Disputing neighbours

Last week, Rebecca of (a)musings of a grad student spotted this story of a feud between neighbouring cattle farmers that ended in tragedy.

As Rebecca notes, you don’t need to spend much time in early modern court records to come across disputes over straying livestock. Then too, they could lead to violent encounters. There’s much that’s familiar to me about the terrible story reported in the newspaper. The difference is that in early modern cases, you never get the detailed story of the years of feuding or the origins of disputes that lie behind those occasional court appearances. You get fragments. Sometimes you can guess a little from repeated mentions in archives, especially if you have access to (and the time to delve into) a range of records from different courts. You might find a string of prosecutions for petty misdemeanours: assault, barratry and scolding and other disturbances of the peace. They may be prosecutions by formal indictment, jury presentment, recognizance (Glossary of legal terms), or they might involve extra-curial arbitration (which is even more rarely recorded).

But often you may just have one (sometimes shocking) incident: in 1670, David ap Richard, a yeoman of Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog in Denbighshire, told a JP that

upon ye sixt day of May last he went before sunne rising to some pasture that he had taken to see some cattle of his that grased theare; being come theare he found a horse of one John Robert with his [David’s] cattle which he seized upon with an intent to putt [the horse] in ye pinfold, & brought [the horse] to his owne house while he was goeing unto ye constable for ye key thereof; but as he was bringing of ye key from ye constables towards his owne house ye sayd John Robert runneth to meete him threatneth to kill him for stealing his horse, whereupon this examinant came away from him through a river towards his house cryed out for feare of him; when he came neare his house ye said John turned back through the said river & when this examinant was afterwards goeing with ye horse to ye pinfold ye said John stood in ye way that he was to passe & from ye toppe of a banck that was in ye way hee struck this examinant with a clubbe over both hands to ye effusion of his bloud whereupon this examinant held upp a black bill that he had in his hands to defend himselfe but knoweth not how ye sayd John came by his wound.

John Robert died, and David was convicted of manslaughter.

Accounts of non-lethal violence, meanwhile, can cause considerable difficulties of interpretation. The victim of an assault will nearly always present him/herself as an entirely innocent party, the attacker as out of control, extremely dangerous, with no respect for law and order, and so on. Sometimes this might be true. But sometimes you have accounts from both sides, disputing parties both claiming to be innocent victims of lawless, violent attackers, etc.

Anne Lancelot of the parish of Holt complained about members of the Richardson family at Denbighshire Quarter Sessions in 1685:

That the said John Richardson being bound to the behavior about three weekes agoe fell upon one Robert Rice and William Hughes in the kings highway and rescued the cattle that they had before them which they had found tresspasseing in the said Lancelott ground which they then did drive towards the pinfold & [John Richardson] with a blacke bill that hee had then in his hand handled the same and rescued the cattle and the said William Hughes beleives if hee had withstood him hee would then have don them mischeif and in regard they were afraid hee would then have done them harme with his blacke bill they lett him take the cattle

That the said John Richardson being soe bound to his behavior togeather with John Richardson his sonne being bound to the peace did att another time make another rescue of his said cattle which were found trespasseing in the said Lancelot ground in theire way of driveing them to the pinfold

But John Richardson had a different account of events. He said that he and Ann Lancelott had for some months been co-tenants of the field where she claimed his cattle had been ‘trespassing’ and that she

did out of meere malice & against all law unpound your peticoner John Richardson thelders cattle then pastureing upon the same feild… and your peticoner being informed his said cattle were unpounded, & haveing obteyned the same out of pinfould sent his son John & his said servant with the same cattle into the said feild, where the said Ann Lancelott Urian Weaver William Hughes William Rees with the said Ann Lancelotts servant maide were with staves & pikells & did then & there in a hostile manner withstand & hinder your peticioners said son & servant to turne the said cattle into the said pasture, and William Hughes one of the said widdow Lancelotts servants with a staffe of two yards long did strike your peticioners servant upon the hand & the said widdow Lancelott said ‘Knock him downe’; of which affray word being brought to your peticoner John Richardson thelder he together with the said Roger Richardson & his said daughter repared there and then; the said Richardson thelder being constable in the kings name demanded the peace & that he might turne his cattle into their pasture which the said other persons refused, soe that the said John Richardson thelder was constrayned to breake downe another gapp upon his owne hey to turne in his cattle; and then the said Weaver said to the said Lancelott ‘Wee will bind them all to the peace & then wee may doe wt wee will with them’, and afterwards bound your peticoner to the peace in 4 severall recognizances out of meere malice & without any cause to them given…

There is no simple test of who is most (or least) likely to be telling the truth. These are people of similar social status, moving in the same circles. Comparing their competing accounts carefully is quite revealing though: it can be suggested that they are not really that contradictory. Each party is careful to selectively edit mentions of their own actions, giving a very bare account, whilst detailing (and possibly exaggerating) that of the ‘enemy’, using certain kinds of rhetoric to put their actions and motives in the worst possible light. I suspect that neither side is ‘innocent’ here. (At the same time, I don’t think that they’re simply cynical; the mutual hostility and sense of being wronged are, I think, real enough.)

There are other documents in the files that give glimpses of some kind of ongoing disputes between the Richardsons against Urian Weaver and Ann Lancelott. The Richardsons had previously been bound over to keep the peace towards Lancelott. In 1685, there were complaints against Lancelott from two of her servants, allegations that she had abused them and dismissed them without cause after they caught her and Weaver committing adultery. In return, she prosecuted them, one for theft and both for assault. The charges were all thrown out by the court. The recognizance for one of the two servants’ appearance in court survives: one of his ‘sureties’ (guarantors) was another Richardson; surely not a coincidence. And forty years later a Margaret Weaver of Holt parish named the father of her bastard child as one Roger Richardson.

Livestock, in a variety of ways, were often in the middle of early modern quarrels between neighbours. This is not so surprising, especially in a region, like Wales, that was so dependent on livestock husbandry. But it’s likely that the isolated incidents like these that we find in court records were often just one small part of much more serious and ongoing disputes. I suspect that was true of the first case above, which ended in the death of John Robert, too. But I will probably never know.

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