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William Cantilupe: Murder, Mayhem and Much To Do About Nothing

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The purpose of this project is to include all parties that were possibly involved in this plot to murder William Cantilupe.

""Frederik Pedersen Investigates the 1375 murder of William Cantilupe. Argues that he was murdered because his brother, Nicholas, had a very small penis.

On 23 March 1375 a young English nobleman called William Cantilupe was murdered by his cook and his squire in his manor in Lincolnshire. Once he was dead the murderers cleaned the corpse, carried it on horseback for seven miles to an out-of-the-way place, dressed the body in clean clothes and riding gear and left it by the side of the road so that it might look as though William had been killed by robbers.

Despite these precautions, the two were arrested and tried for William’s murder. However, during the trial it transpired that the two assassins had not acted alone: no less than sixteen people were summoned to answer to the King’s Bench in Lincoln concerning the murder. William had been a member of the highest nobility in the country-- his great-great uncle was St Thomas of Hereford and his grandfather (Nicholas, third baron Cantilupe) had been a friend and associate of Edward III. In his own brief life William had served as a retainer of Edward the Black Prince and of John of Gaunt. Therefore his murder was a particularly heinous crime. In addition, the murder was also the first instance of a murder that fell under the definition of petty treason found in the Statute of Treasons (1351).

Among the accused were William’s wife, Maud Nevil, and his chambermaid, both of whom came from noble northern families. It transpired during the trial that, once they had rid themselves of the body, William’s assassins had traveled forty miles across the Lincolnshire Plain in the company of Maud and the chambermaid to seek refuge with another Lincolnshire noble, Sir Ralph Paynel. The case was heard by several sessions of the Sheriff’s Court presided over by the Lincolnshire sheriff, Thomas Kydale. The court eventually found the cook and squire guilty of the crime and condemned them to death for their petty treason, but Maud was found innocent of the charge of having let the assassins into her husband’s locked bed-chamber. Similar courts eventually acquitted both Maud and Ralph Paynel of aiding the criminals after the crime. In addition the chambermaid, Agnes Lovel, escaped justice by bribing her prison guards to let her go.

However, a closer examination of the case indicates that the courts may have been willingly participating in at least a partial miscarriage of justice. First of all, the chambermaid, a member of the powerful Lovel family, was spirited out of prison - two prison guards were later accused of accepting a bribe to release her. In addition the sheriff Thomas Kydale – who had found both Maud Nevil and Ralph Paynel innocent – paid a fine to the king two years later when he admitted to have married William’s widow soon after the murder.

We can thus see that Maud may have had a reason to become involved in William’s murder, and that Thomas Kydale may have had a reason to condone her involvement in such a murder. But what about Sir Ralph Paynel? Why would this powerful nobleman risk so much to offer sanctuary to a large group of assassins and their accomplices? Previous historians have pointed out that there was already bad blood between Ralph Paynel and the Cantilupe family, despite the fact that his daughter was married to Nicholas Cantilupe, William’s older brother. A decade earlier in 1366 Ralph had even lead a band of his men to attack the Cantilupe seat, Greasley Castle, carrying off his daughter, the wife of William’s brother Nicholas and her chattels. However, to date no-one has been able to identify the cause of this conflict.

Frederik Pendersen's article suggests that the root cause of the enmity between Ralph Paynel and the Cantilupe family was the fact that Nicholas Cantilupe suffered from a very rare congenital disorder which almost certainly meant that he was born with two X-chromosomes (and thus genetically was a woman) and that he would not have had external genitals. We learn this surprising fact from newly discovered proceedings in the York consistory court where Ralph Paynel’s daughter, Katherine, pleaded for the annulment of her marriage to Nicholas in 1367-68. Katherine had married Nicholas in 1364 when she was sixteen years old. Almost immediately after the nuptials she fled back to her parents’ manor where the terrified teenager reluctantly told her parents that when Nicholas was asleep “she had often sought that place in which his genitals should be but it was as flat as the back of a man’s hands”. Naturally, this caused much consternation among the Paynels. However, when the family raised their concerns with the Bishop of Lincoln he advised them that according to canon law Katherine had to complete two years of cohabitation with Nicholas before an annulment could be granted. She therefore returned to her husband’s castle and stayed there for two years, but in 1366 she returned to her family and approached the court in York to request an annulment.

It was during these proceedings that Nicholas decided to take matters into his hands. He ordered his men to ride to the Paynel manor in Caythorp and there to abduct Katherine and bring her back to Greasley Castle. When she arrived, Nicholas threatened to detain her indefinitely and showed her a room equipped with manacles and foot irons in which he claimed he would keep her unless she desisted from the case in York. With this in mind, it is not surprising that Katherine’s father attacked Greasley castle in 1366.""


  • Maud, Sir William’s wife
  • Agatha Lovell or Frere, his wife’s maid
  • Richard Gyse; Sir William’s esquire, (an apprentice knight)
  • Robert Coke or Cook, his butler
  • Robert de Cletham, the seneschal, (a steward)
  • Augustine Morpath
  • Walter Chaumberlayn
  • John Henxteman
  • William de Hayle
  • John Barneby de Beckingham
  • John Barnaby
  • Henry Taskare
  • Augustine Forster
  • Augustine Warner
  • John Astyn
  • Sir Ralph Paynel
  • William de Kirketon
  • Richard Groos
  • Robert de Holm
  • William Haxay
  • William de Wyhum