Erasmus Earle… Serjeant-at-Law…

Continuing the ancestral stories of my friend Heidi Mellings, this time delving back 500 years…

The thing about wealthy and influential ancestors is that there tends to be a much better record of their lives. This is certainly the case with Erasmus Earle. If he had been a peasant there would have been no record of him but he wasn’t, he was a very wealthy and influential lawyer. Hence, we know quite a bit about this man who was Heidi’s direct ancestor, her 10 times great grandfather! (so, great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather… that’s almost too silly and I think this will be the furthest back I can get!)

Erasmus Earle was born in Salle in Norfolk in 1590. Just to give that some context…  Queen Elizabeth I was in the 32nd year of her reign, two years earlier the Spanish Armada had threatened England, and William Shakespeare was just beginning his play-writing career!

Erasmus’ father, Thomas, died in 1605 when Erasmus was 15 years old and he was left in the guardianship of his two grand-fathers.  He was educated at Norwich Grammar School, after which he attended Peterhouse College, Cambridge in 1609 and subsequently was admitted as Student of Law at Furnivals Inn, London.  Later, on April 7th 1612, at the age of 21 he transferred to Lincoln’s Inn.

Frances Earle with her eldest children, Frances and John

On 25 February 1616 he married Frances, the daughter of James Fountaine of Salle (a distant relation on his mother’s side of the family) and their eldest son John, the first of six children, was baptised at Salle in April 1622.

From 1635 to 1641 he was a Bencher at Lincoln’s Inn and in 1639 he was appointed Autumnal  Lecturer. 

Earle was elected Member for Parliament for the City of Norwich in 1640 and became a staunch supporter of Parliament during the English Civil Wars.  Such was his reputation, he was appointed one of the Legal Secretaries for the English Parliamentarian side at the Treaty of Uxbridge in 1645.

On the 12th of October, 1648, he was called to the degree of Serjeant-at-Law and became Steward and Recorder for the city of Norwich. When riots broke out in the city in sympathy with the Royalist cause, Erasmus oversaw the trial of the ringleaders and, on Christmas Day 1648, passed sentence of death on several of them.

Following the execution of Charles I, during the Commonwealth, he served as Oliver Cromwell’s own Serjeant-at-Law and continued in the same post under Richard Cromwell, being also a Serjeant to the Commonwealth.  He was reputed to have been “esteemed one of the most able Lawyers of his time”.

Following the Restoration in 1660 he took the Benefit of the King’s Pardon, and on 21st June 1660 he was once again called to the position of Serjeant-at-Law “continuing in great reputation and Business to the end of his days . . .”

Over the years, Erasmus added considerably to the wealth he inherited from his father, adding the manors of Salle, Cawston and Heydon to his estate. He purchased Stinton Hall and King’s Manor in 1643 for the price of £1620. His principal home became Heydon Hall.

Heydon Hall

Erasmus Earle died at Heydon, September 7, 1667. His wife, Frances died four years later.

An interesting side note during the career of Erasmus Earle is one of witchcraft…

Witchcraft wasn’t on the statute books as a crime until the reign of Henry VIII although the church had considered it heresy for centuries prior. The law went through a couple of revisions over the next seventy years but, following James I’s fascination with the subject, the 1603 Witchcraft Act became the definitive law on the subject. The clear and specific way this act defined witchcraft, and its punishment, supported its subsequent harsh enforcement by the well-known “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins, amongst others.

I mention the self-styled Witchfinder General because he was operating in the 1640s in East Anglia when Erasmus Earle was rising to prominence. Although there is no direct evidence of any connection between Erasmus and Hopkins’ activities, he must have been aware of the man.

And then we come to the Lowestoft Witches.

Between the 10th and 13th March 1664, a trial took place at Bury St Edmunds Assizes. Two elderly women from Lowestoft, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were both widows, were tried before Magistrates on a charge of witchcraft. Indictments were brought against them, alleging that they had bewitched several people, including children. The trial lasted two days. On the afternoon of Thursday, 13th March, the verdict of Guilty having being returned, the Judge Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, sentenced the two women to be hanged. The executions took place on Monday, 17th March 1664, with neither of the women confessing their guilt.

At the time of the trial Erasmus Earle, then in his 72nd year, was one of East Anglia’s foremost lawyers.  His role in the trial is uncertain, but as a Serjeant-at-Law, one of the elite of the legal profession, he was probably one of the “co-adjudicators” who were often appointed to help conduct the business of the Assize. 

This trial is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it was presided over by Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer.  Hale, who later became Lord Chief Justice of England, is still honoured as one of the best minds in English jurisprudence – and yet, blinded by the beliefs of his day, he still condemned two old women to death for crimes they could not have committed!

Secondly, the published trial report, based on the notes made by an eye-witness, “The Tryal of Witches”, is probably one of the most comprehensive in England and gives a frightening insight into the way a witch trial proceeded.

Thirdly, it is arguable that without the trial of the Lowestoft Witches and the publication of the trial report, then the infamous witch trials at Salem in 1692 might never have happened.  When the Magistrates at Salem were looking for a precedent in allowing so-called “spectral evidence” they consulted “The Tryal of Witches” booklet.  Upon discovering that no lesser person than Sir Matthew Hale had permitted this evidence to be used in court, they too accepted its validity and the trials proceeded.


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