The Case of John Sawnders, Reading 1553

On a cool, sunny spring day in the town of Reading, Berkshire in 1553, churchwarden John Sawnders leaned in close to a fellow townsperson - and related, in a low whisper, the latest gossip that he'd heard: Edward VI lay dying, and might even already be dead for all they knew.

The effects of this furtive conversation would be disastrous for John. Churchwarden of the twelfth-century St Laurence's in the centre of the town, he is recorded there since the reign of Henry VIII, and was made a burgess of the town in 1545. He was widowed in 1550/51 and in September 1551 he's recorded in the church accounts as looking after the outfits of the Morris Dancers and their bells. (1)

Angel at the entrance of St Laurence's Church, Reading.
Jo Romero

Talking of - or even just thinking of - the king's death; "when a Man doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the King" had been treason since 1351, when Edward III had it scrawled into the legal books. (2) Punishments could be drastic but their severity varied wildly. In 1444 Thomas Kerver received a harsher judgement for just criticising Henry VI in the grounds of Reading Abbey and referring to him as a 'boy'. He was sentenced to be dragged through a number of Berkshire towns on the back of a cart and then hung, drawn and quartered. He was dragged to his place of execution - but then released to a prison before the hangman could tie the noose around his neck. 

A hospital worker called Thomas Barrie was charged with imagining Henry VIII's death in 1538, had his ears nailed to the pillory in Newbury's market place for a whole day when, at the close of the market, they were then cut off. He was said to have died from shock shortly afterwards. (3) Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, had been beheaded on Tower Hill in 1521 for the same offence (although considered more serious due to his status) and Walter Hungerford, a baron, was beheaded in 1540 for the same but he also had other charges brought against him too. (4) 

Anne Boleyn's trial also included the charge of imagining the king's death and Elizabeth Barton was hung and had her head put on a spike in 1533 for relating various worrying visions she'd had, including that Henry would 'die a villain's death' and that she saw a special place in Hell for him. (5) 

For Reading's John Sawnders, it was decided that he would be set upon the pillory (near St Laurence's church) on the next market day in Reading with a paper attached to his head detailing his 'lewd and seditous wordes touching the King's Majestie and the State'. He stayed there for the whole day, so all the passers by could see him, and then his ears were cut off. A few months' later, he was also stripped of his title of burgess by the Reading Corporation. He died in 1558-9. (1)

St Laurence Church, Reading. Jo Romero

To be fair to John, Edward VI was on and off bed rest from illnesses such as measles, smallpox and fever since 1550, and it was natural for subjects to wonder how long he might continue to reign in his weakened state, especially with the fragile state of the succession. Councillors and ambassadors recorded that he was increasingly weakened between March and July 1553 and those who saw the king the few times he emerged publicly would have been shocked by his appearance. (6) We tend to think of Tudor towns and villages as being relatively isolated, but there was regular travel and migration between towns and even countries and gossip spread fast. Far from being 'seditious' or in any way malicious, John could have been simply voicing concern to a neighbour of the consequences for the succession if Edward was to die without heirs. 

His - and the other cases described here - also demonstrate a level of obedience to government, at least on the part of the informant. Of course, it's impossible to listen to someone relating treasonable rumours to you about the king's death without 'imagining' them in your mind. The person that told the authorities about John, Thomas or Walter may have acted in self-preservation: to shift attention away from them, should it all come out later. This way, they could receive praise for disclosing the information and wouldn't be implicated, saving them a potential later spell on the pillory themselves. 

Sawnders, Kerver and Barrie may have trusted those they voiced their worries to. But the sixteenth century was a time of control, fear and anxiety about the succession. Trust would have been broken for the listener's self-preservation - and these men certainly paid the price. 

(1) REED online, John Sawyer
(2) The Treason Act 1351
(3) Thomas Barrie, Accessed 28 Feb 2021. 
(4) Walter Hungerford, a baron, was also accused under the Buggery Act. 
(5) Parliament Archives, Twitter
(6) There is a great post about Edward's illnesses towards the end of his life, by The Freelance History Writer. 

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