The Widow’s appeal of homicide

In 1496 a woman launched a “widow’s appeal”: that is, a private prosecution of homicide undertaken by the dead man’s wife against the accused murderer. This one has a sanctuary angle because the alleged murderer 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 Hospitaller Order. 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.

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As noted before, sanctuary pleas like this were put to a jury, who were to rule whether (a) the property in question had sanctuary privileges and (b) whether the accused had in fact been arrested within the sanctuary’s bounds. In this case the Nottinghamshire jury decided in 1496 that the field in question 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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