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THOMAS OF READING.
"Thomas of Reading, or the Sixe Worthie Yeomen of the West," is the production of Thomas Deloney, the compiler of the "Garland of Good-will," a poetical collection of local tales and historical ditties; and a famous ballad maker in his day, in which latter character he appears to have drawn upon himself the indignation of Kemp, one of the original actors of Shakspeare, in his " Nine Daies Wonder." Kemp's miraculous morris-dance, performed in nine days from London to Norwich, had been misrepresented in the popular ballads, and he thus remonstrates against our author. "I have made a priuie "search; what priuate jig-monger of your jolly num"ber had been the author of these abhominable "ballets written of me. I was told it was the great "ballade-maker, T. D. or Thomas Deloney, chro"nicler of the memorable Lives of the Six Yeomen "of the West,' 'Jack of Newberry,' 'the Gentle "Craft,' and such like honest men, omitted by "Stowe, Hollinshed, Grafton, Hall, Froysart, and "the rest of those well-deserving writers."
Accordingly we find "Thomas of Reading" to be a mixture of historical fact and fictitious narration, which may be compared to the historical novel of modern times; for Coates, in his History of Reading, acknowledges the existence of our hero, even while he speaks slightingly of Deloney's history. "The trade of Reading, with respect to manufac"tories, is no longer considerable. Thomas Cole, in "the time of Edward I. (query Henry I.) was called "the Rich Clothier of Reading. Though his name "and reputation occasioned a fabulous and childish "penny history, called the 'History of Thomas of "Reading;' yet we may learn from the circum"stance, that Reading was even then famous for its "trade of clothing."
Thomas of Reading contains many curious allusions to manners and customs now obsolete; and, though grounds of origin for several circumstances are stated which are not strictly borne out by historical research, much curious information may be gleaned from it. It would be tedious to illustrate every point to which our attention might be drawn; but the allusion to the Oibbet Law of Halifax, which was in full force at the time our author wrote, seems to justify some notice. This custom is supposed to have originated when the manor of Wakefield (of which Halifax was part) was bestowed on Earl Warren; for in the reign of King Edward I. at the pleas of assizes and jurats at the borough of Scarborough, John Earl of Warren and Surry, answering to a writ of quo warranto, said, That he claimed Gallows at Coningsburgh and Wakefield, and the power of doing what belonged to a gallows in all his lands and fees, and that he and all his ancestors had used the same from time immemorial, &c. The law or custom as regards Halifax appears to have been to the effect that,
1st. The thief was to be taken within the liberty, and if he escaped out of the liberty he could not be brought back to be executed; but if ever he returned again, and was taken, he was sure to suffer, as was the case with one Lacy, who after his escape lived seven years out of the Liberty, but venturing back was beheaded on his former verdict in the year 1623. This man was not so wise as one Dinnis, who having been condemned to die, escaped out of the Liberty on the day intended for his execution (which might be done by running about five hundred yards,) and never returned thither again; meeting several people, they asked him "if Dinnis was not to be beheaded that day?" his answer was, " I trow not," which having some humour in it, became a proverbial saying amongst the inhabitants, who to this day use the expression "I trow not, quoth Dinnis."
2d. The fact was to be proved in the clearest manner, the offender was to be taken either handhabend or backberand, having the stolen goods either in his hand, or bearing them on his back; or lastly, confessand, confessing that he took them.
3d. The value of the goods stolen must amount to thirteen pence halfpenny, or more.
4th. The accused was to be executed on the first Saturday after his condemnation, and
5th. When brought to the gibbet he was to have his head cut off from his body, &c.
Forty-nine persons appear to have been executed since a list was kept, of which five were in the six last years of Henry VIII.; twenty-five in the reign of Elizabeth: seven in that of James I.; ten in that of Charles I. and two during the interregnum.
The proceedings at the trials of the last malefactors, viz. Abraham Wilkinson and Andrew Mitchel, who suffered at Halifax gibbet on the 30th of April, 1650, are preserved in an account of Halifax, published by William Bentley, London, 1708; and in the Rev. Mr. Watson's History of Halifax, from which this account is taken, and where much curious matter is to be found, illustrative not only of the gibbet law of Halifax, but of the first gibbets or guillotines used in this country.