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Moll's mother is sent to Jamestown, Virginia, 1614
In April 1619 an Englishwoman called Elizabeth Handsley appeared at the Old Bailey, London's principal court. She was found guilty of 'stealing divers goods of Mary Payne' and sentenced to be hanged. Shortly after sentence had been pronounced, however, Elizabeth learnt she was to go not to the gallows, but to America: in the Latin of the courts, po se cull ca null Repr pt. judiciu' pro Virginia. To an early seventeenth-century Londoner, exile to America can have been a fate only slightly less dreadful than death. There is no record of Elizabeth's reaction. She was put aboard an ocean-going vessel some time that spring and sent to expiate her sins on His Majesty's plantations.
Elizabeth Handsley is the closest we can come to the fictional character who is the mother of Moll Flanders. Daniel Defoe never tells us her name, or much else of her early life; we know only that she was a thief who bore an illegitimate child in prison. She was born an Elizabethan and lived in Shakespeare's London: beams and plaster, church spires, narrow alleys, chamberpots emptied from windows; mudbanks, jetties and boatmen, sheep and chickens, goodwives in white bonnets, a pervading stench of fish, rich men in absurd breeches, plague, recusants and priest's holes, old women with goitres, bear pits and cockfights. This London was not yet a metropolis, despite the influx of immigrants trekking in from the provinces. It was three crowded towns and a palace, with a population of perhaps 200,000 souls. The Borough of Southwark lay south of the River Thames, Westminster and the City to its north, and the three were connected by a few roads, many fields and a single bridge which sagged beneath the weight of tenements on its sides. Wherrymen touted for custom on the water.
Shipyards were scattered along the river to Redriff (now Rotherhithe), and ships sailed upriver laden with foreign goods. London was 'the mart of the world', proclaimed John Speed's famous atlas of 1611, enticingly called The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine: Presenting An Exact Geography of the Kingdomes of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Iles adioyning: With The Shires, Hundreds, Cities and Shire-townes, within ye Kingdome of England. To its docks 'were brought the silk of Asia, the spices from Africa, the balms from Grecia, and the riches of both the Indies East and West'. The arcades of the Royal Exchange were full, for the new activity of 'shopping' was something of a craze. There were warehouses along Poultry and Cheapside, all the way to St Paul's. Anything could be bought and sold in London, even – the common saying went – by those who did not own it. In 1613 or 1614 Moll Flanders' mother steals 'three pieces of fine Holland [Dutch linen] ... of a certain draper in Cheapside' and is caught, convicted and sent to Newgate Gaol.
Newgate had been a prison since the twelfth century. Its high unbroken walls on the very edge of the City backed on to the Old Bailey Sessions Yard in a grim synergy of crime and punishment. Moll's mother takes her place here, like Elizabeth Handsley, among the crowd of ill-doers and recusants who came before the judges at 'Sessions of Oyer and Terminer concerning divers treasons misprisions [refusal to acknowledge the monarch as head of the Anglican Church] murder homicides rebellions riots routs and trespasses'.
According to the Calendar of the Middlesex Sessions, a total of 318 people were accused of capital and ninety-three of non-capital offences at the Old Bailey in 1614. There were two categories of offence. Misdemeanours, the less severe, could be punished by fines, the pillory, whipping or imprisonment. Felonies, on the other hand, attracted sentences of exile, execution, branding and forfeiture of possessions. Theft under the value of one shilling was a misdemeanour; murder, manslaughter, rape, burglary and larceny were felonies. Ninety-one more people were indicted as recusants (Roman Catholics who refused to attend services of the Anglican Church), a very serious matter when this not only undermined the authority of the King but might call down the vengeance of a Protestant God upon the whole nation.
The hearings provide a snapshot of petty crime in London. Non-capital crimes principally threatened public order. First, the various categories of assault: 'with battery', 'with sword' and 'of officers', thereby 'hindering them in the execution of their duty &c'. These accounted for thirty-eight wrongdoers – although only three of them with a sword, the weapon of a gentleman; others presumably used more plebeian weapons like fists and sticks. Eight were accused of 'assembling riotously', one was indicted of 'cheating and cosening' (obtaining something deceitfully) and another of 'extortion by colour of office' (probably some constable or watchman charging protection money). One kept an alehouse without a licence, another was running an illicit bowling alley and eight were accused of keeping brothels. Then there were those whose neglect of property was endangering the public: eight had 'neglected to repair public ways' and one had not repaired 'a ruinous cottage, likely to fall on a public way'. Three constables appeared in the dock for 'permitting vagrants to escape without punishment' (possibly through compassion, probably in return for cash), and ten shopkeepers were hauled up for selling bread by short weight or beer by short measure, along with five brewers caught 'supplying unlicensed keepers of alehouses with ale and beer in excess of their lawful requirements'. There was also one vagabond, three trespassers and two pigeon shooters.
The majority of the 318 wretches who stood accused of capital offences, on the other hand, were thieves, their crimes sometimes aggravated by housebreaking or burglary. Theft of livestock was separately considered: forty-five people were accused of stealing cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. One man was accused of rape and another of sodomy ('an unnatural offence'), eleven of murder and twelve of manslaughter. One hundred and thirty-four of the 318 were convicted, and of these seventy-two men and four women were sentenced to be hanged. One, housebreaker William Backe, 'stood mute' (refused to plead), and was sentenced to the ordeal of peine forte et dure. He was to be spreadeagled on the floor of a cell, chained, and have weights of gradually increasing size placed upon him until he spoke or was crushed to death.
The hangings took place on the gallows which stood at Tyburn, a bucolic spot on a road leading west out of London and now the site of Marble Arch. This is where Moll Flanders' mother is bound when she leaves Newgate, for her theft of Dutch linen has been adjudged grand larceny and she has been sentenced to death. Not yet, however. 'My Lord,' she has told the judge, 'I am with quick child.'
No pregnant woman was executed, for in so doing an innocent life would be killed along with a guilty. Most capitally convicted women between the ages of twelve and fifty therefore claimed to be pregnant, and if there were no real foetus in the womb, various strategies were adopted to hoodwink the court. The simplest, reported by 'Captain' Alexander Smith in his General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen (1714), was 'cramming a Pillow in her Petticoat to make her look big', but there was also 'the old stratagem of drinking new Ale very plentifully, to make her swell', and probably gurgle like a drain. These might have deceived the judge and jury (all men) but a stiffer test had also to be passed: the Panel of Matrons.
A matron was defined in Daniel Defoe's time as a 'prudent and virtuous, motherly woman, also one of the grave women that have the over-sight of children in an Hospital'. Twelve of them had to be found to examine each woman claiming pregnancy. It was thought that the soul only entered the unborn child when it started moving – or became 'quick' – and therefore the job of these twelve women was to lay hands on the claimant's belly and feel for movement. Swollen breasts, a claim that menstruation had stopped or anecdotes of nausea were not enough: the child within had to move. The examination was a notoriously distasteful affair. Until the open Sessions Yard at the Old Bailey was converted into the enclosed Sessions House in 1737, with doors that could be shut, trapping matrons before they fled, the court often had difficulty laying hold of twelve appropriate women to form a panel. In the interests of decency no unmarried woman could be asked to take part, and although Sessions Papers do not record such matters, rounding up twelve protesting mothers and grandmothers must often have brought the court to a halt while ushers went out to shanghai suitable females and summon gaolers' wives from the lodge. In such circumstances, it was possible for a well-connected criminal to pack the panel. If a dozen ladies on the payroll of the accused placed themselves firmly in the usher's view and stepped up, then a verdict favourable to the prisoner was assured.
Moll's mother, however, is not lying when she claims to be with quick child, although she may have lain with one of the Newgate Wags to achieve the state. These were studs, sometimes prisoners and sometimes free men who bribed the gaolers for entrance. They touted their services round the women's wards, offering (for a fee) to inseminate any of childbearing age up on a capital charge. However begotten, Baby Moll emerges onto the bare boards of a Newgate cell a few months after her mother's trial, to be suckled, weaned and abandoned. Her mother, seven months after giving birth and 'being about again, was call'd down, as they term it, to her former judgment'. The death warrant is sent to Newgate Gaol, listing the names of all those to hang, and at dawn the bell of St Sepulchre's Church starts its dreadful toll. Shoes are banged on floors, there are shouts and screams in the dim prison corridors, and the condemned emerge to mount their oxcart, posies in hand. Cheered by the gathering crowds, they begin their last journey west. Moll's mother, however, is not among them. She has escaped death twice: first for her unborn child and then for 'the favour of being transported to the plantations'.
Moll's mother is not the only one to avoid the noose. Although the death sentence was passed for crimes which now seem trivial, the harshness of penal law was tempered by compassion, caprice and accident. The question of what to do with offenders who were condemned to hang but did not quite deserve to die was obliquely addressed at each sessions, and courts had evolved many ways of reducing capital to non-capital crimes. Compassionate judges would nominally observe their sentencing obligations and then set about briskly subverting them. In 1614, for example, the indictments of all but ten of those accused of grand larceny (a capital offence) were reduced by connivance of the court to petty larceny (a non-capital offence), saving them from the noose. It would be pretended that a length of cloth really worth ten shillings was actually worth less than one, or that a house had not been broken into, but the householder must have forgotten to lock the windows. Of the 134 convicted of capital crimes that year, only seventy-six were sentenced to hang, and of those only fifty-five actually went to the gallows. Twenty-one were reprieved, twenty-four were on the loose somewhere in London and the rest 'pled benefit of clergy'.
There were two parallel and separate systems of justice in seventeeth-century England. Clergymen were answerable not to the courts of the King but to those of the Church, and judges in the King's courts used this special status as a way of extending mercy to literate men. Any accused male criminal who could read was officially regarded as a cleric, even if judge, jury and everyone else knew he was nothing of the sort. Psalm 51 ('Oh God, have mercy upon me, according to thine heartfelt mercifulness') had become known as the 'neck verse', and while every woman indicted of a capital offence turned to a Newgate Wag, every man committed the first two lines of Psalm 51 to memory. If he could mumble his way through them in court while clutching a Bible, he would be branded with a T for thief on his left thumb and let go – ostensibly to be retried by a Church court, although this rarely happened. During the years in which Elizabeth Handsley and Moll's mother faced the court, however, a new way to save criminals from the noose was emerging. Send them to Virginia.
In 1606 King James I had chartered the Virginia Company to explore and settle American land. This organisation consisted of two elements: the London Company, assigned settlement between the 34th and 41st parallels (approximately Cape Fear and Philadelphia), and the Plymouth Company, allotted land between the 35th and the 48th (Philadelphia to the Canadian border). The reasons for planting these settlements have been well rehearsed, most recently by Benjamin Woolley in Savage Kingdom (2007). Principal among them were the desire to find precious metals, such as the Spanish had found in South America, and to discover a route to the east for trade. Various propagandists also cited the necessity of finding raw materials for English manufacturing, new markets for English products and land on which a growing British population could settle.
The overriding political concern in London was that if English settlements were not made, then the Spanish, England's implacable enemies, would move up from Florida and seize the land. Gold, however, was the first goal of the 'adventurers' who put up the money for the scheme. 'Gold is more plentiful there than copper is with us,' claims Captain Seagull in Ben Jonson's Eastward Ho, staged in 1605; 'all their dripping pans and their chamber pots are pure gold; and all the chains with which they chain up their streets are massy gold; all the prisoners they take are fettered in gold'.
A one-armed war hero named Captain Christopher Newport was given command of the three ships which left England in November 1606 and reached America in May 1607. Of the 104 men and boys on Newport's little fleet, some went willingly, others because their masters told them they must, and a few, Benjamin Woolley writes, were procured by an order from the Royal Council authorising Newport to 'round up suitable candidates from taverns and play-houses, or buy them off gangmasters'. They found a fertile country of marsh, streams and unbroken forest. While some dreamed of trekking inland to make their fortune, others set about cutting down the trees and planting the first crops. The rudimentary village of Jamestown began to emerge on a promontory in the newly named James River. After a first attack by the Powhatan, wooden fortifications went up; there was also soon a storehouse, a church and a handful of huts. At first the place seemed delightful. 'Heaven and earth never agreed better,' wrote Captain John Smith, the ebullient if quarrelsome soldier who considered himself the expedition's natural leader. The Virginia Company, enthusiastically promoting the venture in London, advertised free passage aboard its ships, promising 'houses to live in, vegetable gardens and orchards and also food and clothing ... for men as well as women ... who wish to go out in their voyage for colonising the country with people'.
Jamestown's first settlers were all male. The first two known females to arrive were Mistress Forrest, who came to join her husband in September 1608, and her teenage maid Anne Burras. Anne was Virginia's first bride, marrying a carpenter three months after her arrival (at the age of fourteen) and doing her bit for the colony's future by swiftly bearing four daughters. Fifty-seven women arrived in autumn 1609, but most of them soon died of disease and malnutrition. What the Jamestown garrison needed to stabilise it, soothe its angry inhabitants and turn it into a colony was skilled male labour and a supply of wives and mothers. In response to these needs and as a way of finding another alternative to the death penalty, English courts were beginning to fumble their way towards a system of penal transportation. By 1618, Sir Thomas Smith, the Virginia Company's treasurer in London, was doing deals with the courts to send out the mother country's rejects. The first on record as being 'reprieved for Virginia' was tried at the Old Bailey on 3 April that year: Stephen Rogers, convicted of manslaughter, was 'reprieved after judgment at the instance of Sir Thomas Smith knt. for Virginia because he is of the carpenter's art'. Moll Flanders' mother is another of these: taken from Newgate when her baby is weaned, loaded onto a Company ship with seed, cattle, cloth and dispatches and sent to save Virginia. Elizabeth Handsley went the same way.