Writing About Murder in Tudor England

Kaitlyn here, but today I’m blogging as Kathy Lynn (aka Kate) Emerson

In my other writing identities, I’ve been dealing with murders in Tudor England for some time now. In my Face Down series (written as Kathy Lynn Emerson), in which my sleuth, Susanna, Lady Appleton, is an expert on poisonous herbs, I killed people off in dozens of different ways in the course of ten novels and numerous short stories. In one of the latter, “Encore for a Neck Verse,” I based the crime on a real case. In my story, a murder was faked by an unfaithful wife and her lover so that the husband would be blamed for the lover’s death and executed, after which the lover could be found to be alive and well and could then marry the wealthy widow. In the real case, some partially burned bones were considered adequate evidence of guilt and the accused man was hanged. My version included a few twists and a very different ending.

You have to go some to beat the convoluted murder plots that really took place in sixteenth-century England. My hobby is the compilation of A Who’s Who of Tudor Women (http://www.KateEmersonHistoricals.com/TudorWomenIndex.htm), an online-only opus that currently consists of over 1400 mini-biographies of women who lived during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. In other words, they lived at least a part of their lives between the years 1485 and 1603. Very few of them are murder victims. Far more of them committed murder or persuaded someone else, for love or money, to do the dastardly deed for them. There isn’t room here to talk about them all. Just recently I added entries for Rebecca Chamber, Ann Drury, Margery Freeman, Eulalia Glanfield, Ann Saunders, Anne Welles, and Margery Witherick (the case that inspired “Encore for a Neck Verse”), using a wonderful set of case histories written up by John Bellamy in his Strange Inhuman Deaths: Murder in Tudor England. I’d already included mini-bios of other notorious murderesses: Alice Brigandine, Agnes Cotell, Frances Howard, and Alice Tankerfelde. Those are all birth names, by the way. The Who’s Who is cross referenced for married surnames. Also included are a number of women who were charged with murder by witchcraft . . . but most of them were innocent.

One of the most bizarre cases I’ve come across is that of Alice Tankerfelde. She, her husband (a man named Wolfe), and others conspired to murder two foreign merchants and steal their money. Here is the condensed version. She pretended to be a whore to lure them into a boat. Once out on the Thames, her confederates, hidden under tarps, rose up and killed their victims. They stripped the bodies of all valuables and threw them overboard. Then they robbed the house where the merchants had been living. When the crime was discovered, Alice’s husband escaped to Ireland, but she was arrested and sentenced to be hanged in chains on the pirates’ gallows at Wapping Stairs. This was the punishment for crimes committed on water. She would not die by hanging, but by drowning as the tide came in and washed over her. In an attempt to avoid her punishment, she contrived to escape from the Tower of London using a rope ladder and a key provided to her by one of the guards. She might have gotten clean away had she not dressed in men’s clothing. Made suspicious by this affront to common decency, the watch took her into custody and shortly afterward she was returned to her prison cell. She was executed on March 31, 1534.

Alice wouldn’t have made much of a heroine for a mystery story, but the details of her escape from the Tower of London were exactly what I needed to write a similar scene in one of my Kate Emerson historical novels (Between Two Queens). I’ve also done something with a woman falsely accused of murder, in Face Down Beneath the Eleanor Cross. This was not a charge you wanted to face if you were female in sixteenth-century England. Women couldn’t use benefit of clergy the way men could (unless they could prove they’d been nuns before all the abbeys and priories were closed down) and if the victim happened to be the husband or master of the accused, the crime wasn’t just murder, it was petty treason. Instead of just hanging you, they burned you at the stake.

I may like writing about Tudor times, but I’m sure glad I live in the present.

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8 Responses to Writing About Murder in Tudor England

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Crazy, bizarre, stuff, Kathy. Who ever said life was dull back then hasn’t read your compiliation (or your fiction!)

  2. That’s a jolly good read, I thoroughly endorse it, it also gives the famous Faversham murder shorn of the theatrical hyperbole that got subsequently attached to it. I confess I also bought it to help with plot ideas for my [slightly earlier] Renaissance murder mysteries.
    It was a very robust time, and of course some of the things we could consider murder today were no such thing if death were shown to occur in ‘chance medley’ – something else a woman could not claim as women did not fight….. very unfair. And I don’t believe that women could claim compurgation in civil cases, the swearing of twelve good men and true that the accused would never have done such a thing [and how much were you paying me to say so, my friend?] on the oath of the accused. Great period to write in, pretty awful to live through.

  3. Sarah Graves says:

    Oh, I’m so glad I live now instead of then, and in such a…a privileged way, too. I enjoy the existence of Three Great Things: anesthesia, antibiotics, and indoor plumbing. And other goodies, too, but — does it work the other way? Are there things about living inTudor times that were vastly better than now?

  4. Kathy, this is absolutely fascinating. Truly remarkable that you’re compiling and researching all these instances of female murders. Women’s lib came early to many of them, I can see–nothing passive about these Tudor era babes! Each one, I suspect, would make an intriguing short story (or novel). Though surely there are some extenuating cicumstances for Alice? Do you know what sort of life she led before she turned murderess–what poverty (starving kids at home, et al.) that would have forced her to kill? Did her husband coerce her into this life of mayhem? I’d love to see into her head and heart (if indeed she has one). And did she go as bravely into that good night as she sent others into it?

    • That’s the thing about most sixteenth century women—there’s just an
      anecdote, or a court case (usually with the verdict missing), or a single mention in a letter. Of course that leaves plenty of scope for the novelist to make stuff up.

  5. The hangings in Salem, MA in 1692 may have been harsh but at least this was a blip in our history — it didn’t continue for another century, as it did in Europe. We did not burn our accused witches – they were hung after trial and under English legal precedent. The verdicts were later overturned, the “witches” declared innocent and compensation paid to the families. One of the judges stood up in church and confessed his guilt for participating, as did one of the accusers. Another of the judges became a drunk. All in all, I’d rather live in the colonies than in Tudor England. Marilyn aka: M. E. KEMP, author of the two nosy Puritans series.

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