CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London legal procedure jurisdiction eyre indictments pleas crime presentment offences judicial administration
Subject: Articles for investigation by the eyre
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Misc. Roll AA, m.1
Transcription in: Helena Chew and Martin Weinbaum, eds. The London Eyre of 1244, London Record Society, vol.6 (1970), 5-9.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: 1244


First, the judges asked the mayor, chamberlain, sheriffs and other of the more important men of the town how they ought to begin their pleas. They say [in reply] that first the articles to which they must respond, regarding pleas of the crown, should be handed over. They were then asked to whom the articles ought to be handed over, and whether or not those to whom they should be delivered ought to take an oath to tell the truth about the articles. They say [in reply] that the articles should be delivered to the mayor, without him having to take any oath in that regard, and that he, in counsel with the senior law-abiding, prudent men of the city, will respond to the articles that are pertinent to the city. Similarly, the sheriffs [will respond] to the articles related to their terms of office. They will tell the truth about the articles and anything else required of them, because of the loyalty they owe the king and the [oath of] fealty they have made to him. So that of course if the mayor, who answers for the city, answers well, all members of the community are quit as regards those matters. But if he should answer badly and be convicted or fail in any matter concerning the city community, the whole community for which he answers shall fail. The mayor and all the men of the city say that this was the custom before the war, as well as in the time of King John, King Richard, and King Henry their father. And so the articles were delivered to the mayor in the following form:

Concerning ancient pleas of the crown which were before the king's justices at other times, but were not concluded.

Concerning recent pleas of the crown which arose later, in peacetime.

Concerning those who are in the king's mercy but have not [yet] been amerced.

Concerning debts owed to King John, father of the king, during and before the war: what the debts are and who owes them, whether the debtors have died, and who are their heirs or the holders of their goods.

Concerning those who have maliciously destroyed or burned down houses within the liberty of the city, in breach of the [king's] peace, etc.: who they are, whose houses those were, and whether they [i.e. aggressors and victims] have made peace without the king's licence.

Concerning young men and girls who are or ought to be in the king's wardship: whether they are married [already], or are [still] marriageable; and, if they are married, to whom and by whose agency, and how much their lands are worth.

Concerning the king's sergeanties: what they are, who holds them and through whom, and what kind of sergeanties they are and how much they are worth.

Concerning churches that are or ought to be in the king's gift: which churches they are, who holds them, and through whom.

Concerning the king's escheats, both of tenements of Jews and of Christians: who holds them, through whom, why what service, and how much they are worth.

Concerning purprestures made upon the king within the liberty or elsewhere, wherever they are, on land or on water.

Concerning the measures that have been fixed by regulation and sworn to throughout the kingdom: whether they are upheld according to the provisions, and whether during peacetime the keepers of the measures took payments from anyone so that he might buy or sell with them. This is to be understood to apply to all measures, both of length and of weight. And whether the assize of the width of cloths has been kept according to the provisions for it.

Concerning wine sold contrary to the assize.

Concerning treasure trove.

Concerning sheriffs and other bailiffs who have presided over pleas of the crown, and what pleas.

Concerning Christian usurers who have died, who they were and what moveables they had.

Concerning the moveables seized from merchants under the dominion of the king of France, who has them.

Concerning the moveables of Jews who have been killed, and who has their pledges, charters and [recognizances of] debts.

Concerning counterfeitors and clippers of coins.

Concerning the king's mint and exchange; that is, who may have made coins or exchanges without [licence from] the king or his bailiffs.

Concerning wrongdoers and burglars and those who have harboured them in peacetime.

Concerning fugitives – whether any returned from flight without [the king's] warrant – and outlaws and who has their moveables.

Concerning bribes taken for letting pass grain and other goods, to avoid them being commandeered by bailiffs for provisioning castles, at a lower price than they are worth; the same regarding prises.

Concerning new customs levied in the city, whether on [merchandize coming by] land or water: who levied them and where.

Concerning defaults; that is, those who have been summoned to be before the king's justices and fail to come.

Concerning the delivery of gaols in peacetime without warrant from the king or the justices.

Concerning those imprisoned arbitrarily by bailiffs without reasonable cause, or those set free without warrant.

Concerning thieves who escape [from prison].

Concerning Christian usurers who are living, who they are, what moveables they have, and how much they are worth.

Concerning damages and prises taken from outsiders: by whom this was done, when, where, in whose jurisdiction, and what things.


The king's travelling justices came to any given locality infrequently. In the case of London, there had not been an eyre held there since 1226, and before that in 1221. The next session after that of 1244 (which lasted about two months, although some business was deferred until the beginning of 1246) was not until 1251, and there was another large gap until the next one, in 1276. These gaps meant that there was likely to be a large backlog of cases to hear, and litigants, witnesses, guarantors, or city officers had often died in the interim, or accused persons had found opportunity to escape without trace.

London was exempt from the general eyres, which dealt with both crown and civil pleas; only the former were entertained by the sessions held in the Tower, since the city claimed jurisdiction over most civil pleas for its own courts. The mayor and leading citizens – probably largely the aldermen – acted as the presenting jury. Note the principle of representation expressed in the preamble to the articles: the presenters, particularly the mayor, acted on behalf of the community; if crimes came to light that had not been presented, the community itself was accountable.

When an eyre was convened the delivery to the mayor of the list of articles of inquiry – that is, the types of offences to be reported – was necessarily a first step (after the reading out of the writ authorizing the justices to hold the eyre), since it guided the presenting jury. Criminal proceedings of homicide, assault and felony received attention first, and formed the bulk of the cases (for some examples from this eyre, see "Cases perceived as precedents or illustrating points of law"). Death by misadventure was a common presentment, while there are several instances of abjurations of the realm by murderers or thieves. There were a number of escheats to deal with, while the list of those who had contravened the assizes of wine or cloth were so numerous as not to be recorded individually (they would have been identified on the list of estreats – i.e. fines to be levied); in the case of the vintners it was simply stated that all were guilty. A number of purprestures were addressed, including erection of buildings on London Bridge and the extension of wharves into the Thames. But the justices were not satisfied and conducted a perambulation necessitating a second session in January 1246 just to deal with well over a hundred infringements that had come to light.

The scope of the list of articles enquired into by the justices in eyre grew over time, as the king defined more and more offences as within the jurisdiction of his courts. The list of 1244 was customized to the particular circumstances of London, omitting some of the articles applied during the shire circuits, and adding some articles believed particularly pertinent to the period since the last eyre: the malicious destruction of houses (reflecting disturbances in the city), and Christian usurers. Overall, however, the list of articles used in this eyre is very similar to, although less extensive than, that presented in Bracton's compilation of about the same period; Bracton himself notes that the articles could vary from eyre to eyre.

Despite the possibility that the list was tailored to London, the mayor nonetheless indicated "nothing to report" with regard to a number of the articles:

  • those awaiting amercement (the mayor declared that he needed to see the records of the last eyre before he could say, but the justices were refusing access to that court roll)
  • destruction of houses
  • king's wards (the justices, however, knowing of a case, condemned the mayor and citizens to judgement)
  • treasure trove
  • sheriffs and bailiffs holding pleas (the justices, however, considered that the assize of weights and measures was a case in hand, and condemned the mayor and citizens etc.)
  • moveables of dead Jews
  • harbourers of wrongdoers
  • counterfeiters and clippers
  • mints and exchanges
  • bribes related to the administration of weights and measures
  • bribes for protecting goods from requisitioning
  • new customs
  • imprisonments without cause (the initial answer subsequently being amended to admit the case of one sheriff which came to light during the eyre)
  • escaped thieves
  • Christian usurers, living or dead (although it was intimated that Italians merchants in the city might be practitioners)
  • damages and prises taken from outsiders

After working through most of the list, the city authorities then presented a number of new city ordinances – possibly those necessitated by judicial decisions from the previous eyre – for the justices' review, along with changes or elaborations related to tolls collected or the application of standard measures.

There was a single case of a fugitive having returned to the city, but a most damaging one. He had obtained a licence for returning, but the justices ruled that this had been obtained during Henry III's minority, and should have been renewed after the king had come of age. As this had not been done, the city was judged guilty of harbouring a criminal, and had to throw itself on the king's mercy and surrender its liberties, returned when the city agreed to pay the king £1,000. This kind of thing, together with fines laid on numerous city officials, past and present, for various failures in their duty (despite a wall of silence on articles related to abuses of office), must have made the proclamation of an eyre a matter for dread.



"the war"
The struggle between John and his barons. The effects of this on administration of law and order are suggested at several points in the document.

"ancient pleas"
These were the types of criminal cases over which the king claimed jurisdiction and which had been brought before the previous eyre but not brought to the point of a judgement, or perhaps had been dealt with by justices of gaol delivery in the interim. Crimes occurring earlier than the previous eyre would not be entertained – perpetrators would not be tried, but that eyre's presenting jury could be fined for failing to present the crimes.

"king's mercy"
Being in the "king's mercy" meant that one had been convicted of a crime and was liable to be amerced. Determining the appropriate amercement was a matter for local men appointed as assessors for the eyre.

Grants of land in return for some kind of duty or service (or its financial equivalent), other than that related to military tenure.

"in the king's gift"
A church within the king's gift was one to which the king had the advowson, i.e. the right to appoint or remove the officiating priest (or assign that right to another); this patronage might be a source of revenue for the king, or a way of rewarding supporters.

An escheat was the right of a landlord to take back directly into his own hands property of tenants who had died without heirs or had been convicted of a capital crime, notwithstanding the possible existence of some intermediary landlord. This right was a large part of the reasoning behind the king insisting on licences for grants of property to the Church, since such grants would prevent any future possibility of an escheat. The king was considered the lord of all Jews and their property.

Encroachments (a form of trespass): typically, the extension of one's own property onto property owned by the king, e.g. building onto one's house a front porch, which trespasses onto the king's highway. Those guilty were either fined or required to remove the encroachment – usually both.

A town's executive officers were usually responsible for keeping the standard public measures and, sometimes through subordinates, applying them to check the accuracy of private measures used by tradespeople.

It is not absolutely clear what is referred to by the "payments". The Latin (mercedem) means a small reward. In this context it probably means a bribe to ignore the use of inaccurate measures, and is used later in the document in the sense of bribe. But it is possible that the term may also incorporate fees (possibly extortionate) paid for the information needed for accurate private measures to be obtained.

Goods taken by the king as a form of customs.

"delivery of gaols"
Gaol deliveries were sessions by king's justices intended to handle backlogs of cases involving prisoners, during the gaps between the eyres.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: August 22, 2014 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2014