Bloody Sunday: It was a fine day for murder in medieval London

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Bloody Sunday: It was a fine day for murder in medieval London

New interactive map paints a bloody picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life

Sarah Knapton


Sunday is traditionally a day of rest, but for 14th century Londoners it could be deadly, according to academics.
Criminologists at Cambridge University trawled through the Coroner’s Rolls which document sudden and unnatural deaths between 1300 and 1340 to determine when the capital was at its most murderous.
They discovered the majority of killings occurred in London’s busy streets and markets, and one-third happened on a Sunday, including six in religious buildings and one by a jealous priest who caught his lover with another man.
Professor Manuel Eisner, who has created an interactive map of the murders, said: “Sunday was the day when people had time to engage in social activities, such as drinking and gaming, which would often trigger frictions that led to assault.
“The events described in the Coroners’ Rolls show weapons were never far away, male honour had to be protected, and conflicts easily got out of hand.
“They give us a detailed picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life.”
Among the more notable killings was that of Thomas of Lynn, who, irritated by the sound of a late-night musician, chased him up Cornhill with a wooden bar only to be stabbed to the death by the minstrel in self-defence.
Innkeeper Stephen of Lynn was murdered by a sore loser after winning at backgammon, while Roger Styward of Hamptone was beaten to death by irate shopkeepers after he threw pungent eel skins on the ground outside their premises.
Fishmonger William Mysone was stabbed to death by his mistress Isabella Heyron, while Thomas the Baker was pushed down the stairs by a disgruntled employee.
Although the map shows murders occurred across the city, two main homicide “hot spots” emerged. One was the stretch of Cheapside from St Mary-le-Bow Church to St Paul’s Cathedral.
The second was further east near streets radiating out from the Leadenhall market, the history of which can be traced to the 14th century.
About 77% of murders were committed between early evenings, “around the hour of vespers” between 4pm and 6pm, and the first hours after curfew at about 9pm.
Daggers and swords dominate the list of murder weapons, used in 68% of all cases, and thick “quarter-staff” poles designed for close combat accounted for 19% of cases.
Almost all (92%) perpetrators were men. In just four cases a woman was the only suspect.
Estimates for London populations in the 14th century range from 40,000 to 100,000, which suggests that murder rates were about 15 to 20 times higher than we would expect to see in a contemporary British town of equivalent size today.
And the records show that death by murder could be a slow process in the 14th century.
“Over 18% of victims survived at least a week after the initial trauma, probably dying eventually from infections or blood loss,” added Eisner.
One saddle maker who had his fingers cut off by a rival died of his wounds – and consequently became a murder victim – a full three weeks later.
The “murder map” of medieval London was made publicly available on Wednesday on the website of the Violence Research Centre at Cambridge University.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited

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