British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

CROWNER: The Coroner's Inquest
Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE



The Coroner holds an Inquest

Unlike the Continent, where medico-legal autopsies were held in Bologna as early as the 13th Century, the English Coroner had no help from doctors until relatively recent times. It was not until 1836 that he was allowed to pay a medical witness a fee. Before this, the Coroner had to do the best he could by himself: looking at the body to detect any sign of violence and to determine the number and type of wounds present. Once the Coroner had viewed the body, he then held the inquest, just as he does today in certain classes of death. In medieval times, this may have been done on the spot, with the body present before him, or it may have been adjourned for a few days. Originally the inquest was a massive affair, as the jury had to consist of all the males over twelve years from the four nearest townships, together with additional men from the Hundred. It would, no doubt, have caused a bit of a problem in the Fulham Road (London) or other highly populous areas! The inquest must have disrupted life for a whole day over a wide area, as all the working men and tradespeople had to down tools and come put in an appearance. Originally the law insisted that the whole male population attend, but the Provisions of Westminister of 1259 decreed that only "sufficient" people need be present. This was contradicted by the Statute of Marlborough, eight years later, which again required that all males over twelve must attend. At a later date, towns were allowed to send representatives only: usually twelve or twenty-four men.

The medieval jury was, of course, quite different from that which we know today. Nowadays it is essential that the jurors have no previous knowledge of the case. By contrast, in medieval times, they were potential witnesses as well as a jury. This was why the total population of the surrounding four towns were enrolled, as well as some of the country folk: so there was a good chance that someone had useful information. The men of the different townships often returned different verdicts, and the Hundred men also had a free say. The Coroner does not seem to have been too bothered about conflicting verdicts - his main concern was to write it all down for "presentment" at the next Eyre.

Due to the difficulties of gathering everyone together, inquests were soon abandoned at the locus of death and were instead held at a pre-arranged venue, usually the village square, the marketplace or the courthouse. The body still had to be presented before the assembly, unless arrangements had been made for all the jurors to inspect it beforehand. In an inquest held in 1961 in South Wales the skeleton of a woman murdered forty years earlier was still laid on a table in the well of the court, so the practice by no means died out in the Middle Ages - at least, not in Wales.

Presentment of Englishry and the Murdrum Fine

One of the first jobs to be settled at the inquest was the identity of the deceased and this raised the extraordinary business of "Presentment of Englishry" (or, in Wales and Ireland, "Presentment of Welshry" and "Irishry" respectively). This was a most important matter in the 12th, the 13th and early 14th centuries, until it was officially abolished in 1340, by which time it had really become a cynical device for extorting even more money from the community where the death had occurred.

In the years immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066, there is little doubt that the resentful Saxons took many opportunities of exacting revenge on any stray Normans that they came across on a dark night. In a similar fashion to the Nazi reprisals in occupied Europe during the last war, it was the whole community which suffered when an assassination was discovered. Furthermore, the Norman conquerors insisted that any man found killed was assumed to be of their race, unless the locals could prove he was a Saxon. Thus the onus of proof was on the community to establish he was not Norman and escape the ensuing penalties. Indeed, it seems likely that this "lex murdrorum," the law of murder, was introduced long before by the previous Danish conquerors. A large "murdrum" fine was levied on the township or the Hundred in which the body was found. This was another good reason for the villagers not wanting a suspect corpse left on their land and why they often buried it or dragged it into a neighbouring district. The only other way in which they could avoid the swinging murdrum fine - which is linguistically related to the word "murder" - was by making sure that someone could "present Englishry". The method of doing this varied from county to county, but usually two relatives had to attest to the identity. In Gloucestershire women could not offer presentment, and in some other places relatives from both mother's and father's side had to appear. In some areas presentment was not required for women or infants.

By 1194, well over a century had gone by since the Battle of Hastings and distinctions between Norman and English were already becoming blurred. Increasingly during the succeeding century the significance of Englishry became meaningless. Yet it was not until almost three hundred years after the Conquest that this anachronistic process was finally abandoned and, of course, the reason for its survival was purely financial. The murdrum fine gave a substantial boost to the Treasury and the surviving Coroners' Rolls are full of the records of the imposition of this fine, which could be a harsh penalty for a poor community. Fines of forty-six marks, a really large sum of money in those days, were typical of the murdrum fine. And not only deaths from foul play attracted a fine. By the beginning of the 13th enturyc the murdrurn was being imposed for sudden and unexpected death, even from an accident or natural cause. This was deeply resented by the common people, especially when large numbers of deaths occurred.

A crisis developed in the severe winter of 1257-58, when a great famine struck England. Between fifteen and twenty thousand people died in London alone and the eastern counties were particularly badly affected. Peasants flocked into towns hoping for food, but speculators bought up the corn sent by a relief fleet from the Continent. Deaths abounded throughout the countryside and large numbers died along the edges of the roads. Because of this catastrophe, special permission was granted for the men of the neighbourhood to view the bodies in place of the Coroners and to see to their burial without inquest. But all the deaths still had to be reported to the Coroner and the murdrum fine was imposed on a large proportion of these cases. This brought a revolt against the tax - the Barons complained that it had become impossible to prove Englishry in these famine cases where whole districts were being amerced before the Justices. The following year the law was relaxed slightly, making the murdrum fine payable only in cases of felonious killing. This was confirmed, ten years later, by the Statute of Marlborough under the general pacification policies of Henry III. Even though it was legally abolished in 1340, the murdrum fine was still being applied as late as 1362 in Suffolk. Presumably, the officials there did not want to let this lucrative penalty cease!

The Deodand

Another peculiarity of the medieval inquest was the well-known "deodand". This was the object which caused the death, the forfeit of which had an ancient pedigree going back to pre-Christian times. The theory was that its sin in being the instrument of death could be expurgated by dedicating it to the Church, hence its name "Deo damdum" or "giving to God". By Norman times, it was more conveniently thought of as another contribution to the Royal purse. The Coroner's jury had to make a valuation of the deodand and the Coroner would then commit it to the care of the Constable until the Eyre, when the Judges would decide if it was forfeit to the Crown. However, sometimes it was granted to the family of the victim, as compensation for their loss. If it happened to be the tool of a poor man, essential for his livelihood, such as an axe or a hoe, he might be allowed to keep it, but it still had to be produced at the Eyre.

All kinds of things could be declared "deodand", including dogs, horses, trees, boats - literally anything. If a horse and cart ran over a man, the whole lot might be confiscated. A mill-wheel that had drowned a child or a tree from which the child had fallen could also be a deodand. One such mill-wheel in Buckinghamshire could not be detached without stopping the mill, but the Coroner made the lord of the mill find friends to stand surety for him to appear at the Eyre and declare its value. Very often the deodand was perversely valued by the jury at only a few pence, a fraction of its true worth. Naturally, some Coroners complained bitterly about this, ase it was obviously a device to save their friends' money. The deodand survived into the 19th century, when steam locomotives and even a steamship were declared forfeit, their value running into thousands of pounds. The practice was finally abolished in 1846.

Part 2: The Medieval Coroner's Duties
Part 4: The Right of Sanctuary




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