The Heist of the (14th) Century

Dick Puddlecote was angry. And not your average “oh, I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning” angry, either. He was angry to the very core of his being. Trillions of cells made up Dick’s body, and every last one of them was furious with the King of England.

Dick had been born in London, sometime in the 1270s or 1280s, to what we would today call a lower middle-class family. Dick was educated enough to read and write, a skill he parlayed into a series of low-paying assistant jobs. But Dick had dreams, dreams of one day owning his own business exporting wool, butter and cheese to the cities of northern Europe. So Dick scrimped, saved and called in every favor he could until his dream came true.

But then the King of England defaulted on a loan given to him by the merchants of Flanders. In retaliation, those merchants seized the trade goods of every English merchant in the area, and threw every Englishman they could find into prison… which was where Dick was, and why he was so angry.

The king in question was Edward I, who is perhaps better known to Americans by his nickname, “Edward Longshanks”, and Patrick McGoohan’s depiction of him in the film Braveheart. I’m pretty certain that the real Edward wasn’t nearly as callous and cruel as McGoohan’s portrayal of him, but I do know this for sure: Edward really did hate the Scots, and he spent most of his final years waging war against them. In fact, Edward took such an interest in defeating the Scots that he lived in the northern city of York from 1289 to 1302, making that city, and not London, the de facto capital of the kingdom.

Medieval English kings owned vast tracts of land throughout their kingdoms. In a perfect world, the king would make do with the rents received from those properties. But kings were forever building castles, commissioning bridges & roads and other public works, and (most commonly) waging war, activities that far exceeded the royal income. And so taxes were put in place to pay for whatever thing the king was interested in. But those taxes differed from the modern idea of “taxes” in two crucial ways.

First of all, subjects were taxed relative to their status, not their income. Most famously, people would couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fight in a war were taxed higher than people who did. So, in wartime, the clergy paid higher taxes than a gentleman of fighting age with similar income.

Secondly, tax collection was, generally speaking, far more irregular than it is today. Rather than simply deduct money from a weekly paycheck (an idea that didn’t happen in the U.S. until 1942), the king’s tax collectors would travel the country and collect taxes on their own schedules. And, because of this, many folks paid their taxes with whatever valuables they had at hand when the taxman came calling: domestic or foreign gold and silver coins, jewelry, silver plate, furs, loose gemstones, rare books… you name it.

When the taxmen had finished collecting their “loot”, it was all taken to Westminster, where it would be appraised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, England’s version of a Treasury Secretary or Finance Minister, and a nearly 800 year-old office (as of June 2018, the current Chancellor is Philip Hammond).

At the time of Dick and Edward, the valuables would then be forwarded on to the King’s Wardrobe. As the name suggests, the King’s Wardrobe was once just a piece of furniture where the king kept his clothes. But it was obvious to anyone who wanted something from the king that the servants and pages who worked the King’s Wardrobe were important people to know, since they had daily access to the monarch. In time, the King’s Wardrobe became a fully functional government office that followed the king wherever he went.

* * *

Back in Flanders, Dick managed to escape from prison, and was eventually able to get back to London. There he’d planned to march straight to Westminster and demand that the king compensate him for the loss of his merchandise. But Edward was, of course, up north battling the Scots. So when Dick banged on the door of Westminster Palace, he wasn’t greeted by the king. Instead, he met a man named John Shenche.

John Shenche had obtained the titles of “keeper of the king’s palace at Westminster” and “keeper of the king’s prison at Fleet” from his wife Joan, who had inherited them from her father. And the Fleet prison job came with a perk: free lodging in some quite decent apartments on the prison grounds.

History doesn’t tell us why – maybe John hated his family, or was secretly gay, or maybe the Fleet apartments just weren’t good enough for him – but whenever Edward left Westminster, John would leave his family and move into the king’s palace along with a man named William, to whom John had sublet the “keeper of the King’s palace” job. And there the two of them engaged in something that can only be described as a “medieval spring break”: they’d invite a few friends over and help themselves to all the king’s wine and ale they could drink and gorge themselves at the king’s pantry.

You might know that monks of that time were often guilty of caring more about earthly pleasures than heavenly ones. And the monks of next-door Westminster Abbey were no different. Early in Edward’s reign, he lavished money and care upon the Abbey, but as his reign went on, and other issues took up more of his time, the monastery fell into disrepair. More importantly for this story, the abbot – Walter de Wenlock – was old, feeble and unable to keep his monks disciplined.

So a few monks from the abbey joined John, William and friends. And, since he had no business or home to go back to, so did Dick.

Dick became well-known by the monks after a couple months of carousing, and it wasn’t at all unusual for him to take a walk around the abbey unsupervised. By this point, Dick was flat broke, and one day he spied a monk preparing a table for a meal. Specifically, he saw the monk remove dozens of silver plates from a cabinet. A few days later, Dick saw a ladder lying against the wall of the palace, and so he took it, climbed into the storage room at the abbey, and helped himself to several silver plates and cups… which he fenced for a decent sum of money.

As the old saying goes, the idle mind is the Devil’s playground, and within nine months Dick had spent all the money he’d made by fencing the stolen silver. He didn’t want to steal from the monks again. This was partly because he felt the crime would be too obvious, and partly because he feared going to hell. But the main reason he didn’t want to steal from the monks was because he’d grown to know and like them. He considered them to be his friends, and friends don’t steal from friends.

And, very shortly, one of those “friends” would let him in on a secret.

* * *

The Pyx Chamber at Westminster Abbey was, for centuries, considered the most secure room in the entire island of Great Britain. This is because of the vast amounts of stone needed to support the Abbey above. Its walls are 13 feet thick in most places, and originally one was only able to enter the room via a tiny, cramped stairway which was purposely “broken” in a spot. One needed to place a wooden ladder over the broken spot, or else you’d fall into a tiny holding area and either starve to death or await arrest.

Because it was so secure and so close to Westminster Palace, monarchs had used to room to store tax revenue for nearly three hundred years, much to the monk’s chagrin. And Edward was no different. The tax revenues for the year 1303 – valued at around £100,000 at the time, or hundreds of millions of dollars today – were carefully placed inside the chamber by representatives of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, pending transfer to the King’s Wardrobe at York.

* * *

That was the secret that one of the monks told Dick: that an entire year’s worth of tax revenues were sitting at the Abbey, more or less unattended. Dick’s need for money and desire for revenge against Edward suddenly came together, and a plan was hatched.

Sadly, we don’t know exactly what that plan was.

According to Dick’s later confession, he planted hemp seeds around the outside wall of the Abbey at Christmas time. And, in April, when those seeds had grown into decent cover, he hacked his way through the wall and into the chamber, where he stayed from April 24 to April 26, 1303, presumably handing out loot to confederates on the outside.

But this story, which was accepted by royal investigators hired to look into the heist, has several problems. One, it’s unlikely that hemp seeds planted in December would have grown enough by April to provide Dick with cover. Secondly, Dick would have had to hire a slew of masons and carpenters to assist him with the task, and convince them that he was authorized to make such “repairs” on the Abbey. Thirdly, and most importantly, he would have had to do this without anyone in either the Abbey or neighborhood knowing about it. It beggars belief that someone could hack through 13 feet of stone without drawing anyone’s attention, but the story was accepted as truth by the Crown’s representatives. And that’s because no one wanted to believe the more likely story: that one (or more) of the monks willingly assisted Dick in the heist.

Amusingly, Dick didn’t get busted because one of the king’s men found anything amiss in the chamber. He was busted because treasure suddenly began appearing all over the country. A fisherman on the Thames found a bejeweled silver cup in one of his nets. Expensive silver plates were found by boys playing in a field. Jewelry and foreign coins began appearing at goldsmith’s shops as far away as York. And, most damningly, various sorts of treasure were found crudely hidden in the Abbey’s churchyard.

Of course, Edward and his household were at York, so it took a few weeks before news of the strange finds reached them. And when it finally did, Edward asked John Droxford, keeper of the wardrobe, to investigate the matter on June 20, 1303.

Droxford began an inventory of the king’s treasure immediately. When news of this hit the streets, various items were anonymously returned to the chamber, either because of people’s guilty consciences or their fear of the noose. By the time Droxford was done with the inventory, relatively little of the treasure had been lost.

But while all this was going on, others were investigating possible suspects. A large amount of the treasure was found under the beds of John Shenche and William. Dick, who used some of his ill-gotten gains to rent a love nest with his mistress, was found with some, too. Several monks were found with treasure, even Don Adam, the sacrist, who allegedly gave a ring to a “loose woman” in exchange for sex.

Like most witch hunts throughout the centuries, the king’s investigators cast a very wide net, and several people who were either innocent or only peripherally related to the crime were arrested as well. Most, however, were eventually released. In the end, only Dick, six laymen and ten monks were charged with crimes.

Dick was found guilty, along with William and five others. All laymen except Dick were hanged.

But then came the sticky question of the monks. Although many were obviously guilty of at least possessing stolen treasure, it would have been unusual for clerics to be tried in secular courts. Churchmen of the time usually claimed “benefit of the clergy”, an ancient  legal loophole which allowed them to be tried in ecclesiastical courts, not criminal ones. And the worst thing that could happen there is that they’d be defrocked… so, no noose for those guys. And because Dick had dabbled in religious studies as a young man, he too claimed benefit of the clergy.

In 1305, Edward finally defeated the Scots and returned to London in triumph. Edward was obviously in a good mood, and in the two years the monks had spent in prison they’d managed to put pressure on Dick to confess, as well as write many long articles about how only one person had robbed the king. Other monks outside Westminster Abbey took up their cause and soon there was a literal mountain of articles accusing Dick, and Dick alone, of the robbery.

Edward was eager to agree. He was happy to have defeated the Scots, happy to have recovered most of his treasure, didn’t want to cause any trouble with the Church, and was basically too old and tired to put up much of a fight. He freed all the monks remaining in prison and even gave Shenche his keeper of the Palace job back.

Whatever fury the king had left was heaped upon Dick, who has hanged. His skin was then removed from his body and nailed to the door of Westminster Abbey.

Several changes happened as a result of the heist.

For starters, the king no longer kept his treasure at the Abbey. There had long been a similar room at the Tower of London, but it’d been used for bulky items like suits of armor and what have you. Now that room, and not the Pyx Chamber, was used to store the King’s loot.

Secondly, the monks of Westminster Abbey had a generation’s worth of internal strife. Walter of Wenlock died not too long after Dick was hanged, and the monks could not agree on a successor… or anything else, for that matter. They also despised Edward so much that their history of his son’s reign is incredibly bitter and scathing.

But the biggest question of all is… what happened to the treasure that was never recovered? Many historians think that not only did Dick get serious help from the monks, the whole heist might have been the idea of one (or more) of them, and that Dick was just their fall guy or patsy. And, given the nature of the crime, it seems likely that this is the case.

Will we ever know the true story behind one of the biggest heists in medieval history? Only time will tell.

4 Replies to “The Heist of the (14th) Century”

  1. Not a “film” per se, but the BBC did a movie about it a few years go. It was called “Heist”.

    Sadly, the film was made to appeal to teenagers, so it was a huge “see kids, history is COOL!” streak running through it. It’s kind of a cross between a Guy Ritchie film and an episode of “Horrible Histories”. What really makes me mad about it is that the story is interesting enough on its own, without the BBC feeling the need to add a bunch of historically inaccurate bits (like people snorting coke) to make it “cool”.

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