Monday 13 July 2020

Katherine Williamson and the Farnells of Newsholme

Some Society members may have come across the name of Richard Williamson whose widow Katherine petitioned Parliament for redress against his killers. More of this story has now been pieced together from the records of the court of King’s Bench.

The Williamsons lived in the East Riding market town of Howden; Richard Williamson’s alleged murderers all belonged to the little village of Newsholme two miles further north-east. Beyond Newsholme, the main road crossed the River Derwent by the Barmby ferry before continuing northward, through Hemingbrough and the hamlets of Barlby and Riccall, towards York.

On Thursday 1 October 1472 Richard Williamson was riding back home from Riccall. What his errand there had been we are not told, but he may have had connections there since towards the end of Edward IV’s first reign he had got himself into trouble by entering a close at Riccall belonging to Henry Babthorpe from which he had picked up goods to the value of 5 marks (£3 6s 8d); when Babthorpe’s servant had attempted to stop him, Williamson had fought back with such force that the man had been left unable to work for some time. Williamson’s motivation for this trespass is unknown.[1]

On the present occasion too, Williamson was well equipped for possible trouble, being armed with a sword and buckler (small shield) as well as a bow and a dozen arrows. All went well until he reached Barmby. As he was waiting for the ferry, the three Farnell brothers Robert, Richard and John, ‘defensibly arrayed, that is to say, with jakkes and salettes, and with force and armes, that is to say, with bowes, arrowes, swerdes and speres, . . . lay in a wayte to slee and murther the said Richard Williamson, and uppon hym then and there made a grete assaute and affraye, and hym there horribly smote with a spere, that he fell beside his hors to the grounde; and then the said mysdoers havyng noo mercy ne pite of hym, with their swordes smote of booth the handes of the same Richard Williamson, and oon of his armes above the elbowe, and hym houghsynued [i.e. hamstrung], and hym so dedely woonded and lefte hym there for dede’: though not before  having robbed him of all his weapons.  

Whilst Richard Williamson was dying of his wounds, the Farnell brothers returned home ‘and roode to the said Thomas their fader . . . ; and the said Thomas, knowyng all his said sonnes the forseid felonyez and murdres and robberies in fourme aforeseid to have doon, all theym and every of theym atte toune of Newsom aforesaid, the same day and dyvers tymes after, felonsly recetted and conforted.’
It is unfortunate that we have – as is usual – no hint in the indictment of either motive or evidence. Whether the killing was the by-product of highway robbery or the simple result of a squabble over places on the ferry, we have no way of knowing; nor do we know why Katherine Williamson believed the Farnell brothers to be responsible. So far as is yet known, they had never previously been accused of any crime; on the contrary, Thomas Farnell had been the plaintiff in several cases of debt prosecuted that year in the court of Common Pleas.[2]

After his sons arrived home, Thomas allegedly decided that they should all four protect themselves by entering the service of the (as yet unwitting) Duke of Gloucester, whose nearest seat was Pontefract Castle, 25 miles west of Howden. Parliament was due to open at Westminster on 6 October, but  Richard was running late, and was possibly still at home when the murder occurred, because when parliament opened he was still at Bedale,[3] just 10 miles east of Middleham and 50 miles north of Pontefract. It is not clear whether all four were taken into the Duke’s service, as it is claimed was their intention, or only the father; but when Katherine Williamson learned what had happened she too set off for Pontefract, where Richard heard her grisly tale.

Richard’s response, upon hearing Katherine’s complaint, was not what his new retainer had expected. The Duke had Thomas arrested and committed to the custody of Sir Ralph Assheton, the county sheriff, who took him to York Gaol. Thomas’ sons, however, successfully eluded arrest.

Katherine’s next step was to present a petition to the Commons in parliament. it is difficult to see how she could have drafted such a legally complex document, travelled to Westminster with speed and succeeded in having such an unusual petition accepted, probably after the official deadline of 15 October, without the support of the Duke of Gloucester or someone enjoying an equal level of influence and access to legal counsel. What Katherine wanted was for the King to furnish the Sheriff of Yorkshire with the necessary writs to bring the Farnells into King’s Bench for trial:
And if the said Robert, Richard Farnell, John and Thomas. . .  appere not afore the kyng in his said bench; that then they, and ich of theym so then not apperyng, stond and be convicted and atteynted of the said felonyez, murdres and robberiez, and have like jugement and execution, and like forfeitures, as usuelly is used in other atteyndres of feloniez, murdres and robberies, had by the commen lawe.
Katherine further pleaded that all four Farnells should be denied bail and held in Newgate for the duration of the trial.

The Bill was passed, and the required writs were then issued (quite when is not clear because they were, for administrative reasons, backdated to the first day of parliament). The first was a corpus cum causa commanding the Sheriff to bring into King’s Bench ‘on the octave of St. Hilary [20 January] . . .  Thomas Farnell . . . together with the cause of the same Thomas’ capture and detention in the foresaid prison. . . .’ The second writ commanded the Sheriff to make repeated proclamations in Howden summoning Robert, Richard and John Farnell to bring themselves into King’s Bench ‘to respond to such bill or bills, action or actions as the foresaid Katherine or any other person or persons would then prosecute against them, or any of them, for the foresaid felony, murder and robbery.’

On 30 November parliament was prorogued for the long Christmas break. On 19 December Sir Ralph Assheton issued the first of five proclamations at Howden summoning the three brothers to appear in court on the fourth day of pleas. On the octave of St. Hilary Katherine was present in King’s Bench to see Sir Ralph Assheton bring in Thomas Farnell to answer her charges. On that same day, the Justices of King’s Bench, in keeping with the terms of her statute, committed Thomas to Newgate Gaol. Later evidence indicates that Thomas pleaded Not Guilty and opted for a jury trial, which was scheduled for the Easter term. Thomas’ sons, however, failed to appear on their due date. The justices therefore decreed “that the same Robert, Richard Farnell and John should stand and be convicted and attainted of the foresaid felonies, murders and robberies in accordance with the tenor, form and effect of the foresaid Act, etc.”

By the time parliament reconvened on 8 February, Thomas Farnell had been in prison for four months, and his trial date was still over two months away. He too now presented a petition to the Commons. Complaining that he, “beyng of grete age, lyth and is kept in prisone, to his fynall destruction and grete payne, God knoweth, and like to dye in shorte tyme, withoute the comfort and relieff of your said maisterships,” he asked that they, of their “grete pite and blessed dispositions, wold pray the king. . . to lete the same Thomas to baille, uppon reasenable suertie to be founden that he shall kepe his day to hym lymyte by the said justices”. This Bill too was passed, so it may be assumed that Thomas Farnell spent the remainder of his time awaiting trial in more comfortable circumstances. Parliament was prorogued again before Easter, and Richard of Gloucester returned north.[4]

Thomas Farnell’s trial would have taken place in May, although the exact date is unknown. No description of the proceedings survives, but a memorandum reveals that the jury acquitted him, and that, as a result, Katherine Williamson was fined half a mark (6s 8d) for making false clamour. It must have been a disappointing outcome for her, but Thomas had paid for his attempt to protect his sons with four months in prison, and the three missing killers had been convicted in absentia.
Thomas Farnell was still living in 1477, but seems to have died before the end of Edward IV’s reign. His sons may later have been pardoned or acquitted because in 1484 the eldest, Robert, was sued together with his widowed mother for the theft of pasturage and hay from a close in Pontefract.[5]

Main Sources
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. C. Given-Wilson et al. (Woodbridge, 2005)
TNA KB 27/846, rot. 85r-86r, and KB 29/103, rot. 5r

by Marie Barnfield

[1] TNA CP 40/837, image no. d.446 on Anglo-American Legal Tradition (AALT) website.
[2] CP 40/841, AALT nos.  d. 1035, 1576, 1587, 1608.
[3] TNA KB 9/330, m. 23.
[4] TNA DL 29/648/10485, m. 12r.
[5] CP 40/861, AALT f. 703; CP 40/890, AALT d. 1528.