Of Arsons and Parsons

The south porch and west tower, St Bartholomew's.

St Bartholomew’s church, Bayton

Between May and July 1275 four royal justices and their entourage sat in residence at Worcester as they held a general Eyre for the county[1]. Over 46 days the commission heard more than 1000 civil and crown pleas brought before them, at least ten of which directly concerned disputes over land, administrative practices and criminality in Bayton parish. Most are fairly mundane; two berate villagers for not attending inquests into the (exceedingly clumsy) accidental deaths of Maud la Fole – who drowned in a marlpit – and Roger Edith – who fell on his own knife and died three days later[2]. Yet one case in particular stands out among the others. After a succession of hearings concerning larceny, trespass and theft, the justices heard a case concerning an arson attack on the parson’s grange in Bayton[3]. Since they dealt with arson and not homicide we can assume that nobody was hurt; perhaps the parson was not in residence that night, or had made it out of the blaze alive. The individuals who brought the case to the justices named a chief suspect, Thomas le Ku of Shakenhurst, a propertyless peasant who had fled the vill shortly after the attack. To the eyes of the justices his flight was proof enough, and its ruling was swift and straightforward; Thomas was exacted and outlawed.

The reference to this event is both concise and tantalisingly cryptic. If the Eyre’s notes and ruling are at all accurate, we are immediately presented with a question – what would drive Thomas to burn down the grange? The justices record no possible motive; perhaps in their eyes – and presumably those of the parson – Thomas was an individual malefactor, driven by the same sort of criminal instincts which allegedly led to theft and murder.  Certainly the judgment passed treated him as such. Yet the brief note may mask a more complex reality. In an interesting recent paper Müller draws attention to certain peculiarities about arson which distance it from other crimes in the medieval period. While burglary and extortion were offences which could considerably enrich their perpetrators, arsonists rarely benefitted financially from their acts[4]; while a thief like William Russell of Bayton could possess some 18d in chattels[5], Thomas the alleged arsonist possessed nothing. Furthermore, arson is a very visual and very social act, transmitting explicit messages to both the victim and the wider community, and it is therefore of little surprise that it features so prominently in acts of social rebellion or interpersonal disputes in medieval England. In 1348 a long-running series of disputes between Worcester Cathedral and the city’s lay community over legal privileges culminated in an organised attack on the cathedral priory; the monks were shot at with arrows and the priory set ablaze[6]. An almost identical incident had taken place some 21 years earlier in Bury St Edmunds, where rural peasants and townsfolk burned down several abbey houses and manors during a rising against the Abbot[7]. Numerous similar examples can be found throughout the period, most notably in the midst of the Peasant’s Revolt[8]. While other instances of arson might lack such overtly political functions – for example, a murder and arson committed by a group of ‘unknown malefactors’ at Holt might have been over a local dispute between the victim, Thomas Moliar, and one of the alleged perpetrators, Hamo le Messager[9] – it is clear that in many cases arson served as a ‘weapon of the weak’ in the face of exploitative relationships or unjust demands, providing a vivid and public statement that the victim had caused such problems to the perpetrator  that they felt justified to gain revenge through a dramatic destruction of property.

Might Thomas’ actions represent one such act of resistance? Certain aspects of the case might point in this direction. As the archetypal poor peasant Thomas fits the bill well –a man who possessed no chattels at the time of the Eyre, and who probably eked out some of a miserable living through the occasional sale of cooked meat. The local church held quite a different position. In 1291 Pope Nicholas IV’s taxatio valued St Bartholomew’s at £4, from a national standpoint hardly enormous yet locally of a significant economic weight. Its associates lived in some comfort; in the c.1280 Worcestershire lay subsidy a village clerk, William, is recorded as contributing 40d, an assessment placing him firmly within the top 25% of contributors – themselves a selection of the parish’s better off. That he possessed reasonable personal holdings is demonstrated in a dispute recorded in the Eyre between William and two villagers, Julian de Pres and Brian de Croft, over the unjust disseisin of 4 parts of a messuage and 3 acres of land with appurtenances he held in the vill[10]. While the wealth of the parson himself cannot be observed with such security, a hint of its scale is revealed in a record of the rights given to the vicar of Mamble when he assumed an additional post in Bayton shortly after August 1298; these included the vicarage house, a third share of the corn tithe, the whole of the ‘small tithes’ – renders from wool flocks, flax mills, orchards and gardens – and all the fees and offerings of the parishioners[11].  When the glebe is added to this mix it is clear beyond doubt that the parson occupied a very different rung on the class ladder to Thomas the alleged arsonist[12]. While the sparse details of the case make its interpretation inevitably speculative, given the extent of the church’s claims in Bayton it is certainly within the realms of possibility that the arson attack served as the culmination of some potentially long-running disputes over the rights of a wealthy clergy to exploit some of its poorest parishioners by tithing or otherwise; it is hard to see the action as anything other than a final resort by an aggrieved individual, and in this instance one taken by a man who – quite literally – had nothing to lose.

In any case, whether the law ever caught up with Thomas after the Eyre’s ruling is unknown. If they did, his fate was unlikely to be pleasant; a contemporary ruling on a case of theft in Bayton resulted in the hanging of the accused, and Bracton makes clear that no softer punishments would apply to arsonists[13]. While in the short term Thomas’ moves do not seem to have made much difference – parson Walter was still serving his post two years later[14] – memories of the affair may have been in the minds of Great Malvern’s priors when they took the first steps towards appropriating the church not long after the attack on 11 June 1275; the decision to make the vicar of Mamble also serve Bayton’s parish church might have reflected in part a desire to break with any lingering disputes between lay parishioners and the local clergy. If they were, the measures taken did little to alleviate the situation. In his 1781 Collections for the History of Worcestershire Nash preserves a detailed account of a 1344 exchange of livings between John Curdwall, vicar of Mamble and Bayton, and Thomas Aleyn, rector of St Clement’s, Worcester. Reporting to an inquisition held between several local rectors and vicars Curdwall explained his request ‘on account of the violent hatreds and quarrels that raged around Mamble, and that for fear of death, or some capital injury, which he might receive from his enemies, he could not safely live there’[15]. Apparently his peers agreed; Curdwall was presented to the rectory of St Clements on 18 July 1344.

Bibliography

Primary sources

Capes, W. ed. 1909. Registrum Ricardi de Swinfield, Episcopi Herefordensis, AD MCCLXXXIII-MCCCXVII. London: Canterbury and York Society.

Griffiths, R. ed. 1907. Registrum Thome de Cantilupo, Episcopi Herefordensis, AD MCCLXXV-MCCLXXXII. London: Canterbury and York Society.

HMSO. 1906. Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward III Vol VIII, AD 1348-1350. London: HMSO

Röhrkasten, J. ed. 2008. The Worcester Eyre of 1275. Worcester: Worcestershire Historical Society.

Secondary sources

Baker, N., and Holt, R. 2004. Urban growth and the medieval church: Gloucester and Worcester. Aldershot: Ashgate

Bellamy, J. 1998. The criminal trial in later medieval England. Sutton: Stroud

Hilton, R. 1973. Bond men made free: medieval peasant movements and the English rising of 1381. London: Meuthen and Co.

Hilton, R. 1983. A medieval society: the West Midlands at the end of the thirteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Müller, M. 2012. Arson, communities, and social conflict in later Medieval England. Viator. 43:2. pp 193-208.

Nash, TR. 1781. Collections for the history of Worcestershire. Vol 2. London: John Nichols.

Stroller. 1937. Worcestershire villages by ‘Stroller’. Vol 3. Worcester: Worcester Herald.


[1] Röhrkasten 2008, p viii

[2] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem. 49 nos. 1210 and 1212.

[3] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 49a no 1249

[4] Müller 2012, p 195

[5] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 49a no 1245

[6] Baker and Holt 2004, p 299; Cal. Pat. Edw. III Vol. VIII, mem. 13d

[7] Müller 2012, p 203

[8] Hilton 1973

[9] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 36d no 787

[10] Worc. Eyre. 1275, mem 12 no 175

[11] Reg. Ric. Swin, fol 121; Stroller 1937, p 29

[12] Hilton 1983, p 63

[13] Worc. Eyre 1275, mem. 49a no 1245; Bellamy 1998, p 187

[14]  Reg. Thom. Cant., fol. 41b

[15] Nash 1781, p 159