Murder on the Thames: John and Alice Wolfe

In mid-July 1533, Cologne merchant and gunpowder-maker John Wolfe and his wife Alice Wolfe led a group of co-conspirators in the heinous murder of two Italian merchants on a boat in the Thames. The home base for their elaborate plot was the sanctuary precinct at Westminster: John Wolfe was registered there as a debtor and Alice likely lived there with him. They hatched a plan to seduce the two visiting Italians and rob them; the two visitors’ deaths in the sparked an international outcry.

Alice lured the two men to spend an afternoon dallying with her in some chambers in the Durham Rents on the Strand. When they wanted to go back to their lodgings in London, she led them down to the river to take a water taxi home.

Unbeknownst to the Italians, John Wolfe and two co-conspirators were the boatmen. In the middle of the Thames, they stabbed the Italians, stripped their bodies of valuables and the keys to their lodgings, and threw the bodies over the side.

John, Alice, and the others then proceeded to the Italians’ lodgings and cleared them out. It seems likely that after that John and Alice returned to the sanctuary precinct, probably first having parked the stolen goods with someone in the town of Westminster.

Though there is a lot of detail in various sources about this notorious case, what happens next has to be inferred. John Wolfe had been in sanctuary for debt, but that would not protect him from arrest for felony. So John Wolfe probably copied the tactics of his neighbours in sanctuary, Maurice Bull & Nicholas Roo: re-registering the next morning, this time for felony. Presumably Alice and the other co-conspirators registered, too.

This crime had all kinds of tentacles: John Wolfe had previously worked as an armaments specialist for Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th earl of Kildare, who was in the summer of 1533 flirting with open rebellion against the crown. In addition to that hotspot of crown concern, the Italian merchant community in London was deeply concerned about this attack on their countrymen and lobbied the king’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell to ensure that Wolfe and his “dyabolyque” wife would be punished.

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Thus for multiple reasons the king and his council wanted to see the Wolfes severely and publicly punished – but the fact that they were in sanctuary was a very sticky problem. The Wolfes could not simply be seized from sanctuary as at trial they could plead sanctuary, and by the precedent of the Bull and Roo case the previous year, they’d likely be successful. They’d then be returned to sanctuary unpunished. So an alternative path to retribution had to be devised, and who better to figure out a way around the legal obstacles than Thomas Cromwell, by mid-1533 fully settling into his position as the power behind the throne.

The Wolfes were arrested; though no source indicates the circumstances, it makes most sense that they were indeed seized from the sanctuary, no doubt yelling the whole time, “You can’t do that! I am privileged of the sanctuary!” The two were put into the Tower. Alice might even have been put in the same cell as another prisoner in the Tower in the fall of 1533, Elizabeth Barton, the maid of Kent, nun and visionary – to punish them both (they would have hated one another).

Elizabeth Barton actually had a lot in common with the Wolfes: she too had committed an offence (predicting the king’s death) that the king badly wanted punished, but the finicky courts would likely fail to convict her because it wasn’t technically illegal to forecast the king’s demise. So what to do?

Not surprisingly, Cromwell’s wily and fertile mind came up with a solution for both. Barton and her cohort would be attainted for treason in Parliament. There was lots of precedent for that. Parliament could act as a court, but one much less hung up on the letter of the law than the court of King’s Bench. From there, it was probably lateral thinking that sparked Cromwell’s solution to the Wolfe case: they, too, could be condemned by Parliamentary attainder, in their case for felony. That was much more unusual: it’s the only parliamentary attainder for felony in the 16th century. But for Cromwell and the king, it cut through the knot of due process.

The statute condemning the Wolfes and their co-conspirators specifically barred them from being able to claim either sanctuary or benefit of clergy (another escape from the noose that the men would have been able to use, though not Alice). So they were condemned by an act of Parliament and sentenced to death.

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This was not quite the end of the story, though: a further exciting episode followed when Alice Wolfe managed to seduce one of her guards into helping her escape from the Tower of London. She and the guard got out of the Tower but were caught just outside (she was in men’s clothes to pass incognito, but a woman in men’s garb was actually what attracted attention of the London night watch). She was taken back to the Tower. In a classic “black op,” the guard was racked and then hanged, apparently without trial.

Soon after John and Alice Wolfe were spectacularly executed: their non-standard conviction allowed for a non-standard form of death. They were suspended from a tree hanging over the Thames near the site of the murder itself. The execution was a major public event: the accounts of Thomas Heneage, one of Cromwell’s cronies, notes that he rented a boat to view the show. He was presumably not alone – so picture a flotilla of boats gathered in the Thames.

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“Paid for botehier the first daye of Aprill at execution of Wolff, 2d.”

As the tide came in, they were slowly drowned. Their bodies were left hanging, as an example to all.

This story is a doozy: there’s sex, murder, robbery, corruption, legal wrangles, civil war in Ireland, and political uncertainties amidst the royal divorce and the break with Rome. Amongst the many things it tells us is how secure sanctuary was in 1533: Cromwell could get around it when he absolutely needed to, but only by the rather extraordinary path of passing an individual act of attainder in parliament in order to do so.

Top image source.

References for this complicated story: TNA, SP 1/238, fols. 72-73; BL, Cotton Titus B I, fol. 161v; BL, Cotton Vespasian F XIII, fol. 104b; Cotton Titus B I, fols. 161v, 419; TNA, C 66/672, m. 18; SP 1/77, fol. 112r; SP 1/78, fols. 34, 45-48; SP 1/79, fol. 81rv, 83r; SP 1/82, fol. 60r, 64rv; SP 1/83, fol. 47r; SP 1/163, fol. 152r; SP 1/235, fol. 350r; SP 1/238, fol. 73r; SP 3/3, fols. 96rv; SP 3/9, fol. 39; L&P, 4/2:2150; 5:644; 6:334; 6:387; 6:391; 6:488-89; 6:550; 6:585-86; 7:161; &:162; 7:173-74; 7:343; 12/1:513; 16:95; Add. 1/1:198; 25 Hen. VIII, c. 34, The Statutes of the Realm, 10 vols. (London: G. Eyre and A. Strahan, 1810), 3:490-91; Journal of the House of Lords (London: HMSO, 1767-1830), 64 vols., 1:61, 78-79; Muriel St. Clare Byrne, ed., The Lisle Letters, 6 vols. (1981), 2:87-88, 93; Edward Hall, Hall’s Chronicle (1809), 815; Charles Wriothesley, A Chronicle of England (1875), 1:23-24; Fabyan, New Chronicles, 700; Holinshed, Chronicles, 6:937; Charles Lethbridge Kingsford, ed., Two London Chronicles from the Collections of John Stow (London: Camden Society, 1910), 8-9; Richard Grafton, An Abridgement of the Chronicles of England (1563), fol. 131v.

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