A crime of passion

Arthur Percival, Honorary Director of Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Faversham writes about the murder of Thomas Arden, by his wife and her lover.

Had there been daily papers in 1551, the murder of Thomas Arden in his own home on 15 February would have hit the headlines. Crimes of passion were common enough, but this one was special because the victim and his wife were both close to the centre of the national stage.

Arden, born in Norwich in 1508, was a whizz-kid parvenu, who had made his pile as a wheeler-dealer specialising in property confiscated from the monasteries by Henry VIII. He had no known association with Shakespeare's mother, born Mary Arden. He had moved in high circles in London, then settled in the prosperous port of Faversham, where he acquired an influential new patron, Sir Thomas Cheyne, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

He had made a good marriage to Alice Brigandine, grand-daughter of the shipwright who had built the Mary Rose in 1509. Her step-father was Sir Edward North (later Lord North), a Privy Councillor and Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, which master-minded the sale of monastic property nationwide. Business-obsessed Thomas made a poor husband and Alice sought affection elsewhere.

Thomas Mosby may not have had her husband's background, but he had time, and passion. For the couple the only hope of permanent happiness lay in the death of Arden. This they plotted ruthlessly with the help of hired assassins. Several attempts on his life were bungled in London and elsewhere before finally a pair of war veterans, Black Will and Loosebag (Shakebag in the play), killed him in his own home while he was playing a game of tables (backgammon) with Mosby.

The guilt of the real culprits was soon established, but because their crime was seen as a possible threat to national security a special court was convened. Their final fate was decided by the Privy Council, of which both Alice's own stepfather and Sir Thomas Cheyne were members.This was no time for sentiment, and it was decided to make examples of both Mosby and Alice. He was hanged in London, she burnt at the stake in Canterbury.

The scene of the crime

Arden's HousePerhaps nowhere else in the United Kingdom can an Elizabethan play be played against the backcloth of the building in which the main events portrayed in it actually took place. Arden's House (80 Abbey Street), though close to the town centre, has a large garden in which successful amateur productions of the play have been mounted more than once.

It was still fairly new when Thomas and Alice moved there in 1544. It had been built in about 1475, perhaps as a guest-house, for the great Benedictine Abbey founded by King Stephen in 1147. It stood then, and until 1772, against the outer gateway which stood astride Abbey Street.

With a handsome beamed parlour and hall above, it was the epitome of late 15th-century domestic comfort, the kind of place in which Cardinal Wolsey would have felt at home during his visits to the Abbey in 1520, 1527 and 1528. It has been little altered since.

The stub of the outer gateway, dating probably from the 13th century, forms part of the house and features a small oratory. A south wing of the building has been demolished, leaving just a handsome remnant in Arden's Cottage (81 Abbey Street). By the 18th century it had become a farmhouse, and remained so till the early 20th century.

By the 1950s, in common with other properties in once-prestigious Abbey Street, it had fallen on hard times and was threatened with demolition. Even at £950 it would not sell till a public-spirited purchaser came forward to restore it. Structurally there was little wrong with it but thorough restoration was still needed.The work prompted the UK's first 'town scheme' for the restoration of the whole of Abbey Street, said to be the finest medieval street in the South East.

Privately owned, the house is not open to the public, but is the Street's landmark building, easily viewed from the outside. Arden's name is also remembered in the town's little theatre and a local road.

With around 500 listed buildings and a picturesque Creek, the town is within easy reach of London and well worth a visit. It has other resonances with Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare performed here, and many of the buildings saw survive. It was the birthplace of John Wilson, who composed music for Shakespeare songs; and Christopher Marlowe's father lived and worked within a mile of the town centre.

Arden of Faversham

by anonymous

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
30 April - 2 October 2014

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