Setting the scene
After the long and relatively peaceful reign of Henry I came the troubled reign of Stephen I, and civil war.
Henry I had ordered his Barons to swear allegiance to his only remaining legitimate child, his daughter Matilda, after the tragic death of his only legitimate son William, in the sinking of the White Ship.
However when it actually came down to it, many Barons were uneasy at the prospect of being ruled by a woman.
After Henry’s death in 1135, there was strong support for Stephen when he claimed the throne. As Matilda was not a lady to give up her rights easily, this resulted in a prolonged civil war. Not a happy time for the country, and not a good time for the development of law and administration.
However despite the civil war, ordinary people carried on with their lives as best they could. Serfs and villeins continued to farm the land, craftsman in the cities continued their crafts, merchants continued to trade, and monks and nuns continued their cloistered lives under the rule of (mostly) St Benedict or St Augustine.
I mention St Benedict in particular, as it was in a Benedictine Monastery that the renowned Cadfael lived, the ex crusader who took the cowl late in life and who solved mysteries and mysterious deaths in and around Shrewsbury. However some of the books (written by scholar Edith Pargeter under the name of Ellis Peters) also shed light on the law and legal processes at that time.
Here are some examples (‘ware spoilers if you have not read the books yet!):
Shining a light on the sheriffs
We get to see a lot about the lives and duties of Sheriffs in the books. Cadfael’s great friend Hugh Beringer, who he meets in the second book, One Corpse Too Many is appointed first deputy Sheriff, and then, after the death of Sheriff Gilbert Prescote in Dead Man’s Ransom he is appointed Sheriff himself.
Inheritance laws in England and Wales
We get a fascinating glimpse of the difference between English and Welsh inheritance law in Monk’s-Hood. Here Gravase Bonel (married to Cadfael’s childhood sweetheart, Richeldis) is murdered just before the deed transferring his manor Mallilie to Shrewsbury Abbey is confirmed.
His step son Edwin is accused of the crime, as the property had originally been left to Edwin in his will. But as the property lies within Wales, this allowed his illegitimate son Meurig to put in a claim. Unlike English law, Welsh law at that time allowed illegitimate sons to inherit property in Wales. However, not where they have killed …
The Rose Rent deals with a property in the Foregate owned by wealthy widow Judith Perle. She grants the property to the Abbey in exchange for one rose every year (the rose rent of the title) in memory of her husband.
However someone is determined that the charter shall be broken, and the rose bush is sabotaged …
Childish marriages of convenience
Two stories look at how children were often manipulated and married off to suit their relatives. In The Leper of Saint Giles, it is the young Iveta de Massard who is effectively being sold by her guardians to Huon de Domville. Huon is an unsympathetic baron some 40 years her senior who has already buried three wives (and if the marriage goes ahead, one assumes, will shortly bury a fourth). She is saved by the murder of her bridegroom on the eve of her wedding.
In The Hermit of Eyton Forest, it is two children who are being forced into marriage by their families. They agree to the ceremony but (as Richard the bridegroom knows) it is invalid as the person conducting it was not in fact a priest.
At the court of King Henry
We also also given a fascinating glimpse into the times of Henry I in the short story ‘A light on the road to Woodstock’ (to be found in A Rare Benedictine). This shows Cadfael before he took the cowl. Cadfael meets Prior (subsequently Abbot) Herriot on his way to Court to argue a case on behalf of his Abbey.
However the good prior is captured and held prisoner to prevent him from attending the hearing. Cadfael intervenes, allowing the Prior (shown as being a surprisingly efficient legal advocate) to reach court in time and win the case. It is then that Cadfael sees the light and asks to be taken back with him.
Other books cover other aspects of life
- The Sanctuary Sparrow looks at the law of sanctuary for someone being chased by a ‘hue and cry’
- St. Peter’s Fair looks at the Abbey’s right to hold an annual fair and the towns concerns about this
- As previously mentioned One Corpse too Many shows us trial by combat in action
It is a very enjoyable series of books, although I have to confess that I find the earlier ones more entertaining than the later ones. Highly recommended.