Friday, 2 September 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.6: The devil as a roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour

This week we discover an instance of institutional kindness – unusual in the early 17th century – following the suicide of a maid of East Smithfield.

7 October 1616
Mary Play, a Maid of East smithfeild, who poysened hir selfe, in the house of hir Maister, Mr John Barbour, was (by a Licence from my Lord Bishoppe of London) buried in our new Church-yard, without any buriall Service, shee was coffind, and had our Black Cloth, Be Sober and watch, for your aduersary the Divel, as a roaring lion walketh abour, Seeking whom he may devour. 1 Peter. 5 Chap. 8 verse
P69/BOT2/A/003/MS09223 f262v

The first thing that struck me about this entry was the choice of scripture, which seemed to express a great sympathy for the unfortunate Mary Play. This made me wonder if John Clerke (the aptly-named Parish Clerk) and church leaders had information about the circumstances of Mary’s suicide that left them feeling sympathetic rather than merely condemnatory towards her actions as was more usual at this time. We will, of course, never know, but the choice of Bible verse sounded so heartfelt that it I couldn’t help but wonder.

The second particularly interesting thing about this was the fact that Mary was buried in hallowed ground – without a Christian burial service, but in hallowed ground nonetheless – the church having sought permission from the Lord Bishop of London. It was more usual at this time for suicides not only to be denied burial in hallowed ground, but often to suffer descecration of their corpses, and punishment of their families.1

It wasn’t until later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that suicide began to be viewed not as a sinful decision made voluntarily, but as the result of melancholy madness which was beyond the control of the unfortunate victim. Martin Luther went so far as to argue that suicides were driven to their deaths by the devil, and that they – and their families – therefore could not be held responsible for their actions.2 Our Parish Clerk seems to be of this view as well.

By the early 1700s, the laws disgracing suicides and punishing their families gradually disappeared, and a more humane approach was adopted across Europe.3 It would be interesting to find out how many licences allowing suicides to be buried in hallowed ground were granted by John King, the Lord Bishop of London from 1611 to 1621. I know that he was a well-known Calivinist and anti-Catholic preacher before being appointed Lord Bishop. Did this make him more willing to challenge the dogma of the day? It would certainly appear that at least in this instance he, and St Boltolph’s, were very much ahead of their time.

1 Gale Encyclopaedia of the Early Modern World. accessed 16 August 2011
2 ibid.
3 Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (1990) Michael MacDonald, Terence R. Murphy. Oxford University Press

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;


  1. Very interesting as always! I was inspired to go and look in the Aldgate parish registers for all the suicides in the late16th and 17th centuries, and other than Mary Play I found only 11 explicit examples:

    1573: Agnes Myller wife of Jacob "kylled hir sellf wth a knyff"
    1628: Thomas Hopkins coachmaker in the Minories hanged himself
    1629: Edward Powell Minister of East Smithfield poisoned himself
    1631: John Dawes a brewer's servant on Tower Hill hanged himself
    1633: Elizabeth Lane servant in Gravel Lane on Tower Hill poisoned herself
    1641: Richard Turner in Houndsditch hanged himself
    1650: James Stedman weaver in Nightingale Lane hanged himself
    1655: Samuel Man weaver of Sun Yard in East Smithfield, although apparently in Bedlam, hanged himself
    1662: George Gibbs sawyer of Houndsditch "kild himselfe" and was buried in Bedlam yard
    1678: Stephen Clarke Horn Rasper of Tower Hill hanged himself
    1679: John Day Throster of Houndsditch hanged himself
    1686: George Purchis stranger in Gravel Lane hanged himself

    Undoubtedly there were more where the cause of death wasn’t stated or was inaccurate, or indeed was falsified. Searchers and coroners were sometimes called into adjudicate on whether a death was a suicide – there are a number of references in the vestry records in Aldgate of this, and I think the spirit of charity you describe may have been at work in these examinations too, returning a verdict other than suicide whenever it was possible to do so. An example of this may appear in the last volume of the Memoranda:

    "John Blackman, Servant to Thomas Smedley Carman, was buried the Tenth day of Julie Anno dm 1624. he died of a wound which he gaue him selfe in his Sicknes being as it were distraught and light headed, and after the Coroners Enquest as had viwed him, Order was apointed to haue him laid in Christian Burriall. yt seemed he was ill lookt vnto in his sicknes".

    It's more of a hunch than anything else, and of course the records are largely silent about this, but it may have been the case that this soft approach to suicide was quite common. It will be interesting to see what others’ make of the Mary Play incident!

  2. Thank you, Mark. As you demonstrate, reading between the lines can play a big role in gaining a true sense of official documents - a very interesting part of the process!