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Pre-Reformation London Summoners and the Murder of Richard Hunne

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011


The apparitor, usually known by his popular name, the summoner, is a minor character in ecclesiastical administration. Most of what we know about summoners has come from literature, notably from Chaucer's scathing portrait in The Canterbury Tales where the summoner is not given any of the saving graces allowed to other scoundrel-pilgrims. Chaucer's summoner, although an officer of the church courts of moral correction, practised bribery and extortion, and in his illicit sex life ‘was as hot…and lecherous as a sparrow’ his lechery was written on his scabby, syphilitic face. It is not my purpose here to dispel literary illusion, but rather to take a hard look at the world of actual summoners – those with names and careers – in pre-Reformation London. I will then single out one summoner, Charles Joseph, and examine his role in that early sixteenth-century cause célèbre: the affair of Richard Hunne. Joseph, after all, confessed to the murder of Hunne in 1514 and even implicated the vicar-general of London in the crime. With new evidence about summoners, I hope to offer a plausible solution to this baffling case.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1982

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1 Prologue, 11. 623–37; Garbaty, Thomas J., ‘The Summoners' occupational disease’, Medical History, vii (1963), 348–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 353–7.

2 London, Guildhall Library Muniment Room, MSS 9064/i–xi, Acta Quoad Correctionem Delinquentium (hereafter cited as Acta Correct.).

3 Records of the Consistory Court are kept at the Greater London Record Office: MS DL/C/i, Liber Assignationum.

4 Friars Tale, 11. 1366–7 (my modernised version).

5 Fish, Simon, A Supplication for the Beggars (Early English Text Society, 1971), 2Google Scholar.

6 The supplication of the commons is reprinted in full in G. R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution, Cambridge i960, 324–6.

7 Woodcock, Brian, Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury, London 1952, 49, 69Google Scholar; he relies on Hale, W. H. (ed.), A Series of Precedents and Proceedings in Criminal Causes..., London 1847, pp. lviilviiiGoogle Scholar (incorrectly cited by Woodcock as lxiii).

8 Acta Correct., vi, fos. 100r, 106r. The three cases are discussed briefly in my book, London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation, Cambridge, Mass. 1981, 37–8Google Scholar.

9 For such notations see the Liber Assignationum, fo. 55r (Richard Kirton) and fo. 86v (Richard Forster). On literacy in sixteenth-century England, see Schofield, R. S., ‘The measurement of literacy in pre-industrial England’, in Goody, Jack (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge 1968, 311–25, at pp. 314–16Google Scholar; and Simon, Joan, Education and Society in Tudor England, Cambridge 1966, 4, 15Google Scholar.

10 Acta Correct., iii. fo. 241r. For a commission to an apparitor, William Plumar (from St Nicholas Fleshmals in London), see: Guildhall Library Muniment Room, Acta Testamentorum, MS 9168/i. fo. 40r. Plumar does not appear again by name in extant records.

11 E.g., William James, 31 years; John Edward, 29 years; Thomas Kirkman, at least 18 years; Richard Kirton, at least 12 years (possibly 32 years if his marginal initial was ‘k'); James Patenson, 23 years; Richard Forster, at least 33 years. All apparitors appear passim in the margins of appropriate volumes of Acta Correct.

12 The register of Archbishop John Morton, for instance, contains a commission to a certain John Medewall to be an apparitor for the dean of the Arches; yet Medewall did not appear in any London diocesan court as a summoner. (Lambeth Palace Library, Register Morton, i. fo. 10r–v.) And two apparitors of the archdeacon of London, William Stamford alias Paynter and John Archepoll, were separately charged with immorality in the London Commissary Court; neither, however, appears as a summoner in London diocesan court records. (Acta Correct., iv. fo. 201 v; xi. fo. 247v.)

13 See Wunderli, London Church Courts, 7–10, 19–20.

14 Figures are taken from Acta Correct., v. fos. 71v–173v; ix. fos. 2r–r100r; and xi. fos. 114r–76v.

15 See Acta Correct., i. passim under ‘F'; and Liber Assignationum, passim, but especially fo. 86v.

16 He was set apart from other court summoners by the curious fact that he rarely delivered court summonses. In 1493, for instance, when 931 citations were issued by the Commissary Court alone, Forster delivered only sixteen, about the same as any of the fringe group of casual summoners. Forster was no more active in probate courts. As the supervisor of other summoners, Forster probably received a portion of their fees to compensate for not delivering citations.

17 For example, in 1511 Charles Joseph, titled apparitor general, charged another summoner in court, John Phillips, titled sworn apparitor, for recovery of a small debt. But in that same year Phillips delivered more citations (28) than Joseph (17). Also, two regular apparitors, William James and John Martin, were called sworn apparitors on occasion. It appears that all apparitors were ‘sworn'; only a few had general commissions. See Acta Correct., xi. fo. 1r (Joseph vs. Phillips: in Latin the titles respectively are apparitor generalis and apparitor juratus); xi. fo. 10r (James and Martin).

18 E.g., All Hallows Staining paid 8d. ‘to [Richard] Forstar for warning of the abbot of tourrehyll to my lord' (Guildhall Library Muniment Room, MS 4956/i, fo. 52r). See also MS 2968/i, fos. 48v, 51v (St Dunstan's in the West); MS 4570/i, fos. 32v, 33r (St Margaret Pattens); MS 1239/i, fo. 78v (St Mary at Hill); and MS 1454, roll 24 (St Botolph Aldersgate).

19 For two rare cases in which separate fees for scribe and summoner were noted, see Acta Correct., iv. fo. 10v (Defendants: Lodowicus Ambrose and Johannes Harvey). In each case the summoner received 10d.

20 Rogers, J. E. T., A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, Oxford 1882, iii. 616Google Scholar, 618, 620, 621.

21 Wunderli, London Church Courts, 19–23.

22 Computed by Woodcock, Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts, 77, n. 3, from Rogers, J. E. T., Six Centuries of Work and Wages, London 1894, 388Google Scholar.

23 See Brenner, Y. S., ‘The inflation of prices in early sixteenth century England’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., xiv (1961–2), 225–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Brown, E. H. Phelps and Hopkins, Sheila V., ‘Wage-rates and prices: evidence for population pressure in the sixteenth century’, Economica, N.S., xxiv (1957), 289306CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Acta Correct., v. fos. 20r, 24v, 25r, 61v, 104v, 113v, 123v, 127v, 130r, 132r, 145r, 167v; vi. fos. 92v, 102r, 112r, 147v–8r, 168r, 171r. No court book exists for the first half of 1492 or for 1494. During each of the years of the early 1490s over a thousand defendants were cited to court.

25 Ibid., v. fo. 145r; viii. fo. 175v.

26 E.g., ibid., iv. fo. 201 v: charges against the apparitor of the archdeacon of London, William Stamford alias Paynter.

27 Ibid., iv. fos. 228v, 313r.

28 Ibid., xi. fo. 129v (August 1513): Kyrkham said ‘quod est [i.e., Joseph] gravissimus pronuba [sic] et fautor lenocinii'. ‘Pronuba' was used for both male and female pimps. A ‘fautor lenocinii' was used in court books for one who encourages (usually the verb is fovet) sexual acts; the distinction seems to be that a pronuba provided prostitutes for clients, and a fautor lenocinii provided a place for illicit sexual acts.

29 Ibid., xi. fo. 160r.

30 Basic source materials for Hunne's case are Hall, Edward, Hall's Chronicle, London 1809Google Scholar, and Foxe, John, Acts and Monuments, London 1837Google Scholar, both of which reprint the coroner's inquest report of Hunne's death. A discussion of the coroner's inquest report as well as other sources may be found in Davis, E. Jeffries, ‘The authorities for the case of Richard Hunne, 1514–1515’, E.H.R., xxx (1915), 477–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For recent finds see Milsom, S. F. C., ‘Richard Hunne's “Praemunire”’, E.H.R., lxxvi (1961), 80–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Fines, J., ‘The post-mortem condemnation for heresy of Richard Hunne’, E.H.R., lxxviii (1963), 528–31Google Scholar.

31 Elton, G. R., Reform and Reformation, Cambridge, Mass. 1977, 53Google Scholar.

32 Both Edward Hall and John Foxe assumed that the entire affair took place within a few months in 1514. Later writers have agreed on the constricted time sequence. See Gairdner, J., The English Church in the 16th Century, London 1902Google Scholar; Pollard, A. F., Wolsty, London 1929, 3242Google Scholar; and Ogle, Arthur, The Tragedy of the Lollard's Tower, Oxford 1949Google Scholar.

33 Milsom, ‘Richard Hunne's “Praemunire”', and Fines, ‘The post-mortem condemnation'. The exact date of Joan Baker's abjuration is not clear from the entry in Bishop Fitzjames's register. See Guildhall Library Muniment Room, Register of Richard Fitzjames, MS 9531/ix. fos. 25r-v, 26r; also printed by Davis, ‘The authorities for the case of Richard Hunne', 484–7. See also Foxe, Acts and Monuments, iv. 174–5 who gives the year of Baker's persecution as 1510.

34 Elton, Reform and Reformation, 52.

35 St Mary Matfellon, where Hunne's infant was sent to nurse, was in London jurisdiction, as was Hunne's own parish, St Margaret Bridgestreet; neither was one of the archbishop's ‘peculiar' parishes in London over which the archbishop had jurisdiction.

36 Corporation of London Records Office, Repertories, ii (1505–13), fo. 122r (modern numbering in pencil). The rector of St Michael Cornhill was John Wardropper, a pluralist who probably had little to do with his parish. The parson of St Michael's was Nicholas Richards, a paid curate. We know of Richards because he was charged with incontinence in 1511, and confessed to having fornicated two years earlier (Acta Correct., xi. fo. 70v).

37 Hennessey, George, Novum Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense, London 1898, 467Google Scholar. St Mary Matfellon had a new rector by 2 March 1513. Writers on the Hunne affair, e.g., Arthur Ogle, should have recognised this obvious fact when they placed the entire dispute between Dryffeld and Hunne between October and December 1514. For Dryffeld see also Emden, A. B., Biographical Register of the University of Oxford, Oxford 1959, i. 596–7Google Scholar.

38 Milsom, ‘Richard Hunne's “Praemunire”', 82 (spelling and punctuation of Marshall's words have been modernised).

39 J. D. M. Derrett surmises that Hunne, in fact, may have been excommunicated. However, we have no evidence of this. If Hunne had been excommunicated he would not have been allowed to sue in a royal court. See Derrett, J. D. M., ‘The affair of Richard Hunne and Friar Standish’, in Trapp, J. B. (ed.), The Complete Works of Thomas More, New Haven/London 1979, ix. 215–46Google Scholar, at p. 224.

40 See Ogle, The Lollard's Tower, 52–3. On the issue of a conflict between canon and common law raised by Hunne, see Schoeck, R. J., ‘Common Law and Canon Law in their relation to Thomas More’, in Sylvester, R. S. (ed.), Thomas More: Action and Contemplation, New Haven/London 1972, 2342Google Scholar.

41 See Hennessey, Novum Repertorium, 467–8.

42 Milsom, ‘Richard Hunne's “Praemunire”', 80–2.

43 Supplication of Soules, in Works of Sir Thomas More Knight,. London 1557, 297–8. A contemporary chronicler noted that Hunne was not charged with heresy until October 1514 (Arnold, Richard, The Customs of London, ed. Douce, Francis, London 1811, xlixGoogle Scholar).

44 Fines, ‘The post-mortem condemnation', 528. We do not know who actually arrested him.

45 Foxe, Acts and Monuments, iv. 184. Entries concerning Richard Hunne have long since disappeared from Fitzjames's register. We must rely on the word of John Foxe, who claimed to have seen these words.

46 Hall, Chronicle, 580. See Davis, ‘The authorities', 477–9, who notes that the documents that Hall copied (and that Foxe then copied from Hall) were probably genuine, although Hall was probably relying on a copy made later than 1536.

47 Pollard, Wolsey, 34. The nature of this court is mystifying. It was technically, perhaps, a provincial convocation in which other bishops were meeting under the authority of the dean of the province, the bishop of London; but Wolsey's presence then becomes inexplicable.

48 Cf. Wriothesley, Charles, A Chronicle of England (Camden Society, 2nd ser., xi. 1815), 9Google Scholar; Wriothesley made the famous and cynical remark that Hunne ‘was made an heretique for suing a praemunire'.

49 Derrett, in ‘The affairs of Richard Hunne and Friar Standish', 215–46, argues in support of More's judgment of the Hunne affair – and, more important for Derrett, argues for More's reliability and honesty as a witness.

50 Hall, Chronicle, 575.

51 Ibid., 575–6.

52 Pollard, Wolsey, 41 (note).

53 Hall, Chronicle, 574.

54 Acta Correct., xi. fo. 1I94r: the last entry for Charles Joseph as a summoner (20 September); his next-to-last entry in the court book is on fo. 192V (2 September). Only three other citations were issued by the court for the rest of September after Joseph's last appearance; therefore, it is unlikely that Joseph would have delivered any more citations in September. He was probably relieved of his duties in mid-October when Robert David first makes his regular appearances (from fo. 198r).

55 The date of Hunne's arrest is uncertain but a contemporary chronicler said that it was in October 1514. See Arnold, The Customs of London, xlix. Cf. Derrett in ‘The affairs of Richard Hunne and Friar Standish', 224, who assumes without evidence that Hunne had been arrested in the spring of 1513, shortly after hispraemunire suit, and that this ‘long time in prison...will have undermined his morale...', thus driving him to suicide.

56 This interpretation was suggested to me by Professor John T. Noonan, Jr.

57 Hall, Chronicle, 576.

58 Ibid., 579.

59 See Pollard, Wolsey, 51, 178.

60 More, Supplication, in Works, 299.

61 Hall, Chronicle, 576.