Reconciling Disputes: The Evidence of the Proofs of Age 1360-1447


The Loveday at St Pauls in 1458 is the most famous of late medieval attempts peacefully to resolve deep-seated differences.[1. This discussion is based on proofs of age printed in CIPM xv-xxvi.] Its celebrity and notoriety arose because the hopes of the English nation hung upon it and because they were dashed. The warring parties were the highest level of society (the dukes of Somerset and York), the issues the very gravest (the killing of Somerset's father at the treasonable battle of St Albans), the mediators the most exalted possible (the archbishops and bishops), and the price of failure the greatest (the resumption of the Wars of the Roses). A formal settlement was achieved amidst general rejoicing and all parties joined hand in hand in a service of reconciliation at St Paul's Cathedral. Peace did not endure and the Wars did indeed resume 18 months later.[2. For the most recent discussion, see M. Hicks, The Wars of the Roses (London, 2010), 137-9.] This instance is particularly high profile and celebrated. Yet lovedays themselves were commonplace. A loveday was ‘a day appointed for the amicable settlement of differences'.[3. E. Powell, ‘Arbitration and the Law in England in the Late Middle Ages', TRHS, 5th ser 33 (1983), 57.] It involved all types of people at all levels of society and all kinds of differences, even murder.[4. I. Rowney, ‘Arbitration in Gentry Disputes in the Later Middle Ages', History 67 (1982), 367-76.] Beyond resolving private quarrels, lovedays possessed a public function: they sealed ‘the restoration of harmony within society'.[5. J.W. Bennett, ‘The Medieval Loveday', Speculum 33 (1958) 351-70.] Lovedays were important enough events, landmark events, to be remembered by the jurors. Some light is cast on lovedays and the amicable resolution of disputes by the proofs of age.

Late medieval English people were quarrelsome and had plenty about which to quarrel. [6. J.G. Bellamy, Crime & Public Order In England in the Later Middle Ages (1973).] Violence and litigation were alternatives that interacted in many a dispute. The vast archives of the central courts are the most impressive testimony to medieval litigiousness, but there is also copious evidence at a lower level in the rolls of the manorial courts, town courts, quarter sessions, and so on, even though most of these are now lost. Some cases even reached parliament.[7. E.g.. S.J. Payling, ‘The Ampthill Dispute: A Study of Aristocratic Lawlessness and the Breakdown of Lancastrian Government', English Historical Review cxiv (1989); C.Rawcliffe, ‘Parliament and the Settlement of Disputes by Arbitration in the Later Middle Ages', Parliamentary History 9 (1990).] Many such lawsuits were the result of violent self-help or broke down into self-help. Such disorders were in very few people's interests, certainly not the propertied, whether they were the contending parties, their lords, their kin, or their neighbours, all of whom sought to negotiate with the parties, to mediate between them , and to arbitrate. Such involved onlookers sought to reconcile differences and to secure peaceful settlements. Some guilds even built the internal reconciliation of differences between members into their statutes.[8. M.A. Hicks, English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century (2002), 112.]

Almost sixty years ago Josephine Bennett trawled the literature and the lawbooks for her pioneering article about the medieval loveday. She found that peaceful settlements, could involve contrition, forgiveness, the restoration of ‘christian charity and brotherly love', often through the release of all actions, the holding of hands, the kiss of peace, and a religious ceremony.[9. Bennett, ‘Medieval Loveday', 351-70.] The legal historian Edgar Powell declared arbitration not to be a rival to the royal courts, but rather a complementary set of procedures that offered many advantages. The common law accepted arbitration awards as a bar to future actions and indeed enforced them. Royal justices encouraged settlements out of court, even acting as arbiters themselves. Many lawsuits never resulted in verdicts because settled out of court.[10. Powell, ‘Arbitration & the Law', 51-2, 55-6.] It was only when outlawed, therefore, that John Bitterly and Griffith Gor settled their debt case, which thereafter disappeared silently from the plea rolls.[11. CIPM xv.659.] Many arbitrations are known only through enrolled bonds to abide awards yet to be made. The most formal and revealing evidence consists of the arbitration awards themselves. Hicks, Payling, Powell, Rawcliffe, Rosenthal and Rowney have used such awards to good effect. [12. See M. Hicks, ‘Restraint, Mediation and Private Justice: George , Duke of Clarence as “Good Lord”', Richard III and his Rivals (1991), ; Hicks, English Political Culture, 2; S.J .Payling, ‘Law and Arbitration in Nottinghamshire 1399-1461', People Politics and the Community in the Later Middle Ages, ed. J.T Rosenthal and C.F. Richmond (Gloucester, 1987); Powell, ‘Arbitration & the Law'; C. Rawcliffe, ‘[The Great Lord as Peacekeeper: Arbitration by English Nobles and their Councils in the Later Middle Ages', in Law and Social Change in British History , ed. H.G. Beale and J.A. Guy (1984); J.T. Rosenthal, ‘Feuds and Private Peace-Making: A Fifteenth -Century Example', Nottingham Medieval Studies 14 (1970); Rowney, ‘Arbitration in Gentry Disputes', passim. ] However the evidence remains scanty. A few score of awards survive to set against thousands of incomplete cases in the plea rolls. This was because arbitration awards were not the final stage in disputes. They were implemented through the silent abandonment of lawsuits, through blanket releases of differences, final concords and deeds that seldom mention the arbitration itself. Often the award, not a title deed and of purely ephemeral importance, was discarded.

What can proofs of age contribute to understanding of this topic? Lovedays crop up quite frequently as points of reference for the jurors. Evidently peace-making – and especially lovedays – were memorable events. Moreover mediation and final settlements, the proofs demonstrate, often took place in church, thus coinciding with baptisms. Sometimes they involved the fathers and the godparents attending the christening. Often indeed they resulted because of the ceremony. Christenings were joyful occasopns. Apparently they stimulated peace-making. Seldom do proofs identify what was at issue on the disputes, never the detailed pros and cons, and rarely the solution. Mere snapshots of part of the process, they most frequently treat the key part, the settlement stage. Such snapshots were aide memoires of the birth and baptism of a feudal heir born a generation ago and had no importance in themselves. The content of the jurors' testimonies never mattered to the heir or to his feudal lord, nor ever affected the succession to the estate. The substance of the testimony about ancient quarrels long resolved related principally to intermediaries, arbiters and principals in the dispute, most of whom were dead. In short the evidence of jurors at proofs of age was of no relevance either to the heir or to the contending parties. There was no reason why it should be biased. Like all testimonies in proofs of age, these ones could be fictionalised, [13. M.L. Holford, ‘”Testimony (to some extenht fictitious) “: proofs of age in the first half of the fifteenth century', Historical Research lxxxii (2009), 634-54, at 636-7.] but actually peace-making is not mentioned sufficiently frequently for references to become stereotypical and repetitive. Only two pairs of testimony cited below are close enough for suspicion of copying to be aroused. Even they could be true.

References to peacemaking in the proofs of age can be divided into four categories.

    1. Where settlements previously scheduled to take place in the parish church happened to coincide with the baptism that was the focus of the proof of age;

    1. Where settlements unconnected with the baptism happened on and about the same date;

    1. Where the opportunity presented by the christening was taken by the parties, the father or the clergy to arrange peaceful settlements;

    1. Where disputes were reconciled before they escalated into serious disagreements.


This discussion examines each group in turn. Because the testimonies are always brief, it is often difficult to categorise the data with confidence.

    • Settlements previously scheduled that happened to coincide with the baptism.

This first category consists of settlements previously scheduled in parish churches that happened to coincide with the baptisms which were always arranged at short notice immediately after the births. The normal work of the church had to continue in spite of the baptism. Baptisms were often witnessed by those in church for other reasons – for attendance at other baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and at lovedays. In many cases the peacemaking had been scheduled for this particular date and at this particular church well in advance. Mayor John Somervell of Bristol induced the bowyer Richard Gargrave and the goldsmith Thomas Clyve to put their long-running dispute to arbitration. Each party nominated one arbiter and ‘a fair reconciliation' (the award) was declared in the presence of the mayor on 16 December 1393 in the crypt of St John the Baptist church, the small spired church over the gate to Avon quay. The baptism took place, before the award, upstairs at the font in the nave: indeed Mayor Somervell acted as godfather. [14. CIPM xxi.371. The church is now redundant.]

Very similar, also involving corporate approval, are three London cases, two chaired by the mayor and involving a sheriff as defendant. Quite what was at issue is not revealed. The earliest , on 25 July 1380 in the church of All Hallows at the Hay in the Ropery and chaired by mayor William Wallworth, was between the prior of Elsing Spittel and Walter Doget, then sheriff. Of the seven proof jurors, five had attended the mayor and two were present on behalf of the prior. [15. CIPM xix 141. The prior was Robert Draycote, Religious Houses of London and Middlesex, ed. C.M. Barron and M. Davies (London, 2007), 168.] The second case on 7 September 1385 in the church of St Mary Cripplegate chaired by Mayor Nicholas Exton was between Robert Windsor, prior of Merton and sheriff William Moor. [16. CIPM xix. 476. Exton was actually mayor in 1386, Great Chronicle of London, ed. A.H. Thomas and I.D. Thornley (1938), 46. For the prior, see Heads of Religious Houses in England and Wales, iii, 1377-1540, ed. D.M. Smith (Cambridge, 2008), 478.] On 6 Oct 1389 a third dispute between Sir Robert Turk and the prior and convent of St Mary without Bishopsgate was resolved in the church of All Hallows, Honey Lane. The proof jurors William Cornvill and William Brown attended at Turk's request. [17. CIPM xx. 145. ]

Apart from their formality and the approval of the civic authorities, these London cases all involved churchmen. This was appropriate since reconciliation was almost an occupational duty for the clergy, churches were obvious neutral public venues, and arbitration had a recognized place in canon law. Churchmen however often felt a solemn duty not to compromise on their rights and those of the undying spiritual corporation of which they were a part. Five other cases also involve churchmen. Six proof jurors had attended West Tisted church in Hampshire on 29 June 1355 before a baptism to settle a dispute between the vicar of East Tisted and the rector of Alton regarding the tithes of wool. [18. CIPM xv .158.] It was the tithes of lambs that were at issue between the prior of Mottisfont and vicar of Little Somborne (Hants.) on 29 May 1359. Five supporters of the prior at Little Somborne were residents of Little Somborne . [19. CIPM xv. 451; Smith, Heads of Religious Houses, 402, 642.]. Who won is not recorded. A Bedfordshire tithe dispute regarding the tithes of a field called Ham that were disputed by Margaret Pigot, the Benedictine abbess of Elstow, and Thomas Stratford, the Augustinian prior of Cauldwell was arbitrated in the parish church of All Saints Kempston on 20 October 1393. [20. CIPM xxi. 558. The award was copied into the church missal, now inevitably lost.] Great contention longstanding and about several issues was reported between William Mychel, abbot of Torre in Devon and Walter Rede that finally (and successfully!) with mediation resulted in an agreement in which each released their legal actions. [21. CIPM xxv. 298, Smith, Heads of Religous Houses, 924. . A monk of Torre wrote the releases.]

Other settlements for which the parish church was the chosen venue were purely secular. John Smith was at Rotherwick church in Hampshire in 1379 for the reconciliation of Thomas atte Church and William Wyfold. John Southworth was at Walton church (Lancs.) also in 1379 for the loveday of William Robinson and a certain Kildale when both witnessed the baptisms. [22. CIPM xviii. 662, 677.] Four jurors were in the parish church of Dixton (Gloucs.) to arbitrate the disputes of John Frost and Richard Wade at Chipping Campden. Each quitclaimed their actions to the other. [23. CIPM xxii. 370.] Similarly reconciliation of the various disputes between William Russell, John Hall, and John Colsey at Leigh in Gloucestershire in 1389 were pre-arranged. [24. CIPM xviii. 999.] On 28 Oct 1387 John Salkeld of Maughonby and John Melnerby attended the resolution of the dispute between Henry Hudson and Robert Dawson in Brampton church (Cumb.). In 1424 in Skelton church (also Cumb.) the case was resolved of John Lambert versus Thomas Hudson was remembered by Robert Salkeld and William Lowther of Crookdale. [25. CIPM xix. 663; xxvi.334..] Is the coincidence of the names Salkeld and Hudson suspicious? Thomas Dylowe and Thomas Malle and Richard del Wood and Thomas Preaver also settled their disputes and lawsuits. [26. CIPM xxii. 673; xxv.522.] The settlement negotiated between Hugh Mawe and the men of Leominster seems most likely pre-arranged.[27. CIPM xxii. 357]

Appropriately the parson or priest often had a key role in peacekeeping. Whether this was the incumbent, the rector, vicar, curate, or a chaplain is often unspecified. Thus in 1386 William de la Dale and John Mulder, both of Derby, were reconciled by the priest in Derby church after the baptism. [28. CIPM xviii. 315] In 1387 when Thomas Cox settled with Richard Candler at North Tuddenham (Norf.), it was the parson who wrote their mutual releases after the baptism. [29. CIPM xix.777.] After the baptism it was again the parson who recorded the quitclaims of John Newman and William Payn, the godfather John Bonville, in 1400. [30. CIPM xxi. 874.] These three instances do not exhaust the clerical contributions.

Very probably the settlement was sealed with a religious service. It may have been preceded by a mass also. These however were subordinate to the peacemaking itself and went unmentioned in the proofs of age (and the awards also). Alternatively contemporaries may have known that such ceremonial was integral to a loveday. In either case such ritual passes unremarked by the witnesses.

    • Settlements unconnected with the baptism that happened on and about the same date.

            Rather more common were those cases coinciding in date where the dispute was conducted or resolved elsewhere. An obvious instance is the loveday between neighbours at Honiton (Devon) in 1392 that was cited as reminder of William Bonville's baptism at Shute [31. CIPM xx. 130.] and the dispute of John Ashford versus John Canley at Ashford (Devon) in 1382 resolved that week, not on that specific day. [32. CIPM xv. 888.] On 31 March 1391 William Richardson was going to Corbridge on Northumberland to settle the dispute between William Raa and Nicholas Skelby when he heard of the baptism at Halton. William Ward's dispute with Robert Spencer of Aldeburgh (Suff.) was arbitrated by four men at Aldeburgh on 24 August 1377, when he heard of the birth of Peter Maulay at Lockington. [33. CIPM xvii.1320; xix. 1003.] The witness Thomas Gower remembered the settlement that he had achieved in 1375 at Seterington (Yorks.), though not perhaps in the church, between Agnes de Bolton and Alan de Yarwarth, both of Seterington. [34. CIPM xvii.954.] It was pure chance on 1385 that Christopher Belfield en route to a loveday at Wakefield (Yorks.) took mass at Downham first and thus observed the baptism. [35. CIPM xxii. 365.] Other instances where witnesses observed baptisms may be pure coincidence – they just happened to be there – although perhaps the baptisms offered the chance to settle disputes. On 29 June 1402 James de Prestcote was in Downham church for the loveday of Richard Nowell and John Abraham when the baptism took place. [36. CIPM xxii 356; see also the very similar CIPM xxii. 365.] Either scenario may explain the settlement of disputes between John Williamson and Thomas Appel at Edvin Loach (Worc.) in 1392 that was remembered by four witnesses, [37. CIPM xx. 263.] or that between Thomas Alewold and John Widdone about various disputes in 1395 in the tiny church of Cameley (Soms.), where they could hardly fail to observe the baptism. [38. CIPM xx. 849.] John Pole had been in St Clements church in Cambridge on Palm Sunday (11 April) 1378 to arbitrate (successfully) a dispute between John Merton and John Skelton. [39. CIPM xviii. 310.] The evidence is lacking whether the settlement between William son of Thomas Plesley and Richard son of John Scarliffe at Scarliffe in 1385 was pre-arranged, inspired by the christening, or merely coincided. [40. CIPM xviii.1179.]

    • Reconciliation that was arranged at the baptism

Particularly explicit is the end of ‘the great contention' between Robert Keynsham and the abbot of Torre arising from Robert's breach of one of abbot's closes and theft of eight oxen. Robert took advantage of the abbot's presence at the baptism as godfather to make peace, both submitting to the arbitration of another guest Robert Cary.[41. CIPM xxv. 298.] Similarly in 1393 at Stonor (Oxon.) John Bartelot, John Kene, and John Daw came to church to treat with Sir Thomas Sackville, the godfather, regarding various trespasses in his park by mediation of various people. [42. CIPM xx 265. They received a general acquittance. ] In 1408 Sir William Cheyne, another godfather, settled with John Milburn in church after the baptism – by mediation of friends they made mutual releases. Cheyne also mediated an agreement between the prior of Bath, another godfather, and John Franceys, a poacher. [43. CIPM xxiii. 602 The parson recorded the release ] It was explicitly stated that Sir William Cheyne and Sir Robert Cary demanded no money for his services as arbiter: evidently it was more usual to charge. John Bitterly and Griffith Gor tackled the abbot of Ystrad Merchall (Stradmergell) at Pole (Welshpool, Wales) where he was acting as godfather to settle peacefully the plea of debt for which they had been already proclaimed outlaws at Shrewsbury. [44. CIPM xv. 659.] In two suspiciously similar Cambridgeshire cases, John Sibyle in 1379 and John Chalers in 1381, each the father of the baby baptised, brokered agreements in their houses after returning from church respectively between John Hickson and John Forster and between Henry Frost and his neighbour Peter Molde. [45. CIPM xviii. 673, 1178.] In 1368 John Hull, another father, apparently induced Nicholas Walrond and Thomas Frodingham to settle their differences. He even paid Walrond 20d as inducement. [46. CIPM xx. 272.] The payment reminds us today that such disputes inconvenienced others beyond the warring parties. Certain disagreements between John Sergeant and John Lely, the father, were appeased by John Ward at Drax (Yorks.) on the day of the baptism of John Lely the younger. [47. CIPM xxv.522.] The treaty between Sir John Widdrington, the father, and Sir Robert Lisle was enshrined in an indenture, which sounds like an arbitration award. [48. CIPM xxii.358.] The settlement in Newman v. Payn at Pen in Devon in 1400 was also resolved after the baptism. [49. CIPM xxi..874. The parson recorded the agreement in the church missal after the baptism.]

Baptisms offered opportunities for contending parties to settle disputes. They were happy occasions, at which fathers – and godfathers – were perhaps particularly conciliatory. Guy Puke, instance, who had gravely wronged Sir Philip Courtenay, sought peace and achieved it. Courtenay moreover induced William Jow, the other godfather, to make peace. [50. CIPM xxii. 530.] This can be pushed too far: baptisms were opportunities not just to settle disputes, [51. CIPM xxv. 527.] but to serve writs. Some fathers, Richard Brown, were ill-tempered, perhaps on presentation of yet another daughter rather than a son and heir.

Here we have moved on to category 4, Where disputes were reconciled before they escalated into serious disagreements. Many of these cases have been demonstrated to remove cases from the courts: others were prevented from escalating so far. Whilst those involved apparently seldom fell below the propertied elite of the villages and towns, they clustered at the lower end. Arbitration and mediation was commonplace at all levels of society.

This short discussion illustrates how proofs of age can offer insights into aspects of everyday life far removed from aristocratic landholding, the operations of feudalism, genealogy and the rural economy. They cast light in this instance on everyday interactions, disputes and reconciliation, and the restoration of harmony in local societies. It confirms the place of local communities – their interests in harmony and their role in fulfilling it - and the value of the parish church as a public building and neutral ground . Baptisms were also opportunities for other meetings, formal and informal.


Michael Hicks