The hunt for the Tudor hitman
In 1536, a London merchant was gunned down with a lethal new weapon in a killing that bore all the hallmarks of a professional 'hit'. But who pulled the trigger, and why? Derek Wilson investigates
This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
At around 6am on Monday 13 November 1536, Robert Packington left his house in London’s Cheapside – or just around the corner in Sopers Lane – to attend early Mass in the Mercers’ Chapel on the north side of West Cheap. His journey was a short one but, in all likelihood, Packington carried a lantern: the night was dark and smoke from a thousand chimneys, mingling with a mist from the Thames, reduced visibility to a few paces.
Packington’s route took him past the Great Conduit, a square building in the middle of Cheapside containing the fountain that provided the nearby houses with their water supply. As he crossed the thoroughfare, only a few metres from his destination, a single shot rang out and he fell dead upon the instant.
Almost as soon as Packington’s body hit the floor, the crowd that rapidly gathered around his corpse was asking questions. Why would someone want to eliminate one of London’s most respectable figures – Packington was not only a prominent merchant, and a leading light in the Worshipful Mercers’ Company, but also a member of parliament. Why did the assassin select such a busy part of London – a daily gathering point for unemployed men hoping to be hired as day labourers – to commit the crime?
And why did no one notice the gunman or his weapon? The only firearms in general use at the time were matchlock arquebuses – and these were hardly tailor-made for assassins wishing to carry out a swift, surgical strike. Arquebuses were more than a metre long and had to be held using both hands. The powder was ignited by means of a glowing match which would show up in the dark.
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Even in the gloom of that November pre-dawn, anyone carrying, let alone using, such an unwieldy firearm would have attracted attention. Yet this assassin, apparently, stood a mere matter of yards from a crowd, put the gun to his shoulder, and pulled the trigger. There was a flash and an explosion. And yet no one saw him.
The reason that the murderer was able to melt into the darkness was, as it transpires, that he wasn’t using an arquebus at all, but the much smaller, more discreet wheellock pistol. In fact, poor Robert Packington probably holds the dubious distinction of being the first person in England to be killed with a handgun.
By the time the autumn sun had dispelled the early mist, the shocking news of the merchant’s murder was all over town. And, by now, one more question was on everyone’s lips – and, four days later, that question was still unanswered. Writing to his master, Viscount Lisle, in Calais, Francis Hall reported: “The murderer that slew Mr Packington with a gun in Cheapside cannot be yet known.” Despite the offer of a large reward by the lord mayor, no one was brought to book for the crime.
But this did not mean that there were no suspicions. John Bale, the Protestant controversialist, writing a decade later, was sure that the instigators of the killing were the Catholic bishops – the “byfurked ordinaries”. Soon Edward Hall’s history of England from the reigns of Henry IV to Henry VIII – the Union of the Two Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (commonly called Hall’s Chronicle) – was on the bookstalls, containing a more detailed account of the incident. It added that because Packington had denounced “the covetousness and cruelty of the clergy” it was most likely that “by one of them [he was] thus shamefully murdered”.
Cruelty of the clergy
By the time Foxe wrote his Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion (commonly known as the Book of Martyrs – first Latin edition 1559) specific perpetrators were in the frame.
But before we come onto those, we should consider the background to the murder. The year 1536 was an annus horribilis, the most tense and turbulent of Henry VIII’s reign.
The first ominous event was the death, in January, of Catharine of Aragon, the former queen, still much loved by many of Henry’s subjects. Scarcely had the memory of her passing begun to fade when news came that the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been arrested and was going to be executed.
Few mourned the death of the ‘French whore’ but many were troubled by the manner of her demise. The king had done so many terrible things, including making himself pope in England. What might he do next?
The answer was: begin dismantling the fabric of the nation’s religion by closing the smaller monasteries. Government preachers were put up in the pulpits to denounce Catholic practices. In response, bold spirits stood up in other churches to attack the ‘heretics’ now exercising power over the king – particularly Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s closest adviser, and archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
A rabid pamphlet war broke out between traditionalist and reformist parties. Neighbour accused neighbour of being a ‘papist’ or a ‘heretic’. There was widespread fear that insults would give way to violence. Cromwell even ordered that all priests must surrender any weapons they possessed.
Then, in October, the looming storm broke. News reached London that men in the Midlands and the north had risen in revolt against religious change and would soon be marching south. Henry and his court shut themselves up in Windsor Castle. Citizens feared that blood would soon be running in their streets. And so it was.
But why was it Robert Packington’s? A clue surely lies in the fact that he was a senior member of the Mercers’ Company, had studied at the Inns of Court and regularly sat at the House of Commons.
Now, if any Londoners resented the power of the clergy, it was the city’s merchants, lawyers and parliamentarians. Packington was an outspoken critic. But, in all probability, he was more – an evangelical activist engaged in smuggling William Tyndale’s banned translation of the New Testament and other heretical books into England. He was also, it seems, an associate of Cromwell, and carried messages between the minister and evangelical activists in Antwerp.
So, when Packington was brutally murdered few people were in any doubt that he was a victim of Catholic reactionaries, and that his death was a shot across Protestant bows fired by the senior clergy or even the bishop of London himself, John Stokesley.
John Foxe went a stage further in his Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion. Stokesley, he averred, had paid someone 60 gold coins to undertake the murder. However, in his 1570 edition of the book, Foxe changed the name of the instigator. Now, he identified John Incent, canon of St Paul’s (and later dean), as the paymaster – a crime to which Incent had allegedly confessed on his deathbed in 1545. The actual hitman was now identified as an Italian.
To confuse the issue yet further, Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) attributed the crime to an unnamed felon subsequently hanged at Banbury for an unrelated offence. Can we, 478 years later, make any sense of the conflicting evidence?
The attack has all the hallmarks of a professional ‘hit’. The weapon, the location, the timing all indicate a carefully planned assassination.
Hitmen do not come cheap. The early reports of a considerable fee having been paid certainly make sense. If the villain who actually pulled the trigger was the one who later paid for his crime at Banbury, we are left with two suspects as possible instigators of the atrocity. Foxe was – eventually – convinced about Incent’s deathbed confession. It was, he declared, attested “by men both of great credit and worshipful estimation”.
But was this middle-ranking priest capable of thinking up and putting into operation a cold-blooded murder?
Time, perhaps, for a little psychological profiling. Incent was a conservative and given to ecclesiastical in-fighting with more evangelically minded colleagues. But he had no reputation as a persecutor and he did not allow mere theology to stand in the way of his promotion: later he was one of the commissioners sent by Cromwell to dissolve monasteries. Moreover, if Incent believed that Packington was a dangerous heretic, why would his conscience be troubled about ridding the world of him?
Bishop Stokesley was a horse of a very different colour. He already had blood on his hands and actually boasted of having consigned over 30 heretics to the flames. He openly quarrelled with Cromwell and was particularly opposed to the minister’s pet project of promoting an English Bible. He was active in hunting down William Tyndale and having him arrested in Antwerp. The translator was burned as a heretic just five weeks before Packington’s death.
Here, I think, we may be at the crux of the matter. Stokesley believed passionately that the vernacular Bible should not be available in England. For years he had been fighting a losing battle against the illegal import of Tyndale’s New Testament. Anger and frustration could well have driven him to extreme measures. The bishop was clever enough, rich enough, powerful enough and ruthless enough to organise an attack on a Bible smuggler who was a confidant of that loathsome creature, Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps Foxe’s first impression was correct.
But then, what are we to make of Incent’s confession? Well, we are not obliged to believe that Stokesley acted alone. On the contrary, he would have needed trusted accomplices to help fine-tune the crime. If Incent was a mere sidekick who had supported his bishop’s plan to murder a prominent London citizen, he might well have felt the need to cleanse his soul before it followed that of Robert Packington into the presence of the Great Judge.
The assassin's weapon of choice
The pistol that killed Robert Packington made Europe's rulers decidely jumpy
The one fact mentioned in every early account of Robert Packington’s murder is that it was perpetrated “with a gun”. It was this that made the act shocking, cowardly and diabolical. The weapon referred to, and the only one that can have been used to kill Packington, was a wheellock pistol. Such a firearm was much shorter than an arquebus. It needed no lighted match because the powder was ignited by a spark struck from a flint. The weapon could be hidden beneath a cloak, brought out, fired one-handedly at close range, then as quickly concealed.
The wheellock introduced a new era of political assassination. Invented in the early 16th century, its potential was quickly recognised by European rulers. In 1518 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian I banned the manufacture and carrying of “self-igniting handguns that set themselves to firing”. Other heads of state were not slow to follow suit. By the 1530s wheellocks were still rare. They were complex and expensive pieces of kit carried by well-to-do, macho braggarts. Few people in London would ever have seen one. Small wonder that it was commonly believed that the murderer was a foreigner.
Did the clergy have form?
Those who held churchmen responsible for Packington's death were quick to call attention to a similar killing in 1514
Shortly after Robert Packington was slain on the streets of Cheapside, stories began circulating of another killing in England’s capital 22 years earlier.
In early 1537 an anonymous pamphlet, printed in Antwerp, was being avidly read on the streets of London, telling how one Richard Hunne had been locked up in the Lollards’ Tower of St Paul’s Cathedral and brutally murdered.
The pamphlet was no mere Protestant diatribe. It made public for the first time the complete coroner’s report and named three henchmen of Richard Fitzjames, then bishop of London, who had “feloniously strangled and smothered, and also the neck they did break of the said Richard Hunne… afterward… with the same girdle of the same Richard Hunne… after his death, upon a hook driven into… the wall of the prison… and so hanged him”.
Why was the story of this sensational crime revived more than two decades later? Why did it arouse fresh interest at this particular time? Because Hunne, like Packington, was a prominent merchant (a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company) and an outspoken critic of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He too, so it was alleged, had been violently silenced at the behest of the clergy.
The timing of the publication was no coincidence, and readers could not help remarking upon the parallels between the two killings.
Derek Wilson is the author of The First Horseman, a novel based upon the Packington affair, written under the name DK Wilson.
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