1551: Alice Arden, husband killer

On this date in 1551, Alice Arden was put to death for one of 16th century England’s most shocking crimes.

Stuck in what one gathers was a dull marriage of political convenience, Alice Arden took up with a lover, Richard Mosby.

Although the whole scene was tolerated by her husband, Alice and Richard conspired to have Thomas murdered, because nobody would ever suspect the vivacious wife and her paramour to be behind the unexplained death of her husband. (And, Alice reckoned, Thomas “was so evil beloved that no man would make inquiry after his death.”) Holinshed‘s chronicle saw fit to include this tabloid-esque crime in its narrative of English history.

Arden’s wife, Mistress Alice, young, tall, and well favoured of shape and countenance, formed a criminal connection with a paramour, named Mosbye, a black, swart man. Mosbye had been servant to Sir Edward North, Alice’s father in law; and then settled as a tailor in London. The infatuated wife, lost to all sense of duty and morality, conspired with Mosbye to put an end to her husband’s existence, in order that she might marry the profligate black, swart man.

They employed as their confederates one John Green, a Faversham tailor; George Bradshaw, a goldsmith of the same town; and one Black Will, of Calyce (Calais), a murderer, which murderer was privily sent for to Calyce by the earnest sute, appoyntment, and confederate of Alice Arden and Thomas Mosbye.

The conspirators watched Master Arden walking in Poule’s (St. Paul’s Cathedral, the nave of which was a public promenade in those days), but could not find an opportunity to murder him; they then lay in wait for him on Rainham Down, and a second time in the Broomy Close (two places near Faversham), but on all these occasions failed in obtaining an opportunity.

The wicked wife then laid a plot for murdering her husband in his own house. She procured the services of Mosbye’s sister, Cicely Pounder, and of two of Arden’s domestic servants, Michael Saunderson and Elizabeth Stafford. On a particular day selected Sunday, too Black Will was hidden in a closet at the end of Arden’s parlour. After supper, Arden sat down to play some kind of game with Mosbye; Green stood at Arden’s hack, holding a candle in his hand, to shaddowe Black Will when he should come out; and the other conspirators had their cue. At a given signal in the game, Black Will came with a napkyn in his hand, and sodenlye came behind Arden’s back, threw the said napkyn over his hedd and face, and strangled him; and forthwith Mosbye stept to him, and strake him with a taylor’s great pressing iron upon the scull to the braine, and immediately drew out his dagger, which was groat and broad, and therewith cut the said Arden’s throat.

Having failed to convincingly position the body, and thereby leading police straight back to her house, Alice was immediately implicated in the crime. The conspiracy unraveled and the various people involved were brought to swift and merciless justice, including one poor bastard who had known nothing of the plot but had inadvertently supplied the credentials of that colorful assassin “Black Will” by decrying him as a murderous villain.

Alice Arden herself was burned in Canterbury while her confederates suffered various executions in various places around a country duly scandalized by the bold crime.

Six lives were taken for that of a worthless miser who connived at his wife’s infidelity. It was a sign of the horror inspired by husband murder among the Elizabethans. (Source*)

Indeed, the homicide and resulting executions kept as public scandal so long that the tale was reproduced as an Elizabethan tragedy, Arden of Faversham, in the 1590’s.

A possible uncredited Shakespeare play, it can be read for free in The Shakespeare apocrypha

Gentlemen, we hope youle pardon this naked Tragedy,
Wherin no filed points are foisted in
To make it gratious to the eare or eye;
For simple trueth is gratious enough,
And needes no other points of glosing stuffe.


Intriguingly, Richard Helgerson argues in Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting that this play restores some relevant political context to the Arden crime that Holinshed, perhaps deliberately, obscures. The Arden of Faversham victim is an apparatchik of the Duke of Somerset, a connection perhaps exaggerating Thomas Arden’s rank but not his position as the king’s man, with some important sponsors. Alice Arden and Richard Mosby, too, were national-level elites, Helgerson says.

The very (still-standing) Arden house was obtained through the English Reformation‘s dissolution of the monasteries; the London transplant Arden apparently used his (some must have felt) ill-gotten lands and power to impinge upon the prerogatives of his neighbors.

Helgerson doesn’t quite have an ah-ha conclusion to the tale, but the suggestion of a more layered meaning lurking behind what typically plays as straight Tudor police blotter throws a different light on the affair.

Arden’s appropriation of the abbey lands in Faversham finds its counterpart in Mosby’s appropriation of Alice Arden’s body … Seen this way, adultery is no longer a purely private crime … [but] rather a vehicle for thinking about history, for thinking, in particular, about that “improvement in the sovereignty” that was responsible both for the emergence of politic history and for the dissolution of the English monasteries, including Faversham Abbey.

* This source also supplies the date of March 14. However, the date is difficult to come by generally, and it may not be fully dependable.

On this day..

6 thoughts on “1551: Alice Arden, husband killer

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  3. Most of the descriptions of the execution of Alice Arden would indicate that it took place during the summer. She is described as wearing a short black sleveless shift which is not what an English woman would be expected to wear except during the summer. Also it is said that she removed her shoes, but no mention is made of stockings. No one was ever burned at the stake in their stockinged feet. So either the writer didn’t bother to mention them, not likely, or she wasn’t wearing any. Also not likely except during summer.

  4. Hello,

    Here is the link to an article in French about the case of Alice Arden.


    Cycnos | Volume 23 n°2 Figures de femmes assassines – Représentations et idéologies – | T. THÉÂTRE

    Jean-Claude Mailhol :

    Du Poison au poignard : la représentation littéraire et théâtrale d’une héroïne meurtrière, Alice Arden

    Pour citer cet article

    Jean-Claude Mailhol, « Du Poison au poignard : la représentation littéraire et théâtrale d’une héroïne meurtrière, Alice Arden », paru dans Cycnos, Volume 23 n°2, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2006, URL : http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/index.html?id=623.


    Best Regards

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