The murder of Speaker Tresham

A 15th century murder mystery features in this week’s blogpost. Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, investigates the murder of Commons’ Speaker William Tresham…

In tymes paste one Willyam Tresham …cumming from Northampton toward Siwelle, and saying his matens, was cruelly slayne by one Salisbyri and Glin of Wales, servantes to the Lorde Gray of Ruthyne, with their route. This William had a route of servantes cumming by chaunce half a myle behynd him, and they hering the scry cam and cut of eche end of the spere yn hym, bringging hym bak to Northampton, where after the truncheon was pullid out he dyed.

So the Tudor antiquary, John Leland, writing some 80 years after the event, described the murder in 1450 of William Tresham, one of the most important parliamentarians of the fifteenth century. As a lawyer in the service of the Crown, Tresham had acted as the Speaker in as many as four Parliaments, and his long career had made him rich. When it began, as a minor official in the Exchequer in the 1410s, he had been nearly landless; by the time of his murder a series of land purchases funded by the profits of service had made him one of the principal gentry landholders in Northamptonshire.

The best source for the circumstances of his murder is a petition presented by his widow in the first session of the Parliament which met on 6 November 1450. His death, she claimed, was the result of a conspiracy headed by a local gentleman, Simon Norwich. On the evening of 22 September, the conspirators, having discovered that Tresham had been summoned by Richard, duke of York, sent a servant to visit him at his manor of Sywell, a few miles from Northampton, to find out his proposed route and time of travel. Armed with this knowledge, they ambushed him at six on the following morning at Moulton as he travelled from Sywell to meet the duke (Leland, clearly drawing upon a family tradition, erroneously has him travelling from Northampton to Sywell). There one Evan Aprice ‘with a Launcegay, smote [him] thorough the body a fote and more, wherof he died’.

What brought about this brutal conclusion to a remarkably successful career? It is tempting to see Tresham’s death in the context of the political crisis of 1450 and the murders earlier in the year of several high-ranking figures identified with the regime of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, which had dominated Henry VI’s government in the late 1440s. Suffolk himself was among the victims. Yet, although Tresham had prospered under that regime, he was not as clearly identified as its agent as the other victims of 1450. Further, he also had connexions with the opposition to it, notably with the duke of York. Strikingly he had been the Speaker in the Parliament of November 1449, when the Commons launched an intemperate attack on Suffolk and forced the King to exile him. There is no reason to suppose Tresham led that attack, but his role in that Parliament is unlikely to have won him opprobrium in the public mind. His widow’s claim that he had been murdered as he went to meet the duke of York suggests the alternative explanation that he was killed not by the many enemies of Suffolk’s government as its supporter but by its few friends as its betrayer. York had, earlier in September, returned from Ireland, where he held office as the King’s lieutenant, and was engaged in rallying support in advance of a new Parliament called to meet in November. His summons of Tresham was no doubt part of that process. Was Norwich acting as a supporter of Suffolk’s deposed government to prevent that meeting?

Other evidence suggests a more mundane explanation for Tresham’s murder. In 1429, as a baby, Simon Norwich had fallen heir to a significant Northamptonshire estate. Tresham was one of the trustees in that estate, bound to surrender it to the heir when he came of age. This Tresham had refused to do, and Norwich, fearing disinheritance, resorted to extreme measures to make good his title. The context of the murder was thus more personal than political, and this explains its rather curious aftermath. Even by the lax standards of the time, with fatalities in the course of property disputes seen as merely the unfortunate manifestations of mutual hostility, the murder of one of the most influential gentry in the realm appears to have generated remarkably little heat. No indictment was taken of the perpetrators immediately after the offence; and when one was eventually laid two years later, the indicting jury was concerned to exonerate the murder’s principal architect. It struck out the clauses in the bill of indictment that implicated Norwich. More curious still was the attitude of the widow. Her petition suggests that, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, she was ready to do all she could to bring the murderers to justice, and yet she quickly came to terms with Norwich. He appeared in the court of King’s bench to answer her petition, and the widow refused to pursue her action against him.

It thus seems that the murder was not, to say the least of it, a matter of outrage, perhaps because Tresham, described by one chronicler as ‘an extorcioner’, was considered to have brought his sad end upon himself. None the less, one mystery remains. If the murderous gang had been assembled by Norwich alone, it is unlikely to have included the Welshmen identified as the actual murderers, and Leland is correct in describing them as servants of Edmund, Lord Grey of Ruthin. Not only does a contemporary chronicler claim that Tresham was killed by Grey’s men but Norwich himself is known to have numbered among Grey’s retinue. What then was Grey’s part in the murder? Perhaps Norwich was simply exploiting his place in that lord’s service to assemble an armed band to pursue a private quarrel, but it may also be that Grey had his own reasons to resent Tresham. He may have distrusted the lawyer’s role as a trustee for the performance of the will of his grandfather, Reynold, Lord Grey (d.1440), and seen Tresham’s influence in Northamptonshire, a county in which he had substantial landed interests, as an impediment to his own. Even then if Grey was involved, the murder was personal rather than political. Yet it would be a mistake to see Tresham’s death entirely in isolation from the disordered state of English politics in 1450. On several important occasions in the decade that followed, as the nation descended into civil war, such tensions emboldened men to resort to extreme measures in the furtherance of their personal quarrels.

SJP

 

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