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Notorious Northamptonshire the home of naughty

Mike Ingram tells how the lawlessness of medieval Northamptonshire led to it becoming a centre for experiments in fighting crime…

Today, headlines like “Knife crime hits record high in England and Wales as violence soars” emblazon newspapers across Britain. But is this a new phenomenon in Northamptonshire ? In fact the county was one of the most lawless counties in medieval England. It was also where many of the laws we take for granted were created.

In 1166, King Henry II appointed Geoffrey de Mandeville and Sir Richard de Lucy as royal judges with special powers. For the first time, they were to travel from town to town to hear cases of robbery, murder or theft or anyone who had harboured a robber, murderer, or thief. When they arrived in a town, the judges called upon the sheriff to summon twelve free men from the surrounding areas. These twelve men were ordered to report under oath any accusations of crime they were aware of in the community. Unlike today, the jury also had to present evidence of the crime to the judge.

Northampton was one of King Henry II’s favourite towns. His empire included Normandy and Aquitaine as well as England,  but seems to have come to the town whenever he was in England. He was staying at Northampton in October 1164 when he summoned Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury to appear before a great council at the Castle to answer allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. It was the first great state trial and will be looked at in detail in a future issue.

In 1173, Henry faced an uprising by his eldest sons and rebellious barons, supported by France, Scotland and Flanders. Henry secretly travelled back to England to order an offensive on the rebels, meeting his Barons at Northampton and giving them instructions before returning to Europe. Henry was back in the town the following year when William Lion, the King of Scotland was brought to Northampton as prisoner, his feet tied under a horse. William was held in the town for several months until he was moved to Normandy. Then in late 1174, when the rebellion finally collapsed, it was again in Northampton Castle that he took the rebel barons surrender.


In January 1176, whist staying in the town, Henry demanded an oath of fealty from all his nobles and barons. By this time, two judges were proving insufficient for all the cases they had to hear. So whilst in the town, in what is now known as the ‘Assize of Northampton’ Henry II divided the country into six circuits for the itinerant justices to tour around. These itinerant courts became known as the General Eyres (from the old French word erre or journey) and became the most important form of local justice up to the time of Edward III. At the same time, Henry also Introduced the crimes of arson and forgery for the first time.

When a ‘general eyre’ visited a county it brought the King’s government with it, large crowds of people attended, to account for themselves or to seek justice: special regulations were required to control the rates of board and lodging during the crowded sessions; the writs were read and the Justices’ authority publicly proclaimed, local officials delivered up their insignia of office as if to the King in person, and the Justice started into their long agenda (the ‘chapters of the eyre’), investigating crimes and unexplained deaths, misconduct and negligence by officials, irregularities and shortcomings of all kinds, the feudal and fiscal rights of the crown, and private disputes. It was the beginnings of the justice system we have today. One of these first circuit judges was Simon of Pattishall and he would go on to become England’s first Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.

Punishment at this time was swift and barbaric. For lesser offences, anyone accused of a crime would have to endure “the ordeal of water” which required the accused to dip his hand in a kettle of boiling water and retrieve a stone. Afterwards, the hand was bound and examined after three days to see whether it was healing or festering. If the latter he would lose one foot. At Northampton it was added that they would likewise lose the right hand with the foot. This practice continued in England until 1215.

Probably because it was a religious centre, and also due to its connection to Henry II, the town became home to one of England’s two fledgling universities known as studiums, the other being Oxford. It was considered on a par with the European universities. It was here that Henry brought his illegitimate son Geoffrey to study Canon Law for almost a year, possibly under Roger Vacarius an Italian authority in civil and Canon law, who became the first known teacher of Roman law in not only Northampton but also England.

It was also in the county that one of the most famous and arguably most important sets of laws of all – Magna Carta began. On 19 April 1215, five earls and forty disaffected barons assembled at Stamford in Lincolnshire. A week later, they were at Northampton  where they were due to meet King John. However, John did not show, so they moved to the tournament ground at Brackley. This time, John sent William Marshall and the Archbishop of Canterbury to negotiate. The Barons sent John a list of demands, and it was this list that became the Magna Carta.  John refused to take heed of their demands, so on 5 May, the Barons renounced their oaths of allegiance and marched on Northampton, laying siege to the castle for two weeks. It was only when they marched on London that John realised they were serious and agreed to seal the Carta at Runnymede.

One of the more unusual trials held in the town was the strange case of John Deydras. He had arrived at Beaumont Palace in Oxford in early 1318, and claimed it for his own. He was, he said, really the King of England, and observers noted that he closely resembled Edward. Unlike the king, Deydras, however, was missing an ear. Deydras explained that as a baby, the royal servant charged to look after him had allowed him to be attacked by a sow which had bitten off his ear, whilst he was playing in the castle courtyard. Knowing that she would have been severely punished by the King, she had replaced him with a carter’s baby, who had then grown up to become Edward II, while Deydras had been given to the carter to be brought up in poverty. Deydras offered to fight Edward in single combat for the throne. Rumours began to spread across England.

Deydras was finally arrested and brought to Edward at Northampton in June 1318. Deydras insulted the king, again offered to fight him in single combat and repeated his claims about Edward’s parentage, resulting in a trial for sedition. Deydras confessed during the trial to having made up his story, blaming his pet cat which he claimed was the devil in disguise and had led him astray one day while he was walking across Christchurch Meadows. Found guilty, both he and his cat were hanged in the town and then Deydras’ body was burnt.

Northamptonshire is fortunate that many reports of inquests, crimes and trials from the medieval period survive today, although they are now scattered throughout the country.  In the assize rolls of 1202 – 1203 there were 16 murders in Northants. Given the population that would equate to 5 per week every week today. The surviving coroner rolls from the county which cover 70 years between 1288 and 1420 lists 575 murders, 716 death by misadventure and 16 suicides.

From the early fourteenth century, theft of goods worth under one shilling was petty larceny, a misdemeanour or trespass which was punishable at the court’s discretion, while theft of goods valued at over that sum was grand larceny, a felony, and therefore theoretically a capital crime. As a general rule, small villages would have a set of stocks, whereas pillories were more common in towns and cities. Possession of a set of stocks conferred status on small communities. Any place that was too small or poor to afford stocks was regarded as a hamlet, and was not entitled to call itself a village. In England, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1405 requiring every town and village to maintain a set of stocks. Larger towns forfeited the right to hold markets unless they were equipped with pillories.

One of the earliest is from 1190, when a robber named John who had plundered Jews houses in Stamford came to Northampton. He was himself robbed and murdered by the owner of the house in which he lodged in the town and his body thrown over the wall. He was buried in All Saints church and soon after became known locally as a martyr with a cult quickly growing around his tomb and numerous miracles reported. Hugh Wells, Bishop of Lincoln came in person to stop the cult and a riot ensued. It only stopped when the bishop threatened to excommunicate anyone who worships there.

Rockingham Castle
Rockingham Castle


Large swathes of Northamptonshire were considered forest during the medieval period and poaching was one of the most recurrent crimes not just in the county, but also in all medieval England. Crimes ranged from the petty theft of fallen wood, to the assault and murder of those protecting the king’s forest.  The eyre rolls for Rockingham forest in 1286, for example, record that the knight, Robert of Cockfield, poached regularly with his groom, his woodward and two men from Oakley, one of them the son of a parson.

In another case, Robert of Corby, Geoffrey Gos of the same town and Robert the son of Godfrey le Dene of the same town were suspected of taking venison from Rockingham. Sir Hugh of Goldingham, the steward of the forest found a piece of venison from a buck upon a cart, a piece of venison from the side of a buck, a bow with a string, and seven barbed arrows in the house of Geoffrey Gos. All three were detained and sent to the prison of Northampton, the sheriff being then Sir Robert Basset.

In medieval England, a criminal could go to a church and claim protection from the law. The common law of the time stated that the privilege of sanctuary could only be used for up to 40 days. He could either turn up at the court and declare he was ready for a trial or he could elect to leave the country forever. If they chose to leave, after admitting to their crimes they would be given a prescribed route and a port from which they could go from. If they deviated from this route however, they were considered outside the law and anyone could kill them without punishment.

In 1262, thief Richard de Glaston was imprisoned in Northampton. However, he managed to  escape and claimed Sanctuary in St. Gregory’s Church. For reasons now unknown, possibly because he had escaped from him, Sherriff Sir Hugh de Mannerby took a dislike to de Glaston. Soon after he set out for Dover, de Mannerby sent four men after him. They caught up with him on the Newport Pagnell Road and tried to seize him, despite de Glaston biting the earth and clinging to the spokes of a cartwheel. His attackers dragged him by the feet out of the road and beat him with bows and sticks then took him to a nearby mill claiming that he had left the route voluntarily. De Glaston managed to escape and de Mannerby was put on trial for the attack and lost his post as sheriff.

In another unusual case, Robert Taillour of Drayton was hung at the gallows in Abington. After the execution his lifeless body was cut down and left lying on the ground. However, to everyone’s shock and surprise, Taillour got up and ran across the road into Abington Church, claiming sanctuary. As he had been declared dead, the authorities did not know what to do with him. Eventually, he confessed to being a thief and was allowed to leave the country.

It was not just the common people who were responsible for crime in Northamptonshire. Records show that the clergy was responsible for 5% of all the felonies that took place between 1300 and 1348. The Patent Rolls document several crimes centred around the priory of Weedon Bec in the county. This priory formed part of the alien abbey of Bec-Hellouin, whose brothers came from Rouen in France. A commission in March 1299 recorded that Simon Molger complained that the abbot, prior, and a William de Hardene, with some armed men, carried away his goods from Weedon Bec. The same hearing also registered complaints on similar grounds from four other men of the same place. The abbot and his prior also had to answer to justices after a complaint by John Person of Weedon that the abbot, Theobald, and William de Hardene, with a multitude of armed men, assaulted him in Weedon, and then imprisoned him until he took an oath that he was a bondman of the abbot, before taking away his goods. In September 1299, the Prior also had to answer at a commission accusing him of the murder, or being involved in the death, of William of Weedon Bec.

The nobility and gentry were also responsible for a considerable amount of unrest in the county. Thomas of Lancaster, 2nd Earl of Lancaster and grandson of King Henry III, frequently displayed his power by using his military force to further his own career. The most well-known example of this is the Thorpe Waterville dispute of 1312. One of Lancaster’s retainers was William Tuchet, who was also a supporter of Walter Langton, the unscrupulous Treasurer of England. Langton had given the Northamptonshire manors of Aldwinkle, Achurch, Oundle and Thorpe Waterville to Tuchet. However, when Langton fell from favour, the King gave the manors to the Earl of Pembroke and his tenant John Hotot. On hearing the news, Lancaster sent a small force of armed squires and crossbow-men under his constable, John Barrington. Tuchet then forcibly entered Thorpe Waterville. A hearing to settle the dispute was ordered. However, armed men hired by the Earl of Pembroke prevented Tuchet and Lancaster’s legal advisors from attending the hearings. A contemporary account described how  “with an armed multitude approached them and uttered such threats and caused such terror as well to the justices as to the jurors coming there for the assize, that the justices were unable on that account to take it”. The case was only resolved two years later when the king personally intervened and forced Pembroke to give the three manors to Lancaster.


By the early 1300’s lawlessness was endemic and gangs of outlaws such as the Folvilles, Beltofts and Hauberks made extortion an art form and murdered for the highest bidder. These outlaw gangs were often admired and respected for their daring acts against authority. As responsibility for the area around, and across borders into neighbouring counties was unclear, they became the perfect locations for receiving extorted funds and kidnapping those who would provide a substantial ransom. Rockingham Castle was ideally situated close to several county borders and under its Constable, Sir Robert de Vere, provided a safe haven for a number of these gangs including the Folvilles. At the time, it was reported that “sometimes twenty armed men, sometimes thirty, come to de Vere at the castle, and they leave at dawn or in the night. He shuts the gate facing the town, and they can leave secretly by a postern. Those bringing victuals are not allowed to enter less they should come to know those armed men.”

In 1328, in an attempt to curb these gangs , Edward III, the new king, his mother Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer introduced ‘The Statute of Northampton’. It gave an extension to the powers of assize judges, disallowed men from riding whilst armed and the prohibition of groups men attending fairs whilst armed.

The statute proved ineffective however, so the following year Isabella and Mortimer revived the eyre in an attempt to address the problems. The first of these revived eyres was held in Northampton later that year. It is possible that Northamptonshire was chosen as the starting point because the people of East Midlands were notorious for criminal activity at the time. These were the first eyres to take account of the new motion preventing armed assemblies attending courts. This would have been a welcome step for those who had suffered at the hands of oppressive gangs.

The Northamptonshire eyre was led by Geoffrey Scrope, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and began on 6 November 1329. It lasted until 5 October 1330. Out of the 72 cases of murder it heard, 14 people were outlawed after failing to turn up for their trials; twelve were found not guilty; ten were sent to prison while the judge decided if they had killed in self-defence; seven were pardoned; two died in prison while awaiting their trial; four escaped; four were hanged and one unfortunate was burnt at the stake.

During the proceedings, Scrope heard the case of Thomas Staunton of Harlestone and the head of the Cluniac Priory of Lenton over a disagreement over the patronage of Harlestone Church. It was decided to settle the argument by judicial combat and both sides selected champions to fight on their behalf. Scrope offered one last chance for compromise. When both refused, the two champions, William Thomson and William Johnson both wearing loose tunics, barefooted and bareheaded were led outside to fight it out. Each was accompanied by two attendants, one with a baston which was a 4ft wooden staff with a horn crook at one end, the other with a 4ft x 3ft wooden shield. However, Thomas Staunton lost his nerve and offered to relinquish his claim.

Scrope said “Thomas you have put the king’s court to great labour. The court will have its pleasure. The champions will have at each other”. He then instructed the two to trade their bastons for simple white wooden staves and to attack each other. After watching them trade blows for a while, Scrope took their staffs and shields and let them wrestle each other. When he eventually told them to stop he found the case in favour of Thomas Staunton and gave each of the champions their staves as prizes. It was the last recorded civil case to be decided by combat in England.

The eyre had little effect and de Vere, at least, seems to have carried on his life of crime unabated. From the early fourteenth century the justices who sat on commissions, came largely from the gentry class. Ironically it was often men from this class who committed most of the crimes of corruption, bribery and oppression. Bribing a justice meant that a litigant could control the outcome of his or her case before the trial.


There are a number of recorded occasions when a defendant ‘discouraged’ a plaintiff from pursuing a case. In 1332 for example, de Vere was alleged to have led a group of armed knights and 25 men to the road at Beanfield Lawns, now part of Corby, where they threatened William la Zouche of Harringworth, a royal justice from Northamptonshire. Presumably De Vere was due to have his misdeeds discussed at court, for it is claimed he said to La Zouche,  “You wish to destroy me, but before I am destroyed I shall destroy all those who intend to destroy me, whatever their rank or estate may be.” He also tried to stop another case against him when he ambushed the plaintiff, the abbot of Pipewell Abbey.

By the middle of the fourteenth century it was not uncommon for nobles, who found themselves or their men the subject of hearings, to intimidate their opponents. This continued into the next century. One local example of this concerned Reginald Lord Grey of Ruthin. Although his principal residence was Wrest Park near Silsoe in Bedfordshire, he also held manors all across Northants including Castle Ashby, and had properties in Northampton itself. In May 1437, Sir John Cornwall married Henry IV’s sister and was created Lord Fanhope. He began to build a new castle at Ampthill, less than five miles away from Wrest Park. Grey objected to a new castle as it was so close to his.  In January 1439, violence flared between the two in Bedford when they met at a commission of the peace at the Shire Hall. Fanhope claimed that Grey had brought 800 men armed to the teeth, from his estates in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. In 1442, violence flared up again in Bedford and Northampton where the common bell was rang. The king had to send a letter commanding the burgesses of Northampton to suppress all riotous assemblies on 6 July. Six days later, Grey was also commanded to keep the peace with the people of Northampton. In 1450, Grey was once again ordered to appear before the justices when his men were involved in the murder of prominent Lancastrian lawyer William Tresham in Thorpland Close, Moulton.

It was not until the reign of Henry VII that the violence and lawlessness started to be brought under control. One method was to limit the use of Sanctuary. In an act of 1540, no fugitive was allowed sanctuary for rape, murder or burglary where life was threatened. Arson and robberies of churches were also excluded. Every fugitive in sanctuary was required to go to one of eight sanctuary towns that included Northampton after 40 days. Only a maximum of 20 criminals were allowed in each one at any one time. They were not allowed to carry arms and only allowed out in daylight. They also had to wear a 10×10 inch badge designed by the Governor. If the criminal did not comply they were put in prison for two days for the first offence, six for the second and loose the right for the third. The Right of Sanctuary, was finally eliminated in 1647 although continued in theory until 1841.

So, for all our modern sensibilities have we really moved on from these dark days?

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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