Friday, June 05, 2009

Mistress Beast has her husband murdered, 1582

Mistress Beast did exist, and we will come to her in a moment. This post might have been titled ‘The Worcestershire Murders’, as my source is a well printed and rather well written pamphlet, A briefe discourse of two most cruell and bloudie murthers, committed bothe in Worcestershire, and bothe happening vnhappily in the yeare 1583.

Another possible title for this post might have been ‘Murder most foolish’, for both killings were carried out with reckless disregard for consequences. In the case of Thomas Smith, resentment at a rival mercer’s popularity seems to have blinded the perpetrator to all consideration of what would happen next, while Mistress Beast and her lover seem to have occupied a fantasy realm of amatory conceits where reality scarcely impinged.

On New Year’s Eve in Evesham, 1582, Thomas Smith invited a successful rival in trade, Robert Greenoll, over to his house to share a pint of wine and some apples roasted in the fire. Greenoll, a bachelor, popular both socially and as a tradesman, suspected nothing about Smith, who, if not so successful as a mercer, had a well off family behind him, and was married to a gentlewoman.

But Smith had listened to “the persuasion of the evill spirite with him”, and had already, down in his cellar, dug a grave “about sixe or seven inches deepe” (this has to mean that the body placed in it would be that far below the surface).

Evesham, on this New Year’s Eve, was in a state of rather uptight festivity. There’s to be a play performed (its nature regrettably unspecified in the pamphlet), but the town had made special seasonal provisions against disorder: “In Evesham, all the time of Christmas, there is watch and ward kept, that no misorder or il rule be committed”:

It grew toward night, when as a play was cryed about the Towne, whereto both old and young did hastely repaire: and this Smith having a boye that served him in his Shop, fearing lest the boye should perceive anie thinge, gave hym money, and bade him goe see the Play: and bring him a whole report of the matter.”

Smith’s Boy fetched the wine and apples, then ‘ran merrily to see the Play’, leaving the two men alone: ‘at last, Greenoll stouping to turne an apple in the fire’, Smith struck him over the head with an iron pestle he had left to hand. Here, the anonymous author half emerges into the narrative, for he has himself heard from Smith about how awfully protracted the killing was: “Smith hearing him to give such a woful groan (as himselfe said to me, when I came to him in prison) began to enter into some sorrowfulness for the deede”. But judging his victim to be beyond help, he struck him three or four times more: but poor Greenoll was still trembling on the floor. Now Smith produced a knife, and stabbed him in the neck ‘but as Smith himselfe said, he did not cut the wezand, but pierced the skin somewhat’, then tried to stab him in the heart. First time, he hit the shoulder blade, then finally killed Greenoll with a second blow at the heart.

Smith then set about the plan which he thought would clear him of the deed, dragging the body down to the cellar, and placing it in the shallow grave, which he smoothed over with a plasterer’s trowel, then shook ‘shellinges’ from the bales of linen flax he kept down there all over the floor, finally placing ‘drifats and chests’ over the fresh and shallow grave. Smith then meticulously washed the house clear of bloodstains, and dried where he had cleaned.

[A ‘dryfat’ is ‘A large vessel (cask, barrel, tub, case, box, etc.) used to hold dry things (as opposed to liquids’, those ‘shellings’ are the pods which would have held the seeds of the flax, i.e., linseed OED.]

At this point, Smith started to behave like a man who now wanted to be caught for his crime he had just committed. He has already told the local night-watchman, ‘See and see not’, and on this slender security he took Greenoll’s keys and robbed his shop: the stolen goods he placed in his own house.

On the next morning, Greenoll’s shop was found to have been robbed, and inquiry was made as to ‘who was abroade that nighte that might be suspected, because of the Playe that was in the Towne’ (one notices again this extreme caution about having a play performed in the community!). The watchman says Thomas Smith was 'abroad somewhat late', and that Smith had sent him that inexplicable watch word, ‘see and see not’.

Smith was fetched in, to be asked where Greenoll was, because there was already “A shrewd presumption against him to be somewhat faultie in the matter”. The authorities say that they will search Smith’s house. Smith says his house cannot be searched, as his wife is away in King’s Norton with the keys “but (quoth he) if you will search my Sellar you maye and so tooke the keyes from his girdle and threw them unto them”.

The insane bravado of this suggestion led to the unravelling of Smith’s crime. The search party at first found nothing. Curiously, there seems to be no inclination to break into the house itself, despite the implausibility of Smith’s claim about being left locked out (apart from the cellarage). But as they are about to give up, one of them sees “A little piece of earth, as it were new broken out of the grounde, lying under the nethermost staire”. They decide they must investigate more closely to find where this fresh soil might have come from, move the chests and dryfats, beneath them, they found the ground to be soft, where digging, “Presently they found Greenoll buryed, not past six or seven inches deepe”.

By the earnest entreaty of his friends, Smith was not hanged in chains, but hanged to death, and afterwards simply buried. The pamphleteer observes that we must shun “Repining at our neighbours prosperity”, and says of Smith’s crime amidst this anxiously Christian community, full of alarm at allowing a play to be performed, that “the verie conceite whereof is able to astonish the heart of a Jew, or a Mahomitans recreant”.

To come to Mistress Beast at last, Greenoll's death was not the only murder in the vicinity of Worcester: in the same year, at Cothridge, west of the city, an honest husbandman named Thomas Beast had in his house a handsome serving man called Christopher Thomson. In time, Mistress Beast decided that she preferred Christopher to her husband, and, as the pamphlet disapprovingly puts it, “often times they would carnally acquaint them selves together”. With “the Neighbours not suspecting, but credibly perceiving, the common and unhonest behaviour of this wicked woman and her lusty yonker”, Thomas Beast eventually was apprised of what was going on under his nose. He told the servant to leave, but his wife intervened, and somehow persuaded her husband to keep the man on. The affair then continued until Mistress Beast decided that ‘her sweet dallying friend’ must kill her husband, “whereto a great while he would not consent”.

Here’s the full extent of her reported thinking about getting Thomson off from the charge of murder: ‘with mony and friends I will warrant thee to save thy life, and then thou and I will live merrily together”. The narrator, who seems to be local enough to know something about these people, interjects in horror: “Oh most horrible and wicked Womon, a woman, nay a devil: stop your eares you chaste and grave matrons, whome Gods feare, dutie, true love to your husbandes, and verture of your selves hath so beautified as nothing can be more odious unto you, then such a graceless strumpet should be found, so much to dishonour your notable sexe.”

Finally, fired by her implausible persuasion that he could get away with the crime, the credulous and love-smitten Christopher solemnly promised over a cup of posset that he would carry out the murder. As the murder weapon, he first took a long pike - hardly the least conspicuous of weapons to be wandering around with - but his mistress gave him instead a woodman’s tool, a “Forrest Bil, which she her self had made very sharp”.

Thus equipped, Thomson went and found his master ploughing in a field, started a quarrel, and killed him with a single blow. Thomson fled the scene of the crime, but was soon caught, and was taken to Worcester Castle, where in a brief recognition of the depth of trouble he was in, he exclaimed against his mistress, ‘how she was cause that he committed the deed.”

Mistress Beast was also arrested, but somehow contrived to bombard her lover in his cell with gifts of “Mony, handkerchers, nosegays, and such like amorous and loving tokens”.

Perhaps both of them, faced with inevitable and dreadful punishment for their crime, took refuge in a strange amatory fantasy world: “he besotted in his naughtie affection … made a triumphe, as it were, in carrying a locke of her haire about him, & would sit kissing and delighting in any token she sent him: beside, one day he desired the jaylor, that if he were a man, or one that regarded the extreme afflictions of those, whom the tyranny of love possessed, that he wold doo so much for him, to rip foorth the hart of him, & cleaving the same in sunder, he should there behold the lively Image of his sweet mistresse (as the cheefest Jewell he had) hee desired him to make a present of that precious token.”

This kind of talk to a jailor, in an age when executioners would chop out the hearts of some malefactors, brings to mind the grotesque literalism of John Fletcher’s Memnon, in the play, The Mad Lover, who decides to send his beloved Callis his heart, and commissions a surgeon to do the necessary operation.

The authorities might have been tempted, but they didn’t take Christopher Thomson at his word. He was simply taken out of jail and hanged where he did the murder, then his body was drawn on a hurdle round Worcester, and finally hanged in chains at Cothridge.

Mistress Beast was drawn on a hurdle to a field just outside Evesham, and burned at the stake.

1582, Worcestershire: who would have thought conceits about having the image of your beloved in your heart would be so important to a servant and his mistress? Sidney is perhaps writing Astrophel and Stella, but love poetry seems to be already received by the audience who are, as it were, waiting for his works. Against this, in the Smith-Greenoll case, the reservations of the Evesham civic authorities about festivity and plays: dangerous stuff, imaginative writing or performance.

My image is part of a woodcut in Thomas Cooper, The cry and reuenge of blood, 1620 - the familiar trio of victim, murderer, and instigating devil.


Serendipity said...

Fascinating! I really enjoyed this one. (Bonus points for the Fletcher reference. :-) )

Gaenor Burchett-Vass said...

I read this! (What is 'office marmalade', by the way?)