8 February 2011

Alice Tankerfelde -

A woman who was found guilty of murder in 1534 !

As author Mari Watson explains….

Alice Tankerfelde is unknown to most of us. She is neither Royal nor likely to go down in History in but a minor way. She is, however, a slice of life in the Tudor Era not generally covered -  that is Women who Murder! 
In 1534 Alice was guilty of participation in two murders, two seductions and one escape from the Tower.

 Her exact origins are unknown but by the time of her sad demise “by the Devil’s instigation” she was married to John Wolfe. Together with her husband, “ a Merchant of the Steelyard” on July 16, 1533 Alice participated in the murder of two foreign merchants, Jerome de George and Charles Benche. Her co-conspirators, besides her husband, were a London gentleman named John Westall, and two yeomen, Robert Garrard and John Litchfield.

Pretending to be a whore Alice lured the two foreigners into a house in Durham Rents in the Savoy section of London, where they “kept company” all afternoon and into the night. Around ten o’clock the two Jerome de George and Charles Benche who were probably drunk and unfamiliar with London were  escorted by Alice and Westall to their lodgings at St. Benet Gracechurch at the house of  a Florentine Merchant, John Gerrald.
The easiest way to travel was by water

The two Gentlemen  along with Alice and Westall boarded a boat at Strand Stairs,
Garrard and Lichfield took the position of the Watermen, Wolfe, hid in the stern and waited until they were in middle of the Thames. He jumped out of hiding and stabbed Charles in the back. He died instantly. Then all four men attacked Jerome de George breaking his neck. Putting chains on the two bodies after they had stripped them of clothes and valuables, they threw them overboard.
Alice, Wolfe, Westfall, and another gentleman named Stanley then broke into John Gerrald’s house to rob the dead men’s rooms. Caught in the act they were arrested.

Wolfe supposedly escaped and went to Ireland. The other men are not mentioned.
Because the murders occurred on water Alice was tried by the
Admiralty Court
and sentenced to hang on the pirates’ gallows at Wapping Old Stairs.
After hanging, her body would be set in chains, the tide coming in three times to make sure she was dead. Until the day of her execution, Alice was held in the Tower of London in Cold Harbor Tower. It had a gatehouse into the inmost ward and a porter’s lodge  nearby.

By late March 1534, Alice had  seduced many of those charged with keeping her. William Denys, a servant of the Lord Lieutenant, Sir Edmund Walsingham, was a frequent visitor and “showed her a secret way how she might be conveyed out of the Tower.”
He was dismissed for fraternizing with the prisoner; Alice then charmed another of the Lord Lieutenant’s servants, John Bawde. Alice may have already met him in 1532 when her husband was in the Tower for another offense. Notes claim “when her Husband went to Ireland he asked  Bawde to keep an eye on her.”

When Alice “heard there was no remedy with her but death” she begged Bawde to help her escape “for the honour and passion of Christ”. Bawde bought two hair ropes for 13d., made a ladder and carried it into the Tower concealed beneath his cloak. Alice was given a key he had filed down so that it would open the back of the outer prison door, giving access to St. Thomas’s Tower, which is over what is now known as Traitor’s Gate. The moat, at this point, was narrow and at low tide, often dry.

On Saturday March 28 1534 the confession by Alice states that the door to the inner ward was “shut and hasped with a bone.” In a letter written by John Grenville during the Confession, “the staple, which door she saith she did shake and so the bone fell out.”
She made her way to the outer ward and used the key Bawde had given her. They met on the leads of St. Thomas’s Tower at about ten at night.

 Grenville’s writing of the Confession  by Bawde  is a little different. He says “On Friday about  (two) of the clock in the morning one Bawde, the Lord Lieutenant’s servant came with counterfeit keys and opened the prison door where Wolfe’s wife was, and conveyed her out of the Tower with  ropes tied to the embattlements: and after he had conveyed her down, went down himself.”

 On the wharf  below they hid for an hour. Then Bawde found a boat and rowed them to the water-stairs at the end of the Tower causeway. They were walking up Tower Hill toward a Mrs. Jenyn’s house, where Bawde had left two horses, when they encountered the Watch. By Grenville’s account, Alice was “apparelled like a man” and for that reason the Watch was suspicious and took both Alice and Bawde into custody and took them to the Lord Lieutenant.” He continued writing that, on Tuesday, “Wolfe and his wife shall hang upon Thames at low water mark in chains. And Bawde is in Little Ease, and after he hath been in the Rack shall be hanged.”

 In his Confession Bawde states he participated in the escape “for the very love and affection that he bear to the Woman .”

The Lisle letters an abridgement p.273-275
http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=79304   British History Online
Tower of London by Richard Davy


  1. Interesting that Alice was tried by the Admiralty because the crime was committed on water!

    The most notorious pirate to be hanged in this way at Wapping was Captain William Kidd in 1701.
    Poor guy was "pushed off" (i.e. hanged) twice as the first time the rope broke.
    A condemned man (or woman) was measured for "chains" (a sort of metal cage to contain the corpse) before they were hanged - an act said to be more frightening than the hanging itself.
    In Kidd's case, after the tide had washed the body 3 times his corpse was tarred and left on the gibbet t rot - as a warning to others.

  2. Fascinating, Helen.

    I may be wrong but I thought that if an execution failed at least once, the criminal was pardoned and freed?

    This might depend upon the era/crime/case?

  3. as far as hanging pirates was concerned its twice Hus - third time lucky!
    Some did not die though - there's an account of one poor man hanged for piracy who woke up laid out on the disection table at the RN college!

  4. WOW! The way this was written was laid out so well, it kept me intrigued and made me almost feel like I could visualize being there. Kudos to Ms. Watson for luring the reader in... it certainly kept my attention and almost makes me want to get the book. I'm definitely going to bookmark this site. Great Job!

  5. This is fascinating, Mari! I am so intrigued by the murderesses of the past. One that you might be interested in is Florie Maybrick (who was accused and convicted of murdering her husband, though she probably didn't).
    I enjoy your writing style and hope that you post some more of this type. I also was curious--did your investigation give any indication as to why those two particular men were their targets? Were they business foes of Wolfe?
    Keep up the good work!

  6. I really enjoyed this article! It's a slice of history not often covered. Kudos to the author and the blog!


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