Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap: Humphrey Eye runs to Bewdley

Violence was a vital tool for male aristocrats in the reign of Henry VIII; presumably not all gentlemen and noblemen assassinated their enemies at the drop of a hat, but the records of criminal prosecution show that some not only did so but did it with impunity. Much of the time the high-status men who wanted their foes rubbed out delegated the actual killing to an underling. Those underlings, however, risked capital punishment for the homicide. The 1534 case of one Humphrey Eye demonstrates how sanctuary could function to persuade a lower-level member of a retinue to do the dirty deeds his lord wanted without undue danger to his own life.

According to an unusually elaborate coroner’s inquest report, at 5am on 23 March 1534 Humphrey Eye, yeoman of the Wiltshire manor of Stock near the town of Great Bedwyn, attacked a man named John Flory. He did so, the inquest jurors found, at the behest of his master, Thomas Essex, a lawyer in his mid-twenties and only son of Tudor courtier and administrator Sir William Essex. Why Essex wanted Flory dead, the jurors don’t indicate.

Early on the morning of 23 March in a field on the manor, Eye shot Flory with a crossbow and a forked arrow (the Tudor equivalent of a hollowpoint bullet), giving him a wound that killed him instantly. After retrieving the arrow from the body – perhaps a messy business, given the fork in the arrowhead – Eye fled from the scene to Essex’s manor house at Stock.

At Stock, Eye washed the blood from the arrow, put the crossbow and the arrow back where they had been before he took them, had some food and drink, and set out to Berkshire to report to Essex that the deed was done. Upon hearing the news, Essex gave Eye an angel noble (a coin worth 7s 6d) and told him to go to a sanctuary, “for his safety”; once there, Eye was to send word to Essex telling him where he was and Essex would send him more money.

An angel noble. Source

Eye made his way some 130 km from Essex’s house to the sanctuary of Bewdley[1] in Shropshire, a two-day voyage. There Eye remained, safe from arrest.

At a later trial, Thomas Essex, alleged procurer of the killing, was acquitted of the charge of accessory to homicide, and he went on with his successful and prosperous life. Humphrey Eye couldn’t be found and was outlawed. We don’t know what happened to him: he may have remained in the sanctuary at Bewdley, where law enforcement officials couldn’t reach him. He may have been arrested later and tried in a court for which the records don’t survive; or he may simply have disappeared in the dead of night, adopting a new identity in another part of England or even abroad.

If events unfolded more or less as the coroner’s inquest report indicates, then Thomas Essex was able to procure the murder of the inconvenient John Flory, and Humphrey Eye was able to accomplish the killing without significant penalty. Influence, connections, and legal know-how may have helped Essex escape justice; for his servant Humphrey Eye, sanctuary was key, even if only to gather resources together to move on somewhere else.


[1] Bewdley, by the way, was an odd sanctuary. The town of Bewdley was on the border between Shropshire and Worcestershire, and until 1544, when a statute defined it as falling in Worcestershire, the county in which it fell was ambiguous. The town’s liminal status in relation to the power of Worcestershire and Shropshire sheriffs, and perhaps the name it shared with the sanctuary at the Hampshire abbey of Beaulieu (also pronounced and often spelled Bewley or Bewdley in the sixteenth century), seems to have led to the Worcs/Shropshire Bewdley being used as a sanctuary. Most of the clear references to Bewdley’s sanctuary status come from the 1530s – and interestingly, most of them come not from tendentious claims made by sanctuary seekers, but instead from coroners’ assignment of the town of Bewdley as a sanctuary to which an abjurer should proceed following his oath of abjuration following the 1531 abjuration statute. Bewdley was assigned to a burglar by a Huntingdonshire coroner in 1532; by a Yorkshire coroner to a robber in 1534; and by another Yorkshire coroner to a horse thief in 1538. Most interestingly, in 1532 and 1533, one Essex coroner, Thomas Silesden, sent two abjurers to “the sanctuary of St. John of Bewdley in Shropshire,” in the second of those specifying that the St. John in question was the St John the Evangelist. As far as I have been able to tell, there was no church or chapel dedicated to any St. John in the area, and so this attribution appears to be the coroner’s misapprehension – but a telling misapprehension. It suggests that the coroner was trying to fit the square peg that the secular franchise of Bewdley constituted into the round hole of 1530s sanctuary privilege: although its use as a sanctuary appears to have derived entirely from the conjunction of its secular franchises and its liminal status in relation to county jurisdictions, the coroner thought it must have some connection to a church. Although in the 1520s and 1530s there was confusion and inconsistency about where sanctuary privilege could be claimed, if anything those claims were becoming broader rather than narrower.

On Humphrey Eye: TNA, KB 9/529, m162; KB 27/1100, rex m1; Baker, Men of Court, 645.

On Bewdley: TNA, KB 9/521, m. 77; KB 9/527, m. 149; KB 9/529, m. 186; KB 9/539, m. 100; KB 9/531, m. 93; KB 9/523, m. 52; C 1/980/47; SP 1/102, fol. 10r (L&P, vol. 10, p. 94); John Richard Burton, A History of Bewdley; with Concise Accounts of Some Neighbouring Parishes (London, 1883), 16; 34 & 35 Hen. VIII, c. 26 (Statutes of the Realm, 3:936); John Leland, The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the Years 1535-1543, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (London, 1907), 2:89.

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