DEATH Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London death misadventure accidents assault homicide mental illness wrestling infant mortality fire drowning abortion spousal abuse coroner investigations
Subject: Mortal perils in the capital
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Book B and coroner's rolls
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 19-20; Reginald Sharpe, ed. Calendar of Coroners Rolls of the City of London, A.D. 1300-1378, London: Richard Clay, 1913, passim.
Original language: Latin (translation by Riley and Sharpe, with minor modernizations by myself)
Location: London
Date: 13th century (Riley) and 14th century (Sharpe)


[1 September 1278]
[The jurors] say that the before-named Godfrey [de Belstede], on 24 August, was coming from Cheshunt towards London, mounted on a hackney, hired of a certain man of that village, as they believe, but as to whose name and person they are ignorant, and having one Richard le Lacir in his company, they met certain carters coming from London, with three carts, but as to the names and persons of whom they are altogether ignorant. Whereupon, one of the carters aforesaid began most shamefully to abuse the said Godfrey, for riding the said hackney so fast, and a dispute arising between Godfrey and the said Richard, on the one side, and the said carters on the other, one of the carters seizing with his hands a certain iron fork, struck Godfrey upon the crown of his head with such force, as to inflict a wound two inches in length, and penetrating almost to the brain. The other carters also badly beat him all over the body with sticks, and maltreated both him and the said Richard le Lacir; so much so, that the latter hardly escaped with his life. Godfrey before-named survived from 24 August to 1 September, languishing from the wound and beating aforesaid; and on that day, at about the third hour, he died.

[Sunday, 17 December 1300]
The jurors say that when, on the preceding Wednesday, the said Richard [le Brewere] was going up a step of a solar in the house of William Cros, carrying a bag of malt, being overcome with drink, he by accident stumbled from the said step and fell, rupturing his bowels and diaphragm, and so lived until the following Friday, when he died about the hour of curfew.

[Sunday, 30 July 1301]
The jurors say that when, on the preceding Saturday, the said Roger [le Brewere] about the ninth hour left the kitchen of the said Adam de Ely [fishmonger] complaining of a disorder called Tisik, he asked Agnes, his wife, whom he found in the Hall, to summon a chaplain to come to him immediately; that the said Agnes ran to a church [but] before his arrival, the said Roger fell dead in the Hall of the said disorder.

[28 May 1301]
The jurors say that when on 6 May, the said Peter [de Huntyngdon] and a certain Andrew Prille came to the house of Walter Vigerous and there continued drinking until after the hour of Vespers, they by mutual consent agreed to wrestle; that, afterwards, the said Andrew left the said Peter, saying that he would no more wrestle as his clothes were torn, and that thereupon the said Peter took off his own vest and handed it to Andrew for him to wrestle in it; that they then wrestled with all their strength and gripped each other in such a way that Peter's right leg was broken, and so he lingered until 1 June, when he died as night was coming on, from the fracture and bad attention.

[18 June 1301]
The jurors say that when, on 11 June, the said Robert [le Brasour] had come into Wood Street after the hour of Vespers, and had met a certain Robert de Amias, they quarrelled together, both being inebriated, and the said Robert de Amias beat the said Robert le Brasour with an oak stick; that the latter then went towards the church of St. Bartholomew the Little, and there lay down on a trunk and passed the night; that at sunrise on the morrow he went to the house of Henry Poteman, his master, who reprimanded him for leaving his house without permission, paid him his wages, and ordered him to leave the house; that he thereupon went to the house of John Butcher and there lingered until 8 June, when he died after the hour of Prime; they say, however, that he was not nearer death nor farther from life by reason of the beating, but that he died from the illness he contracted by passing the night in the street, and not from any felony.

[Friday, 21 July 1301]
The jurors say that when, on the preceding Tuesday, the said Richard [son of John le Mazon], who was 8 years of age, was walking, immediately after dinner, across London Bridge to school, he hung by his hands in play from a certain beam on the side of the bridge, so that, his hands giving way, he fell into the water and was drowned.

[1 September 1301]
The jurors say that on 4 May 1301 there came a certain Hugh Picard riding a white horse belonging to Master William de London, a clerk, in Philips Lane, after the hour of Vespers, when the said Petronilla [daughter of William de Wyntonia, aged three years] was playing in the street, and the horse being strong, quickly carried the said Hugh against his will over the said Petronilla so that it struck her on her right side with its right fore-foot; that the said Petronilla lingered until the following day, when she died, at the hour of Vespers, from the blow aforesaid.

[9 September 1301]
The jurors say that when, on 29 August, the said Richard le Brewere entered his brewhouse to take boiling water out of a leaden vessel with a certain ladle and put it into a certain vat, both his feet having given way he fell backwards and the water poured over his neck and body and scalded him; that he lingered until 7 September, when he died at midnight.

[Monday, 30 November 1321]
The jurors say that the aforesaid Isabella [wife of Robert de Pampesworth] for the two last years and more had suffered from a disease called "frensy", and that on the preceding Sunday, at the hour of Prime, she was alone in her chamber whilst Cristiana de Iseldone, servant to John de Pampesworth, son of the said Isabella, went to the kitchen to get her some food, and she hanged herself by a cord from a small beam in the said solar, when nobody was present, whilst suffering from the aforesaid disease; that the said Cristiana when she entered the room and saw her hanging raised the cry, so that a certain William Scot ran thither and cut the cord with his knife, and the said Isabella fell to the ground alive, and so lingered for the space of a quarter of an hour of the same day and then died from weakness of the same disease and the hanging aforesaid.

[7 January 1322]
The jurors say that when on 3 January 1322 a certain John de Eddeworth, brother of the late Osbert le Pledour, was riding in company with certain men unknown who were taking Walter de Selby, an enemy and rebel to the lord the King, towards the Tower of London, he met the aforesaid John de Tygre, to whom he said that by reason of the death of the aforesaid Osbert his brother, whom the said John de Tygre had killed, he would have something to say to him when opportunity occurred; that the two men moved to anger separated, and thence forward each lay in wait to kill the other. At length on 4 January, before midnight, the said John de Eddeworth, with two other men, his companions, whose names are unknown [met] the said John de Tygre at the head of Sopers Lane, in the Ward of Cheap, and immediately the said John and John with their swords drawn, and the two persons unknown, one with his knife, called "Irish knife", and the other with a wooden staff called "balkstaff", fought together, so that the said John de Eddeworth and his two companions drove the said John de Tygre from place to place, and at the head of Wood Street, opposite the tenement of John de Shordych in the Ward of Cripplegate, the said John de Tygre fell over a heap of dung, and forthwith the said John de Eddeworth and his companions mortally wounded him as he lay, viz.: the said John de Eddeworth with his sword inflicted five mortal wounds, three being on the back of the head, and one on the left side,each of them two inches long and penetrating the skull, and one under his left ear, and inch and a half deep and two inches long, whilst one of the unknown men with his staff mortally beat him on his sides, back, arms and neck; that when certain watchmen for keeping the peace in the said Ward heard of this, they immediately ran thither and found the said John de Tygre thus wounded and beaten, and certain of his friends carried him to the said solar [in the tenement of John's wife Alice, in the parish of St. Clement Candlewick Street] where he lay dead and there he had his ecclesiastical rights, and lingered until 6 January when he died after the ninth hour from the said wounds and blow.

[Wednesday, 28 April 1322]
The jurors say that when on the preceding Tuesday a little before midnight, the said Robert [de Kent cordwainer] and Matilda his wife, and William and John their sons lay asleep in the said solar [held by the said Robert of Adam Braz], a lighted candle fixed on the wall by the said Matilda fell by accident on the bed of the said Robert and Matilda, and set the whole house on fire; that the said Robert and William were immediately caught in the flames and were burnt, and the said Matilda and John with difficulty escaped with their lives.

[?29 April 1322]
William, son of John de Brich', who had been attached for burglary of the house, and carrying off the goods, of Geoffrey le Rook of Little Burstead [Essex] died of starvation in the prison of Newgate on 29 April 1322, and of no felony.

[Friday, 21 May 1322]
The jurors say that when on the preceding Thursday, before the hour of Vespers, the said Johanna [daughter of Bernard de Irlaunde, a child one month old] was lying in her cradle alone, the shop door being open there entered a certain sow which mortally bit the right side of the head of the said Johanna. At length there came Margaret, wife of the said Bernard and mother of the said Johanna, and raised the cry and snatched up the said Johanna and kept her alive until midnight of the said Friday when she died of the said bite and of no other felony.

[Saturday, 26 June 1322]
The jurors say that [when] on the preceding Friday the said Robert [son of Ralph de Leyre de la Hay of co. Essex] went to the wharf called the Fishwharf and entered the river to bathe, no one being present, he was by accident drowned and so remained in the water until the following Saturday, when, about noon, a certain John Curteys, a boat-man, found him drowned and raised the cry, so that the country came; that at the request of friends of the said Robert, his corpse was taken out of the water and placed in the said shop [rented by Oliver Brounyng in Queenhithe ward] for better inspection, and for fuller enquiry as to his death to be made. They suspect no one of the death but only the mischance aforesaid. The corpse viewed on which no wound or bruise appeared.

[7 July 1322]
The jurors say that when at daybreak of that day a great multitude of poor people were assembled at the gate of the Friars Preacher seeking alms, Robert Fynel, Simon, Robert and William his sons and 22 other male persons, names unknown, Matilda, daughter of Robert le Carpenter, Beatrix Cole, Johanna le Peyntures, Alice la Norice and 22 other women, names unknown, whilst entering the gate were fatally crushed owing to the numbers, and immediately died thereof and of no other felony.

[Wednesday, 27 March 1325]
The jurors say that when on the preceding Sunday at the hour of Compline the said Walter de Benygtone [tailor], with seventeen companions, unknown, had come to the brewhouse of Gilbert de Mordone, stockfishmonger, in the Ward of Bridge with stones in their hoods, swords, knives and other weapons and were sitting and drinking four gallons of beer, lying in wait to seize and carry off Emma, daughter of the late Robert Pourte then under the chargeof the said Gilbert; that perceiving this, Mabel, the wife of Gilbert de Mordone, and Geoffrey, the brewer of the said Gilbert, prayed the said Walter and his associates to depart thence, but they replied that they would stay there, as the house was public; whereupon the said Mabel seeing their folly returned to her chamber taking the said Emma with her; that the said Walter and his associates being on that account moved with anger assaulted the said Geoffrey and Robert de Mordone and other inmates of the house and struck the said Robert on the head with stones, so that he raised the cry and fled into the High Street, and the said Walter with a knife in one hand and a misericord in the other followed him to kill him. Thereupon, Benedict de Warde and other neighbours came up to pacify them, when the said Walter assaulted the said Benedict with the aforesaid weapons, and refused to surrender to the King's peace, and the said Benedict seizing a balstaff from a stranger, therewith struck the said Walter on the top of his head so that he fell to the ground at the entrance of the lane of Gilbert de Mordone in the parish [of St. Michael] aforesaid, and was thence carried by Walter de Arderne and Christina his wife into the land of St. Michael aforesaid, where they laid him on the pavement near the fountain where he lay the whole of the following night, and on the morrow he was carried half dead by them into the house of Geoffrey de Warde, where he immediately died.

[15 November 1325]
The jurors ... say that a certain John de Wynestone, Thomas de Walpol, Martin de Aumbresbury, William de Grenstede, Thomas le Waryner, John le Joignour, William Shonk, Simon Lightfot, Richard de Aumbresbury, James de Shordiche, John Galle and John Baudechon, goldsmiths, on Sunday, 10 November, shortly after the hour of curfew, were walking in the High Street of Cheap, lying in wait for the men of the mistery of Saddlers in order to beat them, on account of a quarrel that had arisen between men of the mistery of Goldsmiths and that of Saddlers; that meeting the aforesaid John atte Vyse [saddler] opposite the stone cross in Cheap the said John de Wynestone, Thomas de Walpol and Martin de Aumbresbury assaulted him, the said John de Wynestone striking him with a sword on the left side of the head, inflicting a mortal wound seven inches long and three inches deep, and the said Thomas Walpol striking him with an axe and nearly severing his leg, whilst the aforesaid Martin belaboured him with a staff when lying on the pavement ... the said John atte Vyse thus beaten and wounded lay there groaning until carried by his friends to the house [he held in the parish of St. Vedast], where he had his ecclesiastical rights and where he lingered until the followign Thursday, when he died about cock-crow of his wounds.

[Wednesday, 15 January 1326]
The jurors ... say on oath that when on the preceding Tuesday, about midnight the said John Toly rose naked from his bed and stood at a window of the solar 30 ft. high to relieve himself towards the High Street, he accidentally fell headlong to the pavement crushing his neck and other members, and thereupon died about cock-crow.

[3 August 1326]
The jurors ... say that on 30 June 1326, Agnes Houdydoudy met the aforesaid Lucy [wife of Richard de Barstaple], who was enceinte, in the High Street near the Tower, and a quarrel arising, the said Agnes knocked the said Lucy and struck her on the belly with fist and knees, and fled leaving her half dead in the street. The said Agnes was immediately caught and taken to Newgate, whilst the said Lucy was carried by friends to the rented house aforesaid where she had her ecclesiastical rights and within three weeks gave birth to an abortive child, and died on 1 August of the blows, at the third hour.

[2 February 1337]
The jurors ... say that the above Emma [a pauper and mendicant], who had long suffered from falling sickness came about the ninth hour to the bank of Tower ditch carrying a large earthern vessel full of water, and owing to her sickness fell head foremost into the ditch, nobody being near, and immediately died.

[Friday, 21 February 1337]
The jurors ... say that on the preceding Thursday, about the hour of Vespers, two carters (unknown) taking two empty carts out of the City were urging their horses apace, when the wheels of one of the carts collapsed opposite the rent of the Hospital [of St. Mary, Bishopsgate], so that the following cart fell on the said Agnes [de Cicestre] who immediately died; that the carter thereupon left his cart and three horses and took flight in fear, although he was not suspected of malicious intent.

[Monday, 20 December 1339]
The jurors ... say that on the preceding Sunday after the hour of curfew, a quarrel arose between Robert de Portesmouthe and Alice his wife in a solar in the rent of Richard le Rous, when the said Robert struck his wife with a staff called a "wombedstaff" on the neck as she stood by the stair in the said solar, so that with the blow she fell down the stair and broke her neck; that the said Robert took flight the next day, but whither, etc., the jurors know not. And because the information was given to the Coroner, that Robert son of the aforesaid Robert de Portesmouthe had been arrested on suspicion of causing the death of the said Alice his step-mother and had been taken to Newgate, precept was issued to the Sheriffs to summon other jurors of the ward of Queenhithe for the following Tuesday in order that further enquiry might be made. Accordingly on that day there came [13 named jurors] who said on oath that on the aforesaid day the said Robert, the son, struck the said Alice with his hand, whilst the father struck her with a "wombedstaff" on the neck from which blow the said Alice died, and that the death of the said Alice was not hastened by the blow from the hand of the said son.

[Saturday, 14 January 1340]
The jurors ... say that on the preceding Thursday about sunrise when the above John [Briny] tried to put a halter on a grey horse in the stable of Roger de Forsham the horse kicked him in the face so that he died on the following Saturday.

[Saturday, 4 February 1340]
The jurors ... say that on the preceding Friday, after the hour of curfew, the aforesaid Alice [wife of Henry de Warewyk skinner], who for the last half-year had been non compos mentis, opened the door of the house of the said Henry and Alice in the parish of St. Benedict Fink, in the ward of Broad Street, and ran by herself in a wild state to the port of Dowgate and threw herself into the Thames and was drowned.

[Monday, 28 August 1340]
The jurors ... say that on the aforesaid Monday the said John Bone was going down the well [on the property he rented in the parish of St. Andrew East Cheap] by means of a long pole to recover a bucket which was there, when he fell and, there being but little water in the well, he immediately died. Precept to the Sheriff to cause the well to be stopt up.

[29 September 1367]
The jurors ... say that on 21 September, at dusk, the aforesaid John Farnaham [of North Ockendon, clerk] entered a boat belonging to John Sevar of Portsoken in the parish of Aveley, Essex, which boat lay in the Thames near Botulph's Wharf in the parish of St. Botulph in the ward of Billingsgate, desiring to voyage in her to the vill of North Ockendon; that whilst he and his fellow travellers lay asleep waiting for the tide, a great storm of wind and rain arose and overturned the boat near the bridge in the ward and parish aforesaid; so that the said John fell into the water and was drowned; that his corpse was carried hither and thither until 29 September when it was found cast in the water in the fleet at Lymhostes.


When a death from other than natural causes occurred, the finder of the dead or dying person had to raise the alarm, the neighbours had to be alerted, and the matter had to be reported promptly to the city authorities. The coroner with jurisdiction in the area where the death occurred would quickly summon a group of men living in the neighbourhood – in the case of London, where the sheriffs worked with the coroner, from the ward in question as well as from adjacent wards – to serve as jury for an inquest. Their investigation, held at the site where the death occurred and calling on the neighbours to give evidence, was to determine how the death – usually described as "other than a rightful death" – occurred and who, if anyone, or what was responsible, so that the courts could take the appropriate action. This kind of investigation seems to have applied as much to the poorest members of society as to others; it did not usually apply if an individual succumbed to a recognized illness.

Many of the deaths investigated were homicides resulting from quarrels or brawls, often the result of drunkeness, hot-headedness, or hot temper. One case illustrates that "road rage" is not a modern phenomenon. But not a few involved malice aforethought, as in cases of vendetta or revenge, or at least a proclivity to be looking for trouble – those involved were going around armed with daggers, staffs, or axes. Occasionally the perpetrator or victim had simply been trying to prevent a crime from being committed, against him or her self or against another. A couple of deaths resulted from the simmering hostilities between some of the craft gilds, which occasionally erupted into violence; another instance (besides that given above) was the outcome of a brawl in 1340 between skinners and fishmongers. Law students were also the instigators of a couple of brawls, although this was a pale reflection of the troubles caused by students at Oxford. Deaths as the result of domestic quarrels are also found, but are not numerous; one of the most horrific cases was that of a house burning down, the occupants having escaped, but the husband, who blamed his wife for the fire, pushed her back into the burning house.

A large number, on the other hand, fall into the death by misadventure category. Falls from ladders or from upper story windows occur several times, and several deaths were as a result of falls down wells – the unlucky individual might drown, break his neck, or suffocate in a dry well. Drowning in the Thames or in the city ditches was a fairly common cause of death, although for a variety of reasons, such as falling in by accident, losing one's footing while bathing, committing suicide, or in one case being prevented (it appears) by the weight of stolen loot secreted on the thief's person from avoiding the consequences of a rising tide during an effort to escape capture. Children make an appearance in the coroner's rolls in the context mainly of domestic accidents, or accidental deaths that occurred while wandering or at play in the streets; the case of Johanna de Irlaunde reveals one of the reasons why towns repeatedly passed by-laws against allowing pigs to wander the streets. The supposed high rate of infant mortality is not reflected in coroner's rolls, however, suggesting that most infant deaths were seen as 'natural', and even the unnatural deaths provoked no comment on parental culpability in terms of failing to supervise the children.

Several deaths of prisoners in city gaols were recorded with little comment. The cause of death was not usually given, but when described as a "rightful death" may sometimes refer to execution and sometimes to what was perceived as a natural death. In a few cases it is explicitly recorded that prisoners starved to death. Prisoners received nothing to eat unless fed by family or friends, or as the result of charitable gifts, and therefore it was easy for many to starve. Or perhaps that way out seemed preferable to some of those destined for hanging.

Occasionally other deaths were also described as "rightful", meaning that the jury could not identify – either from evidence of events surrounding the death, or from examination of the corpse – any reason to believe foul play had occurred. Therefore it was concluded that a natural death had occurred. Such was the case, for example, with a baby that died a day after its birth, with a child of 12 for whom no clear cause of death could be identified, but also with adults considered to have died prematurely or without forewarning of any ill health.



A riding horse.

"bad attention"
The leg of the corpse was described as gangrenous.

"seeking alms"
Sharpe identifies the event that occasioned this tragedy as being a dole of alms by the executor of Henry Fingrie.

A narrow-bladed dagger intended to deliver the death blow to an incapacitated opponent.

"stone cross in Cheap"
This was the original location of London's Eleanor Cross, later removed to Charing.

"ecclesiastical rights"
I.e. the right to have the last rites administered.

"29 September"
Or 6 October; there is a discrepancy in the original or the transcript which would have the body found a week after the inquest, clearly not correct.

"North Ockendon"
Close to Aveley.

Technically, the duties of coroner were exercised by the King's Chamberlain who, in the earliest coroner's records from London, acted with the city sheriffs in holding an inquest. As the Chamberlain was, in practice, occupied with other duties, a deputy was often appointed in London.

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Created: February 29, 2004 © Stephen Alsford, 2004