The barbarity of the medieval criminal law: petty treason and the murders of Sir Thomas Murdak and John Cotell

In today’s blog Dr Simon Payling, senior research fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project, once again turns his attention to crime and punishment in the medieval period. In the 14th century, the criminal law system may have worked slowly, but it was particularly harsh to those convicted of ‘petty treason’…

In the first months of 1316 there was a notable series of deaths in the knightly family of Gayton. In the space of four days in January the head of the family, Sir Philip, a former Warwickshire MP, and his son and heir, Theobald, died at their manor of ‘le Grave’ in that county, and it may be that the two men were victims of some infectious disease. Disease, however, was emphatically not the explanation for the third of the deaths. The heirs to the Gayton estates were Theobald’s two sisters, both married, the elder of the two, Juliana, to Sir Thomas Murdak. On 12 April, in the castle of Stourton in Staffordshire, her unfortunate husband was murdered by a group of his own household servants, acting on the orders of Juliana and Sir John Vaux, then, by royal grant, constable of that castle. Since soon afterwards, at least according to some later pleading, Vaux and Juliana were married, it is an obvious inference that the murder was designed both to facilitate their marriage and to secure for the new couple her share of the Gayton lands. On this reading, it was the first two deaths, which had brought that share unexpectedly to her, that prompted the murder, and perhaps Murdak’s unpopularity within his own household that laid the grounds for its successful accomplishment.

Oak effigy of Sir Philip Gayton (d.1316) in the church of Gayton, Northamptonshire

If, however, this was the plan, it did not produce the desired effect. The process of royal justice moved slowly, in part because successive sheriffs appear to have been reluctant to act against Juliana, but, in the end, she suffered horribly for her crime. On 23 January 1321 she was convicted by a high-ranking jury composed exclusively of Staffordshire knights and sentenced to death by burning. Her new husband, Vaux, fared very much better. Against him the process of justice moved even more slowly, and, although he suffered both outlawry and a period of imprisonment in the Tower of London, he was eventually acquitted and his lands and goods restored to him, albeit not until over nine years after the murder.

Verdict and sentence against Juliana Murdak. Note the word ‘comburenda’ in the margin. KB27/243, rex rot. 7

This is an unusual story, but it is not a unique one. The monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham, for example, noted with approval the burning, on 17 April 1388, of Elizabeth Daubeney, heiress of the Hampshire manor of Hinton Daubney, who had been implicated in the murder of her second husband, Andrew Wauton. Indeed, it is a notable facet of medieval justice that, leaving aside cases of high treason, those from landed families (of more than the most modest rank) very rarely suffered the full penalties of the law. Judicial process against them were almost universally terminated by pardon or acquittal, as happened in Vaux’s case. There is, however, episodic evidence that, if there was one category of criminal from the landed class likely to suffer the full penalties of the law, it was a wife implicated in the murder of her husband. In common law this was understood as an offence more heinous than murder for, like high treason, it was seen as representing a repudiation of a duty owed and thus a subversion of the natural order. In the case of high treason, the duty was that owed by subject to King and realm, in that of ‘petty treason’, as defined by the statute of treasons of 1352, it was that owed by husband to wife or by servant to master.

Juliana Murdak and a few other high-status women fell victim to this understanding, but so, more surprisingly did a child. In 1338 a girl of 13 was burned for murdering her mistress. Her youth did not protect her. Although, under common law, no one under an age of discretion should suffer judgment of life or limb, the judges took an unfavourable view of her efforts to conceal the crime. In their view, this showed she had an adult perception of the difference between good and evil.

A later case illustrates another aspect of the matter. Many instances of husband-murder arose, as did that of Sir Thomas Murdak, from a conspiracy between wife and paramour. In that case the paramour, Sir John Vaux, escaped execution but suffered years of legal difficulty; in other cases, however, the paramour escaped entirely. On 25 August 1522 an indictment was laid before the Somerset j.p.s. concerning a murder committed more than four years before. A jury claimed that, on 26 July 1518, John Cotell had been strangled at Farleigh castle, the residence of Sir Edward Hungerford, and his body burned in the castle’s kitchen furnace. The two murderers, from Heytesbury, another of Sir Edward’s manors, were said to be the agents of Cotell’s wife, Agnes. Her motive in commissioning the crime, if one may judge by events, was to remarry far above herself, namely to Hungerford himself. That marriage was made soon after Cotell’s death, and it would be remarkable if Hungerford was not involved in the crime. He was too important a man to face indictment himself, and it is likely that he was important enough to protect his new wife from the consequences of their crime. His death on 24 January 1522 thus left her dangerously exposed. Her indictment in the following August was followed by her conviction in Hilary term 1523 and she was hanged at Tyburn. Fortunately for her, she was spared burning. As she had been indicted as an accessory, she could not be convicted of a greater offence than the principals, and, since they had been convicted of murder, she could not be convicted of petty treason. The irony was that, had the murderers been described in the indictment as servants of the victim, she would not have enjoyed that limited protection.


Further reading:

P. Coss, The Lady in Medieval England, 1000-1500 (Stroud, 1998), 131-8.

W. J. Hardy, ‘Lady Agnes Hungerford’, Antiquary, ii (1880), 233–6.

J.G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), 225-31.

Read Dr Payling’s earlier blog on 15th century MPs and violence here. Follow the research of the Commons 1461-1504 project via the Commons in the Wars of the Roses section of our blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s