The Ancient Decree Of Outlawry

From the age of 14 during the early medieval period, both men and women could be outlawed. Women were said to be ‘waived’, but suffered the same punishment, literally placed outside the protection of the law. If they were recognised, they risked arrest and immediate beheading. If anyone hacked off an outlaw's head during the reign of Richard I, they were rewarded with five shillings.

Cases of outlawry during the early middle ages revolved mainly around criminal acts. The procedure was for a plaintiff to make a public accusation in the county court and the coroner issued a royal writ demanding the appearance of the defendant for trial.

If the defendants name was called out on the day of his trial and he didn’t appear at the first or the three subsequent hearings, he was declared an outlaw- unless two men were prepared to pay a financial bond and guarantee to bring him to the next meeting of the court. Failure of attendance at the fifth meeting of the court meant automatic outlawry and both guarantors would forfeit the money they had pledged.

Outlawry was extended during the later medieval period and was used as a sanction against people failing to attend court proceedings, both for civil and criminal actions. The county courts continued to be responsible for declaring outlawries, but the procedure had become more complex.

Now when a defendant failed to attend court proceedings, the court issued a ‘writ of capias’ instructing the local sheriff to apprehend the individual and keep him in custody until the next court convened. In the case of civil or minor criminal matters, three successive writs were issued, but for serious offences such as treason, murder or rebellion, this number was reduced to one or two.

If the sheriff was still unable to arrest the defendant, the next step was to obtain a ‘writ of exigent’ from the central courts at Westminster. This writ announced that the accused was officially missing and had no goods that could be seized to enforce his appearance. It went on to instruct the sheriff to make proclamations at the next five county courts demanding the defendant’s immediate presence. If the individual failed to turn up, he was automatically declared an outlaw. A Latin expression ‘ut lagati’ (sometimes written as UTL) might be used to record the sentence. Other expressions, such as ‘non venerod’, meaning the accused people didn’t come and ‘uratorese decont’ meaning jurors found the accused guilty.

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007

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