I am writing a medieval fantasy novel, and need a specific crime to progress the plot. A noblewoman uncovers something about the son of the prince regent of an early medieval kingdom, and in doing so becomes an outlaw herself. What crime or scandal could she uncover about him that would get her in trouble with the law for uncovering it, but not him? It could just be that the law is corrupt and covering for him, but it would be more interesting if it were an actual crime to uncover whatever it is.
Unacceptable means of investigation
Have her use means that would put her honor/dignity into question. Perhaps the main evidence would be testimony from a lower class criminal. How does she explain associating with such a figure? Or the witness was a young noblewoman coming home from a night with a commoner rogue. "Wait a minute. You said you were in the black alley all by yourself when you saw the prince?"
Might makes Right
Make it something that we would recognize as a crime today, and that a theologian at the time would condemn, but which looks excusable or at least insignificant to a noble. Perhaps a young nobleman forced himself on a peasant girl. Definitions of rape and the ability to give informed consent mutated over time. "Yes, horrible if it were true, but you cannot accuse the duke of that."
Anything Threatening Royalty
Perhaps medieval laws were made by royalty to suit their own purposes, rather than being made by commoners to suit their own good. Therefore, anything that threatens the royalty in any way could likely have been made illegal.
So, perhaps the noblewoman could uncover the fact the son of the prince regent is not actually of royal blood. This could threaten the son's royal lineage and hence threaten the royalty that makes the laws.
Absolutely anything. Royalty did basically whatever they wanted because they could. Angering the prince would be more than enough to earn someone a trip to the gallows, and "the law" wouldn't really enter into it.
I remember reading about one of the generals in the 30 Years War who had a servant put to death for accidentally waking him in the middle of the night. Or there's Henry VIII who had his wives executed for not bearing him a son fast enough. Etc.
Your noblewoman discovers the prince's dirty laundry, so he says she's an outlaw. Guilty of treason or heresy or whatever - he's the prince, so he probably doesn't even need to provide a reason.
One option would be scientific evidence that is transient and/or can be dismissed as witchcraft.
The noble woman suspects the Prince Regent's son is using "inheritance powder" to kill off older siblings to ensure his succession. As a budding cosmetic chemist she has experience with arsenic. She quickly devises the Hydrogen Sulfide test which is effective but transient. She presents the evidence to an authority only to have the evidence magically disappear and/or misunderstood. The noble woman then is the target of a vengeful royal family who accuse her of witchcraft and/or libel. When she discovers the evidence disappeared and they are going to arrest her she flees becoming an outlaw. Eventually she discovers the full Marsh test, is quietly pardoned, and her husband pawns off all of her future discoveries as his brilliant work.
Knowledge of a plot to overthrow a monarch, knowing it but not reporting it is the first thing that came to mind. You said noblewoman, but you didn't say Queen. And there plenty who lost their heads for just such a thing, throughout history (especially during Henry VII's reign, which was after Medieval times, but a very interesting place to start, because that very paranoid monarch killed a lot of people...)
Now, in Medieval law it was illegal to have knowledge of a crime and not try and stop it or report it, mainly for males over the age of 12 (see this thread and the top answer there and the discussion below)but, as far nobility was concerned, in practice most crimes carried a fine.
My other suggestion is make him a younger son, who freelances as a Robin Hood type. This can be because his older brother or father, who is the actual Lord of the area taxes too much, and the son dons a mask and robs the tax men, corrupt churchmen and users. (You should probably read Robin Hood by Howard Pyle, which, while not historically accurate, does cover the types of people it was socially acceptable to rob).
She discovers that the prince regent is her father.
Obviously a crime as minor as having an affair will not get the prince regent in trouble.
However, if she (or anyone) were to announce this, she would actually become an illegitimate child, which could very well be a crime that would let her lose her fathers title or worse!
First of all, Medieval law changes between 5th and 15th century are quite a lot, and you should research the laws of the country and time the plot takes place in. A good start might be here.
Often, (early) medieval kings (that is, continental ones, like in the Empire of Charlemagne) were considered sacrosanct (derived from lat. sacer sanctus), which meant anything they would do was above the law because they were put into place by god. Likewise, their heir was sacrosanct to some degree too, partly to prevent plots against the royal lineage by incarcerating the heir. However, this was very much dependent on the place, time and power of the ruler. As a result, whatever the prince did was (at least for some time) at best "unacceptable" by society, and not technically breaking a law. One of the few exceptions would be plotting the death of the king/emperor or worshiping a banned religion (which was not punishable by the king but church).
Now, we have a noblewoman and she discovers the unacceptable behavior. Now, knowing has never been a punishable thing, but it made you a liability and problem. Telling, on the other hand, was punishable: If the woman would tell anybody what she saw or overheard, she would make herself punishable for badmouthing the royal family or threatening the throne.
Now, there also is the problem by what means did the woman discover it? Was she present in the prince's dormitory? Trespassing! Did she saw it with eyes in the forest? Oh, that makes her punishable for partaking an illegal hunt in the royal woods! Was she being told so by himself while alone? Now, she is in trouble to Name witness or this is libel, as the accuser is not a witness!
Possibly, a crime where she had been involved herself.
Crime needs extensive proof like seven witnesses, but without proof considered slender.
Prosecution of this kind of crimes is solely entitled to some government or religious office/official, and not allowed for other people.
She made the accusation public while should keep it secret for the court to consider.
She extracted information or confession by torturing a nobleman.
Woman cannot rise accusation on a man.
Leaving aside the crown prerogative (which as the High Court of Justice in England is making clear even now, is by no means vanished from the world), libel laws in the UK used to be even more draconian than they are now. Specifically, truth was no defence against a charge of defamation. Indeed, the maxim of the law at the time was
The greater the truth, the greater the libel
(Many attribute this to Lord Ellenborough in around 1789, but other sources say it was Lord Mansfield). But this given, anything bad your heroine discovers about the Prince Regent and then lets anyone else know - however pure her motives - opens her up to a charge of defamation, which until fairly recently was a criminal offence in England and Wales.
I can't add a comment so posting an answer, but @user24000 is onto something with witchcraft.
If the method the lady used to discover the crime, involved something that would have been classed as witchcraft in the medieval times, but is obviously not to those of us today, you would probably achieve the result you are looking for.
Simply make it so that anyone that comes into unauthorized possession of state secrets, or — even worse — that leaks such information to someone else, are committing a crime.
You may think it was ethically defensible of Edward Snowden and/or (then) Bradley Manning to released the documents they did, since those documents showed wrongdoings being perpetrated. Still: they did break the law as it was written at the time.
State secrets are a very convenient way to land an an innocent citizen in trouble, especially in a society such as the midieval setting you are setting your story in. Simply define that all information that is detrimental to the safety, reputation and prosperity of the realm (and its ruling class) to be secret, and that having unauthorized knowledge of such information is a threat to the same, and there you have it: instant hot water for your protagonist.
Adultery or Fornication on the part of the noblewoman.
Many medieval societies had a rather dim view of illicit sexual relations, and at times it could easily get your head put on the block. If the noblewoman discovered the incriminating evidence while in bed with someone she shouldn't have been with, revealing the source of her information is putting her own life on the line. Even better, perhaps she discovered the information while in bed with the prince regent or his son (or the liaison itself was the information) and revealing this would allow him to deny it vehemently while conveniently arranging for her confession to be used against her.
The son of the regent raped the noblewoman.
When she uncovers this rape he claims that "she bewitched him and, falling for her devilish charm, he bedded her. And now she only speaks of it because she is pregnant from someone and wants to use the unborn to usurp the throne."
Exposing a spy. If a spy of the current government is involved in unethical/criminal activities (in a country he's deployed in), it would be reasonable for the noblewoman to expose him. Whether she knows that it's a spy from her own country, it's treason in her country.
Let's say, the noblewoman is visiting/living in a different province/state/country than her own. She comes across a spy from her own country officially deployed here (she may or may not initially realize who he really is). The spy is involved in illegal/unethical activities that are not dictated by his job as a spy and the activities may even directly/indirectly harm the noblewoman which result in her exposing him. This is the right thing to do in this country but is clearly an act of treason in her (and spy's) own country. The spy escapes and flees to his home country and informs the prince about what transpired. The prince brands the noblewoman a traitor and outlaw.
The crux of it all is that the crime is crime in a foreign country but not her own home country and/or she doesn't realize what she is doing.
She may or may not know that the person she's exposing is actually a spy appointed by the prince. The prince could be the actual spy or somehow close enough. These details can be manipulated to add more drama or suspense etc as needed.
If revelation of the crime were itself considered a slander on the crown (in whatever way) then the act of revelation (as opposed to the act of observation) could put her in conflict with a strict lese magiste law.
On the other hand, it could be entirely possible that the act of observation would itself be a capital offense if the place the crime was committed were an area forbidden to commoners. For example, entry to a private garden could easily be a capital trespass -- and perhaps the only way she could have observed the crime of the prince would have been during such a trespass.
Extending the concept of forbidden areas a bit further and you can come up with any number of illegal acts where the location of the observer is the higher crime (for a commoner):
- Stowing away on a royal transport
- Sneaking into a palace at night
- Picking the pocket of the prince (the evidence proves he has done wrong and proves that she is a thief)
...and so on.
If we assume that the law is being followed to the letter, for a situation like this to arise, something about the discovery has to be illegal.
Discovering that someone had committed a crime basically means acquiring certain information about their actions. There's two ways in which this could be illegal:
The crime is such that any evidence includes information which is illegal to possess.
- The heroine discovers that the prince has been carrying out some dark ritual and memorizes the procedure. If any woman who knows how to perform mystical rituals is considered a witch, she has now officially become one.
- Or the fact that she recognized it as a dark ritual (say, it was performed in public, but perceived by everyone as an innocuous action) incriminates her.
- The crime involved some kind of secret government information, which is crucial for national security. Or the action itself is secret government information. In which case possessing such information without proper clearance could be considered evidence of espionage.
The evidence has been / could only have been obtained in an illegal way
- The crime in question has been carried out in a private room inside the royal palace and our heroine witnesses it. In that case she has to have also been in/near that room, which is presumably off-limits to everyone but a select few.
- It happened at night, while it is forbidden to be out at night.
- The evidence was the prince talking in another room, and she could only have heard it if she were eavesdropping at the door, which is probably frowned upon.
- The evidence is written down in a forbidden/restricted book. It might even be just written in a book, if reading in general is somehow restricted to a certain circle of which our heroine is not a member of.
- The evidence is a certain object belonging to the prince, or something about that object.
- The act of taking it may be considered stealing from the crown
- Examining it may be likewise illegal
- Reporting the find to anyone but the crown may be considered a violation of a citizen's duty
- as above, the object may have been found in a location which is off-limits to the public.
The son is plotting to kill the regent. On the one hand, that would be murder, and he would be punished if he were caught before he accomplished anything. On the other hand, this is the law of nature. Survival of the fittest, elimination of the weak. The King is dead; long live the King! That sort of thing. Once the regent was dead, his son would ascend to the regency and be above the law.
The woman learns of the young man’s plot by reading his mind, and/or clairvoyance, through witchcraft. If she admits to being a witch, she will be dealt with severely.
The noblewoman accusses the son of the regent of the crime without evidence enough1, and he asks for a trial by combat. A champion is chosen to represent the woman. Either:
a) the noblewoman's champion is defeated and she is accused of slander/treason and has to flee.
b) the noblewoman realizes her champion has no victory possibilities and to spare his champion (maybe her son or brother?) of certain death, she admits "freely" the libel.
Another variation would be that the son of the regents asks to be subjected to trial by ordeal, because he can rig the ordeal to easily pass it (making a public show of God's support).
1 A witness backs down when forced to declare, or happens to appear dead or have fleed when requested, or the woman makes the accusation before she has the evidence.