Monday, October 11, 2010

Corruption, Medieval Style

Please welcome guest blogger Jeri Westerson. Jeri is a wonderful writer whose third novel in her "Medieval Noir" series has just been released. I read it and couldn't put it down. (Btw, I love that she calls her protagonist, former knight Crispin Guest, a "Medieval Sam Spade on the mean streets" of fourteenth century London). Jeri's post, while clearly of another time, will nonetheless resonate with Outfit readers today.

Corruption. It covers so many events and practices. It can be found in any age, and the Middle Ages were certainly no exception. In this instance, I decided to dig up some of the more unusual cases than simple government corruption. Heck, you can see that in your daily newspaper!

For instance, in 1303, when Edward I was king, the crown jewels were kept in Westminster Abbey. It was thought that if they were looked after by the monks there, little could happen to them. But a few years earlier, there had been a fire in the abbey and many of the monastic buildings had been destroyed. The monks, about fifty of them, ended up encamped in the half-ruined buildings. Now we are talking England here, where the weather is far from meek and mild, and these monks are camping out in pretty nasty conditions. No wonder they got a little resentful. According to court documents, they had become “slack and slovenly.”

Enter one Richard of Pudlicott. He started out as a clerk and then became a wandering trader in wool, cheese, and butter. He went on a selling trip to Bruges but when King Edward returned to London from Flanders, poor Pudlicott was thrown in the Flemish clink for Edward’s debts and the king left him there! Pudlicott escaped and when he returned to London, he wasn’t a happy camper, vowing revenge. He began to carouse with the Keeper of the King’s Palace, and he found that the monks, being so slack and slovenly, made it easy to sneak into their chapter house— one of the few buildings unaffected by the fire—and steal their plate and coins.

But carousing gets expensive, especially when you are in such rich company as the Keeper of the King’s Palace, and so Pudlicott upped the ante and decided to steal the king’s treasury with the help of the monks.

When later he was caught for the theft—and a sloppy job it was—he originally confessed that he worked alone, but it didn’t take long for it to come out how many others helped him. The sacrist of the church, the abbot, forty-eight monks, and thirty-two others. The treasure was found all over town. Under Pudlicott’s bed, stashed in the graveyard, dropped in the Thames (and later fished out in fishermen’s nets), at pawnbrokers’ who simply turned the stuff in (“Oi, mate. Where’d ya get this crown?”).

The majority of the monks were released fairly quickly but six servants and ten monks remained in custody. Pudlicott tried to plead benefit of clergy—that is, as a clerk, he was in the clerical class along with monks and priests and couldn’t be tried like everyone else. King Edward’s court wasn’t buying it, though, and in 1305 he was finally hanged. The Keeper and five other lay culprits were also put in the noose while the rest of the monks were more or less pardoned. So ended the great crown jewel robbery.

Several hundreds of years later in a separate corruption case, but no less interesting, is this case of corruption where a man loses his knighthood. I bring this one up because my detective Crispin Guest also lost his knighthood, only for different reasons and…er…minus the horse (you’ll see in a minute).

Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Mitchell were tried in 1621 before the House of Lords for the political offense of “exercising harsh monopolies over the licensing of inns and the manufacture of gold and silver thread.” Doesn’t sound horrible when put that way, but essentially, Mompesson schemed a good long time on a lot of things. He did big business in graft. He was the go-to person for licensing for inns and he was supposed to be overseeing the manufacture of gold and silver thread and imprison those manufacturing said thread without a license.

Instead, he ran a good trade in extortion on the goldsmiths of London and pulled a few fast ones conning taverns into putting up guests overnight and then fining them for running an inn without a license! He was tried by the House of Commons which referred it to the House of Lords where he was sentenced to quite a unique punishment:

“Mompesson was ordered to pay a £10,000 fine, lose his knighthood, walk down the Strand (in London) with his face in a horse's anus, and then be imprisoned for life. A few days later, they added banishment for life to the penalty. Further, he was decried as an eternally notorious criminal.”

This is what happened as reported by the College of Arms: “Sir Francis’s sword and gilt spurs, being the ornaments of Knighthood, were taken from him, broken and defaced, thus indicating that the reputation he held thereby, together with the honourable title of Knight, should be no more used. One of the Knight Marshal’s men...cut the belt whereby the culprit’s sword hung, and so let it fall to the ground. Next the spurs were hewn off his heels and thrown, one one way, the other the other. After that, the Marshal’s attendant drew Mitchell’s sword from the scabbard and broke it over his head, doing with the fragments as with the spurs.” (Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms.)

If you are a member of the Order of the Garter, the banner and stall-plate (plates bearing the arms of that particular knight which are mounted in the choir stall where their family worshipped) are removed from the Chapel.

Mompesson was banished but some time later he was allowed to return to get his affairs in order and then banished again, but the slippery Mompesson managed to get back into the country and stay, retiring in Wiltshire till his death.

Yes, it’s true. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Jeri tries to be true to her history in her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. Read a chapter from her latest title THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT at

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