Mirabel daughter of Elias of Gloucester: TNA, C 60 (1217-18), m. 7.
As I was reading through the surviving plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, looking for Jewish women in action in the courts, I came across a truly remarkable story. This was the case of a woman called Comitissa and the strange and ugly death of her husband Solomon. In a class of record where you're more likely to find male and female litigants engaged in financial disputes than in murder and mayhem, this multi-entry story is an exciting exception, full of twists and turns and much detail. It might, as the (early 20th-century) editor of the plea roll in question remarked, 'furnish the nucleus of the plot of a romance'. It takes us to the heart of the Jewish community of Gloucester, where we find considerable ill-will between members of that community and are able to catch a glimpse of the social and judicial structures to which the English Jewries were subject. It's also a case with a woman at its heart. It raises just the sort of questions our project is looking at.
Comitissa Turbe, living in Gloucester in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, was widowed in violent circumstances some time before February 1220. Her husband, Solomon Turbe, died the day after falling from the top of the tower of Gloucester Castle, where he had been imprisoned awaiting trial on charges of malicious wounding. In the 24-hours or so before he died, Solomon was able to speak on more than one occasion about what had happened to him; yet his story changed, and changed significantly. Comitissa found herself caught up in her husband's suffering, for she was among those who attended him after he fell, and even seems to have been accused by her husband of procuring his death (albeit in a statement he quickly retracted). Later, Comitissa put forward her own story about what had happened to her husband, about those she held responsible, before the justices of the court of the Exchequer of the Jews. The main focus of her accusations was the very man her husband was alleged to have maliciously wounded: fellow Gloucester Jew, Abraham Gabbay.It appears that there was some sort of vicious rivalry between the two men and it ended with Solomon's death.
From amid the complex detail entered into the plea roll emerge the main players in the case and its investigation. They were as follows:
Solomon Turbe, the dead man
Comitissa, his widow
Abraham Gabbay, Solomon's enemy and alleged accessory-before-the-fact to Solomon's murder
Andrew, one of Solomon's guards and alleged co-conspirator/hired assassin
Gilbert the beer-server, another of Solomon's guards and alleged co-conspirator/hired assassin
Three others unnamed, alleged hired assassins
The sheriff of Gloucester
The sheriff of Hereford
Mirabel of Gloucester, a Jewish woman from the city of Gloucester. (Could she be the Mirabel, daughter of Elias, pictured above?)
Isaac, Mirabel's son-in-law
John de Monmouth, Marcher baron, Jewish debtor, and (apparently incidental) witness to certain aspects of the case.
Witnesses to Solomon's fall and possibly among Christian jurors investigating the case, deliverers of a verdict:
Simon de Matresdon, coroner of Gloucester
Geoffrey de Matresdon
Henry de Matresdon
Jewish witnesses to Solomon's last will & testament:
Abraham of Warwick
Elias of Warwick
Isaac son-in-law of Samuel
Moses son of Aaron
Four Jewish jurors involved in investigating the case including two men who were witnesses to Solomon's last will & testament:
Leo of Warwick
Elias of Warwick
Abraham of Warwick
Moses son of Aaron
The three men Comitissa is said to have told about the plotting of Abraham Gabbay & accomplices
Master Alexander de Dorset
Isaac of Norwich
Although the Exchequer of the Jews, a branch of Great Exchequer of England and prime mechanism of the Jews' administrative supervision by the English government, did not normally concern itself with pleas where both parties were Jewish, pleas of the crown (homicide, assault, larceny, housebreaking and so on) were an exception. From some nine entries on the roll for the fourth year of the reign of Henry III (28 October 1219 to 27 October 1220), come the main threads of accusation, denial, counter-accusation, and hearsay, played out across the calendar year of 1220. Plea-roll entries of litigation like this tend to appear as post hoc summaries or brief notes of court activity surrounding the case including anything from short notices of court orders to the sheriff to arrest those accused to full accounts of litigant depositions. The combined entries relating to the Turbes' case are very full and involved, although (unsurprisingly) details are missing and tantalising questions remain. Comitissa's appeal came to trial in the summer of 1220, founded almost entirely on what she had heard, but not seen, of her husband's fall. There are also the two questions of whether or not Solomon was slain, or died, in Comitissa's arms and whether she should have been able to appeal his death if he did not.
Gloucester Castle no longer exists. The site still furnishes a gaol, though.
Events were set in motion when Solomon was arrested and imprisoned in Gloucester Castle, possibly in the opening weeks of 1220, on a charge of maliciously wounding Abraham Gabbay the man who would soon stand accused of arranging his murder. While held in Gloucester Castle awaiting his day in court, which was to have been in mid-June of that year, Solomon suffered the fall that killed him. After several earlier entries relating to the discord between Abraham Gabbay and Solomon Turbe, Comitissa's appeal is entered under the Easter law term (roughly mid-April to mid-May). She complained that Abraham had arranged for her husband to be killed and that he had paid others to carry out the murder. As well as pledging her faith and swearing an oath that Solomon was indeed dead, for misleading the court or wilfully failing to follow through on a suit already begun was a punishable offence, Comitissa registered her intention to prosecute not only Abraham Gabbay, but also five others. These were a man called Andrew, together with a beer-server (whom we later learn is called Gilbert), and three others who are never named. The men were Solomon's guards in the castle, apparently.
The very next item in the roll is a three-part entry relating to the aftermath and investigation of Comitissa's complaint. The first part records the courts order to the sheriffs of Gloucester and Hereford to hold inquests into all of Abraham Gabbay's moveable possessions within their spheres of operation (their bailiwicks). Under the supervision of Christian and Jewish men nominated for the task, a detailed inventory of Abraham's possessions and their value was to be drawn up and the goods impounded in preparation for the trial of the case. Since Abraham had only been accused of procuring Solomon's death, and not with the physical act of killing itself, he could not be locked up. He could only be attached (arrested, as it were) by his chattels, pending the trial of the alleged assassins. This is rather different from Solomon's own experience, since Solomon was accused of carrying out the assault on Abraham, and was thus arrested in person and confined to the castle to await his day in court.
The second part of this particular entry represents the summary of a deposition made by one Isaac, son-in-law of Mirabel, which, although we have no access to Isaac's back-story, was clearly central to the courts fact-finding mission. Isaac denied that after his departure from London he ever spoke with Solomon until the latter fell from the tower. At his point, Isaac said, he and certain of his fellow Jews went to the scene and were told by the sheriff that Solomon claimed he fell because of the fright Isaac gave him. The mention of London reads a bit like a non sequitur, but it clearly relates to business known by the court and central to the sequence of events under investigation. Isaac continued: on hearing the accusation, his mother-in-law Mirabel paid the sheriff three bezants (gold coins) to go to Solomon and ask him whether he really had made such an accusation against Isaac; and in the sheriffs presence Solomon said that he had made no such claim and that the sheriff was wrong to suggest that he did. On the Saturday, according to Isaac, Solomon felt death approaching and had several men of his community summoned to hear his will. The mens names are given as Bonefant, Elias of Warwick, Isaac son-in-law of Samuel, and Moses son of Aaron. In the presence of these men Solomon cleared Isaac of any involvement, but asked that the assembled men avenge his death; for he appealed (accused) none but Abraham Gabbay.
With the next relevant entry in the plea roll, a couple of membranes further on, we return to Comitissa's accusation. It is entered for a second time, but with slightly different details. Allegations of a 10-mark backhander surface again, this time as a reward which Comitissa claims Abraham paid to Solomon's guards in the castle, that they might do him to death. Thanks to this payment, according to Comitissa, the guards threw Solomon from the castle, and he died as a result. The assassins are again identified as the man called Andrew, along with the beer-server and the three unnamed men. We are told that Abraham came before the court and defended himself against all of Comitissa's allegations, word by word, but we are not given any clue to what was said. Comitissa is again recorded as pledging her faith and swearing an oath to prosecute the appeal. An order was then sent out to the sheriff of Gloucester to arrest and detain Andrew and the (alleged) hired assassins and see them before the justices on the date then given for the trial. Their trial set for June 26.
When Trinity Term 1220 opened Comitissa came before the barons of the Exchequer and the justices of the Exchequer of the Jews to press her claim against Abraham Gabbay and his co-accused, Andrew and the Gilbert the beer-server. When Comitissa was questioned further about the accusation, the plot thickened. Asked how she knew that Abraham paid the men to kill her husband, Comitissa indicated that she had heard it with her own ears ... while she was under lock and key in the castle! She stated that while Abraham was being cured of his wounds (which we may take to have been those inflicted by her husband, Solomon), he had talked the sheriff into arresting her. Thus imprisoned, and so starved that she feared for her life, she overheard Abraham conspiring with Andrew and Gilbert to kill her husband. As soon as she was released from prison, she hurried to London and told three men (Master Alexander de Dorset, Isaac of Norwich and Elias Martin) what she had heard. At least two of these men appear to be Jewish, but their connection to the events is not clear.
Abraham, for his part, denied that he ever gave anyone 10 marks to kill Solomon, saying that he was in Hereford on the day of Solomons fall - an obvious falsehood told deflect suspicion from himself, was Comitissa's response. With Comitissa thus determined to prosecute Abraham and his alleged accomplices, proceedings were adjourned to October 13. The sheriff was ordered to have Andrew and Gilbert present.
The final entry on the roll (with the exception of a brief subsequent entry that Comitissa appeals Gilbert, a beer-server), begins with the verdict returned by the coroner for Gloucestershire Simon de Matreson and his two kinsmen (perhaps his sons) Geoffrey and Henry de Matresdon. It makes for interesting, if rather uncomfortable, reading, for it provides eye-witness details of Solomon's fall and his dying statements. The three men said that they, along with many others, were with the sheriff of Gloucestershire at a halimote (a court held by a trading guild or local lord) for an inquest into some land, when the sheriff bade them all accompany him to the castle for some business. As the group approached the castle gate they saw something falling from the top of the tower something that looked to one member of the group as though it were a man or a piece of clothing.
The sheriff told the porter at the gate to go and find out what had just happened, and he returned with the news it was the Jew who had been imprisoned in the castle. The sheriff immediately sent for members of the Jewish and Christian communities of Gloucester to investigate the circumstances and interview the injured man. Solomon's initial response to the interviewers questions (according to the Matresdons verdict) is surprising. When asked how he came to fall, he reportedly said of his own accord and likened his situation to King Saul: Saul, said Solomon, slew himself and was thus salvus (saved) and now he wished to die and be salvus in the same way. Just how we interpret a statement about personal salvation in the mouth of a member of Jewish faith is unclear. In fact, it may just be the peculiarly Christian interpretation of the witnesses or of the clerks making the record, or perhaps it filtered into the narrative, somehow, through hearsay and second-hand reportage.
The Matresdon's verdict continues: Solomon was asked again whether anyone had pushed him, he said no; but when his wife turned up he cried out repeatedly: 'Flee hence for tis by thy plot that I am slain!'.This was Solomon's state of mind on the Friday (the day that he fell). Yet the following day, according to the verdict, when the Constable of the castle and Simon the coroner were sent to speak to Solomon again, to ascertain whether he wished to charge anyone with killing him, the dying man said that he appealed Abraham Gabbay and none other.
Thus, in the combined records so far we have the picture of a man so badly injured that he and others were already speaking as though his death were a fait accompli (and of a man, therefore, who must have been confused and in agony). He appears variously to have alleged suicide, accused his wife of plotting to kill him, blamed Isaac son-in-law of Mirabel for frightening him right out of the tower, claimed that no one else was involved, and ultimately charged Abraham Gabbay with his death.
When jurors were questioned about whether anyone had been involved in Solomon's death and taken money for it, they responded that they had no knowledge of this having happened. Likewise, asked whether any Jew had spoken with Solomon in the tower before he fell, they denied knowledge of it. The very last part of this entry appears to be the record of further questioning, specifically of the Jewish jurors, who were Leo of Warwick, Elias of Warwick, Abraham of Warwick, and Moses, son of Aaron. These four stated that they were not aware a) of anyone at all speaking to Solomon in the tower before he fell, b) of anyone speaking to him between his fall and the arrival of the Jews of Gloucester summoned by the sheriff, or c) of Solomon's having appealed anyone for his death on either the Friday or the Saturday.Asked whether they believed that anyone had pushed Solomon out of the tower, they responded that in fact they knew that he had not been pushed, but had fallen. They added that Abraham Gabbay had nothing to do with Solomon's death and that they had not even heard about Solomon accusing Abraham on the Saturday.
And that was that. Apart from the brief note at the end of the plea roll that Comitissa appeals Gilbert the beer-server, nothing more survives of this case. We are left with many unanswered questions and a number of curious coincidences. It is surely a remarkable stroke of luck that the coroner Simon de Matresdon was actually present to see the death in question, and that the sheriff (felt by some to have been involved in Solomon's death) had summoned a large band of good and lawful men to the castle on business at the very moment that Solomon fell. It is also curious that the Jewish jurors evidence contradicts the verdict returned by the Matresdons, who claimed to have been present, with others, when Solomon was questioned and made his accusations. They effectively absolved Abraham Gabbay of any blame for the death.
As for Comitissa, it looks like her plea came to little. It was presumably in her interests, whatever she truly believed (and she may well have believed everything she said about her husbands death), to have someone convicted of his murder. His wrongful death would leave her able to claim rights to his chattels and perhaps monetary compensation. A personal sense of closure may also have accompanied a conviction. Comitissa may even have shared her husbands hostility toward Abraham Gabbay, and sought to do him harm by chasing him through the courts. Suicide, on the other hand, was a whole other matter. Setting aside the obvious emotional distress for those left behind, and questions of spiritual repercussions in the Jewish faith, in cold, hard practical terms the widow of a suicide victim could expect no share of her late husbands property. If Solomon had leapt unaided from Gloucester tower, Comitissa would have been left high-and-dry.
For those who wish to read the plea-roll entries for themselves, the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail (JTrail) has made them available at: http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/gloucester/articl.../
BY EMMA CAVELL