The Case of Elizabeth Duncalfe

Whilst she was still a very young girl, Elizabeth Duncalffe was in a privileged position, in 16th Century Cheshire society. She lived in the Village of Great Budworth, in the shadow of the ancient church, which is still there to this day, where the Duncalffe family had lived for generations. Her Father, in planning for her future, had betrothed her to a local man, Thomas Caldwell, with the settlement of £10 a year. However, following their wedding, in Lymm, on 9th September 1594,    John decided that he would like to see the world, and used the money to fund foreign trips, leaving  Elizabeth at home alone, without sustenance, and relying on the charity of friends and family for her survival. Soon she bore a son, but this did not deter her husband from his wanderings.

It was at this time she met a neighbour, a wealthy farmer, by the name of Jeffrey  Bownde, whose family also lived at High Legh.  At first she spurned his advances, but with her husband absent,  the lonely young woman succumbed, and they became lovers, and soon after that began to plan their future together.

It is not clear who came up with the plan to get rid of the barrier to their happiness, Elizabeth’s husband  but a plan began to be formed. Bownde had a servant woman, a widow named Isabelle Hall who became involved in the plot. She asked her brother George Fernelly to help, and Bownd offered Fernelly  the princely sum of £5 to dispose of his rival. Fernelly happily took the money, but was slow in coming up with the action, until Bownde threatened to “ lay him by the heeles”  . Fernelly continued to delay until his sister came up with another plan.

Bownde himself bought the poison ratsbane, at Hall’s behest, in Knutsforth (Knutsford), and sent it to Elizabeth Caldwell.  She sent the poison to Hall via a maid, and Hall  then baked this into some ‘oaten cakes’ that she knew to be a particular favourite of her husbands.  Elizabeth then placed these on the windowsill of her bedroom before retiring to bed

On rising the next morning, the husband asked if he could take some for his breakfast; she agreed and he took three or four of them , and asked for butter  to eat with them.

Elizabeth lay in her bed with ‘terror in her heart’,  whilst her husband ate the cakes. A neighbours child of 6 or 7 came into the house to collect some kindling for their own fire, and John Caldwell gave her some of the cake. She soon became unwell , went home, and there died. Others in the Caldwell house were taken ill, but by vomiting purged themselves of the poison, and their lives were saved, including John Caldwell. It was reported that 2 dogs and a cat ate some of the vomit, and they also died.

Elizabeth was taken before three justices of the Peace, Sir John Savage, Sir Thomas Aston, and Master Brooke, where she confessed everything straight away. Her confession was that she had conspired to poison her husband, with the help of her lover,  John Bownde with Isabelle Hall being an accomplice, along with her brother, George Fernelly.

Following this confession, Jeffrey Bownd and Isabelle Hall were also arrested, and despite their protestations of innocence, they were all committed to the Castle at Chester, without bail, untll the next assizes, at Michelmas

At her trial Elizabeth again pleaded guilty, and asked for forgiveness from God and her peers, and she was sentenced to death. However, she was ‘with child’ , and was reprieved, ( for now). Isabelle Hall was not tried at this assize, probably as a kindness, so she could be a support to Elizabeth during her confinement. Her Brother although implicated was not indicted.

At the same assizes Bownd  was indicted,  but he refused to plead. By not answering the charges against him on the Saturday, was adjudged to be prest (pressed) on the following Monday. If a prisoner did not plead then the court could not function, unlike today where a judge would enter a plea, normally not guilty’ on behalf of the prisoner. The prisoner would not plead to avoid the Crown taking  their possessions, which they would forfeit if found guilty. Poorer felons  had nothing to lose, and would take their chances in Court, but if you had some wealth, lands, cattle, money, then this would all be lost to your family. So to keep your money and goods in your family, you would refuse to plead. The downside was it was an extremely painful process, which could still result in felons being unable to withstand the torture, and pleading anyway. It was also possible to bribe the gaoler, to heap the weights on quickly, to end the suffering quicky. Pressing to death” might take several days, and not necessarily with a continued increase in the load. The Frenchman Guy Miege, who from 1668 taught languages in London[8] says the following about the English practice:[9]

“For such as stand Mute at their Trial, and refuse to answer Guilty, or Not Guilty, Pressing to Death is the proper Punishment. In such a Case the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day; and if he lives beyond it, he has nothing daily, but as much foul Water as he can drink three several Time , and that without any Bread: Which grievous Death some resolute Offenders have chosen, to save their Estates to their Children.” But, in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death”.

So it was that on nine o’ clock on that fatefull Monday, Jeffrey Bownde was ‘ where to every mans judgement there present, he made a very penitent end, being heartily sorrowfull for his offences, and very devoutly craved the pardon of god and all the world’. It seems his end came relatively quickly.


The next day Elizabeth gave birth to a boy, in her prison in the castle. Her husband, John Caldwell reportedly ‘made a sute to the judge to procure a warrant to have his wife executed, within a certain time after her delivery’, and a warrant was granted. Fortunately for Elizabeth the warrant was not delivered until  it had expired, ( perhaps due to the influence of her important friend)and so her imprisonment continued until the next assizes. The child was passed to Thomas Caldwell, her husband, to bring up.

Elizabeth had A friend in Lady Mary Cholmondesly, who petitioned the Court on Elizabeth’s behalf, but the severity of the charges were beyond her help. However the usual punishment for crimes of this type against your husband was burning, and would appear that Lady Mary’s influence may have helped avoid this, and she may have had some influence in the delay of her execution warrant.

There was to be no further reprieve for Isabelle, or Elizabeth, despite having had some friends in high places. At the next assizes Isabelle Hall was found guilty, and sentenced to die, and Elizabeth’s sentence was confirmed.

Lady Cholmsley petitioned again on behalf of Elizabeth, but when she knew her efforts had been fruitless, she visited and prayed with her until the moment she was handed over to the Chester Sheriff for execution.


Elizabeth wrote to her husband begging his forgiveness, but also pointing out “How poor you have many times left me, how long you have been absent from me, all which advantage the devil took to subvert me”

Traditionally those imprisoned in the Castle, were Cheshire malefactors, and the City of Chester made its own arrangements for imprisonment. However all executions were the responsibility of the City Sheriff, and prisoners were handed over at the Gloverstone, outside of the Castle.

She and the rest of the condemned prisoners, including Isabelle, were then taken through the wards of the City on a cart, to the gallows at Boughton, high above the city, the place of execution for hundreds of years, ( and for the next 200 years)

Elizabeth sung Psalms, and prayed with the preachers who accompanied her on her final journey. Elizabeth Caldwell, Isabelle Hall, and others,  were made to climb up ladders, when the rope was placed around their neck, and at the given moment the ladder was twisted, and they were ‘turned off’.

Elizabeth’s child born in prison went to live with her husband, with a son she had borne previously.

Some 3 years after his death, the Crown went to court to try to obtain a quarter share of Jeffrey Bownde’s goods and chattels, as he been ‘attainted with murder’. Whether the Crown was successful is not known.

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