Domestic homicide, espionage, and women’s vigilante justice

On 27 May 1429 at Whitechapel, Ivo Caret of Brittany murdered his employer, the widow Joan Wynkfeld, and ran off with all her portable goods. Later chroniclers said that Wynkfeld, a wealthy woman, had taken Caret into her home and given him work as an act of charity. This magnanimity was well-intentioned but ill-placed, for Caret not only betrayed her by murdering her, but he was also a spy, working to turn the tide of the Hundred Years War by providing secret information to the Bretons and the French. (The murder took place only weeks after the English defeat at Orléans – the event that marked Joan of Arc’s debut.)

Caret ran to sanctuary in St. George’s church in Southwark and asked to abjure the realm. The coroner and indeed many English observers must have been outraged by Caret’s wielding of his get-out-of-jail-free card; for him, a French spy, being “exiled” to France was no punishment. Yet by law the coroner had to allow Caret to abjure the realm.

A chronicler suggests that the coroner himself finessed the system: rather than sending Caret southwards to an obvious port (e.g. Dover), he sent him northwards to the Suffolk port of Orwell. This meant a route that went back through London and then through Whitechapel itself, the site of the murder – perhaps for a bit of pre-arranged vigilante justice.

Whether pre-arranged or not, that was how it turned out. As Caret was being led by constables through Whitechapel on his way to the port, the party was ambushed by a group of women, led by one of Joan Wynkfeld’s relatives, Margaret Conys. As a London chronicler put it, the women “comen out with stones and canell dong*, and there maden an ende of hym in the hyghe strete.” [*”canell dong” was human waste in the drainage channels that ran through the streets as a sewage system.]

Nicolas and Tyrell, ed., Chronicle of London, 117,

In the coroner’s report on Caret’s body, the inquest jurors – from Whitechapel and nearby parishes – not only absolved the constables themselves from any responsibility (the women were too strong and too furious to be resisted), but said that, with the exception of Conys, they had no idea who the women who attacked Caret were. As the jurors were locals and so were the women, it’s highly unlikely the jurors were actually ignorant of the vigilante women’s identities: they were shielding them.

They reported that the one woman they did name, Joan Wynkfeld’s kinswoman Margaret Conys, had fled, so they could not arrest her for the homicide. She was “waived” (the equivalent of outlawry for women), and apart from that no one else was censured in any way for this homicide.

In 1429, when royal justice failed, sisters did it for themselves.

TNA, KB 9/224, mm. 5, 29-30, 46-47, 54-55; Fabyan, New Chronicles, 598-99; Gairdner, Historical Collections, 163-64; Nicolas and Tyrell, ed., Chronicle of London, 117; Griffiths, “A Breton Spy in London, 1425-29,” in King and Country, 220–25. Top image: The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11 fol. 22v.

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