DEATH Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval King's Lynn York investigations coroner death misadventure drowning accidents fire homicide crime detection
Subject: Death by misadventure
Original source: Item 1. Arundel Castle archives, MD 232; item 2. Norfolk Record Office, King's Lynn archives, KL/C14/1; item 3. York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, f.17.
Transcription in: 1. and 2. Dorothy M. Owen, ed. The Making of King's Lynn: A Documentary Survey, British Academy Records of Social and Economic History, new series, vol.9 (1984), 423-26, 429-30; 3. Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 44-45.
Original language: Latin
Location: King's Lynn, York
Date: late 13th and 14th centuries


[1. Lynn: coroner's roll 1291-1300]

Inquest held on the death of William del Wre and Walter Kyng of Saltfleetby, on 18 June 1294 at Lynn, by Simon de Waynflet, Ralph Swyft, John ad Aquam, Richard Cocum, his brother Ralph, Geoffrey Drewe, Alan de Swerdeston, William de Cranewiz, John de Acra, John de Barewe, John son of Simon de Beverle, and Alexander le Gardener of Ditton, jurors, who say under oath that the mayor and bailiffs of Lynn had received special orders from the king to arrest all ships and boats arriving at Lynn, together with the men and goods being in the same, in order that they not transport any goods overseas. On 12 June a certain John Stalle of Yarmouth approached a ship called the Stoute and he said to the master of that ship and his fellows that thieves and plunderers were about to come with a writ to deprive them of their ship and its cargo and to kill them. On the following day, William and Walter, together with the sergeants of the Tolbooth of Lynn and other men, by an order sent them by the mayor and bailiffs, came in a boat to arrest the ship. When they saw the men in the boat coming, those who were in the ship thought them to be the plunderers and thieves and, when William and Walter wished to board the ship from the boat, they took it [...] by one of the ship's ropes and at once the tidal current drew away the boat from the ship; and when it was hanging by the ship's rope, unnerved by the armed men in the ship, they [i.e.William and Walter] fell into the sea between the boat and the ship and had the misfortune to drown.


Inquest held before the coroners of Lynn on 22 May 1296 into the death of Roger fitz Claricia miller [...] the jurors say that around the middle of the day on 19 May, Roger arose from his midday nap and went down to the water next to the lesser water-wheel of the mill in Lynn called "Swargermelne", to wash his hands, when he tripped over himself and fell onto the beam called "briggetre". Of which [injury] he languished from that hour until vespers on the following Monday.

[2. Lynn: coroner's roll 1302-04]

Inquest held [...] 29 January 1303 [...] concerning the death of John de Beverlee [...] The jurors say under oath that on the night of 28 January John was coming from the house of Peter le Schereman in Briggate and he crossed over a bridge called "Godlombesbrigge". Having had his fill of drink, he had the misfortune to fall off the bridge and was drowned in the water.


Inquest held on 25 July 1302 concerning the dath of Margaret, daughter of Richard de Thornhegg [...] The jurors say that on the previous night, before midnight, Alice de Tyrington, servant of Beatrice le Hukestere put up a candle on a partition wall in Beatrice's house; but that, Alice being drunk, while she was taking care of other matters the candle fell down into the straw and set on fire the house and Margaret. Alice and Beatrice, fleeing for their lives and barely escaping with them, forgot about Margaret (who was then 12 years old) and left her behind in the burning house. They say that no-one is guilty of the death. Afterwards, Richard de Thornhegg found her and raised the hue.


Inquest held on 17 December 1302 concerning the death of Giles de Flandres [...] The jurors say that on the night of 15 December before curfew Giles was sitting in a Ely boat from which he was selling ale in the port of Lynn when he said to his companion that his haketon was better and gave surer protection than any made in England. He said that he would prove it and, drawing his own knife he stabbed himself in the chest with the knife, giving himself a wound half an inch deep, from which he immediately died.



Memorandum that on 13 February 1382 it came about in the city of York that a certain John de Braytoft of Scroby, a servant of Robert de Comberworth, was riding on a horse of his master out of York Castle towards the watercourse between the chapel and the watermill beside the castle, in order to water the horse there. By a terrible accident, John was drowned in the water there between the mill and the chapel. In consequence of which, Simon de Clapham, Simon de Waghen, and Henry de Bolton bailiffs and William de Newby coroner and many other reputable men of the city came to claim the liberty and to take possession thereof.

After which, the body of the drowned man being found, it was viewed according to custom and an inquest held by William de Newby, city coroner, by the oath of Thomas de Lokyngton, William Lorymer, Walter Fox, Roger Wright, John Strynger, Robert de Wistowe, John de Elveley, William del Ker, Robert Pawe, William Fletcher, John Pouchemaker, and John Stiel, jurors. Who state under oath that the said John rode on the horse into the water at the aforementioned location; the value of the horse [was assessed at] 10s. In a deep part of the river the horse stumbled, colliding with stones hidden beneath the surface; to John's misfortune the force of the collision threw him from the horse into the water, where he was at once submerged, and separated from the horse. The horse has gone outside the boundary of the city, but into whose hands it has fallen they have no idea whatsoever, and say so under oath.


When a death occurred, the initial task was to determine where it had happened, in order to ascertain within which jurisdiction the investigation fell. In this case, the city authorities promptly claimed the affair as within their jurisdiction (the proximity to the castle fee could have cast doubt on the matter). The purpose of the inquest, which appears to have been held promptly, was to determine who, or what, was responsible for a sudden death. Part of the reason was that the instrument causing death might be forfeited to the Crown (or in some cases, given as compensation to family of the deceased); hence the concern with assessing the value of the horse and with stating under oath that the horse had escaped and could not be found.

Drowning was a not infrequent cause of death in the Middle Ages. It is not clear whether the ability to swim was very common, although swimming could be a recreation for those with the ability. An off-balance fall into water, getting out of one's depth while bathing, or a drunken tumble into water were the most common scenarios. Watercourses were used for industry, as sources of domestic supply, for cleaning oneself or watering one's animals, and for travel, and a place like Lynn, as an important commercial port, experienced a relatively large number of drownings. By contrast, deaths as a result of house-fires were not as common as one might expect, given the vulnerability of medieval structures to fire.

Records of coroners' inquests, despite their somewhat formulaic and in most cases succinct style, paint us a picture of the various hazards in medieval society. In particular the too frequent resort to violence. The Lynn coroners' records from which the above cases were taken also tell of deaths resulting from slight provocations, such as telling some argumentative Norwegian sailors to keep the noise down, or a dispute arising from a ball game on the river-bank, or an argument in a brothel. Drink was sometimes involved – as one suspects it may have been in the above case of Giles de Flandres, explicable only as the folly of an inebriated man.

Unless inquest juries were prone to concocting stories or intentionally protecting the guilty, possibilities we cannot – or cannot always – rule out, they seem to have been a fairly effective tool for gathering information within a short time-frame. On rare occasions when multiple inquests were held on a death, we sometimes get conflicting information from the different juries, but more often they are corroborative or complementary. It seems that few secrets could be kept in a community were people were more inclined to mix – in the streets, in the marketplace, in church, and in guildhalls – than to shut themselves away in their homes. In the relatively small communities of medieval English towns, with houses often close together or contiguous, one tended to know what one's neighbours were up to.

On the other hand, it has been suggested [Carrie Smith, "Medieval Coroners' Rolls: Legal Fiction or Historical Fact?", pp.93-115 in Courts, Counties and the Capital, ed. D. Dunn, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996] that sympathetic neighbours might on occasion be unwilling to condemn some of their own (e.g. for a killing in self-defence), and that some crimes may have gone completely unreported for similar or other reasons, some of which apply more to rural than urban situations. Also that a few of the deaths categorized by juries as misadventure might, because of inadequate knowledge of the circumstances – perhaps particularly for deaths that happened in the middle of the night or in the privacy of the home – actually have been homicides. Without additional sources of evidence, we can never know for certain.



In Lincolnshire.

Probably the mill on Millfleet known at times as Swagges Mill.

Presumably some part of the mill-wheel, perhaps the central beam supporting it.

A tunic that was padded for protection.

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Created: February 29, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2004