Star Chamber Stories: Using Criminal Law to Criminal Ends in Early Modern London

By Krista Kesselring; posted 5 April 2018.

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Murder, conspiracy, illicit sex – the Court of Star Chamber judges heard it all. One unusual, and unusually well-documented, case from 1611 highlights the dirt and scandal that attached itself to King James’s court as well as the thorough mixing of high and low, the ostensibly respectable and the more evidently roguish elements, so common in the vibrant and vice-ridden streets of early modern London.[1] Stemming from accusations about the murder of William Ryce, the ‘most devilish, detestable, and dangerous combination and conspiracy’ at the heart of the case also speaks to the very real dangers of giving private financial interests a stake in judicial processes.

In 1609, Henry Smith gathered an assortment of London citizens and neighbours to hear his confession. Professing himself near death and wanting to clear his conscience of a crime that had long troubled him, he told a shocking tale. Eighteen years previously he had taken a jug of poisoned beer to finish off one William Ryce, already ailing at a surgeon’s house in Chancery Lane after the removal of his ulcerated ‘privy member.’ Smith now said he’d been paid to kill Ryce by Sir Anthony Ashley, the clerk of the privy council and then an attendant upon Queen Elizabeth. Despite Ryce’s ‘disorderly behaviour and course of life, giving himself to follow the company of base and dishonest women’, he did still have property that he’d not yet gambled away: an inheritance that Ashley coveted and thought he could procure through his death. Hearing this tale, Ryce’s widow, Mary Blackford, immediately petitioned King James and implored the Lord Chief Justice to issue a special commission for the speedy trial of Smith and Ashley, before death could take away the chief witness to her late husband’s murder.

The problem? Smith’s confession was a pack of lies, with Blackford entirely complicit, all done at the behest of Sir James Creighton, one of the king’s Scottish servants. An indictment was drawn up against Ashley upon Mary Blackford’s suit and Smith’s confession, but before process could ensue, holes began to appear in Smith’s tale. For one, his recovery from the supposed near-death sickness that prompted his confession seemed suspiciously speedy. Ashley reportedly promised to bribe or to maim those who spread the story, which may also have helped chip away at it. And Mary Blackford was not just Ryce’s widow, but had also previously lived as Smith’s wife (until discovering that he had another wife yet living) and seems to have resumed relations with Smith after Ryce’s death. Most damningly, someone produced one of the written bonds prepared by Creighton, Smith, Blackford, and their confederates to divide up Ashley’s estate upon his conviction.

In these years, part of the punishment imposed upon criminals included the forfeiture of their goods and lands, which in turn became patronage perks given out by the Crown to favoured suitors.[2] Both Ashley and Creighton had made quite a business of petitioning the Crown for the forfeitures of felons’ property, but Creighton now promised his co-conspirators shares of the windfall to come to him upon Ashley’s anticipated conviction as an accessory to murder. Thankfully for Ashley, Creighton put this deal in writing.

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Further evidence came to light after Ashley launched his own suit in the Court of Star Chamber—a court largely staffed by members of the king’s privy council, the body on which Ashley had long served—accusing Creighton, Smith, Blackford, and twelve others of conspiracy to take away his life and goods through the false accusation.

Some of the most telling (and graphic) evidence concerned Ryce’s actual cause of death. A barber surgeon testified that he had heard from another surgeon that because of an ‘incurable ulcer of his yard’, Ryce’s penis had been removed. He himself saw Ryce’s corpse and the bandage covering his surgical wound shortly after his death. Given the recent surgery, no one then had suspected foul play, so no coroner was called, but he and two elderly women who served as ‘searchers of the dead’ had viewed the body and been satisfied that Ryce died from either the surgery or the underlying ailment. Others also testified to Ryce’s infirmity: John Tench knew Ryce from hanging about the fencing schools with him, and noted that Ryce had shown him his infected member even while boasting of his visits to the ‘threescore bawdy houses’ on Fetter Lane where he’d likely developed the problem. Ryce had complained, too, that his wife Mary was a ‘common harlot’ who continued to keep company with Henry Smith, in addition to running at least one brothel of her own. Evidence mounted, then, that Ryce had died of natural causes brought on by his sexual activities, not from murder.

So how, then, did Ryce’s death come to serve so many years later as the basis for a conspiracy to have Sir Anthony Ashley convicted of homicide? According to Ashley, Creighton came to hate him after losing out to him on a property deal worth some £400 per annum. Learning that Ashley had recently ceased his association with the disreputable runabout Henry Smith – described in the court’s final decree as ‘a most dissolute and vile person given to all filthiness and villainy’ and by a witness as ‘a most bad, lewd, and shifting fellow’ — Creighton turned to one John Bale, ‘a bankrupt weaver living about the City of London and a base and contemptible sort’, to introduce him to Smith in the hopes that he might put him to work. At that point, Smith was hiding in Lincolnshire to avoid arrest for various debts and misdemeanours. The promise of reward, and the chance to slight Ashley in turn, lured him back to London.

Lodging at the tavern of one Jane Dudley near Temple Bar, Smith, Bale, and others began to plot, with Creighton visiting to provide money and reassurances. Smith called upon his old paramour, and Ryce’s widow, Mary Blackford; she in turn called in other acquaintances for aid. Initially, Creighton asked Smith for evidence of any matter that might touch Ashley ‘in life or credit’, promising to pay off Smith’s debts and to secure him both a general pardon and a place in the King’s Guard. Smith’s friends encouraged him, noting that by his bounty he might help them all.

It seems that they initially tried blackmailing Ashley (then imprisoned in the Fleet for misdeeds of his own) with some story to which Smith was privy, but for obvious reasons neither Ashley nor the defendants in this case clarified the nature of this would-be blackmail plot. The conspirators talked then of accusing Ashley of sodomy with young boys, forging the seals of privy councillors, or entertaining Catholic priests. It may have been Blackford who came up with the idea of retrospectively making use of Ryce’s long ago untimely end. Ashley had known Ryce, having bargained with him for property. Ashley and Smith had also had a long history together.  If Smith was willing to craft his confession implicating Ashley, and willing to trust that Creighton could secure him a pardon, this might just work. When Smith hesitated – ‘will nothing serve their terms but that I must damn my soul to accuse Sir Anthony Ashley?’, he fretted — Creighton drafted the bonds that promised Smith and some of the others shares in the forfeitures he planned to get after Ashley’s execution. In a Bankside alehouse, with the services of a scrivener living near the Tower, the parties finalized their contract. Or so some witnesses deposed, at least.

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Sifting through the stories presented to them, the Star Chamber judges ultimately endorsed those that vindicated Ashley. While the king and his councillors may have had little compunction about using the law as a source of reward and favour themselves, they would use Star Chamber to try to stamp out graft and special dealing among others. Horrified by the particular inducement used to cement the conspiracy to have Ashley condemned for a murder that did not happen – the promise of a felon’s forfeitures – the judges deemed it ‘an offence of so heinous and odious nature as is detestable both to God and man, and of such dangerous consequence as is not tolerable in any well-governed commonwealth’.

As such, thoroughly exemplary punishment was needed to discourage any such activity in future. Star Chamber could not impose sentence of death, though. The judges sentenced the courtier Creighton to a £1000 fine and imprisonment in the Fleet at the king’s pleasure. The conspirators of lower status had corporal and shaming punishments added to their fines and imprisonment: one was to ride backward on a horse from the Fleet to Westminster and then to be set in the pillory and ‘burned in the face with hot irons’, with an F on the right cheek and a C on the left, for ‘False Conspirator’. Others, including Jane Dudley, the taverner who’d hosted the conspirators, were to be pilloried and led through all the courts at Westminster wearing papers that described their offences. They were also to be put in a special pillory to be purpose-built in Holborn by Ashley’s residence. They would never be allowed to act as witnesses in any court again, with their word no longer having any value in any cause whatsoever. The Court could not touch two of the key conspirators, though: while most everyone involved in this sorry saga had spent some time in one gaol or another, Henry Smith and Mary Blackford had died in theirs.

In legal circles, the case lived on as a precedent in dealing with criminal conspiracy, but it was by no means unique as an example of the lure of forfeitures in prompting false accusations.[3]  Perhaps this attempt to use criminal punishments to criminal ends ought also to have served as a precedent to warn of the dangers of mixing opportunities for private profit with ostensibly public systems of justice – a problem in our own day, too.[4]

Main image: from the title page of Thomas Harman’s The Groundworke of Conny-Catching (1592), courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Map images are taken from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s map of London, 1572, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[1] The bulk of the evidence for this case can be found in two substantial files held at The National Archives (Kew): STAC 8/41/3 and PRO 30/24/31/2, the former being a remarkably voluminous set of depositions and the latter a rare copy of a Star Chamber decree. On the mixing of high and low in early modern London, see especially Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). As he notes, despite the City leaders’ attempts to create sharp ‘ideological cuts’ to divide upright citizens from common criminals, the two groups formed overlapping circles rather than binary divides – a characterization very much on show in this episode.

[2] See, e.g., Kesselring, ‘Making Crime Pay: Felony Forfeiture and the Profits of Crime in Early Modern England’, Historical Journal, 53.2 (2010): 271-88.

[3] For a reference to this as a ‘grande case’ and precedent see British Library, Harley MS 1330, fol. 12d. For other examples of false accusations of a capital crime to secure the forfeitures, see, e.g., the Star Chamber cases reported in John Rushworth, Historical Collections of Private Passages of State, vol. 3: 1639-40 (8 vols., London, 1721), Star Chamber appendix, pp. 17, 19, 36-7.

[4] For a few examples of such problems today in the US, see, for a start, reports on the profits of bail-bond companies or the fee-based ‘video-visitation’ technology provided by private contractors (with contracts that sometimes ban in-person visits). The Prison Policy Initiative’s ‘Following the Money of Mass Incarceration’ Report provides further examples.



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