At one o’clock the following afternoon, the trial of Sarah Blundy for the murder of Dr. Robert Grove began in the assize court of Oxford. The crowd was eager; not only did the trial promise much scandalous entertainment, the previous day had seen not a single hanging verdict, and ended not with the judge wearing a black cap, but being presented with the traditional pair of white gloves to show that his hands were clean of blood. But such mercy was considered dangerous, for the awful majesty of the law needs sacrifice. One maiden session (as they are called) was merciful, two in a row would seem weak. What was more, Wood, an assiduous attender of trials who spoke to me briefly before the pushing of the crowd separated us, told me that the judge realized this—someone, that day, would hang. We both knew, I think, who it would be.
There was a murmur of anticipation as Sarah, terribly pale, was led before the court, to stand facing the crowd and listen to the sonorous charges against her. That she, Sarah Blundy, not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, in the fifteenth year of our sovereign Lord the King, at New College in the City of Oxford, did make an assault upon the Reverend Robert Grove, fellow of that place and formerly her master, feloniously, willfully and traitorously. And the said Sarah Blundy did feloniously, willfully, traitorously and out of malice, did place arsenic in a bottle and cause the said Robert Grove to drink it, of which poisoning the said Robert Grove died. So that the said Sarah Blundy in manner and form aforesaid, feloniously, willfully, traitorously and of malice aforethought, didst kill and murder, against the peace of our sovereign Lord, his crown and dignity.
Mutterings of approval, which caused the judge to look up with warning in his eye, erupted from the mob as they heard this accusation read; it took some time for order to be restored—not that there is ever very much in an English court. Then the judge, who did not strike me as very fearsome in aspect, turned to Sarah and asked her to plead.
She did not reply, but stood with head bowed.
“Come, girl,” the judge said, “You must plead, you know. Guilty or not guilty, it is all the same to me. But you must say something, or it will go ill with you.”
Still she said nothing, and an expectant hush fell on the audience, as they looked at her standing there, head bowed to hide her terror and shame. I felt a wave of sympathy for her, for who would not be silenced by facing, all alone, the formidable power of justice?
“I’ll tell you what,” the judge said, a look of concern on his face that the proceedings were about to be disrupted. “We’ll run through the charges and the evidence against you. See if that’ll make up your mind about your chances of escaping justice. How about that? Sir? Are you ready?”
The prosecutor, a cheerful soul retained by the magistrate to do such business, bounded to his feet and bowed obsequiously. “Your lordship’s reputation for kindness is well deserved,” he said, and the mob burst into applause to echo the sentiment.
The man next to me, squeezed against me so tightly I could feel every breath he took, turned to me and whispered in my ear that this was no more than the truth; by rights, the law is most harsh on those who flout its authority by refusing to plead, shackling them with weights until either they give in, or die from the pressure upon their chests. Nobody liked this proceeding, but it is the only solution for recalcitrance. By giving the girl a second chance, so to speak, the judge was indeed exceptionally merciful. My neighbor—evidently a regular at trials—said he had never heard of such kindness before.
The prosecutor then began to explain his case—he said that, although he was not the victim of the crime, in matters of murder the victim could obviously not appear for himself; hence his presence. It was not an onerous task, for it was simple enough to see who had committed this foul deed.
In his opinion, he said, the jury would have no trouble at all in bringing in the right verdict. For it was obvious to all—and the town knew well enough already, without having to remind them of it—that Sarah Blundy was a whore of intemperate and violent parentage. So far was she from knowing her correct place, so badly trained, and so unknowing of all morality and decency, that the idea of murder did not shock her in the slightest, such are the monsters produced when parents turn their face from God, and the country from its rightful king.
The judge—clearly not a cruel man, and scrupulously fair—interrupted to thank the prosecutor and wondered if he might proceed. Fine speechifying could take place at the end, if they got that far.
“Certainly, certainly. Now, as to her being a whore; it is well attested that she had seduced poor Dr. Grove and lured him into her power. We have a witness to this, one Mary Fullerton” (here a young girl in the audience smiled broadly and preened herself) “who will swear that one day she delivered some food to Dr. Grove’s room and he, mistaking her for Blundy, grabbed her and started fondling her in a lascivious fashion as though she was well used to it.”
Sarah looked up at this point and stared sullenly at Mary Fullerton, whose smile disappeared when she felt the gaze upon her.
“Secondly, we have testimony that Dr. Grove, when these accusations were made known, discharged the girl from her employ, so that he might take himself away from temptation and return to a virtuous life. And that she most bitterly resented this.
“Thirdly, we have the testimony of Mr. Crosse, an apothecary, that on the same day as she was discharged Sarah Blundy bought arsenic from his shop. She has said Dr. Grove asked her to do so, but no one has found any record of such an expenditure in Dr. Grove’s papers.
“Fourthly, we have the testimony of Signor Marco da Cola, an Italian gentleman of impeccable integrity, who will tell you that he warned of the dangers of this powder, and heard Dr. Grove say that he would never use it again—a few hours before he died of it.”
All eyes, including Sarah’s, were on me at this point, and I looked down to avoid the sadness in her eyes. It was true, every word of it; but I wished fervently at that moment that it was not.
“Next, we have the testimony of Mr. Thomas Ken, a divine, that the girl was seen in New College that very evening, and it will be shown that, although she denies this, she refuses absolutely to say where she was, nor has anyone else come forward to say where she was.”
“Finally, we have proof of an unimpeachable nature, for we have a witness, Mr. John Prestcott, a young gentleman at the university, who will testify that she confessed to him that very evening of her deed, and showed him a ring which she had ripped from the corpse. A ring which has been identified as Dr. Grove’s own signet ring.”
The whole room, it seemed, sucked in its breath at this point, as all knew that the testimony of a gentleman on such a matter was unlikely to be gainsaid. Sarah knew it too; for her head sank lower on her chest at the words, and her shoulders slumped in what seemed like the abandonment of all hope.
“Sir,” the lawyer resumed, “the considerations against the accused of motive, character and station are as strong as the particular evidence. This is why I have no doubt that, whatever the girl pleads—indeed, whether she pleads or not—the outcome will be the same.”
The prosecutor beamed around him to acknowledge the applause from the room, waved his hand in a stately fashion, then sat down. The judge waited until some silence had returned and then turned his attention to Sarah.
“Well, child? What have you to say? You know, I believe, the consequences of what you may utter.”
Sarah looked very much as though she might collapse and, though I had little sympathy for her any more, I did feel that it would have been a kindness to have given her a seat.
“Come on, girl,” someone cried from the audience. “Speak up. Struck dumb, are you?”
“Silence,” thundered the judge. “Well?”
Sarah lifted her head, and I could see properly for the first time what a sad state she was in. Her eyes were red from crying, her face pale, her hair lank and dirty from the jail. A large bruise on her cheek had turned blue from the beating the jailer had given her when she assaulted me. Her mouth trembled as she tried to speak.
“What? What?’’ the judge said, leaning forward and cupping his hand to his ear. “You’ll have to speak louder than that, you know.”
“Guilty,” she whispered, then slid to the floor in a faint as the audience erupted into catcalls and whistles of disappointment at being denied their fun. I tried to walk over to her, but was prevented from moving by the press of bodies.
“Silence,” the judge shouted out. “All of you. Be quiet.”
Eventually, they once more calmed down, and the judge looked around him. “The girl has pleaded guilty,” he announced. “Which is a great blessing, as we can now proceed quickly. Members of the jury, any disagreement from you?”
The jury members all shook their heads somberly.
“Does anyone else have anything to say here?”
There was a rustle from the crowd as all turned to see if anyone would speak. Then I saw that Wood had stood up, red-faced with embarrassment at his temerity, and at the catcalls which greeted him.
“Quiet, now,” said the judge. “Let us not rush. Please sir, say your piece.”
Poor Wood; he was no advocate, and had none of the assurance of even a man like Lower, let alone someone like Locke. And yet he was the only person who stood up for the girl, and tried to say something in her favor. It was doomed to fail, even Demosthenes himself could scarcely have succeeded in the task, and I am sure Wood proceeded from generosity of spirit, rather than true faith in his cause. And he did the girl no good at all, for he was so overcome by the sudden light of public attention that he froze into incoherence, and did little more than stand there, babbling in a half-voice that hardly anyone could hear. The crowd put a stop to it; the booing began at the back, then whistling, until even the greatest orator could not have been heard. It was Locke, I think, who ended the misery, and with surprising gentleness, pulled him down. I could see the look of abject failure and dejection on the poor man’s face, and grieved for his shame as much as I rejoiced that the moment was over.
“Thank you for your eloquence,” said the judge, playing shamelessly to the crowd and unable to resist piling on further humiliation. “And I will take your words into account.”
Then he pulled out the black felt cap and put it on his head; as he did so, there was an expectant rustling from the crowd, whose mood had changed from sympathy to the greatest malice. “Hang her,” cried one voice from the back.
“Quiet,” said the judge, but it was too late. Thus encouraged, more of the crowd joined in, then more, and within seconds, the whole room was full of the sound of that lust for blood which comes over soldiers in battle, or huntsmen as they near their quarry. “Hang her, kill her”; again and again in a rhythmic chanting, with much stamping of feet and whistling. It took the judge several minutes before he successfully restored order.
“I will have no more of this,” he said sternly. “Now, is she recovered? Can she hear me?’’ he asked the court clerk, who had given up his seat that she might be placed on it.
“I believe so, my lord,” the clerk said, even though he was bodily holding her upright and had slapped her several times to bring her round.
“Good. Sarah Blundy, listen to me carefully now. You have committed a most horrendous crime, and the sentence the law insists upon for a woman who murders so treasonably is unavoidable. You will be taken to a pyre and burned.”
He paused to look around at the courtroom to see how this went down. It was not well received; necessary though it seemed to be, the English did not derive much satisfaction from the pyre, and a subdued mood settled over the room.
“However,” the judge continued, “as you have pleaded guilty, and spared the court a great deal of trouble, we intend to be merciful. You will be given the grace of being hanged before your body is consumed, to lessen the suffering you will have to endure. That is your sentence, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
He stood up and dismissed the court, grateful for having had such a short and satisfactory afternoon. The audience sighed as though it was waking from an exciting dream, shook itself and began to leave while two bailiffs carried the now insensible Sarah out of the room and back to the castle. The whole trial had lasted less than an hour.