Meeting Report February 2020
For our February meeting we were delighted to welcome Chris Murphy to deliver an illustrated talk entitled "Medieval Mafia". Chris is a guide of the Towton Battlefield Society, a post he has held for some 12 years. He is also a serving civil servant working for Her Majesty's Customs and Excise Department. Although he now lives in Yorkshire his home town is Oldham . Chris explained his interest in the battle of Towton was sparked many years ago when he came to Leeds to attend a wedding. Here he was gleefully told by the bride's father that in 1461 at the battle of Towton the Yorkists had roundly defeated the Lancastrians causing the largest loss of life in a battle on English soil. Of course this was a red herring as the Yorkists and Lancastrians were supporters of the appropriate Royal Houses and not in fact people of the two counties.
Chris began his talk by explaining about the battle of Towton and the aims of the Towton Battlefield Society and how all this fed into his talk on the Medieval Mafia. Starting with a definition of organised crime he explained how even today society has a somewhat skewed view of certain 'lovable rogues' even though we are aware that their activities are sometimes above the law. And so it was in medieval times, a typical example of this being Robin Hood. Robin Hood may not have been one person as over the centuries he has appeared under different names, but always cast as the 'good guy'. He was however, in all his manifestations, an outlaw and robber who was never taken at face value.
This applied throughout medieval times as many of the country's most senior noblemen, men who enjoyed the favour of the King were in fact criminals of the highest order. One such was Warwick the Kingmaker whose fortune was obtained through piracy. But these were violent and lawless times and piracy, smuggling, extortion, kidnap and ransom were the order of the day. The murder rate in those days was 10 times what it is today, but there was no judiciary or organised police force to control crime.
Another high ranking official William De La Pole from Hull was also abusing his office. One of his main duties was to ensure the export taxes on wool, which was a considerable source of income for the crown, was correctly collected. He was however exporting wool himself and fraudulently avoiding the export tax. His hide was saved because he had lent considerable sums of money to the King and waived these loans in return for the charges being dropped.
Such behaviour was rife throughout the country, and it was not until 1285 when the Statute of Winchester was introduced that some semblance of law and order became apparent. This brought about such things as the introduction of justices of the peace, and ordered the clearance of woodland for 200 yards at the roadsides to prevent ambush and robbery on the roads. However even though some crimes was reduced as a result of these measures corruption still ruled at the highest level, and Chris surprised us all (or maybe not) by saying that the greatest rogues in medieval times were in fact the Kings themselves whose reigns were supported by violence, bribery and corruption.
We thoroughly enjoyed Chris's fascinating talk, particularly his amusing anecdotes and humorous asides and were left with the thought that really nothing much has changed in the last 800 years. And who knows, if you are a lovable rogue, maybe a hundred years or so from now they may name an airport or erect a statue to you.
The next meeting on Monday 30th March 2020 will be an illustrated talk by Dr Patrick Bourne, curator from Leeds Museums and Galleries, entitled "Getting Around Town - Transport in Leeds from 1800".