Dying in custody

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King John of England’s dirty secret: no-one’s safe once they’re in his custody (portrait by Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum (1250s CE) in British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 9v)

The United States has one of the highest rates of people dying in police custody. In medieval England, King John had one of the highest rates of people dying in his prisons or special confinement. And high-profile deaths to boot.

There are surely degrees of cruelty but whether keeping your foot on someone’s neck for almost 10 minutes is less or more cruel than having a captive starved in prison may be an irrelevant question.

The large number of people whose deaths in King John’s captivity are recorded is surely the tip of a deep iceberg. Notoriously, John developed a practice of getting his prisoners killed after they’d been promised protection. Many of the deaths that have come down to us involve hostages in the medieval sense of the term – people who had been offered as surety, a guarantee of performance, by another person. John was surely not the inventor of this institution, but he ended up abusing it – by taking too many hostages from too many people – and subverting it – by having them killed, which although always a possibility, was seldom the case.

John had a woman and her son starved to death after they’d been offered by her husband as guarantee and received by the king in good faith. In 1210, Matilda de Briouse became King John’s most high-profile victim. She wasn’t the only one, though. John had previously had his nephew Arthur, then only a child, murdered, and would later order his men to hang 28 Welsh hostages. To offer John a hostage for safekeeping was to lose them.

What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd in Minneapolis is as barbaric as King John’s killing of his VIP guests. The cruelty is all the more scandalous as the murderer is, in both cases, the very person who promised and even embodied the idea of protection and safekeeping.


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