This blog explores several petitions from early 1621 which tell the story of accusations, evading arrest warrants, eventual arrests, and imprisonment in the infamous Fleet Prison. The two main characters of this tale are Jeffrey Passmore, a wax chandler, otherwise known as a candle maker, based in Westminster and Samuel Booth, a royal servant, as a Groom of His Majesty’s Courser Stable. Using a combination of different petition records and the House of Lords Journals, it was possible to piece together most of the details and events. Exploring these records made it possible to see the different sides and perspectives of the story. The records range from 8th March to 30th April 1621, a tale which is now 400 years old.
This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.
Arrests and Accusations
Here’s how the story began. According to a petition from Jeffrey Passmore on 28th April 1621, Samuel Booth accused Passmore of being a “notorious thief and a robber” and stealing £300 from “one of his majesties subjects upon the high way”. This was a large sum of money in 1621, approximately £40,000 in today’s money. Booth’s accusation of Passmore being a highwayman was very serious and Passmore was concerned for his reputation. So, Passmore convinced Deputy Bailiff Nicholas King to arrest Booth for these accusations. However, this arrest of Booth violated his privileges as one of His Majesty's servants. Passmore claims that he did not know that Booth was protected by this privilege. The violation of privileges brought the case to the attention of the House of Lords. The below record from the House of Lords Journal dated 8th March, gives an account of the arrest of Booth.
After having his privileges as a servant of His Majesty violated, Booth wanted Passmore to be arrested in return. The next two records are entries in the Lords Journal from the 13th and 15th March 1621, describing the arrest of Passmore and his attempt to disobey a warrant that Booth had acquired from the Marquess of Buckingham. Passmore continued to deny knowledge of Booth being a royal servant or of any warrant. The case was passed on to renowned lawyer, Sir Robert Hitcham, who concluded that Passmore had violated the privileges of Booth. Booth was then released from imprisonment. Both Passmore and the bailiff, Nicholas King, were arrested and imprisoned in Fleet Prison. The Fleet was a notorious prison, built in the 12th century and mostly used as a debtor’s prison but not exclusively. It is also well known for being featured in Charles Dickens novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’.
On 15th March, the same day as the Lords Journal entry for the imprisonment of Passmore and King, the wife of Nicholas King, Elizabeth King submitted a petition to plead for the release of her husband. She stated that Passmore was the instigator and that her husband was “threatened by Jeffery Passmore to arrest Samuel Booth”, begging that she “cannot live without him” and would be in “poverty and charge of children” on her own. This petition from Elizabeth King, is also one of the earliest surviving petitions submitted by a woman.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
As mentioned earlier, Passmore was accused of avoiding and disobeying a warrant, this petition also dated 15th March details the account of messenger Robert Breres. The messenger was sent by Booth and the Marquess of Buckingham with a special command to bring in Passmore for questioning. This was the start of a comedy of errors as Breres attempted to deliver this message to Passmore.
Breres first tried to deliver the message to Passmore at his house but, was met instead by his wife who insulted him “with words unseemly to be spoken by any woman” until he left. On his second attempt to deliver the message, Breres went to Passmore’s shop, where he found the man. But he denied that he was Passmore, until a woman “coming into the shop called him by the name of Passmore”. Breres, now with confirmation of Passmore’s identity, attempted to deliver the special command. Passmore demanded to see a warrant which Breres did not have. Passmore then claimed he had no business with the Marquess and had other business he needed to attend to. His wife then came in with the “passion as she formerly was, calling your suppliant […] names as she did before” and the messenger left again.
On Breres third try, this time with a warrant from the Marquess of Buckingham, the messenger was once again met by Passmore’s wife who this time “called for a sword, and swore if your suppliant would not go out of the house, she would kill him”. Breres tried to show her the warrant but she claimed it was counterfeit and he left once more. However, the same night the messenger happened to come across Passmore by chance, finally able to serve him the warrant, which he then refused to obey. Passmore then attempted to escape, leading Breres to try and detain him as his prisoner. Passmore’s wife seeing the situation cried out “Murder” and another gentleman, Mr Harbert, came with “his sword drawn, swearing he would cut off your suppliants head” if he did not let Passmore go. After he was released, a “great number of women” came in and alongside Passmore and Harbert dogpiled the messenger and his deputy “scratching and abusing them” and taking Breres’ hat and sword. Breres tried to explain to Harbert several times about the warrant he was charged to deliver but Harbert replied that he did not care and would not stop. Instead, they “thrust your suppliant and his deputy out of the doors” but kept his hat and sword and in the process “tearing his ruff from about his neck”.
Breres ended his petition, asking for justice against Passmore, his wife and Mr Harbert for their abuse against himself and his deputy. Despite Passmore’s best efforts he was eventually arrested and imprisoned in Fleet Prison alongside Nicholas King.
Jeffrey Passmore then submitted two petitions of his own, both on 28th April 1621, as a prisoner of the Fleet, pleading for his release and giving his own version of events. He began by defending his character, stating he had been a resident of Westminster for 36 years and “always paid all taxes rates and assessments due to his majesty and to all other good and charitable uses”. As mentioned earlier, Passmore declared that Booth “intending maliciously to deprive your petitioner of his good name fame and credit” accused him of highway robbery. So, in order to protect his name and credit from this “slander”, Passmore had Booth arrested, not knowing he was a servant of His Majesty. Booth then had a warrant from the Marquess of Buckingham granted against him, but Passmore did not know the effects of the warrant. And that it was then used to “riotously break and enter into your petitioners mansion house, and with terrifying words did much affright your petitioners wife”. Passmore then stated that Booth falsely confirmed that he had disobeyed the warrant. As a prisoner in Fleet Prison, Passmore claims to be “in great distress being heartily sorry that he hath offended”.
Although, given the account of the messenger Breres, Passmore may have known about the warrant, its effect and intentionally avoided it. It would also seem that Passmore’s wife was the one to use terrifying words against the messenger rather than the other way around. These contradictory accounts make it difficult to determine whose story is more truthful and accurate to the events.
The final record in this story is a Lords Journal entry from 30th April 1621, with their decision on Passmore’s imprisonment. They took into consideration all the submitted petitions, but it was decided he would remain in Fleet prison until he showed “good behaviour” and did not “vex his Neighbours any more”.
The combination of petition and journal records made it possible to piece together and follow the main events of this story. Shining a light on the more everyday lives of people 400 years ago. However, there are still many unanswered questions. Whose accusations were correct? Was Passmore actually a highwayman or did Booth identify the wrong man? Was the bailiff, Nicholas King, as innocent as his wife claimed or was he complicit? How accurate was the account of the messenger or was he overexaggerating? Who is Mr Harbert and where did the ‘great number of women’ come from? Was Elizabeth King’s petition successful in getting her husband released? Did Passmore stay in Fleet Prison or was he later released? Some parts of this story are still yet to be uncovered and crucial records may no longer survive after 400 years. But what did survive through the Parliamentary Archives, show how you can use records to discover great tales of the past.
Parliamentary Petitions can be found within the Main Papers collection of the Parliamentary Archives, although not many survived before 1600. They were away for the public to air grievances all the way up to the House of Lords. There may be all sorts of reasons for the petitions from land or trade disputes, inheritance, or pleas from prisoners.
The 1621 petitions can be read in full on British History Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/house-of-lords/1621