A 1487 murder mystery

In late January 1487, John Cole the younger of Great Greenford, Middlesex, was found dead at nearby Norwood. A coroner’s inquest was convened. The inquest jurors declared that Cole had been killed by Richard Smyth, a “mealman” (seller of meal/flour). They also reported that immediately after Smyth ran to the parish church at Southall, taking his hedging bill, the murder weapon, with him.

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Often in such a situation, there is a matching memorandum from the coroner recording the sanctuary-seeker’s confession and abjuration, but no such record survives – so it’s hard to know whether Smyth actually did formally seek sanctuary.

The accusation against Smyth had legs: at the next peace sessions for Middlesex, the presentment jury (charged with reporting recent felonies) told the same story as in the coroner’s inquest report, and added that one Robert Smyth had procured the killing that Richard Smyth had carried out.

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But Richard Smyth wasn’t in custody, and thus couldn’t be tried. Then about 18 months later he surrendered himself to officials and appeared at King’s Bench. He pleaded not guilty and “put himself on the country,” i.e. asked for a jury trial.

A jury heard the case in November 1488 – and not only did they acquit Richard Smyth, but they also declared that someone else was the real perpetrator: Thomas Flynt of Coventry, wiredrawer. Accordingly the sheriffs of Middlesex were ordered to arrest Flynt.

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I don’t know if they ever found Thomas Flynt – so who knows if anyone ever answered for John Cole’s death. In fact, we don’t even know if Thomas Flynt, wiredrawer of (conveniently far away) Coventry, was a real person or just a fictional scapegoat.

Maybe Richard Smyth was falsely accused; maybe he never ran into the church with his hedging bill (which is pretty suspicious, you have to admit). It’s interesting that the bit about the sanctuary seeking was conveniently omitted from the official roll at King’s Bench.

In addition, the record includes the formula that Smyth never fled on account of the felony, once more ignoring not only the sanctuary-seeking but also the 18 months between his indictment and his appearance at court – when he must have been either in sanctuary or in hiding.

The inconvenient evidence is left off so the record looks more consistent. PSA: legal records might look like transparent accounts of “what happened,” but they’re not. They’re carefully managed, edited, and sometimes fictionalized.

TNA, KB9/372, mm 4-5; KB 27/908, rex m20d. Top image: Museo del Prado.

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