Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Tale of Edward Hewitson

From The Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

Edward Hewitson of Over Poppleton, near York, appeared in the court of the Dean and Chapter of York Minster in the last months of 1516. This was an office case (that is, the accused was prosecuted by the court, rather than by an individual).
The court records do not give details of his crime; however, some of the papers for his individual case survive. These, although damaged, make it clear that he was accused of repeatedly committing the ‘detestable sodomitical sin against human nature’ with other men for a period of 14 years.
The surviving records give details of the accusations made against him with notes of his responses to these statements. Although he began by denying all the charges, he did confess that he had in the past admitted committing this ‘sin’ and had performed public penance for it. This meant that he had to walk in procession around the church at Over Poppleton and the church of St Mary Bishophill in York, dressed in a sheet. This would have taken place during the weekly church service so many people would have seen him and known he was performing penance.
The accusations were backed by the accounts of witnesses, which would have been read after the accusations were made. They were encouraged to give an account of any relevant information, which was copied down. In the 14th and 15th centuries, these accounts would have been translated into Latin for presentation in court. By the 16th century when this case was heard more written accounts were being produced in English. In this case the accounts waver between the two languages, with a few words in Latin followed by some in English. These witness accounts are badly damaged, breaking up the narrative, but it is still possible to get a sense of these men’s stories.
The were five witnesses: Ralph Falowfeld, Francis Mane, Robert Hay, George Browne and Robert Carrok. There is a note that the first three witnesses appeared on 15 January and the final two on 16 January – the year is missing but must have been 1517 from other evidence.
It is not known how this case was resolved: the court book shows that it continued in the court for several months but we have no record of a sentence given.
The Church Courts could provide very little in the way of punishment and the strongest sentence which it could have passed would have been one of excommunication. This would have involved refusing Edward Hewitson the right to enter a church, and perhaps isolating him in his village so that he was not spoken to by his neighbours. If Edward repented and performed a penance these bans would have been lifted.
Edward was fortunate: from 1533 sodomy became a crime which could be tried by the secular courts and those convicted were hanged.

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