August 2012 – A dower case in Northumberland

A complicated case of dower lands in Northumberland

Amanda Beam, Research Associate[1]


This feature of the month focuses on a complex case found in the Curia Regis rolls in the 1220s in Northumberland, a case that draws attention to the process of warranty of lands and also to the delays that many plaintiffs experienced throughout a given case. It concerns the dower lands of Albreda (or Aubrée), widow of Adam of Barleyhill, who claimed the third part of Barleyhill, Cronkley and Espershields (in Bywell St Peter parish, west and north-west of Shotley Bridge) against a chain of defendants and warrantors. The case appears six times over two years and sparked three related cases after judgment was made in Albreda’s favour. These other cases were not resolved until 1230 and the lands involved in the original case were again claimed in 1235-6 by who appears to be Albreda’s and Adam’s heir, Richard.

In the first surviving entry from Michaelmas 1224, we can see that the case is already underway, though unfortunately we have no surviving records of the case before this. It seems to have arisen from Adam of Barleyhill having granted the manors of Barleyhill, Cronkley and Espershields to Hugh de Balliol, who afterwards alienated the properties. The lands then go down a long chain of tenants until it ends up with William de Meynhermer, son and heir of Alice de Meynhermer, who – as we know from this first entry – granted the lands to John of Tritlington in marriage with Isabella, presumably William’s daughter. Albreda’s relationship to them or others mentioned in the case is not explained.

At Michaelmas 1224, Albreda claimed dower against John, son of John of Tritlington, ‘whom John his father called to warrant’. The younger John appeared before the justices and said that ‘the land was given to John his father in free marriage with Isabella, his mother’ and he then called to warrant William de Meynhermer, ‘who gave that land in marriage’.[2] What we can gather from this is that William de Meynhermer, when he originally gifted the lands, provided this obligation to warrant (or to guarantee the tenant in possession). In other words, Meynhermer obligated himself ‘to come to court if called upon (‘vouched’) by the tenant’ in order ‘to defend some action brought against him for the possession of that land’.[3] In simple cases of dower, it was the heir of the deceased husband who was the warrantor of the dower. However, as S.J. Bailey comments, warranty in cases of dower, though ‘perhaps the most frequent of all in thirteenth century litigation’ was ‘abnormal in several respects’[4] and in this case, the apparent heir of the deceased husband (Richard, son of Adam) does not appear in any of the entries until the last – a decade later – and was certainly an infant or well underage when the case first appears at Michaelmas 1224. However, John of Tritlington, the son, is the heir to the lands in question which is why, at this point, John of Tritlington, the father, called to warrant his son.

A few months later, at Hilary 1225, Albreda claimed against William de Meynhermer as defendant. This is a normal part of the warranty process, as once the warrantor had come into court and warranted – which Meynhermer did for John of Tritlington the son – he became the defendant to the action and the previous defendant was allowed to go home. Indeed, we do not hear from John, son of John of Tritlington again in this case. At this point, the warrantor (now defendant) had the same rights as the original defendant: he could defend the action himself or call upon someone else to warrant.[5] What happens next is an extraordinary example of warrantors exercising this right as each warrantor in turn becomes the new defendant. William de Meynhermer appeared and called to warrant Henry of Calne and Felicia, his wife, and they were duly summoned. Next, at Michaelmas 1225, they appeared and called to warrant John de Caux and his brother, James, and their wives, Aline and Alice (sisters and co-heirs of the barony of Bolam), respectively. Albreda now appeared against the Caux brothers and their wives, who called to warrant Hugh de Balliol.[6] The case has now had no less than five sets of warrantors, or nine individuals, called upon to vouch for the other. At one time, as Bailey notes, ‘this process of warranting and ‘vouching over’ could be repeated ad infinitum’, though the Statute of Westminster of 1275 put an end to this.[7]

What is evident from this series of entries in the rolls is that the chief lord of the lands was Hugh de Balliol, baron of Bywell, who had given the lands with warranty to the Caux brothers and wives, who had in turn given it to Henry of Calne and his wife, who had given it to William de Meynhermer, who had given it to John of Tritlington. Unfortunately this is all just implied by the rolls, and it is not explicitly stated under what circumstances the lands were given or came into their possession. The only surviving records we have of the lands in question come from John Balliol’s 1268 post-mortem inquisition, which states that in Cronkley there were four bondmen, holding 67 acres in parcels and four cottars, holding 12 acres, while in Epershields, freeholder Robert Walkelin held 48 acres (plus an addition 5 acres of the lord), Alan of Sutton held 7 acres, five bondmen held 57 ½ acres and three cottars held 8 acres. These two freeholders were still holding the lands in 1271 after the death of John’s heir, Hugh.[8] By this date, however, most if not all of the original litigants were dead making it difficult to trace the tenure of the lands.[9]

What happens next in the case, at Easter 1226, must have been disappointing for the defendants and warrantors. When the brothers and their wives (now plaintiffs) appeared in court and offered themselves against Hugh de Balliol so that he would warrant to them the lands in questions, Balliol did not appear despite being summoned. Perhaps as a way to force Balliol to appear, it was then adjudged that land of equal value (usually referred to as escambium or an exchange) was to be seized into the king’s hand by the sheriff and Balliol was further summoned to appear in court. Albreda was also given the same day to appear as it was Hugh’s appearance to warrant on which her case rested.[10]

An entry in the rolls does not survive for their next appearance at court, and indeed it is another three years (Hilary 1229) when the case again appears on record. However, from this later entry we can fill in the missing pieces. Hugh did not appear on the day on which he was summoned, thus Albreda won her case by his default and recovered seisin of the land originally sought against John of Tritlington. Being satisfied with judgment, though perhaps disappointed that it took so long, she does not make any further claim. But, John of Tritlington presumably then began an action for escambium against William de Meynhermer, who then brought action against Henry of Calne and his wife, at which point the case appears again on surviving records.[11]

Again this follows normal warranty procedure with the warrantors bringing writs of charter-warrant against the others up the chain to Hugh’s heir, John de Balliol, seeking to recover the exchange from those bound to warranty.[12] After all, Hugh de Balliol had ‘failed in his duty to warrant and defend the tenant in his seisin’, and was thus required by law to give the Caux brothers and their wives escambium lands, and by Hugh’s default, the Caux brothers were thus required by law to provide escambium to Henry of Calne and his wife, and so on down the chain of warrantors.[13] So what appears in the rolls is just such a sequence of charter-warrants. First, Henry of Calne and his wife were summoned to answer William de Meynhermer because they did not make an exchange to him for the lands which they had warranted to him. When they appeared, they said that ‘they cannot have their exchange from John [de Caux] and Aline [his wife], James [de Caux] and Alice [his wife], as they warranted them in the said court’.[14] Once again there are delays as the sheriff was instructed to summon John and the others to make an exchange to Henry and his wife. Furthermore, once John de Caux and the others answered the summons to make the exchange, they claimed that they could not make the exchange because they did not have their exchange from Hugh de Balliol, who had since died. Without any new writ, it was adjudged that the sheriff order John de Balliol, as son and heir of Hugh, to make the exchange.[15]

The entry that survives in the rolls from Michaelmas 1230 gives some closure to the case. John Balliol essoined himself as on the king’s service,[16] and in his absence it was adjudged that from Balliol’s lands the equivalent value of 60s. 8d. worth of land in the three vills would be taken into the king’s hand.[17] This is not an insignificant amount for dower lands, and thus the entire property must also have been substantial. While it may seem that the matter was closed at this point, in 1235-36, one Richard, son of Adam (likely heir of Adam of Barleyhill and his wife Albreda) claimed against William de Meynhermer two-thirds of the manor of Barleyhill, except six acres, and two-thirds of the manors of Cronkley and of Espershields, as his right.[18] We could speculate that there was some doubt as to the original grant by his father, Adam, to Hugh de Balliol. But also, Richard may have come of age at this point, and is thus claiming his share of the lands with the other third remaining as terce for his mother. William appeared and called to warrant Felicia ‘Escotland’ – Henry of Calne apparently deceased at this point – who warranted to him and who also called to warrant James de Caux and his wife Alice, and Aline, widow of John de Caux, who warranted to Felicia and called thus to warrant John de Balliol.

The complexity of the case comes from the chain of warrantors who start out as defendants against the original plaintiff (Albreda of Barleyhill), but later become plaintiffs against other warrantors up to the chief lords (the Balliols). There does not seem to be a comparable case in the rolls for the same period in which there was this long chain of warrantors and defendants. The closest example in the three northern counties of England would be that involving the dower lands of Isabella, widow of Robert of Muskham. Robert had evidently alienated the lands several times so that her dower was seemingly scattered to the wind. Over the course of two years, she was involved in several concurrent cases against many defendants who called upon two different sets of warrantors. There also appears, in Cumberland and Yorkshire, a case whereby a plaintiff (William of Skirgill) appears against several defendants (Robert, son of Walter, Walter son of Adam, Hugh of Skirwith and his wife, Robert Doket and his wife). The first defendant, Robert son of Walter, called to warrant a certain Thomas of Burgo. Walter son of Adam and Robert Doket called to warrant fellow defendant Robert son of Walter, while Hugh of Skirwith and his wife called to warrant Walter son of Adam (who immediately called to warrant Robert son of Walter). With Robert son of Walter, then, leading all the defendants as warrantor, he then calls to warrant the same Thomas of Burgo.[19]

In simple cases of dower, most delays were caused by the difficulties in securing the heir’s or warrantor’s appearance in court. In the Barleyhill case, however, all the defendants and warrantors ostensibly do not hesitate to appear when called to warrant. It is, rather, the absence and subsequent default of the chief lord which caused the most problems. The willingness for the warrantors to appear and duly warrant the tenant in possession is noteworthy as Bailey comments that those who do so willingly may have nothing to lose; that is, they have nothing from which an exchange could be taken.[20] But, we know that this is not true. John and James de Caux held the barony of Bolam by right of their wives, co-heirs of Walter, son of Gilbert (d.1206), and had held the barony in chief of the king from the time of King John for the service of three knights.[21] Henry of Calne and his wife held lands in the bishopric of Durham, though in the rolls it was stated that the bishop of Durham would have to distrain them as their lands could not be taken into the king’s hand for an exchange.[22] Thus, these couples did have something to lose and it is unfortunate that calling Hugh de Balliol to warrant proved to be a fatal flaw in their case.

Moreover, warranty in dower cases, as mentioned earlier, was not uncommon, as husbands often alienated property which left the widows with dower claims against many defendants (as evident from the Muskham case). What was uncommon, though, was a case such as this where the number of defendants arose not from several alienations but from this extraordinary chain of warrantors.

It is certainly a difficult and unfortunate situation when defendants and warrantors could not rely on their chief lord to carry out his duties to them, but in the end, the courts also exercised their right to compel the chief lord to fulfil his obligations, as John Balliol was compelled in absentia to provide an exchange. Although the case was delayed for several years, and even then perhaps not resolved to the satisfaction of the original plaintiff’s heir, it appears that proper procedure was followed by the courts in terms of the litigants’ rights of warranty and escambium.



[1] My thanks to Professor David Carpenter for his helpful comments on this case.

[2] William was summoned in the county of York to appear on the morrow of Martinmas. Curia Regis Rolls, xi, no. 1980 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 263).

[3] S.J. Bailey, ‘Warranties of land in the thirteenth century’, Cambridge Law Journal 8 (1942-4), 274-99, at 274.

[4] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 283-4.

[5] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 290.

[6] Curia Regis Rolls, xii, nos. 335, 1431, 1969 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, nos. 277, 281, 285). Aline and Alice were daughters of Walter, son of Gilbert of Bolam (d.1206) and his wife, Emma de Umfraville (Hedley, Northumberland Families, 23-24).

[7] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 290 n.125.

[8] CDS, i, pg. 500 (no. 2505); History of Northumberland, vi (Bywell), 206-07.

[9] John de Caux died in 1234. When the case re-emerges in 1235-36, it is also apparent that Albreda the widow and Henry of Calne have also died. James de Caux died in 1248.

[10] Curia Regis Rolls, xii, no. 2214 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 288).

[11] Curia Regis Rolls, xiii, no. 1431 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 324).

[12] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 285.

[13] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 284, 292.

[14] Curia Regis Rolls, xiii, no. 1431 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 324).

[15] Curia Regis Rolls, xiii, no. 1966 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 307 as KB26/102). See also Bracton, ii, no. 432 footnote.

[16] Balliol was given a safe conduct, issued from Nantes, ‘to come to speak with the king’ after Henry’s arrival on the continent in May to resolve the conflicts between the French and English kings over the possession of Poitou and Normandy (CDS, i, nos. 1097-8). Another complaint against Balliol, involving his obstructing of the miners of Alston, was also resolved while he was overseas (CDS, i, nos. 714 (from the Fine Rolls), 1053, 1091 (from the Memoranda Rolls); Hist. Northumberland, vi, 36-7).

[17] Curia Regis Rolls, xiv, no. 527 (duplicated in Northumberland Pleas, no. 329).

[18] Northumberland Pleas, no. 362 from Assize Roll 866 (19-20 Henry III, 1235).

[19] KB26/200C m.33d. Robert Doket and his wife together called Gilbert son of Everard to warrant.

[20] Bailey, ‘Warranties of Land in the Thirteenth Century’, 291.

[21] Book of Fees (or Testa de Nevill), (London, 1920-23), 202, 371.

[22] Bracton’s Notebook, iii, no. 1096 (Easter 1225)

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