A Legal Looting in Medieval England

In 1547, Thomas Michell murdered Eleanor and John Sydnam and then killed himself. Knowing Michell to be “a man of great possessions”, the local undersheriff, Nicholas Sarger, rushed to the murderer’s home to seize his belongings. When Sarger arrived, he found Michell’s neighbours already in the house, busily removing everything they could carry. And they weren’t the only ones taking an interest in the dead man’s effects for, soon after, Nicholas Heath, the king’s chief almoner, launched suits against Sarger and the others, claiming that the goods belonged to him.

This almighty scramble for loot in the wake of three violent deaths may appear more than a little unseemly. Yet, it was a common occurrence in 16th and 17th century England.in fact, by the time Thomas Michell took his own life, the practice of appropriating criminal’s possessions had been deeply embedded in English common law for centuries. The concept of felony forfeiture, as the practice is known, was first introduced under the Anglo-Saxons. By the 12th century, it was following a well-established formula, with criminals forfeiting their goods to the king and their lands to their lord – after the king taken the profit of those lands for a year and a day.

A house is pillaged in the 14th century

By the times of Tudors, profit had been replaced by patronage as the prime motivator for the monarch’s involvement in felony forfeiture. Criminals’ goods were serving as commodities for a crown at pains to reward its servants. And these servants numbered some of the most high-profile figures in the country. For example, among the first signs of royal favour bestowed upon Henry VIII’s future wife, Catherine Howard, was the rather unromantic gift of the possessions of two Sussex murder.

Yet you didn’t have to be the apple of the king’s eye to join the scramble for criminals’ property. By the 16th century, felony forfeiture was making men of various ranks substantial amounts of money. One of its many beneficiaries was a Philip Smith, who appears in the records selling the household goods of the suicide Robert Hobbes back to his widow for 22 pounds.

With so much money up for grabs, it wasn’t long before the less scrupulous members of society were pushing for increasingly draconian sentences – or even fabricating convictions altogether. In 1524, Joan Burleton was pardoned of the crime of poisoning her husband after being indicted “by the special labour of certainly malicious gentlemen… desiring her goods and tenements”.

It is a little wonder then that the public grew increasingly suspicious of felony forfeiture and more inclined to obstruct it – which may explain why Thomas Michell’s neighbours were so eager to empty his home.