Fraud, Fictions, and Fixing the Law: Litigation and Legitimacy in the Late Medieval Common Law

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University Club, Room 212
@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

This is a headshot of a woman with glasses and blond hair standing at an overlook at the Castle of Sao Jorge with a view of Lisbon, Portugal.
Photograph courtesy of Charlotte Whatley

Charlotte Whatley

Dana-Allen Dissertation Fellow (2022-2023)

Ph.D. Candidate History, UW–Madison


In Trinity term of 1348, King Edward III of England summoned Ralph, Baron Stafford to appear before the Court of the King’s Bench to answer in a conflict over the advowson to the church of Southill in the diocese of Exeter. Although Stafford – with the king’s help – had only weeks prior secured the advowson to this church, Edward III now claimed it for his own. Soon after, he launched a full-scale legal assault against John Grandisson, the bishop of Exeter, in an effort to exercise his patronage and reinforce his jurisdictional right. Surface readings of case documents might lead one to conclude that the events of the conflict were entirely legitimate and above-board. The reality, however, was quite different.

In this talk I reconstruct the litigation strategies deployed in this dispute to show how specific legal decisions reveal collusion between the king and his baron, the manipulation of technologies of knowledge and legal fictions, and the ways in which Edward III used rituals of process to achieve political success. This case study offers a microcosm of the broader themes in my dissertation, where I reframe the role of the king as an actor within an increasingly bureaucratic legal system, one in which he performed legal ritual even as he and his justices constructed the rule of law. Litigating in the royal courts settled conflicts through legal rather than martial means; by utilizing lawsuits as well as law-making, I argue, Edward III modeled a new way to achieve political stability in England.


Charlotte Whatley is a doctoral candidate in the department of History at UW–Madison. Her dissertation analyzes litigation strategies used in property disputes to reveal the complex relationship between ritualized aspects of medieval English law and the legal authority of kings. Charlotte holds B.A.s in History and Classics from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA and an M.A. in History from the University of Houston in Houston, TX. Her upcoming book chapter, “Excommunication and Its Discontents,” will be published in A Global History of Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages (edited by Karl Shoemaker) in March 2023. Prior to joining the IRH, she was a Courtenay Teaching Fellow in UW’s History department and a Graduate Fellow with the Insitute for Legal Studies at UW Law. Her research has been supported by the Institute for Regional and International Studies and the Medieval Academy of America’s Schallek Award.

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