Let them fight it out, it’s better that way (edit)

For some reason, this entry resisted clean-up through the WordPress system so I have disposed of the offending original and re-posted this one.

S. J. Payling wrote a short article back in 1998 that grappled with the unresolved problem of violence, order and the judiciary in fifteenth-century England. The problem, as it appears in many studies of Late Medieval English gentry, concerns the apparent lack of teeth in the English judicial system when it comes to the prosecution of violent crimes, especially when it concerns issues of property and inheritance. The argument is that despite all the bluster of the courts and the Crown, “coercive royal justice” was unable to “control the level of conflict through the deterrence of punishment.” Part of this failure is ascribed to corrupt local officials who had little incentive to stick to the letter of the law. Most “violent self-help” was controlled at the local, social level and the crown, excluded from the process, appears weak and incapable of maintaining order on its own authority.1

Most studies tend to frame this violence in very mechanical ways based on the identification of some obvious material gain for the offenders. That violence was not endemic is explained through a balance of local and regional controls that managed to contain violence and to limit its spread.2 I have never found that theory entirely satisfying, mostly because many violent events have no obvious material purpose. Also, if the Crown was unable to prosecute most of these violent offenders, what makes us think that the locals were any more capable of controlling it? What was the mechanism of control?

Payling looked at two murders from the last half of the fifteenth century, one emanating from a dispute over land and inheritance, the other from some sort of romantic triangle and conspiracy. There was the regular corruption and duplicity in the legal actions following the violence and plenty of under-the-table movements of patronage, money and land and both perpetrators ultimately avoided any substantial punishments for their actions. This, on its face, seems to fit expectations, but Payling draws attention to a subtle subtext at work which explains the ambivalent attitude towards this sort of violence and its control.

For me, the most telling detail appeared in the love-triangle murder conspiracy of John Chaworth of Kirtlington, Nottinghampshire, killed in his home by a group of hired thugs, in the presence of his own wife who was accused of arranging the hit with her lover, and John’s servant, Robert Marshall. Prosecutors from John’s family made moves in Parliament to keep the conspirators from seeking royal pardons, something easily done at the time. The provisions passed in the Commons set heavy penalties for the conspirators if they failed to appear or if they escaped. These penalties were payable partly to the Crown. The accused managed to violate these provisions with relative ease but the penalties were never imposed. Considering that the Crown would have benefited handsomely from the fines imposed, this suggests that there was some other reason to look the other way. Political or regional interests were not relevant here, nor was there any concern that the fines could not be collected. The record is clear that the Crown was happy to bend in whichever direction was most financially expedient in these cases.

Payling suggests that the Crown declined to prosecute many of these acts of private violence because they were just that – private, and unlikely to escalate beyond the immediate players in the drama. Violence did self-regulate, but at a much lower, smaller, more personal level than previously described. In 1480, the widow of Robert Marshall, possibly Margaret Chaworth, brought charges against a “gentleman and three lesser men… for the murder of her husband.”3 Payling is probably right in thinking that John’s son, now an adult, had a hand in this delayed justice. The message is fairly clear that gentry violence was allowed so long as it stayed between the parties. Order, in this case, was maintained through arms-length observation of events and while our modern sense of justice is deeply offended, the medieval Crown had no real problem with it. It’s quite possible that the local population felt the same.

There is more to this, I am sure, but that’s about all the heavy thinking I am capable of today.


1 S. J. Payling,’Murder, Motive, and Punishment in Fifteenth-Century England: Two Gentry Case-Studies’, The English Historical Review 113, no. 450 (1998): 1-17.

2 Works on the English gentry that also touch violence are Christine Carpenter, Locality and Polity: A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society, 1401-1499 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), Phillipa C. Maddern, Violence and Social Order: East Anglia, 1422-1442 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1992), and P. R. Coss, ‘The Formation of the English Gentry’, Past & Present, no. 147 (1995): 38–64, to name a few.

3 Payling, 15.



3 thoughts on “Let them fight it out, it’s better that way (edit)

  1. Pingback: It’s not just semantics | Pen, Book, Sword.

  2. An interesting post – I’m planning an MA thesis at the moment on the balance between local and national control in Staffordshire and Lincolnshire during the Wars of the Roses. I’d agree with your points about gentry violence, although between 1450 and 1461 the crown was almost certainly not strong enough to deal directly with the situation. Whether Henry VI was as weak a king as coventional wisdom suggests, or as crafty an operator as a couple of revisionists think, he lacked the ability to exercise direct control over large areas of the country. Gentry violence was tolerated, but mostly because there was little or no alternative. Interested in your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think part of the problem in the study of violence within this period or any other, is fixing a picture of the local perspectives and the issue of control or lack there of. I won’t argue to the contrary about the lack of Royal power in some of the localities circa 1450-60, that’s well established, and it’s a major part of Carpenter’s study of Warwickshire. It’s one thing to establish the absence of Royal authority or control over misbehaviour. Drawing conclusions about the relative attitudes towards certain forms of interpersonal violence is something else entirely. That may sound horribly po’-mo’ of me, but I think this is at the core of the question.

      What that little article by Payling suggests is that it wasn’t really an issue of weak legal structures or a lack of will on the part of the Crown in suppressing or punishing this sort of violence. I think that there was a deliberate choice, based on a set of cultural values, that determined the form that Royal sanctions would take. While there may be issues around motive and causation in other studies that I don’t entirely agree with, the work of P. Maddern (with early 15th c. East Anglia) and J. S. Cockburn (Tudor period crime), demonstrate fairly clearly, that in the absence of higher authority, local bodies were usually capable of controlling and punishing violence when they felt it was necessary. I guess the unanswerable question is; if Henry had the power to do so, would he have acted any different (at least as regards the lower level violence) in the 1450s? It’s worth asking considering that some violence is left unpunished perhaps because the authorities (and the perpetrators’ peers) felt uncomfortable about condemning something that they, themselves, didn’t want to loose access to.

      Certainly, by the later Tudor period this sort of violent self-help is much harder to defend, no matter what your social station but it’s not entirely obvious why this happens. There may be more influence from political issues like domestic security and the various factions working behind Elizabeth, at work than a growing distaste for inter-personal violence. I’m not sure really, but that’s why I’m looking at this stuff in the first place.

      I can’t say that clears anything up, but I hope it makes sense. I’m mostly full of questions at this point myself. Answers are rare.

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