Unlike other parts of the country, where the royal courts came
into each county on circuit twice a year to deal with serious
offences at county assizes, Middlesex had the advantage of housing
the royal courts and therefore could not hold an assize court.
The courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas dealt with
both enquiries into treasons and felony (commissions of oyer
and terminer) and of gaol delivery. Indictments for sessions
of the peace or oyer and terminer were initially held before
the grand jury.
In Elizabethan times there were two sessions of the peace and
yearly bundles survive from their proceedings. These include
gaol delivery files, special indictments and inquest records.
There are also coroners' inquest records. Between them the files
provide a glimpse into the world of local law-breakers and unexpected
deaths. It is impossible to give an indication of the amount
of crime from the records, since they are solely concerned with
crime where at least one party was apprehended.
Punishments were savage. Theft of items worth more than 1s
(5p) was a capital offence and punishable by death. The accused
could in theory have stayed silent in the face of the accusation,
but in which case he or she would be subjected to ‘prisone
forte at dure’ - of being laid naked on his or her back
with as great a weight as could be borne without immediately
being crushed and left there until death. Most accused pleaded
guilty to avoid this fate. Death by hanging could also be avoided
by the literate, by proving that they could read. The offender
was then branded, but a subsequent offence would result in death
- unless the mark of the brand could somehow be removed.
There are a range of cases of assault, theft and burglary.
In the summer of 1571 John
Sheppard, alias Coxe, attacked Thomas Ferrys, a butcher, on the
road “from Kynsgland to Newyington” (i.e. between
the south end of Kingsland High Street and Stoke Newington High Street).
Sheppard plunged a meat knife through Ferrys’ body near the
heart, killing him instantly.
In 1575, a
gang of five men assaulted Mathew Davy, a servant of William Marshall
“in the highway at Hackney” (possibly on or near
Mare Street). The goods are itemised in the indictment and consist
“…five yards of blewe woollen
cloth worth thirty five shillings, a satten dublett worth thirty
shillings, a Spanish-lether jerkyn, worth thirteen shillings
and four pence, a piece of woollen cloth of marble colour worth
thirteen shillings, ‘unum par’ braccarum vocat’
a paire of gascoynes’ worth twelve shillings, a piece
of buckram worth ten-pence, a piece of Tuke (sic) worth
twelve pence, of the goods and chattels of the said William
Davy also lost some his own possessions:
“…a marble coloured woollen
cloth worth eighteen shillings, a sword and dagger worth sixteen
shillings, a black woollen cloth cloak worth six shillings and
eight pence, and three shillings and four pence in numbered
Four of the thieves had been caught, and like Sheppard, were
sentenced to be hanged. One, Robert Marrye, was ‘still
Men were not the only offenders. On 12 June 1583, an argument
between Anne Haselton and Felicia Walden, a widow, turned nasty
and Haselton was stabbed in the lower part of her body with
a knife. She took a painful three weeks to die of her wound,
according to the coroner’s inquest.
One rape is recorded, though a particularly unpleasant
one. In 1591 Garrett
Radkyn assaulted Katherine Newby, aged eight in Hackney. The sentence
is not recorded.
The record of burglaries gives some idea of the goods
local people owned. In April 1592 Leonard
Skelton broke into the house of Thomas Peasaker at Hackney and
“…a woman’s gown of
sheeps russett colour worth twenty shillings, six pewter pottes
worth ten shillings, eight pewter dishes worth six shillings
and eight pence, and two brasse pottes worth ten shillings”
which was enough to get him hung.
In January 1603, John Squyer, Thomas Dixon and William
Greene, all Londoners, travelled out to Hackney and broke
into the house of John Shelley, a prosperous yeoman and stole
“…a lokinge glass worth four
shillings, a linen napkin worth six pence, and a handkerchief
worth four pence, of the goods and chattels of the same John
Possibly the thieves were using the linen to wrap up their
principle piece of booty, the looking glass. Again, hanging
was the outcome.
There must have been some thieves whom the neighbourhood
must have felt well rid of. Stealing horses was the 16th century equivalent
of stealing cars, and was obviously a speciality
of Henry Bowyer, who in 1600:
“…stole a baye nagg worth
forty shillings, of the goods and chattels of William Crowther"
- also nine other indictments of the same Henry Bowyer for
stealing horses in and about London from different owners on
days of June, August and October at
"Stepney, Hackeney, Beddnollgreene
Bowyer was sentenced to be hung.
To the modern eye some of the petty crime that appears
in the records seems extraordinary. In the spring of 1572, Richard
Neyler, a London fishmonger, must have decided he needed to replenish
necessary tools of his trade and add a little fresh water fish to
his stall. He:
“…stole certain hairs worth
three pence from the from the tail of Henry Warley’s mare,
and certain hairs worth three pence from the tail of John Finkes
Presumably Neyler intended to use the hair as fishing line.
Warley and Finkes clearly objected to the damage to their beasts,
and instead of some quiet fishing, Neyler ended up in the pillory
Apprending local criminals was the work of the parish constable.
However they were not always as effective as they might have
been - in April 1589 John Eastery, one of the Hackney constables,
had to confess that Thomas Denham did “unlawfully
withdraw and rescue himself” - in other words he
had given the constable the slip after being arrested.
The Dudley Crest
Taking and wearing the livery of a great lord, when not entitled
to do so, was also an offence. In April 1572, William Burton
and John Nicholson, were both indicted for wearing the livery
of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Henry Warley (presumably
the owner of the bay mare that Richard Neyler had taken a fancy
to) for wearing the livery of Sir Ralph Sadler; and George Lynnett
for wearing the livery of the Earl of Leicester’s relative,
John Dudley, then resident at Stoke Newington’s manor
The session papers also include indictments against those who
persistently refused to attend church, including recusants -
those who held to the Catholic faith. The principle Hackney
offender was William, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, who had already
been arrested for harbouring the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion.
He had a household in Hackney from 1583, renting a house from
Lord Mordaunt and appears in the indictments between 1584 and
1586, together with his sons and members of his household. From
other sources we know that the conspirator Antony Babington
was a visitor in 1585. Vaux was host to several priests and
a mass attended by eighteen people was held there in 1584.
Coroner’s inquisitions were also called when the
cause of death was uncertain. In March 1579, an inquest
was held at the house of Antony Trywood at Hackney, where his servant
Juliana Lerede was held to have died of the plague. There were also
accidents. In 1594 two
adolescents were fooling about with guns:
“…that on the 3rd instant between the hours
four and five pm the said Thomas Goldston and a certain Richard
Carpenter of Hackney yeoman, sixteen years old were playing
together in the house of a certain William Harrison of the said
parish, when they found ‘in the hall’ of the same
house ‘a dagg’ charged with powder and ball and
‘a fowlingepece’ also charged with powder and ball,
with which weapons they played in ignorance that the dagg and
fowling pece were loaded, Richard Carpenter having the fowling
pece and Thomas Goldston the dagg; and in so playing Richard
Carpenter unintentionally and by mischance shot Thomas Goldston
in the face, so that he died instantly. On his arraignment Richard
Carpenter put himself Guilty by mischance”.