The tragedy of the Watsons: domestic violence and corruption in London, 1527

In February 1527 London brewer John Watson stabbed his pregnant wife Isabel in a quarrel. When she fell apparently lifeless to the floor, he first tried to hang himself but failed, then ran to Westminster sanctuary. In the months that followed, Isabel languished between life and death while her husband and her brother-in-law tussled over the marital property.

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We know much more than we usually do about this particular instance of domestic violence because a dossier of papers related to the case survives amongst Thomas Cromwell’s papers and is now in the State Papers. Cromwell was involved because he’d been brought in to manage the aftermath of John Watson’s assault on his wife; Cromwell was then one of Cardinal Wolsey’s servants and known generally at that time as a guy who could fix your problems. And fix he did. Watson, an apparently fairly ordinary though prosperous London brewer, was able to call upon Cromwell’s services because he had some unknown tie to Sir Henry Wyatt, a very high-ranking royal courtier, who brought Cromwell in.

The totality of the case is very complicated and filled with terrible things. Kit French and I have an in-progress article on it that we’ve been co-writing over much too long a time. This is a short version of the story; as I just don’t have the appetite right now for the most terrible details, I’m going to omit them. Watch out for an article on the Watsons in print some time in the future.

So here goes. After John had stabbed Isabel, everyone thought she would die. But she didn’t, at least not right away. She did lose the baby – and accusations were made that the child had died as a direct result of John’s stabbing of Isabel. This was probably the first situation that Cromwell had to fix. Someone, likely Isabel’s brother-in-law, haberdasher Nicholas Spakeman, had demanded a coroner’s inquest over the baby’s body.

Someone else – and Cromwell’s fingers are all over this – arranged it (i.e. corrupted the jury) so that the inquest returned a finding that this had been a normal miscarriage. The report omits the assault on Isabel entirely, simply saying that the baby was born early and died.

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So the baby’s death was ruled as natural and Isabel survived; though bed-ridden, as the weeks passed she seemed to be recovering. From the morning of the stabbing itself she’d been in the house of her sister and brother-in-law, Julian and Nicholas Spakeman.

In the meantime, John Watson had been sitting in sanctuary; but as the danger of a homicide charge receded with finding of the inquest on the baby and Isabel’s recovery, he came out of sanctuary and went home. But his troubles were not over, in several ways.

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Isabel was still at her sister’s house – and so also were most of John Watson’s belongings. After Watson had fled on the morning of the assault, Isabel’s brother-in-law Nicholas Spakeman had taken all of the Watsons’ silver, linen, cash, etc. to his house. The original motivation was to shield those goods from crown forfeiture: if John was charged with homicide, all the Watsons’ property would seized by the sheriff. But months passed and John himself had moved back into his house, free of any criminal charge (stabbing your own wife was not actually an offence unless she happened to die). Nonetheless, both Isabel and the Watsons’ goods stayed with the Spakemans.

Watson was reportedly very remorseful (a standard pattern in spousal abuse, of course) and wanted both wife and goods back at his house. He had legal right on his side on both counts. The goods were clearly his and Spakeman had no claim in them. And Watson’s wife was supposed to live with him. Spakeman – himself a piece of work – indicated he would be happy to return Isabel (she was getting really annoying, he said), but refused to surrender Watson’s goods.

This disagreement was ongoing when, four months after the original stabbing, Isabel died. For the second time Watson was vulnerable to a homicide accusation, but again all hinged on the finding of the coroner’s inquest jury: was Isabel’s death due to the stabbing? Someone – again, likely Cromwell – quietly arranged for the inquest jury to find that this was a natural death: this time, the jurors did indicate that John had stabbed Isabel four months before, but they found that afterwards she entirely recovered. Her death, they said, was due to a sudden infection completely unrelated to the stabbing. Thus, they said, she died a natural death and had not been a victim of homicide.

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Nicholas and Julian Spakeman tried other methods to have John indicted for homicide, but ultimately they dropped those attempts. Instead they – or just Nicholas, as Julian’s wishes on this were not represented – decided to settle with Watson out of court.

Cromwell brokered a settlement by which Watson allowed Spakeman to keep most of the goods Spakeman took from the Watson house after the stabbing; in return, Spakeman agreed that he and his wife would no longer vex Watson about Isabel’s death.

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This is a case both sad and enraging. Watson was able to escape justice by pulling strings and having juries fixed. Spakeman’s main motivation seems to have been the windfall opportunity to acquire Watson’s goods. Maybe Julian actually cared about her sister, but the brokered deal was between the men and she likely had no say. I’m not sure what happened to John Watson, though horrifyingly I think he remarried. (There were a lot of John Watsons in London in the 1520s and 1530s, so it’s hard to know if subsequent records relate to him or someone different.)

A last point is that though Thomas Cromwell is often presented (e.g. by G. R. Elton) as a principled man dedicated to the strict letter of the law (Policy, 375) and implacable foe of sanctuary (Reform, 135-38), this is not the last legal case Cromwell would manipulate, nor the last in which he would find sanctuary convenient, just as many high-status men did when dealing with homicide.

TNA, SP 1/42, fols. 126-2, 142 (L&P, 4/2:1461-63).

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