Friday, October 31, 2008

Francis Bacon and the pickpocket

My story today concerns a brief and ignominious appearance in history, that made by John Selman, of Shoe Lane, who on Christmas Day 1611 got on his best working clothes (and Selman had no other line of work than one that involved trying to look respectable enough to work a crowd without being suspected), and then went to the royal chapel at Whitehall.

The King, Queen, and their children were present to take communion. Selman decided that his mark would be Leonard Barry, the manservant of Lord Harrington. Unfortunately for him, he had been recognised by one Edmund Doubleday, who had himself previously had Selman hover suspiciously close to him when in the ‘Cheker Chamber’ in Westminster Hall, had then suspected what his game was, and been vigilant enough to thwart him: Doubleday was sharp enough to know him again. Under Doubleday’s vigilant scrutiny, “after long hawking, and following of the foresaid Leonard Barry’, Selman took Barry’s purse, and exited the chapel.

Clearly Selman was not a purse-snatcher, for his mark has felt nothing, and Doubleday has not seen any sudden movement, for he goes and asks Barry if his purse is still in his possession. The servant thinks so, but checks his pockets, and it has gone. Doubleday tells Barry who has his purse, and they follow and detain him. The purse was still on his person, Selman didn’t have an accomplice to do a quick switch.

Selman was committed to prison, and then brought from the Marshalsea on New Year’s Eve, and charged with high formality: that being, “within the verge, our Soveraigne Lord the king, being then in his Royal Majesty, at White-hal aforesaid, with force and Arms did make an assault upon one Leonard Barrie, and one purse of the value of one halfe penny and forty shillings ready money in the same purse.”

Selman, caught red-handed, could only plead guilty. It is interesting (and rather pathetic) to see the limited mercy this realistically-minded thief begged for: Thomas Peter asks Selman “what he can say for himself, why sentence of death should not be pronounced against him: to which he answered not anything but prostrating himself on his knees submitted himself to the king’s mercy humbly praying, that after the law was executed, his body might be delivered to his wife to have Christian buriall, and that the goods which he had, (part of which was wel gotten, some otherwise) might not bee taken from her.”

Good enough, but not good enough for the King’s solicitor, Francis Bacon (no less), who says he can have mercy on proviso: “Upon your true Repentance, and revealing of those of your faculty and fraternity, who are still as ready to enter into the presence Chamber of the king, as you were to enter into the house of God.”

It is typical of Bacon to be so inexorable and clever-clever. Nevertheless, Selman nominates “one who was then in the hall, which could (if he would) do good service to the king, by revealing many of that profession, his name as I have heard is I.H.”

Who could this have been? Had some associate of Selman’s come to see his fellow diver into pockets face the inevitable? If so, his curiosity landed him in trouble. But there may be some other explanation.

Then came the great moment in poor Selman’s truncated existence, for even though he was only a pickpocket, he got some high grade Jacobean moralising levelled at him. The anonymous pamphleteer indicates that this is not Francis Bacon verbatim, but the gist of what was said:

“Sir Francis Bacon … proceeded to judgement, and looking on the prisoner, thus or to this effect, in some sort he spake: The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in heaven. The second was done in paradise, being heaven on earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke, in regard it was done in the house of God, where he by his own promise is always resident, as also for that the cause of that assembly was to celebrate the Feast of the birth of our Lord and Saviour Christ Jesus …

Thou shalt surely bee forgiven at Gods hands … thou shalt bee had from hence to the place from whence thou cammest, and from thence bee brought to the place of execution, which shall be between Charing Cross and the Court gate, and there be hanged by the necke till thou be dead, ad so the Lord have mercy upon thy soule.”

My image is of course the title page. It could be a standard woodcut, but I think it may be a genuine ‘wood block reportage’: Selman, with a purse, but in gentlemanly attire. Woodblock artists were adept at early modern photoshopping, and could re-work blocks with additional details to match the story. The pamphlet is very keen to report on just how this thief infiltrated this regal and divine sanctuary, and explains: “Now, gentle Readers, you must understand, that this Selman came into the kings Chappell in very good and seemely apparel, like unto a Gentleman, or Citizen: viz. a fair blacke cloake laced, and either lined through or faced with velvet. The rest of his apparel in reasionable maner being answerable thereunto. Which was the cause that he without resistance had free entrance into that holy and sanctified place.”

No comments: