Archive fever I

So I said you’d likely be hearing more about this summer’s research. Or at least one part of the summer’s research. (There’s the drudge work of recording lots of cases so that I can count them later. And the neverending transcribing… You don’t want to know about that stuff. I don’t want to know about that stuff.)

Several years ago I first came across a journal article that discusses and transcribes an intriguing document in the Chirk Castle archives at the National Library of Wales.* (I have summarised the contents below the fold.) The document, dated 1599 and quite possibly endorsed by the owner of Chirk himself, Sir Thomas Myddleton (who bought the lordship of Chirk in 1595), makes some serious allegations against the Salusburies of Lleweni, a leading Denbighshire family, and especially the head of the family, John Salusbury: that they were involved in covering up a number of murders (indeed, some of them were themselves guilty of murder), protecting the murderers in return for cash bribes paid to Salusbury himself or to the relatives of the victims.

This article is now over 50 years old – written long before the growth of research in early modern criminal archives. (And the records of the Great Sessions at the time were much less accessible than they are now.)** However, it and the document concerned are still cited as evidence for the persistence in early modern Wales of a tolerant attitude towards homicide inherited from the medieval period. Native Welsh law was, it’s claimed, more concerned with compensation (what was known as galanas, the bloodfeud, with its elaborate calculation of the value of different kinds of injury to different kinds of people) than punishment for homicides.***

Ever since I read the article, I’ve wondered about this document. Especially once I looked into the calendar of Star Chamber records and noticed a number of cases involving the two families (including suing each other). John Salusbury was frequently at the centre of disputes and disorder – including violence surrounding a parliamentary election in 1601**** – but the Myddletons too were a contentious kind of family.

The author of the article noted that Thomas Myddelton was hostile to the Salusburies of Llewenni during the 1590s, though there was “no open breach”, and the families were connected by marriage. He notes that: “There is no evidence that the serious crimes levelled here against John Salusbury and his uncle Thomas were ever formally lodged.” While he acknowledges that it’s “not likely to be free from exaggeration”, he thinks that it’s “equally unlikely to be entirely or even mainly false”, and sees its very preservation “with a descriptive endorsement” as “some evidence that it was taken seriously”.

The picture here given of the state of public order in Denbighshire at the end of the sixteenth century does not in itself arouse surprise”… What is surprising – assuming the charges to be true – is the frequency and ease with with murder could be settled by cash “amends”. Even if the charges are mainly false, the custom must have been still sufficiently common to give this document at least a modicum of credibility.

Maybe. But it’s an analysis that, I think, may fail to take sufficient account of the context of legal dispute and political rivalry between the Myddletons and Salusburies. I was sceptical somehow of that document and its claims. (And I wondered if the fact that none of the accusations were ever made public might in itself be suggestive. Given the vast size of the Chirk archive, the fact that it survived may not in itself be particularly significant.)

So I’ve wanted to explore its context and to revisit the argument in this article for some time, in the light of recent, extensive historical research on violence, disputes and the use of the law in that period. And I wanted to start in the Welsh court archives. I knew that the Great Sessions records for Denbighshire in that period (which have survived well and are very rich in all kinds of useful documents, especially witness depositions) were likely to contain at least some record of some of these cases. (Yes, I know, the allegations are of cover-ups, but according to the document itself, few of the cases were kept out of the courts altogether: most should provide at least a coroner’s inquest and/or record of indictment, even if Salusbury had used his influence to get acquittals at trial. And with a bit of luck, there might be considerably more than that.) What might the court records have to say and how would it compare to the allegations?

* WJ Smith, “The Salusburies as maintainers of murderers – a Chirk Castle view, 1599”, National Library of Wales Journal, 7 (1951-2), pp. 235-8.

** And although there is now a very helpful published guide to the records, most gaolfiles are still not calendared in any detail. There’s a comprehensive online database for the period 1730-1830 (when the court was abolished). The project to calendar the Montgomeryshire files is now progressing: the transcript of Commonwealth-period files was published a few years ago and (if you have £50 to spare) the calendar for the period 1540-70 has just been published.

*** That isn’t quite true, either; in the Welsh laws, compensation was appropriate for manslaughter, but premeditated murder was another matter, to be punished by death. But it was less severe (or, to look at it another way, more sophisticated) than English law during much of the medieval period, which recognised no distinction between murder and manslaughter.

**** And the Salusbury family got itself into political trouble at the highest level more than once in the late sixteenth century: the head of the family in 1587 was executed for treason, and this John Salusbury was connected to the Earl of Essex and possibly involved in his rebellion (I’m not sure yet precisely how). I’ll try to write a bit more about both the Myddletons and the Salusburies in later posts. They’re both very interesting families in both England and Wales, politically, economically and culturally, over quite a long period of time.
Update: I impugned Sir John’s honour there. He was loyal to the Queen in the Essex rebellion. It was a different John Salusbury who was accused of involvement. (The Salusburies tended to use a very small number of male Christian names, especially John and Thomas. This has caused considerable confusion amongst historians.)

“Men slayne & murtheryd in the County of Denbigh wthin viij yeers last past as followeth.
25 May 99”
(NLW CC F13165)

1. Rees ap John ap William, servant in livery to Thomas Salusbury esquire (John Salusbury’s uncle) murdered Hughe Gruff ap Richard of Taldrach (nr Denbigh) about 8 years ago (c.1591), was indicted for the same and “standeth ever sinse owtlawed”.

2. The same Rees murdered Thomas Penllin of Cerrigydrudion about 7 years ago (1592) and “is indicted & owlawed upon that indictment”. But Thomas Salusbury (who is a JP) “doth still mayntayne & keepe him in his liverie” as one of his household servants “wch by Law is fellonie yet nothing said”. 100 marks or thereabouts was paid in compensation.

3. Robert Salusbury: murdered Rees Lewis of Alltfaenan about 10 years ago (1589), “never tooke eny triall for that matter”. iiij xx (I presume 4 x 20 = 80 ?) pounds paid in compensation.

4. Robert ap John ap Richard murder Margaret ferch Roger of Aberchwiler about 6 years ago (1593) and was indicted for murder. John Salusbury esquire got Robert to “asuer his land to mr Salusbury after his decesse” in return for getting a jury that would acquit him. Robert was acquitted and Salusbury “provyd that shee died of a Languishinge diseace”.

5. Oliver Lloyd murdered Richard Mathewe about 7 years ago (1592); John Salusbury (a JP) offered to Oliver’s father to “examien wttnes favorable” and “warrant the sayd olyver from eny harme” in return for a bribe of £20. “And so by that undirect & corrupt meanes the sayd olyver escaped”.

6. Thomas ap William Lloyd and his wife with about 6 “Servants & ffolowers” “caused” John Parry of Henllan to be murdered about 3 years ago (1596). Some of the servants “for a showe” were indicted. The rest “by the meanes of” John Salusbury paid about £140 pounds and some lands worth £40 in compensation. “And so by that undirect meanes all the procedinges in Lawe was stayd & the partes agreed.”

7. John Foulke of “Wenalth” with two others murdered Robert ap Hugh Lloyd of Llanfair about 3 years ago. And although the coroner’s inquest was “agreed to fynd it a murther”, John Salusbury “made an agreement” between the parties and £100 compensation was paid, by which means legal proceedings were “hyndryd & the partes aquited”.

8. Hugh ap Hugh and 4 others, the servants and followers of John Salusbury, murdered William ap Richard about 2 years ago. John Salusbury arranged the payment of £100 compensation to William’s wife and children, “& so not one man indicted for it”.

9. Bartholem Porter and about 6 others of the servants and followers of John Salusbury murdered John Piers Nicholas about 1 ¼ years ago. John Salusbury arranged for compensation of £40 “& so by that undirect meanes all the procedinges in lawe hathe been stayd”.

10. At the same time they kicked John Piers Nicholas’s wife, who was “great wth chyld”, in the belly, causing her to give birth prematurely “and the Child beinge borne it was fownd wth his belly blacke & rotten & the guttes hanging downe to his heeles. And so by mr Salusburis meanes aforesayd all procedinges in lawe are stayd”.

11. Evan James, a follower of John Salusbury, murdered Richard Gruff about 2 years ago (“last past”). “At wch tyme the sayd mr Salusbury spake it openly that he showld take no harme for that murther. And although the grandjury dyd indict him of willffull murther acording to there evidence yet mr Salusbury provyded a quest of traverse to cleere him”.

12. Robert Piers, one of John Salusbury’s servants in livery, with about 6 other “desperat persons” murdered Foulke ap Thomas ap Llewelyn about 1 year ago (“nowe paste”), “& gave him 14 wounds for wch theris never a man imprissoned but walke at lybertye & nothinge sayd unto them”.

13. Richard Salusbury clerk murdered Hugh Lloyd (who was no more than 16 years old) about 3 years ago, but was never imprisoned or indicted “by reason of John Salusburie & Thomas Salusburies countenance”.

14. [ Blank ] murdered Owen ap John Lewis of Eglwys-bach about 3 years ago. “And no punishment done to the partie”.

15. [ Blank ] Bostocke murdered [ blank ] of Holt and “by Mr Salusburis meanes was acquited”.

16. William ap Moris, a servant and tenant of John Salusbury, murdered Cadwallader ap Grono of Hafod Lom about last All Saints. The coroner’s inquest should have been held in the neighbouring township, but John Salusbury used “meanes” to get the sheriff (John Kenrick) to have it held about 10 miles away with “Mr Salusburis comon jurors”.

(Not numbered) Foulke Holland murdered Maurice William about 6 years ago. (Unfinished.)

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3 Responses to Archive fever I

  1. Chris Williams says:

    Mmm… it’s always been a mystery to me how the British state managed to had over local judicial power to the nobility and gentry, and make them into fine unbiased JPs, only a couple of generations after many of them had been regularly subjecting each other to fire (and/or the sword), pillage etc. This goes some way towards answering the question…

  2. Sharon says:

    In Denbighshire they were still subjecting each other to the sword fairly regularly in the late 17th century. And they were improving then, to judge by the early 17th century gaolfiles… On pillage, it depends how much you believe of what’s in Star Chamber papers (as a rule I’d tend to say: not a lot). But I haven’t done much with those yet.

    It should be added that at this period the Denbighshire gentry weren’t being left entirely to their own devices. There’s a lot of evidence in those gaolfiles of interventions by the Council in the Marches, which is another topic I want to explore.

  3. Sharon says:

    And after that comment, I was going through one of the cases in the list (number 14 – very interesting one) and came across a commission from the Council in the Marches, ordering witnesses to be examined and so on, addressed to… John Salusbury.

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