Crime In Tudor and Stuart Epsom and Ewell

Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
Sources for Epsom
and Ewell History

A Judge Riding a Horse
A Judge Riding a Horse

Twice a year, in every county town, the crowd fell back silently to see the judges arrive. They rode on fine horses, richly dressed in ermine and scarlet, and came with the power of life and death to punish offenders against the peace of the realm.

Assizes tried the most serious crimes in England from the late Middle Ages up until 1972, when they were replaced by the Crown Court. The assizes developed in the thirteenth century from the eyre (see Surrey Record Soc Abstracts for local people tried by these courts) and provided a more regular access to justice. Pairs of judges were sent round the country, each having a circuit to cover; Surrey lay in the Home Circuit, which has the earliest surviving set of indictments, listing details of people before the court, the crimes of which they stood accused, and what happened to them. Two calendars of these have been published, covering the reigns of Elizabeth and James I (1558-1625) and a full transcript of the entries for Ewell, Epsom and Cuddington is provided here at:

Assize Indictments
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Assizes were held twice a year, at the vacations in Lent (February/ March) and Trinity (June/ July), with a winter sitting sometimes held in December. During the early years, judges sat at Southwark, Kingston and Croydon, although other Surrey towns began to host assizes later in the seventeenth century. The arrival of the judges was made as grand and ceremonial as possible; they were representatives of the highest authority in the state, with the power of life and death. The principle landowners of the county attended the assizes in their capacity as Justices of the Peace. A grand jury of lesser gentlemen was drawn up, the qualification being 'lands and revenues to the value of a hundred shillings'. In theory there were 24 of them, although the number often lay short. Serving as a grand juror was a good way to make contacts and increase your knowledge of the law; Edward Skeete of Ewell served on six between 1619 and 1624, perhaps as part of a campaign to build up the family fortunes and reputation, since the Skeetes had moved to Ewell from Leatherhead after a series of ruinous cases brought against them in Star Chamber.

A local constable or night watchman
A local constable or night watchman

The grand jury investigated alleged crimes and issued a presentment as to whether they should go to trial. The case would have been prepared by the local constable and his assistant the headborough, then approved by a JP who would have had the accused committed to the town jail. The actual trials seem to have lasted about an hour, a short time in which to prove your guilt or innocence, especially when a guilty verdict would carry the death penalty. But in practice the case against the accused was prepared in advance by the magistrates and constables, and trial at the assizes was only the last stage in a long process.

As this suggests, assize records are not a straightforward indicator of the crimes that were committed in Tudor and Stuart Surrey. Low-level offences, including all cases of assault which did not end in someone's death, were dealt with by magistrates sitting on their own (petty sessions) or as a group (quarter sessions; for some local appearances in these, see Surrey Record Soc Abstracts). A gentleman who was accused of crime - and gentlemen, armed and hot-tempered about their honour, were the most common perpetrators of violence - would have his case tried at the Westminster courts, and not by the assizes.

And in any case, 'crime' is not a constant phenomenon but something that tends to be defined by society. Murder is a crime in any age, but if the Elizabethans were to attend a modern court, they would find it surprising that we treated grievous bodily harm as something worse than petty theft; and contrarily, when we look at their records we are surprised to find the offence of barratry, 'the frequent incitement of quarrels', treated so seriously. But it was an age which set great value on harmony. When Thomas Robinson of Epsom stirred up 'great discord amongst his neighbours', he was damaging the fabric of society. For the same reason, attacking someone in church (for which Thomas Cuddington stood trial in 1597) was much worse than attacking them anywhere else.

A criminal being whipped on the way to the gallows
A criminal being whipped on the way to the gallows

Indictments before the assizes should not necessarily be taken at face value; in Tudor times legislation often served as much for attack as defence. The vicar of Epsom, Robert Cole, was cited for barratry in 1578, but in the account which he gave of himself two years later, he comes over as the perfect innocent - 'neither man nor woman can saye that I at any time caulled or reviled, sithens I came to that parishe, any man or woman, no not with suche like worde as knave or drabe; neither have I smitten any maner of person excepting children, the whiche I have taught in learninge'. But alas! he had done his duty by instructing the churchwardens to present Nicolas Saunder for not coming to church, after which 'Mr. Saunder procured great molestations agayenst me by all meanes he could devise'.

Saunder, in short, was a recusant - someone who failed to attend church services, being one of the Catholic minority who refused to accept the Elizabethan settlement of a Protestant church. Recusancy was dealt with by assize courts rather than lower ones as a mark of its seriousness, and Saunder ('of Epsom', where he held some lands, although the Saunders actually lived in Ewell) was presented for it in 1579, a year after he had got his vicar presented to the same tribunal for stirring up trouble. Recusants continued to preoccupy the assizes in growing numbers until 1625, not because Catholics were increasing but because the state was getting more hopeful of eliminating them entirely, at least in the south-east. The fines for non-attendance at church were increased to a massive £20 a month in 1581, effectively restricting overt profession of Catholicism to those with a gentleman's income such as the Hordes and Brownes; on the other side of Nonsuch Park, Bartholomew Fromonde of Cheam (and a major landowner in Ewell) continued to be presented at almost every session through the reign of James I.

Protestants and Catholics
Protestants and Catholics

Trials at the assizes did not necessarily start, as a modern legal action often does, by detection following up a crime to find out who did it. Instead, the constables went looking for people who seemed likely to have done something wrong. In a small village society, this was not difficult. Roger Mitchell, who stole a sheep 'from an unknown man' in 1597, was evidently found with a sheep that he couldn't account for honestly, and that was enough to have him committed. This approach explains the conviction of witches, like Eden Worsley of Ewell in 1564 or Sibyl Preston of Effingham, presented in 1587 by a grand jury including two Ewell and two Epsom men. The things they were said to have done were clearly wrong, even though it's impossible by today's standards to believe that they could have done them. They were arrested for being the kind of person who'd kill someone occultly, if only they could.


The assizes were a ritual punishment of the bad people in society. If you were to believe its contemporary literature, Elizabethan England was being overwhelmed by a wave of 'rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars', a secret society with its own passwords, codes and secret language. No wonder magistrates panicked; 'crime', or at least assize presentments for it, peaked in the years 1590-1620, as the local records confirm. John Turner, assaulted in the highway at Ewell by three men in 1586, must have wished that he'd had his pistolet (value £1) at the ready, or even his sword (£1 6/8d), but they made off with these, as well as £34 in money and what sounds like a week's worth of gentleman's clothing including four shirts, thirteen bands and six pairs of socks.

The three London rogues who humiliated Turner were evidently mobile; on the same day they'd already robbed another gentleman at Coulsdon. But this kind of crime was very much the exception. From a total of 36 thefts where the trial record mentions Epsom or Ewell, the majority (20) involved local people stealing from other local people; a further 10 were the work of criminals from outside the area coming to Epsom and Ewell to steal, and 6 saw local people committing theft elsewhere. The overwhelming majority were at the bottom end of the social scale - 17 were labourers, who worked for other men's wages, and 5 were husbandmen, who presumably had a little land of their own. No doubt some of them were 'masterless men', drifters like Edmund Benfield who stole goods at Chipstead in 1620, Kingston the next year, Sutton the year after that, and finally Epsom. Each time he is listed as 'of Chipstead' etc., but he can hardly have put down lasting roots. Most of the other criminals, though, belong to families who are familiar from later records and were evidently stealing from neighbours only a little better off than themselves.

Their criminal ambitions did not stretch very high. William Smith of Ewell stole four towels (10d) in April 1617. A week later he made off with a pewter candlestick and dish (4d each). Twenty years earlier, John Forde had made off with a pair of sheets (4d), a shirt (3d), a table-napkin (2d) and two aprons (2d). That sounds very much like a spread of washing hung out to dry, a favourite target for thieves, such as Autolycus in The Winter's Tale:

'The white sheet bleaching on the hedge
With hey, the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging teeth on edge,
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king'.

Forde's haul would have fetched about 20 quarts, if he'd found a fence willingly to turn it into cash at the market rate. Seemingly he never did; two months later, when his case came up for trial, he was dead. Clothing is by far the most commonly reported item in thefts. Criminals began, as they do now, with cash (anything from 1s to £7) and jewellery (a silver ring was worth about 1s, a gold one could be up to £1). But where a modern thief will go for electronic goods, the Elizabethan equivalent was evidently costume, a reminder of how much hard work it took to produce even the simplest items of clothing. A rough scale of values, derived from the assize statements, would be:
Cloak £2
Coat 6s
Gown £2
Jerkin 1s
Waistcoat 5s
Kirtle 4s
Hat 2 to 5s
Coif 2s
Shirt 3d to 6d
Apron 1d to 5s
Petticoat 2s
Smock 2s
Pairs of stockings 1 or 2s
Pairs of shoes 1s
These are evidently the clothes of yeomen or farmers and their wives, simply made from homespun and linen. By contrast the shirts stolen by the highwayman from John Turne, the gentleman with his (unused) sword and pistolet, were worth 10s each - 40 times as much as an ordinary shirt from Ewell. (If you want a modern contrast, a shirt from Savile Row will set you back only 10 times as much as one from TK Maxx; a sign of how much social gradients have evened out since Tudor times).

So crime took place against a background of poverty, but it was not a response to absolute destitution. Significantly, the hungriest months of the year, from November to March, saw the least crime. Out of the 36 separate incidents of theft, 75% took place in the summer half of the year, mostly May and June (12 cases) followed by September and October (10 cases). In between came the harvest months, when even the criminally minded were presumably too busy to have time to rob their neighbours.

Moving Cattle
Moving Cattle

Professional crime, by contrast, was limited to the theft of animals. Horses were worth anything from £1 to £10; cattle £1 or £2; lambs were 2/6d, and sheep about twice as much. The background to animal theft is not very clear, but it was evidently something much more organised than the traditional picture of a hungry labourer singling out a sheep from the flock and trying to hide and cook the carcase. The haul on a single occasion could be very large; Thomas Cuddington (he of the assault in Ewell church) stole 7 sheep on one occasion, 4 a week later, and then 2 lambs a month afterwards. Henry Denman of Southwark was responsible for the theft of 49 sheep from Ewell on one day in 1584, along with his accomplice, a butcher. You can't secretly make away with four dozen sheep; he must have hijacked a flock being driven legitimately to London, unless the prosecution is simply a cover for a civil case, and Denman had contracted to buy the sheep and then defaulted on payment. The same explanation, whatever it is, must apply to the consortium of three Ewell yeomen who went on trial for stealing 11 bulls and bullocks from four separate owners in 1621.

How much crime came before the assizes? Leaving aside the more unusual offences such as barratry, there were four main offences against the person: murder including murder by witchcraft, burglary, grand larceny, and petty larceny. Over the sixty years covered by the assize records, 2 Epsom and Ewell people were tried for murder (1 hanged, 1 given benefit of clergy) and 1 for witchcraft (the only woman from the area to be hanged). Burglary was treated almost as seriously as murder; the 3 burglars were all hanged. Grand larceny, the theft of goods worth more than a shilling (say £100 in modern wage values), was not so harshly treated. Of the 21 people convicted, 7 were hanged, 4 given benefit of clergy, 1 pleaded pregnancy, 1 was pardoned, 2 were whipped, and 5 found not guilty (with 1 fate not recorded). Petty larceny was met with a whipping in 4 cases, the other 2 not recorded. The absence of any 'not guilty' verdicts here suggests that they were given in grand larceny cases more to avoid the punishment of death than out of any real uncertainty about the case. Finally there are 4 cases in which someone tried for grand larceny was found guilty 'to the value of 10d', even though the goods they stole were worth much more, and so whipped instead of being hanged. So from a total of 35 people tried, there were 12 who went to the gallows. That's one hanging every 5 years in a population of about 1000 people.


'Benefit of clergy' needs some explanation. The origins of this practice lay in the Middle Ages, when clergymen were subject to punishment in their own ecclesiastical courts, and were exempt from secular ones. By the early modern period, it had become a get-out clause for anyone who was able to read. William Harrison in his Description of England (1577) explains that 'thieves that are saved by their books and clergy, for the first offence… are burned in the left hand, upon the brawn of the thumb, with a hot iron, so that, if they be apprehended again, that mark betrayeth them'. In other words, it was a way of showing leniency to first-time offenders. Normally the test was to read the beginning of Psalm 51, 'O God, have mercy upon me', and even the illiterate could usually memorise this verse. Charles Godden asked for clergy in 1607 but proved unable to read; maybe they'd cheated by presenting him with a different psalm. Women faced with the gallows had another escape clause, that of 'pleading their belly' or announcing that they were pregnant, as Priscilla Turpyn did in 1587. If a jury of matrons backed up the claim, the execution of the law was put on hold, as it would be wrong to kill an innocent unborn child for the crimes of its mother. Of course this only let you off for nine months, but the poor lived from day to day, and there was always the chance that something would have turned up by the time the baby was born.

Benefit of clergy and pleading the belly, along with deliberate undervaluing of stolen goods and the occasional citation of a fictitious criminal who could be blamed for real mishaps, were essentially fudges introduced to bring some humanity into an aggressive legal code. But when a crime aroused popular detestation, and culpability was evident, the law moved fast. On 21st March 1621, John Rowse 'took Elizabeth and Mary, his daughters, from their beds and drowned them'. Three months later two Ewell men (apparently the constable and headborough) entered a recognisance before Sir Nicholas Saunder of Ewell (son of the recusant who had quarrelled with Robert Cole). Rowse confessed and was hanged; end of story, as far as the assize records are concerned. But thanks to a contemporary pamphlet, rushed off by the journalist John Taylor to meet popular demand, we know much more than that. We learn that Rowse was a fishmonger by trade (in the indictment he is 'miller') who retired from London to live in rural Ewell; that he had a good estate, worth £50 a year, and married well, twice in three years, despite carrying on at the same time with Jane Blundell the servant; that he got himself into debt, did a runner to London with Blundell, and met up with a false friend, who cheated him out of all his remaining estates; and that after fleeing first to Ireland and then to Holland, he came home at last to his long-suffering wife, who had remained all this time in Ewell with the girls. They received him kindly enough, but he was tormented all the time by the thought that his children must now go begging for a living from door to door, which was why, having sent his wife off on some errand, 'he going into the Chamber where they lay, took the youngest of them, nam'd Elizabeth, forth of her Bed, and carry'd her down the Stairs into his Cellar, and there put her into the Spring of water, holding down her Head under that pure Element with his hands, till, at last, the poor harmless Soul and Body parted one from another'; and then, carrying the body back up three flights of stairs, he laid her down on the floor, and returning to his daughter Mary, treated her in the same way. Rowse made no attempt to hide the crime but 'walked up and down his House, weeping, and lamenting his own Misery'. And so they took him off to the gallows at Croydon 'on Monday the second Day of June, 1621, where he died with great Penitency and Remorse of Conscience'. It's a long story but there is no doubt that many other stories, just as long, lie behind the terse language of the assize indictments for Epsom and Ewell between 1558 and 1625.

Jeremy Harte

The assize records have been edited in two volumes:
Calendar of Assize Records: Surrey Indictments, Elizabeth I, ed J.S. Cockburn (HMSO, 1980).
Calendar of Assize Records: Surrey Indictments, James I, ed J.S. Cockburn (HMSO, 1982).
Ewell, Epsom and Cuddington extracts have been transcribed from these volumes. The number at the beginning of each entry is Cockburn's reference number for then indictment.

The background to assize trials is discussed in:
J.S. Cockburn, A History of English Assizes, 1558-1714 (Cambridge UP, 1972).
John Briggs et al, Crime and Punishment in England: An Introductory History (UCL Press, 1996).

For the Skeete family, see:
Edwina Vardey, History of Leatherhead: A Town at the Crossroads (LDLHS, 1988)pp81-2.

For Robert Cole and Nicholas Saunder, see:
The Loseley Manuscripts, ed Alfred John Kempe (John Murray, London, 1835) pp255-7.
Michael L. Walker, 'The manor of Battailles and the family of Saunder in Ewell during the 16th and 17th centuries', Surrey Arch. Coll. 54 (1955) pp76-101 at pp94-5.

For John Rowse, see
John Taylor, The Unnatural Father: Or, the Cruel Murther, Committed by One John Rowse, of the Town of Ewell (1621), frequently reproduced - e.g. in Aubrey's Surrey 2 pp228-43 - and discussed in David Cousines, The Unnatural Father (Nonsuch Antiquarian Society Occ. Paper 2, 1973).