On June 18, 1603, Elizabeth Caldwell was hanged. She’d been convicted of murder after conspiring to murder her husband and instead killing a bystander. A 1604 murder pamphlet called A True Discourse of the Practices of Elizabeth Caldwell tells the story.
Like other murder pamphlets, this one is hyperbolic. It manipulates the reader, trying to impress upon us a vision of Elizabeth and those in her world.
Elizabeth, Young and Well-Born
Elizabeth was a young, beautiful woman from an affluent family. As the daughter of a gentry, Elizabeth was well-born and brought up with great care and attention.
At an early age, Elizabeth was married to Thomas Caldwell, who was also young and apparently “gentle”.
There was just one thing: he was worldly.
That’s right, he loved to travel. This was a problem that made him ill-suited for fulfilling his duties as a husband. The writer of the murder pamphlet takes on a tone of warning, as if we should be cautious of our own desires to travel.
The reader is left to wonder about this husband. Was he able to provide for his wife financially? Did he intentionally leave his wife alone, or did she simply not enjoy traveling? We get few details about why Thomas sucked as a husband.
The Death of an Innocent
With Elizabeth left alone so often, she became vulnerable to the world of sex outside of her marriage. Adultery found her in the form of a man named Jeffrie Bownd and a woman, Isabell Hall, who allowed them to meet at her home for their rendezvous.
The pamphlet alleges that Bownd and Hall encouraged Elizabeth to murder her husband in 1602. They decided that Elizabeth would do this by poisoning some oatcakes.
Not only did Elizabeth’s poison fail to kill Thomas, but it actually killed a child who happened to be at the home. Now, this child is not explained and is treated as somewhat of an afterthought. The child was apparently not Elizabeth and Thomas’ child.
Elizabeth at Trial
Elizabeth’s trial was held at Chester Assizes, which is now known as Chester Crown Court, in September 1602. There, she pleaded guilty. Bownd and Hall were also guilty, though the extent of their participation is vaguely shared.
Elizabeth was condemned to death, but she was not executed right away because she was pregnant. Once she gave birth, Elizabeth could be killed. She wasn’t executed until June of the next year, and Hall was also executed at this time.
Before the two women were killed, Bownd was also executed. In fact, he was executed on the same day Elizabeth gave birth to her son.
Elizabeth went to her death peacefully, saying she trusted God. Before her death, she allegedly blamed the attempted murder on weakness, poverty, and the absence of her husband.
Essentially, she was pinning the murder on her husband and failing to take responsibility for her own actions, which led to the death of a child.
Robson, Lynn. “‘NOW FAREWELL TO THE LAWE, TOO LONG HAVE I BEEN IN THY SUBJECTION’: EARLY MODERN MURDER, CALVINISM AND FEMALE SPIRITUAL AUTHORITY.” Literature and Theology, vol. 22, no. 3, 2008, pp. 295–312. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23926891.
A True Discourse of the Practices of Elizabeth Caldwell (1604).