By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)
In 1305, William Wallace was hanged, drawn, and beheaded. Notes from the court state that ‘his heart, liver, lungs and all his entrails be cast into the fire and burned’ and ‘his body be cut into four parts.’ His head was to be placed on London Bridge, with each ‘quarter’ of Wallace hung at Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick, Stirling, and the town of St. John ‘for the terror and punishment of all who pass by’.
Crimes against the monarch or realm have often been treated harshly under English common law. Owing to Wallace’s role in the Scottish wars perhaps this severe punishment was to be expected. Legal historian, Sir John Baker, suggested that absence of legislation on treason was a risk to liberty and justice. A tyrannical ruler could choose to inflict the greatest punishment for the slightest offence. This is the likely reason why in 1351 the Commons and the Lords petitioned King Edward III to outline treason, resulting in it being the first major offence to be defined by statute.
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
Recently, while on the hunt for signs of the reception and expression of legal ideas and practice in late medieval and early modern writing, I had cause to dip into some of the commonplace books surviving from the period. A ‘commonplace book’ has been generally classed by historians as an idiosyncratic, miscellaneous compilation of transcribed and original materials, usually in manuscript form. Surviving examples of these books were produced by urban merchants, country gentlemen, monks and village priests, amongst other now-anonymous scribes. Though their contents vary from professionally-copied poetry and literary works to scribbled accounts, family histories, and household recipes, I was struck by a particularly niche common theme: arboriculture.
By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith
The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year. Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century. Read more
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. 
This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem. It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more
by Catherine Katz
Catherine Katz is an MPhil in Modern European History student at the University of Cambridge.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, historian...