Of Murders and Other Crimes
Updated: May 15
"The Assizes collection is a vitally important source for the period. It enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds whose names come tumbling out of the records. Many of these people, long dead and forgotten and for whom there is no other surviving record, will now have a small piece of their story told."
Sian Collins, Cambridge University Library Archivist
The year is 1636. A clay pot is discovered in a gravel bed located near the village of Sutton, Cambridgeshire. The pot is opened to reveal a cache of bones. Investigators believe that the bones to be of a child. Only one child has disappeared in Sutton and suspicions immediately fall upon the parents. This is only one of the many interesting cases among the court of assize records for the Isle of Ely. The Cambridge University Library archivists, with funding from the Cambridgeshire Family History Society, have undertaken a year-long project to catalog and make available the records of the Isle of Ely assizes from 1557 to 1775. Often lacking other evidence, historians turn to court records and deeds in order to glean details of the daily life and relationships of ordinary people in the past.
The Isle of Ely is a region of east-central England. It is centered around the city of Ely on the border of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Geographically, it was an area of high ground in the middle of the English Fens (hence the term "isle"). The Fens is an area of lowland marsh near or below sea level much like the Dutch lowlands. The Venerable Bede, the late 7th-century writer who composed one of the earliest histories of England, indicates that the place name Ely derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "eiling" - meaning eel. Eel fishing was the principal occupation on the Fens before they were drained in the 17th century.
Because of its limited accessibility, the area was an important strategic position. The Isle of Ely was one of the last Anglo-Saxon holdouts resisting William the Conqueror's Norman invasion in 1066. It was the site of a monastery since 673 which was replaced by the Norman Romanesque cathedral that still dominates the skyline of the low-lying Fens. (The cathedral is nicknamed the "Ship of the Fens".) Beyond his ecclesiastical duties, the Bishop of Ely, for many centuries, enjoyed special secular privileges in the administration of the region. In this regard, the bishop was no different than any other feudal lord of the time period.
In England at the time, there were three levels of justice. The lowest level was the local justices of the peace who presided over cases involving minor offenses and misdemeanors. Petty crimes were referred to the Court of Quarter Sessions. This court met four times a year and was composed of two or more local justice of the peace as judges. Usually, no jury was seated. The highest level was the Court of Assize. Assize comes from the Old French for "session" which derived from the Latin word "to sit". The Assize court was a periodic court during which judges, mostly from London or appointed by the king, traveled a proscribed circuit. (This is the origin of the American circuit courts.) This system was imported from France by the Normans and supplanted the older Anglo-Saxon judicial system. After the Norman invasion, four circuits were created, but not much longer afterward this was increased to six. An additional one was added in 1876. The Assize court presided over the most serious crimes and felonies. Both the Assize court and Quarter Sessions court were abolished in the early 1970s when Britain reorganized their judicial system.
Even though they lacked modern forensic techniques, 17th-century investigators still took their work seriously. They went through the process of deposing witnesses and corroborating the evidence. Witness depositions provide insight into community dynamics, social relations, and living conditions of the time period. The grisly discovery of the bone filled clay pot in Sutton is a prime example of this. When the clay pot was discovered it fell to Sir Miles Sandys, the justice of the peace, to suss out the details of the case. During his investigation, he heard eighteen sworn testimonies all of which have been entered into the court records.
All eyes turned to a local couple, John and Bridget Bonham. This was because the only child known to be missing in Sutton was John Bonham Jr. He had gone missing nine years previously. What we learn from these depositions is, not only the family dynamics but that the Bonhams were not held in high regard by their neighbors. Witnesses claim John Bonham was abusive to his first wife Grace and that several of the children had runoff. John married Bridget seven weeks after Grace died in 1620. Sandys questioned the Bonhams on 18 October 1636. In their defense, the Bonham's disavowed knowledge of the clay pot and stated they heard reports of John Jr being in either Cambridge or nearby Longstanton. In any event, Sandys placed John Bonham in the gaol pending further investigation.
Of particular interest for Sandys was the action of the Bonhams immediately after the discovery and the origin of the clay pot itself. The earthen pot was a critical piece of evidence in the case. Anne Queen testified that she remembered seeing one like it in the Bonham house nine years ago prior to the disappearance of John Jr. Other witnesses described the pot as being unusual in design. Witness Phebie Springe described the pot as being of "extraordinary fashion", one she never recalled seeing before except in the Bonham household. Though she does go on to say that she couldn't swear to it being the identical pot. John Bonham's sister, Joan Westland, came under suspicion for breaking this key piece of evidence. When questioned, she denied any malice and stated she the pot "slipped purposely out of her hand upon the ground to try what metal it was of and so broke the pot." Others took note of Bridget Bonham's reaction to the news. Alice Daye gave a detailed description of how the color in Bridget's face rose and then swooned soon afterward. Other witnesses describe Bridget's fainting spell. There was a certain ill-will displayed against the Bonhams. A thigh bone was left by some local women at the doorstep of the Bonham house. Perhaps it was a way to implicate the family, but Bridget complained that the bone in question was about the size of her own thigh and not of a child's.
The investigation did look at other details connected with the case more in line with more modern methods. The man who discovered the clay pot said the grave was shallow, no more than a foot and a half deep, hastily dug. The parish grave digger lent his expertise and indicated that the grave was not that old. Parish records showed that John Jr was baptized in 1616 and would have been eleven years old when he disappeared. The bones were examined, and people speculated as to whether or not they belonged to a young boy. In the end, John and Bridget Bonham were brought before the Court of Assize and tried for the murder of John Bonham Jr. There are no details of the court proceedings in the records nor any indication of an official verdict. The only clue is an undated entry in the gaol calendar, though it is presumed to be from 1636. In the margins is marking "non cul", the abbreviation for "non culpabilis". This indicates that the Bonhams were most likely acquitted of the charges against them. They remained in Sutton and appear again in the assize records being accused of witchcraft in 1647. This was at the height of a witchhunt craze sweeping across the region.
From this case, we get a glimpse at how rumor and insinuation can spread through a small community like Sutton, Cambridgeshire. The Isle of Ely assize records contains numerous types of court cases from defamation to larceny to accusations of witchcraft.
From this wealth of information, historians can learn about the development of legal processes and the methods of investigating crimes. A study of the patterns of crimes can help us understand social conditions. When times are bad, people will resort to such criminal activity as stealing. We expect to see those crimes increase during those time periods.
What we see is that the court was accessible to people from all walks of life. And in this regard, the records provide a voice for those people who are often not heard of elsewhere in history.
(As a side note, my Boyce ancestors can be traced back to the English Fens. In particular, around the Isle of Ely and neighboring western Norfolk.)
More on the Isle of Ely and the Cambridge University Library project:
The History of Ely, Cambridgeshire: Ben Johnson, Historic UK
An earthen pot full of bones: True crime in Sutton: Sally Kent, Cambridge University Library Special Collections
Criminals, Miscreants, and Misdemeanors: University of Cambridge
A Trove of English Court Records: Brigit Katz, Smithsonian Magazine
Cambridge researchers uncover 500-year-old murder mystery in scrolls: Alex Spencer, Cambridge Independent