Murder over a board game

In 1401 a board game – chess, chequers, backgammon? – in a London brewhouse turned into a deadly brawl, with the killer running to the safety of sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. A coroner’s inquest was held on 25 September 1401 in the parish of St. Michael Queenhithe, near the docks on the river Thames, over the body of William Walden, porter. The inquest jurors reported that John Curteys, a “travailing man” (labourer), had killed Walden. They’d had a quarrel, the jurors said, at a brewer’s house in Queenhithe ward over a game of “tabellas” (a tabella was a game board).

When someone tried to arrest Curteys for the homicide and take him to the sheriffs’ prison, the brewer, Roger Rowner, objected that no one should interfere with his governance of his house and took Curteys into hiding. Rowner then later allowed Curteys to run off with another porter named John Comyn, and the jurors reported that both Comyn and Curteys had taken sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. This is one of the earliest sanctuary cases for Westminster Abbey, showing clearly that the Abbey was seen to have more-than-usual asylum privileges, as Comyn and Curteys bypassed dozens of parish churches between Queenhithe and Westminster. Had they just been looking for what was then the standard form of “taking church,” they would have just ducked into one of those churches. Instead they were evidently looking for a refuge unlimited in time, which had only lately become available at Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately we don’t know the outcome of their cases, though Rowner, the brewer, was indicted for his role in preventing Curteys’s arrest. Rowner was bailed as he couldn’t be tried as an accessory to the homicide (aiding the killer after the deed) until the killer himself had been tried – and the killer was not to be found, as he was either still in sanctuary or had faded away into the night. I haven’t found any further processes on his case, but usually being bailed meant that Rowner was out of the woods, and who knows what happened to Curteys and Comyn.

TNA, KB 9/187, mm 49-50; KB 29/45, m. 15r. Image: British Library, Harley MS 4431, fol. 133.

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