Oxford’s Black Assizes – The Curse of Roland Jenks

There are many stories surrounding Oxford Castle and Prison which have come down to us over the centuries – some raise uncomfortable issues of prejudice and miscarriages of justice, of censorship and harsh penalties for sinning against those in power and some which have been laced with superstition and paranormal activity.

C16th Bookbinder’s workshop

Roland Jenks was a bookbinder, living in Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I – he was also a Catholic. Catholics were increasingly looked on with suspicion during Elizabeth’s reign due to the religious tensions unleashed by the Reformation which saw the persecution of both Protestants and Catholics by successive monarchs as political and religious factions gained favour and due to numerous plots to overthrown Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. After Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope Pius V in 1570 when he issued the papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, fears of religiously fuelled rebellion against the state and the breakdown of order lead to harsher sentences and penalties for ‘recusants’ – Catholics who refused to comply with religious laws and those who spoke out against the state in any form. In the bull Pius called on English Catholics to repudiate the queen’s authority and disobey her laws:

“We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

The effect of the bull was to increase latent tensions within society between Catholics and Protestants and to spur on disaffected Catholics to rebel against Elizabeth’s rule and assist in plots to overthrow her or even assassinate her. This inevitably lead to a climate of suspicion and fear in the country. Under the ever-watchful eye of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy-master, the authorities were under orders to root out papists and bring them to justice in an effort to stamp out dissent. The country was nervous and booksellers were often in the forefront of the debate and in danger of being implicated in the dissemination of dangerous texts and seditious thoughts.

Regnans in Excelsis Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius Vth in 1570

In the years immediately preceding the arrest of Roland Jenks Elizabeth’s government had seen off the threat of the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 when the Catholic Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland attempted to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment and put her on the throne in place of Elizabeth. They gathered an army of 6,000 soldiers in their attempt to return England to Catholicism but were quickly beaten by Elizabeth’s forces and 800 rebels were executed. Only a few years later the Ridolfi Plot of 1571 was uncovered. Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Queen. He had the support of King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The plot was uncovered by Elizabeth’s advisor, Cecil. Ridolfi and the Spanish ambassador were arrested and expelled from the country and Norfolk was executed as a result.

The English court went into mourning on hearing of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 when French Calvanist protestant Huguenots were murdered by a combination of state-orchestrated assassinations and mob violence which also spilled out into the provinces. Many Huguenots fled to England seeking refuge and religious toleration. We can only speculate on what Roland Jenks thought of all of this and whether he was torn in loyalty between his allegiance to the Pope and his duty to his monarch. Many Catholics were genuinely riven with conflicted thoughts and emotions and struggled to navigate a course that would allow them to be both good Catholics and good subjects. News of massacres abroad and the accompanying mis-information and propaganda on both sides of the religious divide fuelled distrust within communities and fear of similar atrocities being played out in towns like Oxford which had a high proportion of literate scholars and academics with access to potentially dangerous material.

Roland was perhaps unfortunate in getting caught speaking against the queen after he’d had a few drinks in the local tavern and found himself under arrest at Oxford Castle where he awaited trial until the next assizes were in session. Gaol fever, plague and diseases like Typhus were common in the unsanitary conditions, especially during the summer months where the overcrowded cells helped provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.

Poor Roland might have been feeling ill himself by the time he was called to trial in July 1577 before the judge and jury. There was little hope of a fair, impartial trial and he was found guilty of being ‘foul-mouthed and saucy’ after two days and sentenced to be pilloried by the ears for 3 days.

It was a nasty sentence and Jenks knew he was in for a very unpleasant and painful experience, designed to humiliate as well as mutilate him for life. Anyone with a grudge against him or the wider Catholic community could take their revenge by hurling all sorts of rotting matter at him during the course of his public punishment and at the end of his three days he would have to cut himself free and leave part of his ears behind in order to end the ordeal. No wonder he decided to rail against his sentence and, according to contemporary accounts he cursed the judge and jury.

Curses were taken seriously in Elizabethan England, especially when delivered by someone who was already judged to be a threat to public order and so when the leading members of the trail began to fall sick and die shortly after the trial it appeared that Jenks had indeed used supernatural forces to be revenged on the court. The two judges, the sheriff, the court clerk and the jury all succumbed to the mysterious disease. Increasing panic spread among the protestant elite of Oxford when the death toll reached 300 people – all male members of the community who had sat in judgement on him. No women or children were taken ill and this was seen as further confirmation that Jenks had cursed those upright citizens who stood against his Catholicism and seditious views.

Very sensibly, as soon as possible Jenks escaped the country after his punishment and became a baker in France, where he lived until old age carrying the scars of his punishment with him for life.

The case of the ‘Black Assizes’ was to re-surface in 2004 when archaeologists discovered a mass burial site in a ditch next to the mound at Oxford Castle dating from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries which contained the bodies of executed prisoners, some of whom displayed signs of dissection after death and had probably been victims of body snatchers. Analysis of the skeletal remains of some of those Elizabethans buried suggest that an outbreak of Typhus may have lead to their early deaths so perhaps the ‘curse of Roland Jenks’ was his unwitting role as an agent for spreading disease that he contracted whilst awaiting trial and spread through the courtroom rather than any divine intervention.









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