…or a Tragical End in Twickenham
In 1575, in the days before John Fitz was born his father, a keen astrologer, studied the stars to see what future awaited the child. Unfortunately Dad was not reassured by the astrological indications…
“Finding at that time a very unlucky position of the heavens, he desired the midwife, if possible, to hinder the birth but for one hour; which, not being to be done, he declared that the child would come to an unhappy end and undo the family.”
And Dad was right. Although John Fitz was born with a “comelinese of personage” and an easy-going demeanour following his twenty-first birthday and subsequent marriage his character underwent an alarming change. John Fitz, the son of a landed squire from Devon, turned into a violent, paranoid degenerate.
One night in June 1599 he was dining with friends in Tavistock, near his family seat at Fitzford. Being extremely drunk he began to brag about his possessions and how every inch of the land he owned was freehold. His friend Nicholas Slanning interrupted him. “That is not so,” he said. “You hold of me a parcel of land that is copyhold, and though of courtesy it has been intermitted, yet of due, you owe me so much a year for that land.”
Infuriated and full of drink, John Fitz rose to his feet, pulled out his dagger and tried to stab Nicholas Slanning. Fortunately friends managed to pull the two men apart and calm the situation down. Nicholas Slanning and his footman immediately left for home.
They had not gone very far before John Fitz and four associates caught up with them. “What do you desire of me?” asked Slanning. “I have come to avenge the insult offered me” replied John Fitz. Egged on by his associates and mad with rage John Fitz then stabbed Nicholas Slanning through and through. He died on the spot… “Great was the lamentation that the countryside made for the death of so beloved a gentleman as Maister Slanning was.”
Fearing arrest John Fitz fled to France. Just six months later, in December 1599, and thanks to efforts of his wife and mother who were able to obtain a royal pardon, John Fitz returned home to Devon. Such was his gratitude that he immediately returned to his drunken and riotous ways which allegedly resulted in the death of a constable.
“The Towne of Tavistocke, though otherwise orderly governed with sobriety, and likewise of grave magistrates, was thereby infected with the beastly corruption of his drunkenesse.”
Despite his wayward behaviour in 1603, at the Coronation of James 1st, John Fitz was knighted, not for any services done to the Crown or State, but because he was of good family, well connected, and with property. On his return to Devon the newly dubbed ‘Sir John Fitz’ celebrated his social advancement by kicking his wife and young child out of the family home at Fitzford because they were cramping his lifestyle.
By now Sir John Fitz was 28 years old and beginning to develop a powerful persecution complex. This delusion soon manifested itself. His pardon six years earlier for the murder of Nicholas Slanning had not deterred the Slanning family from suing him for compensation. In the summer of 1605 Sir John was summoned to London to appear in court to answer these charges. As he set out with a manservant Sir John began to believe that the Slannings were planning to murder him on the journey. By the time he reached Kingston his galloping paranoia caused him to think that his man servant was also involved in the plot. Ordering the servant to remain behind Sir John rode into Twickenham alone.
He arrived at the ‘Anchor’ inn at 2.00am in the morning and banged on the door demanding entry. The landlord, Daniel Alley, told him that the inn was small and had no room for a gentleman of quality. Such was Sir John’s insistence that Alley turned his own wife Agnes out of the family bed and told her to sleep with the children. He then offered the bed to Sir John… but Sir John did not sleep. His own demons had caught up with him. Throughout that night Daniel and Agnes heard the deranged nobleman crying out against enemies who pursued him and wished him dead. Unable to sleep himself, Daniel Alley got up at dawn and left the house with Agnes crying after him not leave her alone with this mad aristocrat. Hearing the conversation Sir John Fitz, convinced that the Slannings were outside and waiting to kill him, picked up his sword and rushed out in his nightgown. In the early morning light he stabbed poor Daniel Alley to death and wounded Agnes in the arm. Realising what he had done Sir John Fitz placed his sword against a wall and fell upon it, suffering two grievous wounds. The neighbours, roused by the shouting, seized the wounded Fitz and returned him to the landlord’s bed where, refusing medical treatment, he died two days later.
Before he died Sir John Fitz was visited at the ‘Anchor’ by the chaplain of the Earl of Northumberland in an attempt … “To put him in mind what he had done how grievously hee had offended his maker in committing so detestable murders, as also in laying violent handes upon himselfe, and withal persuading him to repent”.
Daniel Alley, husband of Agnes Langly, and father of three children was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard in Twickenham on 6th August 1605. Sir John Fitz, ‘being of gentle birth’, but certainly not of gentle disposition, was buried in the chancel of St Mary’s Church on the 10th August of the same year.
The final comment on this murderous, malevolent man and the tragic episode that ended his life can perhaps be found in the epitaph in Bickleigh Church of Sir John Fitz’s first victim, the beloved gentleman Nicholas Slanning…
He author of my murder was, and the revenger too, A bloody murderer of me, and then himself he slew, The very sword which in mine first, he bathed in his own blood, O! of the highest Judge 'twixt us, the arbitration good!
— from Martyn Day