Domestic murders are, sadly, a dime a dozen. So for one such tragedy to inspire a play that was not only popular in its own day, but that is still performed--and sometimes attributed to William Shakespeare--today, you know you are dealing with Strange Company-level mayhem.
So for this week, let us meet Mr. and Mrs. Arden, of Faversham, Kent, England.
Thomas Arden was, on the surface at least, a Tudor success story. He was born into a mercantile family sometime in 1508, but he did not achieve real wealth until Henry VIII began dissolving the monasteries in the 1530s. As Arden was at that time working for Sir Edward North, the man put in charge of redistributing the confiscated church lands, he was among the select few fortunate enough to be in a position to take advantage of the situation. Arden was not shy about using his connections to North and Sir Thomas Cheyne, who was then Warden of the Cinque Ports, to not only become a local customs official, but to snap up former church properties at bargain rates. He took for his own use the former guest house of Faversham’s Benedictine Abbey, which he transformed into a grand residence. The “tall and comely” Arden soon became a wealthy and influential figure in his community. He became an alderman, and for a short time in 1548, the town’s mayor.
Around 1537, Arden married Sir Edward North’s stepdaughter, Alice Brigandine. The bride was about 13 years Arden’s junior and described as “tall and well favoured of shape and countenance.” Although the records are hazy on this point, it is thought the couple eventually had a daughter named Margaret.
It is not known if Thomas and Alice married for love or--as was generally the case in Tudor England--coldly practical reasons. What is clear is that their relationship became far from idyllic. Alice eventually entered into an affair with Thomas Morsby, one of her stepfather’s servants. Thomas soon became aware of his wife’s infidelity, but chose to ignore it. After all, Alice had many powerful family connections, and Thomas was too practical a man to want to alienate them. For the sake of his own career, he was, in the blunt words of the historian Holinshed, “contented to wink at her filthy disorder.” So “contented” was the cuckolded husband that he made no protest when Alice moved her lover into the family home, where she fed Morsby “delicate meats” and provided him with “sumptuous apparel.”
Before long, even this was not enough for Alice. She wanted to marry Morsby, and for that she needed not just a complaisant husband, but a dead one.
She found a remarkable number of people who, for their own reasons, agreed with this sentiment. Thomas’ greed for land and money--and utter lack of scruples about how he acquired them--had made him a deeply loathed figure in Faversham. By 1550, the other town leaders were so disgusted with his mercenary ways that they removed Thomas from all his local offices. If you asked a resident of Faversham, “What do you think about murdering Thomas Arden?” the likely answer would be “Where do I sign up?”
Alice, in short, felt she was on safe ground organizing her husband’s assassination. She may even have thought the townsfolk would arrange a parade in her honor. Her first murder attempt involved that classic best friend of discontented wives: poison. A painter named William Blackbourne happily provided her with a supply of something venomous, but sadly for the murder squad, Thomas merely vomited up the would-be lethal dose.
Alice vowed to try, try again. She offered a tailor named John Green ten pounds to have Thomas killed. As Green had recently been battling Arden in a bitter land dispute, he may have been willing to do it on the house. Green quickly recruited a goldsmith named George Bradshaw, a “terrible cruell ruffian” known as “Black Will,” and one of Arden’s own servants, Michael Saunderson, to help him with the job. Green’s plan was this: while Thomas was on a business trip to London, Saunderson would leave the door of the home where Arden was staying unlocked, allowing Black Will to creep in and perform the dirty work. However, Saunderson rejected the scheme, fearing that Will might get overly enthusiastic and kill him as well. On several different occasions, Will and a fellow villain named Losebagg trailed after Arden as he went about the countryside, hoping to catch their quarry alone long enough to commit the murder, but they were always thwarted for one reason or another.
Then Morsby--who had been squeamish about the murder conspiracy all along--suggested that he pick a fight with Arden--one that would, of course, leave the much older man dead. Alice rejected this plan, on the assumption that Thomas would maintain his studied indifference to her lover.
Alice was increasingly irritated at how unexpectedly difficult it was to murder her husband. On February 15, 1551, she organized a private conference with Morsby, Black Will, John Green, Losebagg, Saunderson, Morsby’s sister Cecily Pounder, and one of Alice’s maids (who may have been named Elizabeth Stafford.) Alice was determined that they put their heads together and finally come up with a way to make her husband well and truly dead.
Morsby restated his objection to the murder plot (it may have dawned on him that if Alice could kill her first husband, she could easily slay her second one, as well.) In a “furie,” he marched out and took up lodgings at a nearby inn. Alice persuaded him to return, after which she tearfully begged him not to let her down. Morsby was eventually nagged into giving his reluctant consent to the enterprise.
Alice decided that the direct approach to murder was necessary. That same evening, all the Arden servants not in on the plot were given the night off. Once they had gone, Black Will was brought in and hidden in a closet at the end of the parlor. When Thomas arrived home, Morsby greeted him at the front door. Dinner was not yet ready, Morsby told him agreeably. While they waited, how about a game of backgammon in the parlor?
According to Holinshed, Thomas was seated at the gaming table so that his back was to the closet where Will was lurking, waiting for his signal to attack. After a short time, Morsby said to Thomas, “Now may I take you sir if I will.”
“Take me?” Thomas replied as he studied the board. “Which way?”
This was Will’s pre-arranged cue. He suddenly appeared behind Thomas, and began strangling him with a napkin. Morsby did his part by striking Arden on the skull with “a taylor’s great pressing iron.” He finished the job by drawing his dagger and slitting their victim’s throat. (Holinshed’s later version of the story had Black Will making this final fatal blow.)
Will rewarded himself by taking Arden’s money from his purse and the rings from his fingers. He then went to Alice and collected his ten pound fee. Then he left, with that glow of satisfaction that comes from a profitable night’s work.
|Early 17th century woodcut depicting Arden's murder|
The gang of assassins then cleaned up the blood, but then realized they faced the problem common to all murderers: getting rid of the body. These criminal masterminds spent so much time and energy looking for ways to kill Arden, they gave no thought whatsoever as to what they would do with him if they succeeded.
Accounts of the disposal of Arden’s corpse differ slightly. A contemporary town record states that the crew simply dumped him in a meadow adjoining the house. Holinshed gave the detail that Saunderson, Cecily Pounder, the unnamed maid, and Arden’s daughter carried the body into the meadow, where they left him “down on his back straight in his night-gown, with the slippers on.”
After their return, they had some visitors, wanting to see Thomas about some business or other. Alice calmly entertained her guests, assuring them that her husband was late getting home, but would show up at any second. As time went on without the arrival of the master of the house, Alice made a great show of increasing worry, sending servants to go around the town asking about him.
Later that same night, a grocer named Prune was unfortunate to be the one to literally stumble across the battered corpse. It was obvious that Thomas Arden was “thoroughly dead.” And as footprints in the snow led directly from the gate of his garden to the corpse, town officials did not have to be investigative geniuses to guess who was responsible.
The mayor and other local leaders wasted no time questioning Alice and her servants. They all, of course, immediately asserted that they had no idea whatsoever how Arden had died. However, when a search of the home found blood, hair, and a bloodstained knife in the parlor, as well as a bloody cloth in a washtub, such denials became difficult to maintain. Realizing she had been caught almost literally red-handed, Alice not only confessed, but implicated Morsby in the plot, as well. That gentleman was arrested at the inn where he was staying. Found in his room was clothing “stained with some of Master Arden’s bloud.” The whole crowd was thrown in prison to await trial.
To no one’s surprise, every single one of them was “adjudged to dye.” In those days, the murder of one’s husband was considered a form of treason. As Alice was judged to have committed the most heinous crime, she was given the most heinous punishment. She was burned at the stake in Canterbury on March 14, 1551. Elizabeth Stafford suffered the same ghastly end in Faversham. Morsby and his sister were hanged in London. Michael Saunderson was “drawn and hanged in chains within the liberties of Faversham.” George Bradshaw was also hanged in chains, in Canterbury.
In July, John Green was apprehended in Cornwall, and returned for a date with the gallows at Faversham. Black Will and Losebagg were never traced by English authorities, but Holinshed claimed that in 1553 Will was arrested in the Netherlands and “burned on a scaffold.” The fate of Alice’s daughter is unknown.
Arden’s house still stands on the corner of Abbey Street and Abbey Place, with a small plaque explaining its grim place in history. The murder of Thomas Arden was a sordid crime, lacking any mystery, novelty, or even any sympathetic characters. Yet it has achieved a certain immortality denied more remarkable villanies.
History is an unpredictable thing.