A bookseller’s slaying

On 6 November 1556, a coroner’s inquest convened over the body of John Obett of Westminster, accidentally killed in a silly quarrel with a schoolboy. Obett had a stall near Westminster Hall where he sold maps, charts, and books. At 11am a group of schoolboys came out from the “common school of the city of Westminster” (in the abbey precinct) and passed by Obett’s stall. They gathered around to look at the maps.


Obett began to shoo them away and one of the scholars, John Elles, talked back and they exchanged “opprobrious words.” Obett took a small rock and threw it at the boys; Elles picked up the rock where it fell and threw it back at Obett. The rock hit Obett on the head by his ear, and by mischance it must have struck him in exactly the wrong place, as it killed him immediately. So, the inquest jurors concluded, Elles killed Obett by “chance medley,” unintentional homicide.


The jurors also noted that Elles fled to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, steps away from Obett’s stall. As a student at the school in the precinct, Elles was probably well familiar with its protections.


The diarist Henry Machyn also mentioned Elles when he wrote about the Westminster abbot’s procession on 6 December 1556, a month later; amongst the sanctuary men in the procession, some being penitentially whipped, was one “who killed a big boy that sold papers and printed books.”


“Boy” could potentially mean a lowborn person or a rogue, but “big boy” probably meant youth here: so Obett, too, was likely young, if presumably older than the schoolboys who pestered him. And beyond explaining that the young killer was “one of the children that were at the school there in the abbey,” Machyn also tells us that Elles was the son of a hosier “above London Stone,” that is, who lived on or near Cannon Street in the City.

That detail about Elles’s father is interesting: hosiers were not particularly high-status artisans and yet Elles had been able to find a place in the Westminster School, founded in 1541. Still operational, it is now one of the UK’s most exclusive and expensive boys’ schools.

This is a sad story of misadventure – Obett dying too young because of his intemperate response to annoying boys. Though Elles was very likely able to acquire a pardon, he had to carry this around for the rest of his life.

Sources: WAM, MS 64911; LMA, MS MJ/SP/XX/486; Machyn, Chronicle, fol 63v

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