Medieval Treason in Reading, 1444 - The Case of Thomas Kerver

The fifteenth century was a time of plots, civil war and political struggle: the crown changed hands seven times between 1400-1500, as warring families secured, lost and gave up their power around the ruling monarch. 

In the mid-fifteenth century, England was ruled by a bankrupt king, who had inherited the throne from his father, the mythical and much-glorified Henry V, aged just nine months. This left the country in the hands of warring nobles until he came of age to govern by himself. 

Reading Abbey today. Photo by Jo Romero. 

Henry VI didn't live up to the myth-like legend of his father. Instead of being a warlike, shrewd politician he was famed instead for his piety, fairness and, generally, being a bit of a softy. He had favourites at court, which ruffled feathers among members of the nobility jostling for his attention and spent vast sums of money. As author Dan Jones says, piety and kindness were good qualities in themselves - but not qualities for a king to possess, especially as the turbulent Wars of the Roses literally tore the country apart. 

It's no wonder then, that people started to speak badly of their unpopular king. 

And this, as everyone would have known at the time, was treason. 

One of these men, Thomas Kerver, would go down in history. 

Thomas Kerver was a bailiff to the Abbot of Reading. He was a fairly wealthy gentleman who lived in the town and worked at the Abbey. And it was in the grounds of Reading Abbey itself on 13-14 April 1444, that he complained to three other staff members - John Baynard, Thomas Codryngton and John Baker - that the king was just a 'boy', and allegedly 'falsely and traitorously... schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king and his realm of England and with all his power (traitorously proposed) to kill the king.' 

He was quickly betrayed, imprisoned at the Tower of London, tried by a jury and sentenced to death. Treason meant a graphic and public death, one of the worst imaginable. On 5th August 1444, he would be paraded through the town in humiliation, dragged through the streets of Reading by the back of a cart and then taken to Maidenhead. There, he would be hung, drawn and quartered at the local gallows.

There's a reason that the crime of treason demanded such barbarity. The hundreds of people who would have seen Kerver's parade through Berkshire received a message loud and clear: if you criticise the king, this will happen to you. 

The effect was shocking, damaging and instilled fear in the population. The prospect of the public, bloodthirsty execution too, would have deterred any from speaking out - or acting out - against the monarch and served as a silent - but horrific - form of control. 

As Kerver arrived at Maidenhead gallows however, he was not hanged (presumably he wouldn't have been able to even stand by this point) but was passed over to officials, who claimed that the king had stepped in at the last minute and granted him a reprieve. Kerver was then taken on to prison in Wallingford Castle and, as Dan Jones says, quietly released.

It's unlikely that Thomas Kerver ever posed any real threat to the authority to the crown. What's more likely is that these were just the workplace grumblings of a dissatisfied subject of the king based on hearsay and gossip. And, potentially, they were embellished by those who reported them. His claims of killing the king were more likely an off-hand comment made out of desperation at the inefficient rule of Henry VI rather than any serious consideration. Kerver didn't have the high social standing of other nobility at the time, he didn't have an army and he didn't have financial and political backing from any of the main families active at the time. He was a bailiff at Reading Abbey. 

The courts surely would have known this, but Kerver had to be made an example of. 

Dan Jones makes the point that Kerver's last-minute reprieve was a kind of PR stunt from Henry VI. The religious, sensitive king made it quite clear that badmouthing him in any way would not be tolerated. But at the same time, he showed his sensitive, compassionate side in having the hangman cut down the rope seconds before he was to face death. 

For Kerver, it was a lucky escape. 

Thomas Kerver's experience marks the tensions surrounding Henry VI's reign, and the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses. I explore some of the women affected by the conflict in the fifteenth century in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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Dan Jones, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, Chapter 7 (listened as an audiobook, 18 March 2020). 

The Case of Thomas Kerver, abstract. The English Historical Review. Accessed 18 March 2020.