The Work of the Wiltshire Coroner 1194 – 1943
Richard I was not particularly interested in England, only spending a few months out of his 10 year reign in England, but he was interested in his crusades which needed to be financed. A new way of collecting tax was needed as the current system of “holding the pleas of the crown” in which the King’s itinerant Judges toured the country and held courts in villages to settle disputes and levy fines was inefficient at actually raising revenue for the crown. The problem was it took so long for the Judges to complete their circuit that the sheriffs were able to pocket the fines and not pass them onto the king.
In 1194 new reforms were set up, which included new county officers called the Coroner (or Crowner as they were originally called – Coronam is Latin for crown). They were tasked with “keeping the pleas of the crown” which meant they had to document cases before the justice court rolled into town. Their role was simple, to generate as much income for the King as possible. Sudden deaths were of particular interest to the new Coroner, because if the death was proved to be suicide (“self murder”) then the goods of the deceased would be forfeited to the crown. Buried treasure (treasure trove), goods washed up on shore and shipwrecks all belonged to the king. It was now the job of the Coroner to record these events and to make sure that any revenue due to the King went in to the royal coffers.
By 1194 the Saxons were still in a habit of killing Normans, if a dead person was found, the village in which it was found would be heavily fined, as it was presumed to be Norman unless it could be proved otherwise by a plea of Englishry. The fine was known as “Murdrum”, from which the word murder derives. Coroner’s inquests dealt with these cases and the revenue from the fines imposed went to the King.
Every County elected three Coroners with many boroughs having their own coroner. A clerk was employed to carry the pen, ink and “Coroner’s Rolls” and would have walked behind the horses. The clerk was later dropped in favour of a fourth Coroner. As “Keeper of the Crown Pleas” it was the Coroners job to record the pleas on parchment called the “Coroner’s Rolls” and present to the King’s judges when they rolled into town. These rolls mostly survive and are held at The National Archives. They record, amongst other things, details of sudden and unnatural deaths, giving information surrounding the circumstances of deaths.
A pre Norman practice that appears in the Coroner’s Rolls was the fine of a deodand, “Deo dandum” or “given to God”. The idea was that the object which caused the death of sinful and had to be given to the church to be expurgated. The Normans saw this as a nice little earner for the crown, as the Coroner would value the object and the crown plea judges would decide if the deodand was to be forfeited to the crown or given to the victim’s family as compensation for their loss.
All sudden deaths were investigated by the coroner, whether murder, manslaughter, accidental, natural or suicide. It was the coroner’s job to record as much information about the death as possible, witnesses, time, date, where and of course the primary interest was property and chattels were written down ready for the Justices court. There were strict rules for when a body was discovered and heavy fines imposed if they were not followed. The finder of a body had to raise the alarm and was liable to be fined for inaction. Many bodies might be ignored or hidden, or even moved to another village or tithing in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Another of the medieval coroner’s duties that remains today is to deal with “treasure trove”, (“treasure that has been found”). When any quantity of precious metal, gem, coin, gold, silver, or other valuable objects are found hidden, whether it be above or below ground an inquest was held to determine whether it had been hidden with an intention to be recovered or if it had been lost. If the former, then it belonged to the crown unless someone could show title to it. The objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial were not deemed to be treasure trove as the Saxons had no intention of recovering the objects. Treasure trove files from 1935 to1986, (WSA/F25/1/160/1-14) for Wiltshire are held at the History Centre and are open as they have passed their closure date of 30 years.
The post of medieval coroner was an unpaid position and, in fact, holders would be punished if they received payment or refused to carry out their duties without a fee. In 1752 an act was passed which entitled coroners to travel expenses, £1 for every inquest held and 9d per mile, this payment continued until 1861 when coroners became salaried officials. These expenses were paid out of the county rates though the justices of the peace at the Quarter Sessions. The coroner would present their bills at the Quarter Sessions once or twice a year for payment, once signed and verified they would be paid. These accounts are held in the Quarter Sessions archives and although they are not formal records of inquests, which have not survived, they are very important and do provide us with a great deal of information, so much so that they have been transcribed and published. Wiltshire Record Society Volume 36 “Coroner’s Bills 1752-1796” edited by R. F. Hunnisett. This edition is arranged in date order and provides the name of the deceased, date, location, the cause of death, distance travelled and payment being claimed. Wiltshire Family History Society has published 1796-1823 and 1815-1858 in the same format as the Wiltshire Record Society volume but have omitted the distance travelled by the coroner and the payment claimed.
Coroner’s inquest files have a closure period of 75 years meaning they cannot be viewed, but we do have some files that have passed this date and are available to view here at the Centre. Salisbury City Coroner’s inquest files survive for the period 1876-1943 and have been partly transcribed (1876-1901) and County Coroner’s inquest files survive for 1934-1936. The inquests are a valuable historical source, which as well as names and dates provide a picture of the past through the eyes of the witness statements.
Local newspapers are still the best source for finding out about a death because the coroner’s records are somewhat sparse. However, where they survive they are informative, and you may just be lucky enough to find information you need.
Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor
- Tags: accidental death, archives, Coroner, Coroners Bills, Coroners Rolls, Coroner’s inquests, court, Crowner, manslaughter, Murdrum, Newspaper, plea of Englishry, Quarter Sessions, Richard I, Salisbury City Coroner, sheriff, suicide, Sutton Hoo, The National Archives, treasure trove, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Wiltshire Record Society, “Deo dandum”, “Keeper of the Crown Pleas”