Murders most foul

© Maxwell Adams 2003-2006

Version 1 April 2005

There is nothing new under the sun says the Bible, kicking away the ground from under moral panic and nostalgia. Here is a scandalous addendum to the human frailty, devilment, and villainy in Lelant that I described in my earlier article O call back yesterday in which I tried to show that there never was a golden, utopian past.

The first story begins with boozing in Lelant. The record of 1284, seven hundred years ago, is brief but we can flesh it out with experience and imagination. Richard and Odo, who were brothers, and Elger, had been drinking at Michael the Gascon's in Lelant. The record says they had been at Michael's "taberna" and that means an inn in medieval Latin but can also mean a drinking bout. I don't know which it means here, but if it was an inn then Michael the Gascon is perhaps our village's earliest named innkeeper. So we have three men drinking very well. Nothing new there.

The three men left Michael's and went off towards Ludgvan. Their progress through Lelant, then a very small place and not a village, was probably noisy and merry and silly. Perhaps they were singing as merry drinkers often do everywhere though we cannot know what, alas. Perhaps they were talking inconsequentially as merry drinkers do everywhere. However, at some point along their unsure way there was a change. The merriment turned sour, something was said or done that changed the mood. The laughter and merriment turned into a row. They fell into quarrelling and fighting, and Elger pulled out a knife and stabbed Richard in the stomach. The actual murder took place in the "tithing" of Ludgvan.

Richard took two days to die. With no effective treatment or painkillers, he must have died miserably. Immediately after the stabbing, Elger raced back to Lelant and dashed into the church where he was safe since in those days sanctuary from the law was real. Even though it might not be the identical building, next time you are in St Uny's think of Elger there, probably breathless from running, sobering up fast, scared at what he had done, wondering what would happen now.

The itinerant judges at the Assize (called an eyre) at Launceston, which tried events that had happened over the preceding years, and sometimes many years before, met just after Easter in 1284 and we do not know exactly how long before 1284 that the murder of Richard took place. The previous Assize had been in 1269 so all we can say is that Richard was murdered by Elger between those dates. The judges at the Assize looked at what had happened in Lelant and Ludgvan and how the authorities had dealt with it. Put very briefly and therefore a little misleadingly, the prevention and punishment of crime was the responsibility of the people, well, actually the men, in the locality. They had the duty of pursuing and catching the criminal and bringing him to trial and were fined if they failed or got it wrong. They were organised in tithings, broadly precursors of the parish.

What happened to Elger, the murderer? These were harsh times and perhaps you expect Elger himself to have been killed brutally by the authorities. After all, who can forget that supposed law of William the Conqueror with the most astounding of stings in the tail, No one shall be hanged or killed for any crime, but put out his eyes or castrate him (Henderson 1896). And actually they did hang people.

In fact, Elger the murderer did not die. He had gained sanctuary and chose a process called abjuration of the realm. The coroner, John le Petit, came to the church and, with the 'villagers' present, heard Elger confess his crime and swear an oath to leave country for ever. He forfeited all his belongings and wearing sackcloth and probably carrying a cross had to travel to a port named by the coroner and catch the first available boat. It was semi-voluntary, lifelong transportation. His only chance of later returning to England would be an unlikely pardon from the king. The coroner wrote it all down and his record was produced for the Assize judges when they came in 1284.

After the murder there had been an inquiry with John le Petit, the coroner. Later the Assize judges came to judge the case and review how the coroner and jury had dealt with it. I am afraid that these Assizes, which travelled around the counties of England and which dealt with cases from all over Cornwall, were not so much about ensuring that justice rolled down like waters but more about getting money for the king by fining practically everybody for failing to follow the rules exactly. The office of coroner had been created largely to curb the corruption of sheriffs. We are not here dealing with high principles of inquiry and justice. As I have said, the coroner had written a record of Richard's killing and this was given to the judges. A jury of twelve were required to present their record. It is hard to see how they did this. The 'villagers' would not have written it down at the time and so perhaps they relied on memory when the Assize judges eventually came to Cornwall. Of course some of the 'villagers' who knew about it would probably have died since the murder. In these circumstances the accounts of juries and coroners were likely to differ.

The Assize judges looked at the jury's presentment and found that the jury had failed to say as they should have whether Odo, who was present at the murder, was guilty or not, though as he did not hide we can deduce that he was probably not. His exact part in the quarrel and fight is unknown to us. The judges also found that the jury had undervalued Elger's goods compared to the value that the coroner had placed on them, the value of the goods being important because they were forfeit. As a result the jury was fined by the Assize judges for undervaluation. This fine would be paid by the villagers through a regular rate that was levied. Finding discrepancies between coroner's and jury's valuations of forfeited goods was a surefire way the Assize judges had of getting money for the king through a fine. The judges, having got money for the king out of the villagers, turned to the coroner. He had failed to attach Odo, the witness. The coroner does not mention Odo in his record so he is fined. Ludgvan also was fined by the Assize judges because the murder took place in their area and they failed to apprehend the murderer. The nearby tithings of Treeve and Drannack had not come to the inquest so they too were fined. All in all, the king did well out of Richard's murder.

Incidentally, the record shows how medieval scribes adapted Latin for their purposes and got up a hybrid language. For example, the scribe writes "attachiavit," not a classical Latin word but a French/English word which he then conjugates according to Latin rules. Inventive hybridisation became increasingly common as the years went by.

The next Cornwall Assize was not until 1302 and the judges looked at another case of murder here. The account that I have so far seen is brief. At Lelant in broad daylight Roger Playz struck Henry Sauvage with a buckler, a small, round shield, and Henry died instantly. It must have been a hefty blow. Again we are not told what the quarrel was about but we can imagine an angry exchange of words, rising voices, physical sparring, and then the buckler swung hard against Henry.

Again the murderer immediately fled, this time to Ludgvan. It looks as though he was a member of the tithing of William Prych at Ludgvan. Henry was found by Joan, the wife of John Sauvage, presumably a relative, but Joan did not go to the inquiry as she should have done so was fined by the judges. Prych also was fined. Because Lelant failed to seize Roger, the murderer, though the murder had happened during daytime, it was fined too. And other locals who failed to pursue Roger, the nearby tithings of Collorian, Ludgvan, Trevethoe, and Gurlyn, were also fined. Again, murder paid well for the king.

But there was more to this murder than first appears. Gwydo of Lelant, brother of the dead Henry, accused Richard, vicar of Lelant, in the county court of involvement in Henry's murder. The exact nature of involvement is unknown to me. Richard, after arguing that as he was a priest he could not be judged by the court, was eventually found not guilty. What Richard's role had been in Henry's death will be forever unknown to us but I do not suppose any other vicar of Lelant has been accused of murdering one of his congregation. Not lately anyway.

Of course, I have looked only at two cases involving Lelant. The Assize courts of 1284 and 1302 looked at many case from all over Cornwall involving murders, rapes, stealing, land disputes, everything it seems except speeding along the A30. It is strangely reassuring that seven hundred years ago our fellows were the mix of saints and sinners that we are today, muddling along through life, getting it right, getting it wrong.


These murder cases are recorded in the Assize Rolls 111 and 118 at the Public Record Office, Kew. Some details can be found in Charles Henderson's papers, numbers 36 and 40, at the Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, which is where I first came across them. The law of William I is in HENDERSON Ernest F (1896) 'Statutes of William the Conqueror' in Select historical documents of the middle ages George Bell and Sons, London.