Mabel of Sleaford

One of the things it can be hard to explain to the wider public is quite how fragmented History is as a field. To be sure, TV historians will cover anything and everything, but those carrying out research tend, inevitably, to be specialists in particular periods and particular places, and quite often, in particular methodologies or approaches. So, historians who focus on the earlier Middle Ages don’t tend to read later sources much.

There are of course sound reasons for this, but there are costs too. And the project I’m working on at the moment, which is taking me well into the twelfth and even thirteenth centuries, is a powerful reminder of just how much we early medievalists are missing out on as result. For those adjusted to the peculiar pleasures of making the most of scraps of evidence, looking at post-1200 records can be a disorienting experience.

This week, I was looking at early assize rolls from Lincolnshire. Assize rolls are records of English court judgements, initially kept so the king’s agents could know how much revenues they were owed in fines and penalties. From around 1200, these documents are preserved in ever-increasing volume, representing the precocity of English royal government (there’s not really anything comparable on the continent at this time). The two rolls I was looking at were made during a visit by the king’s judges to Lincoln Castle in June 1202, where they dealt with a large number of cases, including, which is what interests me, a few cases involving clerics.

Here’s one of the cases they dealt with. A woman named Mabel lived near Sleaford with her husband Godwin. At some point before June 1202, a carpenter named Alured killed Godwin. Alured had then fled into the church, which probably saved his own life, but he had to go into exile, and all his property was confiscated. The newly widowed Mabel, though, wasn’t satisfied. She accused a man called William of having held down her husband while Alured murdered him. However, William was a subdeacon, and as such, was able to claim ‘benefit of clergy’: so he was allowed to leave the courtroom, and handed over to the ecclesiastical court, or ‘court christian’. What happened to him afterwards isn’t known, but he was probably defrocked.

Mabel didn’t give up though on getting justice for poor Godwin: she next accused Alured’s wife and daughter, Juliana and Isabelle, of having advised Alured to kill him. But because Mabel wasn’t able to prove their involvement, she ended up with a fine for a false accusation, though the judges let her off – out of pity, or maybe because she couldn’t pay.

For the historian acclimatised to the wealth of legal thirteenth-century sources, much of this is fairly hum-drum. But for the early medievalist used to reading between the lines, this is a remarkable account in every way. It demonstrates that wives and daughters were plausibly involved in driving male relatives to commit murder, that women could make use of the royal court system, that practices of sanctuary actually worked, and that goods could be valued and confiscated. And to top it all, it’s specific: we know that this was all discussed in Lincoln Castle one summer, eight hundred years ago.

For my purposes, what’s particularly significant though is that William, the cleric, was able to pull the clerical card. Historians of English law have tended to play down the extent and effectiveness of ‘benefit of clergy’, arguing that it was a fairly marginal affair, more honoured in the breach than the observance. If one works primarily from the normative sources (what ought, or ought not, to have happened), that’s not surprising. Actually, just a couple of decades later, the bishop of Lincoln was writing letters complaining about royal judges putting clerics on trial. So clearly claims of exemption didn’t always work, and maybe weren’t even always made.

Yet in this particular instance, it probably saved someone’s life. And – though here I’m speculating – it made a difference to Mabel too, denying her what she would probably have seen as justice. Historians, then, might say that clerical exemption wasn’t a major issue in medieval England. I suspect Mabel would have strongly disagreed.

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