In June 2023, participants in the Folger Institute’s Introduction to English Paleography class gathered at the Arthur F. Kinney Center of Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for a week of secretary hand, Roman numerals, weird abbreviations, even weirder dating systems, writing with quills, a paleographical escape room, a field trip to the special collections at Smith College, and… an unexpected encounter with a happy and hopeful merchant tailor named George Saunders in Elizabethan London.
George Saunders can’t wait to get married
We met George on day 3 when we began transcribing a letter from him to his sister Mary’s husband Richard Bagot, in Blithfield, Staffordshire. I picked the letter because it had not yet been transcribed in our online transcription platform, Dromio, and because at quick glance it looked like a reasonably easy and consistent secretary hand.
We were immediately charmed by George’s demeanor and chattiness. Business updates, family news, and hopes and aspirations flowed through the nib of his pen. He reported on a magnificent chain of gold, made with “sertayne broken gold” and 40 pounds of Richard’s money, assuring him that it was cheaper and higher quality than if it had been made of “old angelles” (angels were one of the most common gold coins in circulation).
He requested that his sister send him his linens, which he needed because he was setting up his house in London at great expense. He then apologized for not visiting them in Blithfield. This is when we started bouncing along the words in eager anticipation of what would come next:
The cause that I have not bin with yow this sommer / was / that I was busye in settinge my howse in an order / and now I lacke the princypall stay which is as yow know a good wiffe / I pray god send me a good on[e] or elles non. I asshewer [assure] yow that at this present I know not wher she is / but when so ever yt shall please god to apoynt me on[e] / yow shall have vnderstandinge shortly after
His greatest wish? A good wife or else no wife at all. He didn’t know if she existed or where she was. He promised to let them know as soon as God appointed him one.
He also wished Blithfield was closer to London so that they could send him a doe in winter and a buck in summer, before returning back to his hypothetical wife and hypothetical wedding venue and guest list:
I trust wher so ever yt shalbe my chaunce to marye / that I shall have yow and my syster with the rest of my frendes. wherof I wold be very glade / and god willinge yow shall have knolegge therof
He concluded the letter with an update on his mother (healthy and quiet in London), and his dinner plans for next Friday with his mother and two brothers, Francis Saunders and his brother-in-law Beaumont, adding that he wished Mary and Richard could join them for an epic feast: “as good oysters as any shalbe at byllingesgate.”
As the class and the letter came to a close, we were dying to know if George found his good wife and had his dream wedding. I promised to dig into the finding aid for the Bagot family to close the loop, and came across two more letters from George, one dated April 18, 1567 (L.a.776) and one dated July 8, 1568 (L.a.777).
In the second letter, he mentioned a wife! He hoped to arrange a joint visit with Richard and Mary to visit his mother later in the summer. He explained that his wife would need to stay at home because she was about to have a baby. She sent her commendations and some tokens to Richard, Mary, and cousin Margaret:
my wyffe hathe hir Comendyd vnto yow and my Syster and to my Cussin Ma. I thyncke they shall heare off Summ tockins from hyr by this berar.
This all sounded like domestic bliss, like George got his happy ending, right? Like she was sitting next to him while he was writing the letter, reminding him to add the bit about the presents she was sending?
This post might have ended here if I hadn’t Googled him.
George’s marriage is not so happy after all
Many of you may already know where this is heading. George married Anne Newdigate of Harefield, Middlesex, on February 10, 1560, 88 days after he wished her into existence. They had eight children.
The last child, whom Anne named George Saunders, was born right after she was arraigned for being an accessory to the murder of her husband George Saunders on March 25, 1573. Baby George’s father was the victim of one of the most sensational crimes of the 16th century, second only to the murder of Thomas Arden of Faversham by his wife Alice in 1551 (dramatized as Arden of Faversham in 1592).
After we had giddily invested ourselves in George Saunders’s pre-story—his hopes for a good wife and his wife’s involvement in the well-being of his extended family—his fate was hard to absorb.
My account below, which involves multiple Georges and Annes, is largely drawn from a 32 page pamphlet written by Arthur Golding shortly after all the guilty parties were executed.1 I’m simply going to repeat the facts as recounted by Golding (all quotations come from his pamphlet unless otherwise cited), with a smattering of additional primary sources added in.
The story is recounted in other contemporary sources as well, including Stow’s Annals, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and Antony Munday’s View of Sundry Examples Reporting Many Strange Murders (1580). A contemporary manuscript ballad tells the story in Anne’s voice: “The wofull lamentacon of Mrs. Anne Saunders, which she wrote with her own hand, being prisoner in newgate, Iustly condemned to death” (BL Sloane MS 1896, fols. 8-11, reprinted in Hyder Rollins, Old English ballads, 1553-1625 (1920), p. 341.) It is fictionalized in a play performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, A warning for faire women (London, Valentine Sims for William Aspley, 1599).2
The parties to the murder were Anne Saunders, her widowed friend Anne Drury, Drury’s servant Roger Clement, and George Browne, Anne Saunders’s lover (and according to various secondary sources, an army captain and former servant to the 17th Earl of Oxford).
Browne was in love with Anne Saunders. Anne Drury promised that she would help broker a marriage between him and the soon-to-be-widowed Anne Saunders if he killed George Saunders. Browne killed Saunders while Saunders was staying with an acquaintance, Mr. Barnes. Mr. Barnes’s servant, John Beane, later died from his wounds in the attack, but before dying he was discovered by an old man and taken into town, where he identified Browne as the killer.
After Browne killed Saunders, he sent word to Drury via her servant Roger Clement that he had completed his task. He was given twenty pounds-worth of gold plate from Anne Saunders and Anne Drury, followed by six pounds the next day after they learned that Browne was being pursued.
Browne was apprehended on March 28 and arraigned on April 18. Under lengthy questioning by the Dean of St. Paul’s on April 19, he refused to implicate Anne Saunders, blaming Anne Drury as “the originall cause” of the murder, as Sir Robert Catelyn, Lord Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench explained to Lord Burghley. In this same letter, Catelyn emphasized the importance of swift and well-publicized justice, informing Burghley that the gallows in Smithfield were being erected that night, that Browne would be brought through London, and that there would be ample notification of the day and time of the execution to encourage a “greater concurse of people” (BL, Harl MS 6991, fols. 37r-v). Browne was hung the next day, April 20, and then delivered to the Sheriff of Kent “to be hanged in Chaines in the openest place, and nighest vnto the place where the murder was commytted.”
Anne Saunders and Anne Drury were arraigned and condemned as accessories to George Saunders’s murder on May 6, and Roger Clement on May 8. On May 12, Privy Council ordered the sheriffs of London to proceed with their execution (TNA, PC2/10, f. 133). Anne Saunders, who had just given birth, refused to confess. Anne Drury confessed, but denied past allegations against her, such as poisoning her husband, witchcraft, or that she had caused the separation between the Earl of Derby and his wife. Their executions was delayed because George Saunders’s account books and some of his money were missing and needed to be located in order to ensure the maintenance of the newly-orphaned children. (His probate inventory survives, but I have not seen it: The National Archives, Kew, PROB 2/399.)
Meanwhile, another George, George Mell, a suspended minister who accompanied Anne Saunders to Newgate prison prior to her execution, immediately fell in love with her and became convinced of her innocence. He urged Anne Drury “to take the whole guilt vpon hir selfe.” After he promised to contribute money to the marriage of Anne Drury’s daughter, she agreed to clear Anne Saunders’s name before the Dean of St Paul’s, Alexander Nowell. Mell also endeavoured to have Anne Saunders pardoned, but by then the members of Privy Council knew that he wanted to marry her and sought to have him publicly punished.
On May 12, after overhearing that the gallows were set up in preparation for her execution, Anne Saunders finally agreed to organize her soul for impending death. She confessed to arranging for her husband’s death and to the “vnlawfull luste and liking that she had to Brown confessing her sinfulnesse of life committed with him.”
She asked her late husband’s siblings and their spouses and other relatives to forgive her. George’s brother Francis granted her forgiveness and they all knelt down to pray with her.
She gave her older children copies of Master Bradford’s Meditations. She asked the preachers who had heard her confession to write an admonition in each copy, to which she subscribed, “Youre sorowfull mother Anne Saunders.”
On May 13, Anne Saunders, Anne Drury, and Roger Clement were executed at Smithfield.
George Mell’s punishment for trying to prove Anne Saunders’s innocence? He had to stand upon the pillory (a wooden structure on a post with holes for securing a person’s head and hands) at the site of the execution, wearing a paper pinned to his breast stating, in “great Letters”:
FOR PRACTISING TO COLOUR THE DETESTABLE FACTES OF GEORGE SAUNDERS WIFE.
At the end of the 32-page octavo pamphlet, Golding included Anne Saunders’s scaffold confession and prayer, and a “note of a certaine saying which Master Saunders had lefte written with his owne hand in his studie.” In this saying, George Saunders quoted from Lawrence Nowell’s funeral sermon for his brother Haddon Saunders on January 25, 1570:
Christe shalbe magnified in my body, whither it be thorough life or else death.
In Anne Saunders’s confession, she says of George Saunders:
I had a good husband, by whom I had manie children, with whom I liued in wealth, & might haue done stil, had not the deuill kindled in my hearte, first the hellish firebrand of vnlawfull lust, & afterward a murtherous intent to procure my saide husbande to be bereued of his life.
Golding described the execution as an overcrowded spectacle,
in the presence of many personages of honor and worship, and of so great a number of people, as the like hathe not bene seene there togither in any mans remembraunce. For almoste the whole fielde, and all the way from newgate, was as full of folke as coulde well stande one by another: and besides that, great companies were placed bothe in the chambers neere abouts (whose windowes & walles were in many places beaten down to looke out at) and also vpon the gutters, sides, and toppes of the houses, and vpon the battlements and steeple of St. Bartholmewes.
George Saunders’s mother, Dorothy (Yonge) Haddon Saunders Dayrell, died in January 1574, just over six months after the murder of her son and the execution of her daughter-in-law. She wrote her original will before their deaths, on October 12, 1572, and then emended it shortly after their deaths, on June 26, 1573, deleting all mentions of George as living executor and heir.3 She also deleted Anne Saunders’s name from the will: “I will that all such apparel … shall be divided … amongst my own three daughters, Anne, Mary and Frances,
& my son George’s wife….”
In the letter that we transcribed together as a class, we caught George in a moment of anticipation, awaiting the arrival of a good wife, or if not good, then none at all.
now I lacke the princypall stay which is as yow know a good wiffe / I pray god send me a good on[e] or elles non
In A Warning for Fair Women (1599), the anonymous playwright created a conversation between George and Anne that unwittingly echoes back to George’s desire for a good wife, or none at all. In the play, Anne sits on their stoop, waiting for George to arrive home from the Exchange, an hour late for supper:
George: How now sweet Nan, sitst thou here all alone?
Anne: Better alone, than haue bad company.
Seems the real George and fictional Anne both wanted the same thing.
For more information about the contemporary sources relating to the scandal, see Joseph H. Marshburn, “‘A Cruell Murder Donne in Kent’ and Its Literary Manifestations.” Studies in Philology 46, no. 2 (1949): 131–40.
The full transcription of L.a.755 made by the participants of the 2023 Introduction to Paleography class, is available as a pdf.
- A second edition of the pamphlet, with slight textual changes, was produced in 1577, STC 11986.
- Many scholars have written about the play and the ballad, and more generally about murder plays, ballads and pamphlets, petty traitors, and domestic homicide. For a recent example of critical analysis, see Iman Sheeha’s ‘[M]istris Drewry, / You do not well’: The Gossip as an Ill-Doer in A Warning for Fair Women (1599), Early Theatre 22.2 (2019), 89-118.
- The original will with emendations is located at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, and is part of the Turvile Constable-Maxwell Manuscripts, Wills and Settlements, DG39/906. I have used Nina Green’s modern spelling transcript, copyright 2012. The emendations have been silently incorporated into the Prerogative Court of Canterbury copy (TNA, PROB 11/56/39), which has a probate date of January 25, 1573/74.
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