Tudor trials: Confessions from the Star Chamber
Medieval records specialist Euan Roger gives us a taste of the kinds of disputes dealt with by the Star Chamber, one of the highest Tudor courts.
The tens of thousands of Star Chamber records kept at The National Archives reveal a wealth of information about Tudor life. In this podcast, we uncover a few of the more unusual cases put before the King’s council, including a murder cover-up, a child maintenance complaint, and a marital dispute.
Credits: this podcast uses an excerpt from ‘Stabat Mater’, performed by the Tudor Consort.
Hello, I’m Dr Euan Roger and I’m a medieval records specialist at The National Archives. Today I’m going to be telling you some stories from one of the main Tudor courts: stories about murder, child maintenance and marital disputes.
So the Star Chamber was one of the highest courts in Tudor England, which derived its name from the elegantly decorated room in which it was situated, with a ceiling covered in gold stars. It sat at the royal palace of Westminster, from the late 15th century to the mid-17th century, when it was abolished in 1641. Comprised of royal officials, councillors, lawyers and sometimes the king himself, the court supplemented the judicial activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. As the archives of central government and the law courts, our collection contains millions of legal records produced by both the common-law courts, and equity courts such as the Court of Chancery whose business had grown and developed steadily from the mid-fourteenth century, as well as tens of thousands of documents from the conciliar courts of the Star Chamber and the Court of Requests.
The development of the Star Chamber – as its own distinct court – grew out of the judicial arm of the King’s Council. By the end of the fifteenth century the King’s Council had long been recognised as, in Professor John Guy’s words as ‘a forum for litigation and arbitration, especially that which could be set into a context of local disorder and subversion, pervasion of justice, or official maladministration’. The court originally dealt with just seven offences, chiefly matters of corruption, civil disobedience and unlawful assembly. The scope of cases it dealt with, however, widened as time went on. It generally investigated cases of public disorder, official corruption, municipal and trade disputes, and disputes over enclosures, but its broad remit brought the full spectrum of disputes before the court.
Star Chamber cases frequently allege public disorder, such as riots, forcible entry and assault, but many of them were in fact private disputes about rights to property. The violence would have been exaggerated in order to make the case a matter for the royal courts, in order to get an individual’s case heard, and to secure justice. As such, they generally use highly emotive language to make their point, and the records are full of interesting and varied stories, sometimes only with a kernel of truth, but often giving rich descriptions of everyday life, as the broader details of the stories were filled out. The story which I want to talk about today, however, is slightly different. It is a confession – of murder no less – from Essex in the early sixteenth century, and tells a vivid story of love, adultery, murder, cover-ups and banishment.
So here we have the confession of Thomas Benett of Beaulieu, late keeper of Weley park in the county of Essex, made on the second day of December in the twelfth year of the reign of Henry VIII (1521) before several leading members of the Royal Council, including the future chancellor Thomas More.
The confession begins on Ash Wednesday in the seventh year of the reign of the King (Henry VIII – so we are in 1516 here) when Elizabeth Osburn, the wife of Alan Osburn, of Thorpe in Essex, went to Harwich to buy fish. There she met one Thomas Benett, who ‘cast favour to her’, and helped her to buy fish. He stayed with her there for the rest of that night and in the morning, ‘in going homeward he and she went also way behind the remnants of the company talking of love’. In short, Thomas states that he then stayed with her for a fortnight, during which time he ‘used her as his concubine when he would’.
During that time she often complained to Thomas about her husband, saying that she wished he was in Jerusalem, to which Bennet replied that he would have ‘conveyed her husband well out of the way’. She is also reported to have said unto Thomas Benett that ‘her husband would have given her a blow’, to which Benett answered that ‘if he had given her one, he should give her no more’.
On the Thursday before Michaelmas day in the following year, Thomas met with Alan Osburn, Elizabeth’s husband, in Wely Park in Essex at about 8 o’clock in the morning and picked a quarrel with him, calling him ‘jealous fool’. They quarrelled – during which time Alan forbid Thomas from visiting his house – before Thomas ‘struck Osburn with an ashen shaft of 5 foot long that he had in his hand, in such wise that he fell to the ground struck dead’. He then tries to pick Osburn up, as if he didn’t mean to kill him, but Osburn’s body falls down dead, so Thomas dragged the body into a nearby brook and left him there until nightfall.
Two hours after the murder, Thomas came to Osburn’s house to tell Elizabeth the news. She wept, asking how she was supposed to conceal it – Thomas then follows with saying ‘he did not lie with her for 2 nights after he had slewen the said Osburne’ (clearly admirable self-restraint being shown here). They agreed together that she should say that her husband had gone to Burdow, having upon him ‘a plunkett coat, a hood of black worsted and a woollen white night steppe, which apparel by both their agreements was locked up in a spare table’. (So essentially they are setting up their alibi by saying he was last seen wearing a certain outfit, but they need to hide these clothes away in order to avoid getting caught out).
So that night they buried Osburn in a saw pit, one flight shot from the place that he was killed in (so the distance an arrow would fly), and they laid two pieces of logs or timber on him to keep the body from floating away because there was water in the saw pit. Over the next couple of weeks Thomas returned to the burial site on multiple occasions, adding more dirt to the pit each time, until the pit was entirely filled in and Osburn’s body was safely hidden.
So the murder has been done, and Thomas Benett, the lover of Elizabeth Osburn has killed her husband, with the two of them having (for the time being at least) covered up the murder and put together an alibi. Evidence from a further deposition, found elsewhere in the records of the Star Chamber adds a bit more information here about the goings on of Thomas and Elizabeth… The partial deposition records that ‘the same Benett, denying utterly that he had ever offended with the said Osburn’s wife’ (with regards to their fish-buying and extra-marital behaviour rather than murder) ‘promised one Sir John Raynsford’ (who was Benett’s master) ‘that from thence forth he would not resort to her, nor keep company with her’.
However, after that time the said Sir John being at his manor of Bradfield starts to hear rumours from the country, that Alan Osburn had gone to Burdow as he had done in times past (so far Benett’s alibi is holding up), but was also informed that the said Benett, in Osburn’s absence, continued his ‘evil rule with Osburn’s wife’. Whereupon the said Sir John sent for Elizabeth and enjoined her to avoid the same town of Thorpe, where she lived) within short time after, or else she should be set in the pillory (the pillory being what we often think of as the stocks – a form of public punishment) and she would be compelled to depart from the town against her will. By sending Elizabeth away, Sir John believed that this would cause Benett to remedy his ways, and so she was sent away. It hardly seems very fair.
But let’s return to Benett’s confession. More than a year and a half after Osburn’s murder, it was still openly said by many of his neighbours that Thomas Benett had killed Osburn, and about Christmas the year after the murder, Osburn’s clothes had been found in the table in which they had been hidden by Thomas Pennington and Alice Rothe, two of Osburn’s servants, which they disclosed to several people in town. So here, the alibi is beginning to slip and suspicions are rising that Thomas Benett had slain Osburne.
Benett proceeded to burn the incriminating clothes in the lodge at Wely Park in order to keep his secret safe. It was also noted that he had, by certain means, managed to get back into Elizabeth’s house. And in the following Lent, Benett was sent for by his master and was to meet with him at Bentley amongst others, including a knight called Sir William Pirton.
At which time, William Pirton called Benett to him, and said ‘there goith a great crime upon thee in the country that thou hast killed Osburn, beware thereof for I assure thee, if thou have done it, thou must not trust to thy master for he will not help thee’. And then after they departed, Sir John also called Benett secretly to him and said, ‘Benett I am sorry for thee, for there goith a great crime upon thee in the country that thou hast slain Osburn, and if thou so have the devil is on thee that thou are here now’. These are interesting points in themselves as we don’t always see evidence of criminals being warned in the official records, it often only comes out in evidence such as depositions and confessions.
Having been accused, Benett denied the crime he’d clearly been warned off already!) and Sir John continued ‘if thou have done it, beware, for there was never murder done but it will come out’. And he said he would send for the woman, and bade him farewell. And within the next few days, he sent for Elizabeth Osburn to come to Cranfield hall where he examined her. Benett, having heard of Elizabeth’s summons, waited at the edge of the park, where he might see who came in, and who came out of the hall. And he was in great fear that she might confess the truth, and that he would be sent to Colchester (to the prison rather than just the town!). He states in his confession that if this had happened, he would have rescued her, or else he would have died for it. Course, whether he is doing this for love of her, or merely to save his own skin is dubious at best.
When he eventually saw her going home, he met her to ask how it had gone. She reported that she had been in great fear but had confessed nothing, for which he was glad and so they departed, he to Wely lodge and she to her own house where they stayed until between Michaelmas and Hallow tide next year.
And about Christmas next year (so we are now in 1518), Thomas Benett decided to leave town and began to sell part of his goods. But in the following Lent he met with a man named old Thomas Christmas in Colchester, who gave him counsel to sell all his goods and lands, and to go his way if he were guilty, and he said that some young gentleman should get him his pardon for 20 marks (by purchasing a royal pardon, he would be able to buy his freedom). Now old Mr Christmas ended up buying Benett’s moveable goods and chattels for £50, but Benett claims in his confession that he never received a penny for his lands and other goods which he’d been promised.
So, having sold all his worldy goods, Benett went to visit Sir John Raynsforde in Cranfield hall. As he did so, he found Sir John walking through the park towards Benett’s house, at his point Sir John called Benett secretly to him and said to him, ‘Benett thou art about to go thy way’ to which Benett replied ‘nay’. And Sir John said ‘yes thou wouldest, nor else [would you] sell thy goods and thy landes too’. And eventually, Benett said, ‘Sir, I will tell you’, to which Sir John replied ‘nay, tell me nothing. God be with thee’. So he’s staying well clear of any connection with the accused Benett.
And so they departed for that time. Benett was clearly trying to sell everything he owned, and the next day we actually find him trying to return a horse, which he had previously bought, back to its owner!
Shortly after this, matters came to a head. On the Monday after Passion Sunday, Sir John Raynsford came to Wely park and there came also William Pirton and Sir William Pirton, Humfrey Wyngefield and John Seyntclere, with diverse others. And there in the presence of all the aforesaid gentlemen Sir John, standing beside the lodge, said to Benett, ‘Benett, I am as sorry as ever I was of any thing in my life. It is a common word in the country that thou hath killed yonder woman’s husband, and they talk that, but for fear of me, you would have been taken. And as for me, if I knew that you did it, there should no man have business with the taking of thee, but I fear I would take thee my self. And now masters, if any of you know it by him, who so ever it be, let him take him. And there was no man that answered anything.
Whereupon the said John Raynsforde continued, ‘well Benett, here I discharge thee of the keeping of this park, and of my service. And I charge thee that thou neither were in my livery nor call thy self my servant, till thou have cleared thee of this matter. How be it if thou can clear thy self thereof, I will be as good a Master to thee as ever I have been, and better too’. And then as the company were riding homeward, Benett spoke to one John Strangeman, servant to Sir John, and asked him what was best to do. And he also asked Humfrey Wyngefield, who answered that it would be best for him to be indicted, and then answered John Seyntclere ‘where shall we find 12 men that will indict him’.
So the various accusations running around the countryside have forced Sir John to abandon Thomas Benett, and to release him from all service. Without any proof, there aren’t the grounds for Benett to be indicted or put to trial, and so Sir John tells him to prove his innocence before he can return to service.
The assembled company then departed Wely hall and William Pirton and Sir William Pirton, his son, went to Thorpe, and went bowling. And Benett, still seeking help, came after them on foot and bowled with them, and while they were bowling William Pirton the father said to him, ‘Thomas Benett I am sorry for this matter, but if I were you, it should cost me £20 to seek out this man’. And Thomas Benett answered, ‘if I knew where he were, I would be glad to bestow it’. So he is still seeking his royal pardon, but can’t find anyone to secure him one. And then within a fortnight, Benett was discharged of his service, and departed out of Essex toward what he describes as ‘solace’ and which we might know by the term ‘sanctuary’ – a privilege of certain religious houses where legal officials were not allowed to arrest those dwelling within. Benett was heading for Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, one of the most prominent Tudor sanctuary sites. And as he goes he takes a black coloured horse out of Wely Park which was one Davy Rotherford’s, and sold him, taking the money with him. But he doesn’t go alone to sanctuary, as it is recorded he tasked his servant John Davy to bring Elizabeth to solace before him – although we have no indication of whether she wanted to go or not.
Benett took with him £60 in cash and other goods worth £40, and departed toward solace, where part of the money was taken from him, and part from John Davy his servant. He doesn’t have the smoothest journey however. He loads his good and sends them by boat, but when they arrive at Rye in Sussex, they were arrested by the searcher there, and afterwards redelivered for 26 shillings and 8 pence. When the boat then arrived at Silley in the same county, they were once again arrested by one Ralph Forman, yeoman of the Crown. And it was recorded that the said Benett lost those goods there – which he seems more upset about than losing his affinity to Sir John.
Unfortunately we don’t know much more about Benett’s fate. He arrives at Beaulieu despite his goods being lost and tries to remedy his situation. We know he sends a letter to Sir John Raynsford, written by one Master Chessyn, a sanctuary man, in which he asks Sir John to be a good and special Master unto him and help that he might come home to him again. And he [says he] would be glad even to be his cook, and to turn spits in his kitchen. Sir John replied, again answering that if Benett could clear himself, he would be as good a Master to him as ever he was. And after that at Benett’s instance, the Abbot of Beaulieu wrote a letter to Sir John, a letter in Benett’s name, desiring him to write to the Bishop of Chichester for the delivery of his goods. Whereupon, as the confession ends, ‘Sir John wrote unto the Bishop of Chichester for his goods, but he never had his goods of the Bishop of Chichester.’
Possibly Benett was preparing to adjure the realm – the process by which a felon could confess their crime, forfeit all property and leave England by a determined route, never to return on fear of execution. Abjuration was very much linked with the privileges of sanctuary, particularly sanctuary at the larger monastic sites such as Beaulieu where there was no official limit to the amount of time a felon could remain in sanctuary (this was limited to 40 days in parochial churches). Interestingly this case takes place during a period of intense discussion around how to reform the practices of sanctuary and abjuration to prevent such monasteries from becoming dens of thieves, and indeed, the privilege of sanctuary was later limited by Henry VIII and abolished completely in the seventeenth century.
Now this case is interesting for a number of reasons, showing us on one hand some of the hidden mechanisms of the early Tudor legal system, where suspected criminals could openly flaunt the system against a background of community outrage and accusations. Benett is warned several times not to admit any crimes, and told to acquit himself by purchasing a royal pardon, which he is eventually unable to do. Unfortunately no further evidence is known to survive for this case, and we have no indication whether Benett was convicted, whether he ever received his royal pardon, whether he lived out his days in sanctuary, or whether abjured the realm. He’s already lasted five years by the point of the trial so he’s done fairly well by any standards
On the other hand, cases such as this are really interesting not just for the purposes of legal history, but also giving an insight into daily life. Depositions, confessions and other evidential material give a real insight into the day-to-day activities of Tudor people, shedding life on marital problems, adultery and conspiracy, as well as the more raw emotions of jealousy, love and fear. Incidences of martial discord come through from time to time in the records of the Star Chamber, giving a voice to these often forgotten voices.
An interesting example of this comes out in the case of Alice Belknapp, late wife to Sir Edward Bellknapp (who was one of those signing off Benett’s confession). After Sir Edward’s death, Alice re-married one John Bridges, in whom she ‘trusted she would find love, gentleness and honest behaviour and lovingly entertained both his new wife and ‘such friends, kinsfolk and lovers as were wont to resort and accompany with her before her said marriage’ (presumably these aren’t lovers in the same way that we might think of today, or else it would have been a very open marriage). However after their marriage it came out that John was more interested in Alice’s substantial land holdings rather than her and so she took him to court, claiming that he ‘was but of mean degree and little worth’, he acted ‘in most cruel and ungentle fashion’ and threatened her friends, lovers, kinsfolk and acquaintances.
Cases like this are not entirely uncommon – in a similar case from the early sixteenth century one Anne Bannister also took her husband John Bannister to court after ten years of marriage, complaining that he had, without reasonable cause or grounds, had ‘of long time absented himself from [her] company, refusing utterly to suffer her to be with him’. In the process taking her lands and inheritance, and refusing to give her any money for her maintenance for herself or for her child. As with our murder confession, these cases are interesting as evidence of legal procedure, precedent and the changing laws of marriage, but they also give a glimpse into the everyday lives of men and woman, talking of love and marital disputes. Unfortunately we don’t have a record of the outcome of either case beyond the proceedings – very few outcomes are known to have survived for this period as the decree and order books in which outcomes would have been recorded simply don’t survive – and so we can only guess whether Alice was able to recover her lands or whether Anne was able to secure some form of child maintenance from her estranged husband.
The details of these legal records need to be taken with caution, as we often only see one side of a dispute, offering vastly trumped up charges to ensure action is taken, but the details, often incidental, can give new perspectives on every day life in Tudor England, as well as providing really interesting stories worth studying in their own right.