“The white hare should drive the white greyhound into the root of an oak”: Prophecies and mitigations

Thomas Cheselet was an operator who knew his way around mitigations – and a dab hand at treasonous prophecies. The tale starts in 1519 when Cheselet, a tailor of Mere, Wiltshire, took sanctuary at the Dominican priory at Fisherton Anger.

He asked for the coroner, confessing to him that earlier that year he had stolen from Alice Kymer, a widow of Fisherton Anger, two silver craters (or large bowls), one plain and the other with a silver cover, and a dozen silver spoons, worth altogether £10.

He abjured the realm and the coroner sent him to Poole in Dorset to take a ship overseas. For the next decade, Cheselet is out of the picture, in parts unknown, maybe overseas, maybe sticking around incognito in the realm. But in 1529 he was found in Somerset and arrested.

At trial at Somerset gaol delivery in Ilchester, asked why he shouldn’t be executed for his confessed felony from 1519, Cheselet successfully pleaded benefit of clergy. He was handed over to officials representing the bishop of Bath and Wells and imprisoned. That didn’t last too long, though, as about a year later he appeared in court again, this time at King’s Bench, presenting a pardon from the king for his felony and his abjuration, and walked free.

One might think that Mr Cheselet would have learned some kind of lesson from this, but it appears not. What he does seem to have learned is a good practical knowledge of the criminal law in addition to a keen eye for political issues of the moment.

In 1532 Cheselet was once again in prison at Ilchester gaol in Somerset, which we learn from an enquiry undertaken at the king’s mandate by the chief justice of the court of common pleas about a treasonous plot against the king. Evidently some of the inmates at the Ilchester gaol had been spreading conspiracies. Statements were taken from prisoners, including Cheselet, who told the chief justice that another prisoner, John Richards, had uttered prophetic statements predicting the king’s ouster, for instance that in one year “the King should be driven out of England” and killed at Paris’s gates.

These Ilchester predictions were phrased in the nonsensically portentous fashion of the age, probably borrowing from Rhys ap Griffith’s recent prophecy-driven attempt to overthrow Henry VIII:

“kyng Jamys with the red hand and the Ravyn schuld conquere all Englond”

Cheselet said, for instance, that Richards had told him: “the white hare should drive the white greyhound into the root of an oak” “there should be such a gap in the West that all the thorns in the realm should not stop it.” …

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… and “there should one come out of the West that should bring snow upon his helmet that should set all England in peace.” (This was clearly a prophecy relating to the appearance 490 years later of a filmic masterpiece.)

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The Knight Before Christmas: a Hallmark Netflix film

GR Elton, in his account of this enquiry at Ilchester gaol, surmised that these treasonous prophecies were all an invention by Cheselet, who coached his fellow prisoners to make this claim in the hope they would all be rewarded with a pardon for their unveiling of a plot.

Though it’s not clear, it appears that the chief justice reported back to the king’s council that this new plot in Somerset was not to be taken seriously – and so likely Cheselet reached the end of his string of mitigations, and probably next met the end of a hangman’s rope.

TNA, KB 9/480, m. 31; KB 9/512, m. 36; KB 27/1075, rex m. 6; KB 29/162, mm. 2, 6; L&P, 4/3:2709; SP 1/237, fols. 121-27 (L&P, Add. 1/1:261); Elton, Policy and Police, 110-12. Top image: Damien Kempf on Twitter.

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