The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303

by
02 November 2006

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A case of rififi in the late Middle Ages: Giles Gasper enjoys history blended with a good detective yarn

BETWEEN Tuesday 30 April and Friday 3 May 1303, a group of men broke into the crypt of Westminster Abbey and robbed it of the treasures it held. These treasures were considerable; for the crypt was used as the repository for the crown jewels — the gold, gems and regalia of the English Crown.

Breaking in was no mean feat. The crypt was securely locked, its walls up to 17 feet thick, the few windows well barred. However, the robbers did not work alone: the evidence strongly suggests collusion with members of the monastic community. The King, Edward I, was on campaign in Scotland, but soon learnt of the theft, and directed Ralph de Sandewich and John de Drokensford to investigate. The robbery and the investigation are the fascinating topic unpicked by Paul Doherty.

His chapters are focused on the key characters and groups involved: the King, the monks of Westminster, the investigators, and the robbers themselves, in particular Richard Puddlicott. Having outlined the elements of the story, Doherty gives a lucid and detailed account of the process of investigation, before revealing at the end its results and the fate of its victims.

In itself, the story is intriguing. Doherty, however, uses it further to illuminate the workings of law and justice in late-medieval England. A vivid picture is drawn of the complex world of London at that time, its sometimes tempestuous but always watchful relations with the Crown, and the rather summary mechanisms of government within the city. His story also gives insight into the connections between the Abbey of Westminster and its secular neighbours: the Abbey jealously guarded its own judicial privileges, but the life of its inmates was often anything but other-worldly.

The power and limitations of royal justice are also explored. Under Edward I, the arm of royal justice was extended, but the account of the robbery shows how hard the royal investigators had to work to mete out punishment. Based on a thorough knowledge of the original sources, and engagingly written, this book is to be warmly recommended, both as an insightful piece of social history and as a fascinating medieval detective story.

Dr Gasper teaches in the department of history at Durham University.

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