Rather appropriately on Valentine’s Day, February’s Medieval MP of the month blog is concerned with affairs of the heart (among other less romantic things). Hannes Kleineke of our House of Commons 1422-1461 Section tells of the MPs, marriage and murder in medieval Bath…
The literary figure of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is familiar to many: she was a little hard of hearing, and her name was Alyson or Alice (Chaucer – wisely – does not supply a surname, and in any event, she clearly had a few, since she had married five husbands in succession). Just such a ‘wife’ also made an appearance in the final stages of the career of Walter Rich six times MP for Bath between 1414 and 1435.
Rich was a cloth-maker, having grown his business from more humble beginnings as a weaver. He amassed considerable wealth which he invested in property in the city of Salisbury, where he traded his wares. He began his public career in about 1402, as churchwarden of the parish of St. Michael. Over the following ten years he grew considerably in standing, and in the summer of 1416 he was elected to the first of a total of six mayoralties of his home town. It is possible that he owed some of his popularity among his neighbours to the firm stand he took, following his predecessors, in a dispute with the local priory over the ringing of the city’s church bells. Traditionally, the monks had claimed the privilege of signalling when the city’s bells were to be rung by sounding those of their priory church, but in the first decades of the 15th century the citizens had challenged this, and had taken it upon themselves to ring their bells first.
His career was, ostensibly, that of a local worthy, but in the autumn of 1446 it came to a curious end. On the night of 11 Nov. 1446, Rich was making his way home along Cheap Street, when he encountered a group of people apparently led by a ‘wife of Bath’ called Agnes Carpenter. For reasons that the subsequent inquiry did not choose to record, Rich agreed to accompany Carpenter to her house, where his lifeless body was discovered on the following morning. An inquest was convened and this brought to light some suggestive details. Agnes, so the jurors found, had suffocated Rich with a linen towel and strangled him with her leather belt, all the while sitting on his chest. She had subsequently fled, but was eventually apprehended and imprisoned.
It remains open to conjecture whether the remarkable marital record of Chaucer’s wife of Bath owed anything to similar practices.
An updated biography of Walter Rich will appear in The History of Parliament: The Commons 1422-61 ed. L.S. Clark in 2019.