The Medieval Coroner


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The first coroners were appointed in 1194 by Richard I. He actually had sheriffs to represent his interests, but they were often corrupt. Furthermore, they embezzled shares of the taxes, so Richard I. decided to create a new office: the coroner. Their official task was to "keep the pleas of the Crown"; this included the investigation of sudden deaths, but also administrative duties.

If a person died, the first one who found the body had to inform the Bailiff of the Hundred, who then had to notify the coroner. His mission was to look at the dead, check the body for wounds and draw conclusions for the coroner's inquest. Moreover he had to find out, if it was a case of homicide. Unless this was the case, he had to conclude, who killed the person and which weapon had been used.

The latter conclusion was of great importance for the Crown, because the value of the weapon had to be paid as a kind of tax (so called "deodand"). All kinds of things could be declared "deodand", including dogs, horses, trees, boats - literally anything. If a horse and cart ran over a man, the whole lot might be confiscated, as well as a mill-wheel that had drowned a child. Besides these activities, he could be called to incidents of sanctuary.

It was often the case, that suspects were locked into gaols, until court was held. If it happened in smaller towns, the citizens had to act as gaolers and furthermore had to feed their prisoners. Therefore they did not guard their captives very careful, which led to a lot of breakouts. That could have had financial consequences for the citizens, but they did not bother at all, because the costs in loss of working time and in feeding the prisoners were balanced by the feeling that these fines were an unavoidable form of taxation. Now the criminals tried to escape to the next churchyard, because there they could claim sanctuary. If they were successful, they could stay there in safety for the next forty days.

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Further on, they could call for the coroner, because he could arrange the "abjurations of the realm." The other two possibilities they had were another escape, or surrender. Whether the criminals decided to "abjure the realm", they could avoid trial and execution by leaving the country under a set routine set by the coroner. Moreover, the coroner's duty was to log treasure troves and investigate wrecks, because the Crown had to receive interests of these discoveries.


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