‘An assassin [is one] that will slay men for money
at the instance of every man that will move him to it,
and such a man may lawfully be slain…by every private person.’
– Christopher St.German, A First Dialogue in English on
Fundamental English Law and Conscience, 1531, II, xl
So wrote the leading legist in Henry VIII’s London in a manual for students to describe a sinister new criminal phenomenon. His definition came home to fellow citizens five years later with an atrocity which shook the capital to its very foundations – Robert Packington, a respectable and respected member of the merchant community, was shot and killed in pre-dawn Cheapside. According to contemporary records, what really inflamed common fear and indignation was that the murder was committed ‘with a handgun’. This was something horrible and unprecedented. It conjured up the spectre of an escalation of violent crime. If there were desperate men in their midst who would kill for pay, who would be safe from his enemies?
Of course there had always been victims of vendettas but what was different about Packington’s murder was that it was committed by a total stranger and ‘with a handgun’. The only personal firearms available before the 1520s were military arquebuses. They were long, cumbersome weapons which required a glowing match to ignite the powder. But now an implement of death had been invented so diabolical that the Holy Roman Emperor had forbidden its manufacture and use throughout his extensive domain. This was the wheellock pistol which was fired by the striking of a spark from flint. It was small, could be operated by one hand, concealed beneath a cloak and, just as quickly, reconcealed. By using it a murderer could approach unnoticed, do the deed at several paces from his target and melt away in the crowd while passers-by were rushing to the aid of the victim. A new era in violent crime had dawned. No wonder the laws of England sanctioned the killing of an assassin ‘by every private person’.
The murder of Robert Packington, a ‘headline’ event in the troubled year 1536, raises several questions: Who pulled the trigger? (The murderer was never brought to justice.) Who was the assassin’s paymaster? What was the motive for this cowardly act? The First Horseman (published next month) offers some possible answers and exposes the tensions within English society in the ‘Year of the Three Queens’ and the ‘Great Northern Rebellion’.