Magnus Fowle – a county coroner in Elizabethan Sussex?

I’m grateful to Rosie Franczak for drawing my attention to an infamous murder that occurred in the village of Mayfield, Sussex, on 1st October 1594, when a husbandman named Ralph Mepham (or Deaphon, in some accounts) killed his wife by cutting her throat with a knife. What makes this case interesting as far as I’m concerned is that the coroner who investigated the death and convened the subsequent inquest was Magnus Fowle.

This, of course, was the name of my 12 x great grandfather, who lived in Mayfield and indeed died there shortly after this event. It seems unlikely that there were two men with this rather unusual name living in Sussex at the same time. The name ‘Magnus’ would become popular in later generations of my family. (Magnus Fowle’s daughter Agnes married Edward Byne. They were my 11 x great grandparents and their eldest son was Magnus Byne of Framfield, presumably named after his grandfather. Another son, Stephen Byne, was my 10 x great grandfather, and he named his son, my 9 x great grandfather, Magnus. And so the name was passed on through the generations. ) However, it appears that Magnus Fowle was the first bearer of the distinctive first name in the family, given it by his father Gabriel Fowle, who was the master of Lewes Free Grammar School during the reign of Queen Mary.

Countryside near Mayfield, Sussex (via http://media.rightmove.co.uk)

Countryside near Mayfield, Sussex (via http://media.rightmove.co.uk)

Until now, I had imagined that Magnus was simply a yeoman or gentleman farmer, living off the substantial inheritance of land in Ringmer and Glynde left to him in his father Gabriel’s will of 1555, as well as the inheritance in Mayfield of his wife Alice Lucke. However, it now seems likely that he had an additional, official role as one of the county coroners for Sussex. As I understand it, in the medieval period there were three coroners for each county, and their role was keeping the pleas of the Crown – ‘custos placitorum coronas’ – from which the title coroner or ‘crowner’ (see Shakespeare’s Hamlet) derives. Coroners were unpaid and there was a property qualification associated with the office. They were elected, but those entitled to vote were a select few: the Freemen of the county, meeting for the purpose in the county court. 

A full account of the gruesome murder of Joan Mepham can be read here. It seems that the local constable was first on the scene. He then called for the coroner (presumably my ancestor), who proceeded to interview witnesses. The fact that Magnus Fowle lived locally must have meant that he was there fairly quickly. Having interrogated the suspect, the coroner had him committed to ‘the queen’s gaol at Lewes’, some twenty miles away. One account mentions an inquest held at Mayfield on 8th October 1594 convened by Magnus Fowle, and heard before sixteen jurors. However, the murderer was eventually tried at East Grinstead Assizes on 24th February 1595 when, despite his plea of ‘not guilty’, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, the execution being carried out three days later.

Sixteenth-century printing press

Sixteenth-century printing press

An additional point of interest to me, also highlighted by Rosie in her email, is that the murder was reported in a sensational pamphlet printed by John Danter of Smithfield, London. Danter was a notorious ‘pirate’ with a reputation for printing stolen texts, including (also in 1595) the first ‘bad quarto’ of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He was both friend and landlord to Thomas Nashe, satirical pamphleteer and co-author with Ben Jonson in 1597 of the lost ‘seditious’ play, The Isle of Dogs, which was performed in July 1597 when the London theatres were ordered to be closed by Robert Cecil and the Privy Council. There is also a connection between Nashe and the actor Edward Alleyn, son-in-law of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe. As I’ve noted before, Henslowe’s diary makes a number of references to Arthur Langworth of the Broyle, Ringmer, brother of the ‘church papist’ clergyman and poet Dr John Langworth. It is this Arthur Langworth who is referred to so disparagingly in the will of my ancestor Magnus Fowle, for reasons as yet unknown. Wheels within wheels!

The murder at Mayfield must have been one of the last cases adjudicated by Magnus Fowle. He made his will on 30th July 1595 (five months after Ralph Mepham was executed) and it was proved in the following May.

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2 Responses to Magnus Fowle – a county coroner in Elizabethan Sussex?

  1. Rosie Franczak (nee Brocklehurst) says:

    I really like the flow of this Martin and the additional information you have put in here about Magnus Fowle as Coroner. Just a point- I don’t think there was a connection between Nashe and Edward Alleyn, but a connection between Arthur Langworth, Henslowe and Edward Alleyn as you have already covered in previous posts and I am sure there is more to be discovered about that which may lead to you finding out about why Magnus was so hostile to Langworth. Nashe is thought to have been a Catholic sympathiser according to his biographer Charles Nicholl, but with the Elizabethan police state, those who were Catholic, tried to cover their tracks. Nashe in turn lodged for a period with printer John Danter at Hosier Lane Smithfield, and Danter’s press was seized in 1596 by officials of the Stationers Company for printing a Catholic tract.

  2. Martin says:

    Thanks for the correction, Rosie. I was obviously rather too keen to close the circle of connections !

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