Rev Robert Foulkes

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Robert FOULK(E)S was the vicar of St Peter, Stanton Lacy, a small parish about three miles north east of Ludlow , in South Shropshire , during the reign of Charles II. I know nothing of his life before he took up his post at Stanton Lacy – in fact I know nothing of his life at all. It is his death, and the events that led to it, that has brought him to my attention. Prepare for a scandalous seventeenth century tale of lust, murder and execution!

Foulkes was vicar of Stanton Lacy from 1660 to 1678, and was well regarded by his parishioners. It was a measure of the trust that local people had in him that when a young gentlewoman, apparently of significant means, was left parentless, he was asked by her executors to take her into his care, to bring her up. This he agreed to do.

It would seem that physical attraction of the young lady was more that Foulkes could cope with, for after a short time he “…was …smitten with her charms, and took an opportunity of discovering a criminal passion for her …”(1). This in spite of the fact that he had a wife and two children.

After a while the inevitable happened, and the young lady became pregnant. What could Robert do? At all costs he had to avoid the discovery of his misdeeds, but how to do so? He tried to find the means of obtaining an abortion of the unborn child, but with no success. The option of the child being born and growing up in the locality was obviously not one that appealed to a man of the cloth, anxious to maintain his veneer of respectability. He therefore fabricated an excuse for himself and the young lady to go to London as the time of her confinement neared, and on arrival in the capital they took lodgings in York Buildings in the Strand.

When the child was born Robert Foulkes denied the twenty year old mother the normal attentions she may have expected; no skilled practitioner was in attendance:

“she by her lowd shrieks began to call for the welcome assistance of her own Sex, which is both decent and necessary in cases of that nature, but that it seems was utterly denied her by Mr. Foulks, who sternly oblig’d her to silence, protesting no body should perform that Office but himself.”(2)

He delivered the child himself, for fear that if there were any witnesses to the birth he would not be able to keep the matter secret. Lady readers will be better able than I to imagine the pain and fear that the young mother experienced, but worse was to follow.

It is said that as soon as the baby had been born, the Reverend gentleman crammed it down into the “house of office”(3). Whether the child was dead or alive when it was thus disposed of is not recorded.

Robert Foulkes returned to Stanton Lacy and resumed normal life as, presumably, did the young lady. However, an observant parishioner deduced that the young lady had given birth to a child, and questioned her on the matter. She confessed to the above events, and the authorities were informed. Both Foulkes and the young woman were charged with murder, and put on trial at the Old Bailey, in London .

The hearing took place in January, 1679.

Both defendants pleaded “not guilty”, but the account of the trial says that the evidence of Robert’s guilt was overwhelming, and he was found guilty. The gentlewoman had not been a party to the murder, and was the recipient of much sympathy. She was acquitted.

After he had been convicted, and sentenced to death, Rev Foulkes took on a penitent demeanour, acknowledging the awfulness of his crimes, and repenting, and by so doing attracted wide public sympathy:

“By this decent behaviour, and exceeding others in Piety and Repentance, he became generally pittied by all that came near him, or heard of him, but amongst the rest, many Eminent Divines in London came to visit him, and being incouraged by those unusual signs of remorse and penitency which they beheld in him, they agreed on a private Fast to be kept in Newgate for him, which was accordingly performed, he joining with them in a more fervent manner that ever was observed in any in his condition.”(4)

Foulkes’s execution was scheduled for 22 January, but he was granted a nine days reprieve. He spent his remaining time writing his meditations, and composing prayers. He sent devout letters to his wife, children and parishioners, and an “Excellent prayer”(5) to most of the churches in London , thus ensuring that he was prayed for across the city.

31 January 1679 was the day of his Execution. Foulkes was brought from his prison at about 10 am and taken in a carriage to Tyburn, accompanied by several clergymen. When he was almost ready for execution he made a speech to the gathered crowd, which has been summarised as follows:

“My Friends and Brethren

I Am deservedly brought hither this day to suffer Death for a crime which deserves that Punishment by the Law, and I thank my great God I am too conscious of my own guilt in the least to deny but that both by the Laws of God and man, I have thereby forfeited that Life which I am now going to lay down; the horrid sin that I was sentenced for, was its true very great in it self, but yet is much aggravated being done by one of my Function or Calling, and it is one of the greatest fears I have now left me in the world, least my Example should contract any contempt on the Renowned Clergy-men of England. Ah Sirs, it was not the Church, but one of her unworthy members that committed this heynous offence; and therefore whatever you think me, for God sake let her remain pure and unblemisht, as indeed she is, in your hearts and minds: Had I followed the wholesome Principles she enjoyes, both me and all men too, I had not been in this place upon this occasion; but here are several Learned and pious Ministers that can in part manifest my cordial and unfeigned sorrow, for having thus shamefully offended both God and her; and I hope the great God, whose face I trust I shall in a few minutes behold, doth both see my contrition, and will through the benefits of the blood of Jesus accept me for it, Oh therefore I beseech you, if my ill Example has disrepresented her, let my last Penitence and dying hatred and abhorrency of so black a sin recommend her again to your practise and obedience, without which you must never expect to be happy.”(6)

The final act of these sorry events came after his execution. His body was collected from Tyburn during the evening, and buried that same evening at the church of St Giles in the Fields, London .

(1) The Newgate Calendar, Website

(2) Website – The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 1674-1913

(3) Ibid

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

(6) Ibid

Published in Shropshire Family History Society Journal, June 2005, pp 59-61

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