Introduction: Telling the Story

I recently gave a public lecture on medieval households and their composition, and decided – as it was a free public lecture, part of Cardiff University’s Exploring the Past outreach series –  to focus the whole thing around the famous (or rather infamous) murder of William Cantilupe in 1375.

I wanted to make this an interactive, engaging evening for people, particularly taking into account the lecture room was small (capacity 50), fairly low-tech (one projector with a screen at the front, and whiteboards) and the demographic of this series of public lecture talks were not, on the whole, up for social media engagement (I did offer a Twitter hashtag during the lecture, but to no avail).

I opted instead to tell the story with a handout, essentially based on Cluedo/Clue. I simply had a double-sided sheet of A4 with the victim’s family tree on one side, and a table of suspects on the other so that the audience could jot down their thoughts on whodunit as the lecture progressed and they gained wider knowledge about the servants and their roles within the household, as well as the lifestyle and marital circumstances of the deceased. This worked well with the numbers we had, and most seemed to opt into note-taking in this way rather than the traditional notepad style.

To my infinite relief, the lecture was well received, and the Q&A went on for half an hour!


If I was going to do it again, I would make a few more things explicit re: motivations and means rather than implicit within the lecture, and I would change the PowerPoint a bit to highlight the key points without giving too much away.

If I’d been feeling crafty and the audience had been smaller (there were over 30 people present) I might have handed out envelopes to each person with a pencil and character cards inside, with the family tree of the victim as a separate sheet of paper. On the back of the family tree, I would like to have had a layout of a typical 14thC manor house (the scene of the crime), with the various areas marked.

CantilupeMurder Card Combo

Now that I’m really thinking about it, I’d like to see if I could develop it for an undergraduate seminar situation to liven up discussions on sex and gender, law and legal procedure, and/or medieval household development… and I would really have liked some Twitter engagement going on!

Here is the outline of the murder case if anyone would like to use it, or would like to take/tweak/adapt/customise the delivery idea for something…


The Murder: or, Yes, the Butler Did It


‘Twas a dark and stormy night (probably, it was March and in Lincolnshire, so perhaps a bit gusty at least) in 1375, when Sir William Cantilupe was stabbed to death in his bedchamber by his esquire, Richard Gyse, and his butler, Robert Coke. The two men had been given the key to his chamber by Agatha Lovell, maid to William’s wife, Maud Neville. The men then stripped the dead man of his night attire and carried up water to the room, which presumably had to be drawn and then carried through the whole house and up the stairs, to wash the corpse and close up the wounds. They dressed him in his riding clothes, including his spurs, and carried his body down through the house and out to the stables, where they put him on a horse and saddled another, and rode out in the dark for several miles until they finally dumped the body at the edge of a village, where it was found about a month later.

The household packed up and closed up the manor house that same night, and Maud immediately set off for the house of Sir Ralph Paynel, where she remained until her husband’s body was discovered.

The household were all suspected, including Maud, when the mysterious nocturnal activities of the householders became known, and about 15 people were indicted for William’s murder. Given the nature of the crime and its location, the entire household (more or less) were considered to be complicit, since it was impossible for them to have carried out the crime without anyone waking up or noticing. Of the servants indicted, only the steward, Robert de Cletham, was outright acquitted. The fate of another, William de Hayle, is unrecorded. The others (including multiple Augustines and two John Barnabys) failed to appear, and so were outlawed.

Maud was first bailed, essentially, and was ultimately acquitted.

Maud told the sheriff of Lincolnshire, Thomas de Kydale, that Richard Gyse and Robert Coke were the guilty ones. She refused to testify against them in court, so the jury had to proceed against the men themselves. Both confessed to the court and gave evidence regarding how they had committed the crime and how they had been given access to his room. They were convicted of petty treason and hanged. Agatha Lovell escaped Lincoln gaol, never to be heard from again. Maud married Thomas de Kydale, and Sir Ralph Paynel took up office as sheriff a few years later, during which term he was also formally acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Sir Ralph’s daughter, Katherine Paynel, had married William’s brother Nicholas. The marriage had been an embarrassing catastrophe: Katherine had declared her husband had no genitalia, and sued for an annulment. Nicholas had refused to submit to an examination and had died abroad at Avignon in 1370 aged just 27, still contesting the case. Katherine immediately remarried, and she and her new husband Sir John Auncell sued for possession of some of Nicholas’s castles which Katherine said she should receive as his widow. William, who inherited all of his brother’s estate, proved in court that he had been enfeoffed of these castles, and therefore Katherine got nothing.

Humiliated, the Paynels were no longer on good terms with the Cantilupes, putting it mildly, so Sir Ralph’s sheltering of Maud after William’s murder is more understandable.

It is also possible that this plot to kill William was not masterminded by the servants, but that they were bribed with Paynel-supplied funds and that the sheriff was not only in the know but also complicit – Maud was protected from appearing in court, and her maid managed to escape Lincoln gaol and vanish.

The Presentation of the Facts, Poirot-Style


I’ll be uploading the second part: how I would present the facts of the case to the audience in such a way that they could (1) follow the case through with the conclusion not being given away until the end (2) be given context on household servants, their roles within a household, the relative size of households in the 14thC, and what “typical” marriage contracts were like (3) be given all the relevant information for them to fill out their character cards as the lecture progresses.


I wasn’t sure which style of detective summary to go for – on the night, I favoured a Poirot-esque style, who usually gathered all the suspects together and went through the case with each one, revealing all their secrets one at a time until the murderer was finally unmasked at the end. That lends itself well to a public lecture setting, I think!

I’d love to hear alternative ways to set out this scene in a lecture or seminar setting, though. I’m at the disadvantage of never having been to a murder mystery night, so I’ve never experienced a game like this played out fully! If someone has, I’d be really interested to know how that format might translate to an interactive seminar.

Any other ideas would be received with interest!

Stay tuned for Part 2…