Managing a murder indictment

This case, abounding with mysteries, ironies, secrets, and manipulations, is perfect as the germ for a novel. On 3 March 1532, gentleman Robert Woode of Abingdon, Berks, met with a clerk named John Mable in the “great chamber” of the abbot of St Mary’s Abbey in Abingdon. Let’s assume that the abbot was there, too, as it was his chamber. Who Mable was in relation to the abbey is unclear, but he was evidently not a monk as he was clearly identified as “clericus,” not “monachus.” Something happened at this meeting in the abbot’s great chamber to cause Robert Woode to stab Mable in the throat with a wood knife. Mable immediately died. And then things get curiouser.

First Woode fled to sanctuary, not unusual in itself; somewhat unusually, however, the sanctuary to which he fled was Culham, a dependent manor of St Mary’s Abbey nearby in Oxfordshire. So: Woode committed homicide in the abbey, and then used the abbey’s dependent sanctuary for shelter. To me this suggests that the abbot abbetted his escape and asylum-taking; the abbot was evidently more interested in protecting Woode than in seeing him face justice for Mable’s death.

And the next part is also suggestive of the abbot’s disinterest in seeing the homicide pursued. Unless the records are dated incorrectly, it took a full month (from 3 March to 4 April) to convene a coroner’s inquest over Mable’s body. Why the delay? Did the abbot initially cover up the killing? And – if Mable’s remains were still in the abbey, omigosh the smell.

The case made its way into King’s Bench not because Woode himself was dragged out of the sanctuary but rather because of a tussle over seizure of his goods: as with any felon, when Woode fled the scene of the crime his property was liable for seizure by the crown. Robert Woode’s wife Anne was summoned to the court of King’s Bench, not to answer for her husband’s crime but for the whereabouts of his goods. A detailed inventory of his (fairly considerable) belongings was included in the coroner’s inquest report.

As Kit French has taught me to notice, these goods are listed room by room, in detailed description: for instance, “In the hall, painted cloths with Scripture of Laudates, 2 bankers of green say [cloth], 1 banker of red say; 4 cushions, 2 tables …”

Not surprisingly, these were all alleged to be in Anne Woode’s possession. When the case against her came up at King’s Bench in the fall of 1533, however, her attorney (she herself did not appear) stated that she did not have the goods, nor had she ever had them in her possession. Surprisingly, the king’s attorney simply agreed with her assertion, and the case against her for withholding felony forfeiture was dismissed. On the face of it this appears strange, but it was clearly the result of a deal that had been reached or she would not have been summoned in the first place.

TNA, SP 1/71, fol 98

Clues about the deal come in the letter above, written by lawyer (serjeant) Robert Norwych to Thomas Cromwell in October 1532 (a year before the King’s Bench clearance of Mistress Woode’s troubles). The first part of the letter seems clearly to refer to Woode’s problems: Norwych thanks Cromwell for having

taken pains for my brother Woode in his matter at Abingdon, having brought it unto … good order. … Not only I but all other his lovers and friends are bounden to geve yow our hartie thankis, also with suche servys and pleasure as may lye in us to doo yet.

Thanks, Tom, for getting our friend out of a murder charge! We owe you!

The fact that Norwych calls Woode “brother” several times in the letter suggests that Woode may have also been a lawyer, presumably at Lincoln’s Inn, Norwych’s own home base (though I can’t find Woode in Baker’s Men of Court).

Following this reference to settling Woode’s problems is a further favour that Norwych asks of Cromwell: can you arrange (i.e. talk to the king) to give Woode a position that has just come open in the Exchequer? Assuming that Brother Woode with the matter at Abingdon is the same as the Woode accused of killing Mable and fleeing to sanctuary, this suggests that by the fall of 1532 (about six months after the event), Woode was out of the woods regarding the felony indictment due to Cromwell’s “pains.”

There is no pardon that I can find, so possibly the indictment was just quashed. I’m not sure, however, that killing the indictment necessarily stopped the felony forfeiture process, which was a separate thing triggered by Woode’s flight. Although it seems odd that the forfeiture was then canceled by having the king’s attorney drop a pending process against the wife of the accused felon (who himself was no longer under indictment), but maybe that was held to be the easiest way to close the file.

Indeed, Anne Woode could truthfully say that the goods were not in her hands if in fact her husband was back at home and free of pending indictments: under English law it was his property, not hers.

And so we’re left, though, with a dead clerk, John Mable; looks as if his homicide was successfully managed so that the beginning of the indictment process following the coroner’s inquest was interrupted. And in the end it seems Woode got to keep all his belongings and maybe even ended up with a new job.

TNA, KB 27/1089, rex m. 4; SP 1/71, fo 98 (L&P 5:602). Top image Abingdon Abbey: source.

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