Last year Dr Simon Payling from our Commons 1461-1504 project explored the case of the first peer to be executed of a crime short of treason. In today’s blog Dr Payling turns his attention to the second peer to face this punishment. But, this time, was the sentence deserved?
The fate of Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre, in 1541, the first peer to be executed for an offence short of treason, evokes sympathy from the modern observer, both as a punishment out of proportion to his crime (which fell far short of wilful murder) and for the abuse of process required to deprive him of the chance of acquittal by his peers. It is, however, hard to feel any sympathy for the second peer to face the same fate, namely Charles, Lord Stourton, sixteen years later. Here we are fortunate to have a lengthy narrative, compiled very soon after the murders of William Hartgill and his son, John, by one who had access to eye-witness testimony. Although the anonymous author was seemingly a servant of Stourton (whom he refers to several times as ‘my Lorde’), he makes no attempt to conceal the magnitude of his master’s crime, notable, as it was, for its duplicity and barbarity.
The immediate context of the murders was the degeneration of a relationship that had once been close. Charles’s father, William, had employed William Hartgill as his steward, but, towards the end of his life, he had come to distrust him. In a letter written shortly before his death in 1548, he reproached Hartgill for seeking ‘youre owne gayne more than my comodytie and honor’. The first serious outbreak of violence came at Whitsuntide 1550 when the new Lord Stourton’s servants besieged William Hartgill and his wife in the tower of the church of Kilmington, for which offence Stourton was briefly imprisoned in the Fleet. Thereafter, he continued to harry the Hartgills, plundering their corn and cattle and organising a vicious assault on John Hartgill. These oppressions attracted the attention of the privy council which condemned him in heavy damages of nearly £400. On Monday 11 January 1557 Stourton enticed the Hartgills to a meeting at Kilmington church on the pretext of paying them this sum. At first this meeting was a public one, for Stourton came not only with a group of his servants, numbering about 15, but also with a larger group of local gentry to the number of about 60. When all were gathered, Stourton, instead of paying the damages, arrested the Hartgills on a spurious charge of felony and so seriously assaulted the younger Hartgill’s wife ‘so as in three howres the companye had moch to doo to kepe lyfe in her’. The public forum of the arrest was a curious mode of proceeding if the purpose was murder; none the less, the author of the narrative was in no doubt that the murders were premeditated. He tells us that, once Stourton had William and John Hartgill in his custody, he sent away his servants save ‘soch as he had especially appointed for the murder’.
The murders themselves appear to have been particularly brutal. At about 11 p.m. on 12 January the bound prisoners were beaten with clubs in a close next to Stourton’s manor house at Stourton, two miles from Kilmington, and then, when this did not extinguish life, they had their throats cut in the manor house itself with Stourton standing by with ‘a candel in his hande’. The bodies were then buried in a cellar and every effort made to conceal them. The narrative implies that Stourton feared betrayal by his own servants, and the fact that the sheriff, Sir Anthony Hungerford, was later able to exhume the bodies, even after they had been buried under rubble, shows that at least one of those present gave evidence against their master. Indeed, the narrator of the account, drawing on this information, not only describes the method of murder but also part of the conversation in the aftermath. One of the perpetrators is said to have told his master, ‘Ah my Lorde! This is a pytiouse sight: hadde I thought that I now thincke, before the thing was doon, your hole land could not have woon me to consent to soch an acte’. To which Stourton darkly replied, ‘What, fainte harted knave! Ys yt anny more then the rydding of two knaves that lyving were troublesome bothe to Goddes lawe and man’s? There is no more accoumpt to bee made of them than the kylling of ij sheep’.
With the facts of the offence against him so unimpeachable, Stourton was proceeded against with expedition. His status as a peer, his office as lord lieutenant of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, and his strong Catholic affiliations under a Catholic queen, provided him with no protection. On 28 January he was committed to the Tower and soon after brought before the council and asked where the Hartgills were. Here he had no plausible lie: he had arrested and openly mistreated them in the presence of members of the local gentry. He lamely replied that he had committed them to the constable and they must have escaped. On 19 February he was indicted before the Wiltshire j.p.s sitting at Salisbury, and a week later he was tried by his peers in Westminster Hall. He initially refused to plead but changed his mind when threatened with the penalty of forte et dure (in others words, being loaded with weights until he either died or pleaded, the standard penalty for such refusers). After his inevitable conviction, he was taken to Salisbury where, on 6 March, he was executed in the market place.
Stourton appears to have been a man of fairly repulsive character. Even his father had nothing good to say about him. In a letter to Thomas, Lord Cromwell, in 1539 he described his son as a ‘false hypocrite’ worthy of imprisonment in King’s Bench or the Marshalsea. The author of the narrative was even less appreciative, remarking, aside from the murders, his ‘other routs, ryottes, robberyes and murdres yt wer to long to wright’. This, however, is not to say that his crimes, at least those against the Hartgills, were committed without considerable provocation. The Hartgills were described by one of their neighbours in 1540 as ‘quarrelsome men of evil reputation’, and Stourton seems to have good grounds for the belief that the older Hartgill had exploited his early connexion with the family to defraud them. None the less, these provocations can be cited in explanation but not justification of the murders. So extreme was the offence that Stourton’s baronial status may not have protected him even in an earlier age where there was a greater tolerance of aristocratic crime.
S J P
Rev. Canon J.E. Jackson, ‘Charles, Lord Stourton, and the Murder of the Hartgills’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, VIII (1864), pp. 242-336.
J.G. Bellamy, Strange, Inhuman Deaths: Murder in Tudor England (2005), pp. 141-67.