Today (February 13) in London History – mediaeval hit-and-run driver

An ancient document – The Calendar of the Coroners’ Rolls  – takes us back to a fatal accident 685 years ago on a London street. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


14th-century history. Know any? Sure you do, the Black Death, the 100 Years War, the Peasants’ Revolt (which was sparked by the Poll tax). 

And you know some 14th-century people: Richard II and Wat Tyler and Edward III and Geoffrey Chaucer. Not forgetting Dante, though he wasn’t English of course.

And now you know someone else: a Londoner named Agnes de Cicestre. We know very little about Agnes. But what we do know is poignant. And piquant. We know she died on February 13, 1337. We know where she died, when she died and how she died. She was the victim of a hit-and-run mishap. A wheel on a passing, horse-drawn cart collapsed. The cart fell on Agnes. She was crushed. Died immediately. It was late afternoon. It was just getting dark. Agnes was right by St Mary Bishopsgate – wrong place, wrong time – when the two things came together, when her existence and a passing cart with a faulty wheel intersected.

And that’s all we know about Agnes de Cicestre. We don’t know whether she was a child or a teenage girl or young woman or middle-aged or old lady. We don’t know anything about her family, her loved ones. We don’t know how or where in London they lived. We don’t know where she’s buried. All we can do is get a feel for that awful moment. Hear and sense the cart coming up behind her – or rushing at her if she’s coming along from Bishopsgate – hear the awful sound of the wheel cracking and breaking, and imagine the sheer god-awfulness of the thing collapsing on her. Crushing her. It’s a real-life – and death – mediaeval version of that mordant old cartoon cliche: a safe falling off a roof and falling on a pedestrian down below, killing him. 

It’s a grim thing this tale of a moment, a mishap on a London street 645 years ago but if there is a grain of comfort in it, it’s that thinking about her for even just this minute or two, we’re keeping Agnes de Cicestre alive. Here I’m thinking of that old consolation: we die three times, we die when we die, we die when we’re buried, and we die the last time our name is uttered. 

Agnes de Cicestre, who died 685 years ago, lives.

But we’re not going to leave it at this. There’s more – quite a bit more – that we can do with this ancient London moment. First of all, how do we know the story, how is it we know about the terrible thing that happened to Agnes de Cicestre on February 13, 1337?

We know about it because of an ancient document called the Calendar of the Coroners’ Rolls. The coroner was a mediaeval official who was tasked to record all cases of sudden and unnatural deaths, including suicides, accidents, and homicides. 

After they had been notified of a violent death, the coroner and the sheriffs summoned an investigative jury from the ward where the victim had died and from neighbouring wards. The size of the jury varied from 12 to about 50 individuals. The Rolls report the findings of the investigative jury. They were a brief summary that specified where and when the violent death happened, who was involved, what triggered the event, any weapons (in the case of homicides or suicides) and what the nature and dimensions of the wound were. And finally, what had happened to the perpetrator and what possessions had been found.

Miraculously, nine Coroners’ Rolls relating to the City of London over several years in the first half of the 14th century have survived. Each Roll covers a judicial year, starting in September. They’re kept in the London Metropolitan Archives.

Now I suggest we take a close look at the findings in the Agnes de Cicestre case. It reads as follows (the 14th-century prose has of course been modernised).

On Thursday (February 13), about the hour of vespers, two carters taking two empty carts out of the city were urging their horses apace, when the wheels of one of the carts collapsed opposite the rent of the hospital of St Mary, Bishopsgate, so that the cart fell on Agnes de Cicestre, who immediately died. The carter thereupon left his cart and three horses and took flight in fear, although he was not suspected of malicious intent. The cart and its trappings were appraised by jurors of the ward of Bishopsgate at 6 shillings, 8 pence. The first horse, of a dun colour, at 10 shillings. The second, a gray and blind of both eyes, at 4 shillings. And the third, a black, at 6 shillings. Also five old sacks and five pounds of candles of ‘coton’ which were in the cart at the time of the accident at 16 1/2 pence. Total 28 shillings, 1/2 pence, for which John de North-halle, one of the sheriffs, will answer.”

It’s the briefest of historical documents but so powerful. To use Keats’ phrase, it doth tease us out of thought. Reading it, we stand on a shore looking out at a very wide and vivid sea of speculation. Who were the drivers, for example? Were they young? High spirited? Racing? Having a good time? Had a challenge been thrown down, “race you to Bishopsgate.”

And then the awfulness of the accident. And the driver of the cart – doubtless scared out of his mind – taking off just like that. Thinking “I’ve got to get out of here – nothing good will come of my sticking around.” And we can be sure that he at any rate was not a Londoner. Had he been so it would have been easy to identify him. A team of three horses: dun, grey and black, and the grey horse blind in both eyes. 

What else do we know? We know the cart driver was headed toward Bishopsgate.

The roads out of Bishopsgate head north and east. So our hit and run driver probably lived in north Essex or Suffolk. 

Other clues. Well, vespers was evensong. So that’s how we no the accident occurred late in the afternoon. Is it possible the cart drivers were in a hurry to get to Bishopsgate before it was closed and locked for the night?

And five pounds of candles of coton – that would have been candle wicks or the material for candle wicks. 

The only other word that’s not immediately familiar is “rent” – the accident happened opposite the rent of the hospital of St Mary Bishopgate. Rent simply meant a separate piece of property for which rent was paid. It would have been a building on the ground of the hospital.

And that’s it. Well, not quite it. The cart, the horses, those candlewicks – those chattels were valued at 28 shillings and a half pence. 

A labourer in the year 1300 earned about £2 a year. 28 shillings and a half pence isn’t far off from about nine months earnings. Thousands of pounds in today’s money. 

Whoever the hit and run driver was, that team of horses and the cart – his family’s livelihood may have depended on that equipage. To get it into perspective for you, the Peasants’ revolt was sparked by the poll tax. The poll tax was four pence per adult head per year. 

The hit and run driver whose cart killed Agatha de Cicestre left 400 pence there on that London street when he took off. 

So from that one, brief star-crossed moment – faulty equipment, bad timing, the ill-advised (perhaps high-spirited but foolish) decision to race another driver, bad luck in the extreme – that pivotal second was life-changing for all the actors. Agatha lost her life. Her family members lost Agatha. The runaway driver and his family suffered a terrible economic blow, indeed, perhaps lost their livelihood. I keep thinking about him, making his way out of London, walking, walking, walking, thinking, oh my god, what have I done, what are we going to do – and inevitably, I’m sure, thinking back to how he’d felt just a few minutes before the accident, high-spirited, elated that he was going home, looking forward to seeing his family. And finally, there were bit part players there in London whose lives were also changed by what happened.The abandoned cart, the horses – somebody will have got those assets at a rate, a very good rate. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow someone some good. What happened to Agatha and the cart driver blew someone some good there in that mediaeval Bishopsgate neighbourhood. 

Final point: it came to pass, later in the century, that the city put in place a speed limit for carts. “No carter with liberties shall drive his cart more quickly when it is unloaded than when it is loaded.”

Liberties in this sense means the faculties or power to do as one likes. Being a free agent in that driver’s seat, in other words.

And on that note, Good night from London. Perhaps say a prayer for Agatha. See ya tomorrow. 


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