Law and Order: Worcester Cathedral Priory and the Medieval Justice System

When a person in modern society thinks of a cathedral, there is often only one clear connotation that comes to mind – Religion. However, in medieval European society, the church and indeed cathedral were much more than just a place of worship and served a multitude of different purposes.

One such purpose which many don’t immediately think of is religion’s role in maintaining law and order. After the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe in the 5th century, responsibility for upholding the law fell into the hands of barbarian kings, and the idealistic nature of democratic law was lost. Until, that is, in the 12th to 13th century when criminal mattes and disputes increasingly fell onto the shoulders of high ranking religious figures, such as the Pope or Bishops. This link between religion and law explains why the monks at the Worcestershire cathedral were sent jury lists, arrest warrants and bail certificates to look through and sort out as late as 1502.

Worcester Cathedral

Gateway beneath the Edgar Tower, Worcester Cathedral. The priory’s gaol may once have been located in this building. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Despite the lack of holding cells evident in the Cathedral today, the medieival priory would have had some form of gaol – probably located in the Edgar Tower. With prisons comes bail – and document B 909 is a certificate for just such a bond. This bail was granted to Henry Wareton of Chaddesley Corbett for 20 marks in 1502. As well as Henry’s bail, Thomas Bache and Richard Prynne were of the same standing surety for £10, and this was then signed by W.Lyttelton, Kt. With the extremely poor distribution of wealth in contemporary society, these men must have been very high ranking gentlemen in order to afford £10, as this was a very large sum of money. This could also imply that the rich are able to be freer from and even above the law, due to the bribery and corruption present amongst judges and lawyers. Peasants didn’t have this same level of financial muscle and therefore, couldn’t afford lawyers fees, bail or the amount required to pay compensation, so crime and its legal consequences was a much more serious matter for them.

Worcester Cathedral

Bail certificate from 502. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

With improvements in equality and attempts to remove bias and prejudice from the court room, juries became, and still are, a hugely influential and integral part of the justice system. In document B 897 the jury were bearing witness to an inquisition, and contains a list of people who were sworn under oath, shown by the black line and letters in the photo which read “imp”. Those who were “deleted” were not a part of the jury in the trail, such as William Sheldon who has a black line through his name on the list. Others were not sworn on the jury list, such as William Meysy who is the 8th name down. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the entirety of the jury is male, presumably well of, and with very traditional Christian names such as John or William. This allows us to see the sort of person who the court deemed an acceptable representation of society during the late 15th century.

Worcester Cathedral

Late 15th century jury list. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The Church and the law may have long since been separated, but the archives at Worcester give a fascinating insight into times when they weren’t so far apart.

George Kotlarzewski

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