Steven veerapen

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Top 10 Tudor Murders

10. Death in Custody: The Murder of John Hocknell 

The crime: Even in the Tudor age, it was understood that gaolers had something resembling a duty of care. In practice, this rested largely on how much prisoners could pay for their upkeep and treatment. Rarely, however, did gaolers take the law into their own hands. John Hocknell therefore probably thought he was safe – for the time being at least – when he was locked up by September Assizes of 1589 for the dissemination of false prophecies. He had, reportedly, ‘read a prophecy wherein he found the letter G, whereof he could make no construction except that it should be that Queen Mary [Mary I, who had died in 1558] had a son called George’. Quite how he made this leap is inexplicable, but his contention was that Mary’s secret son had gone to fight abroad and subsequently died battling the Saracens. He was given one year in prison for stirring up seditious talk, and confined in Chester Castle.Unfortunately for Hocknell, that sentence would prove all too light compared to his actual fate: he was found stabbed to death in his cell on St George’s Day 1590.

Whodunnit? The gaoler at Chester Castle, John Taylor. Taylor evidently found his charges a difficult bunch, and he decided to save the Elizabethan government the cost of Hocknell’s upkeep by administering his own brand of punishment. Unfortunately, his method of doing so involved skewering his troublesome tenant with a pitchfork. It certainly stopped Hocknell making any more fantastical claims, but it did result in Taylor himself being tried for murder at the April Assizes, found guilty, and hanged.

9. The Taking of Pelham’s Servants: The Murder of John Busebryge

The crime: John Busebryge meant no harm. In fact, his job was an honourable one: he intended only that no poaching should take place at his master Nicholas Pelham’s estate at Laughton in Sussex. He was, after all, a gamekeeper. Unfortunately, his job would cost him his life. On 30th April 1541, the woodlands around him exploded with the cries of men, the rattle of swords, and the thudding of hoofbeats. Poachers had come. John, with his fellows, James Busebryge (possibly a brother) and Richard Somener, stood their ground, determined to repel the invaders. Yet these interlopers had no intention of being stopped – or of being recognised. Having split into two parties to attack the park from different sides, they set about the gamekeepers. By the time they rode off, John Busebryge was dying and his fellows wounded.

The leader of this pack of scoundrels had reason to resort to murder to hide his identity. He was none other than Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron Dacre. Dacre had called a meeting of his followers at his manor of Herstmonceux and conspired ‘how they might best hunt the park of Nicholas Pelham … with dogs and nets called “bukstalles” and other engines, and bound themselves to slay any of the king's lieges who might resist them in their illegal purpose’. Their method chosen, they set about undertaking it, with gruesome results. Yet Dacre would not walk away from his crimes. With Lord Chancellor Audley presiding over a jury (comprising among others the marquis of Dorset and the earls of Sussex, Derby, Rutland, Huntingdon, Bath, Hertford, and Bridgewater), he was tried, pled not guilty, changed his plea to guilty (doubtless hoping for mercy), and was found so. Despite his title, Dacre ‘was led on foot, between the two sheriffs of London, from the Tower through the city to Tyburn, where he was strangled as common murderers are’. It was a brutal end for a brutal crime.

8. A Tale of Two Culpepers: The Park-keeper’s Wife and her Saviour 

The crime: Few crimes are as unforgiveable as rape. Yet it has always been an infuriatingly common felony. It was certainly so in the sixteenth century, and it inspired an admirable degree of outrage and disgust, even in those harsh times. So outrageous was it, in fact, that when a group of villagers heard a woman’s cries for help, they rushed to her aid. As Richard Hilles, writing in 1543, has it, they found that a particularly brutal thug ‘had violated the wife of a certain park-keeper in a woody thicket, while – horrid to relate! – three or four of his most profligate attendants were holding her at his bidding. For this act of wickedness he was,notwithstanding, pardoned by the king, after he had been delivered into custody by the villagers on account of his crime, and likewise a murder which he had committed in his resistance to them, when they first endeavoured to apprehend him.’
Whodunnit? Thomas Culpeper. Yet here is where the story gets murky. It has long been assumed that this same Culpepper was the one who went on to have an affair with Henry VIII’s fifth wife, the tragic Katherine Howard. However, it has also been argued that the murderous rapist might in fact have been Culpepper’s elder brother, also (confusingly) named Thomas. Thomas the elder certainly had something of a reputation. He had apparently been in trouble for attacking one Reverend William (or Williams), slicing open the fellow’s face with a dagger before laying into him with a staff. In reporting that Katherine’s Culpepper was this same violent Culpepper, Hilles might have been conflating the two (wittingly or unwittingly). This, as Conor Byrne points out in his Katherine Howard: Henry VIII’s Slandered Queen, would certainly explain why the king allowed Katherine’s Culpepper such high access to the royal court – something which he probably wouldn’t have done had the man been a notoriously violent threat.

7. Gangs of Old York: The Murder of Davy Seignor  

The crime: Davy Seignory had no chance. He was a servant to Sir Ralph Eure (or Evers, or Ewry), a bluff loyalist of Henry VIII who hoped to improve his landholdings in Yorkshire. In 1536, Davy found himself not only caught but cornered. He was lodging at a house in Malton, Yorkshire when a gang of ten men burst in, having ridden from nearby Settrington after dining with Ralph Bigod (where no doubt they discussed the potential incursion of Eures into land long worked by adherents of the Bigods). This gang, no doubt egging one another on, proceeded to brutalise Davy, leaving him broken, bleeding, and very dead. Abandoning his body, the killers fled to Scotland, before returning to England and claiming sanctuary in the bishopric of Durham. There, they rode about freely, trusting that Sir Francis Bigod would protect them. This he did, despite Thomas Cromwell writing north – but, for good reason, as we shall see, not pressing too hard – for something to be done. Sir Ralph Eure was, after all, complaining volubly that his land-feud with the Bigods had resulted in a cowardly murder.

Whodunnit? Percival Worme, John Bigod, Christopher Williamson, William Corneforth, Nicholas Harryson, William Dobson, Simon Arundell, Edward Fletcher, Wylfryde Fulthorpe, and George Dakyn. All were probably acting with the approval of upper members of the Bigod family. Yet the London government’s seeming lack of interest in seeking justice for the murder is explainable. At this stage, Sir Francis Bigod was a good reformer and assuredly Cromwell’s man. For another, the George Dakyn numbered amongst the killers was a servant of Cromwell’s nephew, Richard. Yet although this crime would go unpunished, Sir Ralph Eure would get retribution for Davy’s brutal murder, in a way. The following year, Sir Francis (who despite his religious sympathies prized reform of the monasteries rather than dissolution) would throw in his lot with those taking part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. He would be captured, sent to London, tried for treason, and hanged at Tyburn in 1537. Bigod’s manor of Settrington would be mortaged to the Eures … and the murderer Dakyn granted its lease.

6. Servants Slain: Murder and the Earl of Oxford  

The crime: The rewards of being in service to a great man were high. But so were the risks. These were lessons certainly learned by the followers of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford was a difficult man (despite his modern-day supporters, who continue to insist that he in fact penned the entire works of Shakespeare, with some going so far as to also credit him with the works of Robert Greene, John Lyly, and probably Agatha Christie). He was learned, intellectually inquisitive, interested in the arts and culture, profligate, and reportedly damned difficult to get along with. His wife, Anne, would certainly have agreed, as the arranged marriage between the pair (she was a daughter of Elizabeth I’s great minister, William Cecil, Lord Burghley) eventually failed. More disagreeable, at least in terms of the human cost, was Oxford’s 1582 feud with Thomas Knyvet, a gentleman of the queen’s privy chamber. Over the course of this running battle, Oxford’s men Gerard and Brenings were slain in the street, whilst Knyvet’s servant ‘Long Tom’ was killed by Oxford’s followers (Tom having apparently deserted them for Knyvet’s service). Queen Elizabeth was frazzled by this flouting of authority – she detested any feuding she hadn’t engineered – and yet the law seemed utterly unable to keep up with it. That same law had, of course, already taught Oxford how malleable it could be – and he had long known the expendability of servants. In 1567, he had been practising fencing behind Cecil House on the Strand when he apparently decided to use one of the house’s cooks for target practice. One Thomas Brincknell was summarily slain, disgorging vast quantities of blood from a thigh wound.

Whodunnit: Thomas Knyvet and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Both went on to enjoy profitable careers, with Oxford enjoying his trips to Italy (a country he adored and whose customs he brought home) and growing further apart from his wife (whose constancy he doubted). In the 1567 case, the inquest, further, had ruled that the poor cook was drunk, and ‘ran and fell upon the point of the Earl of Oxford’s foil ... In the course of which, with this foil Thomas Brincknell gave himself a wound to the front of his thigh four inches deep and one inch wide, of which he died instantly. This, to the exclusion of all other explanations, was the way he died’. Maybe it was indeed a drunken suicide. And maybe Henry VIII was husband of the year…

5. Love and Lust at the Fish Stall: The Murder of Alan Osburn

The crime: Alan Osburn was an unhappy man. What man wouldn’t be, on discovering that his wife had been seduced when out buying fish, and had since been living in adultery with her seducer? The year was 1517, and Elizabeth Osburn had been cohabiting, on and off, with one Thomas Benett, a park keeper, for a year. Benett was something of a jack-the-lad, but his feelings for Elizabeth seem to have been sincere (despite his lurid admission that he had ‘used her as his concubine when he would’). Unfortunately, the lovers’ talk turned dark at some point during their affair. Alan Osburn, the cuckolded husband, was, quite simply, standing in the way of Cupid’s dart. Matters came to a head when, on the Thursday before Michaelmas, 1517, Alan visited Wely Park, Essex – Benett’s stomping ground. Soon enough, Alan would be beaten to death and half-hidden in a brook.

Whodunnit? Thomas Benett (to no one’s surprise). Benett had struck his lover’s husband with a wooden shaft and run to Elizabeth to tell her what he’d done. Elizabeth promptly burst into tears and the pair managed to forbear sleeping together for two nights. This admirable show of abstinence allowed them time to concoct a plan: Alan, they would claim, had gone off to Burdow in distinctive clothing (which Elizabeth’s servants hid in a drawer). Meanwhile, they returned to the scene of the crime and buried the corpse in a saw pit, returning sporadically to toss more dirt over the body. With the deed supposedly concealed, they proceeded to live openly together – a fact which only drew further attention. Sir John Raynsford, Benett’s master, was particularly incensed by this show of cuckoldry, and threatened Elizabeth with the pillory if she didn’t return to her husband (Sir John being blissfully unaware of Alan’s whereabouts). Unfortunately for the murderous pair – who continued to see each other secretly – rumours soon leaked. The Osburns’ servants in particular couldn’t keep their mouths shut about their missing master, nor about the hidden clothes in which Alan had supposedly decamped to Burdow. For a year the two managed to avoid the law, but eventually the rumours grew to such a pitch that Benett was called upon to answer them. He denied everything. When Elizabeth was questioned, so did she. Tongues kept wagging into 1518, however, prompting Benett to cut his losses, sell everything he owned, and flee. Sir John, his master, was largely in agreement; the weight of suspicion in the county forced him to release Benett from service. Immediately, the killer filled his pockets with ready cash and entered sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey, sending a servant to bring Elizabeth to join him. Whether she did or not is unknown. What is known is that Benett managed to evade trial – probably through the loophole of sanctuary, whereby suspects could live beyond the law at this time – until 1521, when his confession was delivered before Henry VIII’s council. Whether he was convicted, pardoned, or found not guilty (an unlikely prospect, given his confession) is a mystery.  

4. Poetic Punishment: The Murder of Gabriel Spenser

The crime: Gabriel Spenser was no saint. He was a writer, after all. Like many poets of the Elizabethan period, he was as handy with a sword as with a quill, and the former he put to good use in the chilly December of 1596. During an argument with the unfortunately-named James Freake, the son of a goldsmith, Spenser’s passion overspilled. When Freake threw a candelabrum at him, the writer somehow managed to stab the fellow in the eye with his sheathed weapon, mortally wounding him. Probably by claiming it was an act of self-defence, Spenser went unpunished – though retribution would find him by other means. In the autumn of 1598, he was again locked in an argument, this one culminating in a duel fought on Hoxton Fields (it being a popular pastime for rakehells to duke it out beyond the confines of London’s walls). After slashing at his opponent, Spenser gasped in pain and looked down at the long sword protruding from his side. He fell down dead. James Freake had been avenged – and by a man who, as far as we know, had no interest in the late goldsmith’s son.

Whodunnit? Ben Jonson. The celebrated author of Every Man in his Humour and Every Man out of his Humour was no slouch when it came to securing a fearsome reputation. In his later years, he would be a beefy, self-aggrandising wit, and a close artistic ally of Queen Anna, consort of James VI and I; in his earlier years, he was an unashamed rake. We do not know why he duelled with the disagreeable Spenser (slights in the period often seem trivial,yet mattered to those who prized reputation above personal safety). We do know, though, that Jonson killed him, and escaped trial by pleading benefit of clergy (that is, demonstrating that he could read and write by reciting a ‘neck verse’, and thus taking advantage of an antiquated legal loophole that put him above secular charges). He was, however, branded on the thumb for his actions – a fact which he no doubt put to good use in further cementing his reputation as one of the era’s most cutting wits and the hardest of literary hard-men.

3. Cauldrons Bubble: The Murders of Burnet Curwen and Alice Tryppyt

The crime: When Burnet Curwyn – a household member of the highly respected John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester – and a visiting beggar called Alice Tryppyt fell ill and died, it did not take long for suspicions to rise. A number of residents at Lambeth Palace had in fact also fallen ill. All those suffering had, evidently, eaten some of the same porridge. Poison was at the root of it all. Fisher’s household was immediately in an uproar. Two innocent people were dead, which was bad; but the poison must surely have been intended for Bishop Fisher, which was worse. It was only by chance that the old man had been fasting. The panic fed into a general hysteria and fear whipped up by political opposition and factionalism. At the time, in 1531, Henry VIII was deep into his Great Matter: his desire to find some means of nullifying his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marrying his lover, Anne Boleyn. Battle lines had already been drawn. And Bishop Fisher had made his opposition to the king’s will plain. 

Whodunnit? Richard Roose (or Rose, or Rouse). Roose, the cook at Lambeth who had prepared the poisonous porridge, was examined and confessed to adding a mysterious white powder he’d been given, the intent of which was supposedly to prank those in the episcopal household by giving them slight tummy troubles. Murder, he claimed, had not even crossed his mind. But it certainly crossed the minds of the king and his peers. Roose was arrested, tortured, tried, and found guilty. An Act of Parliament was passed which retroactively made poisoning a treasonable offence, the penalty for which would be that guilty persons should be boiled alive. Poison was, to the English mind of the age, a manner of murder beyond the pale: a crime associated in the popular imagination with the louche courts of Italy and France. Accordingly, the unfortunate cook met the bubbling cauldron in 1532. Rumours, almost certainly without foundation, would circulate that either Henry or Anne had been behind Roose’s actions, and the king’s interest in the case a crude attempt at protesting too much. On this score, however, we can let Henry VIII off the hook. Whoever or whatever motivated Richard Roose, it did not come from the top.

2. Death in the Lollard’s Tower: The Murder of Richard Hunne

The crime: There were those unhappy with the Catholic Church long before Henry VIII set about breaking England from Rome. One such malcontent was Richard Hunne, a grieving father with, reportedly, Lollard sympathies (sympathies, that is, for the teachings of the anti-papal and anti-monastic mediaeval philosopher John Wycliffe). Men like Hunne were a nuisance to the Church, and Hunne himself proved to be a thorn in the side of the Catholic body politic when he refused to hand over his dead son’s baptismal shroud to his local parish as payment for the infant’s mortuary fees. This might have been forgotten, if the parish hadn’t decided to make an example of him. Soon, Hunne was excommunicated and made asocial pariah. His response was to formally accuse the Catholic Church of praemunire: of appealing over the heads of English authorities to a foreign power. This, indeed, would force the involvement of Henry, who made an early declaration of English institutional spiritual autonomy (again, years before he would even consider actually breaking with Rome). But that particular clash of Church and state would not take place until 1515, and would do Richard Hunne no good – for in December 1514, he was arrested for suspected heresy, locked in the Lollard’s Tower at Lambeth, and swiftly found hanging by a silken rope. Bishop FitzJames of London was keen to promote the idea that the dead man had committed suicide (then a crime of self-murder). The problem was that that explanation was, then as now, only marginally more convincing than the suggestion that the victims of the New Orleans Axe-man in fact chopped themselves into pieces.

Whodunnit? Charles Joseph, John Spalding, and Dr William Horsey – probably acting on the orders of Bishop FitzJames. Hunne had been clapped in the tower under the care of Dr Horsey, whose goal it was to extract a confession of heresy. His agents were John Spalding, who kept the keys to the cell, and the thuggish Charles Joseph, who appears to have been brought in due to his ‘expertise’ in torture. The most likely sequence of events is that FitzJames charged Horsey with gaining a confession, and thereby reducing the value of Hunne as a troublemaker. Horsey and his goons thus crept up to Hunne’s cell in the night, let themselves in, and suddenly woke and held their victim. The Church, of course, could not draw blood. Luckily, Joseph had bragged of his ability to insert a metal wire up the nose and terrify the hapless man sufficiently that he would confess his heretical leanings (heretofore, Richard Hunne had held out). Unsurprisingly, this gruesome tactic went too far. The wire pierced Hunne’s brain and caused a discharge of blood – and lots of it. Hastily, the men wiped the body down, strung it up, and fled. If they’d failed to gain their confession from a living Richard Hunne, they could at least demean him as a worthless, criminal self-murderer. And had they not bungled it (traces of blood were left in the room, and on Hunne’s coat, though not his face, and it was patently impossible that he could have strung himself up in the middle of the room without anything to stand on), it might have worked. Luckily, the coroner refused to be cowed by Church pressure to bring an inquest verdict of suicide and instead insisted that Hunne had been murdered. In early 1515, Horsey and his cohorts were charged. However, although a term of imprisonment was in store, all would eventually go free. Henry VIII and Wolsey, after waiting for public outrage to die down, insisted that there was no evidence, with Wolsey suggesting the case might be sent to Rome. Hunne, whose corpse had meanwhile suffered the indignity of being tried, in person, for heresy and found guilty, was thus tacitly declared to have killed himself. Horsey would be fined by Wolsey and banished from London, albeit as a legally innocent man. Henry VIII would of course grasp the opportunity to publicly announce that English law would be administered in England by the English king, thank you very much: a position he would quadruple down on in the future.

1. Death in Deptford: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

The crime: Christopher Marlowe was one of England’s finest playwrights. Though a contemporary of William Shakespeare, he appears to have begun writing before the Bard, and he had the benefit of a university education and an eye for the bombastic. He was, by all accounts, a bombastic man himself, with rumours arising about his atheism and fondness forboys (charges for which were hanging over his head at the time of his death). Yet other rumours have long swirled around the ebullient ‘Kit’ Marlowe. One of the most enduring is that he was, before and during his career, involved in the murky world of espionage. By 1593, however, that world had become even murkier. The great Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham had died in 1590, leaving a veritable army of agents each eager to find a new master. No one could be sure who to trust, nor who their old friends were now selling secrets to. And it was with old friends – Ingram Frizer, Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley – that Marlowe spent a pleasant day in a Deptford lodging. It would prove to be a poor choice of company. An argument arose, apparently over the bill, and daggers were drawn. When the melee subsided, the prince of the Elizabethan stage lay dead, blood pooling in his eye socket.

Whodunnit? Ingram Frizer. All three men – Frizer, Skeres, and Poley – had been in some way connected with the Walsingham family and its extensive intelligence-gathering network. A coroner’s inquest found that Marlowe had, during their argument over the bill, snatched at Frizer’s dagger and wounded him, only for Frizer to fight back and deliver a fatal blow above Marlowe’s eye. As it was ruled self-defence, Frizer walked free, whilst the dead playwright was buried in an unmarked grave. A genius of the theatre had been slain. Or had he? Rumours have since abounded about the reliability of the witnesses, those witnesses being, obviously, spies and consummate liars. One particularly colourful story runs that Marlowe faked his death (the means by which the coroner’s jury were fooled is a little more opaque) and continued to write, using one William Shakespeare as a front man. It’s amusing, to be sure – but the sad truth is that the evidence tells us, plainly enough, that one of the Renaissance stage’s greats met his end in a fight over an unpaid bill. 

Bonus: Brutality in the Borders: The Murder of Francis Russell

The crime: The Anglo-Scottish Borders were never the safest of places. A ride through them, in the sixteenth-century, risked assault, affray, robbery, or murder. The Borders had their own laws, their own wardens, and their own codes of behaviour, forged through centuries of being frontier land, endlessly battled over between the Scots and the English. Yet Francis Russell, Baron Russell, no doubt thought he was safe. He had been bred to the Borders. His father, after all, was the 2nd Earl of Bedford and a long-established and effective warden of those violent parts, and Francis had himself survived captivity after the Raid of Redeswire in 1575. Lord Francis was wrong, though. During a routine 1585 Anglo-Scottish meeting at Windy Gyle, at the eastern end of the Middle Marches, crossed words between the attendees grew into shouts. Shouts grew into blows. Blows became pistols drawn. Just as the arguments reached a crescendo, a shot rang out, and silence followed. Men, sheepishly, began to draw back, leaving the bleeding body of Lord Francis Russell ground.

Whodunnit? Sir Thomas Kerr of Ferniehirst, Scottish warden of the Middle Marches. Ferniehirst had not long been in post, and he would not long remain so. He had been sponsored by the Scottish king James VI’s chief minister, the earl of Arran; but Arran was unpopular, and James knew it. In England, Elizabeth I decided to make a diplomatic incident of the affair, so keen was she to see her Scottish cousin divested of his minister. James, for his part, was content to see the vainglorious Arran blamed. Although he refused to send Ferniehirst south, he committed the fellow to prison in Aberdeen, where he died in 1586. Arran would lose his job, his title, and be murdered in the course of a private feud years later.Interestingly, Ferniehirst’s son, Robert, would go on to become one of the loves of James’s life, before being involved in the most notorious high-class murder case of the English Jacobean period…

Feel free to enjoy more Tudor murders – albeit fictional ones – in my new mystery novel, Of Judgement Fallen, set during the reign of Henry VIII:

For my take on Christopher Marlowe, you might like The Queen’s Gold: