The Southwell-Pennington feud

On 20 April 1532, near the king’s palace at Westminster, two gentlemen, Richard Southwell, esquire, and Sir William Pennington, faced one another in a sword fight, a quarrel that ended in Pennington’s death. The slaying came at a sensitive time in Henry VIII’s reign: much attention was focused that spring on ‘the King’s Great Matter’, Henry’s divorce of Katherine of Aragon and his projected marriage to Anne Boleyn.

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Accounts of the killing are inconsistent, though it’s clear factional disputes on the king’s council lay at the foundation. Southwell was retainer to the duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s uncle; Pennington was ‘chief gentleman’ to Henry VIII’s brother-in-law the duke of Suffolk, enemy of the Boleyns. One version from Venetian diplomat Carlo Capello had it that Southwell had lain in wait with twenty men to ambush Pennington near Westminster palace, in retaliation for insinuations about Anne Boleyn’s virtue uttered by Pennington’s patroness, the duchess of Suffolk (sister to the king).

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Mary, duchess of Suffolk, sister of Henry VIII, and Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk

In the official version recorded later in the court of King’s Bench, neither the king’s sister nor his intended wife were mentioned and instead Pennington was said to have challenged Southwell over a debt suit and that they met, each with six retainers, in an evenly matched sword fight. In both scenarios, Sir William Pennington ended up dead, at the hands of Southwell himself in Capello’s version, or of Southwell’s younger brother, Anthony in the King’s Bench version. Same thing really – in either case Richard Southwell himself was chiefly responsible.

Following Pennington’s slaying, Richard Southwell and his six retainers — including his two younger brothers, Robert and Anthony — took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. There they remained safe both from the duke of Suffolk’s revenge and from arrest for the homicide. In the immediate aftermath Henry VIII was furious both with Suffolk, whose retainer had insulted his intended wife, and with Southwell for the intemperate killing on his very doorstep. The king wanted the quarrel ended.

He gave the task of making the situation disappear to his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who also happened to be a close friend of Richard Southwell. Sanctuary was an important part of the strategy that unfolded.

Part of this Cromwell-designed strategy was the acceptance of the Southwell gang into the Westminster sanctuary even though it broke the basic rules of sanctuary: the killing took place within the abbey’s precinct, meaning that in theory they could not take sanctuary there.

This wasn’t, however, a passive-aggressive flouting of the rules by the abbot of Westminster, who in the early 1530s was very much the king’s man. Instead the abbot took them, it seems, on Cromwell’s instructions, in order to prevent escalation of the feud.

TNA, SP 1/70, fols 165rv

Suffolk was incandescent with rage over the killing of his retainer; but as Suffolk himself implied in the letter above, he couldn’t risk the sacrilege entailed by striking back at the Southwells in sanctuary. No one (including Suffolk) raised the Southwells’ technical ineligibility.

The accused men stayed in the sanctuary for five or six weeks, enough time for Suffolk to calm down and for Cromwell to broker a deal: Southwell et al. would face charges for homicide, on an indictment telling a very different story from the one involving Anne Boleyn’s sexual reputation. They would admit their guilt, although then they would be granted the king’s pardon rather than face the noose. Southwell and his retainers would go free, their felony wiped out by the pardon. Informally Southwell would be levied a huge fine of £1000, payable to the king.

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Southwell evidently wanted further assurances that the quarrel with Suffolk was settled, as he also requested an act of parliament confirming the pardon (25 Hen VIII c 32). The whole process took more than a year to unfold, but in the end the situation was successfully defused. The king married Anne Boleyn. Suffolk was reconciled with the king. The Southwells, all in their 20s at the time of the killing, went on with their lives, thanks to sanctuary and pardon, which enabled their escape from both Suffolk’s vengeance and the full rigour of the king’s justice.

The two elder Southwells, Richard and Robert, went on to distinguished careers as royal servants; Richard became a privy councillor and Robert master of the rolls of Chancery. Both served as sheriffs, JPs, and MPs. Anthony lived out his life as a landed gentleman.

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Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In 1537, at age 33, Hans Holbein painted Richard’s portrait; the scars from the fight are clearly visible on his neck and cheek. Southwell must have deliberately sat to show these trophies of his rough and tough manliness. They likely helped more than harmed his political career.

TNA, KB 9/520, m. 12; KB 27/1087, rex m. 8; C 66/661, m. 5; SP 1/70, fols 165r-166v (L&P, 5:520); CSP Venice, 4:332; 25 Hen VIII c 32 (SR 3:489). Longer discussion & further references here.

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