Your first question will probably be; "Hang on a minute, this is set in 1572 and the Civil War was 70 years after that. You're right of course, but I assure you, the connection will eventually become clear...
Nantwich – Thursday, December 20th, 1572
Thomas Clutton stared with distaste at the naked and lifeless body in front of him and inhaled deeply to stop the bile from rising in his throat. Prodding the cadaver gently with his walking stick, he watched as the left arm of the corpse fell from the trestle table on which it had been laid and swung from side to side before coming to rest with its forefinger pointing eerily towards the ground. It was as though the dead man were anxious to be laid to earth, rather than be displayed, as he was, like a slab of meat in the middle of the High Street.
It was a cold and frosty morning in Nantwich, one of those days when townsfolk hurrying to be about their business trudged by with their heads bowed, minds focused only on reaching their respective fields, wich houses or workshops. This particular day, however, was different, for crowds of onlookers had gathered in front of The Crown Hotel to behold a most curious sight.
Tradesmen had pulled up their carts opposite the inn, steam rising from the flanks of their horses. Milkmaids loitered and chattered, their buckets clanking on the cobbles. Work stopped in a backhouse opposite, and the bakers emerged to view the scene, the waft of freshly baked bread turning the heads of the crowd momentarily, but only for a moment, for it was not every day that the whole town got to inspect the body of a victim of murder.
“Have a care, Mr Clutton,” said the hard faced woman in her forties who was guarding the corpse. “It would not do for our Deputy Steward to be held responsible for the destruction of evidence that might convict those who killed my husband.”
Clutton cast a swift glance to his side, where the bailiff, Randall Alvaston, was trying hard not to smirk, and rolled his eyes. Having been forced to miss his breakfast to attend this pre-organised sideshow, Clutton was in no mood to be trifled with.
“So, Mistress Crockett,” he said. “It has come to this. It has long been said that mischief would be done here if your husband and Richard Hassall did not mend their differences, and so it has been proved.”
“My husband was murdered,” said Bridget Crockett simply, her arms folded across her chest in a deliberate display of belligerence, “not just by Hassall, but by Richard Wilbraham, Thomas Wilson, Edmund Crewe and diverse others. I trust you are here to make them accountable for their actions.”
“Mistress, I am here to apprehend the murderer,” replied Clutton, “whoever he may be. No names have been provided to me by the constables. Guilt with regards to this matter has not yet been apportioned.”
“Then take a look, sir,” said the widow. “My husband has been sore beaten, not just by one man as his persecutors would have you believe, but by many people. I urge you to inspect his body, for if you do, you will know the truth.”
Clutton sighed with frustration, and breathed out clouds of warm air into the frosty December morning. “Master Alvaston,” he said, turning to the bailiff. “You knew this man. Enlighten me if you please as to why the people Mistress Crockett accuses would want to see him in his grave.”
Alvaston smiled thinly and drew Clutton to one side where they could not be overheard. A short, greying man of middle years, the bailiff was dressed in a plain black doublet and cloak, and exuded an air of efficiency in keeping with his office. “That I cannot say, sir,” he began, “but it is a well-known fact that Roger Crockett was not a universally popular man. Many held him for a churl, albeit a rich one. Many folk say his dispute with Hassall proves he knew not how to behave in the company of gentlemen. And there is worse. There are also those that have him as a villain and a cut-throat, who would take any man’s living over his head.”
Clutton nodded. This much he knew. Crockett had been the landlord of The Crown, Nantwich’s largest and best appointed inn. He was certainly a wealthy man, having made his fortune buying and selling land, and it was this, which had led to his disagreement with Richard Hassall, a member of one of Nantwich’s leading families.
The dispute has arisen over the lease to Ridley Field, a prime piece of pasture land to the south of Welsh Row on the opposite side of the River Weaver to The Crown. This land had been leased for years by the Hassall family, most recently by Richard Hassall, but also by his father before him. Crockett, however, had negotiated with the landlord and secured a new lease on the field before the old lease had expired or been offered for renewal. This had resulted in Crockett being accused of underhand dealing, and had led to an ongoing feud between the two men, each of whom possessed a group of vociferous followers. Indeed, the hostility towards Crockett had been such that he had scarcely dared to cross the bridge into Welsh Row, where Hassall lived, for fear of being assaulted by the latter’s friends. The dispute had come to a head the previous day, when Crockett had been due to take possession of Ridley Field.
Although Clutton had been well aware of the disturbance that had taken place the previous morning on Wood Street, a narrow lane, which ran along the side of the river consisting mainly of wich houses and workers’ tenements, he had not known of the tragic consequences of the affray until he had been raised from his slumber by the bailiff at seven in the morning to attend the inquisitive crowd of spectators that had gathered on the street outside The Crown.
It was certainly an unusual sight. Crockett’s battered corpse, totally naked, had been placed in full view outside the inn’s front door. Next to it, bizarrely, sat a man with an easel, who was busy painting a portrait of the dead body.
“To bear witness to the injuries my husband sustained in this unprovoked attack,” explained Bridget Crockett, noticing Clutton’s interest. “It is so that no-one may lie to the coroner about what happened here yesterday.”
Clutton glanced down at the body and suppressed the urge to grimace. The victim had certainly sustained a considerable array of injuries. His ribs were covered in ugly purple bruises, his nostrils were caked in blood and his left eye was nearly out of its socket. There was also a large wound in the centre of the dead man’s chest. Clutton shuddered. Crockett was lying on his back, but the blood red pupil in his shattered eye socket seemed to follow him as he walked round the trestle table inspecting the body.
As far as he could ascertain from the perfunctory report supplied by Randall Alvaston, the disturbance had begun around eight in the morning the previous day, when Thomas Wettenhall, a friend of Crockett’s, had been attacked on Wood Street by Thomas Wilson, a tenant of Hassall’s, who had been armed with a long pike shaft. When Wettenhall’s brother Roger had heard this and arrived on the scene, he too had been assaulted, this time by Hassall himself and another of his friends, one Edmund Crewe, both of whom had been similarly armed. Roger Wettenhall, it appeared, had been badly injured in this fight and had saved himself only by escaping into a nearby garden, where he had collapsed against a malt kiln.
Alvaston, who had already interviewed several witnesses, had formed the opinion that this initial melee had been deliberately engineered in order to provoke the appearance of Crockett. If this was the case, they had been singularly successful, for Crockett had charged blindly across the bridge into Welsh Row armed with a pike staff, whereupon he had been promptly set upon by a crowd of people led by Edmund Crewe, who had felled him with a blow to the head.
At this point, Richard Wilbraham, another of Hassall’s supporters and one of the town’s most prominent merchants, had arrived in Wood Street still dressed in his bed clothes and had broken up the fight, sending the perpetrators of the assault on Crockett on their way. He had then, together with a number of different local women, helped the injured man, firstly into a nearby house, and then back to The Crown, where Crockett had died of his injuries approximately twelve hours later.
“Mistress Crockett,” said Clutton. You make serious allegations against a number of respected gentlemen of this town. I trust you can substantiate your claims? Were you present when your husband was attacked?”
“Of course not,” replied the widow, her voice betraying her impatience with the Deputy Steward. “I was busy here in the inn, but there are witnesses aplenty, as the bailiff is well aware.”
Alvaston bowed slightly and turned to Clutton. “You might wish to speak to Thomas Wettenhall, sir,” he said, gesturing to a balding, square-jawed man in his fifties, who was leaning nonchalantly against the wall of the inn smoking a pipe. Clutton noticed that he was sporting a black eye.
“Master Wettenhall,” said Clutton. “I see you bear the marks of this disturbance.”
“Aye, sir, and my brother more so,” replied Wettenhall. “He is badly wounded. He still lies abed and will do so for some time yet. He is fortunate to be alive.”
“And you can explain this attack?”
“No, sir. I had no gripe with Thomas Wilson, at least not until today. I asked him if he would kill me. He did not give me an answer, but I do not believe that was his aim.”
“How do you mean?”
“It was a planned attack, sir. The idea was to entice Mr Crockett over the bridge. They’ve been trying to do it for a couple of days now. His wife, Anne, was sat in Ridley Field for over a day armed with a quarter staff, threatening anyone who came near. And I understand there was a large gathering at Hassall’s house after Roger was hurt, with all manner of weaponry on show. They are not so cock-a-hoop now I’ll wager.”
Clutton cast a glance over towards Alvaston, who pursed his lips and nodded. “This is what I also hear, sir” said the bailiff, “and yet it cannot be denied Roger Crockett himself crossed the bridge yesterday equipped for a fight. Many witnesses have confirmed he was carrying a pike staff.
“Of course he was,” hissed Bridget Crockett. “What do you expect? He came to protect his friends the Wettenhalls, who were being unjustly attacked by Hassall and his thugs.”
Alvaston frowned, his face colouring slightly. “I would thank you to mind your tongue, mistress,” he said, “lest you end up in Pillory Street gaol. If your husband was so innocent of intent to harm Mr Hassall and his associates, why, pray, has he steadfastly refused to have the peace of him, as has oft been offered to him?”
This, considered Clutton, was a fair point. The ill-feeling between the leading protagonists in the dispute had grown to such an extent that an extensive list of recognisances had needed to be drawn up binding them to keep the peace. The Wettenhall brothers had been forced to agree not to assault Hassall or Richard Wilbraham, whilst over a dozen people had been similarly bound not to assault Bridget Crockett. Roger Crockett, however, had refused to become involved in any such mutual pledge.
“This, Master Bailiff, is because he had been consistently labelled a coward by Hassall and his ilk,” explained Bridget Crockett. “To resort to the law as a means of protection would have simply added fuel to that particular fire.”
At that moment a low murmur began to rise among the multitude of tradesmen and ordinary townsfolk that had gathered in the street to watch the spectacle, and presently the crowd parted to reveal a short but distinguished-looking gentleman dressed in a fine pinked white doublet with heavily padded red hose. Over his shoulders hung a matching red cape to protect him against the cold.
“Good morrow, Mr Wilbraham,” said Clutton. “You have chosen a most opportune moment to present yourself, and Mr Hassall and Mr Wilson too, I see.” The two less ostentatiously dressed gentlemen who had accompanied Wilbraham into the High Street nodded their greetings to the Deputy Steward. Both were attempting to portray an air of casual indifference, but from the beads of sweat which had appeared on Hassall’s brow despite the frostiness of the morning, Clutton could tell that both were worried.
“Under the circumstances we felt it wise to be present,” said Wilbraham. “We would not wish for our good names to be dragged through the mud by Mistress Crockett and her clique of brigands and fraudsters."
“Brigands, you say?” spat Bridget Crockett, who made to step out from behind the trestle table, only to be held back by one of her servants. “You have a nerve, Mr Wilbraham,” she continued, her voice shaking with anger. “You murdered my husband.”
“Fie, woman,” exclaimed Wilbraham. “You are in the wrong of it. I was still in bed when your husband was struck down, as many here will testify. Indeed, I came as quickly as I could with my hose in one hand and without my shoes, specifically to help your husband. It is a matter of sadness to me that I was unable to save him.”
“You came for no other reason than to protect your brother-in-law, Richard Hassall, who would prevent my husband from gaining access to land, which he had lawfully leased.”
Hassall opened his mouth to speak, but Wilbraham stopped him with a stern look.
“It is true, mistress,” he said, smiling patiently at Bridget Crockett, “that I wished to prevent Richard from going too far, but I understand that it was Edmund Crewe that struck the blow that felled your husband, not Richard Hassall.”
“He was set upon by a crazed mob of people,” cut in Thomas Wettenhall, “of which you, sir, are the ringleader. You are all equally responsible.”
“And then,” added Bridget Crockett, “there is the additional matter of which we may not speak pertaining to Ridley Field. One of you has my husband’s property, I demand you return it.”
Wilbraham stared at the widow for a moment before breaking into laughter. “This woman is mad,” he said. “I know not of what she speaks. Her husband brought the whole affair upon himself. It should come as no surprise that a man who is cheated out of his means of making a living by an unscrupulous rogue such as Crockett, should wish to exact revenge. But Richard Hassall did not kill Roger Crockett. The fatal blow was struck by Edmund Crewe. That is not denied, nor is it in doubt.”
“That, Mr Wilbraham, is the crux of the matter, and it is for the coroner to decide,” said Clutton, after a moment’s hesitation. “The question is whether Roger Crockett died from one blow delivered by Edmund Crewe or by many blows delivered by a number of people. It is not a small matter. However, there is enough evidence in this case for me to have to ask you, Mr Hassall, Mr Wilson, and all others who may be named by Mrs Crockett, to remain in Nantwich and to present yourselves here on Saturday morning, when the coroner will conduct an inquest. In the meantime,” he added, now addressing Alvaston, “please instruct the town constables to arrest Edmund Crewe. Of all the people involved in this case, he would appear to have the biggest case to answer.”
Alvaston bowed deferentially. “Certainly, sir,” he said. “As you wish. However, there is but one minor difficulty. Edmund Crewe has left town. The man in question, it would appear, has flown the nest and vanished off the face of the earth.”