Two sides to a story

In late August 1524, two husbandmen of Worth in Kent quarrelled, and one ended up dead. Two different versions of this homicide were presented in court when the case came up for trial: one laying guilt on the perpetrator, the other on the victim.

When a coroner’s inquest was convened over the body of Edward Morell, the jurors found that Morell and Peter Odley had begun to quarrel early in the morning, and that as they fought Odley pulled out a knife, stabbed Morell in the side, and killed him.

After the fight Odley took sanctuary in the parish church in Worth, staying for two days. He then escaped “from defect of the good custody of the townspeople of Worth,” and fled to another sanctuary, the house of the Carmelite or Whitefriars in Sandwich.

The Whitefriars convent in Sandwich in the 19th century. Source

Though it’s not absolutely clear whether Odley claimed a permanent asylum in the friary, it seems likely that he had “traded up” his sanctuary in order to get more than the 40 days afforded him in the parish church. And he seems to have used it to good effect.

We next see Odley two years later, in early 1526, when he surrendered himself to authorities, evidently confident at this point that a trial for the homicide would go his way. As we’ll see, he was right – suggesting there’d been some behind-the-scenes negotiations.

In court, Odley pleaded not guilty and was immediately bailed. When he came before the Kent assizes in October 1526, before the case went to a jury the king’s attorney stepped in to offer a quite different story than the indictment drawn from the coroner’s inquest report. In this version, it was the dead man Edward Morell who attacked Odley rather than the reverse; Morell had struck Odley with a stake (the crown attorney said) and knocked him to the ground. Fearing for his life, Peter got up and fled to the edge of a ditch but was trapped.

Morell pursued Odley and again threw him to the ground. As he fell Odley struck out with a dagger in his hand, and to save his own life he stabbed Edward in the chest. This is the classic self-defence narrative, with the reluctant killer being cornered and striking out only from dire necessity. As a result of this new version of the story, certified by the king’s attorney himself, Odley was pardoned in November 1526 and walked free.

As a husbandman (peasant), it’s hard to say what kind of connections allowed Odley to prompt the crown attorney’s stipulation of self-defence. It’s always possible, of course, that the second version was actually more or less true, and that locals (or maybe even those Carmelite friars!) rallied to save Odley from the noose for a slaying that was not really his fault. In any case, clearly sanctuary provided Odley with the breathing room he needed to avoid a swift, perhaps over-swift, trial, conviction, and execution.

TNA, KB 9/497, m. 80; KB 27/1058, rex m 4.

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