Thursday, July 12, 2018

To Catch a Thief...

By Sarah Rayne

I’m keen on atmospheric settings and I’m very keen indeed on houses and buildings with intriguing histories.  In the early stages of drafting a new plot, looking for a hook on which to hang a building (so to speak), I came across a fragment of a very old English law.

It happened by purest chance.  One afternoon having become lost in the depths of the countryside, I drove past a field with a sign on the gate saying, ‘Infanger’s Field’. 

The English countryside is, it must be said, liberally strewn with strange and intriguing names. Quite near to where I live is a village called Coven. It’s an extremely nice place, but its name is always very deliberately pronounced ‘Coe-Ven’. Purists carefully point out that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon, cofum¸meaning either a cove or a hut, but despite that, there are occasionally dark mutterings suggesting that the place once had witchcraft associations, and that the pronunciation was politely slurred to hide that fact. 

Then there are all those instances of Glue Works Lane and Slaughter Yard. There’s Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London reputedly started in a baker’s shop. On the other hand, there are places whose names are open to interpretation, such as Cockshutt in Shropshire, which, despite sounding like a venue for a Carry On film, is likely to derive from fowl hunting activities. Other names are satisfyingly rooted in the past: Oxford has Brasenose College and Brasenose Lane – supposedly from the Brazen Nose door knocker of the original sixteenth century Hall. Incredibly, though, the city also once had the now-lost Shitbarn Lane, c.1290, which ran between Oriel Street and Alfred Street.

But Infanger’s Field? 

I made eager notes – I even ventured into the field itself to pace the boundaries, although it was a bit unfortunate that I dropped my notebook in the mud, (I think it was mud – I hope it was mud), and perhaps I wouldn’t have worn scarlet gloves if I had known there was a bull in the field. 

Then I dashed home to scour bookshelves and the internet.

And it seems that the word comes from the Old English infangene-þēof –  ‘Thief seized within’ or ‘in-taken-thief’.  Infangenthief or infangentheof, no matter how you spell it, was an Anglo-Saxon arrangement, supposedly from the time of Edward the Confessor – c.1003-1066, and one of the last of the royal House of Wessex. 

Infangentheof, and its sister law, outfangentheof, apparently permitted the owners of a piece of land the right to mete out justice to miscreants captured within their estates, regardless of where the poor wretches actually lived. On occasions it also allowed the culprits to be chased in other jurisdictions, and brought back for trial. The justice that was meted out was often extremely severe – there was no cheerful Gilbert & Sullivan principle of letting the punishment fit the crime in those days. People were beheaded – limbs were cut off – vagabonds were often whipped and chained in stocks. Others were forced to carry hot stones, or wear bridles over their tongues – a favoured method for troublesome wives, of course. Poisoners might be boiled alive.

As for murderers, they risked being hung up in a cage, usually after their execution, although occasionally before it, so that people could watch their slow death. It was a day out for the ordinary people; you could take a bit of lunch with you, and it made something to tell the neighbours.
This grisly custom was sometimes useful to those unprincipled (and strong-stomached) souls who were resolved on proving the truth of the ‘Hand of Glory’ ritual – the belief that the dried hand of a hanged man had power. Writing the Ingoldsby Legends in the 1840s, the Reverend Richard Barham paints a deeply macabre image of three crones climbing up a gibbet in quest of such a gruesome fragment.
‘On the lone bleak moor, at the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallow Tree,
Hand in hand, the Murderers stand,
By one, by two, by three!
Now mount who list, and close by the wrist,
Sever me quickly, the Dead Man’s fist.
And climb, who dare, where he swings in the air,
And pluck me five locks of the Dead Man’s hair.’
The privilege of exercising the law of infangentheof and extorting suitable punishments, was granted to feudal lords, and, inevitably, to religious houses, who generally liked to get their hands on any odds and ends of power that might be up for grabs.  When the Normans came barrelling in, they made cheerful use of most of these laws too, and they particularly liked infangentheof, which they felt helped keep the rebellious Saxons in their place.

The recipients of the privilege usually got a bit of a smorgasbord – as well as infangentheof, the king tended to throw in a few other goodies. The granting of a free borough, could be one, along with things called soke and sake, and toll and team.  Sake, despite sounding like something you’d glug down with your sushi, literally translated as ‘cause and suit’, while soke and team referred to the ‘privilege of holding court’, intended for judging people accused of wrongful possession of goods or cattle.

Toll was then, as it is today, the right granted to a landowner to impose a payment on the sale or passage of goods or cattle on his lands, or, alternatively, to be exempt from the tolls of others. So today’s motorists paying to drive along a particular stretch of motorway, and modern travellers struggling with the complexities of customs and excise (not least the present government in its wrangles with the EU), might justifiably direct their wrath towards the likes of King John. In fact, Henry III, in a Charter to the citizens of Norwich of 1229, makes ceremonious greetings to his subjects starting with bishops and archbishops and going all the way down the social scale to reeves, bailiffs, and the useful all-embracing term of ‘all faithful men’, after which, the courtesies having been observed and all Henry’s titles having been listed, (presumably in case somebody reading the edict didn’t know who he was), goes on to inform his subjects thus –
“… at the request and petition of our venerable father, John, the second [of that name], bishop of Norwich, we have granted and by this present charter confirmed to the burgesses of Lenn, that the borough of Lenn may be a free borough for ever, and they may have soke and sake, toll and team, infangenthief and outfangenthief.”
I have no idea if it was a fragment from the past I encountered with Infanger’s Field that day – perhaps a shred of some long-ago feudal baron who had named a field as a warning to miscreants.  And I’m doubtful if I could find the field again. 

The law itself fell more or less into disuse in the fourteenth century and all-but vanished from England’s history. Thankfully most of the punishments have vanished as well. But fragments of the law can still be found here and there. Such as in the name of a field that now houses only an indignant bull. 


Sarah Rayne’s first novel was published in 1982, and since then she has written more than 25 books. As well as being published in America and Australia, her novels have been translated into German, Dutch, Russian, and Turkish. Much of her inspiration comes from the histories and atmospheres of old buildings, which is strongly apparent in many of her settings – Charect House in Property of a Lady, Twygrist Mill in Spider Light, and the Irish cottage,Tromloy, in Death Notes.  Music also influences a number of her plots: the music hall songs in Ghost Song, the eerie death lament ‘Thaisa’s Song’ in The Bell Tower, and the lost music in Chord of Evil that hides a devastating secret from WWII.
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  1. I really enjoyed this article, thanks!

  2. Fun and educational read, thank you.

  3. Well, Sarah, what a brilliant article - all from seeing that intriguing sign. Love learning something new, thank you! There mist be so many ghosts still lurking...


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