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Hanging Matters: Petty Theft, Sentence of Death, and a Lost Statute of Edward I

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2022


This article discusses an important aspect of the law relating to theft in thirteenth-century England, and one of the ways in which that law developed. Central to it is the argument that the treatise The Mirror of Justices and references in court records and reports show that a short statute enacted early in the reign of Edward I, probably in 1278, categorically defined 12d. as the amount, whether in goods or money, at which larceny became a capital felony, incurring judgment of death. As well as setting out the evidence for this hitherto overlooked ordinance, the article also argues that the statute can be associated with some significant developments in the way petty theft was treated subsequently. In particular it had the effect of promoting the development of penal imprisonment, while since the task of valuation was given to trial juries, it further enhanced the leading role of the latter in determining the fates of the men and women whose lives depended on their verdicts.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society for Legal History

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The author thanks Paul Brand for reading an earlier draft of this article and making some valuable suggestions for its improvement, an acknowledgement that should not be understood as claiming that he agrees with everything it contains. Note 47 contains a reference that the author owes to Paul Brand. This article is heavily dependent upon unpublished documents in The National Archives (TNA), London, United Kingdom. Its preparation, completed during the 2021 Covid-19 lockdown, would have been impossible without the access to TNA records provided by AALT (Anglo-American Legal Tradition), the digital archive assembled by Robert C. Palmer, Elspeth K. Palmer and Susanne Jenks, and available at The four-figure numbers presented after TNA citations are those of images made accessible by that project. Note 60: I am advised by Paul Brand that the precise status of this order is problematic.


1. Whittaker, William.J., ed. and trans., The Mirror of Justices, with an introduction by Frederic W. Maitland, Selden Society 7 (London: Quaritch, 1895 for 1893)Google Scholar.

2. David J. Seipp, “The Mirror of Justices,” in Learning the Law: Teaching and the Transmission of Law in England, 1150–1900, ed. Jonathan A. Bush and Alain Wijfells (London and Rio Grande: Hambledon Continuum, 1999), 85–112.

3. Whittaker, The Mirror, 141.

4. Attenborough, Frederick L., ed. and trans., The Laws of the Earliest English Kings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931), 127, 169Google Scholar; and Robertson, Agnes J., ed. and trans., The Laws of England from Edmund to Henry I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), 81, 95, 177Google Scholar.

5. Downer, L.J., ed. and trans., Leges Henrici Primi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 189 (59: 20)Google Scholar; Raoul C. Van Caenegem, ed. and trans., English Lawsuits from William I to Richard I, 2 vols., 106–7 (London: Selden Society, 1990–91), vol. ii, no. 471, 507–14; Curia Regis Rolls ix, 1220 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1952), 7–8; and Curia Regis Rolls xii, 1225–1226 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1957), nos. 1582, 327 and 2098, 426.

6. Woodbine, George.E., ed., Bracton De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliӕ, 4 vols., trans. Thorne, Samuel E. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1968–77), ii:427–28Google Scholar (fol. 151b). Curia Regis Rolls xii: 1225–1226, no. 1217, 248 is a rare exception to this rule.

7. TNA, JUST 1/1185 rot. 5d (0758). The suggestion concerning value is that of Roger D. Groot, “Petit Larceny, Jury Lenity and Parliament,” in “The Dearest Birth Right of the People of England”: The Jury in the History of the Common Law, ed, John W. Cairns and Grant McLeod (Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart, 2002), 47–61, a fine study although over-dependent on printed records.

8. TNA, JUST 1/701 rot. 19d (8049). The offense was one of several which led to the abbot having to pay a thirty mark (£20) fine.

9. TNA, JUST 1/951A rot. 5d (7017—foot), JUST 1/775 rot. 21 (5680—ears), JUST 1/912A rot. 25d (0159—expulsion).

10. TNA, JUST 1/721 rot. 12d (0378)

11. Close Rolls of Henry III, 1256–1259 (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1932), 212; TNA, JUST 1/82 rots. 27 (0493), 30 (0499), 34d (0579); JUST 1/343 rots. 11 (1768), 12 (1771); JUST 1/1179 rots. 19 (0452-3), 25d (0520); JUST 1/1189 rots. 13 (0029), 13d (0063). Two deaths attributed to hunger and want at the 1262 Buckinghamshire eyre may also have resulted from this disaster, JUST 1/58 rots. 22 (1187), 24 (1191).

12. TNA, JUST 3/35A rot. 3d (0022).

13. Harry Rothwell, ed., English Historical Documents iii, 1189–1327 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1975), 400–401.

14. TNA, JUST 1/921 rot. 10d (3233).

15. TNA, JUST 1/789 rot. 13d (1352).

16. TNA, JUST 1/1011 rot. 47d (0883).

17. TNA, JUST 1/1286 rots. 20 (3420—Lincoln); 30 (3436—Nottingham); 31d (3521—York).

18. Whittaker, The Mirror, 186.

19. TNA, C 66/97 m. 6 (0345). The phrase is omitted from the very perfunctory calendar of the commissions published in Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1272-1281 (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1901), 277.

20. Whittaker, The Mirror, 141.

21. Nichols, Francis M., ed. and trans., Britton, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1865), i:42Google Scholar

22. Ibid., i:56, n. 1.

23. TNA, JUST 1/10 rot. 39d (0924).

24. Jens Röhrkasten, ed., The Worcester Eyre of 1275, Worcestershire Historical Society, new series 22 (2008), no. 907, 422–23.

25. For details, see Sutherland, Donald W., Quo Warranto Proceedings in the Reign of Edward I, 1278–1294 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963)Google Scholar.

26. Cecil A.F. Meekings, ed., Crown Pleas of the Wiltshire Eyre, 1249, Wiltshire Record Society 16 (Devizes, 1961 for 1960), no. 323, 213–14.

27. TNA, JUST 1/324A rot. 34d (0119-20). See also TNA, JUST 1/278 rot. 64d (5477).

28. TNA, JUST 1/579 rot. 15 (0037).

29. See especially Henry G. Richardson and George O. Sayles, ed. and trans., Fleta, Volume II, Selden Society 72 (London: Quaritch, 1955 for 1953), 92.

30. TNA, JUST 1/278 rot. 39d (7214); British Library, London (hereafter BL), MS Additional 31826, fol. 210r, the case of Adam Scherewynt in the eyre roll, JUST 1/1101 rot. 54d (8149).

31. TNA, JUST 3/35B rot. 49d (0206).

32. TNA, JUST 3/38/1 rot. 5 (0010).

33. TNA, JUST 1/284 rot. 40d (7217).

34. BL, MS Additional 31826 fol. 208r, probably to be identified with the case of Adam del Blank in TNA, JUST 1/1098 rot. 76 (7360).

35. BL, MS Additional 31826 fols. 208r-v, the case of Alice Blaunchard in the eyre roll, TNA, JUST 1/1098 rot. 78 (7363).

36. TNA, JUST 1/653 rot. 33d (0148); Bertha H. Putnam, ed., Kent Keepers of the Peace, 1316–1317, Kent Records 13 (Ashford, 1933), 99.

37. TNA, JUST 1/1098 rots. 76d (7437), 77d (7440), 78d (7442), 79d (7446-7), 82 (7372), 85 (7378), 88d (7464). See also TNA, JUST 1/137 rot. 31 (7536).

38. Ralph B. Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 319.

39. TNA, JUST 1/66 rot. 15d (2495).

40. TNA, JUST 1/376 rot. 72d (3487).

41. TNA, JUST 3/26/3 rots. 14d (0173), 28 (0132); JUST 3/103 rot. 7 (0016); JUST 3/116 rot. 11d (0039); JUST 3/1/3 rot. 5 (0116).

42. TNA, JUST 1/376 rot. 78 (3317).

43. TNA, JUST 1/1339 rot. 19 (3113—William the Bowyer); JUST 3/35B rot. 22 (0046); JUST 3/36/2 rot. 3d (0041); JUST 3/26/3 rot. 10d (0164).

44. Examples include TNA, JUST 1/1043 rot. 15 (1345); JUST 1/1078 rot. 63 (1389); JUST 1/710 rot. 51 (9590); JUST 1/896 m. 4 (1401).

45. TNA, JUST 1/417 rot. 6 (2523). A similar punishment was recorded at York in 1302, TNA, JUST 3/74/2 rot. 4 (0021).

46. See., for example, the arraignment of Roger le Ficheler at Newgate in 1283 for purse-cutting TNA, JUST 3/35B rot. 30d (0172).

47. TNA, JUST 1/761 rot. 33 (3985). The slitting of an ear on release from the pillory is also recorded in Sussex in 1306, TNA, JUST 1/934 rot. 19d (5755), and in the Bench in 1297, TNA, CP 40/121 rot. 131d (0966).

48. TNA, JUST 3/35A rot. 3 (0009); JUST 3/91 rot. 5 (0330).

49. TNA, JUST 3/40/2 rot. 19 (0085). Reginald R. Sharpe, ed., Calendar of Wills Proved and Enrolled in the Court of Husting, London, 2 vols. (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1889–90), i:74, records the pillory. See also TNA, JUST 3/26/2 rot. 2d (0048).

50. TNA, JUST 1/1286 rot. 51d (3549); BL, MS Additional 31826 fol. 208r. For an earlier example see TNA, JUST 1/1189 rot. 13 (0029).

51. TNA, JUST 3/18/1 rot. 14 (0204).

52. TNA, JUST 1/467 rot. 14d (0937); JUST 3/43/1 rot. 24d (0118).

53. Details from TNA, JUST 1/883 rots. 3-5 (0504-8, 0513-16).

54. TNA, JUST 1/544 rot. 69d (4681).

55. TNA, JUST 3/37/4 rot. 6d (0145).

56. TNA, JUST 3/26/3 rots. 2 (0073), 18 (0112).

57. For instance Margery, wife of Adam the Taylor, a Middlesex woman who was imprisoned for 6 weeks and 3 and a half days for the theft of goods valued at 6½d, TNA, JUST 1/1339 rot. 2 (3075). A roll of sessions for Middlesex, Sussex, Surrey, and Kent, this record contains several other cases of petty thieves being sentenced to a week in prison for every pennyworth of goods stolen.

58. TNA, JUST 3/40/2 rot. 32 (0113); JUST 3/41/1 rot. 7d (0086).

59. For example the case of Hugh Glen at Bedford in 1321, TNA, JUST 3/1/3 rot. 5 (0116).

60. For details see Pugh, Imprisonment, 227–29.

61. TNA, JUST 1/240 rot. 13d (7920).

62. Pugh, Imprisonment, 26–27, deals only briefly with the subject.

63. See, in particular, Green, Thomas A., “Societal Concepts of Criminal Liability for Homicide in Medieval England,” Speculum 47 (1972): 669–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64. TNA, JUST 3/26/3 rot. 28 (0132—Kent); JUST 3/116 rot. 11d (0039—Devon).

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