Not reading the fine print: a fatal mistake

Here’s an odd case. Richard Wode, mercer of Worcester, took sanctuary at St. Mary’s in Newington, Surrey, in 1460. He confessed to the coroner that he had stolen a horse from Angelo Spynell, merchant of Genoa, at Southampton.

The coroner asked if he wanted to abjure the realm, but Wode said he would instead stay in the church “according to the law and custom of the realm of England.” Unfortunately for Wode, the “law and custom of the realm of England” was that his sanctuary expired after 40 days.

Wode next shows up in the court of King’s Bench at Westminster, where the justices asked him why execution on the basis of his felony confession should not proceed. He had nothing to say, and so he was sentenced to hang.

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This is one of the “what was he thinking” moments that arise from time to time when reading medieval legal records: it’s hard to understand why Wode chose to stay in the church rather than proceed to abjuration, as the most obvious outcome in such a scenario was the noose. Perhaps he expected a pardon before his 40 days were up; perhaps he was suicidal. Maybe somehow the case was tied up with rivalries between English mercers and the Italian companies who both worked and competed with their English counterparts. Wode’s occupation as mercer suggests his theft of Angelo Spynell’s horse was more than a random crime – but the records are sadly short of details.

Southampton, where Angelo Spynell (Spinola) lived, had the second largest Italian community in England (after London), and the Genoese Spinola family dominated in the mid-15th century; see Guidi-Bruscoli and Lutkin. Angelo is not himself in the England’s Immigrant database, but many other members of the family are (search “Spynell” in http://englandsimmigrants.com).

TNA, KB 9/295, mm 29-30; KB 27/801, rex m. 9 (thanks again to Graham Dawson for the latter reference).

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