English Coroner System Part 6: Treasure Trove & Shipwrecks
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History of the Medieval English Coroner System By Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE

C R O W N E R
Part 6: Treasure Trove & Nautical Activities

Wrecks of the Sea

Treasure Trove

Of the other well-known activities of the Coroner, one, of course, includes "treasure trove". Centuries before the advent of banks and safe-deposits wealth could only be concealed on the person or in a clandestine hiding place, often in the sod itself. Such undiscovered valuables were of considerable fiscal importance as a source of Crown revenue. Adam Smith, writing in "The Wealth of Nations," in 1770, says that treasure trove was, in those times, "considered as no contemptible part of the revenue of the great sovereigns of Europe". So no wonder the English King set his servants, the Coroners, to safeguard his rights in the matter of buried treasure. The so-called "Apocryphal Statute" of Edward I's time, the "De Officio Coronatis" of 1275, contained an instruction to Coroners about treasure trove that was virtually repeated in the Coroners' Act of 1887. It states:

"A coroner shall continue as heretofore, to have jurisdiction to enquire of treasure that is found, who were the finders - and who is suspected thereof."

In fact, the Coroner's powers in treasure trove derive from the common law and any later Coroners' Acts merely comment upon his continuing powers to make investigations.

One of the first descriptions of the Coroner's duties were given in 1295 by the law writer Fleta, the nom de plume of an anonymous jurist writing from the notorious Fleet Prison in London. He wrote:

"The coroner and sheriff, gaining knowledge of the finding of treasure, ought diligently to enquire who were the finders and the nature and amount of treasure, whether any had been carried away and all particulars of those in possession and whether there had been any concealment by anyone. The coroner must then attach all those having any knowledge of the treasure and hold anyone carrying it off until the coming of the justices..."

Not all valuable finds, of course, were treasure trove. By later definition they must be gold or silver and in the form of coins, bullion or plate. This arose because no copper coins were minted in England until the 16th Century. Neither were precious stones designated as treasure trove, unless mounted in gold, as they were rare in Medieval England.

There were a few other odd jobs that fell to the Coroner, though, again, the legal historians are fond of arguing about them - when, where and even if they actually carried them out - and much of the uncertainty is due to the lack of written authority. Recorded cases scattered throughout the old Rolls do, however, confirm that Coroners certainly dealt with these problems at certain times and in certain places.

Wrecks of the Sea

The first of the little known odd responsibilities of some coroners was the investigation of "wrecks of the sea". Once more the overriding consideration was financial. A claim had to be made for the King before the local population got their hands on the loot. A ship's cargo and fittings were a rich prize for an impoverished coastal village. In later centuries, deliberate wrecking was almost a way of life for some of these remote hamlets. The Coroner's duty was to visit the scene of the wreck as soon as possible, to hold a full enquiry, "attach" any person making away with any part of the salvage and to value the remainder and secure its safe custody for the Crown. This must often have been virtually impossible to implement in the face of a cunning and persistent peasantry.

In the 13th century, we know that the Coroner had this duty in the counties of Devon, Cornwall and probably Northumberland. In other areas the Coroner did it when directed, on the issue of a Commission from the authorities. The reason for the decline of his interest in wrecks was mainly due to the granting, by the King, of the right of "wreccum maris" to the local manor lords, who made a lucrative business out of salvaging their shipwrecks. Also, after the 13th century, the investigation was often taken over by the Sheriff or the Hundred Bailiff or by a Special Commission appointed for the purpose. Later still, it was carried out by a special Exchequer official called the "Escheater". However, in the South-West of England, the Coroners seem to have retained their powers over wrecks for much longer, perhaps because, in those stormy and busy waters, there was more business. As an example, some early Devon Coroners were censured by the Justices because they had lost much money to the King by refusing to view wrecks or by causing them to be grossly under-valued. That the practice went on elsewhere is also shown by the records of a joint inquiry by the Lincolnshire Coroners of 1280 to determine whether a wrecked ship and its goods ought to belong to the King or the local landowner. Even later, in the reign of Edward II, another wreck inquest appears in the Rolls, being a regular incident, without any reference to a Special Commission. So it seemed to be a routine performance, in spite of the niggles of the modern historians, who deny it.

The Catching of Whale and Sturgeon

Parallel to "wrecks, of the sea" was an even more curious task for the "Crowner," especially in the western maritime counties. This was the investigation of certain catches of royal fish: the whale and the sturgeon. Any capture of a whale was considered to be for the benefit of the Crown and the Coroner had to attend the scene to make sure what the value of the catch might be, if not to actually appropriate the carcass itself. Small whales were not infrequently stranded on beaches and were prized for their flesh and blubber. One such inquest can be found in the Rolls for 1331 when, again, the Lincolnshire Coroners, who seem to have been a pretty active bunch, held an inquiry into the seizure of a baby whale washed up on the East Coast. The other royal fish, the sturgeon, was a favourite dish in medieval times. All catches were the property of the King, unless the rights had been granted to a local Lord and all catches should theoretically have been reported to the Coroner who would send the actual fish, or certainly the value of it, to the King.

Fires

Another inquiry that survived far longer was the interest of the Coroner in fires, especially in London. The right of the Coroner to hold inquests on wrecks and fish was specifically forbidden by the Coroners' Act of 1887, which by implication also prohibited the holding of inquests into non-fatal fires in England and Wales. Naturally, if someone perished in the flames, an inquiry into the death was held, but the conflagration itself had hitherto been investigated by the Coroner, with the usual financial interest in assessing the loss of property. For instance, in the five-year period up to 1845, Sergeant Payne, the Coroner for the City of London, held no less than seventy-one inquests into fires. This function was so useful during the great Victorian expansion of the capital city that, when the 1887 Act forbade the practice, the City of London saw fit to have special legislation passed the following year. The City of London Fires Act thus restored the power of their own Coroner to investigate fires within his jurisdiction.

Specials Writs and Commissions

The medieval Coroner also performed many other odd jobs within the administration of early English justice. If required to do so by Special Writ or Commission from Justices, the Sheriff or the King, the "Crowner" could become embroiled in any investigation. Amongst the innumerable examples in the old Rolls, we see that, in 1383, the Berkshire Coroner had to discover whether or not a suicide had been insane. In Lincolnshire, in 1252, he had to restore money found on hanged thieves to the rightful owners. In 1243, the Sussex Coroner had to enquire whether a burglary had been committed as alleged. Even political matters sometimes came their way, as when King John died. All the Sheriffs and Coroners of England were required to list what lands he had held. However, at the other end of the scale, a Coroner was once required to discover if a man had the right to leave a bull and a boar roaming free in a large village.

The list of activities for Coroners is almost endless for those first centuries and contrasts strongly with the those during the rapid decline of the office after the 15th century, until it was resuscitated in the 19th.

Late Medieval Decline of the Coroner

Because of the rise of the Justices of the Peace and the development of the Civil Service, the Coroner rapidly lost most of his powers. He also lost his status in the community: no longer being a man of Knightly elevation and substantial means. He became more corrupt at the same time as he became more effete. In the 14th century, the perambulating law court, the General Eyre, faded out in favour of the Assize system, taking with it much of the Coroner's reason for existence. The new courts and the Justices did not require his complicated system of Rolls to function.

In 1483, an Act was passed limiting the Coroner's involvement with the forefeiture of property and sanctuary, abjuration, appeals and outlawry progressively vanished. By the 16th century, almost all that he was left with was the investigation of sudden death and even that was done in a desultory manner, there being no real support from the legal system. It became more difficult to get men to take on the job of Coroner, as it was such an unrewarding appointment.

The later history of the Coroner is another story, but suffice it to say that the 12th to early 14th centuries were his heyday, in terms of his importance in the childhood years of English law. The Coroner has survived for almost eight hundred years since that September Article of Eyre in 1194 and, according to the Saxons, he had been around for a few centuries before that. With this thousand-year track record behind him, the oft-maligned "Crowner" seems likely to be with us for a long time to come and, in years to come, other people will surely repeat the history of the Medieval Coroner and up-date it to modem times. We have come a long way since the castle at Durnstein, but the Coroner is an extremely interesting office, lost in the mists of time. 1194 is really an interim date. He was there before that, but we know nothing about him. Even marking it from this date, in Richard the Lionheart's reign, though, it still has a pretty good pedigree.

Part 5: Trial by Ordeal

Readers interested in the activities of the medieval coroner should check out Bernard Knight's 12th century Mystery Novels featuring Crowner John de Wolfe, the first coroner for the County of Devon.



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