While the PC’s are out traveling the wilderlands they are largely a law unto themselves. There are few (if any) present in those forsaken places to take exception to their actions, and so effectively no law. Should their actions break the law and others suffer who then return to civilization and lodge a complaint, trouble then begins, however. And it can begin as soon as the PC’s themselves return to civilization, which they must likely do at some point, at least to get gear and supplies. If the complaint is serious enough, a cadre of guards might be sent forth to bring one, a few, or all of them in, perhaps led by a sergeant-at-arms, or even a local knight, maybe a “knight of the shire” of some local standing.
Once back in civilized lands, the PC’s can no longer be a rule unto themselves, but must abide by the laws even if they hold them in disdain or even contempt. Regardless of the setting, when there is the possibility others might carry the tale of their deeds back to authorities who by the law must disapprove, the PC’s have to act accordingly. While outlaws who cross the PC’s paths are fair game, and their deaths yield a profit like any other wolf’s head (5s.), opponents who annoy and even completely frustrate their efforts cannot be tortured or cut down simply to vent one’s spleen. Murder is a hanging offense, and all property (“moveables”) is forfeit to the Crown. Not to mention the impact of such callous behavior on the Vice scores of the characters involved.
In regards to outlaws, regardless of their appearance in various shows or movies supposedly set in the period, there is NO such thing as a “WANTED” notice or poster such as is depicted being used in the towns of the old Wild West. Not much more than 20% of the population is able to read, to start with. To post such a notice would be an exercise in futility. With no printing press, writing them by hand in sufficient quantity would cost the earth in labor and paper and ink – wasteful as well. Notices to the general populace are read aloud by heralds in places where people gather, like markets on market days, from the pulpit in the churches, in town squares and on village greens, and passed on the guilds to be read to their members, as well as being recited at major, heavily traveled cross-roads.
Those found hovering over a dead body are likely to be arrested on suspicion by those raising the Hue-and-Cry, for it is their duty on finding the body to raise the Cry themselves. Any protestations of having been engaged in a little “detective work” matters little, and is likely to anger the local officials, because inspecting the premises and evidence on the scene and all other inquiries into deaths are the responsibility of the Coroner of the Shire and his men. Of course, if a commission can be obtained or at least an understanding can be struck with the Coroner and the Sheriff, the PC’s might find themselves with a free hand to fight crime in their shire.
Other misdeeds must be reported to the Village Reeve and the Bailiff and/or Constable of the Hundred, the Sheriff or other authority to be pursued by them and their men. If the misdeed happened before the PC’s themselves, they must raise the Hue and pursue the malefactors and take them captive, with the help of those who respond to their call, and wait for some authority to arrive to lock them up. In such cases they can be called on to render affidavits for evidence in court.
Smugglers and counterfeiters are ferreted out by local innkeepers and merchants, and by the official Searchers commissioned by letters patent through the local sheriff’s office. These may or may not appreciate getting “tips” or leads from common citizens, especially if a reward for the service is sought in return. If the PC’s can get a formal commission to act as Questors or Searchers, or obtain from the authorities permission to make their own inquiries, well and good. If the PC seeking this is a “law-worthy” knight owning land worth £40 per year or more in income within the shire in which he is seeking permission to operate, he may well succeed. He must have a few influential local friends in the shire, however, and the good will of the Sheriff and Coroner. That good will depends on how dedicated to their offices those men are.
At the very least, cultivating friendly relations with the people who hold the offices responsible for the peace and upholding the law should be its own reward if the PC’s intend to get involved in investigating matters of crime. Otherwise, their interference is likely to be resented, unless they have the patience to wait and see what the authorities and the courts find and resolve to do on their own. If they disagree with those findings, the PC’s can take any additional evidence they find and perhaps open a new case, or see the old case reopened.
Should the PC’s not appear or take the time to “essoin” (tender an excuse) in answer to the summons for a suit at court, they risk eventual outlawry, a price of 2s. or more on their heads and the forfeiture of any and all worldly goods on which the authorities can lay their hands. The PC’s must decide which side of the law to live on. While living on the right side of the law may take a little more patience, restraint and effort, it can sure make freely gadding about the land on one’s business a far less worrisome affair.
In the civilized lands there is law, and if the PC’s have a mind to redress injustices of any kind, they really should get a grasp on the law and the system in place designed to mediate justice in the medieval gameworld. Civilization has its benefits, advantages and comforts, but the officials and the law by which it runs can be a two-edged sword.
When a robber, murder, or other felon, or even one whose offense is political – treason – is too hard pressed by the law and its officers, especially on having escaped from prison, he can always flee into a church and claim Sanctuary. Churches in the period of the game are sacred places, inviolable by ancient custom and canon law.
All those crossing its threshold stand under the protection of the “Peace of the Light”.
Many churches have a special door with a knocker designated especially for the receipt of those seeking sanctuary, and others have “fridstools” or “peace chairs” of either carven wood or stone, on which the fugitive must seat himself to claim safety. Once he has claimed sanctuary, the fugitive may not be removed from the church except by his own will, especially not by any force of arms.
On claiming sanctuary, the bell is rung and witnesses summoned, the crime(s) are confessed before them and taken down in writing, along with the full names of the witnesses, and took an oath to remain peaceful, to help in case of fire or strife, to bear no pointed weapon – dagger, knife, nor any other weapon against the King’s Peace.
To take a fugitive by force from the church who is seated in the chair, or located at the shrine of the holy relics behind the altar, no fine can be levied, the offense is too great for any amount of money to be accepted in atonement.
To drag a man out of the church is sacrilege punishable by whipping, heavy fines, excommunication, or even death. Even Ralph Ferrers, the retainer of the most powerful man in the kingdom of his time (1378, in service to John of Gaunt) was excommunicated for having dragged two men from the sanctuary of Westminster Cathedral, killing one of them in the process. In response to the excommunication, a great treatise was written calling for the abolition of the ancient right, but even the king dared not trespass upon it.
Only the Church itself has the right to expel those in Sanctuary from its protection. A woman killed the priest of a certain church in London and remained in that same church claiming sanctuary for 5 days, after which time the bishop of the city issued a letter denying her the aid of the Church, after which she was taken away to Newgate and 3 days later she was hanged (1320).
In London (1324), 10 prisoners escaped the dungeons of Newgate, 5 of which took sanctuary in one of two churches, after which they foreswore England and abjured the realm.
After the fugitive’s confession, the Coroner conducts the abjuration, first assigning the fugitive a port by which he is to leave the realm and the date by which he is to go, then taking his oath on the steps before the church door.
“This hear thou, Sir Coroner, that I, [name], am a [criminal, cite crimes … robber of sheep, or other beasts, a murderer of one or more, etc.], and a felon to our lord the King of England, and because I have done many such evils … in this land, I do abjure the land of our lord [Edward] King of England, and I shall haste me towards the port of [place name], which thou hast given me, and I shall not go out of the highway, and if I do I will that I be taken as a felon to our lord the king; and at [port name] I will diligently seek for passage, and that I will tarry there but one flood and ebb, if I can have passage; and unless I can have it in such a place I will go every day into the sea up to my knees assaying to pass over; and unless I can [depart] within 40 days, I will put myself again into the church as a [fugitive] and a felon to our lord the king.
So [the Light] help me in [Its] holy judgement.”
While on his road to the port assigned, the criminal holds a wooden cross out in front of him so others are informed of his purpose. His time limit varies, on occasion being so brief as to be almost impossible for one on foot to meet it in some cases requiring him to maintain the impossible speed of 33mph (8 days to travel the 270 miles from London to Dover, one of the most common exit ports).
A priest who claims sanctuary in a church, on the other hand, is not required to abjure the realm, as long as he can truthfully swear he is a priest and enjoys ecclesiastical privilege.
The institution was horridly abused in practice, as shown by the following quote attributed to the Duke of Buckingham.
“What a rabble of thieves, murderers, and malicious heinous traitors … Men’s wives run thither with their husbands’ plate, and say, they dare not abide with their husbands for [the] beating[s]. Thieves bring thither their stolen goods, and there live thereon. There devise they new robberies; nightly they steal out, they rob and reave, and kill, and come in again as though those places gave them not only a safe-guard for the harm they have done, but a license also to do more.”
Sanctuary was not legally suppressed until 21 James I (1624), however, and the custom proved so deeply entrenched that the law had to be reissued in 1697.