Category Archives: Fights and feuds

1722: Man murders rival by “breaking the muscles” of his yard

The ‘hanging tree’ at Walworth

In 1723, the mayor of Tenby, Thomas Athoe, and his son, also named Thomas, were apprehended and charged with murdering George Merchant. According to trial records, the two parties had quarrelled over the sale of some cattle. The Athoes also bore a grudge against George Merchant, who had “married a sweetheart of young Athoe’s”.

Seeking revenge, the Athoes tracked Merchant and his brother Thomas to a place called Holloway’s Water. Using “great sticks”, the Athoes knocked the Merchants from their horses and beat them viciously. They then fell into a frenzy of genital grabbing, George Merchant coming off the worst:

“Taking fast hold of [Thomas Merchant’s] privities, [Athoe Senior] pulled and squeezed him to such a violent degree that had he continued so doing a few minutes longer, it had been impossible for the poor man to have survived it. The pain he suffered is past expression, and yet it fell short of what his brother endured. Young Athoe… seized him by the privy members and, his yard being extended, be broke the muscles of it, and tore out one of his testicles, and calling to his father said ‘Now I have done George Merchant’s business!’ This horrible action occasioned a vast effusion of blood.”

As George Merchant lay dying, Athoe Junior caught hold of “the deceased’s nose with his teeth [and] bit it quite off”. Surgeons who examined Merchant’s body post mortem suggested that his wounds were “sufficient to have killed six or seven men”. The Athoes claimed to have acted in self-defence after being attacked by the Merchants, however, they produced no evidence of the aforementioned assault.

The Athoes were found guilty and transported to London. In July 1723, they were dispatched from a ‘hanging tree’ on the Canterbury Road, near present-day Walworth.

Source: Select Trials for Murders, Robberies, &c., Vol. 1, December 1720-October 1723. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1456: Trial by combat ends with penis biting, eye gouging

trial by combat
A more civilised form of medieval trial by combat, sans genital biting

In 1456, a Hampshire man named Thomas Whytehorne was found hiding in the New Forest, arrested and convicted of several charges of theft. To spare himself from execution, Whytehorne agreed to provide the authorities with names of his accomplices, as well as other local criminals. He also offered to stand combat against anyone who disputed his accusations.

Whytehorne was a large and powerful man, so there were no takers – until he informed against a local boatman named James Fyscher. A devoutly religious man, Fyscher did not take kindly to being falsely accused of a crime. As a result, he invoked his right to trial by combat. The local lord agreed to Fyscher’s request and handed down a set of regulations for his combat with Whytehorne:

“[Both] must be clothed all in white sheep’s leather… They should have in their hands two staves of green ash, of three foot in length… and on the other end a horn of iron, made in the shape of a ram’s horn, the small end as sharp as might be made… If their main weapon is broken they must fight with their hands, fists, nails, teeth, feet and legs… They should make their foul battle upon the most sorry and wretched land that can be found about the town… They both must be fasting… and if they need any drink, they must take their own piss.”

The trial by combat took place in the town of Winchester. Accounts suggest that public opinion was firmly against Whytehorne, a career criminal who had a reputation for dishonesty. Nevertheless, Whytehorne’s strength won him an early advantage after he managed to break Fyscher’s weapon.

The magistrate stopped the trial and disarmed both men, leaving them to fight ‘tooth and nail’.The two men wrestled, punched and pinched for a considerable length of time, pausing several times for a breather. Then it turned particularly nasty:

“They did fight with both their teeth, such as the leather of their clothing and their flesh was torn on many parts of their bodies. And then the false accuser [Whytehorne] cast the innocent [Fyscher] down upon the ground, and did bite his private member, causing the innocent to cry out. And then with a new strength, the innocent recovered to his knees that took the false accuser’s nose with his teeth and put a thumb into his eye, that the appellant cried out and prayed for mercy, admitting that he had accused falsely against him [Fyscher] and 18 other men.”

According to a contemporary chronicler, Whytehorne was immediately hanged for making false accusations. Fyscher was cleared and released, though he was by now severely wounded. The only thing said of Fyscher’s fate was that he “went home, become a hermit and within a short time died”.

Source: Gregory’s Chronicle, 1451-60. Cited in James Gairdner (ed.), A Citizen of London in the 15th Century, 1876. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1127: Trial by combat ends with testicle-tearing

As every attentive history student knows, trial by combat was a means of resolving disputes in early medieval Europe. If one party alleged criminal conduct or a grievance against another, without witnesses or evidence, the judge or lord might order the matter to be settled by combat. Whichever party emerged victorious – and remained alive – was considered vindicated both by God and the law.

Trial by combat was practised at various times all over Europe, though it was more common in the German-speaking regions. Needless to say, it was an ineffective and brutal means of dispensing justice.

One graphic account of trial by combat was recorded by the 12th-century chronicler Galbert of Bruges. In April 1127, a knight named Guy of Steenvoorde was suspected of involvement in the murder of Count Charles of Flanders. Guy was ordered to trial by combat against a loyalist knight named Herman the Iron – but it did not go well for the defendant:

“Guy unhorsed his adversary and pinned him down with his lance… Then [Herman] disembowelled Guy’s horse by running at him with his sword. Guy, having fallen from his horse, rushed at Herman with his sword drawn. There was a long and bitter struggle with clashing of swords, until both were exhausted [and] fell to wrestling. Herman fell on the ground and Guy did lay upon him, beating his face and eyes with iron gauntlets. But Herman lay prostrate, regained his strength from the cool of the earth and lay quiet, leading Guy to believe that he was victorious. But Herman moved his hand to Guy’s cuirass [apron armour] where he was not protected and seized him by the testicles, and summoning all his might hurled Guy from him. By this motion, all the lower parts of Guy’s body were broken [and he] gave up, crying out that he was beaten and was dying.”

Herman the Iron was declared victorious and Guy of Steenvoorde was dragged to the gallows, where he was finished off alongside other conspirators.

Source: Galbert of Bruges, De multro traditione, et occisione gloriosi Karoli, comitis Flandriarum, c.1129. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1664: Gent rides cheeky worker around Rotherham

The Copleys were a wealthy Yorkshire family boasting military officers, Members of Parliament and a lineage dating back to the Norman invasion. Lionel Copley (1607-75) served as a colonel with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. Evidence suggests that Copley was an erratic, autocratic and often brutal figure who was both feared and despised by his neighbours.

In 1664 Copley was accused of cruelly mistreating a local artisan who failed to show him due respect:

“At Rotherham on the 25th of September 1664 [he] beat Richard Firth, put a bridle into his mouth, got on his back and rode him about for half an hour, kicking him to make him move.”

Copley’s son, also named Lionel, seems to have inherited his violent streak. The junior Lionel Copley was commissioned in the Foot Guards and in 1681 was appointed lieutenant-governor of Hull. Copley ruled Hull with an iron fist, dispensing corporal punishment, confiscating private property and seizing and opening personal mail. When the deputy-postmaster of Hull complained, Hull had him arrested and hog-tied:

“…neck and heels, with extreme violence that the blood gushed out of his nose and mouth, and kept him in that intolerable posture for two hours and a half, till [he] was utterly deprived of sense and put in extreme hazard of his life, and remains to this day miserably crippled, disabled in his limbs and impaired in his sight.”

Copley’s behaviour in Hull triggered so much protest that he was shipped off to the American colonies, where he served as the royal governor of Maryland (1692-93).

Source: Depositions from the Castle of York, relating to Offences in the Northern Counties, v.40. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1627: London woman accused of privy part boasting

In May 1627, two London women, Mary Peters and Elizabeth Welsh, accused each other of defamation in the city’s Consistory Court. Peters and her husband John, a clerk employed at the Tower of London, were tenants in Welsh’s house, near The Strand. According to witnesses, both women had slandered each other with terms suggesting infidelity and prostitution. Another lodger testified that Peters had called Welsh:

“…a bawd, pocky bawd, toothless bawd, strumpet… [and] impudent whore.”

Welsh responded by accusing Peters of debauchery while under her roof. Welsh testified that her maid, Elizabeth Hobcock, told her of an exchange between Peters and the acclaimed poet Michael Drayton. According to Hobock’s report to Welsh, Peters:

“…did hold up her clothes unto her navel before Mr Michael Drayton… she clapped her hand on her privy part and said it was a sound and a good one, and that the said Mr Drayton did then also lay his hand upon it and stroke it and said that it was a good one.”

The claim was dismissed when Drayton himself took the stand and denied the incident ever occurred.

Source: London Consistory Court archives, fol.2r-3v, 11r-22r. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.