07 April 2010

News & Media: Murder Most Dreadful

By Sandra Schwab

Back in the olden days when Good Queen Bess ruled over England, making the news usually involved some kind of gruesome execution and the display of various rotting body parts on crossways up and down the country. If you were very notorious indeed, your story could also be worth an entry into a town chronicle or it was transformed into a broadside ballad. Add a pretty woodcut, and it could be sold on the streets for cheap money; a practice which remained popular until well into the nineteenth century, when the story of the murder of a Maria Marten by her gentleman suitor in 1827 sold more than one million copies.

In the case of Thomas Arden, the story of his death and the bringing to justice of his murderers even entered the Renaissance stage as "The Tragedie of Arden of Faversham" (1592). Arden was a power-hungry landowner, who at forty married a girl of sixteen. He seems to have been a domineering, profit-seeking man, and there was no much love lost between the married couple.

The wife, Alice, eventually took a lover, with whom she started plotting the death of her husband. The events that followed were first described in a chronicle of 1551:
This year on S. Valentine's day at Faversham in Kent was committed a shameful murder, for one Arden a gentleman was by the consent of his wife murdered, wherefore she was burned at Canterbury, and there was hanged in chains for that murder and at Faversham (two) hanged in chains, and a woman burned, and in Smithfield was hanged one Mosby [i.e., Alice's lover] and his sister for the murder also.
The title page of the play shows how a later generation transformed the events at Faversham into a moral lesson on the wickedness of women and the dangers of base lust: "Wherin is shewed the great malice and discimulation of a wicked woman, the unsatiable desire of filthy lust and the shamefull end of all murderers."