Because of Frank Thorney in The Witch of Edmonton, I have been thinking about exemplary penitence in early modern culture, and the way the felon who, accepting their punishment as just, and making all the right noises about contrition, is rehabilitated by a communal forgiveness (where ‘forgiveness’ means not remission of punishment, but assurances from the spiritual leaders of the community that they can die with some certainty of not being damned).
The case I’ve found as a historical parallel is that of Nathaniel Butler, who in 1657 perpetrated a brutal murder, attacking his sleeping bedfellow, a nineteen year old apprentice named John Knight. The motive was nothing to do with sex, or shame: nobody in any of the pamphlets about the case finds anything unusual about two young men sharing a bed. Rather, John Knight had been left in charge of his master’s business, a silk mercery, and Butler had seen just how much money was in the till. Knight had invited Butler to stay with him because he didn’t want to be alone with the responsibility of holding the keys to the till.
Only Knight knew that Butler was in the premises: Butler been leaving his own master’s house on the quiet, and had come and gone late and early to spend the nights with Knight. Again, this surreptitious aspect to his behaviour sprang, as far as you can tell, from not being under his own master’s roof at night.
It should also be said that Butler may have had a reputation as a bad sort, exactly the wrong sort of companion for a trusted apprentice. He had twice been moved on (‘turned over’ is the expression used), master to master. For a young male inhabitant of Oliver Cromwell’s London, Butler was managing to live a surprisingly rakish life, drinking and visiting brothels: “He lived in Fornication, frequenting the company and the Houses of Harlots”, asserted Samuel Ward in a later work, A Warning-piece to all drunkards and health-drinkers. He financed this way of carrying on by befriending other apprentices (who, in their trammelled lives, might have found a wicked friend intensely stimulating). Soon his friends or victims would be robbing the shop to fund their interesting new life with young Nathaniel.
I do recognise that part of the way Butler could tell his story was as a journey from what John Ford had Frank Thorney call the 'abyss' back to salvation, Butler might well have played up his vices as part of that narrative, as when he "condemned himself in his general ill led life, as having been addicted to gaming, drinking, and abusing himself with women, and other vices whereto the Devil had inured him, in order to this his black or rather bloody sin of Murder. He hath been often heard to cry out of his too licentious course of life, And as oft hath he cried out of the sight of the money, which led him into the snare of temptation to this vile Act." (A Full and the truest narrative of the most horrid, barbarous and unparalled murder, p.9. A word or two may have dropped from the text, the devil inuring him to vice in order to lead to his black or rather bloody sin of murder.)
The murder was most foul. Butler had seen two bags of full of money (there was £110) in the till on Tuesday, and had been brooding about getting his hands on it. During the daylight hours of Wednesday, August 5th, Knight and he had a ‘morning draught’ together at The Black Swan, and agreed to spend the afternoon fishing. Knight bought Butler a rod. They went fishing, having bought bread bait at a tavern called The Sun, from 2pm till 5pm. Then, “We appointed to meet together at eight of the clock that night, which we did at Honey-lane end, and thence went into Fish-street to the Maiden-head, and drunk three half pints of Sack, and eat a piece of Salmon of twelve pence.”
After briefly going back to his own lodgings, Butler was hiding in the warehouse when the silk merchant’s premises were locked up at 10pm. In Knight’s bed, Butler could not sleep: “I made proffer many a time with my knife to the intent to cut John's throat, and once put my knife up again: And between three and four of the clock, on Thursday morning, I took my knife and cut his Mouth to his Ear, at which he shrieked out and cried Murder. Then I put my right hand into his Mouth, and so lay struggling together for about half an hour, and at length I strangled him: after which I looked about the Chamber, and the Devil instigated me to cut his Throat, which I did with my right hand, we being both naked.
Then I slipped off my bloody Shirt, and wiped the blood off me, and put on my clothes, and having taken the Keys of the Till, where the money lay, out of John's pocket: I brought down my bloody shirt, and laid it on the Counter in the shop, and opened the Till and took out two Bags of money, and went away with them, leaving the Keys in the Till, and the shop door open standing a char.”
The murderous assault did not leave Butler unscathed: when the normal business of Thursday morning started: “A sad spectacle is discovered by a bloody shirt found (lying on the Counter in the Shop in the morning,) by the maid servant of the house, who presently called in some of the neighbours, who going to the chamber where the Apprentice lay, they found him lying with his feet on a corner of the bolster, and his head towards the lower end of the bed, in gore blood, and with a lock of hair in his right hand, and some scattering hairs were found in his left-hand also; they were all struck with amazement! The house is raised! The neighbourhood called in! A tumult about the door! The murder visible! The Murderer unknown and escaped in the morning, presently after the fact.”(A Full and the truest narrative, p.3.)
The various approved narratives of the killing stress that Butler was then incapacitated by guilt, conscience-stricken by what he has done. He did, despite this assertion, buy himself a new trunk, and had locked the two bags of money in it, but he stayed under his master’s roof. Back at Mr Worth’s shop, everybody in the neighbourhood queued up the stairs to view the victim’s body. A young man volunteered that he saw Knight fishing with another youth, not known to him, the day before. Asked to describe this person’s clothing, the witness unluckily described clothes exactly as worn by a young man who happened to be peeping round the door, who was seized and questioned.
Then a neighbour’s servant named Butler as an acquaintance of Knight, not as a suspect, but as someone who might know more about other acquaintances of the dead apprentice. Those sent to find Butler found him in a shop in Bread Street, and “asking him whether he knew one John Knight, he being as it seems smitten in his own heart, faltered in his speech, & made out of the shop with a dejected Countenance; at first denying that he knew him, but presently after confessed that he did know him; whereupon they asked him to accompany them to Milk-street? but he pretended businesse and said he could not go then, and went his way: In this discourse with him, having perceived his hands to be scratched, they began to be suspicious of him, so that they followed him at a distance, till they saw him in his Masters house in Carter lane.”
When this was reported back, one of the marshal’s men was sent to detain Butler at his master’s house in Carter Lane. He was brought to the scene of his crime without him making any resistance “where he was caused to be stripped, and in searching him, his Leather Drawers were found to be bloody, and some blood about his Clothes; also stains of blood on his Stockings, which with the scratches on his Face and Hands, were strong presumptions, that he had a hand in this Murder, with which he being charged, several times denied. During the time of this search of him, the Marshal of this City with another Gentleman went down to his Masters house, and enquiring for Butler's Trunk, a new Trunk was shewed them, which being instantly broke open, they therein found two Bags of money, one of which Bags had Mr. Worth’s Mark on it, which being brought by the Marshal to Mr. Worth’s house, and being thrown down upon a Table with acclamation! that they had not only found out the Murderer, but the money also: The Marshal’s man then called for a Cord, wherewith he bound his Hands; Some of his Hair being plucked off to be compared with the Hair which was found in the young man’s hand that was Murdered; and being ready to carry him away: He then began in a crying manner to Confess; the Coroner and some of the Jury with two Constables being present, he began by degrees to acknowledge one thing after another; and at last confessed the whole Murder, and the manner thereof before them.”
So much for the murder: Butler’s trial was a formality, his death sentence inevitable.
This is the entry in the newsletter, Mercurius Politicus for the week of August 13th-20th:
At his trial, Butler confessed everything: his only plea to the court was that he be given more time to repent. It was objected by the Lord Mayor himself that he had given poor Knight no chance to die having purged his soul of sins. Nevertheless, Butler’s plea was upheld. One by one, divine by divine, then in numbers, clerics and chaplains came to his cell in Newgate. This mobilisation apparently stemmed from moral alarm at the bloodiness of this crime in Oliver Cromwell’s God-fearing London. In 1657, they were near enough in time to earlier habits of discourse to be shocked by a crime against friendship, but there’s also a real sense that they felt a money-motivated murder just ought not to be happening. Butler had revealed to them a worrying vision of apparently integrated and virtuous young men, London apprentices stealing from their masters to finance a range of urban debaucheries that ought not to be there. Butler represents a malaise: so he had to be turned into a figure of reclaimed godliness. One of the pamphlets says that "he hath declared some of his Complices, and what an ill instrument he had been for them, with their wicked practices in wronging of their Masters, and many other things tending to their Masters wrong, and their own ruins; which in time will be further enquired into." But that sounds like a vague assurance, half-expressive of a reluctance to find more trouble than is necessary. The main aim was getting Butler's life told to proper and instructive effect.
The Puritans set to work on him. Randolph Yearwood, the Lord Mayor’s chaplain, recounts how Butler needed to move beyond simply acknowledging his sins, to a full understanding of his sinful nature:
“At my first Conference with him which was about five or six days after his Condemnation, I found him very ready to acknowledge his actual sins, and to charge himself with them and the aggravations that did accompany them, and this with sad tears of complaint, and indignation against himself and his sins; but did take no notice of his sinful Nature; Which myself and a Friend with me (Mr Griffith of the Charter house) perceiving, We endeavoured by Scripture to shew him his sinful Nature, as the Root of all his sinful actions.”
This seems curious, or unexpected. 'Actual sin' is a technical theological term, and in the OED ("after post-classical Latin peccatum actuale ...Theol. sin committed through a person's own actions; opposed to original sin"). But it makes me see that Frank Thorney in the play, who talks so thoroughly about his accumulated sin from his earliest years, while barely saying anything in the way of pertinent regret and contrition for the dreadful killing he perpetrated, is conforming to the same type of idea: your larger and innate sinfulness is as important a priority as the specific sin in your specific crime, or maybe even more important. Once you acknowledge your 'sinful nature', then you can realise your utter dependence on divine grace, and so proceed towards salvation.
The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Robert Titchbourne, himself visited Butler’s cell four days after the murder, to instruct him. The Lord Mayor contributed to one of the pamphlets describing the case and its outcome: part of Yearwood's The Penitent Murderer is "under his Lordships own hand."
This mobilisation, born of a desire to control ad manage this piece of news, explains is why there is such an emphasis within the surviving pamphlets on how London readers must not pay attention to sensational, lying, slanderous pamphlets and ballads that have been published. (A Full and the truest narrative of the most horrid, barbarous and unparalled murder, committed on the person of John Knight was “Published after many Lying and false Relations both before and since his Death, with a detection of many lies and absurdities; and that the truth may be known.”) The story has to be a victory for faith, a re-assertion of civic order, not a fictionalised and sensationalised tale of gore. Of the pamphlets vilified by the various chaplains and Puritan divines dealing with the good outcome of this murder, I can only find Heavens cry against murder. Or, a true relation of the the bloudy & unparallel'd murder of John Knight. This would seem to be a plausible account of events, but was vehemently accused of various inaccuracies, such as impugning the probity of Butler’s father, asserting that the two young men had been baptised in the same font, and even alleging that Butler paid his master Mr Goodday half a crown a day to employ a journeyman to work in his place so that “he might have the more freedom of excess and riot”, adding “('Tis the more pity and misery, that such base gifts should blind a Master’s eyes and judgement too)”. I think this pamphleteer went too far in spreading blame to the senior adult generation. The convincing details in the pamphlet are probably novelistic in nature (the writer imagines that Butler turned up at Knight's funeral, and gave himself away). The author certainly spins out his sketchy knowledge of the events with not very illuminating moralisations about the evil of murder, which fill most of the little book.
Meanwhile, in the newsletter, Mercurius Politicus, a series of adverts announced the forthcoming approved version:
In his last fortnight, Butler became more and more the exemplary instance of the sinner reclaimed. His various counsellors express extraordinary confidence about his chance of salvation. Randolph Yearwood told the Lord Mayor, his patron, that “I verily believe you will see him yet once more; not as a Malefactor in an obscure disparaging Goal, but as an Angel of God in the Kingdom of Christ, whither (I am confident) he is gone, and you are going.” J.D. began his Blood washed away by tears of repentence with a letter to Butler, which he then took to the prison, paid his fee to enter, and delivered to the malefactor
In this febrile atmosphere, heady with repentance and a sense of the sinner reclaimed, the young man himself appears hysterically joyful, eager for the scaffold. This is the account of his last night, from Yearwood's The penitent murderer - "Evangelical joy" was an expression of approval used from 1617 onwards.
"About five a clock he fell into such a rapture and extasie of consolation as I never saw, nor (I believe) any of my fellow-Spectators; for he would shout for joy that the Lord should look on such a poor vile creature as he was: He often cried out, and made a noise, and indeed did not know how to express, and signifie fully enough his inward sense of Gods favour, saying, Must he be an heir, an heir of God, and a joint-heir with Jesus Christ, a fellow Citizen with the Saints, &c.He could not bear such a glorious discovery. Now that his joy was right Evangelical joy, appeareth thus, in that mourning and bitterness went before it; yea, he rejoiced with trembling, and could exceedingly often say that he would yet have a deeper, and a more thorough sense of sin; he could never be sufficiently abased before the Lord.Now the time was at hand that he should be carried forth to Execution, but he thought it was not near enough; for he asked several times, What a clock is it? I demanded why he enquired so concerning the time of the day? Would you gladly die? said I. Yes, yes, saith he, I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ which is best of all."
One can note that the forgiveness is determined and led by the Puritan divines, in charge of community response. In the present day, perpetrators of awful crimes are expected to exhibit remorse, and the reactions to that remorse by friends or family of the victim is faithfully reported. Among all these pamphlets, I have not seen any indication of what poor Knight’s family thought about the murderer. Their opinion was not sought, not important.
In that bible-addled age, it only needed a platform for almost any person to set up as amateur preacher: the scaffold was one, the demonically possessed also tend to embark on emulations of the sermonising to which they had always been exposed. Butler did his best, trying to address the vast crowd that gathered to see him hanged from papers, and going on in sweaty terror and exultation for over an hour, before being asked to abbreviate and cease reading out from his papers what was anyway inaudible to most. Butler found further favour by officiously denouncing ‘papists’ who had visited him in prison, which he alleges they did to put the argument to him that only the true Catholic church could absolve his crime. Butler further asserted that among such visitors were ‘papist’ ladies. Anyone who paid the fee to the gaoler was admitted, and the thought of such a propaganda coup, executed right under Cromwell’s nose, as Butler’s late conversion and embrace of Rome may indeed have induced such an attempt, whatever its risks.
This is the first report of the murder I have discussed, from the newsletter (Mercurius Politicus) of the same week:
That is the bare report, unadorned, un-spun. There's little about it to suggest what an outpouring would follow:
One of the famous books of the age was John Reynolds' big anthology of stories in The triumphs of Gods revenge against the crying and execrable sin of murther. There had been an edition in 1656, but a new one appeared in 1657. The title page seems to have been augmented from a relatively plain
to one that didn't simply point to murders abroad, but acknowledged trouble at home: "histories which contain great variety of mournful and memorable accidents, historical, moral, and divine, very necessary to restrain and deter us from the bloody sin, which in these our days makes so ample, and large a progression". That would, I think, be Butler.
The quarto of The Witch of Edmonton was printed in 1658. I've often wondered why then, in that particular year, and very tentatively wonder now whether Frank Thorney didn't come into somebody's memory, triggering the thought that there had been a play with a very penitent murderer in it (and that type of person sold well).