White widow, black widow…a story of medieval murders….
This is the story of a medieval murderess who got away with a clutch of bloody crimes.
It all began with the murder at Coulsdon in Surrey, of 13-year-old Edmund de Pashley and his valet on 13th March 1328. Edmund was a son of rich Sir Edmund de Pashley, a Sussex landowner (and lawyer) who was a king’s serjeant and a baron of the Exchequer in 1323. He too had died mysteriously the previous year, leaving a large fortune and many estates in the south-east of England. Edmund’s eldest brother, William, was disposed of as well. That only left John, who would eventually fight for his rights.
Sir Edmund’s death led to his first widow turning up to claim her third of his lands in dower. I regard her as the White Widow, because she appears to be innocent of crime. But she was lustful Sir Edmund’s second wife, his first being Maud, who died in 1318 and was probably little Edmund’s mother. Then he married Joan, before taking himself off to live with Margaret de Basing (widow of William de Basing – and my Black Widow), by whom he had more sons. So, when Joan tried to obtain her dower lands, she met with a problem—they were already occupied by Margaret, who wasn’t about to move out. One of these properties was Pashley House, Ticehurst, Kent, pictured above.
Joan proved her case, one of her witnesses being the Bishop of London, but Margaret was a very hard nut, and impossible to crack. She wanted her sons by Pashley to inherit everything, and was prepared to murder to have her way. So, while claiming that Sir Edmund had married her, she set about bumping off Sir Edmund, and then started on his three sons by Maud.
Margaret’s offspring were subsequently guilty of raids on properties, wholesale theft, cattle rustling, beatings, bloodshed, failures to appear in court and escapes from custody. They truly were criminals, born of a criminal mother. But then John, the sole remaining son from Sir Edmund’s first marriage was guilty of some similar activities, although (in my opinion) with some justification.
The court cases dragged on for a decade or more, until Margaret’s death in 1341, and in 1345 there was a private settlement. John abandoned his claim to lands in Surrey, and one imagines there was a similar agreement from the other side regarding lands in Sussex.
Wicked Margaret therefore achieved her aim, and the lands passed down through her sons. A coroner’s inquest had found her guilty of procuring the murders of little Edmund and his valet, yet she was acquitted!
Go figure, as the modern saying goes…