Accusations and reversals

When an accused criminal was indicted in an English court, the indictment reads as established fact, an account of something that actually happened. We need to exercise skepticism, though: it was not always so.

In 1529, a London tailor named Henry Hawes was found dead in the parish of St Boltulph Aldersgate and a coroner’s inquest was convened. The inquest jurors came up with an explanation for his death, which went like this:

Hawes had been in the house of widow Helen Harper around 7 P.M. at night when, with “precogitated malice,” yeoman Richard Robbesley attacked him with knives and daggers. Robbesley stabbed Hawes in the back, killing him instantly. Immediately afterwards, Robbesley ran, the jurors said, to the nearby sanctuary at St Martin le Grand.

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One and a half years later Robbesley appeared in court to face the indictment, pleading not guilty. At his trial soon after, the jurors declared he hadn’t committed the homicide, stipulating that in all ways he acted as an innocent man, for instance that he had not fled from the scene. … when the original inquest findings had actually specified that he fled to St Martin le Grand.

Indeed, the trial jurors actually named another man as the perpetrator, one Thomas Mathew of London, another yeoman. Robbesley was thus released, his name cleared, and an order to arrest Mathew was issued. Mathew was never caught and was later outlawed.

Now what was going on here? Was the indictment of Robbesley, complete with circumstantial details of the attack, invented? Did he flee to sanctuary, or not? Were the inquest jurors just mistaken, or corrupt? Or did the corruption lie in the trial jury?

There’s no way to know – though probably there was something more complicated going on here than the original indictment or the second accusation indicates. I’d guess that the widow Helen Harper, in whose house this all took place, was somehow involved.

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But we’ll have to use our imaginations to devise the scenario that placed these three men in her home on a February evening, in an encounter that ended with one of the men with a knife in his back.

TNA, KB 9/513, mm 61-62; KB 29/162, mm 10, 15; KB 27/1076, rex m 7

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