English Coroner System Part 2: Duties
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History of the Medieval English Coroner System By Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE

Part 2: The Medieval Coroner's Duties

Now, the prime function of the medieval Coroner was to service the Royal Courts of Law, the General Eyre, which circulated slowly around the kingdom. This body took so long to return to each county that, unless careful records were kept, many cases never came to trial and much potential revenue was lost to the Crown. The Eyre took an average of seven years - and often far longer - to complete a circuit. It's arrival within a community was one of the greatest affairs in medieval England, as the Eyre examined every detail of life since its last visit, as well as actual crimes. In those days the whole community was punished if the Judges felt that they had not behaved as they should. Large fines, called "amercements", were levied on both individuals and boroughs or hundreds if they failed in any way to conform to the complex and tortuous pattern of legal procedure. The longsuffering peasants came to look upon this as an inevitable form of taxation, rather than a penalty, much as today we stoically accept the Inland Revenue. Unless good records were kept and some means found to enforce the appearance of witnesses and parties at trial, the King would lose much potential revenue. The grossly extortionate system of amercements could not be employed to the best advantage if old cases had been forgotten. At the London Eyre of 1321, for instance, a ward jury was expected to recall all the crimes that had been committed during the past 44 years since the court had last visited! The Coroner became the key figure in collecting these records (the actual fines were imposed by the Justices in Eyre). He did this by ensuring that he was present at a whole range of events where property and goods might be forfeit and where sureties, a kind of bail guarantee called "attachments", could be levied, as well as the "amercements" or fines. There was a wide spectrum of legal cases where the Coroner had this opportunity to act as a tax collector. Historically, his most important role, as it is the only one to survive until today, was his central position in the investigation of sudden death. In some areas (and surviving records include Northumberland, Newcastle, Chester and Flint), the Coroner was also originally concerned with crimes such as burglary, rape and theft, as he held juridiction over all "felons". A felon was a criminal guilty of a capital offence, which, in those days, included any homicide or the theft of an article worth at least twelve pence (one shilling).

The Coroner had a multitude of other responsibilities which we will look at in a moment. In fact, though the records are very incomplete, it seems that, where requested, especially by Royal Warrant, he could become involved in any aspect of the highly complicated legal procedures of medieval England.

One of the problems of researching the office of the medieval Coroner is that its founding charter, the Article of Eyre, is so short, stating only that the Coroner was to "keep the pleas of the Crown". However, in the century that followed, three notable writers of law books, Bracton, Britton and Fleta, published accounts of Coroners' duties which were far more expansive than this original mandate. One of these was held in such authority that it eventually became a statute, the 1278 "Officium Coronatis" issued by King Edward I. Some of the functions it describes have been dismissed by modern historians; but it seems certain that, during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, at least some of these more exotic duties were indeed being carried out by Coroners.

The most important task was, of course, the investigation of sudden deaths for it held great potential for filling the Royal coffers. Not only murder and manslaughter came to the notice of the "Crowner" but accidental and natural death, as well as suicides: though, in fact, these latter were rather rare in the Middle Ages. He was not particularly concerned about discovering the culprit in a homicide - that was usually patently obvious, because the miscreant usually confessed, sought sanctuary or, more often, ran away to avoid an almost certain hanging. The coroner was, however, concerned to record everything on his Rolls, so that no witnesses, neighbours, property or chattels escaped the eagle eyes of the Justices in Eyre. There was a rigid procedure enforced at every unexpected death, any deviation from the rules being heavily fined. The rules were so complex that probably most cases showed some slip-up, with consequent financial penalty to someone. It was common practice either to ignore a dead body or even to hide it clandestinely. Some people would even drag a corpse by night to another village or hundred, so that they would not be burdened with the problem. Even where no guilt lay, to be involved in a death, even a sudden natural one, caused endless trouble and usually financial loss. Whoever discovered a body was deemed the "first finder", though in fact he was often the last finder, as the original discoverers may well have smartly decided to disappear in the opposite direction. This unhappy fellow would have to raise "the hue-and-cry": the initiation of a hunt for the killer, whether real or imagined. This involved calling on the four nearest households to join the chase. Their involvement naturally also made them liable to fines if they did anything wrong. If the first finder failed to do this, he was amerced when the case came up before the Eyre. Next, the Bailiff of the Hundred had to be summoned and he, or one of the locals, had to notify the Coroner without delay.

Failure to inform the Coroner was a serious offence and the hundred or township would suffer heavily for it. The locals were responsible for guarding the body until the coroner arrived, which could sometimes be some days later. In Devonshire, in the 13th century for instance, a hedge was built around a corpse to keep the dogs away while the village waited eight days for the Coroner to arrive. Sometimes, he would be so long in arriving that the locals would bury the deceased in order to hide the stench of putrefaction. Failure to preserve the body for the Coroner to view was illegal and, upon his arrival, the Royal official would immediately have it exhumed. The names of the offenders would, of course, be recorded on his Roll. Coroners used every deviation from the rules to impose more fines for the King. In 1256, amercements of up to a mark (which was quite a lot of money) were imposed on villages for "the burying of stinking bodies before the arrival of the Coroner". In Sussex between 1255 and 1262, there were twenty-five cases of burial before the arrival of the Coroner - and these were only a fraction of the true number. For instance, the village of Peasmarsh was fined, at the 1248, Eyre for burying a body in a field without informing the authorities. The first finder had raised the hue-and-cry, but the Goldspur Hundred all clubbed together and bribed their two bailiffs, with forty shillings, not to call the Coroner! And, of course, the Coroner's obligation to inspect the corpse continued right up until 1980, when this duty was, at last, abolished.

Part 1: The Origins of the Office of Coroner
Part 3: The Coroner's Inquest

Readers interested in the activities of the medieval coroner should check out Bernard Knight's 12th century Mystery Novels featuring Crowner John de Wolfe, the first coroner for the County of Devon.

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