Death by Drowning - Fordwich Custumal

The Fordwich Custumal is a most-interesting document which sets-forth the laws and customs of the port town of Fordwich, England during medieval times. 

During the Middle Ages, Fordwich (on the River Stour) was the main port for Canterbury (before the Wantsum River Channel—then about 1.5 miles wide, through which large vessels could pass—silted-up, causing the Isle of Thanet to become part of mainland England).  

This image depicts a page from the Fordwich Custumal (believed to be from the late 13th century).  Among other things, this section of the Custumal deals with very harsh forms of punishment. 

Condemned felons, for example, would go from the abbot's court to the Thiefswell (“thiefs’ well”).  Their hands were then bound with rope, and the rope would also be wrapped underneath the felon’s legs (forcing the knees to bend).  

Once the felon was in that roped-up position, the accuser would throw the prisoner into the well.  Death by drowning was the intent of the action.

Hereafter is the English translation (from the Latin) of this page:

And when the appellant and appellee shall come before the Mayor and jurats and the steward of the Lord Abbot … the sergeant of the bailiff who shall so have the custody of the appellee shall stand with an axe holding him bound only he is to be unbound when he ought to answer … and if the appellee shall wish to acquit himself according to the customs of the liberties of the cinque ports it shall be adjudged him that he have at a certain day … thirty and six good and lawful men and true who shall swear with him that he is not guilty … and it is to be known that when the aforesaid thirty and six are to acquit any man their names ought to be written and all called by name and if they shall answer twelve of them ought to be dismissed by the steward of the Lord Abbot and twelve others be dismissed by the Mayor and jurats so that the Mayor and steward may choose twelve of the thirty six aforesaid whom the shall wish to swear with the appellee that he is not guilty so help him all Holy Saints, kissing the Book, etc … after shall be called the said twelve who are chosen to swear and they shall swear as they are called by name to wit everyone by himself and the said Oath made by the appellee is good and true and that he is not guilty of such things imputed to him so help them all Holy Saints etc, which if they shall do the appellee is acquited and the appellant attachable and all his goods being within the liberty of the will of the Lord Abbot.

But if any of the aforesaid twelve shall withdraw himself from the book being unwilling to swear the appellee shall lose his life. And all who are condemned in that case or in any other case to death ought to be taken from the aforesaid court of the Lord Abbot by the Stour unto a certain place called the “theifs’ well” and there their hands ought to be tied under their legs to wit, “kneebent” and they shall be instantly thrust down alive and drowned there. And this shall be done by him who prosecutes. And the water is the property of the commonalty howsoever it may have been appropriated by others.

Click on the image for a better view.  To read more about the Fordwich Custumal, visit ORB (On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies).

Media Credits

Image online via Medieval English Town website.


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