Elizabethan Crime

By the time of the reign of Elizabeth 1 from 1558 to 1603 Eastern Essex had become an important area of Essex. During this age Bradwell Juxta Mere ( Bradwell on Sea) and Burnham on Crouch/Creeksea were important settlements.

Although life was hard for common people, centring on agriculture or the sea, behaviour standards were at times quite extrovert even by modern standards.

Civil and Church Courts operated to consider both civil and moral crimes.


Inciting disaffection towards Elizabeth 1 was a crime that was often dealt with by the Civil Courts. Those guilty faced punishment from public pillory to hanging drawing and quartering. Essex saw many cases of sedition although most cases in the Dengie were caused by over indulgence of alcohol rather than plotting against the crown.

An example of sedition  in Dengie occurred in 1592. Randal Duckworth who was a labourer living at Bradwell on Sea held a conversation with the Rector John Debanck during which he complained about the government and expressed the belief that if the Queen died the situation would improve by a return of catholic rule. The rash words were reported and Duckworth was sentences to stand in the pillories.


The lack of a large navy compared to the volume of maritime use gave rise to occasional piracy. One of the most famous pirates during the reign of Elizabeth 1 was Fiddler the pirate.

After a successful career Fiddler was captured by the authorities whilst staying at the White Hart, Burnham. He was later executed and hung in chains at land now known as Fiddlers Point, Greenhithe.


During Elizabethan times the area abounded in animal life including deer.

Given the poor standard of living it was not surprising that many people appeared before the courts for poaching.

Poachers were willing to travel comparatively long distances to get the opportunity to poach

In 1568 an unknown Woodham Walter Man, whose occupation was a tailor, was charged with possession of nets and traps to poach hares.

In 1587 John Foster of Hockley was responsible for taking 6 partridges at Asheldham

In 1581 John Johnson and Rooke Songer from Witham traveled to Creeksea with two dogs and were charged with coursing and killing deer at the Creeksea Place home of local JP Arthur Harris.

Highway Robbery

The most celebrated Essex highway robber, Dick Turpin was not born until 1706 well after the end of the Elizabethan era the art of Highway Robbery was still found in Essex.

Only three cases of Highway Robbery were brought to Essex Assizes.

December 1569 A tinker from Heybridge and a weaver from Maldon held up a man at Purleigh and stole the considerable sum of 7 shillings. The waver was found not guilty but the tinker paid with his life.

In 1596 a man walking on a footpath at Stow Maries was robbed of 3 shillings 4 pence although his assailant was found guilty of assault only.

In December 1696 at Latchingdon a man was robed of £10 5 shillings and three pence by three men from Blackmore. Once escaped custody and was never traced although his two companions were hanged for their crime.

Theft Of Livestock

The coastal marshland and extensive common land meant that the Dengie 100 teemed with livestock especially sheep.

Theft of livestock became a real problem with thieves stealing sheep to establish or increase their flock.

In 1585 a Latchingdon man traveled 25 miles to Margaret Roothing where he broke into a field and stole 37 sheep and 25 lambs.

Six years later a Prittlewell labourer traveled to North Fambridge Hall where he stole 28 sheep and 26 lambs.

Horses were also common and subject of theft. In 1572 John Hayward stole several horses and stole some clothes from Southminster and a purse from Bradwell Juxta Mere. Two years later he stole a horse from nearby East Hanningfield and was hanged for his crimes.


William Walford became betrothed to a Creeksea woman in 1598 and appeared before the Church Court for not marrying her despite the passage of several months since the third reading of the banns. His explanation was that he intended to marry the lady but stated that she was not sound in body nor hath any hair on her head and so he did not wish to marry. The Judge was sympathetic and accepted this as a lawful impediment to marriage.

In 1566 Richard Nycholas of Purleigh was charged with absenting himself from his wife. At Court he asserted that she was not a woman lawful for a mans use. the judge ordered that the woman be searched by women who adjudged that she was not in fact a woman i.e. a man.

Husband/ Wife Murder, assault, cuckolding and seduction

In the late 1500's two cases occurred at Burnham that would have excited the interest of modern day tabloid newspapers.

In 1582 Dorothy Clarke was a spinster residing at Burnham. On her way to the market at Maldon she met up with John Fletcher from Coggeshall who told her that he was a bachelor. Although at first Dorothy rebuffed Fletcher she was eventually won over by the promise of a chamber in London and an allowance of 20 marks per year. On lady day which was the last day of Maldon Fair she finally consented at the Saracens Head Inn. Fletcher departed promising to meet Dorothy at the Cock Inn at Boreham where he would carry her to her new chamber at London. The appointment was not kept and so she went to find Fletcher at Coggeshall. On the way she met Fletcher who ignored her and made off. Dorothy then stayed at an alehouse in Coggeshall only to find that a Coggeshall girl Susan Baybe was pregnant having admitted pre marital sex with her half brother, Fletcher and another man.

The affair of the Burnham Horns caused much scandal in 1584. Traditionally adorning the outer door of a house with horns told the man of the house that he was being cuckolded.

Robert Gybbyns a tailor from Bradwell quarrelled with a Mr Kempe who lived at Burnham. As a result Gybbyns and five friends walked to Burnham where they erected horns on the door of Kempes house. The act was accompanied by so much mirth that neighbours were awakened and saw the men and the horns which led to much jeering.

Gybbyns appeared before the magistrate who heard evidence of Gybbyns boast about paling the horns from Agnes Moore  who was a servant of Kempe to the effect that Gybbyns had admited being responsible to a Mrs Philpott . When called to give evidence Mrs Phillpot said that she saw the act but did not know the men however the Magistrate was satisfied at the guilt of Gybbyns who he said has caused great offence to the neighbours and to the cuckolded men and their wives.

An even worse tale occurred in 1590 when John Chaundler began an affair with a Mrs Phillpott. Chaundler approached Rowland Griffyth who agreed to murder Mr Phillpot so that Chaundler could have Phillpots wife and his goods. The plot was discovered and Gryffyth turned Queens evidence. Chaundler fled and Mrs Phillpott took to her sick bed so that the case was adjourned and nothing further heard.

Sexual Offences

Incest was a crime in the eyes of the church although not in the state. Incest was proved by persons cohabiting with any physical relationship proved.

Despite this many marriages of first cousins and even closer relations were at times permitted.

One case involving Anthony Walkers admission of incestuous intercourse with Margaret Younge was dealt with by means of public confession in Burnham Parish Church and regular religious instruction by the Curate

Masters were not supposed to take advantage of their servants as a Cold Norton man found in 1583 when he was found guilty of immorality with his servant. He was told to show that he was heartily sorry in live more circumspectly hereafter and was made to give to the Parishioners a Book of Martyrs and to pay 20shillings for the use of poor scholars

Church offences

During Elizabethan times some members of the Clergy behaved in an ungodly manner which caused them problems with the emerging puritanical preachers.

Thomas Howell the Rector of nearby Pagglesham appeared before the Church Court in 1587 after brawling in Burnham Parish Church with  the Curate William Chase. The Court were told that Rector Howell had recently  been suspended for a previous offence and lost his benefice.

In the following year the new Curate of Burnham was Thomas Stempe who appeared before the Court charged with frequenting an alehouse and thus holding no service on Sunday afternoon. For this Stempe was made to do penance. The lesson did not seem to be learnt as Stempe later appeared before the criminal court in 1596 for attempted rape.

Parishioners could also fall foul of Church Courts when bell ringers at Purleigh, Dengie and Woodham Mortimer were censured for ringing the church bells at Halloween a practice forbidden in the Anglican Church after the reformation.


Many people were accused of being witches for which the were tried at witch trials. Some were found innocent but many were hanged or died in prison.

Click here for a special page on this website dealing with witchcraft.