Michael Jecks



Author's Note

Most readers will be surprised to hear the town of Tavistock described as a port. It lies many miles from the north and south coasts of Devon, and the River Tavy is not deep enough to allow large ships to navigate so far – nor was it in 1319.

However in those days a port was not a coastal town, but any place where merchants could bring their goods to trade, and living in a port conferred attractive rights upon the town-dweller. He was invariably free, in an age when men commonly owed feudal service to their lord, and could often make good money from sidelines: renting out rooms to visitors or selling food and drink. At the same time, citizens were free of tolls, so they could participate in the profits of the market or fair without having to pay for the privilege.

Certainly in Tavistock the citizens grew wealthy at the expense of older towns such as Lydford and Chagford, and their duties as townsfolk were minimal. The portmen could be called on to serve as port-reeve (a sort of cross between a mayor and a magistrate) or some other position; had to go to the Borough Court when called; had to use the Abbey’s mill; had to pay rent to the Abbey – but that was about it. In exchange they no longer had to go to the Abbey’s fields to work, which must have been a huge relief, because all too often people had to leave their own crops to wilt on the best harvesting days because their lord expected his to be brought in first.

For all the positive aspects there were few negatives. The citizens of Tavistock liked being free portmen.

The modern reader may also find the medieval legal system a little confusing compared with our contemporary juridical process.

There has always been a problem collecting enough information to be certain of convicting someone, whether or not it’s the right “someone.” Nowadays we have the Crown Prosecution Service, which sifts all the available evidence and tries to establish whether there is enough for a conviction before incurring the expense of going to court. If the solicitors in the CPS think there isn’t, the case isn’t brought, which is why you can find police officers in pubs muttering darkly into their whiskies about having to try each case before it ever comes before a jury, and if prompted with another whisky, they will usually continue by demanding how much the CPS itself costs, how much it costs to have the police preparing cases for the CPS, and how many extra policemen could be paid for by that sum.

In the fourteenth century, this would be incomprehensible. The concept of justice then was that the men of the jury were the only people who could determine a man’s guilt or innocence. It was the ancient, accepted, understood, and fair approach. In those days, people had faith in the judgment of their peers. The process of justice was not complex. Although it wasn’t consistent across the country, it was at least understandable to the average person, be they freeman or peasant, which is more than can be said for our present system.

For example, if a sudden death occurred, the man who found the body was expected to raise the hue and cry. This often meant little more than bellowing for help. Normally, the man who discovered the corpse, the first finder, would then be attached, or held until he had paid a surety to guarantee he would appear at the court. The four nearest neighbours would also be attached, as would any relatives who could be found; they would have to swear to the dead man’s Englishry – the fact that he was English – in court. Meanwhile the hue and cry would chase over the country.

In theory the man accused of a crime would be arrested, and the local court would try him before a jury of ten to twenty men (the number varied in different areas) formed of local freemen and others, and the matter would be closed. Sadly, real life is rarely so straightforward.

For example, if the suspect managed to get to a known place of sanctuary, he could stay there for a while. The local coroner could demand that he should surrender, and some did. Most who did so were not found guilty of murder, but of killing in self-defense or by accident – which leads one to suppose that the posse must have set off in hot blood, and once calmer counsel was taken, even angry locals could accept the suspect’s evidence.

The second course offered by the coroner was that of abjuring the realm. Justice then, as now, was expensive. Far preferable that a criminal should compensate the kingdom for breaking the King’s peace by paying, and then leaving forever. A felon could be granted his life, but lost everything else: home, money, property – everything.

An abjurer had to leave the kingdom by the shortest road. He would be taken to a stile or church gate away from the town center, and made to swear an oath on the Gospels before the coroner that he would leave everything behind (most of which would be taken by the local lord or the King), and make his journey clothed in white and carrying a wooden cross to demonstrate his penitence. The official would tell him which roads he might take, where he could stay overnight, and which port he must go to, and if he failed, he could be executed instantly. If he left the road, if he remained for too long on his way, if he ever returned to the kingdom, he could be beheaded, and the men who visited punishment on him would be immune from prosecution.

Lastly, it was often hard to get enough reliable witnesses to any crime, and just as today we need super- grasses, the prosecution sometimes depended on criminals ratting on their colleagues. Now it is termed turning Queen’s evidence; then it was called approving. An approver was a man who agreed to confess and give away his partners in exchange for his life. Afterward he would have to abjure the realm: not necessarily only because the law demanded it – such a man was not universally popular in the area.

I have been asked whether any of the characters in my books really existed. In the main, the answer has to be “No,” for the simple reason that chroniclers didn’t take any interest in the lower classes. Peasants didn’t merit comment in most records.

With the more important characters, I have tried to include any whose times were documented. Thus Walter Stapledon was the Bishop of Exeter; he was a powerful man who contributed to Exeter Cathedral, who was involved with the Ordainers and later helped create the Middle Party, who founded Stapledon Hall in Oxford (now called Exeter College), and who began a grammar school in Exeter. Later he was to become Lord High Treasurer to the King, until murdered by the London mob in 1326.

Likewise Abbot Champeaux was a real man, notable for his achievements in promoting his Abbey. He is described as an amiable and benevolent man, known for his piety, and from the records appears to have been fond of hunting (he kept getting told off for poaching on the moors), kindly with his more wayward monks, and generous.

That he was shrewd can be seen from his ability to increase the wealth of the Abbey. When he was elected Abbot in 1285, he inherited debts and had to borrow ₤200, a vast sum; by the time he died in 1324, the Abbey’s treasury had acquired ₤1,200. This was based on his success in divesting himself of unprofitable lands and expensive responsibilities, in making astute loans to the Crown to finance wars, and in purchasing offices, such as warden of the stannaries and controller of the silver mines. The profits of these were huge, as can be guessed from the fact that Champeaux paid ₤100 per annum for the profits of the wardenship alone.

But these men, as they appear in my books, are fictitious. Chronicles give only bald facts – there aren’t even pictures of these two men so far as I know – so I have had to invent them as I think they would have been. Much the same is true of the Abbey and its fair.

Tavistock Abbey never regained its prominence after Champeaux’s death. It had a period without an Abbot, and then Robert Bonus was forced on the unwilling monks, a man who had to be deposed for “contumacy and intemperate behaviour” in 1333. John de Courtenay took over, but he was vain, addicted to hunting and field sports,

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