The Widow’s appeal of homicide

In this case we see a widow’s appeal: ie a private prosecution of homicide undertaken by the dead man’s wife against the accused murderer, here one who took shelter in a Hospitaller property.

Margery Rollesley, widow of Humphrey Rollesley, accused William Toft, a tailor of Denby, Derbyshire, of having killed her husband. When he came to trial, Toft pleaded sanctuary: he claimed that he was arrested after taking sanctuary in a field belonging to the Hospitallers.

The field (“messuage”) was part of a complex at Winkburn, Notts, where there was a Hospitaller church (still dedicated to St John of Jerusalem) and a house. He didn’t take sanctuary in the church or even in the house, apparently, but somewhere else on the property.


As noted before, sanctuary pleas like this were put to a jury, and in this case the Nottinghamshire jury decided in 1496 that the property was, in fact, sanctuary, and that in seizing him from the land, those who arrested him had breached it.

The justices, however, were not entirely happy with this. In discussion reported a bit differently by two legal commentators, Port and Caryll, it seems the justices were divided especially on whether sanctuary could be taken in fields. The justices put Toft back into prison while they conferred, and there he stayed until Easter 1498 when the record breaks off; perhaps he died in prison, leaving the legal issue undecided.

TNA, KB 27/936, plea m. 60; Baker, Port’s Notebook, 31-36; Baker, Caryll’s Reports, 285-86; McSheffrey, SS, 96-98. Top image, BNF/gallica

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