Divine Retribution at the Jewel Tower, Westminster

How the 14th-century monks of Westminster Abbey interpreted the ‘wretched death’ of their hated next-door neighbour, the Keeper of the Palace of Westminster, as celestially ordained.

14th-century painting of a fishpond at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, France

14th-century painting of a fishpond at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, France
© Universal Images Group/DeAgogstini/Alamy

HIGH SECURITY

The Jewel Tower, a 14th-century addition to the Palace of Westminster in London, was built in 1365–6 to house the precious jewels, plate and textiles belonging to the household of Edward III (r.1327–77).

Such a high-security purpose required a secluded location, and the new structure, which had its own moat – vital for security – was certainly given that. It was separated from the royal apartments of the Privy Palace by a small royal garden, and even further removed from the more accessible law courts and Exchequer in and around Westminster Hall.

Edward III depicted in a manuscript illumination of c.1392

Edward III depicted in a late 14th-century manuscript
© British Library Board

LAND GRAB

This presented a problem, though. One couldn’t get too far away from the heart of the palace without ending up in the grounds of Westminster’s other great building, its Benedictine abbey.

The Jewel Tower and its moat were eventually built so close to the abbey that they actually encroached on its land. The monks, bitterly resenting this violation, naturally protested, not only at the loss of their land, but also because the new building blocked a route which they had formerly used to reach their watermill, as well as for feast-day processions around the abbey precinct.

DIVINE INTERVENTION

Their anger was later recorded in the 15th-century ‘Black Book’ of Westminster Abbey, and there is no doubt, based on that account, whom they regarded as the villain of the piece: one William Usshborne, Keeper of the King’s Privy Palace and, apparently, instigator of the seizure of their land.

The Black Book relates how the builders of the Jewel Tower disturbed the remains of a hermitage and the lead coffin of the hermit within it:

Master William Usshborne, with the agreement of a leadworker of the church of Westminster, hatched a plan to lift the lead coffin out of the ground using its iron rings, and to throw the hermit’s bones into a pit in the monks’ cemetery. But as soon as the said leadworker carried the lead coffin into his workshop, he suddenly fell down, and all strength departed from his body, and he could no longer carry on living. After a brief time, he died and passed on from this world.

The Jewel Tower, Westminster

The Jewel Tower, Westminster

DIVINE INTERVENTION, PART II

Usshborne, it would seem, didn’t get the message. The Black Book goes on to relate, with some relish, the fate that eventually overtook him, too:

In the time of King Edward III, a certain keeper of the lord king’s palace named William Usshborne unjustly seized for the king’s use a certain close belonging to the prior of Westminster, and here he made a garden with a pond in which to keep live fish [perhaps the Jewel Tower moat?].

It so happened that one day around the feast of Saint Peter ad Vincula, he invited some of his Westminster neighbours to dinner, and he prepared his table with a large pike, caught in this fishpond. As they all sat down to dinner, this William quickly took some of the pike, but as soon as he had swallowed two or three mouthfuls of the fish, he began shouting almost dementedly in these words – ‘it is trying to choke me!’ After crying out in pain many times in this way, suddenly he fell to the ground and died a wretched death without the last rites. He was then carried into the parish church of Saint Margaret and buried in the choir, because of the dignity of his office.

It was said that this came to pass because he had confiscated the meadow and garden of the infirmary and the prior of Westminster’s garden for the use of King Edward III. For this, there was absolutely no compensation to the church of Westminster.

This account was written long after the abbot and monks had relinquished their claim to the Jewel Tower site, but the author’s delight at the justice of Usshborne’s fate suggests it wasn’t a dispute that was quickly forgotten.

                   

By Jeremy Ashbee

'step into englands story