Violent crime is nothing new

Last night I had to endure the unsettling experience of having a mass drunken argument take place a matter of metres from my bedroom window (I don’t think it quite descended into a street brawl – when I summoned up the courage to stick my head out of the front door there were police on the scene with batons drawn). It’s the first time anything like this has taken place so close to my house in the three months I’ve lived here, but I’m finding living and working in London more abrasive than I had anticipated. That said, it wasn’t as if my years up North were free of such incidents: I was the victim of an inept attempted mugging in Leeds, witnessed first-hand last summer’s disorder in Manchester city centre, and lived only a few streets away from where a man was shot dead outside a pub in Liverpool. As for the litany of crimes that occurred when I was growing up in Puttenham, from the cross-country chase of a drug dealer to our near-neighbours’ son being charged with possession of a stun gun, well that could comprise a whole separate post (is it too late to mention that I wasn’t responsible for any of these crimes?).

In spite of the above I want to offer a counterpoint to the typical “the country’s going to the dogs” response that this post could so easily have become. I popped back home on the weekend for Mother’s Day, and as usual I took an empty suitcase with me to fill with books, clothes and half of one of my mum’s amazing coffee cakes. Among the books I brought back were the three volumes of the edition of the 1235 Surrey Eyre rolls prepared and annotated by C. A. F. Meekings, one of the county’s greatest historians medieval or otherwise, and brought to publication by David Crook (an index put together by Simon Neal finally followed a decade ago). The second volume (published in 1983) contains the edited texts of the Eyre rolls, and is peppered with cases concerning murders, assaults, burglaries and larcenies perpetrated in what are today some of Surrey’s most idyllic spots. There’s too many to mention individually, so I’ll quote two to illustrate the nature of the crimes and of their record; both would undoubtedly hit the national headlines were they to happen nowadays. First up is the bloodiest case of all those I’ve read this evening, which comes from Kingston and was recorded as follows;

“Two merchants were killed at ‘Le Blen’, and a third was wounded at the same place. Afterwards the merchant who was wounded came to Kingston to the house of a certain Basilia widow of Hugh le Stut, and he found his horse there, and he said that a certain priest and a certain Robert de Petersfield killed his brother and his groom. The jurors testify that the same Robert, who is present, was at Kingston in the company of the said chaplain; and that he avowed himself by the said chaplain until he was attached by the said merchant; and the said chaplain made an agreement with the said Basilia for the sustenance of the said Robert and the horse by 5d. a day; and that they believe him to be guilty, and so etc. <<he is to be hanged>>” (Meekings & Crook 1983, 427 ⌗542)

Most of the crimes are not subject to such lengthy descriptions, lending a greater poignancy to the human tragedy behind them. I was particularly struck by the following instance from Farnham;

“A certain boy one month old was found drowned in Snailslinch, and the jurors testify that the boy was murdered and thrown there. Because Englishry was not presented and he was unknown, so murder” (Meekings & Crook 1983, 394 ⌗414)

Medieval Surrey and Midsomer Murders – maybe not so different after all.

(The 1235 Surrey Eyre, published in three volumes – Volume 1-Introduction (1979); Volume 2-Text, Translation and Notes to Text (1983); Vol 3-Index (2002) – is published by the Surrey Record Society, and can be bought together for a special offer price of a tenner via their website)

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About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
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