This is a piece I wrote a long time ago with an eye towards a potential book idea. Given the present climate, I thought it might provide a welcome diversion. I very much hope that you enjoy it!
‘No Remedy with Her But Death’
Amid the hustle and bustle of London on the warm summer evening of 16 July 1533, the eerie scream that emanated from the middle of the River Thames went unnoticed by the city folk. Such noises were not unusual in a city that was both rapidly expanding and full of crime, and the Londoners, unperturbed, continued their everyday lives on land. Nobody was aware that on a small boat on the river, two men had just been viciously murdered.
Earlier that day, Jerome de George and Charles Benche, two wealthy foreign merchants on business in London, had been lured to a house in Durham Rents on the Strand. They had been tempted by the offers of a beautiful and persuasive young woman named Alice, who was masquerading as a prostitute. Alice may genuinely have been a prostitute by profession – this was certainly the belief of the chronicler Edward Hall, who described her as ‘a harlot’ who ‘haunted strangers’ chambers’. The men had remained with Alice for the whole of the afternoon and evening, and though the precise nature of their activities cannot be stated with any certainty, one thing is clear: by ten o’clock, both Jerome and Charles were utterly inebriated by the abundance of alcohol that had been supplied to them. They had no idea that it was all part of a carefully considered plan that was about to turn sinister. Both men were so drunk that they decided to retire to their lodgings for the evening. Unfamiliar with the twists and turns of the narrow streets of London, the charming Alice offered to escort them home, accompanied by a companion of her own named John Westall. The men were lodging to the east of London, near Gracechurch Street in Cheapside; thus the easiest and quickest way to travel around the congested city was by water. There was no reason to be suspicious, but unbeknown to the two foreign merchants, as they followed their guides and boarded the boat at the Strand steps, they were walking headlong into danger.
A gang that, menacingly, had previous experience of violence had carefully planned what happened next. The drunken merchants were unaware that the two men who now steered their boat, their faces cloaked against the evening breeze, were not watermen, but accomplices named Robert Garrard and John Litchfield. Furthermore, concealed beneath the stern was Alice’s common law husband, John Wolfe, a man with a criminal past. Darkness had now fallen, and as Garrad and Litchfield guided the boat out into the middle of the river, out of sight and earshot of those on land, the attackers pounced.
Alice shifted in her seat, almost certainly as a sign. Suddenly and without warning, Wolfe leapt out from the stern wielding a dagger. Though utterly amazed, there was no time for the merchants to react. Unarmed and inebriated, they were easy targets; within a split second Wolfe had viciously stabbed Charles in the back. The wound was fatal, and death came instantly. Though drunk, Jerome had been awakened to the dire peril that he now faced with startling severity. Doubtless in shock and conscious of the fact that he was hopelessly outnumbered, he fell on his knees, begging the gang to spare him. His pleas were hopeless, for the gang were set on murder; Jerome was viciously set upon by all four of the men. The attack was so severe that they broke his neck. Throughout the scenes of sickening violence, Alice presumably looked on, unperturbed by the role she had played in such a monstrosity – unrelenting over the fact that she had lured the two men to their deaths.
As Jerome drew his last painful breath and the corpses of both merchants lay lifeless, Alice helped the murdering party as they stripped the two bodies of all of their fine clothing and valuables. The violence had been worth it, for the gang believed that such goods would doubtless fetch a fine price. All that remained was to dispose of the bodies, and this had been thoroughly considered. With substantial difficulty given the fact that they were working in a confined space, the gang managed to bind the corpses of their victims together and wrap them in metal chains. It took the strength of all four men, and perhaps Alice too, to haul the bodies of the slain men in chains overboard. They watched and waited with bated breath, as the weight of the chains dragged the bodies underneath the dark and silent waters of the Thames. Any evidence of murder had now been removed. It was a callous and calculated act, and one in which Alice had been actively involved. Though she had not drawn a knife or wrung a neck, she was no innocent bystander; she had participated in the murders as actively as her co-conspirators.
With the evidence hidden in the depths of the river and no alarm bells raised as to the disappearance of the two merchants, the gang seemed to have got away with murder. But they soon made a fatal mistake. During her sojourn, Alice had discovered that the merchants had been lodging in the house of a Florentine merchant named John Gerrald. Aware that their victims were men of substance and blinded by the prospect of further riches, the gang determined to break into Gerrald’s house to plunder the dead men’s belongings. Thus it was that shortly after the incident on the Thames, Alice, Wolfe, Westall, and another gang member known only as Stanley, broke into the house in Cheapside. As they located the merchants’ rooms and began to rifle through their personal effects, justice finally caught up with them. Their entry to the house had aroused some suspicion and the authorities had been alerted. As the local men who acted as the city law enforcers burst into the house, Alice and her accomplices were caught red handed.
Together with the other gang members, Alice was immediately arrested. However, whether at the time of their arrest or shortly after, Wolfe managed to escape from his captors. Callously leaving his wife to endure her fate alone, he managed to successfully flee from the capital. By some good fortune he made it as far as Ireland, where he believed that he would be safe. No further mention is made of Westfall and Stanley, but it seems likely that they were condemned and executed in keeping with the law. Unlike her husband, for Alice there seemed to be no hope of escaping from her punishment.
Alice did not have far to travel from Cheapside to her prison, and the journey was over within a matter of minutes. The route took her past Eastcheap, the site of the city’s main meat market where an abundance of carcasses were strung up on stalls that were crammed on to both sides of the road. As Alice and her captors made their way through the crowded market, the stench of dead animal carcasses was rife, and it may have occurred to Alice that there was worse to come. The party continued, weaving their way past the numerous taverns that lined the city’s streets, where drunken and rowdy men shouted obscenities as the pretty prisoner passed. As a born and bred Londoner Alice would have been accustomed to such behaviour, and soon the imposing sight of the spire of the city’s oldest church, All Hallows-by-the-Tower loomed into sight.
It was at this point that it dawned on Alice that her destination was not the Fleet, the Marshalsea or the Clink, the gaols often used for common folk. Though all three prisons played host to criminals of both sexes responsible for all manner of crimes, the Fleet and the Marshalsea were renowned as debtors’ prisons, whilst the Clink was often chosen to house those whose offences were religious. In all three gaols the conditions the prisoners were forced to endure were beyond abysmal, and were made infinitely worse by the fact that the corrupt guards exploited their charges in order to boost their own incomes. It was not unheard of for prisoners to be allowed outside to beg, or even prostitute themselves in the case of women, in order to pay their guards for some of the most basic necessities.
The prison chosen for Alice was infinitely worse: the Tower of London. As she approached the fortress under armed guard, she already had good reason to shudder. Though the Tower was still a magnificent royal palace, used only the previous month for the onset of the celebrations of Queen Anne Boleyn’s coronation, Alice had been there before. The previous year her husband had stolen the lucrative sum of 366 crowns from a German merchant, resulting in a spell of imprisonment in the Tower.
As a common prisoner, Wolfe had been confined in a dungeon in miserable conditions, but there was worse. Though Tower prisoners were fed at the expense of the Crown, everything else had to be paid for out of their own pocket. For the wealthy this did not necessarily constitute a problem, but for the poor it was a different matter. However, Wolfe appears to have had the means to purchase the basic commodities of clothing and bedding – classified as luxuries to those who were forced to endure the rigours of imprisonment. Most of these items had been brought to Wolfe by Alice, who had been permitted to visit her husband and had done so with faithful regularity.
With Wolfe now gone, however, there was nobody on whom Alice could rely to do the same for her. Her husband had abandoned her, and she had no other family or means of support. As she was escorted into the Tower precincts Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower under whose supervision she was now placed, met her. A man in his fifties who was a great favourite of the King’s, Sir Edmund had been appointed to his post in 1521 in succession to Sir Richard Cholmley. His position was one of great trust, and he took his duties incredibly seriously. In order to fulfil his role effectively, Sir Edmund resided in the Tower with his family. As well as a son, he had three young daughters, and on occasion they came into contact with some of the Tower prisoners. In Alice’s case, this proved to be crucial.
Alice was taken past the Lion Tower, where the roars of the lions that formed a part of the Royal Menagerie could be heard, and through the gateway of the thirteenth century Byward Tower. The sight of the White Tower and the Royal Apartments loomed large, but for Alice there was no hope of being accommodated in any such luxury. Like her husband before her, she was led past the jeering guards where she was confronted by the sight of the building that contained her new home.
‘Enclosed within two wards’, the thirteenth century Cold Harbour Gate had been built by Henry III as a gatehouse to provide an entrance between the royal palace and the White Tower beyond. It was an imposing sight, but it was nothing compared to what lay within. The gatehouse now contained cells used for housing prisoners, and it was here, in the innermost ward of the Tower, that Alice was taken. Furthermore, the location of her cell was so remote that access to her was difficult, and more poignantly, there was a lesser risk of escape.
She was locked in a dungeon that no matter the time of day was almost permanently plunged into darkness, the only light emanating from a few small flickering candles and the wall brackets. What was more, despite the summer heat Alice’s dungeon was bitterly cold and damp, with no means of warmth. With no money with which to purchase necessities, her cell was less than sparsely furnished: a pile of filthy straw on the cold stone floor was the only provision of a bed. As if this were not bleak enough, Alice was also shackled to the walls in iron manacles, leaving her with no freedom to move around her cell. The conditions were appalling, not to mention completely undignified for a young woman who was guarded solely by men. Alice was forced to contend with these indignities and depravations; she had broken the law in the most horrific way, and would have to suffer the consequences. It was a desperately miserable prospect from which there appeared to be little hope of release.
Alice was not the only woman imprisoned at this time who was forced to endure abysmal living conditions. Confined nearby in the same tower was Elizabeth Barton, the infamous ‘Nun of Kent’ who had been imprisoned for heresy. Elizabeth had arrived at the Tower only two months earlier, having been arrested for uttering in an increasingly hysterical fashion that the King ‘shall not be king a month after he married the Queen’s grace’, and that his divorce from Katherine of Aragon was illegal. Furthermore, she claimed to have received divine revelations and made prophesies to this effect. Inevitably such protestations soon came to the attention of the authorities. Before long her name and reputation had spread, and it is wholly conceivable, if not likely, that Alice was aware of who she was before she came to be occupying a nearby cell. It has been suggested that the two women may even have shared their confinement, as documents relating to their cases were apparently kept in the same file by the King’s chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell. It is certainly possible that they came into verbal contact, but it seems unlikely that the women were ever granted any physical access to one another. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Barton, who claimed to be pious, would have been interested in striking up a friendship with a common criminal.
Alice’s sense of turmoil as she was forced to suffer such an appalling confinement must have been profound. What was more, though she had not yet been condemned she realised that there was little hope of release; the nature of her crime was so heinous that her ultimate fate seemed certain. However, before this could be confirmed she would have to stand trial. It was not until the end of January 1534, after six months of imprisonment, that Alice’s day of reckoning arrived.
As the murders of the two foreign merchants had taken place on water, the Admiralty Court tried Alice in Southwark. The case may have been slightly unusual for the Court, who concerned themselves primarily with the dispensing of justice to pirates. Unmoved by Alice’s beauty or her charms, the Court shattered any hopes that she may have harboured of mercy: she was condemned and sentenced to a gruesome fate.
Taking no account of the frailty of her sex, the Court ruled that Alice should be hung on the pirates’ gallows at Wapping Old Stairs, close to the Tower. Otherwise known as Execution Dock, this was the traditional site for the execution of pirates, many of whom had been held in the nearby Marshalsea Prison. Alice was to be treated in the same way.
But that was not the end of it, for the hanging was merely a warm up act for the main event. In order to prolong the pain for as long as possible, the hangings were frequently conducted using only a short rope. This meant that the drop when the chair beneath them was removed was often not enough to break the prisoner’s neck – the means by which many victims were granted a mercifully quick death. The Court further decreed that following hanging, Alice – still alive – should be set in chains and left by the Stairs; when the tide came in she would be drowned. It was an agonisingly slow death.
It was also a humiliatingly public spectacle. Crowds often gathered along the riverbank and on boats to view such events, jeering at the condemned as they took their last desperate breaths. Little wonder that Alice was terrified at the thought of what awaited her. As if that were not enough, it was not uncommon for the bodies of executed pirates to be exhibited in gibbets along the Thames in order to provide a terrifying example to the citizens. Perhaps Alice had even seen these frightening displays on previous occasions, little realising that she would one day be condemned to join them.
With the horrifying reality of her fate laid out before her, Alice was returned to her gloomy cell in the Tower. Here she was to remain, under sentence of death until her execution could be carried out. No date had yet been set, but what was certain was that her days were numbered. With nothing to do but contemplate what agony lay ahead, the days in the Tower passed slowly for Alice. However, so great was her terror that she was determined not to wait until she received her final, deadly summons, or submit meekly to her fate. If there was a way out, Alice had resolved to take it. She was acutely conscious of her charms and the effect that her enticing allure had on members of the opposite sex, and it was this, Alice decided, that she would use to full effect in order to help her evade her doom. She had, after all, been amply successful in the past: now the stakes were infinitely higher.
Perhaps in an attempt to test the water, Alice first attempted to charm those who were charged with her care into easing the terms of her imprisonment. The stringent conditions in which she was kept were taking their toll, and even a woman of Alice’s vitality was struggling to abide them. In this task she enlisted the assistance of the
Lieutenant’s daughters. The girls, Mary and Alice, were young and impressionable, being yet to reach their teens: they were, in effect, easy targets for a woman of Alice’s experience. It is uncertain precisely how the youngsters came into contact with Alice, or how frequently; perhaps they occasionally accompanied their father as he made his daily rounds to inspect the Tower prisoners. What is certain is that within a short space of time Alice had managed to earn their sympathy. This brought about an immediate improvement in her circumstances, for the two young girls managed to persuade their father to release Alice from the iron chains in which she had been manacled.
As a prisoner of the lowest order, the chains were a part of the standard procedure of Tower imprisonment, and Alice’s release from them later drew disapproving comment. When the King’s ministers interrogated her, Alice confirmed that she had been spared such treatment through ‘the goodness and intercession of the Lieutenant’s daughters made unto the Lieutenant.’ She had clearly played the girls’ sympathy for all that it was worth, and this convinced her that there was hope of obtaining further liberties. Freedom to move around her cell was one thing, but it was not enough; Alice’s thoughts turned to something far more daring, ambitious, and dangerous.
The possibility of escape struck Alice relatively early on. She was doubtless aware of the fact that few who attempted such a daring feat were successful, and that it was a task that was impossible to accomplish singlehandedly. In order to stand any chance of success, she realised that she would have to employ her greatest, and only asset in order to win her the help that she needed. It was a chance that she was willing to take.
The Lieutenant’s daughters were not the only ones who had visited Alice in her lonely cell. Shortly after her arrival at the Tower, William Denys, a servant of the Lieutenant’s, had also paid her a visit. Little is known of Denys, but in no time at all he ‘often resorted to the said Alice’, and all too predictably he soon became besotted with the pretty prisoner. His proximity to the Lieutenant ensured that he was able to gain regular access to her, and Alice soon got to work on exploiting his good nature. Within several months, so enraptured was he with the beautiful and persuasive woman that Denys gave Alice exactly what she wanted: he ‘showed her a secret way how she might be conveyed out of the Tower’.
Precisely what the ‘secret way’ Denys referred to was is uncertain, but as a gentleman with thorough knowledge of the fortress, Alice had good reason to believe that it was genuine. She had struck gold. It says much for her powers of persuasion that she was able to earn the trust and sympathy of so many, and that she was able to extract such information. By revealing such intelligence, both Denys and Alice would have been aware that he had placed himself in great danger.
Before the plans could develop any further, however, the Lieutenant learned of the frequent visits that his assistant had been paying to his prisoner. His suspicions were aroused; almost certainly aware of the how fond Denys had grown of Alice and unwilling to take any chances, the Lieutenant duly decided that the best course of action was to dismiss his servant from his post. With Denys gone, so too vanished any hopes of escape plans that Alice had hatched with him: she was devastated. Unbeknown to Denys, he had had a lucky escape.
William Denys, however, was not the only man in the Tower with whom Alice came into contact; she was determined not to give up on her hopes of freedom. She was surrounded by guards, and quickly became familiar with them and their routine. They were, after all, still men, and many of them were susceptible to a pretty face. On none, however, did Alice’s looks have greater impact than John Bawde. He could not have known it, but Bawde’s infatuation and association with Alice would prove to have devastating consequences.
By the very nature of his station Bawde was in a position of the greatest trust; a letter from John Grenville to Lord Lisle in March 1534 confirms that the Lieutenant held him in high regard. Furthermore, Bawde was already familiar with his pretty prisoner, for ‘When her husband Wolfe was prisoner in the Tower a year ago she often came to see him, and Bawde then became acquainted with her’. It seems that the two had struck up a friendship, and Bawde had also been on good terms with Wolfe. So much so, that ‘When her husband had his liberty … he asked Bawde to be friendly to her’. In no time at all, Bawde had fallen hopelessly under Alice’s spell.
With Alice herself now a prisoner, she played on Bawde’s feelings for all that they were worth. He in turn ‘Was able to see her so often in the Tower as he was trusted and beloved by the Lieutenant’. Before long, however, like Denys before him, word reached the Lieutenant that Bawde had been spending more time with his charge than was appropriate. Thus, he was ‘once blamed by the Lieutenant for speaking to her’. Unlike Denys, Bawde played down the nature of his visits to Alice; he was so convincing that the Lieutenant believed him, and allowed him to resume his role as her guard. It was a fatal mistake.
Alice knew that her time was running out, for shortly after her trial ‘The Lieutenant told her that the lords of Parliament had passed the act against her, and bade her take it well, and thank God for it’. Those who had sat in judgement upon her were determined that she ought not to escape justice and the full rigours of the law. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell, one of Alice’s prosecutors vehemently implored him to ensure that she received her full sentence, for ‘if that diabolic woman escape, we shall be in great jeopardy’. This all suggests that Alice had acquired a reputation; she had almost certainly been involved in other crimes.
Nevertheless, she was in utter terror at the prospect of her impending gruesome fate, and her desperation grew as the hour of her death drew ever closer. In March she learnt from the Lieutenant that ‘there was no remedy with her but death’: her panic intensified. She had been told that her execution would take place that same month, and realised that urgent action was required if she were to stand any chance of survival. She knew how susceptible Bawde was to her charms, and determined to use this in order to secure her freedom. For his part, so infatuated had he become by Alice that when she begged him ‘for the honour and passion of Christ to help to convey her away, which Denys would have done if he had not been put away’, he found himself quickly agreeing. Alice had convinced him of her mutual affection towards him, but her professed feelings were all part of a ploy.
With the love struck and naïve Bawde’s loyalty assured, the couple turned their thoughts to Alice’s escape. To Alice, it seemed that once again she had good reason to hope for freedom: after all, she already had a clear advantage. All now depended on Bawde, who had determined to risk everything and betray his sovereign for the love of a woman. It was a gamble, and one that would prove to be his undoing.