Magnus Fowle in the Sussex coroners’ inquest records

In the last post I reported my discovery that my 12 x great grandfather Magnus Fowle, who died in 1596, served as a coroner in Elizabethan Sussex. Since then, I’ve had another stroke of luck. I discovered that there exists an edited collection of Sussex coroners’ inquest reports from Elizabeth’s reign. What’s more, there is a copy of this book, which would be prohibitively expensive to buy, in my own university library – and it’s possible to take it out on loan. So I’ve spent much of the past week eagerly searching the book’s index for references to my ancestor, and collating the information it contains about his service as a county coroner.

The Old Grammar School, Lewes, founded in 1512

The Old Grammar School, Lewes, founded in 1512

Before reporting my findings, it might be useful to summarise what we already know about Magnus Fowle. We know that he was the son of Gabriel Fowle of Southover, Lewes, who was Master of the Free Grammar School there. Gabriel was the son of Nicholas Fowle of Lamberhurst and, according to some sources, the brother of Bartholomew Fowle, an Augustinian friar and the last prior of Southwark at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Gabriel remained a faithful Catholic through the religious revolution begun by Henry VIII and continued under Edward VI, dying in Queen Mary’s reign and asking in his will of 1554 for masses be said for him. The name of Magnus’ mother is unknown, but we know that he had a sister Agnes. It seems likely that both Magnus and Agnes (were their rhyming first names a family in-joke?) were born in the late 1520 or early 1530s, almost certainly in Lewes, where Gabriel had been living since about 1525.

Magnus’ sister Agnes was already married to John Harman, a Lewes merchant, by the time her father died in 1555. We know that they had a son and three daughters. As for Magnus, he married Alice Lucke, daughter of Richard Lucke of Mayfield, probably in the late 1550s: there is a record from 1560 describing Magnus as a yeoman of Mayfield. Magnus and Alice had one daughter who survived them, my 11 x great grandmother Agnes, but there may have been others who died in childhood. Alice Fowle predeceased her husband, but we don’t know exactly when she died. Their daughter Agnes married Edward Byne of Burwash in 1575 and their eldest son Magnus, named after his grandfather, was born in the following year. Magnus Fowle made his will at Mayfield on 30th July 1595, in the thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth’s reign, and it was proved in the following May.

Farms at Mayfield (via geograph)

Farms at Mayfield (via geograph)

Sussex Coroners’ Inquests 1558 – 1603, edited by R.F. Hunnisett and published by the Public Record Office in 1996, includes summary reports of 582 inquests that took place in the county during the reign of Elizabeth. Magnus Fowle acted as coroner in 79 of these cases. His first inquest was held on 30th April 1572 and his final inquest on 8th April 1595, a year before his death. If I’m right in my speculation about Magnus’ approximate birth date, then he would have been in his early forties when first appointed to the role of coroner, and in his sixties when he convened his last inquest. By 1572, he would have been married and settled in Mayfield for at least ten years, and within a few years of taking up the post he would become a grandfather.

In most of the inquest reports, Magnus Fowle is described as a county coroner, but a minority give him other titles: he is described as the coroner for Lewes rape in 9, for Bamber rape in 3, and for Eastbourne hundred and Dorset hundred in one each. A number of the reports give him the title ‘gent[leman]’ and one gives him the suffix ‘esq[uire]’, suggesting a rather higher social standing than ‘yeoman’.

In only one year during this period (1578) did Magnus Fowle not preside at any inquests. In other years, the number of inquests in which he was involved ranged from one during two years in the 1570s, and in his final year, to eight in 1592, with two to five inquests being the more typical range in other years. The locations covered the whole county and are too numerous to mention. In two cases Magnus presided with another county coroner, but in the vast majority of cases he presided alone.

Of the cases which Magnus investigated, the majority were deemed to be accidents or death by misadventure, the second largest category being suicides, closely followed by murders and then natural causes, with two cases being defined as killing in self defence. The reports themselves provide a fascinating glimpse of life, albeit through the lens of abnormal events, in Elizabethan England. A remarkable number of people, often women and most of them spinsters, seem to have been desperate enough to take their own lives,with hanging, drowning and cutting one’s own throat among the methods recorded. Murders were often committed in the course of breaking and entering, or as the result of fights, with a handful of women accused of killing their own babies immediately after giving birth. A number of those convicted of murder were able to plead benefit of clergy, or pregnancy, and therefore escape the noose, but many others were not so fortunate. Accidental deaths occurred when people fell into wells, or were mortally injured in the course of work, whether by scythes, ploughs or water wheels. A substantial number of Magnus’ inquests were held in gaols and investigated the deaths of those who died in custody. These were almost always deemed ‘natural’ deaths, suggesting that disease or poor conditions must have been the cause, and prompting the reflection that a prison sentence was often as sure a guarantee of death as a sentence of execution.

A public execution in 16th century Engand

A public execution in 16th century Engand

There is a suggestion in the records that Magnus Fowle took a while to get the hang of his role as coroner. Editorial footnotes to the reports on his first two inquests, which took place in 1572 in Westmeston and Preston respectively, note: ‘The coroner was summoned to King’s Bench to answer for defects in the inquest; process against him ceased when the inquest was amended, presumably by the addition of the information about the goods and chattels which is interlined’.

A later inquest report, from Lewes in November 1585, is followed by a long explanatory note by the modern editor. This was a complex case of murder and violent affray, in which questions appear to have been raised about the conduct both of Magnus Fowle, acting as coroner, and some members of the jury. It’s difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened, but it’s interesting to note that one of those involved in the case challenged the coroner’s credentials and expressed doubts that justice would be done because of Fowle’s ‘want of sufficient judgement in law’. Apparently the extensive original documentation of the case includes both the accusations against Magnus Fowle and his own answers, which offer very different versions of events.

Despite these questions about his expertise, Magnus Fowle’s twenty-three years of service as a county coroner provide clear evidence of his social status. His role as an officer of the Crown helps to explain (for example) why his will includes references to the aristocratic Ashburnham family. At the same time, it challenges my theory that Magnus was, like the Ashburnhams, a recusant or at least a recusant sympathiser. Surely open sympathy for the recusant cause would have been incompatible with holding office on behalf of the Crown?

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