History of Coroner PDF Print E-mail

The office of Coroner is a uniquely English institution, though perhaps 'Norman' might be more accurate in the sense in which we know it today. Scotland , of course, never had coroners. They remained independent of England for a long time and their system of law is more akin to that found on the Continent. Wales inherited the English Coroners after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282. Before this, the Welsh had their own system of law dating from about the 9th century. Ireland also acquired them, since Norman administration had been imposed there from 1170. In later times, England exported her Coroner system all over the World: to almost everywhere coloured red in the Victorian atlas. Where Coroners still survive, they indicate a legacy of British rule, whether it be Kenya, Hong Kong , Australia or parts of the United States.

The first mention of the Coroner is actually pre-Norman, probably dating from the reign of Alfred the Great : certainly sometime between AD 871 and 910. However, we have no records of that period and we do not know what the Coroners' functions were at that time. By drawing parallels with other Saxon law officers, like the Bailiffs and the Sergeants, it seems probable that they carried out at least some of the duties which the later Norman Coroners undertook. But the Coroner as we know him today dates from September 1194. For it was instigated almost eight hundred years ago, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart .

Though the events of King Richard's short reign were crucial in the genesis of the Coroner, the ground swell of resentment towards Royal officials, which led to their recreation, had been growing for more than twenty years. During the last decade of Henry II 's reign, considerable discontent developed over the corruption and greed of the Sheriffs, who were the dominant law officers representing the Crown in each county. In 1170, after an 'Inquisition of the Realm', which was the medieval equivalent of a modern Royal Commission, all the Sheriffs were sacked and many of them heavily fined for malpractice. However, it became obvious that even this drastic action was nothing but a temporary check on their rapacity.

In the fifth year after ascending the throne, Richard Coeur de Lion was desperately short of money. Contrary to popular belief, he was one of the worst rulers that England ever saw. The stories of Robin Hood featuring "great, good King Richard" are far from the truth. Richard spent less than four months of his reign in England and never even bothered to learn English. He couldn't speak a word. He regarded England as a rather tiresome adjunct to his continental domains of Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine. Richard's only interest in these islands was as a source of money to help finance his obsession with warfare. Two years after becoming King, he set off from France on the Third Crusade with a huge army and support fleet purchased by the imposition of crushing taxes. These were supplemented by extortions and corrupt practices, including the sale of titles and Offices of State to individuals and the selling of charters to towns. He is reputed to have said that he would have sold London itself, if he could have found a rich enough buyer!

On the way back from the Crusade, at the end of 1192, Richard was shipwrecked in the Adriatic and he decided to make his way back overland to Normandy. He travelled disguised as a peasant, to avoid the attentions of Leopold of Austria and Henry of Germany , with whom he had quarrelled violently in the Holy Land. Unfortunately, spies discovered him and, when he was sitting in a tavern in the village of Eedberg (near Vienna), the Mayor of Vienna burst in and captured him. Richard was imprisoned in a castle some miles up the Danube, at the stronghold of the Kuenringers: the Robber Barons of the Wachau. This was at Durnstein, a dramatic fortress on a hill high above the village. One of the hotels there today is called the "Richard Lowenherz" and the other is the ''Sensor Blondel," which is also the name of one of the local wines. This latter name, of course, commemorates the well-known, and probably apocryphal, tale of Richard's troubadour, Blondel de Neale, who wandered about Europe singing Richard's favourite ballads outside every castle. He did this until he had a response from inside. The story tells how, by Richard singing the second verse, he was able to discover where his King was hidden. He would have had quite a job at Durnstein, as Richard was caged, not in the castle itself, but in a small chicken-coop-like cell amongst the boulders, a few hundred yards beyond.

The King was imprisoned for over a year in this castle, until his faithful minister, Hubert Walter, came to the Continent to arrange a ransom; and it is here that we begin to pick up the story of the English Coroner. The sum demanded for Richard was enormous: 150,000 marks, which today would represent several million pounds. Though it was never paid in full, the already drained resources of England were strained again to try to raise this money. In fact, it is from this very time that we can trace the first taxation on movable property in England, a precedent that has stayed with us for 800 years.

Richard returned to England in March 1194, but stayed only a few weeks before going back to his lands in France, never again to return. The kingdom was ruled in his absence by Hubert Walter, now elevated to Chief Justiciar and Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a sort of every-minister rolled into one. He ran the country totally. He was faced with a massive financial problem and amongst Hubert's many schemes to extort more money was the one which now concerns us - the revival of the office of Coroner. It is hard to assess how much this was an urgent administrative problem and a reform due to the Sheriffs' stranglehold on the peasantry, and how much was just sheer fiscal opportunism for the Royal purse; but maybe the Justiciar killed two birds with one stone.

When we look into the birth of the Coroner system, we have also to look at the Sheriff. The word "sheriff" is derived from "shire-reeve," the King's law officer responsible for each shire or county. Counties were sub-divided into "Hundreds", or "Cantrefs" in Wales in later days. These were administered by the Sergeants and Bailiffs, similar officers controlling the borough towns. The Sheriff sat on the top of this pile and had an evil reputation for extortion and embezzlement. This was usually at the King's expense, as the Sheriff was in a position to manipulate the legal system to his own advantage. Archbishop Walter was well aware of this and resolved to set up a new network of law officers who would be independent of the Sheriffs and who could act as a check upon their rapacity. More of the population's money would therefore filter through to King Richard's empty coffers instead of the Sheriffs' own pockets. Much of the present-day English legal structure was born in the last decade of the 12th century. For it was Hubert Walter who also established the Justices of the Peace, in 1195. Ironically, these men were to become the major reason for the decline of the Coroner in the later centuries.

Now the actual formation of the office of Coroner is based on an extremely skimpy base. The edict that formally established the Coroners was Article 20 of the "Articles of Eyre" in September 1194. The "General Eyre" was the periodic visitation of the King's itinerant Judges, who travelled slowly around the country dispensing what passed for justice in those days. It was the forerunner of the "Assizes", derived from the Norman-French for "sittings" which, in turn, of course, gave way to the present Crown Courts in more recent times. The Eyre of September 1194 was held in the County of Kent , and Article 20 baldly stated that:


And that is the only statutory basis for the Coroner. Each county had three Coroners and a poor man who had to walk behind their horses, carrying the "Coroners' Rolls" and pen and ink: a Medieval Coroner's Officer, you might call him; though even this minor office was abolished in later years to provide for another Coroner. Now the above words are the only official authority for the long-lived system and, looking at the remit of the new Coroners, they were ordered only to "keep the pleas of the Crown" . This meant recording the pleas on parchments known as the "Coroners' Rolls," many of which survive today in the Public Record Office. "Keeping the pleas" was quite different to "holding the pleas" which meant actually trying the cases and passing sentence. This could only be done for lesser offences at the County Courts by the Sheriffs, otherwise the cases had to be committed to the next General Eyre when it trundled along in the fullness of time - which might be years ahead. In fact both Coroners and Sheriffs did, in the early years, hold pleas of the Crown, acting as Judges in an ultra vires fashion. Consequently, one of the demands of Magna Carta, some twenty years later, expressly forbade this practice. Chapter 24 of Magna Carta states: "No sheriff, constable, coroner or bailiff shall hold pleas of our Crown" .

The keeping of the pleas of the Crown was the source of the title, the original Latin was "custos placitorum coronas" from which the word "coroner" is derived. He was referred to for hundreds of years as "the Crowner" - as in Shakespeare's Hamlet, where derisively it is said "But is this law? Ay, marry, is't crowner's quest law!"

As mentioned, the appointment of the Article of Eyre declared that three Coroners and one clerk should be appointed in every county. The clerk was soon dropped and a fourth Coroner appointed, or elected. In 1200, six years later, Royal Charters created additional Coroners in the Boroughs and, where a Lordship replaced the King as the local law-giver (like the Welsh marches), the "franchise" Coroner also appeared. Coroners originally had to be Knights and men of substance. This was in accord with Chancellor Walter's new philosophy: the participation of the middle-class Knights in the administration of the country. Their appointment depended on a certain property level and they had to possess an income of at least £20 a year, which was a large sum in those days. One was actually dismissed from office because he did not come up to this wealth threshold. Coroners were unpaid and it was a serious offence for any of them to receive a reward for their duties - which again was enforced on a number of occasions. Hubert Walter's had sound reasons for appointing only well-to-do gentlemen to the office. He wished to reduce any temptation for them to follow the Sheriffs' habit of embezzlement: the assumption being that they were in no need of further wealth - a bit optimistic perhaps, but that was the idea. As time went on, the qualification of a Knight vanished, though the Statutes of Edward I and Edward II required them "... to be knights or of the most meet and lawful men of the county" . Their dishonesty and greed became more apparent, though they never acquired the same reputation for venality held by the Sheriffs. Coroners were elected to office but the voters were a select few: the Freemen of the county, meeting for the purpose in the County Court. In the boroughs, they were appointed by the Burgesses and in the franchise coronerships, naturally the Lord held them in his gift.

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.

Unlike the Continent, where medico-legal autopsies were held in Bologna as early as the 13th Century, the English Coroner had no help from doctors until relatively recent times. It was not until 1836 that he was allowed to pay a medical witness a fee. Before this, the Coroner had to do the best he could by himself: looking at the body to detect any sign of violence and to determine the number and type of wounds present. Once the Coroner had viewed the body, he then held the inquest, just as he does today in certain classes of death. In medieval times, this may have been done on the spot, with the body present before him, or it may have been adjourned for a few days. Originally the inquest was a massive affair, as the jury had to consist of all the males over twelve years from the four nearest townships, together with additional men from the Hundred. It would, no doubt, have caused a bit of a problem in the Fulham Road (London) or other highly populous areas! The inquest must have disrupted life for a whole day over a wide area, as all the working men and tradespeople had to down tools and come put in an appearance. Originally the law insisted that the whole male population attend, but the Provisions of Westminister of 1259 decreed that only "sufficient" people need be present. This was contradicted by the Statute of Marlborough, eight years later, which again required that all males over twelve must attend. At a later date, towns were allowed to send representatives only: usually twelve or twenty-four men.

The medieval jury was, of course, quite different from that which we know today. Nowadays it is essential that the jurors have no previous knowledge of the case. By contrast, in medieval times, they were potential witnesses as well as a jury. This was why the total population of the surrounding four towns were enrolled, as well as some of the country folk: so there was a good chance that someone had useful information. The men of the different townships often returned different verdicts, and the Hundred men also had a free say. The Coroner does not seem to have been too bothered about conflicting verdicts - his main concern was to write it all down for "presentment" at the next Eyre.

Due to the difficulties of gathering everyone together, inquests were soon abandoned at the locus of death and were instead held at a pre-arranged venue, usually the village square, the marketplace or the courthouse. The body still had to be presented before the assembly, unless arrangements had been made for all the jurors to inspect it beforehand. In an inquest held in 1961 in South Wales the skeleton of a woman murdered forty years earlier was still laid on a table in the well of the court, so the practice by no means died out in the Middle Ages - at least, not in Wales.

Presentment of Englishry and the Murdrum Fine

One of the first jobs to be settled at the inquest was the identity of the deceased and this raised the extraordinary business of "Presentment of Englishry" (or, in Wales and Ireland, "Presentment of Welshry" and "Irishry" respectively). This was a most important matter in the 12th, the 13th and early 14th centuries, until it was officially abolished in 1340, by which time it had really become a cynical device for extorting even more money from the community where the death had occurred.

In the years immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066, there is little doubt that the resentful Saxons took many opportunities of exacting revenge on any stray Normans that they came across on a dark night. In a similar fashion to the Nazi reprisals in occupied Europe during the last war, it was the whole community which suffered when an assassination was discovered. Furthermore, the Norman conquerors insisted that any man found killed was assumed to be of their race, unless the locals could prove he was a Saxon. Thus the onus of proof was on the community to establish he was not Norman and escape the ensuing penalties. Indeed, it seems likely that this "lex murdrorum," the law of murder, was introduced long before by the previous Danish conquerors. A large "murdrum" fine was levied on the township or the Hundred in which the body was found. This was another good reason for the villagers not wanting a suspect corpse left on their land and why they often buried it or dragged it into a neighbouring district. The only other way in which they could avoid the swinging murdrum fine - which is linguistically related to the word "murder" - was by making sure that someone could "present Englishry". The method of doing this varied from county to county, but usually two relatives had to attest to the identity. In Gloucestershire women could not offer presentment, and in some other places relatives from both mother's and father's side had to appear. In some areas presentment was not required for women or infants.

By 1194, well over a century had gone by since the Battle of Hastings and distinctions between Norman and English were already becoming blurred. Increasingly during the succeeding century the significance of Englishry became meaningless. Yet it was not until almost three hundred years after the Conquest that this anachronistic process was finally abandoned and, of course, the reason for its survival was purely financial. The murdrum fine gave a substantial boost to the Treasury and the surviving Coroners' Rolls are full of the records of the imposition of this fine, which could be a harsh penalty for a poor community. Fines of forty-six marks, a really large sum of money in those days, were typical of the murdrum fine. And not only deaths from foul play attracted a fine. By the beginning of the 13th enturyc the murdrurn was being imposed for sudden and unexpected death, even from an accident or natural cause. This was deeply resented by the common people, especially when large numbers of deaths occurred.

A crisis developed in the severe winter of 1257-58, when a great famine struck England. Between fifteen and twenty thousand people died in London alone and the eastern counties were particularly badly affected. Peasants flocked into towns hoping for food, but speculators bought up the corn sent by a relief fleet from the Continent. Deaths abounded throughout the countryside and large numbers died along the edges of the roads. Because of this catastrophe, special permission was granted for the men of the neighbourhood to view the bodies in place of the Coroners and to see to their burial without inquest. But all the deaths still had to be reported to the Coroner and the murdrum fine was imposed on a large proportion of these cases. This brought a revolt against the tax - the Barons complained that it had become impossible to prove Englishry in these famine cases where whole districts were being amerced before the Justices. The following year the law was relaxed slightly, making the murdrum fine payable only in cases of felonious killing. This was confirmed, ten years later, by the Statute of Marlborough under the general pacification policies of Henry III . Even though it was legally abolished in 1340, the murdrum fine was still being applied as late as 1362 in Suffolk. Presumably, the officials there did not want to let this lucrative penalty cease!

The Deodand

Another peculiarity of the medieval inquest was the well-known "deodand". This was the object which caused the death, the forfeit of which had an ancient pedigree going back to pre-Christian times. The theory was that its sin in being the instrument of death could be expurgated by dedicating it to the Church, hence its name "Deo damdum" or "giving to God". By Norman times, it was more conveniently thought of as another contribution to the Royal purse. The Coroner's jury had to make a valuation of the deodand and the Coroner would then commit it to the care of the Constable until the Eyre, when the Judges would decide if it was forfeit to the Crown. However, sometimes it was granted to the family of the victim, as compensation for their loss. If it happened to be the tool of a poor man, essential for his livelihood, such as an axe or a hoe, he might be allowed to keep it, but it still had to be produced at the Eyre.

All kinds of things could be declared "deodand", including dogs, horses, trees, boats - literally anything. If a horse and cart ran over a man, the whole lot might be confiscated. A mill-wheel that had drowned a child or a tree from which the child had fallen could also be a deodand. One such mill-wheel in Buckinghamshire could not be detached without stopping the mill, but the Coroner made the lord of the mill find friends to stand surety for him to appear at the Eyre and declare its value. Very often the deodand was perversely valued by the jury at only a few pence, a fraction of its true worth. Naturally, some Coroners complained bitterly about this, ase it was obviously a device to save their friends' money. The deodand survived into the 19th century, when steam locomotives and even a steamship were declared forfeit, their value running into thousands of pounds. The practice was finally abolished in 1846.

Another fascinating aspect of the early Coroner system was "sanctuary". Criminals - or even merely suspects, who rightly had a cynical view of justice - often sought sanctuary after a crime had been committed. They were joined in this by many gaol-breakers as escape from custody was a very common practice in those days. Gaols were primitive affairs and unless situated within a castle, were usually ordinary buildings used on an ad hoc basis. The local community had to act as gaolers and their main incentive to be good ones was a heavy fine if they let the prisoners escape. Yet the costs in loss of working time and in feeding the prisoners were balanced by the feeling that these fines were an inevitable form of taxation. So their alertness was often minimal. The fugitive would usually make for the nearest church to claim sanctuary, knowing that the law declared him safe there, free from interference for forty days. This would give him breathing space to decide on his next move. He had a number of alternatives, two of which involved the Coroner. Firstly, he had a good chance of escaping again. The local folk were burdened with guarding and feeding him, so quite often they would turn a blind eye and let him slip away. Even though they knew the Coroner would put them up before the Judges for a stiff fine at the next Eyre. Secondly, he could surrender to the Coroner or Sheriff, but that almost certainly meant dangling at the end of a rope. Thirdly, he could decide to "abjure the realm", meaning he could avoid trial and execution by leaving the country under a set routine prescribed by the Coroner. The Coroner was responsible for arranging these "abjurations of the realm" for fugitives in sanctuary. He had to take their confessions without which they were not allowed to leave. He seized all their land and chattels, if they had any, and recorded all the details for presentation at the next Eyre.

There was a formal pattern to the whole procedure of sanctuary, almost like a religious rite, from which it had indeed descended. Of very ancient origin, the concept of sanctuary began with feelings of compassion for the hunted, aroused by early religious and ethical codes. The Hebrews had six Levitical cities of refuge, and in Greek and Roman times there were sanctuaries that ante-dated the Christian ethic of compassion. The Saxon Kings, especially Aethelbert, had strong views on the inviolacy of sanctuary and the Normans accepted and extended the Saxon scale of fines for the violation of churches to seize sanctuary-seekers. 12th century law states that anyone laying violent hands on a fugitive in a cathedral or abbey was subject to a fine of a hundred shillings, but a parish church merited only twenty shillings and a chapel a mere ten.

The criminal, suspect or gaol-breaker only had to reach a church, or even a religious building such as an Abbot's House, to claim sanctuary for forty days. It was not always necessary to enter the actual building, the churchyard was usually sufficient. In some places, a wide area around the church was equally safe, the boundaries being marked by special "sanctuary posts". For instance, around the Abbeys of Hexham and Beverley , crosses were erected at a distance of one mile to indicate the area of sanctuary. Other special devices were sometimes used, but were not strictly necessary: well-known examples being the "sanctuary knockers," like that on the great door of Durham Cathedral, onto which the accused could hold and "frith stools," like that in Hexham Abbey, on which the fugitive could sit. In Durham the fugitive had to wear a long black robe with a Cross of St. Cuthbert embroidered on the left shoulder. A toll bell formally declared his claim to sanctuary.

The fugitive had to come unarmed and was not have committed any sacrilege. For example, a thief in Buckinghamshire was chased to a church, where he stole the vestry keys to try to escape. For this sacrilege, he was legitimately hauled out of the church and beheaded in the roadway outside, the Coroner arriving in time to hold an inquest on his body. Incidentally, it was also the Coroner's duty to see the severed head was taken back to the county gaol! The Coroner's duties have changed a bit in recent years. Some felons, such as habitual robbers and night thieves, were denied sanctuary at certain places. Otherwise all manner of fugitives could claim this inviolate right to stay unharmed for forty days, the locals having to feed them at their own expense and see that they did not escape. Though, as with gaol, it was often cheaper to let them run away. The felon did not have to leave the sanctuary until his forty days were up, even where he had confessed to the Coroner in the interim. However, if he refused to leave at the end of that time, he was as good as dead. Although, in theory, he could not be dragged out, it became a very serious offence to aid him in any way. Indeed, it meant a hanging for any layman who even communicated with him after the forty days were up, though a priest was only banished for this offence. When he finally emerged (unless he died inside from hunger and thirst), he would be immediately seized and executed on the spot.

Abjuration of the Realm

In most cases the fugitive confessed to the Coroner, then he "abjured the realm". The confession was usually taken by the Coroner at the gate or stile of the churchyard, or in the chancel, and it had to refer to a felony, not a lesser offence. In 1241, a Berkshire Coroner was himself hauled before the Justices in Eyre for allowing a man to "abjure the realm" for a petty larceny of corn worth only sixpence. The minimum amount for a felony was the theft of a shilling.

After confessing his crime to the Coroner on his knees in the presence of a jury, the sanctuary-seeker had to take the oath of abjuration, swearing on the Gospels that:

"I swear on the Holy Book that I will leave the realm of England and never return without the express permission of my Lord the King or his heirs. I will hasten by the direct road to the port allotted to me and not leave the King's highway under pain of arrest or execution. I will not stay at one place more than one night and will seek diligently for a passage across the sea as soon as I arrive, delaying only one tide if possible. If I cannot secure such passage, I will walk into the sea up to my knees every day as a token of my desire to cross. And if I fail in all this, then peril shall be my lot".

After taking this oath, the Coroner had to arrange for his departure. The most important matter was the choice of a port of embarkation. Many Coroners appeared perverse in the extreme, choosing ports that were as far as possible from the place of sanctuary. For example, many Yorkshire Coroners made their felons walk all the way to Dover , sometimes giving them an impossibly short time to get there. A Kent Coroner, in 1313, was censured by the Eyre for sending a felon to Portsmouth , when Dover was just down the road, though most similar acts by Coroners went unchallenged. Many different ports were used. Dover was the most frequent, as it was the shortest crossing to France, but many others, from Berwick to Yarmouth, from Rochester to Ilfracombe , were also employed.

Of course the law stated that felons must abjure the realm of England, so many went to Scotland, Ireland and even Wales, until the latter country was conquered by the English in 1282. There was a large flow of regular abjurors across the border into Scotland . Some Scots cattle raiders used sanctuary as a regular routine to avoid a hanging. They would come across the border, steal the cattle, abjure and then go home - and it was all legal!

The Coroner had to give formal instructions to the abjuror before he set off, in terms such as:

"You will cast off your own clothing, which will be conficated and sold. You will wear only an ungirdled garment of crude sackcloth and you will walk bareheaded, carrying a wooden cross before you, made with your own hands from wood in the churchyard. You will tell passers-by what you are and you must take care not to stray from the highway nor stay in one place more than one night. If you fail, people are justly entitled to treat you as the wolf and behead you. And if you ever set foot in England again, you will be outlaw and your head forfeit to any man who can lift a sword".

In some areas, a long white robe had to be worn instead of a sackcloth to mark the felon out to the public. The Coroner was also obliged to give a public warning to the local people, ordering them not to interfere with the abjuror en route, but this was often disregarded as soon as he went around the first bend in the road. Many were murdered before they got very far, usually by a vengeful relative who lay in wait along the roadside. Even if the fugitive dared use the footpath alongside the highway he was considered "as the wolf's head," as the expression went, and was fair game for decapitation or any other form of slaying. In the Bishopric of Durham there was a system whereby he was handed on from Constable to Constable along the route, but elsewhere the abjuror was at the mercy of the local people.

Probably only a small proportion ever reached their nominated port of departure. A large number simply disappeared and became outlaws. This was preferable to surrendering and meeting an almost certain death on the gallows. For the few who did get to the port, they had to go through the ritual of seeking a ship and wading in and out with the tide each day until a passage was possible. If they could not leave within forty days due to bad weather, then, in theory, they could seek new sanctuary in a local church and start the business all over again. However, there is no record of this ever happening. The majority just threw away their wooden crosses on a lonely stretch of road and melted away into the woods to take up a new identity or join the many bands of outlaws that plagued the country - and I suspect that half of Robin Hood's band were probably failed abjurors. The exile was theoretically for life but, in fact, many of them did come back.

The Coroner and his jury had to value the abjurer's goods and decide whether they were forfeit to the Crown. The Coroner also held inquests into escapers from sanctuary. Henry VIII introduced the branding of the letter 'A' on to the thumb of all abjurors and then stopped exile abroad, making them go, on pain of death if they emerged, to designated sanctuaries in England for the rest of their life. This was abandoned in 1603 and the whole process of sanctuary was abolished by James I in 1623. Recent attempts by illegal immigrants to avoid deportation by living in a church are therefore wholly without any legal validity.

By Fire & Water

For the first decades of his renewed existence, the medieval Coroner had to be present at some curious and barbaric rites connected with the law. These were the various "ordeals," a semi-magical method of determining guilt or innocence which goes right back to pre-historic times through many cultures prior to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. For example, guilt could be tested by the ordeal of fire, where the suspect had to carry a bar of red-hot iron in his hands while he walked nine marked paces. In the unlikely event of no burns appearing on his hand, he was judged innocent. Otherwise, he was promptly hanged. A variation was licking red-hot iron with the tongue or, sometimes, the suspect had to run barefoot over nine red-hot ploughshares. Then there was, of course, the ordeal of water, where the accused was thrown into water and if they sank, they were declared innocent, but if they floated, they were guilty and taken out and hanged - a sort of no-win situation! The Coroner was always present to record these happenings, again with an eye on the forfeiture of the felon's goods. In 1215, though, the practices were forbidden by an Edict of the Lateran Council.

The Bier

A less excruciating but, eventually, equally fatal ordeal was that of the bier. It was an ancient belief that the slain dead could indicate their killer. There were various ways of testing this, but, in England, it was usual for the accused to be made to approach the bier on which the corpse lay. In view of witnesses, including the Coroner, who stood there with his pen and Rolls, the wounds of the victim were observed to see if they began to bleed again. Of course, this is well recorded by Shakespeare in " Richard III ":

"O gentlemen see, see! Dead Henry's wounds
Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh!"

And it was the Coroner's job was to record all these events.

By Combat

Ordeal by combat and battle was also witnessed and recorded by the Coroner. Here the aggrieved party claimed the right to fight the alleged offender - or to pay a champion to fight for him. This usually arose through an "appeal" which, in those days, meant a private prosecution organised by the Coroner. Though this died out effectively in the 13th Century, it was forgotten rather than legislated against and, as late as 1818, it was found not to be illegal for a man, charged with murder, to claim the right of combat with his accuser. This case then led to its formal abolition in the early 19th Century.

The Coroner as Police Surgeon

Some of the functions of the Coroner fell into abeyance in the 13th Century, but in some areas they survived for a long time. In rape, for example, the woman ravished had to raise the hue-and-cry and wherever possible produce some evidence of the rape, such as bloodstained or torn clothing or a flow of blood from her body. These had to be shown to the men of the neighbouring townships, to the Bailiff of the Hundred and to the Coroner himself, who acted (almost like a modern police surgeon) as a corroborator of the ravishment. In Lincolnshire in 1202, for instance, the Coroner visited the victim of an alleged rape two days after the event and wrote in his Rolls that "she was bloodstained and disgracefully treated...".

The Coroner's para-medical functions were also displayed in cases of non-fatal wounding, where he had to view the injuries, count the wounds, measure their length and breadth and record on his Rolls exactly where on the body they were situated. In cases of wounding, the mere presence of blood was not enough to satisfy the coroner, as it could be too easily fabricated - he would have to testify to actual breaches of the skin. The person accused of a non-fatal wounding was not arrested or imprisoned before trial. He had to find four people to stand surety for him and put up "bail money". The Coroner carefully recorded all this and if the miscreant vanished long before the trial, he ensured the forfeiture of the securities and often imprisonment of the four luckless bondsmen.

When a citizen brought an appeal of wounding, the Coroner had to decide what was to be done with the culprit. If the wound looked as if it might be fatal - a common result in those days of primitive therapeutics - then the suspect was kept in custody until it was clear as to whether the victim was going to survive or die. If he died, the prisoner was held until the Judges came, when hanging was the inevitable sequel, unless he could break gaol and get sanctuary. If the victim lived, then the Coroner would take securities to try to ensure the appearance of the culprit at trial.


Due to escapes and sanctuary, there was great difficulty in getting cases to trial in medieval England. The Coroner was involved in an elaborate process to try to enforce the appearance of parties at court - and, of course, in those days, much of his work was nothing to do with the present Coroner's obsession with dead bodies. A lot of the original Coroner's work was really administrative. When the time came at the County Court for the parties to surrender their bail, four calls of the accused's name were made, one at each consecutive hearing. If he did not appear at the fourth call, he was declared "outlawed", unless two men pledged themselves, with further financial bonds, to present him at the next (the fifth) County Court - which, unlike the General Eyre, was held quite often. If he failed to appear then, the two men lost their money and the man was outlawed, and as usual the Coroner had to be present at all such "declarations of outlawry" to record it on his Rolls.

In the Middle Ages to be outlawed was like being dead. The outlaw had no legal existence, being "outside the law". All men's hands were against him and he could be legally killed on sight by anyone who came across him. Outlaws were said to have "wolves' heads" which could be cut off by anyone. In Richard the Lionheart 's time, five shillings were paid for every such head, rather like the squirrel bonus of the present day.

By the 14th century, the Coroner had to hold inquests on slain outlaws and send the law officers responsible for the killing to the court, where they were automatically acquitted for justifiable homicide. Captured outlaws were hanged, after the Coroner had attended proceedings to prove, from his Rolls, that a promulgation of outlawry (called the "exigent") had formally been recorded at some prior date. Many outlaws were later pardoned, usually by having fought in the army or otherwise helped the King's service. They could also buy their pardons and all these had to be reinstated into the law by the Coroner. Many outlaws seem to have ignored the "exigent" and carried on their lives as before. Even Coroners were occasionally outlawed. Amazingly, in 1445, the Sheriff of Sussex was ordered to replace John Veske, who had continued in office as County Coroner despite, apparently, having long been outlawed

Approver's Appeal

One type of appeal, namely a private prosecution, has already been mentioned. The other was the "approver's appeal", which was the same as turning King's evidence, or Queen's evidence today. If a felon was able to implicate enough of his fellow criminals, so that they were convicted, he might escape a hanging and either be imprisoned for life or be allowed exile abroad. Very few of these appeals succeeded. The approver first had to confess his own guilt to the Coroner in the presence of a witness. When the case came to court, the approver had to plea for a Coroner to be assigned to him and the latter had to hear and record all the incriminating evidence against the man's confederates. Many others turned approver in prison after sentence. Almost all these appeals were merely ruses to delay execution, to give more time to escape or bribe the gaolers.

Treasure Trove

Of the other well-known activities of the Coroner, one, of course, includes "treasure trove". Centuries before the advent of banks and safe-deposits wealth could only be concealed on the person or in a clandestine hiding place, often in the sod itself. Such undiscovered valuables were of considerable fiscal importance as a source of Crown revenue. Adam Smith, writing in "The Wealth of Nations," in 1770, says that treasure trove was, in those times, "considered as no contemptible part of the revenue of the great sovereigns of Europe" . So no wonder the English King set his servants, the Coroners, to safeguard his rights in the matter of buried treasure. The so-called "Apocryphal Statute" of Edward I 's time, the "De Officio Coronatis" of 1275, contained an instruction to Coroners about treasure trove that was virtually repeated in the Coroners' Act of 1887. It states:

"A coroner shall continue as heretofore, to have jurisdiction to enquire of treasure that is found, who were the finders - and who is suspected thereof."

In fact, the Coroner's powers in treasure trove derive from the common law and any later Coroners' Acts merely comment upon his continuing powers to make investigations.

One of the first descriptions of the Coroner's duties were given in 1295 by the law writer Fleta, the nom de plume of an anonymous jurist writing from the notorious Fleet Prison in London . He wrote:

"The coroner and sheriff, gaining knowledge of the finding of treasure, ought diligently to enquire who were the finders and the nature and amount of treasure, whether any had been carried away and all particulars of those in possession and whether there had been any concealment by anyone. The coroner must then attach all those having any knowledge of the treasure and hold anyone carrying it off until the coming of the justices..."

Not all valuable finds, of course, were treasure trove. By later definition they must be gold or silver and in the form of coins, bullion or plate. This arose because no copper coins were minted in England until the 16th Century. Neither were precious stones designated as treasure trove, unless mounted in gold, as they were rare in Medieval England.

There were a few other odd jobs that fell to the Coroner, though, again, the legal historians are fond of arguing about them - when, where and even if they actually carried them out - and much of the uncertainty is due to the lack of written authority. Recorded cases scattered throughout the old Rolls do, however, confirm that Coroners certainly dealt with these problems at certain times and in certain places.

Wrecks of the Sea

The first of the little known odd responsibilities of some coroners was the investigation of "wrecks of the sea". Once more the overriding consideration was financial. A claim had to be made for the King before the local population got their hands on the loot. A ship's cargo and fittings were a rich prize for an impoverished coastal village. In later centuries, deliberate wrecking was almost a way of life for some of these remote hamlets. The Coroner's duty was to visit the scene of the wreck as soon as possible, to hold a full enquiry, "attach" any person making away with any part of the salvage and to value the remainder and secure its safe custody for the Crown. This must often have been virtually impossible to implement in the face of a cunning and persistent peasantry.

In the 13th century, we know that the Coroner had this duty in the counties of Devon , Cornwall and probably Northumberland. In other areas the Coroner did it when directed, on the issue of a Commission from the authorities. The reason for the decline of his interest in wrecks was mainly due to the granting, by the King, of the right of "wreccum maris" to the local manor lords, who made a lucrative business out of salvaging their shipwrecks. Also, after the 13th century, the investigation was often taken over by the Sheriff or the Hundred Bailiff or by a Special Commission appointed for the purpose. Later still, it was carried out by a special Exchequer official called the "Escheater". However, in the South-West of England, the Coroners seem to have retained their powers over wrecks for much longer, perhaps because, in those stormy and busy waters, there was more business. As an example, some early Devon Coroners were censured by the Justices because they had lost much money to the King by refusing to view wrecks or by causing them to be grossly under-valued. That the practice went on elsewhere is also shown by the records of a joint inquiry by the Lincolnshire Coroners of 1280 to determine whether a wrecked ship and its goods ought to belong to the King or the local landowner. Even later, in the reign of Edward II, another wreck inquest appears in the Rolls, being a regular incident, without any reference to a Special Commission. So it seemed to be a routine performance, in spite of the niggles of the modern historians, who deny it.

The Catching of Whale and Sturgeon

Parallel to "wrecks, of the sea" was an even more curious task for the "Crowner," especially in the western maritime counties. This was the investigation of certain catches of royal fish: the whale and the sturgeon. Any capture of a whale was considered to be for the benefit of the Crown and the Coroner had to attend the scene to make sure what the value of the catch might be, if not to actually appropriate the carcass itself. Small whales were not infrequently stranded on beaches and were prized for their flesh and blubber. One such inquest can be found in the Rolls for 1331 when, again, the Lincolnshire Coroners, who seem to have been a pretty active bunch, held an inquiry into the seizure of a baby whale washed up on the East Coast. The other royal fish, the sturgeon, was a favourite dish in medieval times. All catches were the property of the King, unless the rights had been granted to a local Lord and all catches should theoretically have been reported to the Coroner who would send the actual fish, or certainly the value of it, to the King.


Another inquiry that survived far longer was the interest of the Coroner in fires, especially in London. The right of the Coroner to hold inquests on wrecks and fish was specifically forbidden by the Coroners' Act of 1887, which by implication also prohibited the holding of inquests into non-fatal fires in England and Wales . Naturally, if someone perished in the flames, an inquiry into the death was held, but the conflagration itself had hitherto been investigated by the Coroner, with the usual financial interest in assessing the loss of property. For instance, in the five-year period up to 1845, Sergeant Payne, the Coroner for the City of London, held no less than seventy-one inquests into fires. This function was so useful during the great Victorian expansion of the capital city that, when the 1887 Act forbade the practice, the City of London saw fit to have special legislation passed the following year. The City of London Fires Act thus restored the power of their own Coroner to investigate fires within his jurisdiction.

Specials Writs and Commissions

The medieval Coroner also performed many other odd jobs within the administration of early English justice. If required to do so by Special Writ or Commission from Justices, the Sheriff or the King, the "Crowner" could become embroiled in any investigation. Amongst the innumerable examples in the old Rolls, we see that, in 1383, the Berkshire Coroner had to discover whether or not a suicide had been insane. In Lincolnshire, in 1252, he had to restore money found on hanged thieves to the rightful owners. In 1243, the Sussex Coroner had to enquire whether a burglary had been committed as alleged. Even political matters sometimes came their way, as when King John died. All the Sheriffs and Coroners of England were required to list what lands he had held. However, at the other end of the scale, a Coroner was once required to discover if a man had the right to leave a bull and a boar roaming free in a large village.

The list of activities for Coroners is almost endless for those first centuries and contrasts strongly with the those during the rapid decline of the office after the 15th century, until it was resuscitated in the 19th.

Late Medieval Decline of the Coroner

Because of the rise of the Justices of the Peace and the development of the Civil Service, the Coroner rapidly lost most of his powers. He also lost his status in the community: no longer being a man of Knightly elevation and substantial means. He became more corrupt at the same time as he became more effete. In the 14th century, the perambulating law court, the General Eyre, faded out in favour of the Assize system, taking with it much of the Coroner's reason for existence. The new courts and the Justices did not require his complicated system of Rolls to function.

In 1483, an Act was passed limiting the Coroner's involvement with the forefeiture of property and sanctuary, abjuration, appeals and outlawry progressively vanished. By the 16th century, almost all that he was left with was the investigation of sudden death and even that was done in a desultory manner, there being no real support from the legal system. It became more difficult to get men to take on the job of Coroner, as it was such an unrewarding appointment.

The later history of the Coroner is another story, but suffice it to say that the 12th to early 14th centuries were his heyday, in terms of his importance in the childhood years of English law. The Coroner has survived for almost eight hundred years since that September Article of Eyre in 1194 and, according to the Saxons , he had been around for a few centuries before that. With this thousand-year track record behind him, the oft-maligned "Crowner" seems likely to be with us for a long time to come and, in years to come, other people will surely repeat the history of the Medieval Coroner and up-date it to modem times. We have come a long way since the castle at Durnstein, but the Coroner is an extremely interesting office, lost in the mists of time. 1194 is really an interim date. He was there before that, but we know nothing about him. Even marking it from this date, in Richard the Lionheart 's reign, though, it still has a pretty good pedigree.

contributed by Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE