A quarrel amongst tanners

On a wintry day in February 1489 at Barking, Essex – let’s imagine it was raining, just above freezing, miserable – brothers William and Stephen Burre, two tanners, quarreled with another tanner, John Cursum.

The Burre brothers were accused of slashing Cursum with a small knife, giving him a wound from which he died four days later. The jurors called to the coroners’ inquest called it a murder and reported that the Burre brothers had flown to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.


By Easter term 1489, the Burres were in custody. Their case was heard before the Essex peace sessions at Brentwood in October 1489; the trial jurors found them not guilty.

But that wasn’t the end of the Burres’ trouble; despite the acquittal they were arrested again. There was a double jeopardy rule, so all they had to do was have the record of the acquittal in Essex forwarded to King’s Bench, which was done.


This took time, however – and unfortunately for William Burre, the administrative roll at KB indicates that he died in the meantime, maybe in prison, awaiting this document’s arrival.

I’m never sure what to think about these cases where the indictment is detailed and convincing, and then the accused is/are acquitted at trial. Was the original prosecution malicious? Or was the trial jury corrupted, eg taking bribes to give a not guilty verdict?

No wonder many people were skeptical about “justice.”

TNA, KB 9/382, mm. 51-52; KB 9/385, mm. 20-21; KB 29/120, m. 19d. Top image – P. Bruegel.

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