I am continually surprised by the fascinating bits of information I uncover while doing research for my medieval fiction. For Book III of Battle Scars I have been reading (or re-reading) biographies of Richard I and John, and stumbled across this gem in England Without Richard, 1189-1199 by John T. Appleby: the “murder-fine.”
This form of justice originated with the Danish invaders per Wikipedia. Appleby writes that after the Conquest, the Normans adopted the fine when other punishments for murdering a Norman had little effect. He quotes Richard, son of Nigel: “…it was finally decided that the hundred in which a Norman was found killed, without his slayer being known…should be mulcted…”
(Mulct = fine. A new word for my vocabulary!)
In “Presentment of Englishry and the Murder Fine,” Frederick Hamil writes: “It was not murder, nor was the murdrum fine enacted, if the slayer was delivered up to justice or the dead man proved to be of English birth.” Apparently, the conquered English weren’t highly regarded in those early years.
However, by the end of the 12th century, the victim could be those with English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) roots, not just noble Normans. The “murder-fine” extended beyond foul play to include deaths by drowning, starvation, exposure, and more. Itinerant justices heard cases which are reflected in the Pipe Rolls. One such fine levied against the hundred (i.e., community or wapentake) was 20 shillings – a hefty sum in the 12th century. As Hamil notes, the community itself “had certain communal duties and could be fined for neglecting them.”
These murder-fines became a source of much-needed revenue to support King Richard’s war against Philip of France.
Appley, J.T. England Without Richard, 1189-1199. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965.
Englishry. (2015, March 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:57, June 6, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Englishry&oldid=649667902
Hamil, F.C. “Presentment of Englishry and the Murder Fine.” Speculum, a Journal of Mediaeval Studies, vol. 12:3 (1937).
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Payment to the relatives of someone murdered is still a common practice in many societies today — not so different from the murder fine described here, except the family of the victim rather than the crown got the money!
So true, Helena! What I found so interesting – beyond the community having to chalk up money to the crown – was that the fine could be applied to any death deemed unnatural. ‘That dead man was a tax payer and your community let him freeze to death, depriving the crown of revenue, so you must pay!’ Boggles the mind. I’d say the crown had good lawyers… 🙂