Strange, Inhuman Deaths: Murder in Tudor England.
In the author's newest foray into Tudor legal culture, we are introduced to the place murder held in society through an examination of both its criminal characteristics and of the way in which the English people understood its meaning. Beginning with the "murder" of Richard Hun early in Henry VIII's reign, John Bellamy traces the growing fascination with murder, abetted by the moral lens that Protestantism offered along with the currency provided by the printed word.
The first part of the book focuses on the legal aspects. Between 1509 and 1559, twenty-two statutes were enacted that dealt with murder, and with these, a growing sophistication within the law created a more nuanced differentiation between premeditated killing and manslaughter, as well as in how accomplices would be treated. Throughout the book, there is also a sustained discussion on the role of pardons and torture within the emerging new legal process. At the same time, when describing the various judicial procedures, Bellamy makes it clear that the odds were stacked against accused murderers, who were not even given a copy of the charges against them. Execution was always the penalty for those found guilty, while the means depended on the nature of the crime.
From here Bellamy launches into an examination of four celebrated murder cases from mid-Tudor England, the time when chroniclers, especially Holinshed, and pamphleteers began paying attention to the crime. In the first, the disappearance of a boarder in the home of Philip Witherick leads to the host's conviction and execution for murder, based on the ever-changing testimony of his ten-year-old son. This case highlights the pressures often applied by local officials (constables and bailiffs) to obtain "confessions," to the point of injustice. In this instance, the supposed murder victim reappeared, but only after Witherick's execution. In the next episode, the ex-mayor of Faversham is the victim of a contract killing arranged by his wife and her lover. Here we become more familiar with the legal subtleties linked to gender (e.g., a wife's murder of her husband was petty treason and thus meant execution by burning rather than hanging) and the impact Elizabethan dramas based on chronicled cases can have in teaching moral lessons to their audiences. The next case study is the gruesome kidnapping, torture, and murder of William Hartgill and his son by their rival, Lord Stourton. Bellamy here reveals the manner in which the jealousies and festering animosities of families economically linked can sometimes reach the breaking point, even as a repentant gallows speech offers hope of ultimate redemption. Finally, there is the story of the good husband, George Sanders, being murdered by his wife and her evil accomplice, Ann Drury, in 1573. In the famous pamphlet and subsequent stage rendering of the case, Drury becomes the stereotypical wicked, depraved woman, who exudes malevolence by practicing palmistry and illicit medicine.
In total, Bellamy's analysis of these cases is rather muted and unfortunately there is no conclusion that attempts to tie them all together in some significant way. Instead, we are given noteworthy illustrations of how the Tudor period, which witnessed the emergence of the Renaissance, the birth of Protestantism and its Puritan variation, the advent of printing, and the restoration of law and order, also saw a related growth of interest in salacious tales of murder with all of their ancillary attention to morality, patriotism, and even entertainment value. On this score, not much has changed between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries.
Florida Atlantic University