Arsenic and old lace

A rare woman sanctuary seeker, an alleged husband-murderer no less: in July 1503, a coroner’s inquest over the body of Richard Bery at Sevenoaks, Kent, ruled that he had been murdered by his wife Agnes. The jurors reported that Agnes had administered ratsbane (arsenic) to her husband in his food and drink (though nothing in the records indicates what Agnes was wearing when she committed the alleged deed, let’s assume that she had an old lace kerchief while she did it). The coroner’s report indicated that she’d given him the poison in March; it’s not clear whether he died then or in July when the inquest was held. The method that Agnes was said to have used to kill her husband, poison, was seen as an especially feminine form of killing: stealthy, underhanded, associated with the womanly work of cooking and serving food.

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If Richard had actually died some months before, that means (a) that something had brought this allegation to light some months after the death; and (b) that any “view” of the dead body must have been really unpleasant. Perhaps, though, he died in July of a lingering digestive illness that was subsequently identified as arsenic poisoning.

Agnes was indicted for petty treason, as was any wife who killed her husband: in the legal thinking of the day, she had betrayed her ruler and was thus a traitor, though of a small (petty) kind. The jurors also indicted a fuller, Thomas Boby, as accessory, for harbouring her after the homicide. Boby was maybe her lover, maybe a relative. Agnes Bery and Thomas Boby fled to St Martin le Grand in London, according to the jurors.

The uncertainty about Richard Bery’s date of death wasn’t the only ambiguous element in this coroner’s inquest report; another vagueness allowed Agnes Bery and Thomas Boby to walk free. In Michaelmas term 1506 (around three and a half years after the alleged poisoning), Agnes appeared in King’s Bench, evidently having received some legal advice that gave her the confidence to leave sanctuary and face the indictment. She pleaded not guilty and was bailed; an accused’s being granted bail indicated a likely acquittal at trial or a forthcoming pardon.

Agnes appeared the next term and pleaded insufficient indictment – in other words, the indictment had been improperly drafted. The coroner’s inquest report hadn’t identified in what place she lived, as required by statute. This was a bit iffy as argument: the document actually did identify her as “Agnes Bery vidua nuper uxor Ricardi Bery de Sevenoke predicta” [Agnes Bery, widow, late the wife of Richard Bery of the aforesaid Sevenoaks].

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To me it seems ambiguous whether the “de Sevenoke” applies to Agnes or Richard – and notably husbands and wives were legally required to cohabit, so necessarily she lived where he did. But the court sided with her argument, that she had not been properly identified (that is, that only Richard had been identified as living in Sevenoaks, not Agnes). This meant that the indictment was quashed and both she and Boby walked free without undergoing a trial.

Was this sloppy indictment-drafting that allowed a poisoner to walk free? Or deliberate finding-of-an-excuse to allow a clearly innocent woman hounded by her neighbours to escape malicious prosecution? Or a way of allowing a victim of domestic abuse to escape execution when in desperation she got rid of her abuser? Women convicted of petty treason were burned as their method of execution; perhaps someone balked at that. Though women were rarely accused of felonies, especially homicide, in this period (making up maybe 4% of those indicted), those who were charged were usually more likely than men to be executed, so it’s not a straightforward case of women being more easily excused than men. Who knows – but in some ways the ambiguity of the record allows us the freedom to consider the possibilities and the complex situations in which a woman such as Agnes found herself.

Agnes Bery is one of the very, very few women felons who sought sanctuary in the records that survive. In her case, the ability to shelter and delay the legal process against her seems to have been instrumental in the legal manoeuvres that for good or ill allowed her to escape execution after her husband’s death.

TNA, KB 9/431, m. 28; KB 29/136, mm. 8, 8d; KB 27/970, rex m. 5; KB 27/981, rex m. 09d. Top image – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

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