Murder Mystery Spot – The suspicious death of Joan Knight

Joan Knight, the wife of William Knight, died a fortnight before Christmas 1582 in Llanlluhgan, Montgomeryshire. Her family said that her death had been caused after she had been struck upon her head, arms, and belly [2]. With wounds like that, it seems obvious that Joan was murdered, or at least killed unlawfully [3]. But was there any evidence to support their claims? What theories emerged to explain how Joan died? And, most importantly, was Joan’s murder ever solved?

Evidence

Usually, the coroner for the county was obliged to investigate sudden deaths in the community, but Joan was buried before he arrived. There is not a lot of surviving medical evidence from this time period, though the coroner would have commented on the condition of the body and if the death had occurred naturally or otherwise. Without this evidence, it is difficult to tell exactly how Joan died. The fact that the coroner did not have the chance to view the body, along with the accusations made by neighbours and family members, raised suspicions that Joan’s death was the result of foul play. The Justice of the Peace (a sort of early modern police officer) Griffith Lloyd, Esquire, and Howell Vaughn, Gentleman, the deputy sheriff, began to investigate.

map
Map showing the village where Joan’s murder happened.

Theories

Two possible theories emerged as Griffith and Howell examined the witnesses:

Theory One- Joan Knight was killed by her husband:

John ap David Thomas, who lived with Joan and William Knight, reported to another man that William had beaten Joan ‘very sore’ before her death [4]. John also reported that when Joan was found wounded outside her house she had said to her husband: ‘Cursed be the hour I ever saw thee, William Knight, for thou hast brought me to this point, for this doing in beating me…’ [5]. When Joan’s son-in-law was asked if there was any ‘assaults, affrays or debates’ between the Knights he admitted that there had been a ‘debate’ about why she did not make better bread [6]. Also, when examined about his wife’s death, William stated that he had given Joan ‘angry words’ because he ‘had to go to spend his money to seek remedy at the sheriff’s Tourn’ after she had been involved in an altercation with a man called David Philip but denied that he had struck her at any time for the past seven years [7]. Most suspiciously, Joan was buried quickly after her death and without the permission of the coroner. Joan’s body was prepared for burial by her daughters. But this preparation is rather odd because the both daughters lived quite far from their parents’ house, and additionally there were women who lived closer to Joan and William and who could have performed preparations for her burial. It is, therefore, possible that the family had something to hide and did not want the community to see the condition Joan’s body when she died.

Joan and William clearly fought and it is possible that one of their arguments got out of hand. Joan’s dying claim that William was the one who had caused her death would have been a fairly damming piece of evidence against him, as it was thought that a person who was about to meet their maker would never lie and risk eternal damnation. But, only one person reported that she had said this, and this brings us to the second theory.

Theory two- Joan Knight was killed after an argument with David Philip:

The Knight’s neighbour, Harry Goch said that rather than blaming her husband for her wounds, Joan had instead said that it was David Philip, the local butcher, who had hurt her [8]. Joan knew that she was badly hurt and said that ‘she feared the said wounds would bring her to her grave’ [9]. Joan further said that ‘it was most untrue that her husband had given her any blows’. Joan’s son-in-law reported that a quarrel between Joan and David had started after her husband’s cattle had trespassed on a field of barley and oats belonging to David [10]. David had then struck Joan on her belly with his foot causing her a wound from which she never fully recovered [11]. When William Knight was examined about Joan’s suspicious burial, he claimed that the reason he had not alerted the coroner was that Joan said she had forgiven David for beating her and so he thought that the matter had been fully resolved [12].

David Philip denied that he had wounded Joan. Instead, he alleged that Joan and her daughter Elizabeth had attacked him in his parcel of land and assaulted him with ‘a goad and ‘a ‘holyn’ staff’. He said that he had not struck either of the women to defend himself but had instead ‘shifted himself away from them’ [13]. He also said that after this incident, Joan had called for him to visit her as she lay sick and desired him ‘in the hearing of others, for Christ’s sake to forgive her’ for the wrong she had done him, offering him anything he wanted in return for his making amends [14].

A further suspicious detail is that it was David who reported to the JP and deputy sheriff that Joan had blamed William for her death. Rather than appearing to be an honest report of a dying woman’s words, then, Joan’s claim against her husband now looks like an attempt by David to shift the blame away from him.

house
The church of St Mary’s was probably standing at the time of Joan’s death [1].

So, what actually happened?

Both these theories about Joan’s death are credible explanations. The allegation that William was violent towards Joan due to the fact that she was a bad wife, the fact that she was overheard blaming him for her death, and the way she was buried all indicated that William could have been responsible. On the other hand, both Joan and William denied that he had ever hit her, she claimed to other people that David was responsible, and her claim that William had killed her was reported by the other person who had been blamed for her death.

Arguments between people about who owned what land were fairly common in this time period and could sometimes turn lethal. Joan is not the only woman who was allegedly killed as the result of this type of argument in early modern Wales. While David denied that he had any involvement in her death, there were no other witnesses who supported his claim. But it is important to note that all the people who claimed that David had killed Joan were members of William’s family, and it is possible that they were trying to protect him by shifting the blame onto David.

Griffith and Howell clearly had difficulty in deciding who was culpable for Joan’s death. They issued a recognizance against both William and David that ordered they should both attend the next Great Session (the court that dealt with the most severe criminal cases) to answer for Joan’s death. Frustratingly, this is where the records end; there is no further mention of either of these men in the surviving records of the Great Sessions.

While this is disappointing as a true crime enthusiast, this case does still tell the historian two main things. Firstly, in Wales in this time period, men in positions of authority might have grounds to suspect that a husband had killed his wife through violence. If they did suspect that this had happened they were willing and able to charge him with murder. Secondly, this case shows that an argument over the use and abuse of land could result in lethal violence, and women were just as involved in the defence of land as their male family members. We know this because both the explanations for Joan’s death were believed. What we don’t know is which of these theories was the correct explanation for Joan’s death. It is because of this, the mystery of Joan Knight’s death will remain unsolved…


Sources:

[1] http://www.cpat.demon.co.uk/projects/longer/churches/montgom/32541.htm

[2] National Library of Wales Great Sessions 4/131/1/2 Examination of Edward Knight (1583).

[3] This is quite an important distinction in this time period. If a man was found guilty of murder he would be sentenced to hang. If, however, he was found guilty of manslaughter he could plead that he was a member of the clergy. He could prove this by reading a passage from the bible, though because it was always the same passage that people had to read, it would have been possible for him to memorise it beforehand. If the court believed him he would be sentenced instead to have the letter ‘M’ branded on his hand- unpleasant, but not as bad as being hanged.

[4] NLW GS 4/131/1/5 Examination of David Philip (1583).

[5] NLW GS 4/131/1/5 Examination of David Philip (1583).

[6] NLW GS 4/131/1/1 Examination of Thomas Bromley (1583). He also reported this incident to the couple’s 23 year old son, Edward. NLW GS 4/131/1/2 Examination of Edward Knight (1583). When William was asked about this he admitted that ‘he gave her ‘a cheek’ for that she did not make better bread’: NLW GS 4/131/1/3 Examination of William Knight (1583).

[7] The sheriff’s Tourn was ‘The tour, turn, or circuit formerly made by the sheriff of a county twice in the year, in which he presided at the hundred-court in each hundred of the county; the great court leet of the county, held by him on these occasions; it was a court of record’. OED. William’s examination does not specify the exact nature of the ‘remedy’ he sought at the Tourn, nor how much it had cost him.

[8] NLW GS 4/131/1/2 Examination of Edward Knight (1583). There is no surviving examination of Henry Goch but Edward reported what Henry had said to him.

[9] NLW GS 4/131/1/2 Examination of Edward Knight (1583).

[10] NLW GS 4/131/1/1 Examination of Thomas Bromley (1583).

[11] NLW GS 4/131/1/3 Examination of William Knight (1583).

[12] NLW GS 4/131/1/3 Examination of William Knight (1583).

[13] NLW GS 4/131/1/5 Examination of David Philip (1583).

[14] David claimed that he took some rye and 3s. 4d. in money and then duly forgave her; NLW GS 4/131/1/5 Examination of David Philip (1583).


liz crop circleContributor: Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard is in her final year of a PhD investigating the involvement of women in crime in early modern Wales. Her thesis is part of the ‘Women Negotiating the Boundaries of Justice’ project funded by the AHRC. Elizabeth is also the President of Cardiff University Society for Women Graduates.
@LizhiHoward

Reviewed by: Tiffany Treadway

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