Material evidence in early modern courts

Following on from our discussion at this earlier post… well, I remembered an article from one of the Welsh local history journals, Montgomeryshire Collections, which as far as I know is not available online anywhere. (Not sure it has any kind of web presence at all.)

The article is by Murray Llewelyn Chapman, and describes the proceedings in a 16th-century felony trial. This was recorded, most unusually, because of a subsequent prosecution (of the jury) for perjury. The story: Two brothers, Robert and Thomas ap Morris ap David, of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa in Montgomeryshire, were tried for stealing sheep belonging to Morris ap John in 1571 (and acquitted).

Morris ap John gave evidence (in Welsh, translated for the English-speaking judge):

that the sheep in question had his mark but “he wold not take it upon his oth and concience that the same were his proper goods”…

The question of the ownership of the sheep was to be decided by the jury “upon viewe of the said iiie [three] sheep togeather with iiiior [four] other sheep of the said Morris ap John which were broughte to the same Sessions”. One of the prosecution witnesses, the wife of one Savage, viewed the sheep which were brought into the court and declared that the ewe was one of the lambs that her husband had sold to David, the brother of the two suspects…

Chapman adds in a footnote that

The bringing of livestock to be viewed by a trial jury was apparently a common feature of trials in the Courts of Great Sessions. In a letter from the Council in the Marches in Wales, dated 24 August 1575, to Thomas Revell JP of co. Pembroke he was ordered to bind Ieuan Ygo and Thomas Peter of co. Pembroke to appear at the next great sessions of co. Montgomery to answer for stealing a mare and to bring the mare in question to that session.

Murray Ll. Chapman, ‘A sixteenth-century trial for felony in the court of Great Sessions for Montgomeryshire’, Montgomeryshire Collections, 78 (1990), pp.167-70. (From NLW Wales 4/127/3)

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13 Responses to Material evidence in early modern courts

  1. Chris Williams says:

    The obligatory Thurber cartoon here is at the bottom here:

  2. It’s something of a tangent from the original topic, but I’m planning to write about 17th and 18th-century expert testimony sometime today or tomorrow. Watch this space.

  3. Sharon says:

    Heh. Mind you, I think I might have to go read the file just to confirm that it explicitly says that the sheep were brought into the courtroom (after all, the jury might have been taken outside to view them). I’m having some difficulty staying serious at the mental image of these sheep in the courtroom (which was probably not very big) especially given that Welsh hill sheep tend to be a) smelly and filthy and b) surprisingly stroppy…

  4. Sharon says:

    Sorry Jonathan, your comment got shoved into moderation for some reason and I only just caught it (my last comment was directed at Chris’s first one).

    But I’m looking forward to your post anyway.

  5. All right, here it is. It’s not really possible to discuss physical evidence and investigative techniques without discussing expert forensic presentation.

  6. BTW, how did the jury end up getting charged with perjury? For giving a false verdict contrary to their oaths?

  7. Sharon says:

    The judge thought so and reported them to the Council in the Marches of Wales. The charges against them there stated that they had acquitted the defendants out of partiality, affection and favour (etc) contrary to the evidence given “whereby they and every of them have committed willfull perjurie”. The final judgement of the Council is unknown; if it went against them they would have faced substantial fines. (Even without that, they had all the expenses and trouble of hiring an attorney and travelling to Shropshire twice to appear before the Council.)

  8. I wonder if the judge did this on his own initiative, or if Morris ap John was a locally influential person.

    Also, do you know offhand when petit juries ceased to be liable for erroneous verdicts? I seem to remember a decision of Lord Coke’s from sometime in the 17th century, but for the life of me I can’t remember which it was.

  9. Never mind, I answered my own question. It wasn’t Coke, it was the 1670 trial of William Penn, at which the jury was imprisoned for delivering a false acquittal but subsequently released on habeas corpus. (See pages 14-22).

  10. Sharon says:

    And the judge who decided the appeal, and whose judgment established the principle of jury independence, was Sir John Vaughan of Trawscoed, not very far from Aberystwyth. I have a speculative theory that his reasoning in the case might have been influenced by his Welsh background. He argued, basically, that juries could have knowledge of facts not available to the judge. English historians usually read that as an anachronistic reference to the long gone medieval local self-informing jury. But I wonder if he had more in mind the situation in Wales where nearly all of the circuit judges were reliant on interpreters for any testimony in Welsh while jurors were likely to be Welsh speakers.

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