Interrogating a hermit

Three months ago the Folger was lucky enough to acquire a letter from Thomas Cromwell to George Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury. I say lucky because while roughly 350 letters from Cromwell survive, almost all of them are at either the British Library or the National Archives in Kew, and only one other letter by him has been sold at auction in over 30 years. The Folger has some interesting promissory notes signed by Cromwell (see Hamnet), but no other letters.

The letter, signed by Cromwell, is about his examination of a hermit who had spoken traitorous words and responded to Cromwell’s questions with equivocating answers. Cromwell issued an indictment and sent the hermit back to the earl of Shrewsbury to be tried before the justices of Assize.

letter from Thomas Cromwell to the Earl of Shrewsbury; click to enlarge in Luna

Here is a transcription of the letter:

Address leaf

To my very good Lord
Therle of Shrewesbury
Lorde Stuarde to the
kinges Maiestie

Letter

After my right herty commendacions to your lordship I have by this
bearer your seruaunt bailly of Chesterfeld receyved your lettres and
the byll therin enclosed concernyng thermyte the whiche
being by me examyned answered that he could not tell whither
he spak euer the same trayterouse wordes or not / I have caused
an Inditement to be drawen therupon whiche your lordeship shal
receyve herwith; and also I have thought convenient to retoryn
the said hermite vnto you agayn there befor the Justices of
Assise to be tryed and to thexemple of all other to be
punyshed according to right and the kinges Lawes./ I Thanke
euermor your lordeship for your good zele dilygence and dexterate
in repressing and apprehending suche perniciouse and detestable
felons. and therof shal I not faile to make true raport to
his highnes who I am assure shal tak thesam in most thankfull
part / Thus I beseche our holy creater to sende you prosperite
and long liffe / ffrom Cheleshith this xiijth of July /
Your lordshippes assuryd
Thomas Crumwell

Since the early nineteenth century, the letter has been dated July 13, [1534]. The year is in brackets because it does not appear on the letter itself, but is a conjecture by editors based on the 1534 passage of the Act of Succession and the revision of the treason laws, making it high treason to deny the Act of Supremacy or Act of Succession and to “slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel or usurper of the crown,” among other things.

It seemed like it might be possible to verify the date, since Cromwell’s actions are so well-chronicled in the State Papers. Poking around on State Papers Online, I quickly found a related letter. While previous editors and booksellers have said that the hermit and his traitorous words are unknown, the letter (TNA, SP 1/134, fol. 128) on State Papers Online tells us exactly who said the words, what they are, and when they were uttered. The letter is from Sir Godfrey Foljambe to Thomas Cromwell, and is dated July 9, 1538. It reports the traitorous words of a Chesterfield hermit spoken on July 5, 1538, and is clearly the letter that prompted Cromwell’s reply (Folger MS X.c.141).

The hermit’s name is William Ludlam (“ludelam”) of St. Thomas Chapel, Chesterfield (Derbyshire), a chapel once located on Holywell Street. On July 5,

[he] spake after a Rage ffassyon these words as ffoloweth ffyrste he sayd I whas at Rome with Doctor Carne & Doctor Benet beynge messengers ffor the kynge in hys matter and by cause the pope nowe called the busshoppe of Rome wolde not consente to the maryage of the kynge / he was put oute of hys aucthoryte Item he sayd yf a man wyll plucke downe or teare the kynges armes / he shalbe hanged drawen and quarteryd / what shall he do then that doeth plucke downe Churches and Images being but a mortall man as we be / with many other Ragynge words …

And the bailiff mentioned in line 2 of the Folger letter can be identified as Ralph Ash (“Rauffe Assh”). (A transcription of the full letter can be read here.) Incidentally, Cromwell apparently sent a reply letter to Foljambe, very similar in language to the Folger letter to Shrewsbury. It does not appear to survive, but was first transcribed  in Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 62, part 1, p. 307 (April 1792).

1538 makes more sense than 1534 in a lot of ways, particularly because it was an active year in Cromwell’s intensive campaign to erase England’s devotion to Thomas Becket, or St. Thomas of Canterbury, culminating in the destruction of the saint’s shrine at Canterbury in September. The hermit’s chapel was devoted to St. Thomas of Canterbury, and July 7, two days before the hermit uttered his traiterous words, marked the feast of the translation of the saint (when his relics were moved to Canterbury Cathedral). There is a probably apocryphal story that in April of 1538, St. Thomas (who died in 1170) had been summoned to a “trial” to defend himself against his alleged crimes. Since he never showed up, he was declared a traitor.

The Hamnet record for the letter is here, but be aware that it has not yet been officially catalogued so the description will be updated over the next few months.

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

2 Comments

  1. Thit article is very interesting. No doubt your blog is the best describing mss (context, transcription, the right words, etc)

    Greetings

    Jorge
    Lima-Peru

  2. A belated update: I was working with a paleography class on this letter today, and after much discussion and OED consultation, we determined that the last word in line 7 is not “retoryn” but “renvoye,” which is an obsolete word which means “to send back.”

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