Unanimity and Divergence: How the Story Grows. The Process of Testimony in the Proofs of Age.

Michael Hicks writes:

The questions that were posed to inquisition post mortem jurors were not always easy to answer. The evidence could be contradictory, the questions imprecise, and the heirs multiple and rival. There was lobbying from different interests and even fraud. None of this emerges in the resultant IPMs which present one answer only, unanimously. Yet the royal chancery was not always satisfied. Additional writs were sometimes issued that triggered supplementary inquisitions. Findings could also be overturned (traversed). Proofs of age always produced a single verdict, invariably that the heir was baptised on a particular date and was therefore of age, and supported it by the diverse testimonies of each juror (henceforth witness). [1. If there was ever disagreement, the inquiry did not prove the age and therefore is unrecorded. ] There were 800 different kinds of testimony. The proof document stated that these witnesses had been assembled at a particular place, where each testified in turn, invoking his own memory of the baptism or of other events about that time that fixed the date. Some testimonies are definitely fictions. [2. The whole issue is discussed by M.L. Holford, ‘ “Testimony to some extent fictitious”: Proof of Age in the First Half of the Fifteenth Century ‘ , Historical Research lxxxii (2009).] Whether the fiction was introduced at the formal inquiry, later by the escheator, or even in chancery is uncertain: perhaps all three on different occasions. Every proof claimed to have been authenticated by the jurors with their seals, but all such seals are missing – apparently detached for filing in chancery – and many lack the obligatory indenting, perhaps because never indented, perhaps because the indentations were cut off. The proofs were always in Latin, which the jurors themselves probably could not read. Jurors could be quite aristocratic, but the witnesses to proofs of age were often socially inferior – servants or carters - to the manorial notables who acted as jurors for IPMs. [3. As explained by M.L. Holford, ‘”Thrifty Men of the Country?” The Jurors and their Role', in The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: A Companion, ed. Michael Hicks (Woodbridge, 2012).]

That each witness testified in turn in the company of others was not unique to proofs of age. There were other similar instances in other contexts, at ecclesiastical visitations and in parliament and the royal council. Participants testified in response to a question or set of questions. Ecclesiastical visitations, it is well known, employed questionnaires that were tendered to each witness in turn: to the churchwarden and select parishioners in parish visitations, to each monk, canon or nun in order of seniority in visitations of religious houses, and to each suspected Lollard. The questionnaire tendered to Lollards survives, together with the set of model answers that the Lollards themselves developed. [4. See A. Hudson, The Examination of the Lollards', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research xlvi (1973), 145-59; Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (Cambridge, 1978).] Notoriously post-Reformation visitations often responded blandly to each question that all was well – omnia bene – whereas pre-Reformation visitations of parishes recorded only the negative findings, passing over what was satisfactory without remark.

Visitations of religious houses often began with the positive testimony of the superiors, but further criticisms appear later. Superiors of course glossed over their personal defects and focused, if at all, on deficient inferiors. In 1440 the prioress of St Michael's at Stamford (Lincs.) identified obedientaries who did not account to her: some of her huns reported that she did not account to them. It was these other nuns who reported that the prioress allowed nuns to be absent for too long. Sexual incontinence was an issue. Thus ‘Agnes, a nun of that place, has gone away in apostasy, cleaving to a harp-player; and she [the prioress] says that they dwell together, as it is said, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne'. Other nuns added the offender's surname – Butylere or Pery or Northampton –and that of the harpist [Robert Abbot]. Agnes was originally led into apostasy ‘for a day and a night by Brother John Harryes, of the order of St Austin' and had been gone for 18 months. Two other nuns agreed. Again in 1446, three nuns were suspect; four testified against Dame Margaret Mortimer. One said all was well. [5. Visitations of Religious Houses in the Diocese of Lincoln, iii, ed. A. Hamilton Thompson, Canterbury and York Society xxxiii (1927), 348-56.] What the religious heard their fellows say influenced what they said themselves : they repeated it, contradicted it, elaborated it, refined it and codified it.

Similar growth in the story can be perceived in the responses of those designated to be members of Richard Duke of York's Protectorate Council during Henry VI's insanity in 1454. To be such a councillor was to take on a highly responsible office carrying a considerable element of risk. Asked if he would act, each councillor was reluctant, giving reasons for not acting – poor health, inexperience, old age, Lent – or for missing particular meetings, which in practice proved to be those where serious decisions had to be made and responsibilities taken. [6. R.A. Griffiths, ‘The King's Council and the First Protectorate of the Duke of York, 1450-54', King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1991), 317-19.] Too few councillors attended the session where Edmund Duke of Somerset was to be tried and York had to insist that there were insufficient present to allow Somerset's release. [7. M.A. Hicks, Warwick the Kingmaker (Oxford, 1998), 110,] All did eventually agree to act. The way in which later testimonies are influenced by those that came before and developed them are shown by the six bishops: the bishop of Winchester said his conscience did not permit him to attend continually; the bishop of Norwich more specifically asked licence to attend to his eyre and to visit his diocese ‘as it appertaineth to him'; and whilst agreeing, the bishop of Lincoln asked especially to be free in Lent and Advent. [8. Griffiths, ‘King's Council', 318.] Humphrey Duke of Buckingham wanted to be paid the right rate (as a duke) for the job: so did the earl of Worcester and lord Cromwell. The earl of Worcester demanded how the crown's liabilities were to be met, the prior of St John's wanted the state of the public finances declared to the Commons and also that the Lords acted only in the public interest, and Cromwell asked likewise. Aged and infirm, Cromwell wanted both payment and the public declaration. He also requested safeconduct to and from the council: a murderous assault had been made on him in 1449. [9. Ibid. 318-19; Hicks, Warwick, 74..]

Such parallels are relevant to proofs of age, many of which seem to indicate similar growths in the story. Dr Deller has identified in the proofs 800 different reminders: one reason why the proofs are such a rich (if abbreviated) source for social history. [10. Talk by Dr William Deller at the 2nd IPM conference at Winchester, September 2014.] It was common for the witnesses to agree with one another or to testify to the same event. The proofs themselves differ considerably and often follow distinctly different courses. There are proofs for instance that focus on the decoration of the church for the baptism [11. CIPM xxiii. 139, 150, 596, 98.] or on the reconciliation of differences, like that of Philip Courtenay. [12. CIPM xxii.530.] Another instance, the proof of Ellen Sumpter at Colchester , focused on the appalling weather and flood damage to North Bridge at Colchester in 1413, [13. CIPM xxii.830.] yet another on the grandiose ceremonial surrounding the christening of Richard Beauchamp future earl of Warwick , [14. CIPM xviii.855.] yet another at Rogiet (Mon.) on the Welsh war of Owen Glendower. [15. CIPM xxiv.268-9] Uncertain what to testify, perhaps the prompt came from the escheator – perhaps on the basis of what was testified last week, even in another county – and the other witnesses took this as a prompt to recall other details.

Witnesses at proofs of age were drawn from survivors of the baptism and those who could remember it who were still available locally fourteen or twenty-one years later. They referred to whatever they remembered as confirmation. What each remembered was influenced by what other witnesses had already recalled. This brief paper certainly does not explain how all the proofs of age took form, but it does suggest how some of them were shaped. It has demonstrated unsyrprisingle how those testifying first could direct the thoughts of those who followed. It may be that it was the escheator who suggested this focus, perhaps prompted by other proofs in this county or in other counties. It may have been suggested by the first testator – unique proofs, like the Rogiet one, may be of this type. There was a psychology to individual testimony in public that produced agreement or that successively elaborated the story for which there are other late medieval examples.