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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…






Amidst the spreading Oaks of the New Forest stands a solitary stone, once ten foot high with a ball on top, now truncated and protected from vandals.  Known as the Rufus Stone, it is the memorial to a slain king, William II, one of England’s most mysterious and little known Norman Kings.

On the stone, which only dates from the reign of Charles II and is not sited where the event it commemorates actually happened, is an inscription:

Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrell at a stag, glanced and struck King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, on the breast, of which he instantly died, on the second day of August, anno 1100.
King William the Second, surnamed Rufus, being slain, as before related, was laid in a cart, belonging to one Purkis and drawn from hence, to Winchester, and buried in the Cathedral Church, of that city.

  William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, is one of those historical figures who has attracted lots of mythology but about whom little is actually known. Due to his nickname, frequently he is described in modern writings as  red-headed, but in the medieval Malmesbury Chronicle, he is said to be ‘yellow haired’ with a very red face that grew more florid when enraged.

It is claimed William was cruel and unpopular, but there is little written evidence of what his cruelty exactly consisted of. He did implement high taxation, treating his English subjects with disdain, but his main folly seemed to be in defying and even ridiculing the Church. (The Anglo Saxon Chronicle  said he was ‘abhorrent to God’.) The Church loathed him, and the clerics of the day spoke peevishly of his possible sodomy (he never married, nor had any known illegitimate children), his dissolute court and the fact he wore his hair nearly as long as a woman’s as well as enormously extended pointy shoes!

Despite his unpopularity, Rufus was a capable soldier, making forays into Scotland and putting down a serious revolt in Northumberland.

It is  his unusual death however, for which he which is best remembered , and here the folklore has grown and flourished most. On August 2, the day after the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasad, Christianised  as Lammas, William was out hunting in the forest with his brother Henry, a lord called William Tirel/Tyrell/Tyrrell and others of his entourage. Apparently, the night before he had been gripped by evil dreams in which he had been kicked by an angry cross, and this put him in an evil mood. As the party spotted a stag amidst the trees, he turned to Tirel, the best archer in the party and shouted, “Shoot, in the name of God, shoot!”

Tirel shot and the arrow struck not the  deer but the king, entering his lung. He tried to draw it out but collapsed, falling on the shaft and driving the arrow in deeper.

No one helped the dying king. Tirel immediately spurred his horse onwards and fled for France. The King’s brother Henry, not bothering with any niceties for the newly deceased King’s body, rushed for the nearby city of Winchester where he seized the treasury, then promptly rode to London where he claimed the crown before his other brother, Robert Curthose, who was away on the First Crusade, could hear of William’s demise.

It was, reportedly, two humble peasants who recovered William’s corpse, dumping it unceremoniously into a cart and carrying it to Winchester, with blood dripping through the cart-slats all the way along the road. In the great cathedral, Rufus was hastily buried in a plain chest tomb ( and some bones believed to be his still remain there, although the skull is missing.)

The Church of the day believed God had stricken down William for his wickedness, but later historians began to speak of murder and a potential plot to remove him from the throne. Henry was definitely present at the death and certainly had the most to gain; his actions when the King was stricken down were also not exactly those of a loving brother. Tirel was said to be an excellent archer and most unlikely to have missed his target in such a disastrous manner.

In the earlier 20th century the story was given another twist—anthropologist Margaret Murray wrote about  Rufus being a pagan who was sacrificed in an ancient Lammas harvest rite because he was ‘infertile’ and hence would bring famine and plague to England. (The chroniclers  did in fact say that in Rufus’ reign,  “thunders terrifying the earth, lightnings and thunderbolts most frequent, deluging showers without number, winds of the most astonishing violence, and whirlwinds that shook the towers of churches and levelled them with the ground.

As ‘proof’ Murray  pointed to the auspicious date of death at Lammas  and to  the fact another young royal relative had died in an identical manner earlier  that year…on May 2, the day after old Beltaine. She thought of this earlier death as a ‘proxy’ for the king himself, but when England did not flourish after  the substitute was sacrificed, Rufus himself had to die. The peasants who allowed Rufus’ blood to flow onto the earth on the journey to Winchester were also seen as continuing some sort of  ancientritual practice.

Pretty wild, unlikely stuff, intriguing though it is.

So Henry became Henry I and Tirel in France remained free and unpunished.  Who killed Rufus, and whether it was an accident or murder (ritual or  otherwise) remains another unsolved medieval mystery (although I would personally  put my money on Henry.) As for Tirel’s involvement, his name was in fact not immediately associated with the death; the Anglo Saxon Chronicle  just says the King was  ‘shot by one of his own men.’ Tirel’s name only appears in later writing, although he does seem to have fled England (and his daughter Adeliza was married to one of the men Henry took with him when he seized the treasury.)

It is a slightly strange and interesting coincidence that this surname for a possible ‘King killer’ is so similar to that of James Tyrell/Tyrrell who has been accused of overseeing the deaths of Edward V and his brother Richard of York in the Tower 383 years later, another figure obscured by time and by later mythologising.



A country-house murder mystery with a Ricardian theme….

The Murders of Richard III

For those Ricardians who like country-house murder mysteries, here’s one with a Ricardian theme. Mixed reviews, but I don’t think it’s anti-Richard. It was originally written in 1974, so apparently shows its age a little. But then, don’t we all? <g>

The Amazon link wouldn’t work properly, so here’s a TinyURl:



More useful than ever

This is the story of a triple murder in Seattle. The trial took place in 1998 and the victims were two drug dealers and their dog, Chief. The case was also featured on an episode of CBS Reality’s “Medical Detectives” that British viewers may have seen on several occasions; most recently on the early evening of Monday 4th or 11th this month. It was established that DNA from other mammals, or almost any animal, is of as much forensic use as is human DNA. It helped that Chief was of a short-haired breed so his blood flowed easily over the killers.

Remember that human DNA was used to solve crime (the 1980s Pitchfork murder case in Leicestershire) before it could be used to conclusively identify historical individuals such as Richard III. So, thanks to the late Chief from Seattle, should you own a dog apparently descended from a Crufts champion or a horse apparently descended from a Derby winner, logic suggests that this can be proven one way or the other and not just from a pedigree on paper.

Furthermore, whichever species are in that Westminster Abbey urn, we can learn more about them.

“There was a man …

… his name was Rouse. He had the key to every house.
He was suspected and then arrested …”

Alfred Arthur Rouse ( was an ostensibly happily married commercial traveller, to Lily May Watkins, when in London. In other regions, he was a bachelor or occasionally “married” to a different woman. To end his first “life” and , he killed a hitch-hiker but was caught and executed.

John Rous was a veteran Warwickshire prelate and writer of the Rous Roll, praising the House of York and Richard III in particular. After the accession of Henry VII, he wrote Historia Regum Angliae, reversing his earlier verdict ad absurdam, either at the behest of the first “Tudor” or in a vain attempt to save the life of Edward, Earl of Warwick.

Insanity through the ages

Insanity was recognised under English law in the Norman era thus:

“eo quod sensu carent et ratione, non magis quam brutum animal iniuriam facere possunt nec feloniam, cum non multum distent a brutis, secundum quod videri poterit in minore, qui si alium interficeret in minori ætate, iudicium non sustineret.”

(“since they are without sense and reason and can no more commit a tort or a felony than a brute animal, since they are not far removed from brutes, as is evident in the case of a minor, for if he should kill another while under age he would not suffer judgment.”)

Essentially the Normans didn’t recognise insanity as a defence, but as a special circumstance that would allow a jury to render a guilty verdict but to then apply to the King for a pardon. This seems not to have been seriously tested until R v Arnold (1724) 16 St. Tr.704. Arnold shot Lord Onslow, wounding him. Sentenced to death, Lord Onslow secured a reprieve for him to life in prison. Lord Tracey recognised the “wild beast” test:

“A man must be totally deprived of his understanding and memory, so as not to know what he is doing, no more than an infant, a brute, or a wild beast, such a one is never the object of punishment.” Of course the “wild beast” in question actually means a farm animal, not some sort of wild animal.

From this case, R v Ferrers (1760) 16 How St. Tr. 886 saw the House of Lords rule that the Earl was not suffering from an irrestible impulse when he killed his servant. Ferrers was executed and one of his descendants was a 1990s Home Office Minister. R v Hadfield (1800) 27 How St. Tr. determined that a brain-damaged ex-soldier, who shot at George III because he wished to be executed, was suffering from a delusion. Daniel M’Naughten, in 1843, shot Robert Peel’s secretary, believing him to be the Prime Minister in person, conspiring against M’Naughten, the Lords’ “rules in M’Naughten’s case” becoming the basis of common law on insanity, only slightly revised.

So what of historical cases within or close to our period?
1) Edward Earl of Warwick, imprisoned by Henry “Tudor” within days of his accession, only seems to have left the Tower three times: for display in 1487, for trial in 1499 and for his execution that November. It was said that he “could not tell a goose from a capon”, presumably as a result of his seclusion, suggesting that he may have fallen under the Norman law.
2) “Perkin Warbeck”, who might have been Richard of Shrewsbury or a conscious fraud. Alternatively, he may have been a non-Royal individual who was under the delusion that he was Richard of Shrewsbury. As we just don’t know who he was, his sanity would depend on that.
3) Jane Parker, Viscountess Rochford, executed in 1542 for participating in Katherine Howard’s treason. She was attainted and widely recognised to have been insane.

Evidently, the “Tudors” were no respectors of English common law.

Some musings on murder

Unlike some people – who from their certainty were not only alive at the time, but high in King Richard’s confidence – I honestly do not know what became of the two boys we call for convenience ‘The Princes’. I have read all sorts of theories about what happened to them and none entirely convinces me. However, I very much doubt they were killed by or on the orders of Richard III.

There were rumours that the Princes had been murdered while Mancini was in England (he left round about the time of Richard’s Coronation in July 1483.) But at this time, and for at least a few months more, they were still alive, as it is claimed they were still to be seen in the Tower in the late summer before being withdrawn from public gaze. This demonstrates that public rumour, even when written into a Chronicle, is not the same as fact. Indeed it would be tedious to relate the long litany of false rumours that circulated in the 15th Century – perhaps the most enduring being the belief that Richard II was still alive in Scotland as late as 1417.

It appears that at least some elements of ‘Buckingham’s Rebellion’ in the autumn of 1483, intended to restore Edward V, but then a convenient rumour spread to the effect that Edward was dead; whereupon the rebels changed their allegiance to Henry Tudor, or possibly Buckingham himself.

Rumour was certainly a powerful weapon in politics, and it is worth remembering that it was more often than not wielded by the sovereign’s enemies.

What was the purpose of murdering a deposed King? Something that was never done lightly. The answer is simple, to discourage risings in his name. It did not always work – as in the case of Richard II. But equally, if often did, as in the case of Henry VI. However, there was no point in murdering the King and leaving an element of doubt for people to build rumours upon. In the cases of both Richard II and Henry VI (and also Edward II, Hotspur and Warwick, to name but three) the body of the dead enemy was put on public display, and, in theory at least, anyone could go to look at him and make sure.

The bodies of the former Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, were conspicuously not put on public display. Nor were the deaths officially announced. (And Richard was not above making public announcements and swearing oaths, even when the circumstances were uncomfortable and embarrassing.)

It has been suggested that it would have been ‘too shocking’ for the bodies to be displayed, that people would have been outraged. This misses the point. Some people were outraged, even at a time when the boys were known to be alive. By late 1483, many believed Richard had killed them anyway. So what was there to lose?

But there was something to be gained. No doubt an official explanation could have been put together. Very probably not everyone would have believed the story, just as not everyone believed the official accounts of the deaths of Richard II and Henry VI. But some would. And it would have brought about what we now call a sense of closure, to say nothing of diminishing the chances of any future imposters. What is more, the boys could have been given a proper funeral and a proper tomb, and masses could have been said for their souls. While not wiping out the grave sin of murder, it would at least have been a measure of mitigation.

Instead (according to the opinion of many) Richard just let the matter hang. The result was that many people believed he had murdered them anyway, and they never received a proper funeral, or a suitable tomb, or masses for their souls. (Because as far as I can gather neither Henry VII, or their sister Elizabeth of York, or their mother Elizabeth Woodville, or any of their other sisters, or their grandmother the ultra-pious Duchess of York, or the saintly Margaret Beaufort, ever paid for a single mass for them. Not one! It is almost as if these people believed they were alive, and thought that a mass for their souls would be a sin.)

It is one think to believe that Richard III was wicked – quite another to believe he was stupid. But then again, there are people quite willing to take as historical fact that he had a sturdy Tower staircase taken apart and hole dug beneath it ten feet deep in order to keep the secret. Really, what a secret that would have been!

Written on the 546th anniversary of the death of Lady Eleanor Talbot. Requiescat in pace


The “historically aware” Murderer (2012)

Alfred John Monson was born in 1862. His parents were Rev. Thomas Monson and Hon. Caroline Monckton, putting the first two Barons Monson and the Viscounts Galway among his close ancestors. Both of his parents were descended from Anne of Exeter through the Earls of Rutland. Monson was a confidence trickster with three small children, soon to be made bankrupt.

Cecil John Hamborough was about a decade younger, a tall non-swimmer and the son of Major Dudley Hamborough, seeking a commission in the Yorkshire Millitia. In 1891, the Major  hired Monson as Cecil’s tutor at six pounds a week for this purpose but the Major was having second thoughts by 1893, the year before Cecil would reach his majority. Cecil and Monson made their way to the Ardlamont estate in Argyll for the summer shooting season, together with Mrs. (Agnes Maud) Monson and Edward Davis, an associate of Monson’s. Hamborough’s life was insured in Mrs. Monson’s interest for £20,000. The three men set out on Ardlamont Bay in a boat which developed an open plug-hole and sank – this was very close to the shore and Hamborough waded to dry land.

On 10 August, they walked into a dense woodland on the estate. A shot rang out and only two – Monson and Scott – emerged alive, Hamborough being found with a bullet in the head. It was not yet open season for grouse but it was for army lieutenants. Monson was arrested three weeks later although Davis (or Ted Scott or Edward Sweeney) returned to hide in the London underworld. Monson was tried and found “not proven”. Madame Tussaud’s exhibited a waxwork of Monson and he successfully sued them for libel but won only a farthing.

Given his lineage, it is highly probable that Alfred John Monson had received a classical education. He would have learned how Nero sought to murder his mother Agrippina by sinking a boat she was on. He would have learned how William II, Walter Tirel and others went into the New Forest in early August 1100, the others returning safely but the King being shot dead (with an arrow) and nobody punished. Quite apart from his desperation for money, Monson was inspired by these examples – again the drowning failed but the shooting succeeded.

We do not yet know when Alfred Monson died but he was later imprisoned for five years for fraud, whilst Agnes lived until 1942. In 2012, his twenty-eight year-old cousin Hon. Alexander Monson, son of the twelfth Baron, died in Kenya from blunt force trauma, as the result of apparent police violence.

Main source: “Murder Not Proven”, by the late Jack House, dramatised by BBC1.

George Joseph Smith and the Talbot-York precontract

Following the comparison between the remains that purport to be Edward IV’s sons and those that purported to be Mrs. Crippen, we revisit early C20 crime, although in this case we can be sure that a crime took place.

George Joseph Smith was born in January 1872 and contracted a legal marriage in 1898, to Caroline Beatrice Thornhill of Leicester. Although he abandoned the real Mrs. Smith several times, he did not harm or divorce her so she was to become his widow in August 1915 when the trapdoor opened. Margaret Elizabeth Lofty of Highgate, Beatrice Munday of Dorset and Alice Burnham of Blackpool were less fortunate. All drowned in their bath, a few days after “marrying” Smith and during his supposed absence on an urgent erand

Critically, Mr. Justice Scrutton allowed evidence to be introduced that Smith had followed the same procedure in all three cases: “evidence of system”, by which the evidence in one case strengthened that in the others. He was convicted solelyof murdering Beatrice Munday but a precedent was created. There were other bigamous “wives” but Smith had been able to defraud them and flee.

Now let us apply this principle to Edward IV. Between 1461 and 1465, he went through two secret marriage ceremonies with Lady Eleanor Talbot (older than himself and the widow of a Lancastrian knight) and Elizabeth Woodville (older than himself and the widow of a Lancastrian knight). There may have been more than two but Lady Grey, as Elizabeth Woodville had become, had an assertive mother and a few extra witnesses. Straight away, we can observe “evidence of system” and motivation: The bigamist Edward IV was led by his groin, much as the bigamist Smith was led by the love of money.

Dr. Crippen and the “Princes” in the Tower (2009)

Ricardians view the 1933 conclusions of Tanner and Wright with considerable suspicion. Tanner and Wright expected the 1674 bone-find at the Tower of London to be the skeletons of two male siblings aged about ten and twelve, because those were the ages of Edward of Westminster and Richard of Shrewsbury in summer 1483, the time of their last proven sighting. However, recent analysis of the conclusions suggest that the bones need not be of two people, male, late medieval at death or even human.

Five’s recent documentary (“Revealed”, series 1, episode 5) provided an intriguing parallel. In 1910, police officers seeking Mrs. Crippen, nee Belle Elmore, searched a house in Hilldrop Crescent, also in London, where she had lived with her homeopath husband, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Inspector Dew and his officers duly found some remains and the pathologist Dr. Sir Bernard Spilsbury pronounced them to be those of Mrs. Crippen. Consequently, Dr. Crippen was arrested and subsequently hanged.

However, new analysis of the remains shows no relationship between the corpse and Belle Elmore’s mitochondrial heirs, traced in her native America. If not her, who could the corpse be? Perhaps Dr. Crippen was short of money and practicing as a back-street abortionist, a procedure that occasionally procured the unfortunate additional death of the mother? Strange as it seems, the fresh and highly pungent remains at Hilldrop Crescent seem now to be male and possibly even planted at the scene – the police could not have missed the smell yet “found” nothing for three days.

Spilsbury was a very authoritative figure, once addressed by a flustered defence counsel as “St. Bernard”, famous for never admitting his mistakes and for eventually taking his own life in December 1947. He very probably erred here – does this not make it more likely that Tanner and Wright did twenty-three years later?

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