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CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Norwich legal procedure felony jury trial theft maladministration capital punishment sanctuary

Subject: Hanging without due process
Original source: Public Record Office, Assize Roll, JI/1/571, m.89
Transcription in: William Hudson and John Cottingham Tingey, eds. The Records of the City of Norwich, vol.1 (Norwich: Jarrold, 1906), 220-21.
Original language: Latin
Location: Norwich
Date: 1285


The jurors present that on 12 February 1285, during the time of Roger de Wileby, Adam le Clerk, James Nade, and William de Burwode, bailiffs of the king, Walter Eghe was arrested upon an indictment at the city's leet court for stealing cloth from the house of Richard de la Hoe and for other thefts. Subsequently, on the 14th, he was brought before the bailiffs and the whole community of the entire city in the Tolbooth and, without any suit being brought [against him] by anyone, pressured [to say] by what method he wished to clear himself of the charge of theft; for better or worse he submitted himself to a jury. The bailiffs, together with the community, had an inquisition made [to ascertain] whether or not he were guilty; the inquisition determined that Walter was guilty, as a result of which he was sentenced to be hung, and they hung him. After he was taken down from the gallows and carried to the church of St. George for burial, he was found still to be alive.

The jurors were asked by whom Walter was taken down from those gallows. They say that it was by William the son of Thomas Stanhard; he came and acknowledged it to be true. Therefore he is committed to gaol. The possessions of Walter [are worth] £2.13s.4d., for which the sheriff is to answer.

It was testified that Walter stayed in the church for fifteen days – kept under guard there by the parishes of St. Peter Hungate, St. Mary the Less, SS. Simon and Jude, and St. George in front of the gate of Holy Trinity – after which period he escaped from the custody of the parishes. Therefore the four parishes are subject to judgement for the escape. After his escape, Walter put himself into the church of Holy Trinity, Norwich, and remained there until the king pardoned him the charge of breaking his peace; he now comes and presents in evidence the king's charter [of pardon] which states "Edward, by the grace of God, etc." [ ... ]

The bailiffs together with the community were asked by what authority they sentenced Walter to hang and hung him, without a suit from anyone or without having caught him in the act. They say that at Easter after the events took place the king came into these parts and was given to understand how Walter was hung. As a result of which he sent John de Lovetot to the city to enquire into the matter; and he, because of their deed, took the liberties of the city into the king's hand, and they remained in the king's hand until his next parliament. At which parliament he afterwards restored to them their city by his charter.


This mis-step by the Norwich authorities took place during a period when Edward I was attempting to assert greater control over the administration of justice. In 1278 he had added Quo Warranto proceedings to the scope of responsibilities of the justices in eyre; the challenge against the city was, in essence, of that type.

At this time, the law required that a felony trial had to be initiated either by a legal action being brought by one individual against another, or by a royal writ. The leet court might identify the occurrence of felonies, but without investigation turning up a plaintiff, a suspected felon ought not to be tried; the exceptions being for felons caught red-handed or confessing their crimes. The language of the record may indicate that Walter initially refused to respond to the charge, on those grounds, but the court forced him to do so. Why Richard de la Hoe did not bring a charge is something we cannot know for certain. One suspects that Walter may have been a notorious thief, leading the city authorities to act against him in the absence of an accuser, and there is some suggestion that the bailiffs may have based their actions on a breach of the king's peace (although this should have been held for trial by royal justices). The king's pardon to Walter may not have addressed the issue of his guilt or innocence directly, but may have been occasioned by the seeming divine intervention that allowed Walter to survive the hanging.

The king's action against the city authorities was a typical response of suspending the city privileges of self-government. The court record justifies this, as opposed to punishment of the bailiffs, by emphasising the community's role in supporting the proceedings against Eghe. The citizens purchased their own pardon and obtained a restitution dated 27 May 1285; the cost to them was an additional 40s. payment added to the annual fee farm. The restitution stated that the seizure of the liberties had been due to the city authorities sitting in judgement on crimes committed outside of their area of jurisdiction. It may therefore be that what we see in the case of Walter Eghe is another manifestation of the long-standing disputes between the city and independent areas of jurisdiction within the city bounds; it may be noted that the document of restitution made reference (without any apparent necessity) to an earlier seizure of liberties, in 1272, as consequence of the same disputes.



Tolbooth was the name of the building housing the city government at this time; it can hardly have been large enough to hold the entire community, a term used rather to express that the court session was public or – in this context – perhaps to ensure the city as a whole, not just its officers, was held accountable for the maladministration of justice.

"fifteen days"
I.e. he took advantage of the situation to claim sanctuary.

These parishes represent the one in which the sanctuary was claimed (St. George Tombland) – which suggests that the gallows were on Tombland – and the three closest parishes.

"subject to judgement"
The parishes were subsquently fined 100s.

"church of Holy Trinity"
The cathedral, just across Tombland from St. George's.

A section of text omitted by Hudson, but supplied in an earlier translation by Harrod (Norfolk Archaeology, vol.7, 1879), indicates that the pardon (as opposed to the restitution) was obtained on 24 March.

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

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