Cambridge researchers uncover 500-year-old murder mystery in scrolls
The story of a body hidden in an earthenware jar buried in a gravel pit is one of the extraordinary cases found by researchers uncovering the secrets of crime and punishment in the Isle of Ely.
Cambridge University Library archivists have been working for more than a year – including throughout lockdown – to catalogue the records that are written on rolls of parchment and have discovered new and curious cases from the Isle of Ely Assizes.
Most of the records involved petty theft, including stolen ducks that were turned into pies, or a man accused of taking the Bishop of Ely’s swans. But occasionally they found a case that took the researchers aback. One such example was about the discovery of human remains in a gravel pit in Sutton in 1636, where suspicion soon fell on a local couple whose son was known to be missing.
John and Bridget Bonham’s son had disappeared several years beforehand and witnesses were able to confirm that this was the only child they knew to be missing.
Sally Kent, assistant archivist in the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts, says: “This was one of our most interesting cases and was identified by one of our volunteers. It describes how people were digging and they found some bones in a gravel pit which were in an old earth pot. They were very suspicious about this because there was a local family where the young son had been missing for about nine years. So they jumped to conclusions and said that this must be the young boy’s body and the parents must have murdered him and buried him in the ground.
“Reading the records, you can really imagine Sutton as a small village where there’s lots of suspicion about this couple and maybe they are just an unpopular family. So when something like this happens the villagers jump to all sorts of conclusions. But I think what is really interesting about the case is the detail we have. There is a series of witness statements in which various people in the village say why they think this couple, the Bonhams, are guilty. The evidence goes into really amazing detail considering the date.
“It is interesting to know things were investigated seriously, even if it was just villagers casting aspersions on their neighbours – they still went through the process of taking witness testimonies and talking to different people.”
In the papers relating to the case they found Sir Miles Sandys, Justice of the Peace, had undertaken a detailed investigation of the events, and heard 18 sworn testimonies or depositions from the villagers. He then presented these statements to the Assizes court which sat twice a year in Ely.
Sally explains: “On reading the depositions through, the evidence appears to mount up conclusively against the Bonhams. Multiple witnesses conclude their statements to Sandys by insisting that the only child they knew to be missing in Sutton was John Bonham junior. Added to this, several witnesses insinuate that John Bonham was cruel to his first wife, Grace, and that several of their children had run away. John married his second wife, Bridget, just seven weeks after the death of his first wife in 1620. Aside from testimony on the dynamics of the Bonham family, the deponents detail a litany of other suspicions from the immediate reaction of the Bonhams to the news of the discovery to speculation on the possible ownership of the pot, speculation on the size of the bones and on the state of the grave. The level of detail is extraordinary.”
The Justice of the Peace first took statements that described the behaviour of the Bonhams following the discovery of the pot, before going on to look at the physical evidence in what Sally describes as almost a ‘forensic’ manner.
“I think an interesting angle is that some of the things described by the witnesses you might associate more with modern detective work. For instance, they get a gravedigger in and he has to estimate the size of the grave and the size of the bones and try to work out if it is a young person or an old person. That kind of activity is more like modern forensics and that aspect of the case is quite interesting.
“These witness statements show cases were investigated and they did seek the opinions of experts.
“It is surprising because you do think that working like this is quite a recent development, such as the forensic way they looked at the pot and tried to work out what it was made of.”
In her paper about about the case, Sally writes: “John and Bridget Bonham were examined by Sandys on October 18, 1636. Both denied any knowledge of the bones, with John stating he had last seen his son nine years ago but had been told of reported sightings of him at Cambridge and Longstanton. John Bonham was committed to gaol at Ely while Sandys investigated further.
“The behaviour of Joan Westland, a sister of John Bonham, was soon deemed suspicious because she was reported to have broken the most damning piece of evidence, the earthen pot, when it was shown to her by a neighbour. In her deposition, Westland denied any malice by saying, ‘[the pot] slipped purposely out of her hand upon the ground to try what metal it was of and so broke the pot.’
“Anne Queene testified that she recognised the earthen pot as the same one she had seen at John Bonham’s house about nine years earlier ‘standing upon his cupboard’s head’.”
Other neighbours chipped in, with Phebie Spring claiming the pot was so unusual “she had never seen another of that fashion”.
Meanwhile villager Alice Daye said Bridget Bonham had “swooned away” when she heard about the discovery of the pot.
Horrifyingly, some women were said to have left a thigh bone outside the door of the Bonham’s house. Mary Paufryman reported that Bridget had protested that the bone in question was comparable in size to her own thigh bone and so could not be that of a child.
The testimonies also describe witnesses examining the bones from the pot, and the grave site, and considering whether they proved the body was that of a child.
William Bradshaw, who discovered the pot, was able to describe the place it was found as “a short grave fit for a child… not above a foot and a half deep”.
Meanwhile, Richard Springe, the parish grave-digger, thought the grave was not very old because of the state of the bones. Constable John Linwood checked the ‘church book’ (a parish register) and found the missing child, John Bonham junior, had been baptised in 1616 and so would have been 11 years old when he disappeared.
Sally says: “I don’t think they were guilty, actually there isn’t a verdict with these papers but the couple appear in later cases in the village. So they obviously aren’t found guilty at the time because they were not imprisoned. So, while these witness statements were very interesting what’s fascinating is it shows you how if you were an unpopular couple in a village, for whatever reason, or you have some history with your neighbours that is acrimonious’ these things can build up into feuds.
“I think that is more likely what has happened in this case rather than them being murderers.”
While there is no record in the Assizes rolls showing whether the couple were found guilty of murder, an extract researchers found in a gaol calendar, assumed to be from 1636, has the abbreviation ‘non cul’ [non culpabilis] in the margin, which suggests they were acquitted.
The couple’s names next appear in the records when they are accused of witchcraft in 1647 during the witchcraft craze in East Anglia instigated by Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins.
Sally says: “As far as we know the Bonhams drop out of the records but I think our volunteer researcher followed them through in the parish registers and they appear not to have been guilty of witchcraft and at least one of them might have been buried in Sutton. The 1640s was a very strange time in East Anglia before the civil war started and it seems to me this couple were a bit unlucky.
“In some ways their society is not too different to the modern world, because when you hear rumours or a body is discovered people immediately jump to conclusions. But on the other hand this case is all about the village and who knows each other in the villages, it’s all very local, which is quite different to our modern society now where we perhaps don’t have those relationships with our neighbours.”
She adds: “There has been a lot of interest in the case. We had a researcher in Australia who was thinking about incorporating the story into a novel which would be very exciting. We were able to supply her with a lot of detail. It’s a nice one because it captured people’s imaginations.”
The project to transcribe and catalogue the rolls has been funded by the Cambridgeshire Family History Society. The project’s aim is to produce a full catalogue of these records for the first time and to highlight some of the most interesting cases.
Once the cataloguing of the Isle of Ely Assize records is complete, it is hoped researchers may be able to draw out patterns of crimes from them.