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. They reported that she had given him the poison in March; it’s not clear whether he died then or in July when the inquest was held.

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If he 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.

Agnes was indicted for petty treason, as was any wife who killed her husband: she had betrayed her ruler. 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 elements 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 later), 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 (foreshadowing acquittal or pardon).

She appeared the next term and pleaded insufficient indictment: 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 identified her as “Agnes Bery vidua nuper uxor Ricardi Bery de Sevenoke predicta.”

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To me it seems ambiguous whether the “de Sevenoke” applies to Agnes or Richard, but the court sided with her argument, that she had not been properly identified. 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? Petty traitors were burned as their method of execution; perhaps someone balked at that.

Agnes Bery is one of the very, very few women felons who sought sanctuary in the records that survive. In her case, it 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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