Richard I was not particularly interested in England, only spending a few months out of his 10 year reign in England, but he was interested in his crusades which needed to be financed. A new way of collecting tax was needed as the current system of “holding the pleas of the crown” in which the King’s itinerant Judges toured the country and held courts in villages to settle disputes and levy fines was inefficient at actually raising revenue for the crown. The problem was it took so long for the Judges to complete their circuit that the sheriffs were able to pocket the fines and not pass them onto the king.
In 1194 new reforms were set up, which included new county officers called the Coroner (or Crowner as they were originally called – Coronam is Latin for crown). They were tasked with “keeping the pleas of the crown” which meant they had to document cases before the justice court rolled into town. Their role was simple, to generate as much income for the King as possible. Sudden deaths were of particular interest to the new Coroner, because if the death was proved to be suicide (“self murder”) then the goods of the deceased would be forfeited to the crown. Buried treasure (treasure trove), goods washed up on shore and shipwrecks all belonged to the king. It was now the job of the Coroner to record these events and to make sure that any revenue due to the King went in to the royal coffers.
By 1194 the Saxons were still in a habit of killing Normans, if a dead person was found, the village in which it was found would be heavily fined, as it was presumed to be Norman unless it could be proved otherwise by a plea of Englishry. The fine was known as “Murdrum”, from which the word murder derives. Coroner’s inquests dealt with these cases and the revenue from the fines imposed went to the King.
Every County elected three Coroners with many boroughs having their own coroner. A clerk was employed to carry the pen, ink and “Coroner’s Rolls” and would have walked behind the horses. The clerk was later dropped in favour of a fourth Coroner. As “Keeper of the Crown Pleas” it was the Coroners job to record the pleas on parchment called the “Coroner’s Rolls” and present to the King’s judges when they rolled into town. These rolls mostly survive and are held at The National Archives. They record, amongst other things, details of sudden and unnatural deaths, giving information surrounding the circumstances of deaths.
A pre Norman practice that appears in the Coroner’s Rolls was the fine of a deodand, “Deo dandum” or “given to God”. The idea was that the object which caused the death of sinful and had to be given to the church to be expurgated. The Normans saw this as a nice little earner for the crown, as the Coroner would value the object and the crown plea judges would decide if the deodand was to be forfeited to the crown or given to the victim’s family as compensation for their loss.
All sudden deaths were investigated by the coroner, whether murder, manslaughter, accidental, natural or suicide. It was the coroner’s job to record as much information about the death as possible, witnesses, time, date, where and of course the primary interest was property and chattels were written down ready for the Justices court. There were strict rules for when a body was discovered and heavy fines imposed if they were not followed. The finder of a body had to raise the alarm and was liable to be fined for inaction. Many bodies might be ignored or hidden, or even moved to another village or tithing in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Wiltshire Buildings Record was recently asked to look at Red Lodge Farmhouse, Braydon. This was a farm created in the mid-17th century out of the royal forest of Braydon, which had formerly been a royal hunting ground. The house is of great interest and reflects changing ownership over time until the 20th century, as does almost every house we look at. This time, however, it was a very human tragedy that took our attention.
By sheer coincidence I was on my way there and had called into another farm at Brinkworth nearby. When I mentioned my destination, the farmer exclaimed that his great, great uncle, Hezekiah Matthews, had been killed as a poacher at Red Lodge in 1882, and gave me a transcript of the poor man’s inquest.
Hezekiah Matthews had been one of a group of poachers, all cousins from Brinkworth, who were looking to bag something for the pot on the night of 27th December 1882. Because of previous incidents, a watching party consisting of the Neeld Estate head keeper, William Collins, Henry Reeves, Henry John Reeves, Thomas Reeves, and three others ambushed them, and after a struggle, apprehended them. Unfortunately, two of the keeper’s party were accidentally shot, and Hezekiah Matthews received a blow to the head. They were all taken off to Red Lodge Farmhouse to await the doctor and the police, who were coming from Purton.
One of our latest jobs has been at the mill, Heytesbury, a gorgeous location with a clear mill-pond which the locals have traditionally used to cool down on a hot day. This mellow jumble of different brick and stone ranges, and varied roof-lines represents a site continually occupied from at least the early 17th century, and probably earlier. By the mid-C17 Heytesbury was owned by the a’Court family from Ivychurch near Salisbury. They continued to own much property here until the 1920s. During research into the family, an interesting case of poisoning came up.