Exeter Medieval Studies Blog

The story (and politics) of a murder

Posted by bhattacharya

3 June 2024

Late one night in November 1283, Walter Lechlade – who was then the precentor of Exeter cathedral – left his house to walk to the cathedral for a service. His house used to be exactly at the spot where the Exeter Cathedral School stands today. Walter finished the service of matins by 1:30am, and accordingly left the cathedral, presumably to get back home.

But he never made it back. Just when he was nearing the entrance to his house, he was intercepted by a group of ruffians, and murdered. All the killers escaped into the night, made easier by the fact that the South Gate of the city fortifications had been left open.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, John Lechlade – the dead man’s brother – accused some twenty-one people of being responsible for his brother’s death, including the mayor of Exeter. There had long been tensions between the city and cathedral authorities. The cathedral and its surrounding areas had a legally privileged status as it formed a separate jurisdiction, called the ‘bishop’s fee’, over which the mayor and city institutions had virtually no authority: – only the bishop had authority over the Close, which essentially functioned as a city within a city.

The bishop, Peter Quinil, was also in dispute with the newly-elected dean of the cathedral, John Pycot. Pycot had apparently won the election under dubious circumstances, and Quinil refused to recognise him as dean and wanted him removed. Pycot, however, had the support of Alured de la Porte, the mayor of Exeter, and many of the city folk. This no doubt had created a delicate situation, with no side being able to effectively move against the other. But after the murder of Walter, John Lechlade instituted legal proceedings against Pycot, Alured, and nineteen others. To Lechlade, his brother, having been close to the bishop before his murder, would have represented a major political opponent for these men in their attempts to undermine the bishop’s power.

The case, however, was slow to proceed. It even appears that John Lechlade himself was at one point imprisoned for failing to prove his accusations: he did not have any solid evidence against Pycot and others. Seeing his faction on the losing side, the bishop played his best move – he petitioned the king to come to Exeter and settle the issue.

King Edward I arrived in Exeter just before the Christmas of 1285. A trial ensued at Rougemont castle, and several men were pronounced guilty and executed – including the mayor, the porter of the South Gate (because the gate was left open on the night of the murder), and an interesting character called Thomas the Leader (who must have been a leader of the common folk within the city but not an office-bearer himself). John Pycot was retired into a monastery. The actual killers were probably never found. The king also gave the bishop permission to construct walls and gates around the cathedral to deal with “lawlessness” around the cathedral on new year’s day of 1286, which became the long-term outcome of this entire incident. These walls were demolished in the early nineteenth century.

However, this is the point where we encounter some difficulties with the sources. The murder of a precentor would definitely have been a very serious affair, but both the crucial primary sources – the bishop’s register and the king’s charter– are comparatively silent about such a matter. The bishop’s register does mention Walter Lechlade’s death and the fact that he was the precentor at the time of his death, but does not give any account of any violence leading to the death.

Furthermore, sometime during the nineteenth century, several letters were found in the Tower of London that offer an unexpected twist to this story. The most important of these letters was one from the bishop Peter Quinil to the king, dated 25th July 1286, asking the latter to pardon John Pycot! The letter explains how the bishop feels that Pycot is not guilty of Walter Lechlade’s murder, based on the testimony of “trustworthy and discreet men”, and hence requests the king to “order the restitution of his goods and possessions according to the demand of justice, if it be pleasing to you”. The bishop also writes similar letters for some other of the accused in the case. As for exactly why, we do not know. We also do not know why these men could not be proven innocent just a few months earlier in a trial supervised by the king, but all of them were acquitted later upon testimony from unknown persons. Can this, coupled with the silence of the bishop’s register, be taken to mean that Walter Lechlade was never murdered, and that rather his death was under different circumstances? This would mean that the bishop knew that Walter wasn’t murdered, or at least not by Pycot and his associates. If so, why did he then petition the king to come to Exeter to settle a baseless murder case litigated by John Lechlade accusing the mayor and Pycot among others of his brother’s murder? Pycot’s candidacy as the dean of the cathedral was backed by the mayor, so could it be that all of this was in some way the bishop’s plan to get rid of the mayor?

This story thus tells us so much about the many political intricacies surrounding the cathedral, the cathedral’s rivalry with city corporations, and the various factions, power dynamics, and hierarchies that are affected by the supposed murder of a high-level clergyman in a mediaeval English town. As a historian based in Exeter, it is also a surreal moment imagining everything that might have happened at places I walk by every day, and all the different stories that each road, building, and park has held for centuries.

Shagnick Bhattacharya is a freelance writer, and is completing an MRes in Social and Economic History at the University of Exeter. Cover photo: Exeter Cathedral and Cathedral Green today. Licensed under Creative Commons.


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