Child abduction and unmentionable crimes

In November 1510 a number of men abducted Richard Horsley from his mother’s house in Catton, Yorks, took him to a field, and gave him “several wounds from which blood flowed.” A month later Richard died from those wounds. The laconic records of his case suggest something horrific – even more horrific than the usual homicides – happened in Catton that day.

Soon after Richard Horsley died, William Ratcliff, a yeoman of Catton, took sanctuary at Beverley for the death, while Peter Swake and Roland Dale, both also of Catton, went to Durham Cathedral. Six months later, William Ratcliff had left Beverley and made his way (for some reason) also to Durham, again confessing to the same crime, joining Swake (who witnessed his oath-taking) and Dale in the Durham sanctuary precinct. Though there are three separate confessions to this crime (two for Ratcliff and a joint confession by Swake and Dale), the circumstances are unclear – for instance, though none of the records say so explicitly, Richard Horsley was likely a child, as normally grown men weren’t described as living in their mothers’ houses, nor was it really possible in a cultural or legal sense to abduct an adult man: abduction was the taking of someone under another’s guardianship.

The three who entered sanctuary all claimed simply to have been present when the wounds were inflicted on Richard: the passive verb obscured who was doing the inflicting. Though still accessories to homicide under English law, they implied someone else was the principal offender.

Content warning for the rest of this post for child sexual abuse.

The description of the wounding was vague: “he received several wounds in various parts of his body from which blood flowed.” Unspecified are type and more precise location of the wounds; omitted entirely is any indication of what instrument – eg. weapon or fist –caused the wound. Note that usually both bodily location and instrument of wounding were described in detail in indictments (though, admittedly, not necessarily in confessions for the granting of sanctuary).

So, we have a group of men taking a likely child or adolescent out into a field and inflicting wounds on (unmentionable?) places on his body with unnamed weapons. This is possibly a case of sexual abuse in which the child was “accidentally” killed.

There is very little evidence for sexual abuse of boys in medieval England (allegations of child rape are virtually always of girls). As rape was conceptualized as violation of a female body, similar offences against male bodies may have been erased, unthinkable, unmentionable.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this strange case: but our own societies don’t have a monopoly on the abuse of young bodies for their elders’ gratification and demonstration of power. However you died, rest in peace, Richard Horsley.

References in Sanctuarium Dunelmense: Peter Swake and Roland Dale, William Ratcliff, another mention of William Ratcliff.

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