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The death of Francis Wood, 1659, Cheshire

(Documents from The National Archives, CHES 24/132/3: gaol file, Spring 1659)

EXAMINING WITNESSES: Selected coroner's examinations

witness examination 1659
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Examinacons taken att Adswood in Cheadle within the aforesaid county of Chester, the twenty eight day of March, in the yeare of our Lord one thousand sixe hundred fifty and nyne; before William Worrall gent: one of the coroners of his highness Richard Lord Protector of the commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland [etc]...

Richard Aynsworth of Cheadlehulme in Cheadle aforesaid husbandman aged thirty two yeares or thereabouts sworne and examined deposeth and saith that upon Wednesday last being the three and twentieth day of this instant march he this ext and one Francis Wood John Massey, Richard Falkner, William Bancrofte taylor and one John Leigh all of the parish of Cheadle aforesaid, went unto the house of one John Hudson in Cheadle aforesaid alekeeper, on purpose in a freindly manner to spend their two pence apeice in ale where they stayed foure or five houres drinking, in which tyme the said John Leigh was growen very disordered and soe this ext and the said Francis Wood went away to goe homewards and in their goeing homewards they found the said John Leigh very drunke (as this ext conceived) in the lane neare the parsonage house of Cheadle aforesaid offering to pull downe the pale belonging to the said parsonage house, whereupon this ext and the said Francis Wood, went unto the said John Leigh, and intreated him to goe home, but he was soe disordered that he tooke noe notice of them, but was returneing unto the said alehouse, which caused them to followe him still to perswade him to goe home, and the said Francis Wood being his next neighbor overtooke him the said John Leigh, and tooke hold on him, and used many loving intreaties to perswade him to goe home, but could not prevaile with him, and soe came away and left him, whereupon the said John Leigh tooke upp a great stone in his hand, but said unto this ext Dick I will doe thee noe harme, and soe throwed the said stone, att the said Francis Wood and hitt him on the syde of the head, whereupon the said Francis Wood suddenly fell downe, and lay as if he had beene dead, and was not able to rise till this ext and one Edward Axon lifted him upp, neither could he speake, but as soone as he was able to speake, he said Lord have mercy upon me, I thinke he hath slaine me. And thereupon he this ext and the said Edward Axon, ledd him back into the said Hudsons, he not being able to goe himselfe, and laied him on a bedd, being very sick, and this ext stayed with him till his freindes came unto him, during which tyme he complained he was sick and vomitted, and then this ext went away: And this ext alsoe saith that the next day after he this ext went to see the said Francis Wood att his owne house whither he was informed he came the night he was hurt, and this ext asked him howe he did, whoe replyed he was prettie well, and hoped he should doe well, but said he was troubled with a huzing in his head: And this ext saith he dyed on Saturday morneing last, but whether of the said blowe or not he knowes not: And this ext alsoe saith that the said Francis Wood had noe weapon in his hand, neither had he given the said Leigh any blowe, before he throwed the said stone, And further deposeth not. /

Edward Axon of Cheadle in the county of Chester husbandman aged thirty yeares or thereabouts sworne and examined deposeth and saith that upon Wednesday last being the three and twentith day of this instant March about five of the clock in the afternoone he this ext was about his masters worke in a stable in Cheadle aforesaid, and he was called by one John Arderne of Miles End in Stockport gent to beare testimony howe he was abused by one John Leigh of Cheadlehulme in Cheadle aforesaid, whoe was very drunck, and this ext heard him call the said Mr Arderne a cavaleere rogue and soe drewe a knife and said he would kill him or one John Massey, whoe was then with the said Mr Arderne, and soe runn att them with his knife, but the said John Massey, laied hold on him, and soe [obscured 3 words] and the said Mr Arderne tooke hold of the knife and broke it: And thereupon he the said John Leigh went away from them, towards the church raileing one Mr Harrison, the parson of Cheadle, and a good minister, calling him a robber, but as he returned there mett him one Francis Wood his next neighbour, and one Richard Aynsworth whoe offered to perswade him to goe home, but he would not, but abused and struck att them and spurned att them, yet they were not movedatt it, but still lovingly desired him to goe home, and soe he was goeing with them homewards 9as this ext conceived) and still he railed towards Mr Harrison, and offered to pull downe the pale att the parsonage where the said Mr Harrison lived, on purpose (as this ext then conceived) to have gott to the said Mr Harrison or his servants calling him to come forth false robber, and threwed a stone, att the said Mr Harrisons man, one James Chorleton but he was soe drunc[k] that he fell downe, and the said Francis Wood helped him upp, and still perswaded him to goe home telling him he did discreditt himselfe, but could not prevail with him insomuch as the said Richard Aynsworth said to the said Francis Wood, let us goe and leave him for he will not goe with us, noe said Francis Wood I would gladly have him home, and thereupon againe lovingly desired him to goe home for if he would not he would leave him, whereupon John leigh said, if thou turne thy back on me I will give thee something, noe said Francis Wood, I will not turne my back on yow I would rather have yow to goe hom with mee, And soe without any more wordes he the said John Leigh tooke upp a great stone and throwed att him the said Francis Wood, and hitt him on the left syde of his head, upon which blowe he fell downe suddenly, and soe the said Richard Aynsworth and this ext helped him upp, but he was neither able to stand nor speake, and soe they ledd him unto the house of one John Hudson of Cheadle aforesaid alekeeper, and laid him on a bedd, and soe this ext left him, but remembers not that he heard him speake: And he further siath, he did not heare the said Francis wood give him the said John leigh any provoking language or other gesture, but lovingly perswade him to goe home: And this ext further saith that the said Francis Wood dyed on Saturday last, but whether he dyed of that blowe given him by the said stone or noe he this ext knowes not: And further cannot depose.

Mary Bancrofte of Cheadle aforesaid spinster aged twentie foure yeares or thereabouts sworne and examined deposeth and saith that upon Wednesday last being the three and twentith day of this instant March about five of the clock in the afternoone, she this ext was in a stable belonging to one Thomas Walworth in Cheadle aforesaid and she heard one Francis Wood intreate one John Leigh (standing neare the church yard) to goe home with him, but John Leigh replyed he would not goe with him, and thereupon one Richard Aynsworth (whoe was alsoe with them) said unto Francis Wood I pray yow lett us goe and leave him, and soe Francis Wood offered to goe from him, and soe John Leigh said wilt thou turne thy back on me noe said Francis Wood I will not, and imediatly John Leigh threwe a great stone att Francis Wood, and hitt him on the head, and thereupon he suddenly fell downe, but could not rise upp himselfe, and soe she sawe he was helped upp by some one, but by whom she knowes not, and presently as he was helped upp, she heard him say Lord have mercy on mee: And this ext further saith she hath haerd that Francis Wood dyed on Saturday last: And she alsoe saith that she beleives he dyed of the blowe given by the said stone which she is the rather induced to beleive to bee true in regard that the said Francis Wood fell downe soe suddenly after the blowe and not being able to goe without helpe of others: And further she cannot depose.

CORONER'S INQUEST: Inquisition post mortem

coroner's inquest
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An inquisition indented and taken att Adswood in Cheadle within the aforesaid county of Chester the twenty eight day of March in the yeare of our Lord one thousand & sixe hundred fifty nyne, before William Worrall gentleman one of the coroners of his highnes Richard Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland and the dominions and territories thereunto belonging in the county aforesaid upon the veiwe of the body of one Francis Wood late of Adswood aforesaid husbandman then and there lying dead, by the oathes of Hugh Stanley, John Bailiffe, John Hough, Richard Prince, Hugh Daniell, Raphe Smith, William Byrch, Thomas Hoult, William Browne, Jeffrey Caldall, Nathaniell Hayfeild, Henry Collier, Thomas Smith, Rodger Worthington, John Royle, William Smith, William Devias and John Smith jurors of approved and lawfull men of the county aforesaid, whoe upon their oathes doe say that John Leigh of Cheadlehulme in Cheadle aforesaid husbandman the three and twentith day of March in the yeare of our Lord one thousand sixe hundred & fifty eight, in the high streete in Cheadle aforesaid, not haveing god before his eyes, but by the instigation of the divell, being thereunto moved and seduced and of his owne malice forehad and forethought, with force and armes, in and upon the aforesaid Francis Wood then and there (in Cheadle streete aforesaid) in Gods peace and the publiques being, an assault did make; and the aforesaid John Leigh then and there takeing upp, into his right hand, a certaine massey stone of noe value, he the said John Leigh, then and there in the streete in Cheadle aforesaid feloniously voluntarily and malitiously, and of his owne malice forehad and forethought, did throwe the aforesaid stone, att him the said Francis Wood, and with the stone aforesaid, then and then [sic] and there with the stone aforesaid upon the left syde of his head, one mortall wound being a crush and bruise, of which said mortall wound crush and bruise, he the aforesaid Francis Wood from the aforesaid three and twentith day of March in the yeare of our Lord one thousand sixe hundred & fifty eight aforesaid, untill the twentie sixth day of the same month of March then next following being in the yeare of our Lord one thousand sixe hundred fifty nyne, att Adswood aforesaid languished, which said twentie sixth day of March he the aforesaid Francis Wood of the mortall wound crushing and bruiseing aforesaid att Adswood aforesaid dyed. And soe the jurors aforesaid upon [(creased) their oaths say that John Leigh] voluntarily and malitiously and of his owne malice forehad and forethought, did kill and murder, contrary to the publique peace. And furthermore the jurors aforesaid upon their their [sic] oathes aforesaid doe say, that the aforesaid John Leigh att the tyme of the felony and murder aforesaid had in goods to the value of eight pounds twelve shillinges and two pence and that they doe remaine in the handes of Mary Leigh wife of the aforesaid John Leigh. In wittnes whereof as well the aforesaid coroner, as the jurors aforesaid to this present inquisition have putt to their seales. [parchment]

Notes

Language: Until the 1730s, this type of document was normally written in Latin, except - as in this case - during the Interregnum period in the 1650s.

Dating: Until the eighteenth century the official start of a new year was not 1 January but 25 March; there are only three days - not a year and three days! - between the assault and the death of Francis Wood. Again, dating from the birth of Christ (A.D.) appears in this type of formal legal document only during the Interregnum; at other times such documents used 'regnal years', ie dating from the accession of the monarch on the throne at the time of the offence.

'Approved and lawfull men': qualifications for jury service were usually based on holding property (and being male). However, the requirements could be quite modest and include the holding of rented and leased property, not just freehold ownership of land. It depended on the type of jury. A coroner's jury was likely to consist of relatively modest status men and was drawn from the local population, rather than the whole county.

TRIAL: The Indictment

indictment
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The jurors for his highnes Richard Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England Scotland and Ireland and the dominions and terrytories thereunto belonginge upon theire oath doe present that John Leigh late of Cheadlehulme in the county of Chester aforesayd husbandman the three and twentieth day of March in the yeare of our Lord one thowsand sixe hundred fifty and eight not haveinge the feare of god before his eyes but by the instigacion of the divell beinge moved and seduced with force and armes at Cheadleholme aforesayd in the county aforesayd feloniously voluntarily and of his malice forethought in and upon one Frauncis Wood in the peace of God and the publique peace then and there beinge an assault and an affray did make And that hee the aforesayd John Leigh one stone of noe value which hee the aforesayd John Leigh in his right hand then and there had and held then and there at and against the aforesayd Frauncis Wood violently feloniously voluntarily and of his malice forethought did throwe and him the aforesayd Frauncis Wood in and upon the lefte syde of the head of him the sayd Frauncis Wood then and there with the stone aforesayd feloniously voluntarily and of his malice forethought did strike and bruise of which sayd stroke and bruise hee the aforesayd Frauncis Wood from the aforesayd three and twentieth day of March in the yeare aforesayd untill the sixe and twentieth day of the same mounth of March in the yeare aforesayd one thowsand six hundred fifty nine at Cheadlehulme aforesayd in the countey aforesayd did languish which sayd sixe and twentieth day of March in the yeare of our lord one thowsand six hundred fifty nyne aforesayd hee the aforesayd Frauncis Wood of the stroke and bruise aforesayd at Cheadlehulme aforesayd in the county aforesayd died And soe the jurors aforesayd upon theire oath aforesayd doe saye that the aforesayd John Leigh the aforesayd Frauncis Wood the aforesayd sixe and twentieth day of March in the yeare of our Lord one thowsand six hundred fiftie and nyne aforesaid at Cheadleholme aforesayd in the county aforesayd in manner and forme aforesayd feloniously voluntaryly and of his malice forethought did kill and murder against the publique peace [parchment]

Notes

Although this virtually replicates the wording of the inquisition (and coroner's inquisitions were sometimes used as indictments in court), there are slight differences so it seemed worth setting out both in full. The inquest has slightly different priorities and often contains more detail. It can also be very slightly less 'legalistic' - a coroner was not a legal professional, unlike the court clerks who drew up indictments. So, in this case there are slightly fewer 'aforesaids' and repetitions in the inquest.

'The jurors for...'. This doesn't refer to the coroner's jury, but to the grand jury, which considered the prosecution evidence for all bills of indictment at the beginning of a court session and decided if there was sufficient evidence for a trial. If this was the case, they endorsed the bill 'billa vera' or 'true bill'. If not, 'ignoramus' (literally: 'we do not know') or 'no true bill'; usually that was the end of the prosecution. The grand jury could also make minor alterations to a bill before accepting it, eg crossing out the phrases relating to murderous intent ('in malice aforethought') to reduce the charges to manslaughter (felonious killing or 'felonice interfecit').

What happened after the grand jury had approved a bill of indictment depended on whether the defendant pleaded guilty or not guilty. In nearly all cases involving a capital charge - ie, the death penalty - no matter how strong the prosecution case, defendants pleaded not guilty and 'put themselves upon the country', as it was called ('ponit se super patriam' in Latin, usually abbreviated to 'po. se.'. This seems to have been because it was during the course of the trial that a defendant would have the opportunity to call character witnesses and plead mitigating factors, both of which could make a significant difference to the jury's decision and the prisoner's fate.

THE VERDICT: Jury Return

jury verdicts
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Summary and notes

The first entry below the list of jurors' names reads: John Leigh - trial for "murder for ye death of Francis Wood"; the line above his name says "pu" ("put himself upon the country": that is, he pleaded not guilty); "gu [found guilty] of manslaughter". Notes in margin: "Read", "burned", "bail". [parchment]

The other entries on the jury return are: Thomas Whiteley, burglary: not guilty: bailed; Robert Wollam and Edward Griffith, burglary: guilty of felony only: read for benefit of clergy, branding, bailed; Elizabeth Johnson, witchcraft: not guilty; remanded in custody; Hugh Kinsey, horse theft: not guilty: bailed; Thomas Leigh, burglary: not guilty: bailed

The layout of a jury return is at first slightly confusing, but quite easy to follow once you know how they were put together. First is the list of jurors' names. (These jurors seem to be of unusually high status for a trial jury; all are given the addition 'gent(leman)'; whether that was accurate may be another matter.) Then the names of the defendants (and the charges) were listed below that, leaving space between each one in order to insert the verdict above each name at the end of their trial. Finally, the notes in the left hand margin give further information (though this was not often added) about the sentence and whether the prisoners were released, bailed to appear at the next session or remanded in custody. Those who were bailed were usually discharged at the next session of the court; it was probably a useful form of temporary supervision and check on their behaviour.

The verdicts in this document indicate the extent of jury 'discretion'. Only a minority of defendants tried for capital felony were convicted; but moreover only a minority of those convicted were convicted of the full capital charge and sentenced to hang. Juries brought in 'reduced' or 'partial' verdicts in a variety of ways, primarily by reducing the 'seriousness' of charges or by reducing the value of goods stolen. None of the seven defendants tried by this jury were executed, although three of them were convicted.

This is the significance of the marginal note that Leigh 'read' and was 'burned' (it doesn't mean he was sentenced to death by burning!). Men convicted of manslaughter, along with a host of other common-law capital felonies, could claim 'benefit of clergy' and escape execution (see glossary); but offences that were regarded as particularly serious - including premeditated murder, burglary and robbery (theft from the person), horse theft - were excluded from this legal loophole.