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CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval King's Lynn crime detection police wards jury trial theft harbouring

Subject: Reporting crimes to the authorities
Original source: Norfolk Record Office, King's Lynn archives, KL/C15/1, KL/C15/2
Transcription in: 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), 419-20.
Original language: Latin
Location: King's Lynn
Date: early 14th century


[1. Jury presentments from three constabularies]

Inquisition held on 5 June 1309 before William Schilling, Peter de Folsham and Elias de Warham, constables of Lynn, by jurors William de Qwinberwe, John de Rellesham, John de Esex carpenter, Richard de Englelond, Adam de Geyton, William de Bauseye, Alexander de Honewrth, John de Wigemer, Peter Mercator, John de Brumholme, Richard de Dersyngham, Peter de Fornesete. Who say under oath that a certain Helen de Swanton is a thief and a robber and harbours thieves who come to stay with her during the night, notably a particular thief by the name of Adam son of Thomas le Blower of Wiggenhall who has been proven to be a thief and robber. They also say that on the day immediately before this inquisition William Giffage and five associates, assigned to the nightwatch for preserving the king's peace, encountered in the middle of the night a certain person of Wiggenhall by the name of [blank]; he refusing to surrender peacefully, they pursued him to the entrance of the church and wounded him there, for which the constables commit them to trial. They also say that Kamma the wife of Michael Culling harbours thieves and whores. They also say that Matilda de Banham is a thief and a robber and harbours thieves and whores. They also say that Matilda Clauda is a thief and a robber and harbours thieves and whores. They also say that a certain woman named Grace is a thief and a robber and harbours thieves and whores. On the basis of whose [testimony] under oath concerning the aforesaid wrongdoers and harbourers, the constables submit this [document] to you under their seals of office.

[2. Jury presentments from a single constabulary]

Inquisition held on 13 July 1314 before Nicholas Bretun, constable, by jurors Simon Rust, Warren de Ryppis, William de Pykenham, John Sefowel, William de Newton, William atte Both, John de Walepol, Richard Ingeland, Nicholas Estrich, Richard de Dersyngham, Godfrey Schilling, Thomas de Ryburwg, John de Somersham. Who say under oath that Hugh Wakewo of Ely is a night prowler, the culprit in many robberies, and was present on the night of 3 July at the death of Gerard de Wyldishouse, who was killed that night outside the gate of Richard de Swerdiston. Richard de Swerdiston, Robert Donsete and John de Yskisham were on hand that night and took from Harold Swart and his associates, against their will, 14s. of silver, a tunic [worth] 6s., a pole-axe[?], and a double-headed axe[?]. They also say that John son of Geoffrey de Mereseye, on 4 July, carried off by theft 7 yards of say and a crossbow from a certain ship belonging to men of Estland. They also say that John son of Martin de Bek is a thief and is guilty of multiple robberies and murders. They also say that John Aleman of Terrington is a thief and was present at the death of the man mentioned above who was killed and at many other robberies. They also say that John Wylingg mariner is a thief who committed a robbery in the ship called the Margaret. They also say that Stephen [blank] from the ship Walter of Aldemouth is a culprit in the death of the man mentioned above who was killed. They also say that William Broun was in a ship called Rosewold and carried off by theft a portion of the silver, cloth, and other goods belonging to that ship. They also say that Clement Drewe and Roger Katour were guilty of the aforementioned death and robberies. They also say that Thomas Brekerop committed a theft, carrying off a luff worth 6s.8d from the ship of Reyner Blok of Lubeck.


Medieval Lynn was divided into constabularies, as the basis for community policing, as well as taxation; the importance of the constables is reflected in the fact that leading burgesses filled the office. However, in contrast to the situation in London with the aldermen, Lynn's constables did not do double duty in terms of having both judicial and political roles.

The purpose of the constabulary inquisitions was not to try crimes, but simply to gather information about them, for forwarding to competent judicial authorities. Whether that higher authority was the bishop's steward, president of the leet court, or the king's itinerant justices is harder to say, since at this period judicial jurisdiction was a subject of dispute between burgesses and bishop. Surviving records suggest, however, that the leet concerned itself only with minor offences and nuisances, not with even the reporting of felonies. The inquisition records have the appearance of schedules that were attached at some point to some larger judicial record. The 1314 document has 3 seals appended. Lynn also had coroners, but their investigations (being into freshly-committed crimes) were more detailed.

It will be noted that an international port like Lynn faced policing problems in regard to ships from other ports either being targets for crime or bringing to town committers of crimes.



"commit them to trial"
I.e. the nightwatch were given notice that their action would have to be put before a higher authority.

"13 July 1314"
The date given by Mrs. Owen is 5 July 1309. However, my own notes from viewing this document indicate the date as 1314. As The Making of King's Lynn includes an unfortunate number of incorrect dates, I have decided to trust my own notes in this case. I have likewise corrected a few of the personal names in the documents, based on my own reading of the original.

"pole-axe" "double-headed axe"
My translations here are tentative, based partly on the context and the hypothesis that Swerdiston et al. may have been trying to apprehend the murderers/robbers. What is here transcribed as policiam might be a pole-axe (pollexam), or less likely a thimble (pollicium) or, even less plausibly, a thumb (pollicem). What is transcribed as "duble heyke" I have translated on association with hachia (axe, sometimes hakka).

A fine cloth, somewhat like serge.

A generalized term referring to northern Germany and the Baltic; visiting merchants or sailors from that area were usually from towns of the Hanseatic League.

A boom used by a tacking sail.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003

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