The hanging of Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre: Henry VIII and the abuse of law

On our blog today Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1461-1504 project, looks into the landmark case of Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre, the first peer to be executed for an offence other than treason. But what led to this sentence and was it deserved?

The hanging of Thomas Dacre, Lord Fiennes, on 29 June 1541 has a particular and important place in English legal history: he is the first parliamentary peer to be executed for any offence short of treason. In the later medieval period peers and others of nearly equivalent rank had enjoyed a near-immunity from the full penalties of the law in respect of felony. Indictment was rare, and, when it occurred, was overcome by suing out a pardon from the Crown. In this sense, Dacre’s execution was a very marked departure from what had gone before, and some historians have seen it as a welcome assertion by the Tudor state that the extremes of aristocratic violence would no longer be tolerated. Such a positive conclusion, whatever other objections might be made to it, ignores the fact that Dacre’s execution was (on the face of it) a significant act of injustice, and was recognised as such by contemporaries. Although the forms of the law were outwardly followed, they were manipulated to deprive him and his co-accused of the best means of defence. One must doubt whether the purpose of this manipulation was to demonstrate the state’s new intolerance of aristocratic violence.

Mary Neville, Lady Dacre, with a Portrait of Her First Husband, Thomas Fiennes (1515-1541), 9th Lord Dacre; Hans Eworth; National Trust, The Vyne, via ArtUK

Before its disastrous and premature end, there had been nothing exceptional about Dacre’s career. He had succeeded to the title on the death of his grandfather in 1533, when he was about 17. His very brief political life began as one of the jurors at the trial of Anne Boleyn in May 1536 and ended when he was one of the lords who greeted a new queen, Anne of Cleves, on her arrival in England on 31 December 1539. His downfall began, if the indictment taken against him before the Sussex justices of the peace is to be taken at face value, in a plan, concocted on 20 April 1541 in his castle of Herstmonceaux, to hunt in the park of Nicholas Pelham (later MP for Arundel and Sussex) at Laughton about nine miles away. Such raids were a routine part of aristocratic life, but this one was to go very badly wrong.

On 30 April the plan was put into action with the raiding party divided into two. Unfortunately, the one led by Dacre encountered three of Pelham’s servants at Hellingly, about four miles along their route to Laughton. Presumably Pelham had received some forewarning of Dacre’s intentions and had sent a group to deter the raiders. A quarrel predictably ensued, and one of Pelham’s men was wounded. Two days later he died of his injuries. When the county’s j.p.s met on the following 31 May there seems to have been some disagreement on the way to proceed, for the grand jury asked for a delay in presenting their indictment. At this point there came the first indication that the offence was to be treated with an unaccustomed severity. When the j.p.s reconvened on 11 June they were afforced by the presence of Sir Humphrey Browne, one of the King’s serjeants-at law and a justice of assize. The grand jury laid an indictment that put the crime in the most damning light: the conspiracy of 20 April was said not simply to have been to hunt illicitly but to kill anyone who stood in the conspirators’ way; and all eight of those in Dacre’s party were indicted for murder with no division, as was usual in such indictments, between principals, in other words, those who dealt the fatal blow or blows, and accessories. Further, the usual delays in sending the indictment into the court of King’s Bench did not ensue. Browne himself brought the indictment into the court on 20 June. 

Herstmonceux Castle

Although these legal proceedings were carried through with unusual dispatch, there was nothing in them that stood outside common-law process. The abuse of process, however, is clearly apparent when Dacre’s servants came to answer the indictment only three days later. One of them, the fortunate John Cheyne, son of Sir Thomas Cheyne, treasurer of the royal household, pleaded a pardon of the same date. In the normal course of events, the others would have either done the same or, in the absence of a pardon, put themselves to jury trial. Yet, inexplicably, five pleaded guilty, thus forgoing the strong chance of acquittal that a trial by a Sussex jury would have given them; and, even more irregularly, another, John Mauntell, Dacre’s brother-in-law and one of the King’s gentlemen pensioners, put himself on a jury but then followed his five fellows in changing his plea to guilty. All six were thus sentenced to hang. One can only speculate as to why they acted so contrary to their own interests, but there can be no doubt that their guilty pleas were designed to prepare the way for their master’s downfall, for they informed, disastrously as it transpired, his conduct at his own trial four days later.

KB29/174, rot. 13 entry on controlment roll for Trinity term 1541 noting that the indictment against Fiennes had been sent before the Lord High Steward (that is, before the peers) for termination

A unique source survives for that trial in a letter written by William Paget, clerk of the privy council, to another senior royal servant, Sir Thomas Wriothesley. He happened to overhear, albeit through two closed doors, the deliberations of 17 peers as they prepared to try Dacre. Several of them were reluctant to find him guilty of wilful murder, with one, George Brooke, Lord Cobham, ‘vehement and stiff’ in his opposition to such a conviction. Unfortunately, Paget could not hear how agreement was, ‘suddenly and softly’, reached, but his implication is that the peers had agreed on a verdict, whether guilty or not guilty, in advance of the trial. Paget then went on to observe the trial. Dacre defended himself, denying murder ‘with long circumstances’, but, ‘by the inducement of the confession of the rest already condemned, declared unto him by the judge’, he changed his plea to guilty. The jury of peers were thus relieved of the responsibility of giving a verdict, and there must be a suspicion that the whole process was stage-managed to bring about that result. Dacre’s servants were persuaded to plead guilty to undermine his defence, and that he, either bowing to the inevitable or, as Paget surmised, expecting (or, at least, hoping) for a pardon, unwisely put himself at the King’s mercy.

That pardon did not come despite representations made to the King by the privy council. Three of those whose pleas of guilty had helped provoke Dacre’s own were more fortunate, joining Cheyne in receiving pardons. This serves to emphasise the arbitrariness with which the unfortunate Dacre was treated. On 29 June, only nine days after the indictment against him, had been delivered into King’s Bench, he was hanged as a common criminal at Tyburn.

It is impossible to be certain of what lay behind this sorry episode. If Fiennes was hanged for what amounted to the manslaughter of a gamekeeper, his execution marked a repudiation of the norms that had previously governed the punishment of aristocratic crime. It may, however, be that his crime was the pretext for rather than the cause of his execution. Had, one wonders, he come under suspicion of treason, perhaps conspiring with Mauntell, another of those executed, who, as one of the gentlemen pensioners, was close to the King. There is no evidence that this was the case, but it does serve as an alternative explanation for this puzzling episode.


Further reading

For the indictment against Dacre, Paget’s letter, and process against his servants: Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of Henry VIII, xvi. nos. 931-2; TNA, King’s Bench plea roll,  KB27/1120, rex rot. 4.

I am grateful to Prof. G.W. Bernard for his advice.

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