good men drawn from William’s community (and thus people who hopefully knew him better), might delve more deeply into the evidence to determine whether William deserved to be convicted. One suspects that his comportment towards his wife and neighbors in the interlude between release and trial might play a role in their decision, especially since it was his exasperated neighbors who were responsible for having him indicted in the first place.

What is perhaps most dumbfounding about the inquest jury’s findings is their reporting of the wife’s reaction to all this. Deprived of a name in the official record, she is also denied any emotion or action. She is very much a minor character in the plotline. The jurors forget about her entirely after her father appeared on the scene – it is only after William, the (anti-?)hero of our narrative, managed to evade almost certain death, that they picked up the thread of her story and tell us that for her, life went on as usual. Despite everything that had happened, she continued in residence with her husband, in the same home where he slew her father (once cannot help but wonder: was she the one forced to clean up the blood from the killing?). More important still, the jurors explain that it was not the wife who found marriage unbearable; rather it was her husband who took the initiative to sue for divorce. What do we learn from this? Was her father’s murder not reprehensible enough for her to leave her husband? Did she have nowhere to go? Or did she feel that her neighbors would see her husband’s actions as justifiable (as this jury seems to have done)?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether the two were eventually granted a divorce. Neither the York Cause Papers, nor the register for the Archbishop John le Romeyn contain any mention of this case. I can tell you that not only was William granted bail by the inquest jury, but he was never convicted for killing his father-in-law.

My purpose for dwelling on this case is to highlight how evidence of the experience of marriage, popular attitudes towards marriage, and disputes evolving from marriages can be drawn from a multitude of sources outside the records of the church courts. I am certainly not the first to make this observation. In a Speculum article in 1994, Robert Palmer warned that while the records of the church make marriage disputes look like a “self-contained unit … such cases were often part of a more complicated social reality.”[3]  In writing an article about marriage based on records of disputes arising in the king’s courts, Palmer was issuing a challenge to historians of marriage to look beyond the church – a challenge that has been mostly ignored by English historians of marriage. And here, a disclaimer: none of what I am saying is intended to devalue the records of consistory courts. They provide invaluable knowledge about the making and breaking of marriages. But they don’t provide the whole picture.  

Let us imagine what those divorce proceedings would look like if we could find them.

In order to obtain a successful suit of divorce between William le Macegrene and his wife, the actual story of their marriage would need to be “tweaked” substantially. While killing her father was truly horrific, it was not grounds for a divorce and thus not particularly relevant to such a suit. Cruelty, of course, was pertinent – indeed, cruelty was one of the few acceptable grounds for a divorce a mensa et thoro (from table and bed), a judicial separation that would permit the two to live in separate homes and extinguish both parties’ rights to the conjugal debt, although the marriage bond itself would remain intact, as would the expectation that William support his wife financially.

Granted, being labeled a wife-beater was not good for one’s reputation. This is made abundantly clear from a suit of defamation pursued before the archbishop of Carlisle in 1341 or 1342 by Thomas Lengleys, knight. Thomas claimed that his reputation has been “gravely harmed” by the “malicious” rumors that he had beaten his wife, Alice, so severely that he killed the child in her womb.[4] Here it is noteworthy that Thomas’s indignation was over damage to his reputation because of what looks like were well-founded rumors: his wife’s suit for divorce on the grounds of cruelty in 1342 spelled out just how brutal his behavior actually was.[5] Nonetheless, the damage to his reputation was such that the costs of litigation were worth trying to overturn the truth. With Thomas’s hypocritical outrage in mind, it seems hard to imagine that William would have permitted himself to be cast in this light.  Moreover, because William is the one who initiated the suit for divorce, cruelty was an unlikely motivation – he would have had to accuse his wife of being cruel, and what man was willing to portray himself in court as a victim cowering at the hands of his domineering wife?

It is far more likely that William’s intention was to fabricate an incestuous relationship (not necessarily a blood relationship; a fictitious one-night stand with one of his wife’s relatives would also do the trick), or assert precontract (that is, a pre-existing marriage) to an old girlfriend. Either assertion would lay the groundwork for a divorce a vinculo matrimonii – an annulment from the bonds of marriage, declaring that the marriage should never have taken place because of the preexisting impediment.

In either case, the killing of his wife’s father would not have been relevant to the suit of divorce; and because the examinations by ecclesiastical officials that produced official testimonies were generated in response to a series of set questions, it would have been difficult to find a reason to bring the matter up. How different would this marriage look in the court records if we never knew that William slew his wife’s father?

The chance find of this case among the inquests de odio et atya is a useful reminder that unhappy marriages have a way of popping up in the most unlikely places.


Man killing another. From Gerald of Wales, British Library. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Husband beating wife with a stick (1360-1370). Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

[1]  The National Archives (Kew, Surrey), C 144/27, no. 25.

[2] Alain de Lille, Liber Poenitalialis, ed. Jean Longère (2 vols, Louvain, 1965); as discussed in Hannah Skoda, “Violent Discipline or Disciplining Violence? Experience and Reception of Domestic Violence in Late Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth-Century Paris and Picardy,” Cultural and Social History 6.1 (2009), 13.

[3] Robert C. Palmer, “Contexts of Marriage in Medieval England: Evidence from the King’s Court circa 1300,” Speculum 59, no. 1 (1994), 42-43.

[4] Robin L. Storey, ed., The Register of John Kirkby I, Bishop of Carlisle (Canterbury and York Society, vol. 79, 1993), 113.

[5] Storey, Register of John Kirkby, 135 and 137. See also Borthwick Institute, York Cause Papers E. 46 (1340-42), Alice de Kirkebride v. Thomas Lengleys.

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