Romford history: Shock as bailiff was hanged under martial law

The Romford bailiff was executed at Aldgate in 1549. Picture: PA

The Romford bailiff was executed at Aldgate in 1549. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

England 400-plus years ago was not keen on free speech, as Prof Ged Martin explains

We don’t know his name. We’re not even sure about his job title, but we do know that a ruthless government condemned “the bailiff of Romford” to a horrible death.

The royal manor of Havering operated through various officials, including a bailiff, who enforced local regulations.

There are some indications that the bailiff was regarded as unofficial mayor of Romford.

Local men took annual turns to do the job.

In 1549, the bailiff was “a man very well beloved” by Londoners. He was probably a Romford tradesman who often visited the capital on business, perhaps a cattle-dealer or a supplier of provisions.

1549 was a crisis year for England. Edward VI was a boy king. The country was ruled by a “Protector”, the duke of Somerset.

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A Protestant, Somerset had just introduced a new prayer book, switching services from Latin to English. The government also banned prayers to saints, and ordered the removal of their images from churches. Most people relied on a favourite saint to protect them. The religious revolution disturbed them.

In Cornwall, many people spoke a language like Welsh, and regarded English as a foreign tongue. Cornishmen rose in revolt. By July, they besieged Exeter.

That same month, there was an uprising in Norfolk, a county dominated by cloth manufacturing. Wealthy “clothiers” were evicting desperate poor people from the land to make way for sheep.

Soon, well-organised Norfolk rebels threatened Norwich.

In London, Protector Somerset issued strict orders “for the suppression of rumours”. Martial law was declared, giving the government power to hang people without trial.

It was early morning on St Mary Magdalene’s Day, Friday July 22.

Sheriffs brought the bailiff of Romford to a specially erected gallows at Aldgate.

As he was forced up the ladder to be hanged, the bailiff cried out to the crowd: “Good people, I am come hither to die, but know not for what offence.”

Arriving from Romford the previous evening, he’d been asked: “What news in the country?”

“Heavy news,” was his reply. “It is said that many men be up in Essex.”

“Up” meant “in rebellion”. We still use the figurative phrase, “up in arms”.

In fact, the bailiff was misinformed. Essex and Suffolk had not joined the Norfolk revolt.

Indeed, he claimed he’d added: “Thanks be to God, all is in quiet about us.”

Trembling as he faced death, the bailiff insisted that was all he had said. He’d intended to report that Havering was loyal to the government.

But it was enough.

When rumours spread in Tudor England, there was no TV news to challenge them, no email or telephone to check the facts.

Romford was one of the leading market centres around London. You’d credit a report from Romford, because the town had commercial links across Essex and into East Anglia.

The chatty bailiff had talked his head into the noose.

Aldgate was chosen for his execution because the main road from Essex entered London there. Arriving travellers would be shocked to see the dangling corpse of a man many of them knew. They would keep their mouths shut.

We can only imagine the horror of the bailiff’s family. A husband and father had set off on one of his regular trips to London. He’d be home in a day or two.

News of the bailiff’s fate probably reached Romford about mid-afternoon.

At first, the story would have seemed too horrible for his family to believe.

But soon they had to accept the terrible truth. Probably they also faced grinding poverty after the killing of their breadwinner.

London historian John Stow witnessed the grisly episode.

Forty years later, he angrily recalled the bailiff’s death.

“I heard the words of the prisoner, for he was executed upon the pavement of my door where I then kept house.”

Tudor England did not encourage free speech.