Monday, April 13, 2015

“To be kept there without food or drink till he should die” an unusual form of execution in fourteenth century Ireland.

Thanks to everyone for the positive response to my first blog post, it has encouraged me to start writing more, so you won't have to wait two years for this one! ;-) I can do special requests too, so if there is a person, place or topic that interests you let me know and I'll see if I can work it into a future post.

I mentioned my main man Henry Tyrel in post #1. Henry features in a plea roll dating to 1305, which was published in the Calendar of the Justiciary Rolls of Ireland, 1305-1307, p. 477. Here's the entry in full:
Pleas of the crown and gaol-delivery, at Dublin, before John Wogan, Justiciar, on Tuesday the morrow of St. Lucia the Virgin, anno regni 34 Edward I. [14 December 1305] 
[Henry Tyrel] charged that he is a common robber and thief of oxen and afers and that he waylays (foristallat) faithful men passing [between] Lyouns and Ughtrard and exhorts from them money and other their goods under pretence of a courtesy; [and he entered] the house of Arnald de Penrys, and wastes his goods against the will of Arnald . . . . . . uses [her as] his own wife, and brings her to and fro with him at his will. And Adam son of . . . .rche charged with associating with Henry. They come and defend all robbery, etc., and put themselves on the country.
Reginald Berneual, Robert de Caunteton, Walter . . . . as above, say that they are guilty. Therefore Adam is hanged.
And because the Justiciar . . . . delivered by mainprise the said Henry from the prison in which he was detained upon similar charges . . . . . that he should amend himself. Who now committed worse crimes than before. And Gerald father of Henry took Henry . . . Henry is remitted to prison to die there of hunger. And the constable of the Castle is commanded not to permit Henry henceforth to have food or drink whereby his life may be sustained.

This entry is pretty fragmented, and you do have to read between the lines in places to establish what is going on. I'm going to focus on Henry, his followers and his family in my next post, here I'm just focusing on the punishment he received. Henry was sent back to prison, in Dublin Castle, “to die there of hunger.” When I first read this I thought that this was extraordinary. The vast majority of felons in Ireland at this time would have been hanged. What made Henry so special? Additionally, was he the only one punished this way?

Some naughty outlaw types.

Before I answer those questions I want to go back and look at a couple of earlier examples of death by starvation, though they're a bit different, as I consider them to be murder rather than executions. Both of these incidences occurred in England during King John's reign.

King John sneaks into another post, the bugger!
Image from a manuscript of 'Abbreviatio chronicorum Angliae', an abridged version of Matthew Paris's chronicle, produced in St Albans, mid-thirteenth century.

The first incident is a very famous one and it involved Maud de Braose and her eldest son William, who were locked up and starved to death in 1210. We don't know exactly why John had Maud and William killed, but it may have been because Maud had gossiped about John's part in the murder of his nephew, Arthur. There is a rather macabre account of Maud gnawing on her son's cheeks, hopefully after he was dead! Beat that Game of Thrones! The second incident, reported by William le Breton, is when John had forty knights imprisoned in Mirabeau Castle (correction: these knights were probably executed in Corfe Castle, thanks to Marc Morris for this correction) and instructed that they be given neither food or water. He wanted them to die a “discrete sort of death” (Source: Oeuvres de Rigord et de Guillaume le Breton, ed H.F. Delaborde (2 vols, Paris, 1885), vol 2: p. 169. Thanks to Colin Veach for bringing this to my attention).

Corfe Castle, where Maud and William de Braose perished.

The fourteenth century Justiciar's court may have had similar motivations when they executed Henry Tyrel in the same manner. Henry, too, was given a discreet sort of death. Henry was the son of a knight and men of his social class were not typically executed for this sort of behaviour. Those executed for felonies in medieval period were predominantly of low social status. The nobility and gentry were rarely executed, and even then it was usually for acts of treason. It is also possible that the courts were worried that members of Henry's gang would help him escape before they could hang him. Several individuals were outlawed on the same day that Henry was convicted, including his brother Thomas, and he clearly had a large group of followers. It is also possible that Henry's family requested that he be executed privately. Another case, dating to 13 October 1316, also suggests that a prisoner was quietly executed in prison to spare family or associates from the humiliation of a public execution.

Pleas of the Crown and Gaol Delivery at Dublin before Edmund le Botiller, Justiciar of Ireland, in the fifteen days from St Michael's Day, anno regni 10 Edward II. [13 October 1316] 
Roger de Fynglas accused that he, in company with other robbers, by night stole from John Otyr and Walter Ocolyn at Werne divers goods and chattels to the value of one hundred shillings, and also of stealing ten cows at Syaldwyn and that he is a common thief and receiver of stolen goods in parts of Fyngal and that the whole country suffers by him and the thieves who are received with him, comes and says that he is not guilty and puts himself upon the country. And Adam de Houth, Reginald de Berneuale, William de la Felde, John Oweyn, Thomas le Waleys, William Luterel, Richard Athelard, Andrew Tyrel, Reginald de la Felde, William le Blount of Corauntestoñ, Robert Schirlok and Henry Godefelawe, Jurors, say that he is guilty of the said charges. Therefore let him be hanged. He has no chattels and no free land. Afterwards, by grace, at the instance of Geoffrey de Tryuers, Knight, it is granted by the Justiciar that the said Roger be recommitted to the gaol of the Castle of Dublin there to stay without having any food until he be dead.
(Source: NAI, KB 2/8, pp 26-7).

Dublin Castle.

Though Roger was sentenced to be hanged, this sentence was changed at the request of Geoffrey Travers. Geoffrey was possibly a descendent of John Travers, who was sheriff of Dublin in 1228 and an ancestor of Gilbert Travers, who was also sheriff of Dublin in 1337 (see my list of the sheriffs of Dublin in Medieval Dublin XII, edited by Seán Duffy for more details

Medieval Dublin XII, includes a list of the sheriffs of Dublin.

The Travers held lands in Monkstown, in south Dublin, but they may have had holdings in north Dublin too, and it's possible Roger de Fynglas was a relative or an associate of Robert's. Alternatively, Roger may have been a relation of William de Finglas, who served as sheriff of Dublin in 1327. However, it is difficult to establish family connections from toponymic surnames, Roger may have simply come from the Finglas area.

The fact that Roger de Fynglas had no chattels (that is, movable property) and no free land, does not mean he was of low social status, like Henry Tyrel, he could have been a younger son of someone of high social status. If Roger was the leader of the gang, he may have had a similar background to Henry Tyrel. In my next post I will explore why members of the gentry became criminals.

Around the same time that Roger was executed, William son of David le Poer also suffered the same fate. Though the plea roll for this case no longer exists it can be found in Cambridge University Library, Additional MS 3104, fo. 37ii and it is also usefully transcribed in Robin Frame's Colonial Ireland (p. 146):

William son of David le Poer was convicted of felony and adjudged to be hanged. Afterwards because the baron of Donoil (who is named John le Poer) captured the said William and brought him to court, at the petition of the said baron, on the grounds that William is of the lineage of the le Poers, it was agreed and granted that William should not be hanged, but should be sent back to gaol, to be kept there without food or drink till he should die.

Both Henry Tyrel and Roger de Finglas were described as common robbers in the sources, and William le Poer was convicted of felony, however there are at least two examples of the same method of execution being used on men accused of treason.

The court records of these trials and executions no longer exist, but the were extraordinary enough to be recorded in other sources. The execution of John Lacy, in the spring of 1318 was mentioned in Pembridge's Annals :

Item, die Dominica in mense Pasche ductus fuit Johannes Lacy de Castro Dublin usque Trym ad audiendum et ibi judicium suum recipiendum, qui adjudicatus fuit ad dietam et in carcere moriebatur. (J.T. Gilbert, Chartularies of St Mary's Abbey, Dublin and annals of Ireland, vol. ii, p. 358)
Item, on Sunday in the month of Easter John Lacy was led from Dublin Castle to Trim, there to hear and receive his judgement, which judgement was to be put on a diet, and he died in prison.

John Lacy’s removal to Trim from Dublin reflects trends in England to execute those guilty of treason in their own locality. (see, J.S. Bothwell, Falling from Grace: Reversal of fortune and the English nobility, 1075–1455, p. 67.) John Gilbert provides us with a bit more information about de Lacy’s execution and that of Sir Robert de Coulragh in Viceroys of Ireland, p. 147:

Jean de Lasci and Sir Robert de Coulragh, who fell into the hands of the colonial government, were, as adherents of Bruce, starved to death in prison, under a sentence which allowed each of them but three morsels of the worst bread, and three draughts of foul water, on alternate days, till life became extinct.

It is likely that this description of their execution comes from the original plea roll, Gilbert made extensive use of the primary sources, which are now lost to us. It gives us an idea of how painfully slow and agonising this method of execution must have been, and prisoners would have died of thirst rather than starvation. The fact that there was a sense of ritual to it might imply that it was used more often than the sources would suggest. Legal treatises from the thirteenth century established that those guilty of treason should be executed by torment. (J.G., Bellamy. The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge 1970) p. 20.) This method of execution would certainly fulfil this requirement.

Walter Harris provided us with a little more information on Robert de Coulragh and why he was sentenced to death in The History and Antiquities of the City of Dublin, published in 1766 (p. 260):

Edward Bruce, brother to the king of Scotland, having this year landed 6,000 men at Carrickfergus, overran a good part of the north, and possessed himself of Green-Castle. But the citizens of Dublin sent out a strong party by sea, and soon recovered it for the king. They took therein the governor Sir Robert de Coulragh, whom they brought with them to Dublin, and cast him in prison; where being stinted to a hard diet, he died for want.

Robert the Bruce (because there are no handy images of Edward).

Sir Robert de Coulragh, like John de Lacy, was executed for his part in the Bruce Invasion. Sir Robert had served as constable of Greencastle on behalf of Bruce. Robert was possibly the constable of Greencastle before Edward Bruce captured it, if he gave the castle up to Bruce willingly and held it for him against the king than the charge of treason was a reasonable one.

The de Lacy family had sided enthusiastically with Edward Bruce when he invaded Ireland – so John’s fate is of little surprise. However, there may have been some ulterior motives to his execution. Roger Mortimer was Lord of Trim and he oversaw de Lacy’s execution, it proved to be a very handy way of disposing of a local opponent. The plea rolls may also show evidence of Mortimer's antagonistic behaviour driving the Lacys into the arms of Edward Bruce, and this will be examined in a future blog.

Aside from these few cases I haven't found any more examples in Ireland of the Crown using starvation as a form of capital punishment. It should be noted that all the executions, apart from Henry Tyrel’s, took place during the Great Famine. Bruce’s presence in Ireland certainly exacerbated a difficult situation and perhaps the method in which de Lacy and Coulragh were executed reflected the suffering felt by the community at large (thanks to Clare Downham for this suggestion). If anyone has any other examples of execution by starvation, I would be very interested in knowing more about them, especially any occurrences of it in England.

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  1. Interesting, if unpleasant, stuff.
    This is much later, in 1671, and I don’t know how far it is just a tale for tourists visiting Castle An Dinas, but there is the story of John Trehenban in Cornwall. Supposedly, he murdered two girls, and was sentenced to be kept in a cage at the castle until he starved to death:
    Richard Cassidy

  2. Oh thanks Richard, that's interesting, have made a note of it.