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Duration 00:22:13

Medieval treason and magic

In this podcast, two of our records specialists tell us about treason and necromancy in The National Archives’ medieval records.

The first part, narrated by Paul Dryburgh, tells the story of a band of men from Coventry who planned to kill King Edward II and his supporters, the Despencers, with a plot that involved wax effigies and pins. In the second part, Sean Cunningham discusses one of the earliest English language statements in legal history; a tale involving a mole catcher and a magical dismembered hand.


Hello and welcome to the National Archives podcast series. Here we have two stories from our medieval records specialists. In our first story, told by Paul Dryburgh, a band of men from Coventry plot to kill King Edward II and his supporters, the Despencers, using wax effigies and pins. Our second story, told by Sean Cunningham, focuses on a molecatcher who spins a treasonous tale involving a magical dismembered hand. It happens to be one of the earliest and longest English language statements in legal history, and it might even be the earliest short story in English.

Hello, my name is Paul Dryburgh. I’m Principal Records Specialist for Medieval Records at The National Archives.

My own particular period of interest, my research interest, is in the reign of Edward II which is the first third of the 14th century. Edward II, as I’m sure you know, is one of England’s least successful kings; he’s the guy who loses the Battle of Bannockburn to Robert Bruce; he’s also the first English King to be deposed; and there is the famous lurid story about his supposed death at Berkeley Castle.

Obviously much of what’s been written about Edward’s reign is generally in agreement that he’s not a successful king. There are serious problems in the reign. One of his most serious problems is his reliance on what I call favourites – so, individuals who have far too much of a close relationship with the King. They manipulate him too, for their own personal gain: whether or not to be their own personal gain in terms of land, titles; or whether it’s for better marriages for their children or family, that kind of thing, to improve their connections; or whether, as certain historians have argued, in the case of somebody like Piers Gaveston, it was actually a sexual relationship with the King that he enjoys.

Now the record we’ve got here is very interesting because it relates to the other, more sinister and more powerful favourite of Edward’s reign, Hugh Despencer the Younger. So Hugh is the son of another Hugh Despencer, who by this time is in his 60s/70s. He’s a long-time royal servant, and his son Hugh junior comes to prominence in around 1318 when he’s made Chamberlain of the Royal Household. That gives him personal access or intimacy, though not necessarily sexual, with the King. He exploits that completely. He’s one of the ultimate politicians; he basically goes out of his way to build up a massive land of estate for himself across the country, particularly in the Welsh marshes and over in Ireland, and basically controls access to the King and access to patronage. And as a result of his rise to prominence, there’s a civil war in England in 1321-22, the result of which is that baronial opposition – they call it – to Edward’s reign is kind of curtailed. Lots of aristocrats are executed or exiled or put in prison or heavily ransomed. Basically for the next four years has been termed by some historians as a tyranny where Edward and the Despencers run roughshod over the rights of their peers and the populace. How true that is, is up for debate. Obviously the general thrust of historical interpretation/narrative is that this is a period which leads ultimately to Edward’s deposition and ultimately Hugh Despencer’s own execution once Edward’s Queen, Isabella, invades England in September 1326 and they capture Hugh and his father and execute them both. Hugh is executed particularly brutally; he is strapped to a 50ft high ladder at Hereford and is then kind of eviscerated… has his genitals cut off in front of him, has his heart ripped out and is then obviously drawn and quartered. It’s pretty brutal, to put it that way.

So the story we have relates to a plot against Hugh which takes place in around 1323-34. It’s in the record of the main plea role of the King’s Bench from Hilary term 1324/5 which is the 18th year of Edward II’s reign. The King’s Bench is obviously the highest criminal court in the land and it deals with appeals, and in this case obviously plotting treason – this is treason against the King and his supporters. So effectively, this is a plot revealed to the King by one of the plotters, a guy called Robert le Mareschal of Leicester and the reason why it’s on the King’s Bench roll is because he’s part of the supposed plot and eventually it gets revealed and he turns King’s evidence. And the trial then follows the process of his story and how he tries to implicate the other plotters in order to liberate himself from the threat of treason. So effectively what happens is, he comes into court and recognises that on the 31 October 1324 he was lodging with an individual called Master John of Nottingham, and I am quoting now, “who had become a necromancer and lived in Coventry”. Now necromancy in this period can just mean somebody who works in the black arts – a magician, a conjuror – that kind of thing. It also has another connotation of trying to predict the future by communing with the dead but in this case the evidence seems to be that more that he was to use his magical skills to bring about the downfall of the King and his favourites.

So, Robert admits that on the 30 November 1323, he and 27 local men – and that includes prominent tradesmen and even an apprentice at court, a guy called John son of Hugh at Merrington, who’s one of Coventry’s leading merchants, or wool merchants in the town, and civic figures. These men come to John and Robert and they ask if they would “keep their council” for then they would have great profits. And they kind of bind themselves together and they agree that both sides will be discreet about this and they won’t share their secret with anybody else. So they claimed – the 27 guys claimed – that they could not go on living under the harsh treatment meted out to them by the Prior of Coventry, so that’s the Cathedral priory of Coventry, and his maintenance by the King, his favourites, Hugh Despencer the Earl of Winchester, who’s the older Hugh, and Hugh Despencer the Younger, and that was to their destruction and that of the city. of the council. Now the prior at this time appears to be a guy called Henry of Leicester, and he had received money from lands in possession of those people who’d been caught or captured in the rebellion of 1322 so he’d personally benefitted from the Civil War and the Despencers’ rise to power, and clearly there’s a feeling in Coventry that he’s got too much influence, and a lot of this story probably relates to local power politics, or local disagreements in Coventry itself, as much as the national picture.

So, in return for a gift of £20 to Master John and a guarantee that he could stay at any religious house he wanted to in the country, and £15 to Robert le Mareschal, the 27 individuals asked Master John whether he would take his necromancy and arts to kill the King, the Despencers, the prior, and the cellarer of Coventry – the guy who looks after the stores in the priory, Nicholas Crumpe who’s the steward of the prior and an individual who we know not very much more about called Richard of Sowe. Sowe is a village local to Coventry.

So on the 11 December 1323, an advance part payment was made to Master John and to Robert, and a delivery was made of seven pounds of wax and two ells of cloth. From this Master John fashioned seven wax effigies, one of which even had a little crown to represent the King, just so they knew when they were performing their arts who they were actually targeting. So they begin to ply their arts, as it says in the document, in an old house outside Coventry – it’s not quite a Hansel and Gretel in the woods but you can imagine what’s going on. So they remain there until 26 May following, so they’re basically in this house for the best part of six months. It gets to April, and in late April Master John sharpens a lead pin and he stabs it into the forehead of the effigy of Richard of Sowe, and they decide they’re going to use Richard because he’s a minor figure and they know him and can test whether their necromancy is going to work or not. Next morning, Richard is found in a terrible state – he’s writhing around in agony, he’s screaming out in pain, he can’t recognise anybody and doesn’t know what’s going on – and they think “hmm, clearly this is working”, you know, “get in, we’re on our way here.” He then remains in this state, for some reason they don’t take the pin out until the 19 May, so they basically leave the poor guy in torture for four weeks. Then, on the 19 May, Master John decides he’s going to take out the pin and then stabs the effigy in the heart. Four days later, poor Richard of Sowe drops dead.

Now that’s effectively the story. Then the plot’s revealed, and the Sheriff of Warwickshire was ordered to arrest the culprits, so they all submit and they committed to the marshal of the King’s household. Robert le Mareschal then turns King’s evidence in an attempt to free himself, because at this stage he’s called what’s an ‘approver’, so if you’re involved in some kind of criminal activity and you then turn evidence and your case is proven and found guilty, you are then potentially let free. If however, as happened here, a jury acquits the 27 named individuals, then obviously Robert le Mareschal is then implicated and he is brought to trial for a false appeal.

Master John, in the meantime, unfortunately died in prison. So we know what happens to him. This is where the story kind of ends though, in that Robert Le Mareschal is committed again to the marshal for a false plea and further investigations are to take place. So that’s kind of the end of the story in the document itself. Obviously it’s not the end of the story, as within 18 months an invasion led by the Queen as I say and her believed-to-be-lover, a guy called Roger Mortimer who was the Lord of Wigmore in the welsh marshes who was one of the guys who had rebelled in 1321 too, had been imprisoned in the tower, but unusually had escaped from the tower – very few people in the medieval period escaped from the tower, but Roger Mortimer was one of the few to do it and it’s a brilliant story in itself in that he has a meal held for the guards who are holding him captive in the Tower of London on the 1 August 1323 and at this meal basically he manages to buy off one of the other guards. They drug his guards, so all these guys are in a complete stupor, meanwhile outside somebody is waiting with a rope ladder, and scaling ladders, which they smuggle into the Tower and he’s able to escape over the walls into a waiting boat and to flee to France. He then eventually strikes up a relationship with Queen Isabella, they’re certainly believed to be lovers by most historians, they lead an invasion from northern Europe in September 1326 and effectively nobody stands in their way. All of the King’s supporters drift away; they all rally to the Queen. The Despencers and Edward flee from London, they flee westwards. Most historians think they’re trying to make for Wales, I kind of have argued that they might be trying to make for Ireland because they would get a more welcome reception there potentially. Unfortunately when they board the ship, the wind is against them and blows them back onto the Welsh coast, so they end up bedraggled running around in south Wales. Eventually they’re captured somewhere near Neath in mid-November. Edward is taken into custody. Hugh Despencer the Younger is captured and taken to Hereford where he’s brutally put to death and then there’s a Parliament in January/February 1327 which brings about the deposition of Edward II, although technically it’s an abdication because he abdicates his rights to his son, but really it’s a deposition – Parliament deposes him. So ultimately although this plot that we’ve got detailed here doesn’t actually work and doesn’t end up with the King dead, two years later the King is in captivity, Hugh Despencer’s dead, and then in September 1327 it’s reported that Edward II has died. He is presumed to have been murdered in Berkeley Castle and is then buried in Gloucester in December, however recently a couple of historians – most notably Ian Mortimer – have argued that actually he doesn’t die and this is a really interesting story in itself. What the truth is, I’m not willing to commit myself at this point, but there is now a really important new debate on the fate of a fugitive King, because Edward supposedly kills a porter, and they bury a porter in his place, he flees first to Ireland and then to Europe, becomes a hermit wandering around Europe, eventually is reunited with his son very briefly in Cologne during the 100 Years’ War and dies then an old man in Italy. And there’s actually a research project in Italy at the moment called The Auramala Project which is looking into the Italian evidence to see what there is over there to verify or not this story, because in Italy there is a tradition that this English King stayed there 600 years ago, so that is an entirely different story in itself – this is just obviously one element.
There may actually have been something to this voodoo plot because shortly before this plot is supposed to have got underway in September 1323, the Pope – Pope John the 22nd – he actually replies to a letter from Hugh Despencer the Younger in which Hugh had complained to the Pope that he was being threatened by magical and secret dealings. The Pope basically was having none of it and basically tells Hugh to “return to God with his whole heart” and to make a good confession in such satisfaction as shall be enjoyed, so actually at the time Hugh himself believes there’s a plot against him. Here is some kind of evidence, whether we take it at face value or not I’m not sure, that people out there were potentially using the kind of magic that he believed was being used against him.

And obviously my colleague Sean Cunningham, who will be talking to you about another story, has got some brilliant stories from later on in the 14th century/early 15th century relating to this kind of thing – more treasonous plots using magic, dismembered hands, that kind of thing. So there are some really really fascinating stories of this nature relating to treason against the Crown in our legal records here, certainly in the medieval period anyway.
Hello, my name is Sean Cunningham, and I work in the medieval records team here at The National Archives, and I’m going to tell you a story about a mole catcher!

What we have in our legal records are various statements by people involved in legal cases, most of which are very formulaic and don’t really tell us very much, but just occasionally something really jumps out of the records which warrants a bit more attention.

And one of these is a statement from 1440 of a man who was basically trying to poison the King, and his story is written out in English at great length simply because he didn’t know any other language and he wanted it recorded in the way he spoke.

So what we have is ‘the mole catcher’s tale: the dangers of becoming a medieval supergrass’

This is one of the earliest and longest English language statements in legal history, it comes from 1439-40 and it might even be the earliest short story in English, simply because it’s so fantastic. It’s about gossip and propaganda and how these things are used to incriminate people and opponents at times of unrest and pressure on economies and pressure over warfare.

So this is the period of the 100 Years’ War, right at the end, where the English are losing a lot of their lands in France, which had been conquered for a couple of centuries, and it means that people are feeling the pressure on prices of wheat and they feel like their leadership isn’t good enough so they’re taking direct action by trying the kill the King and his councillors.

The case contains a story that was judged to be a complete lie, but which does indicate that all medieval monarchs had to be wary of plotters, poisoners and would-be murderers.

So it involves a man called Robert Goodgroom. He’s a felon, he’s been caught stealing silver from churches and he knew the case against him was cast-iron. He’s been caught red-handed and he’s going to hang. So to avoid the death sentence, he decides to turn king’s-evidence and implicate others in the more serious crime of treason. The following amazing tale is what he came up with.

Approvers had to take an oath that they would not charge anyone of other crimes unless they knew them to be guilty, otherwise they would suffer the penalty for that crime that was alleged. Goodgroom thus swore before the coroner of Kent on 12 January 1440 that in the autumn of 1438 he came to the manor of Graveney in Kent to teach the craft of mole catching to one Richard Croft. When he went into the garden of the house he noticed a fire in an outhouse used for making cheese. And when he couldn’t get in through the door he tried to smash through the window and saw the arm and hand of a dead man on the windowsill. When he told Croft of what he had seen Croft offered to show him a different kind of craft.

He was told that if a burning candle is put in the severed hand of a dead man that has been buried for nine days and nights then whoever carried the arm would become invisible. Also, and more grisly, if the flesh of a dead man is dug up after forty days and nights and mixed with five secret herbs in a mortar (herbs not named) then buried in pots with wax lids then distilled with pure water, only three drops of the liquid will be needed to poison a man, since this is known to be the deadliest poison in the world.

To get hold of one of the pots, Goodgroom was directed to the house of John Sinclair in Faversham. He found the pot in the garden and when it was opened it smoked and gave off a foul stink. He was sworn to keep Sinclair’s secret that there should not be so many lords in the land because they had led the country to ruin in the French wars and had failed to keep grain prices low. Sinclair gave the names of his associates and confessed that they planned to murder King Henry VI, his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and the Duke of Norfolk, the key men who’d let the war run down, using the poison distilled in Sinclair’s garden.

Goodgroom then went back to mole catching for a while, almost forgetting about his story, until January 1439 when he rode to York to meet with John Liverton at the Hart and Swan Inn. He needed proof that the poison worked and he got it – the power of the poison was proved when Liverton killed a black dog with three drops of it. And the record has a rather sad picture of the poor dog flipping over with its four legs in the air – instantly, this was serious poison. Goodgroom was then instructed to meet with the rest of his gang at the time assigned to carry out their plan to murder the king. They’d made half a pint of the poison had been prepared, which would probably be enough to kill several men.

At that point Goodgroom decided to reveal the plot and name his associates. He also claimed that they planned to use the poison on the sheriff of Kent, Edward Guildford, for the earlier role in causing the arrest of some of Sinclair’s friends. He also suggested that they’d earlier succeeded in killing the Chief Justice of one of the Central Courts, John Martin of the Common Pleas, who really did die suddenly in 1436 (we don’t know if this is obviously true).

All of this information, Goodgroom asked to be recorded in his mother tongue of English, since he understood neither Latin nor French. All other surviving approver’s statements from this period are in Latin, so perhaps the coroners and clerks agreed because of the bizarre claims put forward. The King’s Bench judges asked Goodgroom twice if he intended to maintain his appeal (ie. go forward with his statement) which he said he would do. The case against him was cast iron, so he had no choice really. When his fellow conspirators surrendered themselves and were investigated by the court, the case against them to support Goodgroom’s statement could not be proved and all were discharged. Goodgroom’s inventive appeal had failed. Having accused the others of treason, he had to suffer a traitor’s death. And the final part of the document shows, or describes, his hanging drawn and quartering at Tyburn in May 1440, and the nailing up of his parts to the gates of London as a warning to other people who would turn King’s evidence for plots that didn’t really exist.

Goodgroom perhaps felt that the disrupted times of European war and high food prices created the conditions whereby he could make the accusations of treason stick. A government that felt under pressure was more likely to make a scapegoat of people allegedly caught up in plots against the king (weak and dominated as he was). As it turned out, the course of the law ran true and Goodgroom suffered his horrible fate.