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Feodo de Compedibus Vocato le Sewet: The 15th Century Prison 'Oeconomy'


Jonathan Rose


Arizona State University College of Law



Abstract:     
In the Fastolf Papers in the Archives of Magdalen College, University of Oxford, is an account of payments and expenses of Sir John Fastolf made during ten years of litigation from 1449-1459, Fastolf Paper 42. One entry in this document is both puzzling and interesting. It reads:

Item paid by Thomas Howes . . . for the fee of shackles called the sewet (feodo de compedibus vocato le sewet) both for himself and for John Porter until the jurors impaneled in the attaint might appear before the justices of the King at Westminster

In this instance, the payment occurred in connection with an attaint brought by John Porter, a Fastolf servant, to overturn a jury verdict in a conspiracy case brought against him and another Fastolf servant, Thomas Howes by John Andrew, a Suffolk official and lawyer and a member of the East Anglian affinity of William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk.

This entry raises several interesting questions: what was the fee of shackles and why was it called the 'sewet'? The answer lies in the financial characteristics of the medieval century prison system, its 'Oeconomy.' Moreover, understanding the meaning of sewet does not answer the substantive question regarding the propriety of its imposition. The purpose of this paper is to explore these questions. In general, sewet was a payment of money or practice to make prison life less onerous.

The paper begins with an overview of the various fees charged prisoners by keepers in the medieval prisons, especially those in London, the Fleet, Newgate, Ludgate, the King's Bench Marshalsea and the sheriff's Counters. The charging of fees by keepers was a controversial practice. There were persistent complaints about these fees. From the 14th century through the 17th century, there were numerous regulations enacted detailing what fees were permissible and the amounts that could be charged.

The paper turns to use of irons, a controversial practice, both to determine what were considered the appropriate and inappropriate uses of irons and to understand the legitimacy of the fee for removing them, feodo de compedibus. A primary justification for the use of irons was to prevent prisoners from escaping. However, prisoners complained about the inappropriate use of irons and the imposition of fees to remove them. Again, over several centuries, numerous measures regulated such fees.

With this background, the paper then focuses on the meaning of sewet, a later spelling of suete, which was part of a term, suete de prisone. This term perplexed medieval scholars at the beginning of the 20th century. Although they correctly identified the core meaning, the primary investigation failed to understand that the various contexts in which it was used suggested that there were multiple meanings of the term. There was also contemporary confusion as to what Latin word was appropriate to use in official records. By the middle of the 20th century, Latham connected this Law French term with the Latin word, suavitas. Thus, sewet meant a payment of money for ameliorating prison conditions, making life there 'sweeter.' Although not disagreeing with this earlier scholarship, the paper argues for further refinement of the meaning, connecting the term also with the liability of keepers for the escape of prisoners. The paper reviews the multiple contexts and spellings of sewet and its equivalents to further explore its meaning and use. The paper asserts that the most common reason for paying sewet or suete de prisone was the removal the prisoner's irons. Removal of the irons increased the likelihood of escape and the potential for the keeper's liability for a fine or damages because of the escape as well liability for the debt of prisoner to the latter's creditor.

The paper then turns to an analysis of the propriety of charging sewet in the particular instance reflected in the entry in the Fastolf Paper 42. The use of irons was permissible in some instance and escape from the King's Bench Marshalsea was a recognized problem. However the use of irons was probably inappropriate in the case of Howes and Porter, given the reason for their imprisonment, their failure to pay a ransom to the king for their conviction in Andrew's conspiracy suit, and the low likelihood of their escape. While it is impossible to know the amount of the fee in this case, it may not be necessary as a 1445 statute appeared to prohibit the charging of sewet. Moreover, plea roll entries suggest that during the time of Howes and Porter were charged sewet, the statute was enforced strictly. In addition, Sir John Fastolf, who paid all these expenses, was a visible and easy target, for an abusive charge. Thus the paper concludes that charging of sewet to remove Howes' and Porter's irons was dubious and probably, although not clearly, inappropriate.

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Date posted: June 9, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Rose, Jonathan, Feodo de Compedibus Vocato le Sewet: The 15th Century Prison 'Oeconomy'. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=739716 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.739716

Contact Information

Jonathan Rose (Contact Author)
Arizona State University College of Law ( email )
Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States
480-965-6513 (Phone)
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