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Bonneville, Alexander [alias Richard the Englishman]free

(d. 1336)
  • William Chester Jordan

Bonneville, Alexander [alias Richard the Englishman] (d. 1336), criminal, was named from the Surrey village of Godstone, in the diocese of Winchester, from which he fled to France in 1335. His antecedents are otherwise unknown. He knew French, and the name by which he was known was his own rendering of Godstone. When in France he also used the names Richard Anglois (Richard the Englishman) and Richard de Veneys. Alexander left England in order to escape the authorities after he stole forty silver marks (£26 13s. 4d.), money entrusted to him by his father to fulfil a wealthy friend’s bequests to four religious houses. Probably embarking at Southampton, he made his way to Paris. With a small part of the money he fitted himself out in clothing appropriate to a knight, before becoming the leader of a band of thieves who committed a series of robberies, burglaries, and a notorious murder during two crime sprees in France in 1335 and 1336.

Bonneville’s story is known because after he and two of his band were apprehended, a royal official, the provost of Château-Landon (département Seine-et-Marne), received their confessions in the presence of ten citizens on 15 April 1336. Confessions were also taken from Johnny (Jehanneton) David, alias Jimmy (Jacquet) Carmadin, and Ralphie (Raoulin), Alexander’s servant. Because one of their crimes was regarded as constituting lèse majesté, the three men and the record of their confessions were dispatched to the provost of Paris, one of the highest-ranking judicial figures in the royal administration, who convened a panel of lords and knights to confirm the confessions. Neither at Château-Landon nor at Paris, according to the records, were the prisoners subjected to torture, but in the capital they were interrogated separately and in order to get them to talk were probably told, in time-honoured fashion, that one or more of their comrades had informed on them and were blaming them for instigating or carrying out the crimes.

In his first confession Bonneville told his interrogators that after he reached Paris in the summer of 1335 he had given the money he had stolen to a certain John the Englishman, a dealer in horses, for safekeeping. Either John was a former acquaintance or Alexander learned of him and his trustworthiness from a traveller he encountered during his flight; he was not otherwise implicated in Alexander’s crimes. The fugitive stayed in Paris until Michaelmas (29 September) 1335, when he joined forces with another criminal, Little Phil (Philippot) Cavillon, with whom he travelled to Provins, site of one of the fairs of Champagne. There they broke into the residence of a wealthy burgher, but were frustrated when the locked coffer in which he kept his money proved too strong for them. They returned to Paris empty-handed.

Bonneville also revealed that Johnny David had later joined him in a trip from Paris to Orléans, and from there, in a huge circular movement around the country, they travelled almost to the Mediterranean coast before turning north for the return trip to the capital. Along the way they stole money from a number of priests, merchants, and pilgrims. In their robbing of pilgrims they were assisted by another Johnny, a servant working in an inn until he joined the band. This man’s modus operandi was to doctor the pilgrims’ drinks with sleeping powders, making it easier to steal their valuables after they had gone to bed.

While Bonneville was on the road, Little Phil Cavillon had become suspected of involvement in criminal activity in Paris. The authorities’ suspicions extended to Alexander, a known associate, when he returned to the city. They took Alexander into custody and interrogated him, but they had no definite evidence against him. Nevertheless, he chose to leave Paris, and headed south with his servant Ralphie and Johnny David. They kept on the move, robbing wayfarers as before, breaking into houses, and stealing a horse.

Their most serious crime occurred after the band arrived in Pierrefitte-ès-Bois (département Loiret) on Saturday, 2 March 1336, where they met one Odart de Courtchamp, whom they accompanied for a few days. Presumably Bonneville was dressed like a knight, and he was travelling with a servant, so it is not surprising that Odart regarded him as good company, but after they had ridden north as far as Ouzouër sur Trézée (Loiret), where they all spent Tuesday night in the same room of an inn owned by Henri Beef-Stew (Potafeu), the three made their move. Odart, not knowing that Alexander had put sleeping powders in his soup, ate dinner with his companions, and then, feeling drowsy, went to bed before the other men. When he appeared to be deep in slumber, he was stabbed by Alexander and Johnny David. Odart struggled, but he was one against three, and was soon overpowered.

No one else in the inn seems to have heard the commotion, so the conspirators decided to try to hide the crime by lowering Odart’s body into the common privy outside. Among their victim’s possessions they found gold and silver coins. They also discovered that Odart was a crown messenger bearing several royal letters. His murderers destroyed some of these, but retained others and they also took with them Odart’s fawn-colored horse, which had an easily identifiable cropped ear. Next morning the dead man’s body was discovered, and his killers were pursued and arrested, after which they confessed. This second crime spree, according to Bonneville, had been interrupted from time to time by indulgence in what the records called sodomy. The English fugitive confessed to all this at the inquest in Château-Landon, but a little more of his story can be pieced together from his and his accomplices’ confessions in Paris.

In most particulars the original confessions of all three men agreed. Ralphie at first recanted, but later reaffirmed his confession. Johnny David not only did the same but turned crown’s evidence by informing on several other men. Bonneville, after taking an oath on the Gospels, retracted only one part of his confession, his admission of having committed sodomy, an offence which might have entailed castration before he was executed for lèse majesté. But he, too, saw a chance to save himself, in his case by informing on Little Phil Cavillon. Despite his French-sounding surname, Little Phil, he asserted, was an Englishman, who had abjured the realm after confessing to homicide, and who told him where to acquire the sleeping powders he used to facilitate his thefts. Alexander recalled that he paid a shopkeeper in Nevers ten pence for them.

These prevarications notwithstanding, the judges must have found it easy to reach a decision, given their access to confessions made before two tribunals and much physical evidence—coins, robes, and other goods of the sorts reported stolen and found in the possession of the accused, including Odart’s horse with its distinguishing cropped ear. Though no record of the fate of the three criminals apparently survives, it is highly unlikely that, even by turning crown’s evidence, they escaped the hangman on a list of charges that included lèse majesté. Bonneville’s career in crime has an interest extending beyond his misdeeds, however. In the year after his execution the outbreak of war between England and France opened the way to plundering and slaughter on a scale far beyond anything he achieved. Nevertheless, his brief but energetic involvement in criminality vividly illustrates the opportunities for violence and theft which France already provided for a certain kind of Englishman abroad.

Sources

  • M. Langlois and Y. Lanhers, eds., Confessions et jugements de criminels au Parlement de Paris (1319–1350) (1971), 114–22
  • Y. Lanhers, ‘Crimes et criminels au XIVe siècle’, Revue historique, 240 (1968), 325–38
  • W. C. Jordan, From England to France: felony and exile in the high middle ages (2015), 105–12