Of all the documents the team examined at Hereford Cathedral Archives, some of the most interesting were also the most unassuming; a small set of jury verdicts dating from the early 14th century. These are pretty much as they sound, a written record of a jury’s verdict, in these instances relating to criminal trials. Most importantly for the project, each juror attached an impression of their seal as authentication of the verdict. While the amount of surviving judicial material in England is not insignificant by the late 13th and early 14th centuries, surviving verdicts with seals are comparatively very rare and have to date attracted practically no scholarly study. These documents, however, raise some very interesting questions not only about both the development and use of seals, but also that of the criminal jury trial in England.
The Hereford verdicts (HCA 648 and 649), dated to the first quarter of the 14th century, are written on very small bits of parchment. Strips (known as tongues) were cut horizontally into the bottom of the parchment. The wax for the seal impressions were then attached on these, with several to each tongue. The names of the jurors themselves are listed in the verdict. In these two instances HCA 648 possesses twelve names and HCA 649 nine, of which there are eight surviving seals for the former and seven for the latter. The rest have been lost. Three individuals appear in both documents but it is not possible to identify their seals. This is part of a wider issue, for while four of the surviving impressions on HCA 649 possess legends all are damaged and none of them are identifiable. Three impressions from HCA 648 appear to possess legends, again none are interpretable due to damage. The result is that we are at present unable to match any seals to names. Below are an image of the seal impressions and a translation of the contents of HCA 648.
Charter of inquisition in the full court of Madley, on the day of Tuesday soon after the Feast of St. Hilary. Through the oaths of Phillip Dypre, Hugh de Karewardin, John de Kinleye, William de Godeweye, Walter de Cobliton’, Adam de Murmal, Roger de la Hyde, Walter son of Richard de Lolham, Richard de Abbrugge, Gilbert de Bellemere, Roger de Lolham, Robert de la Hull’. On malefactors and their receivers, who they make the above oath, that Hugh son of William de la Bache is a thief and broke into the house of Hugh the smith of Madley and the house of Walter the smith of the same and stole flour and horseshoes and other goods, and the house of Margery de la Bache and stole woollen cloth and other goods.HCA 649 is laid out in a similar manner and refers to a separate case of a horse theft at ‘La Bache’ (possibly The Bage, which is next to Bach Brook).
What is particularly striking about these, however, is the tiny size of the seals (see figure 1 for a comparison with a 5p coin). Many of the seal impressions are now obliterated, but the ones which do survive are varied, and some are quite sophisticated in their design. One, for example, includes a man’s head in profile within an eight-pointed star. An examination of the surviving seal impressions suggests that there was a degree of standardisation in the size of the matrices used. The largely intact seal impressions are all of a similar size, ranging between 11-20mm, most falling between 12-18mm. While these seals are very small, their scale is not entirely unusual for the period, as by 1320 the median size of seals had dropped to 19mm. Even by this measurement however, and assuming that the seals do date to around 1320, most of these seals are at the smaller end of the scale.
It would be misleading to refer to these as specifically jury seals. The project has encountered four documents which have comparatively sized seals, and only two (HCA 648 and HCA 649) are actually jury verdicts. HCA 1116, dated to 1347, is a receipt from four men to the sheriff of Hereford for assuming from the sheriff the responsibility of guarding a murder suspect until his court appearance. While Lincolnshire Archives Dij72/1/1, dated to 1313, possesses some seals of a comparable size, it also contains larger ones and concerns a land transaction rather than a jury verdict. The most interesting point from these documents, however, is the presence on HCA 648 and Dij72/1/1 of partial seal impressions which originate from far larger matrices. This is quite uncommon amongst surviving lower status personal seals, and is suggestive that the makers of the documents were keen to maintain a degree of size consistency amongst the attached seals.
What were the likely causes and motives for this?
The jury system itself developed considerably over the course of the 13th century. The 1217 papal prohibition of trial by battle and trial by ordeal forced a fundamental shift in English judicial proceedings. The jurors were originally twelve men of good character drawn from the local area where the crime was committed. Prior to the prohibition, the jury in criminal trials had issued verdicts on the character of an alleged perpetrator, which in turn helped decide whether they case should proceed to trial by battle or ordeal. With the papal ban, the jury’s verdict began to be used instead to determine guilt. This was a gradual transition, but by the mid-13th century trial by jury had become a crucial part of the English justice system. Juries concurrently began to move away from being self-informing bodies, i.e. the jurors were no longer expected to be the ones who had the knowledge and evidence to convict, rather they passed judgement on evidence presented to them. The jury verdicts we have from Hereford occur at the time period when these changes had taken place.
While the theoretical use of jurors’ seals is testified in the great 13th century treatise on English law and government, de legibus et constitudinae angliae (often referred to as Bracton) from the 1220s onwards, this is specific to the various levels of royal justice. However, not every court was a royal one, and what makes the Madley verdicts so interesting is that they are from a private (seigneurial) court. The manor of Madley belonged to the Cathedral of Hereford as a prebend (sometimes referred to as Cublington) and as such the court there would have been of the prebendary. This of course explains the survival of these verdicts in Hereford Cathedral Archives. These verdicts therefore present us with a rare glimpse of the operation of justice at a very local level. At least three of the jurors in HCA 648 are readily identifiable as locals: Roger and Walter son of Richard of Lolham (Lulham, approximately one mile from Madley) and Walter de Cobliton (Cublington, approximately half a mile). The rest are identified less confidently. John of Kinley, for example, could come from as far as five miles to the north-west (area of Upper Kinley or Kinnersley). Gilbert of Belleme appears in both jury verdicts as well as in a surviving court roll (HCA R1150) concerning Madley dated to 1308. It is not clear on this basis just how local the jury was, though the surviving evidence suggests some presence at least.
So why do we only seem to find criminal jury verdicts which date to the 14th century?
It is worth looking at the context of Bracton’s comments on juries sealing.
A writ to the effect that he was never so seised that, etc… ‘…And make known the inquest which you make thereon to our justices on such a day by your letters sealed with your seal and the seals of the aforesaid jurors, and by two of those by whose oath you took that inquest…’ (Bracton, vol 3, ed. Thorne, pp.391-92)
Of making an extent where land has been assigned in exchange. ‘…And what and where and by what parcels you assign that land and rent to him [make known] to us or our justices etc. in such a place and on such a day, clearly and distinctly and openly by your letters sealed with your seal and the seals of the aforesaid twelve jurors…’ (Bracton, vol 3. pp. 257-258.)
The interesting point here is that the examples in Bracton referring to jury seals relate to cases regarding land rather than criminal cases. In fact, when one studies the procedures he outlines for dealing with homicide for example, while twelve citizens are mentioned, there is no mention of them using their seals. The de legibus et constitudinae Angliae, however, was written largely in the 1220s and 30s, with some updates in the 1250s, around the same time when the criminal trial by jury was still in development. Bracton indeed still makes specific reference to criminal cases being settled by combat between the two parties.
The requirement for jurors to attach their seals in criminal trials seems to have only begun in 1285 when Edward I released his second Statute of Westminster. It is worth reading the whole passage.
‘For as much as Sheriffs, feigning many times certain persons to be indicted before them in their turns of felonies and other trespasses, do take men that are not culpable nor lawfully indicted, and imprison them, and do exact money from them, whereas they were not lawfully indicted by twelve jurors; it is ordained, that sheriffs in the turns, and in other places [where they have power] to enquire of trespassers by the king’s precept, or by office, shall cause their inquests of such malefactors to be taken by lawful men, and by twelve at the least, which shall put their seals to such inquisitions; and those that shall be found culpable by such inquests, they shall take and imprison, as they have used aforetimes to do: and if they do imprison other than such as have been indicted by inquest, the parties imprisoned shall have their action by a Writ of Imprisonment against the sheriffs, as they should have against any other person that should imprison them without warrant; and as it hath been said of sheriffs, so shall it be observed of every bailiff of franchise’. (‘Statute of Westminster II’, Statutes of the Realm, vol.1. (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, reprinted 1963), p.81)
Here it is clear that the motive for requiring jurors to attach their seals to the verdict was as an attempt to clamp down on sheriffs who abused their positions by falsely imprisoning individuals and then extorting money from them.
So why, by the early 14th century, were efforts being made to use such small seals on these types of documents, and particularly what was the motive for using only partial impressions of larger matrices to maintain a roughly consistent size? A quick look at the size of the verdicts themselves presents one obvious need for a smaller seal impression. Practically speaking, the need to attach twelve separate pieces of wax to a document created obvious strain on the space available on tags or tongues, particularly on smaller documents. An examination of seals attached to documents from a few decades earlier quickly highlights the practical limitations of larger personal seals in cases of multi-party sealing.
There was therefore a clear practical impetus for a move towards a smaller seal, particularly when the introduction of sealing for criminal jury verdicts would have increased the number of documents which required large numbers of attached seals. This occurred concurrent with the general decreasing size of personal seals in the early 14th century and their wider social spread, in part facilitated by improvements in materials and technology. The appearance of similar sized seals on a land transfer charter in Lincolnshire (Dij 72/1/1) dating from the same period would seem to confirm that this was not a phenomenon restricted to Herefordshire.
So why, generally, do so few seem to survive? As a result of the paucity of evidence we are largely forced to engage in conjecture here. In cases involving royal justices, was any provision made for the storage of the sealed verdicts, and if so where and for how long? The Statute of Westminster II would seem to imply that at some stage the sight of the sealed verdict was required as proof of the inquest’s judgement. Criminal cases were usually copied out onto rolls of parchment (known as enrolling). Royal government favoured enrolling the verdicts from its various courts and many of these survive from the end of the 13th century. Therefore it is unclear how long it was necessary to hold onto the original verdicts. Possibly after Westminster II the clerks in charge of enrolling were required to see the sealed presentment? Could this have been disposed of straight after enrolment?
While many monasteries and cathedrals maintained cartularies, summaries of the charters granted to them, possession of the original charter with its attached seal remained crucial. Did sealed jury verdicts retain the same importance as charters, i.e. was it theoretically possible for an individual to challenge, say, their own outlawry if the original verdict was no longer in existence? Due to the inherently time-limited nature of a criminal verdict there was, however, less of a need to retain them in the long term in comparison to legal records pertaining to lands or rights.
A comparable case in point are bonds. These were agreements between two or more parties to do or perform some act. Each party would then retain a sealed copy of the agreement or bond. These would have been by far the most common sealed document around, but, due to their temporary nature, most would have been destroyed upon completion of the agreement. The material which survives today is in part the result of chance, and in part the result of the type of documents which needed to be preserved for the long term.
In conclusion, the Madley jury verdicts are fascinating chance survivals of what were, in the early 14th century, relatively common documents. They are furthermore a reflection of England’s wider technical and legal evolution over the course of the 13th century, as well as of the increasing centrality of seal use in all parts of society.
Fergus PW Eskola-Oakes
- Roger D. Groot, ‘The Early-Thirteenth Century Criminal Jury’, Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800, eds., J.S. Cockburn and T.A. Green, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp.3-35.
- Bernard William McLane, ‘Juror Attitudes toward Local Disorder: The Evidence of the 1328 Lincolnshire Trailbaston Proceedings’, Twelve Good Men and True: The Criminal Trial Jury in England, 1200-1800, eds., J.S. Cockburn and T.A. Green, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp.36-64.
- John McEwan, ‘Does Size Matter? Seals in England and Wales, ca.1200-1500’, TBC (forthcoming). My thanks to John McEwan for letting me see a copy of his article in advance.
- Bracton: On the Laws and Customs of England, 4 vols., trans. and rev. by Samuel E. Thorne. [accessed online at: http://amesfoundation.law.harvard.edu/Bracton/].
- Statutes of the Realm, vol.1. (London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, reprinted 1963), p.81).