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In which Crowner John holds an inquest
As Sigford lacked a church or even a tithe barn, the coroner's inquest had to be held in the open air on what passed for the village green. Where the Bagtor lane came down from the moor to join the main track, a triangle of beaten grass lay between the alehouse and the smithy. Here the villagers gathered to eat, dance and get drunk on saints' days and the occasional chapman or pedlar set out his ribbons, threads and trinkets for the women to paw over.
This Tuesday noontide, however, saw a unique gathering on the dusty greensward. For the first time in history, a coroner's inquest was to be held in the village, a happening beyond the comprehension of anyone other than Morcar, who had a vague notion of this new-fangled process.
The previous autumn, he had been told by William de Pagnell's bailiff that henceforth all deaths, other than those from old age or disease, must immediately be reported to himself or the manor-reeve, so that the King's coroner in Exeter could be notified. This obscure command had gone in one of Morcar's ears and out the other, and as no unnatural deaths had happened in Sigford since then the matter had been forgotten until yesterday, when a battered corpse had been dragged into the village.
Now the sleepy hamlet had been invaded by three men from the great city of Exeter. Although it was barely sixteen miles away, only two villagers had ever been there, and these awesome officials were as alien as if they had come from the moon. The whole population, ordered by the bailiff to congregate on the green at midday, stood silently as the coroner and his companions rode into the village. At their head was a great black destrier, a former warhorse, carrying the lean and forbidding figure of the coroner himself. Dressed in a long tunic as black as his steed, he hunched in his saddle like some great bird of prey. Hair of the same jet colour was swept back from his bony forehead to the nape of his neck. Heavy eyebrows hung over deep-set eyes, and a long hooked nose added to his eagle-like appearance. The dark stubble on his lean cheeks gave further credence to his old nickname of 'Black John', given to him by the soldiers of campaigns from Ireland to the Holy Land. His wide leather belt and diagonal baldric carried a formidable broadsword.
Sir John de Wolfe walked his horse to the centre of the grassy patch, watched in silence by the small crowd as the reeve came forward to take the reins. Behind him, a giant of a man with wild ginger hair and a huge straggling moustache of the same colour halted his brown mare and slid to the ground. The third visitor was a complete contrast, a little man with a slight hump on his left shoulder, riding a grey pony side-saddle like a woman.
The coroner dismounted and the reeve and two other villagers led their mounts away to be fed and watered, whilst the three men stood in the centre of the green and looked about them.
'God-forsaken bloody place!' muttered the dishevelled redhead under his breath, as he looked around at the handful of dwellings that made up the village. They were all shacks built of cob, with roofs of thatch in varying states of dilapidation, most surrounded by a small plot containing a vegetable patch and a few scrawny fowls. The only larger building was the alehouse, and from its door now strode a man in a fine yellow tunic, followed by a pair in more sober clothes. He marched up to the trio on the green and smacked his forearm across his chest in greeting.
'Sir John, welcome! I am William de Pagnell, lord of the manor of Ilsington – which includes this miserable vill!'
He had a sharp, foxy face, and the coroner took an instant dislike to him.
However, he managed to conceal it, as the man was trying to be civil in the face of what could only be an unwelcome visitation. The arrival of the county's second-most senior law officer could never be good news, especially as one of his major functions was the imposition of fines for the King's treasury.
'Before you begin your duties, you must eat and drink something. You must have been a few hours on the road from Exeter, in this damned heat.'
De Pagnell perfunctorily introduced the other two men as his steward and bailiff, as he led the way across to the alehouse. In the single large room, which stank of stale urine, spilt ale and of the calves mewling behind a hurdle at the other end, they all sat around the dead fire-pit on a collection of rough benches and a few milking stools. Widow Mody and a snivelling waif brought them pottery mugs of ale and a tray of fresh bread and slices of boiled pork, which, in spite of the cloud of flies settling on it, tasted surprisingly good.
The coroner gruffly matched William's introductions by poking a thumb at his own companions as he spoke.
'Gwyn of Polruan, my officer and right-hand man.'
Gwyn grinned, his bright blue eyes twinkling in his red, knobbly face. He was as tall as the lanky coroner, but built like a bull, his wide shoulders emphasised by the boiled-leather jerkin that he wore whatever the weather.
'And this is my clerk, Thomas de Peyne, who works wonders with a pen and parchment.'
The little fellow, who was dressed in a patched black cassock like a priest, smiled shyly at the compliment, a rare thing from his usually taciturn master. Thomas had a thin, pinched face, with a long pointed nose and a receding chin. His looks were further marred by a slight squint and the sparse, mousy hair that was cropped into a parody of a clerical tonsure.
'This is a bad business, Crowner,' said de Pagnell. 'I wish to God it had happened on someone else's manor, not mine!'
'It may well have, from what I've been told,' snapped de Wolfe. 'The body ended up here, but who knows where the death took place?'
'Does that make any difference to your findings?' asked the lord hopefully.
John de Wolfe shook his head. 'The new law says that the coroner investigates where the corpse lies. If someone drowns off Dover, but is washed up on the shores of Devon, then the burden is on me.'
They ate and drank hurriedly, as the Exeter men wanted to get on with their task and get back to the city. Gwyn finished first and ambled out with the bailiff from Ilsington, the person who, the evening before, had ridden to Exeter to notify the coroner. By the time de Wolfe and the others had ducked out of the low doorway into the blinding sunlight, Gwyn was standing within the circle of villagers, beckoning the bailiff as he pushed a handcart out of a nearby shed. As he trundled the cart to the centre of the parched grass, the crowd saw that it bore an inert shape under a couple of sacks. The coroner strode to stand alongside it, followed by Thomas de Peyne, who had brought a pair of stools from the alehouse. He sat himself down unobtrusively behind the coroner and delved into a shapeless pilgrim's pouch to pull out a parchment roll, a quill pen and a stone phial of ink, which he set on the other stool.
As de Pagnell and his servants joined the ring of villagers, Gwyn stepped forward and bellowed in a voice that echoed across the little valley.
'All ye who have anything to do before the King's coroner for the county of Devon, draw near and give your attendance.'
Having formally opened the proceedings, the Cornishman turned to his master.
'The village reeve has rounded up all the men and boys from here, apart from the idiot. He didn't attempt to get any from farther afield.'
John nodded resignedly. Although the rules demanded that all males over the age of twelve be summoned from the four nearest villages, it was a physical impossibility and would have left the countryside denuded of workers in the fields and those who herded the livestock. He took a step forward and glared around the throng.
'I am Sir John de Wolfe, our sovereign King Richard's coroner for this county. We are here to enquire as to where, when and by what means this man came to his death.'
He slapped the edge of the cart with his hand to emphasise the point.
'The King's Chief Justiciar, in his wisdom, last year set out certain formalities for dealing with violent and suspicious deaths – if these have not been complied with, then the law prescribes certain penalties.'
There was a subdued groan from some in the gathering. Unfamiliar though they were with this new system, long experience warned them that the ever-grasping authorities would fleece their thin purses once again.
'So who was the First Finder?'
Reluctantly, the blacksmith stepped forward, the reeve a pace behind him.
'We were the ones who stopped the horse, sir.'
'And did you then raise the hue and cry?'
The smith looked at Morcar, who shrugged.
'I suppose so, Crowner. At least, the whole village came running at once, but there was no one to chase after – that bloody mare just galloped in unbidden!'
De Wolfe had some sympathy with them. For centuries, going back to Saxon times, it had been the rule that when a crime was discovered a hue and cry should be started, the four nearest households being knocked up and a frantic hunt begun for the culprit. But in these circumstances, where the horse may have come from five or more miles away, it would have been a pointless exercise.
'Before seeking how and when he died, I have to be certain of the name of the deceased.'
Immediately, William de Pagnell spoke up, his tenants and serfs all looking warily at him from under lowered brows.
'As you already know, Sir John, there's little doubt of that, even though his features are so ill used from being dragged along the highway.'
The smith nodded and spoke up boldly.
'I knew him as soon as I saw his garments, Crowner. The badge on his breast, that yellow axe, marked him as a verderer – and I knew from his size and that brown moustache that it must be Humphrey le Bonde. I've often seen him riding through the village.'
De Wolfe grunted, a favourite response of his. He turned to the cart and motioned to Gwyn to pull off the sacks over the cadaver.
'We need to make quite sure. You men are now the jury and you must view the body with me.'
He motioned to the nearest dozen and Gwyn marshalled them past the cart, where they stared with morbid interest at the battered corpse lying face up on the boards. The cheeks, forehead and chin were ravaged by deep lacerations and covered in streaks of dried blood and grime, but the eyes were open and stared up sightlessly at the blue sky. Although he had been dead less than a day, the remorseless June sun was already generating an odour and bluebottles were buzzing enthusiastically around the open wounds.
His shredded clothing consisted of the remains of a thigh-length fawn tunic held tightly round the waist with a thick leather belt, which carried a long dagger in a sheath over one hip and a purse on the other. The legs were covered in torn brown worsted breeches tucked into stout riding boots. John pointed a finger at the prominent badge sewn on to the breast of the tunic, depicting a yellow axe on a green background.
'Undoubtedly the emblem of a verderer, one of the senior officers of the Royal Forest. But which one? We have four in Dartmoor Forest alone – and others elsewhere in the county.'
William de Pagnell looked impatient.
'I've told you, Crowner, there's not the slightest doubt! I know the man, it's Humphrey le Bonde, the verderer for this south-eastern bailiwick.'
There was a growl of assent from the village men, but the coroner was stubborn in his desire for certainty.
'The face is unrecognisable, so can you be quite sure?'
'His build is stocky, he has that short thick neck, middling brown hair, a full moustache and no beard. It must be him, for the other verderers would have no occasion to be in his part of the forest.'
'Where is he from?'
'He lives in Ashburton, he has a wife and three children, to the best of my recollection,' answered de Pagnell. 'He must be in his late thirties, a freeholder with a few acres. He was once a retainer of Reginald de Courcy, but bought out his knight-service some years ago.'
Though women and girls were legally excluded from the judicial process as being of no account, they had all congregated behind their men, determined not to miss any of the drama that so rarely visited their hamlet. Now one of them raised her voice from the back – John recognised her as the dumpy ale-wife who had served them.
'Look at his left hand, Crowner!' she yelled. 'I've given him meat and drink more than once when he was passing through and I noticed he had a finger missing.'
Before the coroner could declare a woman's evidence inadmissible, Gwyn had grabbed the corpse's hand and held it up, breaking the stiffness of rigor mortis.
'She's right, Crowner – an old amputation,' he said triumphantly.
John rumbled in his throat, his usual response when he had nothing to say, and the manor lord gave a smug smile as the coroner finally gave way.
'Very well, I will accept that this is Humphrey le Bonde.'
Though not a vindictive man, de Wolfe felt mild satisfaction in delivering his next declaration. 'So he is undoubtedly of Norman stock and no possibility of Presentment of Englishry can apply. I therefore amerce the village in the sum of ten marks.'
There was a groan from the few men who understood what was implied. Since the Conquest, anyone found dead was assumed to be a Norman and thus the victim of Saxon assassination, unless the community could present evidence that the dead man was himself a Saxon. After well over a century, this rule was cynically out of date, especially since intermarriage had blunted the distinction between the races – but it was still a useful source of revenue for the Crown. However, the coroner's next words blunted the severity of the potential fine.
'This will be recorded on my rolls to be presented to the Justices at the next Eyre, for them to decide if it shall be enforced.'
As the Eyre had only just been held in Exeter, it was likely to be at least a couple of years before it returned, so the villagers had a long breathing space. If the murderer were found in the meantime, then the amercement would lapse.
With the eyes of the audience glued upon him, de Wolfe turned back to the corpse and groped in le Bonde's money pouch. He took out a handful of silver pennies, together with a small ivory charm crudely carved into the shape of the Virgin Mary.
'That didn't bring him much luck,' murmured de Pagnell sarcastically.
The coroner scowled, his dark eyes glittering angrily from under the bushy black brows that crested his long face.
'Neither was the poor man killed for his money – for murdered he certainly was!'
He gestured to Gwyn, who turned the burly corpse over as if it were a feather pillow and laid it face down on the rough boards. Though they already knew the circumstances, there was a subdued hiss of dismay and concern from the encircling jurors as they saw the stump of the broken shaft sticking from between the shoulder-blades. Dried blood discoloured the tunic over a large area of the back.
Well used to the routine, Gwyn unbuckled the belt and began undressing the deceased man, removing the ripped tunic and undershirt, but leaving the breeches in place. He slid the upper garments over the stump of the arrow and held them up to display the slit made by the steel head.
De Wolfe grasped the missile and waggled it about in the wound.
'It's in deep, by the feel of it,' he said, half to himself. With a few experimental twists, he lined up the barbs with the wound between the ribs, close to the spine. He pulled and with a sucking sound some four inches of willow shaft came out, along with a gout of clotted blood.
He bent to wipe it in the grass at his feet, then examined it closely, before handing it to Gwyn.
'Well, what d'you think?'
'Serviceable, but not a professional job,' said his officer critically. 'The sort of thing a bowman would make up himself.'
'Like an outlaw?' suggested de Pagnell. 'There's plenty of those in the forest hereabouts. But he wasn't robbed.'
'The horse may have bolted and carried him away before they had a chance to rifle his purse,' said de Wolfe. He took the remains of the arrow back from Gwyn and dropped it on to the cart.
'Men of the jury, you all need to pass by the cadaver and look at the fatal wound and the instrument that caused it.'
As the villagers shuffled past, their expressions varying from sheepishness to avid curiosity, John de Wolfe checked with his clerk to make sure that his roll had captured what had been said. Though the coroner could read and write little more than his own name, he was trying to learn and made a show of looking over Thomas's shoulder to see how much Latin script was on the parchment. When the jury had seen their fill, Gwyn herded them back into line and John began to wind up the brief proceedings.
Excerpted from Fear in the Forest by Bernard Knight. Copyright © 2003 Bernard Knight. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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Posted August 17, 2010
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