In 1318, one of the years of famine in England, Leeds was still a very small town. Little more than a village, really. It had two streets, Kirkgate and the more recent Briggate, which was just 100 years old. No more than a few hundred lived in Leeds but it already had its share of rich and poor. Among the richest was the de Ledes family of North hall, whose oldest, arrogant son was Robert. Like so many rich young men, he believed the laws didn’t apply to him. That was way, on his way to church one Sunday morning he was throwing dice with William de Wayte, another young Leeds man of wealth. An argument rose up between them, almost coming to blows or more, but neighbours pulled them apart and calmed them. In the church, William told his page and his friend John de Manston what had happened.
The service over, the trio waited in the churchyard until Robert appeared and began to taunt him. William and his page came at Robert, swords drawn. The church door was barred, there was nowhere for him to run. He tried to defend himself and in the fight that followed, Robert killed William de Wayte. As soon as they realised what had happened, the page, de Manston, and another man took hold of Robert. Even the chaplain joined them. In the ditch that separated church from graveyard they beat him and left him for dead.
But God was looking kindly on Robert. His brothers found him and took him home. Injured, bloodied, he still recovered. But the de Wayte family wanted revenge. They accused him or murder, a charge far too serious to be heard in the court of the manor; he had to be tried in far-off London. Arrested, Robert de Ledes was taken in chain to Marshalsea prison in the capital.
But his father had money to hire the best lawyer and also went to work on his son’s behalf. Many had witnessed what happened after the service. He gathered depositions and statements from witnesses, ready to present at the trial. Robert spent months in the Marshalsea, for just moves slowly. The prospect of the noose was always close.
In court Robert claimed self-defence, to the outrage of the de Wayte family, who wanted him hung for murder. But while they had those with William as their witnesses, Robert could present more evidence to make his case. It mounted up, word by word, person by person, until, finally, it couldn’t be denied. There was no hanging that day. Instead, Robert de Ledes walked out a free man and returned to Leeds.