I'm reading an old history book about my ancestors entitled "Rulewater And Its People: An Account Of The Valley Of The Rule And Its Inhabitants" published in 1907 by George Tancred. In it, I'm having problems understanding a sentence, italicized below:

The King issued a peremptory order for all Turnbulls in the district to submit themselves to the King's authority. The principal men of the clan immediately made their submission, coming before him in linen sheets, with withies about their necks, and put themselves 'in the king's will,' as it was termed. It is said that the King ordered every tenth man to suffer death.

Looking up withies gives me (from here)

n. pl. with·ies 1. A rope or band made of withes. 2. a. A long flexible twig, as that of an osier. b. A tree or shrub having such twigs.

My initial thought was that "in the king's will" was a pun on "will". As in somehow my ancestors got themselves written into the king's last will and testament. Now that I see the definition, I wonder if "will" could mean a plant owned by the king? As in how game was owned by the king in the past?

I'd really like to know what my ancestors did, why it was presumably funny to them, and why it irritated the King so much. If it helps, this took place during the reign of King James IV around 1510.

Also interestingly, the word "king" in 'in the king's will' is NOT capitalized, I just double checked. So its not The King its just king. Not sure if this is a typo or an important clue.

  • I don't suppose they were the sort of linen cloths you'd have wrapped a corpse in were they? My first though was that they were dressed as hanged men, which might mean they were mocking how the king wanted them dead, or that they would submit only in death...Which would of course be a rather open mockery of the king, while technically doing exactly as they were told...Just a guess.
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 2:51
  • @kitukwyer: I think you are on to something. The hanged might be (sometimes? often?) robbed of their clothes before being hanged, because it was easier to dress them in burial sheets while still alive (and it might prevent damage from their writhing to the clothes, which could then be sold?). Burial sheets were often made of linen. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 12:16
  • When people are hanged they lose control of bodily functions...including the bladder and co., so it would make sense that they would be wrapped in winding sheets before being hanged, although I admit, my knowledge of hangings comes from historical fiction. The clothes could be sold, or stolen by the local judiciary, or given back to the bereaved family (for whatever reason...)Still, I don't think they were dressing TO die. Dressing as a corpse to submit to the king could have all SORTS of delicious undertones...Besides can't you imagine a group of uppity Britons doing something like that? :)
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 13:02

2 Answers 2


I don't think there is any joke at all (or I might have missed it altogether).

Requesting that the most important notables of a city would turn themselves in to the mercy of the King in linen and with a noose around their neck is not unheard of.

The most famous examples actually comes from the reddition of Calais in 1387 to Edward III. This is the subject of a famous sculpture by Rodin of which there are several versions.

enter image description here

After a long siege...

...Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed. Edward demanded that they walk out almost naked, wearing nooses around their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle

Les bourgeois de Calais - BNF / Chroniques de Froissart.

One way of seeing it that the "Turnbulls" re-enacted the scene in a hint to that famous episode.

  • Out of curiosity, where did you hear of that? Any place specifically...? I like knowing things like this...:)
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 17:30
  • I believe this story is one of many that were taught to French schoolboys when I went to primary school in the 60s to enliven the study of the Hundred Years' War. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 17:43
  • I agree with this: the 'principal men' surrendered to justice, and some of them were hanged. For context, the Turnbulls were one of the most notorious Border clans, who raided, burned and looted English and Scottish farms indiscriminately (see Steel Bonnets by George Macdonald Fraser): presumably they had gone one step too far. Commented Aug 17, 2011 at 10:08

I think the "will" here means "wish, desire, decision, choice" and so on. It means they were submitting to the King, putting themselves at his disposal, to do with as he pleased. Obviously he was pleased to put a sizable portion of them to death. Probably what confuses the issue is the preposition in, which we would not use today in conjunction with will. We would probably say "at the King's will" now.

  • the addition of the scare quotes also makes it confusing. The quotes plus the idea of these men wearing linen cloths makes it seem like they were trying to be funny.
    – Doug T.
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 2:41
  • 1
    The phrase, still in use, "at His/Her Majesty's pleasure" (e.g. "detained at ...") seems to be a related construction. Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 12:27

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