Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A bad start to 1609 at the Sign of the Firebrand

A bloudy new-yeares gift, or A true declaration of the most cruell and bloudy murther, of maister Robert Heath, in his owne house at high Holbourne, being the signe of the fire-brand (1609) is a typical murder pamphlet: heavy on the moralizing, slow to probe motive, and generally content that someone has been made an example of on the gallows.

What is rather thrilling about the little book is the intense domestic detail the anonymous author supplies: read it, and you are back there in the early morning of January 1st 1609, in a crowded house that is utterly dark, utterly cold, and murderously divided.

Master Robert Heath was a cook, Rowland Cramphorne was his tapster, so the business obviously extended to a complete catering in food and drink. It is clear that Master Heath drank: he was one that ‘kept much companie’, and on the fatal night, he came home at about 9pm ‘somwhat disguised in drinke’ and fell asleep in front of the kitchen fire. His wife is all too used to this, and always has her maid put a table against their bedroom door. She tells the court that this would alert her to her husband coming into the room late at night, but it sounds more like her regular way of keeping him downstairs. Upstairs, at midnight, a gentleman lodger wakes up both cold and thirsty. He calls for Rowland, who alleges that there are no faggots left in the house. Briefly, they contemplate going out, even at this late hour, to find drink and a fire, but in the end the gentleman decides to make do and shiver on through the night.

At 2am, the maid retired upstairs to her mistress’s room, leaving Rowland and her master below. Rowland shares a bed in the house with a boy. The narrative asserts that he had made this boy drunk with ale and sack, the boy certainly doesn’t seem to know when Rowland retired or got up again. But in this chilly and drink-stupefied household, at some point in the night, ‘the devil prevailed so farre with him, to doe that horrible deed of darkness'. A candle the maid had left by her master was a quarter burned at the time of the murder, and extinguished upside down its holder.

Next door, a joiner, his wife and their lodger are huddled in one chamber: between two or three in the morning, they hear ‘a great noise in Master Heaths house, as it were the fall of stooles or Chaires’. Nobody in the Heath household seems to have heard this, and next door, they just decide that their neighbours are making an early start on their pie making for New Year’s Day. The room they are in is adjacent to Rowland’s, and the partition so thin that the late night opening and closing of his door shakes their bed.

At five am, a barber’s maid comes to the house for fire, but finds the main door shut, at 6am the maid descends, gropes about in the dark till she finds the candle on the dresser (how did she know that it had not burned down and gone out?) relights it, and discovers the body. She goes and wakes Rowland with the news that ‘he knew too well’.

The ‘outcry of this murder being made’, the Joiner, even then on his way to a morning lecture at Christs-Church (a sermon, of course), diverts into the house. Heath was not quite dead, but dies as they try to lift him upstairs.

Rowland, Heath’s wife and the maid all assert that they have no idea who did the murder: the house doors, they say, had been left wide open in the morning, as if the murderer had departed that way (they clearly hope to incriminate either the drinking companions who had returned to the house with Heath, or others who had been upstairs with the gentleman).

Under examination, though, Rowland is found to have in his pocket money with blood upon it. He claims that he was bloodied in lifting his master, but the pious joiner from next door denies that Rowland had helped. A ‘fire fork’ is found to have a drop of blood upon it (Rowland later confesses, rather, that he had hit his master with a 'double jug').

The narrative now shifts to immediate motive: the day before, Heath, out drinking, had sent home for more beer: but each time he asked, his tapster had denied him. Heath had even sent money back home to pay for the beer from his own business: Rowland had still refused. Rowland had reportedly been struck by his returning master (this would be on the morning of New Year’s Eve), and dismissed.

The Jury finds all this enough, Rowland was convicted, drawn on a hurdle to his own street, and hanged on a gibbet ‘set up at Graies-Inne lane end, somewhat neeere unto the house where the murder was committed’ (this was on the 21st February 1609).

Rowland’s behaviour at the gallows was interesting, to say the least: “where being by good and godly preachers dealt withal, to cleare his own conscience, & deliver the truth in so doubtfull a case, whether any other had hand or no with him in the action: he would heare no speeches concerning his mist[ress] or the maid, but cleared them [as?] much as he could, taking al upon himself: & loath to hear any further admonishment, which with love and much charity was laboured unto him: when he was willed to make no haste, but take time to his own liking, putting one legge beside the ladder, and they calling him yet to stay, yea, the hangman offering to holde him by the choler of his doublet, he desperately threw himselfe off, not willing to listen to any further good counsel.”

I take it that these suspicions were basically correct. A tapster surely would not have refused his own master drink, even with money offered, unless put up to it by his mistress. Heath and his cronies were drinking the profits, his wife was sick of his drunken returns to their bedroom. When the maid looks for and lights the candle she had left burning by her master the night before, she finds what she had half expected from the bangs in the night they had been careful not to hear, and knows who to go to. I suspect, too, that the two women distanced themselves from the man who had carried out the murder and took all the blame (even to the point of speeding his own death for fear that he might blab something out). For the little pamphlet begins with an odd, and unsubstantiated account of Rowland Cramphorne’s bad character, a tale of a girl (anonymous in an otherwise quite specific text) he had seduced and deserted, who had predicted that he would come to a bad end. ‘All these imputations now dye with him’ says the pamphleteer, who might just be trying to signal that there’s another story beside the officially accepted one, mentioning in passing ‘what hath bin said concerning his Mistresse’…

But cold, dark, crowded early modern London!

1 comment:

jps said...

Fascinating. I follow this blog at a semi-distance depending on how tired my eyes are when I get home and onto my feed reader. But thanks for a full 2008 of early modern intrigue such as this, Roy.