The Lancashire Assize Roll, 1246

We heard in the video in step 1.9 that Lancaster hosted periodic court sessions known as ‘assizes’. This activity remained a significant part of the castle’s role in later times.

The king’s justices in eyre (itinerant judges) tended to spend three weeks at Lancaster once every seven years. They were not only concerned with felonies; they also dealt with the king’s rights, the misdeeds of royal officers and legal actions relating to landholdings. The results were recorded on rolls (long parchment strips).

We will look at the records of the visit of the justices in October 1246, which began during the thirtieth year of the reign of Henry III. The justices were Roger de Thirkelby, Gilbert de Preston, Simon de Wauton and John de Cobham.

Here are selected extracts from John Parker, Lancashire Assize Rolls: 4 John–13 Edward I, published in 1903 by the Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society, and now available in full on-line at British History Online.

Read the selected actions and reflect on the questions below and post comments if you wish. I have modernised the place-names where possible. You’ll find a glossary below to help you with some of the legal terms. This can also be viewed as a PDF if you wish to print it and look at it as you read the text.

A key element of this exercise is trying to decipher what the medieval legal records meant in real terms, before assessing how this helps us to understand social history.

Questions

  • In what ways did the legal proceedings involve women?
  • What light does this record shed on the conditions of life for those in the lower social strata?
  • How large was the region encompassed by the assizes at Lancaster?
  • What do the legal proceedings reveal about the landscape of the region?

Text (extracts)

Pleas and Assizes taken at Lancaster in three weeks from the day of St Michael in the thirtieth year of the reign of King Henry son of King John [20 October 1246], and the beginning of the thirty-first year, before Roger de Thirkelby and his fellows [Gilbert de Preston, Master Simon de Wauton and John de Cobham, Justices in Eyre.].

Novel disseisin—William le Taillur and Eve his wife v. John son of Emma and Thomas the Miller re the fourth part of a mill etc., in Lever. John Harwood and Adam de Dunandegreue, jurors, absent. Verdict— that defendants erected the mill on the joint property of William and Eve, against their consent. Judgment for plaintiffs; and the said fourth part of the mill to be pulled down. Damages 12d.

Mort d’Ancestor—Mariota wife of Henry de Yolton and Sigherith her sister, in right of Waltheof de Claughton their father v. Roger le Fraunceis (holding 2 oxgangs) and Uctred Plat (holding 2 oxgangs) re 4 oxgangs of land in Farleton.

Defendants say that Mariota and Sigherith were born long before Waltheof espoused their mothers. Henry de Yolton gives ½ mark for leave to concord; surety, John son of Waltheof; and Uctred gives also ½ mark; surety, Roger le Fraunceis; and they have a chirograph. Sigherith, being under age, is granted 1 oxgang till of age, so that she, when of age, may be able to sue for the whole of the said land if she wish.

Proof of Freedom—Peter de Brindle v. Siward son of Matilda whom he claims as his fugitive villein.

Siward does not come (to see the Justices) on the fourth day, and this day was appointed for him to prove his freedom before the Justices, but he does not proceed. Sureties, Jordan de Penwortham and William de Whittle.

Dower—Matilda late wife of Richard son of Gilbert v. Robert son of Robert and others re tenements whereof Richard her late husband endowed her, in Thornton. Plaintiff withdraws; sureties, Robert de Woluisheg and William his brother; Matilda is excused fine being poor.

Edith de Litherland has appealed Yarwerth de Litherland that he came to her house on Thursday next before Palm Sunday and robbed her of a cow value 5s.; and she brings her appeal as a woman against a man, as the Court decides.

Yarwerth says she is his villein, and he took the cow from her for his service: and he is acquitted and Edith is fined for false appeal, but is poor. Richard le Walays and Henry de Standish abetted her appeal, so fined.

Yarwerth de Litherland, his fine for having an enquiry, ½ mark; sureties, Robert le Walays and William de Walton.

Alan de Scale a beggar boy took a portion of meal (flour) worth three pence, and was caught and detained at Liverpool, and escaped from custody; so to judgment for escape at Liverpool. The jury acquit him of any other misdeed—so to return if he like: but his chattels forfeited by his escape, 3s. 6d. for which the Sheriff is to account.

Of wreck of sea:—they say that two casks of wine were stranded on the sea shore at Rossall, and Matthew de Redeham, Sheriff, took them to Lancaster Castle, and also an empty barrel stranded there, and the same Sheriff had it; value of wine, 43s. 4d.

Amabel late wife of Roger de Lea has appealed (accused) John de Higham of the death of the said Roger.

John absent, and not attached (had not been arrested). Amabel comes (before the justices) and is poor and tasks by her poverty that the King prosecute; and John is convicted and outlawed, chattels 16s. 8d.

One Ivo, a lay brother of Furness was drowned from a horse in Leven water; John de Bordell found him. Verdict, misadventure. Value of horse 9s.

The Jury present that the Abbot and Monks of Sées hold the Church of Lancaster by gift of the King’s ancestors, and ought to find a chaplain to celebrate divine service in Lancaster Castle. For report.

Glossary of terms

Chattels: personal possessions (excluding land and money)

Chirograph: three versions of a ‘fine’ (a document recording the outcome of property litigation) were produced, with the parchment cut along a wavy line marked ‘chirograph’.

Concord: purchasing leave to concord was a way of settling proceedings (and some proceedings settled in this way were fake legal actions, brought in order to convey landholdings).

D. This abbreviation represents denarii, or pence.

Defendants: the people defending themselves against the legal action.

Dower: a widow’s share of her husband’s estate.

Lay brother: a member of a monastic community who focused on manual labour.

Mark: this was a unit of account rather than a coin. It was worth thirteen shillings and four pence.

Mort d’Ancestor: ‘death of an ancestor’. An action to enable an heir to claim a landholding formerly held by their relative.

Novel disseisin: ‘recent dispossession’. An action to recover lands recently lost to the plaintiff.

Oxgang: the amount of land that could be ploughed by one ox in a season.

Plaintiffs: the people bringing the legal action.

S.: solidi (shillings). A shilling was worth twelve pence, and there were twenty shillings in a pound.

Surety: a person who takes responsibility to ensure that an action happens.

V.: versus ‘against’

Villein: here translating nativus: a serf, an unfree person bound to the land.

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Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University