Forgive us our Trespasses: Reconciliation in Later Medieval England

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 22 August 2022.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” This venerable line of the Lord’s Prayer, mumbled tonelessly without even a pretense of sincerity by many a public-school child and parishioner over the years, was one that got medieval preachers rather hot under the collar. Numerous medieval sermons focus on the hypocrisy of Christians who beg God’s forgiveness for their own sins but refuse to forgive the slights and offenses of their friends and neighbors. In the days leading up to Easter when the entire parish was expected to confess in preparation for receiving the Eucharist, the subject of forgiveness became particularly urgent. Parish priests warned their congregants of the dangers of consuming the host with rancor in their hearts. Only those who were reconciled to both God and their enemies might receive the sacrament of the altar safely.

The risks of feigning reconciliation just to receive the sacrament are underscored by one particular Middle English homily. The priest tells us of “a worthy woman” who “hated deadly a poor woman [for] more than seven years.” Despite being “out of charity,” she lined up to receive the holy sacrament at Easter alongside the rest of her parish. At the last moment, her confessor refused to give her the host until she had forgiven the “poor woman her trespass.” She immediately replied that she would do as she was bidden.

And so for the shame of the world more than for the awe of God, she forgave her the trespass, for she would not that worthy Easter day be without her rights. Then when the service was done and all the people had eaten [the host], the neighbors came with this poor woman unto this worthy woman’s house with presents to cheer her and thank God highly that they were accorded. But then this wretched woman said, ‘When I forgave this woman her trespass, [did I do so] with my heart as I did with my mouth? Nay then, I pray God that I never take up this rush at my foot.’ Then she stooped to take it up, and the devil strangled her even there.[1]

The overly dramatic nature of the story was probably not sufficient on its own to convince medieval parishioners of the importance of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the story strives to teach parishioners about the necessity of getting along with one’s neighbors in a world where people lived in small communities within close quarters. Long-running disputes between neighbors caused rifts that affected everyone in a village. No wonder the worthy woman’s neighbors prepared for a celebration when they thought a seven-year dispute had finally come to an end!

Reconciliation was not just a matter of concern for parish priests and anxious villagers. Early English law made reconciliation a priority. The Leges Henrici Primi (c. 1108-09), for example, speaks of the need to restore amor (love) and amicitia (friendship) numerous times. Not only were litigants asked to “consent” to the judgments in their cases, but if they were required to make amends, the first step was “an oath of reconciliation” (iuramento pacis) to those they had offended.[2] Indeed, Naomi Hurnard observed that until the year 1255, the king’s pardon was conditional on making peace with the victim’s family.[3] The growing emphasis on crimes as breaches of the king’s peace rather than private matters between individuals meant that the rituals of reconciliation were eventually ousted from the legal forum, but that does not mean that they were abandoned.

In feudal circles, “good lordship” came to include also helping one’s vassals work through their problems and restore harmony to a community.[4] In urban settings, the job was left up to city officials, who devoted the majority of their time to resolving the disputes of local inhabitants. This is made clear by the 1479 articles of the office of the mayor of Bristol, which declares that both the mayor and the sheriff will make themselves available six days a week (with the exception of feast days) between eight and eleven in the morning, and then again two to five in the afternoon in order to hear disputes and “to set parties in rest and ease” with a suitable compromise.[5]

In the countryside, parish priests donned the umpire’s hat in local disputes. Lovedays, that is, planned mediations between parties with the goal of finding a suitable compromise, were often strategically planned to coincide with baptisms. Much like the sacrament of the altar, baptism was another symbolic moment in which we are freed of our sins and reconciled to God and community. Proofs of age (in which witnesses present evidence for their memories of a birth in order to prove an heir had come of age) are replete with witnesses who testify to taking advantage of the joy and good will ushered in by a new life to restore peace. For example, a proof of age from 1426 tells us how a longstanding dispute between John Plecy and Thomas Barbour of Wareham came to an end with the baptism of John’s son, also named John Plecy. “Hearing of the birth,” Barbour rushed to the chapel “and asked all the neighbours to intercede with John to pardon him, and he gave him a release for all actions.” The date on the written release was how he knew the date of John’s son’s birth.[6]

“Infant Baptism” from Rogier van der Weyden’s “Seven Sacraments,” c. 1440-45.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. Wikidata. Public Domain.

Events surrounding the death of Richard del See remind us that these rituals existed even in instances of homicide. This is particularly important given the high rate of acquittals in medieval England: in his study of fourteenth-century England, Thomas Green calculated an acquittal rate of 85 per cent for homicide.[7] One suspects that many of those acquittals were in fact explicit statements by trial jurors that they believed the defendant deserved a second chance. But if quarrels over late payments on loans or the location of property lines were enough to divide entire villages, how difficult must it have been to return to one’s community after a homicide?

Richard del See’s death comes to our attention first in August of 1390, when his widow, Mariota, appeared before James of Pickering, the sheriff of Yorkshire, and Simon of Elvington and John del More, the county coroners. In court before these officials, she appealed Robert of Ellerbeck, servant of Richard Storor, citizen and merchant of York, for killing her husband. She recounted how in September of the previous year, in the neighborhood of St Peter in the City of York, Robert had killed her husband and she was prepared to prove this by jury trial.[8]

At the (unfortunately undated) trial in the city of York, we hear a more complicated version of the events. Jurors report that Richard del See of York and Robert of Ellerbeck were together in Petergate on the eve of the feast of St Michael Archangel, 1390, when Richard knocked Robert down to the ground. Robert got up and fled, but Richard followed him, plying his sword prepared to strike Robert. Richard followed him all the way to the northern door of the church of St Peter. The jurors make it clear that Robert was in a difficult position: Richard wished to kill him, and Robert could not flee or avoid his death in any way except by violence. Thus, “in defense and salvation of his life,” Robert struck Richard in the head with his staff, so that Richard died the following Friday. Immediately after Robert fled. Nonetheless, he did eventually return to stand trial before royal justices. Convinced that the homicide was committed in self-defense, jurors acquitted (even though the appropriate process would have been to remand Robert to prison to await a king’s pardon). Their generosity did not stop there. Robert’s flight meant that all his lands and goods were forfeit to the king; yet, the jurors declared that he owned nothing, except the staff with which he struck Richard, worth one penny.[9]  

A map of York, England, by Guy Speed, 1611. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Robert’s impoverished state was clearly a fiction. The register of the freemen of York notes that he gained the freedom of the city in 1395 – admittedly after the fact, but not long after – as a mercer (a dealer in textile fabrics). Membership in the freedom was purchased, and for those who had undergone an apprenticeship, as one can assume with Robert Ellerbeck, listed above as a “servant” of another merchant, the minimum fee was twenty shillings.[10]  In 1390, twenty shillings was enough to buy a cow or five stones of wool, or in modern-day terms, the equivalent of £662.12.[11] It is hard to imagine that just a few years earlier, Robert had been absolutely penniless if he had managed to save twenty shillings on top of his living expenses.

The trial record presents a fairly standard version of a self-defense plea: Robert was on the defensive; he was not the attacker, but the victim of an attack, and his initial reaction was flight. Only when backed into a corner and fearing for his life did he finally resort to using a weapon. None of this gives us any clue as to what led to the dispute between the two in the first place. Yet, it is significant that Richard del See, variously the victim or the attacker depending on which account you believe, was not a random hoodlum attacking Robert for his money. Richard del See was one of the most prominent men in the city of York. In the political violence that erupted in 1380/81 surrounding the city of York’s mayoral election between the parties of Simon of Whixley (de Quixley) and John of Gisburn, Richard del See was one of the latter’s five leading supporters, kidnapped and then held ransom by his rival. The king eventually had to intervene to bring an end to the violence, and demand that Simon repay Richard and his fellow captives their money.[12]

Both Richard and Robert, then, were wealthy burgesses and members of York’s privileged elite. They ran in similar circles, which would make it almost impossible for Robert to reintegrate into city society after his acquittal and return from prison – unless he managed to convince Richard’s family, and all of their friends and supporters, somehow, to forgive him.

A note in the York memorandum book from Feb. 27th, 1391 clarifies just how that happened: 

Memorandum that on the last day of February, namely the 27th day of the month, in the year 1391 and the 14th year of the reign of King Richard II, there were gathered in the mayor’s chamber on the Ouse Bridge in York, Robert Savage, then mayor, John of Howden and John of Doncaster, then bailiffs, John of Ripon, Robert del Gare, Robert Warde, John of Bolton, William de Rumlay, Hugh Straunge, and many other reputable men, into whose presence came Ralph del See, son of Richard del See of York, following or indeed being led by him came a certain Robert of Ellerbeck, mercer, barefooted and head uncovered, into the chamber before the said mayor, bailiffs and other reputable men abovesaid, and then before the said Ralph del See, [Robert] sinking down to the ground on bended knee, humbly and tearfully, implored the said Ralph in these words: ‘I beg you, Ralph, for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose precious blood on the cross redeemed humanity, to pardon and forgive me for the death of your father Richard del See.’ Upon which words, the said mayor, bailiffs and other reputable men asked together with the said Robert of Ellerbeck, for the love of God, [to pardon Robert] for the death of Richard, his father. Ralph, his anger against Robert dispelled, responded: ‘In reverence of God, at the request of these respectable men, and for the good of Richard’s soul, I forgive and release you forever for the death of my father Richard del See.”[13]

All of the men listed in the memorandum were also freemen of the city of York.[14] Interestingly enough, Hugh Straunge, one of the reputable men sitting in the mayor’s office, had also acted as Mariota’s pledge for her appeal.

Engraving of the fourth Ouse Bridge (1565-1810). Wikipedia. Public Domain.

This memorandum gives us a glimpse into an aspect of community life that we don’t usually get to see. Even if Robert was not in fact to blame for Richard’s death because it was a case of self-defense, reconciliation after a major infraction of social harmony could not have been easy. Yet, clearly, reconciliation was vital to the community; many of society’s elites were invested and determined to see it happen. This record tells us much about the rituals of reconciliation. Not only did one have to have a social superior act as both mediator and witness, but one’s peers needed also to be in attendance for both publicity and support. Robert had to present himself as a penitent, feet and head unadorned, begging Ralph on bended knee, and shedding tears of remorse – all classic textbook behavior for the truly penitent. Reconciliation also required a formal oath by the penitent and a formal release from the victim’s family of future retaliation. And as we saw with the homily that began this blog, this exchange was greeted as a moment of celebration by all the neighbors!

The memorandum is also a useful reminder that the king’s courts can only tell us part of the story! While royal records may make it look like reconciliation was no longer important after the criminalization of homicide, the rituals simply moved to a different venue.

[1] Woodburn O. Ross, ed., Middle English Sermons: Edited from British Museum MS. Royal 18 B. xxiii (Early English Text Society, vol. 209, 1960), 62. I have modernized the English in order to make this passage more accessible to readers.

[2] Leslie Downer, ed., Leges Henrici Primi (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 36.2d. The centrality of friendly agreements in the Leges Henrici Primi is discussed at length in Richard L. Keyser, “Agreement Supersedes Law, and Love Judgment: Legal Flexibility and Amicable Settlement in Anglo-Norman England,” Law and History Review 30.1 (2012): 37-88.

[3] Naomi D. Hurnard, The King’s Pardon for Homicide before AD 1307 (Oxford University Press, 1969), 181 and 184.

[4] See M.A. Hicks, “Restraint, Mediation and Private Justice: George, Duke of Clarence as ‘Good Lord’,” Journal of Legal History 4.2 (1983): 56-71.

[5] Joshua Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith, eds, English Gilds (Early English Text Society, vol. 40, 1870), 426. I have modernized the spelling.

[6] J.L. Kirby, ed., “Inquisitions Post Mortem, Henry IV, Entries 655-699,” Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem: Volume 19 ,Henry IV (London, 1992), 234-50.

[7] Thomas Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspective on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800 (University of Chicago Press, 1985), 22.

[8] The National Archives (hereafter TNA), JUST 2/236, m. 13d.

[9] TNA JUST 2/242, m. 2d.

[10] R.B. Dobson, “Admissions to the Freedom of the City of York in the Later Middle Ages,” The Economic History Review, 2nd series, 26.1 (1973), 10.

[11] See The National Archives’ “Currency Converter.” As of the year 2017.

[12] For the complaint, see TNA SC 8/103/5141. For its resolution, see ‘Close Rolls, Richard II: January 1382’, in Calendar of Close Rolls, Richard II: Volume 2, 1381-1385, ed. H C Maxwell Lyte (London, 1920), pp. 31-32. For those who want to read about the crazy dispute between mayors, see Christian D. Liddy, “Urban Conflict in Late Fourteenth-Century England: The Case of York in 1380-81,” The English Historical Review 118.475 (2003): 1-32.

[13] Maud Sellers, ed., York Memorandum Book, part II (1388-1493) (Surtees Society, vol. 125, 1914), 30-31. It appears here in Latin. I have provided the translation above.

[14] Francis Collins, ed., Register of the Freemen of the City of York: Vol. I, 1272-1558, 75-103.

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