334 Murder!

In 1615, Ralph Winwood interviewed Gervase Elwes, Lieutenant of the Tower about the suspicious death of Thomas Overbury. Gervase spilled his guts.

The Image on the left is Westminster Hall, on the right the Guild Hall

Download Podcast - 334 Murder! (Right Click and select Save Link As)


Now, for the next couple of weeks, I thought we might have a bit of fun. This is the thing; normally, I rather avoid court scandal and things, because it is all over the place, everybody’s at it – so the court politics of Elizabeth’s reign for example who’s in, who’s breaking wind in front of queenie, a bit of Dudders here, and spot of Devereux there. It’s the stuff of better popular histories than mine. But I’ve missed it, so I thought I should give me a dollop of the stuff like, I don’t know, a good big scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream. I have an ulterior motive too, because I have been reading a book called – are you ready – The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England by Alastair Bellany – I saw hundreds of them piled high in a window display at Waterstones, obs, just next to one of my old publications, Passive Active and Non Reciprocal Microwave circuits by smokin’ Joe Helzaijn. Just kiddin’ ya, but really it was an interesting book. And then there’s also Literacy and the Social Order by David Cressy which I’ve been meaning to share so it’s all coming together. So what we are going to do over the next couple of weeks, is cover a scandal that broke over the Jacobean court; and we are going to use that to talk about how, if at all, the great British public got involved or engaged with politics. There is a concept popularised by the work of Jurgen Habermas, which talked about the development of a Public Space; the idea of a political culture of debate, away from state control and supervision, that emerges in the late 17th and 18th centuries; well, is there any sign of such participation amongst ordinary folk earlier? Or were the goings on at Westminster simply too remote from their real world, their own monarchical republic of the parish? Connected to that is the question of whether pubic opinion was emerging as a source of political authority, you know people saying I am right to advocate this policy because it’s popular with the public – which is a whooolle other step. So, we are going to consider how, and to where news and debate was communicated. Okally dokally, are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin. Or you can fast forward to episode 336!

In June 1615, Ralph Winwood of the Patriot faction had an interesting interview with a member of the Lincolnshire gentry called Gervase Elwes, a name which is spelled in a thoroughly early modern array of styles. Now Gervase rather remarkably was the Lieutenant of the Tower of London.  I say ‘Remarkably’ because he was generally seen as being far too nice for such a job – but he’d been placed in the job by the Howard faction as it happens, no one was sure quite why; though there might just turn out to be a reason.

Now Ralph Winwood, had been digging for dirt, because the death of Thomas Overbury, though a couple of years old, has not quite disappeared from the political minds of a few. Because there was smoke, ladies and gentlemen, and I know that you are all very well aware of what smoke always betokens – that’s right – it never exists without fire. People noted that the

Foulness of the corpse gave suspicion and leaves aspersion that his must have died of the pox or somewhat worse.

So There had been goss on the streets of London, gossip and rumour my friend, gossip – one of Overbury’s servants claimed his master had been poisoned, and that in the Tower this was no secret. Libels appeared – one claiming that we dare not say why Overbury died, and the burial of his corpse had been rather hasty. Well, when Winwood was approached by Gervase Elwes’ patron, the Earl of Shrewsbury, putting a good word in for him, Winwood told him that while he was sure he was a good egg, and all, actually he was

Unwilling to contract friendship with one upon whom did lie suspicion of Sir Thomas Overbury’s death[1]

Well this appears to have scared the horses – the horses in this case being the tender Gervase, and he assumed that Winwood knew everything, and that the appropriate thing to do in a panic was to follow my own personal strategy, which is to blurt. Blurt hard, blurt early, and blurt comprehensively before even pausing to wipe your lips with the back of your hand.

Elwes told Winwood that as Lieutenant of the Tower he had discovered and averted a dastardly attempt by Overbury’s keeper Richard Weston, to poison him. He didn’t mention any other names, but did say he’d thwarted several events – until an Apothochary Boy had evaded his vigilance and administered a poisoned enema, and it was this that did for Sir Thomas.[2] On September 10th, after sitting on this news for a while, Winwood took it to the king. And James, over the objections of Somerset and Suffolk, set Edward Coke the Chief Justice to find out the truth of the matter.

Well there are few rats that could have sprinted up this legal drain than Edward Coke. And he pulled Richard Westom in for questioning and interrogation. But Richard Weston proved a difficult nut to crack, and denied everything. But after 18 days of tirelss questioning, finally crack he did – and admitted that he had indeed been instructed by a lady called Anne Turner to administer poison to the unfortunate Overbury. Now Anne Turner was a friend and confidente of wait for it – Frances Howard no less, who you will recognise as the squeeze of James’s squeeze, the most powerful man in the court – Robert Kerr, the Earl of Somerset. AQ scandal reaching to the highest levels of government I think is the standard phrase is it not?  Well things were broadening out now make no mistake, Thomas Munson, the man who had recommended Weston for employment in the Tower was pulled in too – what motives could he have had for getting Weston placed in such a sensitive job? Coke asked James for more high powered investigators to help him in his work, people that would allow him to investigate – wait for it – the Earl and Countess of Somerset.

Somerset kind of panicked. He legged it from Royston where the king was – you guessed it, hunting, and flew to London to defend himself against these vile accusations, this firago of twisted lies. Then he wrote furiously back to the king, the pen burning the page, accusing the accusers of a faction driven political event to remove him from power. He went a good deal too far – threatening the king that all this fuss would lose them both the support of the Howards. As if James gave a tinker’s curse – as far as he was concerned, he was the font, the lodestone – not the Howards. And to give him his due, James was having none of it anyway and wrote

If I should suffer a murder (if it be so) to be suppressed and plastered over to the destruction both of my soul and reputation, I am no Christian

A man of principle was our Jimmy, it has to be said to his credit. On 17th October, Coke and his Commissioners had convinced themselves that the Earl and Countess of Somerset might well be guilty as charged; and the axe fell. A formal message arrived, telling Robert and Frances that they were under house arrest and were to be retained – Somerset at Whitehall, the Countess at Blackfriars. Somerset immediately started to destroy or conceal letters, changing the dates on some of them – although later changing his mind it must be said. But that wouldn’t play well in court – I mean that doesn’t look like the actions of an innocent man, though in the historian Gardiner’s opinion they don’t really prove any guilt, just don’t look very good if read in an unsympathetic way. Meanwhile Anne Turner had also been taken into custody. The noose was doing what nooses feel great pleasure in doing, and tightening. But could it really be so?

Poor old Somerset of course; in the words of Fagin, all his friends and companions turned out to have been nothing but villains and thieves. On 20th October, the Spanish Ambassador wrote that

He has not a man left to take his part; and they begin to say that he gave poison to Prince Henry who is dead, and a hundred other things they will prove, though they never took place.

Now before we proceed with the proceedings, or indeed Begin the beguine, shall we just have the dramatis personae so that you have everything in order – or at least what Edward Coke believed. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

The principal authors of this horrible, horrible murder were supposed to be Frances Howard the Countess of Somerset and her hub, the Earl of Somerset Robert Kerr. Their tool was poisoning. To achieve their wicked and impious ways they employed a chain of accessories. Richard Weston was a jailer, obviously crucial for access and administering the poison – and so, in effect the actual murderer. Though there was also an apothecary’s boy who had administered a poisoned enema. Then there was Mistress Anne Turner. She was a confidente of Frances Howard, the widow of a doctor, a business woman who procured the poisons for her friend…from one James Franklin, a deeply unreliable cunning man of bad character and reputation of Maidstone in Kent. I always suspected there was something dodgy behind the net curtains about Maidstone – I could just never put my finger on it. Then there was Gevase Elwes, spiller of beans, who had been placed as Lieutenant of the Tower claimed to have tried to prevent all of this – but did he really try or was he an accomplice? There were some other players on the fringes. So Thomas Monson for example, who had introduced Gervase Elwes and recommended him for the post of Lieutenant of the Tower. Meanwhile, the various information gatherings, the web of intrigue and rumour led to other nebulous worries – witchcraft, popish plots.

On 19th October the Principal, the murderer, was arraigned at the Guildhall in London – Richard Weston. Now the facts were these – that Weston had received poisons from the hands of others; he had administered them to Overbury, though Overbury had not died; then apparently an apothecary boy had achieved it. Now Gardiner doesn’t talk much about this mysterious young man, though I do read on the intertubes that he was an Apprentice known only as William[3] who fled to the UP, was pursued and forced to write a confession. This came from a blog, I cannot verify, but the link to the very well presented article is in the footnotes to the transcript of this episode on the History of England website, which I commend unto you as the source of all light and reason.

Anyway, the thing is that Richard Weston was clearly innocent wasn’t he?  I mean Gervase Elwes said he’d prevented him from poisoning Overbury anyway; and even if he hadn’t well the inconvenient fact that Overbury didn’t die until William became involved with Overbury’s knicker area seems to suggest that Weston was at best guilty of some lesser crime. But look – consider this from Edward Coke’s view with eyes on the prize of fame – you don’t win international fame by putting apothecary boys behind bars. And under English law, I am told, at the time anyway, you can’t convict folks of accessory to murder if the principal has not been convicted of murder. Not sure if that’s still true, answers on a postcard I know there are many talented legal eagles who listen to my Uriah Heap of a podcast. So, our Coke was very keep to get his big fish. And those particular fish were whoppers, couldn’t be more humungeous really – the Earl of Somerset and the Countess of Somerset, until a few weeks ago the most powerful people in the land under the king. As it were. And that ladies and gentlemen is merely by way of an example of the smutty double entendre so beloved of a genre of English comedy, which we are discussing on the Things that made England at the time of writing. Boom, and as it were, tish.

Now, I know I am now quite frankly noodling around, but Samuel Rawson Gardiner, by the way, whose account is still probably the most thorough of this scandal and trial, was a 19th century historian. He came from Alresford Hampshire, which is a lovely, lovely part of the world, and lived 1829 to 1902, and nurtured a magnificent beard. He was an Oxford man, though spent some years in the wilds and wilderness that is King’s College London. He was of course a big fan of the English legal system, which was part of the English zeitgeist, and his appalled horror at Edward Coke’s performance still echoes down the ages.

“At the present day, a lawyer who should have a hand in drawing up such an indictment as this, or in allowing it to be pressed against a prisoner, would undoubtedly be guilty of the most deliberate act of wickedness which it is possible for a man to commit.”

So, take that Edward Coke, Chief Justice and Constitutional hero. KPow!

Anyway there was Richard Weston standing in front of the Commissioners at the Guildhall – and already there was a lot of interest; by turning over this affair to criminal proceedings, the king had turned this case into a public performance. The Guildhall is a very large space indeed, used for enormous feasts by the great and the good merchant class of London. We don’t know actual numbers who were there – but I don’t know, if you could go and see the great and the good hauled over the coals and having the laundry of their lives washed in public, wouldn’t you be rather tempted? I mean in early Stuart England, when there was no telly or Paris Matches or vast newspapers, the internet and so on these peoples’ lives were vanishingly remote for most of the time. Fill up your boots time I’d have thunk.

Not that Richard Weston himself was grand of course, he was just a jailer, though please if you are a prison officer don’t take that the wrong way, ‘cos the point is that the thread he held led to the woolly pully of the mighty. So there he stood – and Weston said nowt, he would not plead. Coke was laying eggs, he needed his conviction, and so vast amounts of pressure were applied to make him plead, without which a trial and conviction could not proceed. Torture was not allowed under Common Law except for very specific circumstances, but if you didn’t plead at all the difference between torture and non torture was pretty much purely semantic – because you would be subject to peine forte et dure. Just to remind you of this, it involved being crushed between increasingly heavy weights – if you died, you would effectively be not guilty, if you weren’t prepared to die in agony, then you’d have to plead. Weston was given a week to decide while minute descriptions were kindly passed across to him of just want peine forte et dure was like, the unavailability, for example of tea and biscuits while the procedure was carried out. Eventually he cracked, and pleaded not guilty, hoping in his words, that there was no intention of making a net to catch the little fishes, whilst the great ones were allowed to escape. Which is probably a point we’ll come back to at some point.

So back to the Guildhall we go, packed seating, with people probably paying for their tickets to see the spectacle, which sounds all wrong to the modern ear. Francis Bacon commented afterwards that such was the interest in the trials that the period felt more like a holiday out in the normal world of London, with

The people themselves being more willing to be lookers on in this business, rather than proceders in their own

Over the whole progress of this business, well into 1616, nine public murder trials were held over seven months, in three locations in London. Interest remained very high. So as Weston finally came to trial, Coke described the public audience as ‘an auditory consisting of many thousands’. Against this background, and faced with the cream of England’s legal team and allowed no counsel of his own, Weston rather wilted in the face of the evidence, and Coke’s bloodthirsty and not entirely fair advice to the jury assured a conviction. Weston was sentenced to hang, and taken back to imprisonment to wait.

Next up was Anne Turner; confidente of Frances. She was something of an offender of gender norms was our Anne; she’d been having an affair with one Arthur Mainwaring for some years, a name that for every English person of a certain age will be for ever associated instead with the Home Guard in WWII, who would have certainly been incapable of having an affair, and if he did imagine Sergeant Wilson’s smirk. Anyway back to Anne’s gender norm busting; she had three illegitimate children. She was a successful businesswoman with a lucrative monopoly in the supply of a saffron-based starch, used to colour collars and ruffs; but was also accused of running houses of ill repute, brothels. And, to top it all, she was also accused of witchcraft – because of her association with one Dr Simon Forman, an astrologer and apothecary. So there’s a whole load of stuff going on with Anne Turner but to be fair she probably was actually guilty of procuring the poisons.

Anne stood trial at the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall – a reasonable space in the south east corner of the hall, surrounded by scaffolding to create seats, crammed with people. Spookily, while Anne was being interrogated about all her witchcraft goings on, there was a loud crack from the wooden scaffolding. There was 15 minutes of chaos and hubbub – ‘the Devil is here to save her own’ people cried as people panicked that the devil himself had entered the hall, until eventually someone mentioned that no one had sold the devil a ticket so he couldn’t be here.

Well the jury had no problem convicting Anne, and Coke threw the book in sentencing her to death giving her all the available worst marks you could give a woman in early modern England. She was a

’whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon and a murderer”

Which pretty much gives her a full house. He also ordered that she should be hanged in the fashionable starched ruffles she sold

“so that the same might end in shame and detestation”.

So Anne’s death, to some degree maybe was also a partially fashion statement by the legal profesion.

Next up, in the expanse of the Guildhall, was Gervase Elwes, and he really was unlucky. I mean he’d clearly come clean early, he apparently tried to stop the murder, so surely no case to answer or at least some leniency. And actually his defence was going quite well – though there was an obvious question – why hadn’t he reported anything then when he first found Weston trying to poison Overbury? But at this point a bombshell was dropped – James Franklin, a deeply dodgy person anyway, claimed Elwes had written to the Countess, saying of Overbury that ‘the more he was cursed the better he fared.’ All was confusion, Elwes stammered and fussed and didn’t deny it, the jury saw a guilty man and bang that was it done – death.

Next up – James Franklin, the man from Maidstone; of whose guilt there appeared to be little doubt, so although he twisted and turned and laid down smoke like the Graf Spee making for the River Plate, chucking out allusions to nefarious and nebulous grander plots about which he had secret information – he also was convicted. One more remained – Thomas Monson, but the evidence against him was thinner than Mr Creosotes after dinner mint, and Coke excitedly thought he had leads for a bigger fish – the Catholic plot thing. So Monson was put on hold until 1616, as were the Somersets. While they all waited, in December 1615 Frances gave birth to their daughter, whom they named Anne.

Now then everyone I am going to pause there, and take a breath. And change the direction of the podcast, which so far is turning out to be a crime procedural, a contribution to the vast world of True Crime podcasts. The question we are now going to ask is – how far is this scandal engaging the Great British Public? Was there a Great British Public in any political sense? And what impact did scandals like this have on the view from the margins, on the reputation of the court? Was this all just the goings on of the high and mighty, up there in the clouds away from mortal folk working the farms in Tanfield and maybe doing a bit of weaving to take to the market at Masham, where they might also take in a pint of Black Sheep? These are the questions to which we will turn. This is a road paved with good intentions. Let us follow it whither it leads, and let us hope Samuel Johnson was just concentrating on chucking out witty one-liners, and didn’t actually speak from experience.

We might start by talking about the extent of literacy, since we are used to a world where so much news and political debate is carried through written words, whatever the medium. The first thing to note is that in our period reading and writing don’t necessarily go together; there were different reasons why you might interested in each, and reading was probably much more widespread than was writing. And if you lived in a village where your livelihood depended on your husbandry and weaving skills, why would you bother?

It seems obvious, but what were the perceived benefits of literacy at the time?[4] Well, quite possibly at the top of the list, a person who could read was better equipped to prepare for salvation. This I suspect is not why we choose to read nowadays, but after William Tyndales’ gift and heroics, you could read the word of God in the Bible, yourself. Religious conservatives like Stephen Gardiner and Thomas Moore had poo poo’d the idea that reading was important; Moore argued that it was irrelevant because ’the illiterate multitude would not be able to benefit from it’ and Gardiner argued that images adequately supplied the needs of writing. But come on; imagine you had been preventing from reading the words of the creator and her people – and suddenly you had a direct line to God. Would you not be interested? Surely you would. And by the end of the 16th century there was increasing encouragement to read the bible at home. If you remember the anti popery discussion in episode 329, ministers firmly believed that the weapon of the anti Christ was ignorance and superstition; reading was a godly tool to bring the light of truth in the lives of ordinary people. So, parents should teach children, masters should teach servants, those who could read and write should help their associates who could not.

Of course there were other, more practical reasons why reading was helpful; the 17th century world was increasingly dominated by written instructions and documentation; we’ve talked, just for instance, about the growing use of copyhold tenancies from the 16th century – wouldn’t it be nice to be able to read the terms of your tenancy for yourself rather than your landlord saying just sign here don’t worry it’ll be fine? And of course the same in spades in the world of artisans and merchants and contracts. There was once an argument I think also that the discovery of printing itself encouraged reading; while I am not sure it was a theory that attracted universal agreement, there certainly was much more material now available, at somewhat more affordable prices, though it doesn’t do to overestimate that, books were still premium items, but broadsheets, ballads – less so, much more affordable. And there were subjects like husbandry and estate management appearing in printed form – and hope to improve your lot and your income. If you could read, you could engage in a broader range of affairs and cope better with the complexities of the world. To get deeply practical – it also meant if you were in trouble, you could read the neck verse, which could help you avoid the noose in extremis.

The argument for writing as opposed to reading was a little more dicey; but it deepened the opportunity for interaction with the word of God; you might annotate your bible for example. Literacy was said to benefit civil society – allowing you to sign petitions; educational writers like Roger Ascham who corresponded with Lady Jane Grey argued that civil disobedience would decline if young people were properly educated and learned, and able to understand better their responsibilities too both God and humanity. Writing allowed a much more complex interaction with neighbours and society, to maintain written records of business or farming activities, records that could help ordinary people to become richer. Here’s a comment from Nicholas Breton in 1618

This is all the reason we go to school for; to read common prayers at church and set down common prices at markets, write a letter and make a bond, set down the day of our births, our marriage day, and make our wills when we are sick for the disposing of our goods when we are dead.

Fair enough, but it is worth noting that by the 15th and 16th centuries the demand for literacy remained undeniably sluggish; who needed to read to mend a fence, work a loom, tell the weather? The rich oral culture had a long tradition of jokes, stories, proverbs, customs and ceremonies. Nor was it necessary to be literate to be devout. Plus, and this will be crucial I think, being unable to read and write could be mitigated by access to people who could, on your behalf.

Historical studies of literacy once tended to be very qualitative; Scotland for example has a very deeply embedded tradition that literacy was much stronger there than in England and the continent, because of the focus on providing schools in the reformation, the declarations by ministers of the importance of literacy, the greater numbers of universities to educate ministers. But then along came a Europe wide discussion about the use of signatures to determine literacy – if you could sign your name, it was agreed to be a sign that you could read and write. There are lots of caveats obviously; maybe someone who signed their name could do little more; probably there were many who could read but not sign their name. But what it was agreed, was that the ability to sign probably usually indicated ability to write more widely, it probably meant that since reading was an easier skill to acquire a signature indicated ability to read; and it was a simple and effective measure for comparison[5]. The use of a quantitative measure brought a lot of light to the level of literacy in Early modern Europe, and David Cressy’s book ‘Literacy and the Social Order’ did so particularly in England.

Without wanting to butcher the subject too much it made a few points. Firstly, that generally speaking, the levels of literacy in England rose from a very low level of around 10% for men at the end of the 15th century, to maybe 20 percent by the end of the 16th, 30% in the mid-seventeenth, and to about 45 percent by 1714 around teatime. Literacy levels were strongly gendered; Women were almost universally unable to sign their names in 1500, and by 1600 only some 10 percent could do so, the proportion rising to about 25 percent by 1714 around teatime.

For interest’s sake, R A Houston’s works on Scottish literacy [6]rather exploded the national myth that Scotland was unusually precocious in this – historians, it must be said, can be irritating that way. He calculated that by the mid 17th C perhaps 10 percent of adult males in the Highlands were signature-literate and 25 percent in the Lowlands, and by the mid-eighteenth century those figures had risen to 40-45 percent and 65 percent, with a similar disparity then between men and women as in England.

David Cressy found that social status, occupation, and location strongly affected the likelihood of your level of literacy. There is so much complexity here that this episode is almost a criminal act of summarising, but broadly by the mid 17th century male lay literacy among the Gentry would have been almost universal, maybe 60-70% among yeomen and Tradesmen & craftsmen. Husbandmen would have much lower levels, say 30% and labourers almost universal illiteracy. The same relationships broadly applied to women also, with the same broad gender inequality.

Cressy also found the reasons for literacy deeply complex. There is a relationship between large urban centres and high levels of literacy, London is an obvious example; but there was no great sign of any difference between smaller towns and rural areas; the type of town – market centres, ports, administrative centres – had a big impact. On the basis of evidence from Essex in the 17th Century, there seems to be a broad connection between higher levels of literacy and educational facilities, the strength of Puritanism, and economic structure. Even the relationship between access to schooling and literacy though wasn’t entirely clear; partly because even if parish or dame schools did exist, peoples’ priority was still to have children helping out at home or with the harvest and so on – and so they didn’t get to attend very much.

Another imponderable was the impact and expectations of family, of course always one of the most important factors in educational attainment. So religious and political interest may well have been nurtured in certain families, and the ethos and culture of the families – so for example rather later there was a very strong 19th century tradition in the north of England towards the importance of literacy which led to comparatively high levels there.

Ok, so you have the picture. Literacy was high among certain classes and groups; significant among others; negligible among the labouring classes. Which means we can move on to think about how news and political comment moved out into society, if at all. Which is what we’ll do next time.

BUT you don’t want to leave now! No no no. Let me give you a sneak peak into the filthy, vile an d corrupt slurry that is my private life, and tell you that late last year we here in Swyncombe were visited  by one Stephen Mileson, and thoroughly lovely Landscape Historian who you might remember from my interview last year, as the author of the book Peasant Perceptions of Landscape, a book available from OUP which I expect should be on every good history of England listener’s bookshelf. Anyway, there was a shady deal struck like those you scratch my back and so on deals in big business. As opposed though, to several million quid left under a park bench in used fivers, we agreed we would help Stephen listen to the bells of St Botolph’s church Swyncombe and help him measure from how far away they could be heard. In return, he would walk around the parish for a couple of hours and try to point out local features in the landscape of interest. I know. All pretty dodgy, parliamentary corruption committee referral on the way.

Well, Mark and I took him up to a feature called the Cuckoo Pen, which is a story in itself; there are a load of them in South Oxfordshire, and although there’s a theory that they reflect a bit of folklore about capturing the first cuckoo and thereby the return of Spring – no one knows. Though let me tell you – people have tried. Anyway on the way, walking up the ancient Ridgeway, and I was ranting about countryside access and common right, Stephen mentioned the stints people might have over common land. Well, interesting I thought and so here is something about the word stint. As in ‘don’t stint on the bread sauce’, wherein the meaning of course is a limit, not to limit the quantity of delicious, clove flavoured stodge. And this is where the origin of the word comes in. Because rights of common presented landowners and communities with a challenge on how to allocate a limited resource across many people; let’s say their shared pasture, when cottagers, who have very little of their own land, want to graze their pigs, or cows to keep body and soul together. Now there were a bunch of villagers all wanting as much of this common resource as they could, so how did you control that? Well there was one way which was to relate the use of summer resource to amount of animals that the villager could sustain over winter, and that was the most common medieval approach. And it sort of made sense – a villager wouldn’t over graze a pasture if all the animals would die anyway during the winter. But from early modern times a new approach developed which does seem more logical. You’d decide how much grazing the common land would bear; and then find an equitable way of divvying it all up based on the landholding size of each villager. Much more logical, everyone knows where they are. So from late medieval days this approach takes over – and each villager is assigned a measure of their rights – so the right to graze 3 cows for example. That measure is described as, you guessed it, a stint. So, going back to the bread sauce example, what you are really saying is – don’t be restricted by the strictly apportioned measure we have all been allocated by an equitable division of bread sauce between everyone sitting salivating at the table – gizza bit more, an extra cow sort of thing.

Although stinting seems thoroughly logical, it’s worth bearing in mind that the English are intrinsically scatter brained and illogical, and so the other suck it and see approach about over wintering cows was still dominant in 46% of common land by 1958. But stinting did grow, and it had some unforeseen consequences. Once you’d defined what a stint was, well, it became a measurable commodity – and therefore tradeable. So people from outside the community or indeed inside it, might buy up stints, and before you knew it, hey, I can’t graze my cow anymore why can’t I have any bread sauce? In addition, landowners, in the way that landowners do the little tinkers, might decide that they implement the stints system so they could measure them, define them – and then can take them away – which they do sometimes. Or indeed that they can sell them to outsiders with attractively large amounts of cash, like, I don’t know, Russian oligarchs trying to avoid pointy umbrellas, and in the words of Neil Diamond money talks – although I’m given to understand that it doesn’t sing and dance, nor does it walk. Be that as it may, landowners might well consider that community values are far too intangible when compared to a nice case of used roubles in large demoninations. And so stinting became part of the commercialisation of agriculture which had various impacts.

Anyway so, next time you ask some one not to stint – you now know you are part of a long tradition of measuring and apportioning shared, communal rights. And go easy on the bread sauce.

[1] Bellany ‘The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England’ p72

[2] Gardiner. History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War 1603-1642 p331

[3] http://thepublici.blogspot.com/2019/10/thomas-overbury-death-by-enema.html

[4] Cressy, D Literacy and the Social Order, Chapter 1

[5] Stephens ‘Literacy in England, Scotland, and Wales, 1500-1900’,  History of Education Quarterly , Winter, 1990, Vol. 30, No. 4, Special Issue on the History of Literacy (Winter, 1990), pp. 545-571

[6] Houston, ‘Scottish Literacy’

6 thoughts on “334 Murder!

  1. Well, I’m glad to say that tabloid journalism doesn’t appear to be your thing, interesting as the Overbury murder is.
    The material on literacy is fascinating, however, especially the selling points for reading and writing. (The need for the latter had never occurred to me!) And I very much look forward to the discussion of the repercussions of the murder case on perceptions of the court.
    Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2022!

  2. Hi David, really enjoyed this episode! I’m currently writing my dissertation on the Court of Chancery and its dispute with the common law courts in the early 17th century, with a focus on Sir Edward Coke’s dismissal following the Earl of Oxford’s case in 1616. It was helpful and interesting to hear more about Coke’s escapades in other proceedings around this time.

    I love studying legal history (history in general really, but I study law so my own focus is the legal side of things) because you’ll read sources that make you think, ‘wow! They really are just like me!’, and then you’ll read about animal trials, peine forte et dure and trial by ordeal and question whether any of them were quite right in the head.

    Thanks again for making these podcasts, you really are a brilliant podcast host and I enjoy every episode.

    1. Hi Andrew, and I am so glad you enjoyed it! I was very pleased to find it, and got rather carried away. I would love to spend more time on legal cases – if only there were more hours in the day! Sounds as though there’s a story around Coke’s dismissal I need to try and investigate.
      Thanks for getting in touch, and for your kind comments, it is really nice to get compliments!

  3. To my pandemic friend, David: I started listening to your podcast at about the time of our first “shelter in place” order in my part of the United States (March 2020),and it was at that time I found that your fascinating and entertaining podcasts nicely accompany a brisk ride on my stationary bike in the basement where the scenery can be just a bit tedious. I began with Henry VIII and in the course of forging ahead from there all the way up to your most current segments, I had an epiphany about 3-4 months ago that there might possibly have been a bit of English history antedating good old Henry VIII. An amazing insight on my part, eh? So I am now proceeding on two tracks separated by about 400 years: Listening to King John find new and creative ways of pissing off all his barons on his road to Magna Carta, and in parallel watching King James start on the dreary path to Cromwell and the Civil War. This cognitively challenging method of learning English history has the advantage that I don’t have to wait two weeks to hear one of your delightful podcasts. I suspect this is not how you intended your devoted listeners to savor your creative work, but what can you do? Thank you for a decade of brilliant work.

    1. Whatever works for you Michael! Very glad you are enjoying it…though I feel a surge of sympathy for James who really was not aware that folks would find him dreary because of what followed! Actually it’ll be interesting if your approach throws up any interesting paralells…I have the memory of a goldfish sadly, and have therefore forgotten pretty much everything I have written! anyway, thank you for getting in touch it is very kind

Leave a Reply