Joan Crowch of Corneybury, Layston

The sorry tale of Joan Crowch, her daughter Jane and husband George Sondes

Jane Freeman was the apple of her father’s eye. She had survived against all the odds. All her brothers and sisters had died mostly in their infancy, leaving Jane an heiress to her father’s vast estates.

Jane was born in January 1603, the daughter of Ralph Freeman and Joan Crowch. She was christened in the Freeman family church in London where the Freeman had their London home.

Not long after Jane was born, her father and his brother, William Freeman, purchased a fine manor in Aspenden in northern Hertfordshire. Aspenden Hall was to be the family home for both Ralph and William and their families for many generations to come. So it was rather fortuitous that the brothers had married two sisters, Joan and Elizabeth Crouch, daughters of John Crouch of Corneybury in Layston, not far from Aspenden Hall.

Ralph Freeman and his brother William were wealthy merchants of London and members of the Clothworker’s Guild. The year following Ralph and Joan’s wedding in 1596 at St Bartholomew’s in Layston, Ralph’s brother, William married Joan’s eldest sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was already a widow at the young age of 30, her husband Matthew Flyer, a merchant of London, who she had married in 1586 at St Lawrence Jewry in London, had died the previous year.

It was at St Mary’s church, Aspenden where many of the children of Ralph and Joan Freeman were baptized and unfortunately where many of them were buried. Their first child William was born in 1598 but died the same year. Their second child, also called William was born two years later but also failed to survive infancy and died in 1601. The following year Ralph and Joan celebrated the birth of their first daughter who was named Jane after her mother’s sister. Jane was baptized on 30th January 1602/3 at St Michael Cornhill in London where the parish registers record her as the daughter of “Ralf Freeman”.

Three further children were born to Ralph and Joan - John in 1608, Mary in 1609 and Raphael in 1613. Unfortunately none survived infancy.

During these years William and Elizabeth Freeman had three children. Joan was born in early 1599, Ralph Freeman II in 1600 and their last child, Elizabeth was born in 1602. Thankfully all three children survived to adulthood.

Ralph and William spent a good part of their considerable fortunes in enhancing their home during the next few years. It was classified as a minor manor house when they bought it but they converted it into a much larger courtyard styled residence and although Ralph concentrated on his business affairs, eventually being knighted and becoming Lord Mayor of London, William was intent on seeing his family established in Hertfordshire.

Ralph’s commitment to his business affairs most likely came about following the death of his young wife in 1615. Sadly Joan Freeman (nee Crouch) died in May of that year and was buried in St Michael Cornhill in the family vault.

Young Jane was not even a teenager when her mother died but was brought up in the family home by her Aunt and Uncle – with occasional visits from her father.

Eventually a husband was found for Jane. Obviously he had to be a person of title, wealth and substance as his future wife came with a considerable dowry.

Sir George Sondes of Lees-Court in Kent became the lucky gentleman. He married Jane Freeman at St Michael Cornhill in September of 1620. Jane was just 19, her husband was only 21 but the future looked very bright for the young couple.

William Freeman, Jane’s uncle, died in August 1623 and was buried in the parish church of St Michael Cornhill in London leaving his son, Ralph Freeman II, his heir.

That same year saw Sir Ralph Freeman, the elder, elected sheriff of London and in 1633 elected Lord Mayor of London with much pageantry and fan fare. Unfortunately Ralph didn’t complete his mayoralty year as he died that same year. Throughout his life he had pursued a career as a trading magnate in the Levant and East India companies, a liveryman in the Clothworker’s Company, an alderman and sheriff of London with much success in all avenues of his life. There is a memorial plaque to honour Sir Ralph Freeman in St Mary’s Church Aspenden. He was 74 at the time of his death. He also left his half share of Aspenden Hall to his nephew and name sake, Ralph Freeman II.

Jane and George Sondes moved to Lees-Court in Kent where they started their family. Their children were christened in the family church of St James in Sheldwich. Unfortunately most of their children died before the age of 5 but two boys lived and the eldest was called Freeman Sondes, the younger was named George after his father. Freeman sadly died aged 4, but 18 months later another son was born to George and Jane. He was also christened Freeman.

Unfortunately Jane Sondes (nee Freeman) died soon thereafter, leaving Sir George with two boys aged 4 (George) and 18 months (Freeman) to raise alone. These two little boys were to grow up and act out a major drama in Lees Court.

It was a large, influential household indeed. Sir George had his own bread baked; his own beer brewed; he ate his own meat, fruit, vegetables. His own carpenters made furniture and carried out repairs. His many maids wore simple uniforms made from flax grown on his own estate. Lees Court had its own chapel where prayers were said daily - on Sundays they were in Sheldwich Church. Sir George had 50 horses, 500 sheep, over 100 cattle. His granaries held over 1000 quarters of his own wheat and malt, together with barns full of corn, flax and hops.

When little George was 10 and Freeman 8, their father was imprisoned in the Tower of London for several years. Eventually, with the king restored to his throne, Sir George was released and his sons were attractive young men. Extensive renovations of Lees Court were untaken by George and with the completion of his home, his fortunes improved. Sir George was very protective of his boys and tried hard to keep them out of mischief. He had them taught singing, fencing, riding, dancing, and they had to read two chapters of their Bible every night. He commented that he kept them ‘from idle company and not fitting sports. I dissuaded them from debauchery. No man can tax me for swearing, drinking, whoring or gaming.’

Unfortunately that didn’t work! Both boys got heavily into cock fighting, gambling and spent a fortune on fancy clothes. George used to ride over to Lynsted to visit his uncle Nicholas where he took a shine to his cousin, Anne - a beauty without money. Anne possibly became pregnant by him (despite ‘fornication’ being punishable by 3 months in prison) and so they thought they had better get married. A furious Sir George stormed over to Lynsted and said ‘If she be with child, the bastard must be kept: but I tell you George, if you marry her, you must not come to look within my doors.’ Half an hour after his father left, young George followed and the affair was over.

Despite this, George was the heir and still loved, whilst Freeman felt left out. Although ‘religious and learned’ he may have been pock-marked because he cost his father £40 to be cured of smallpox. His father thought he was bored, stubborn and difficult, ‘pleasing and courteous to no one, but cross-grained to all, as much to his father as any, and I knew not how to break him of it.’ Others just found Freeman to be shy – it has been suggested that he was unhappy at having no mother, a father who preferred his brother and a brother with a life of his own. Or perhaps he was becoming increasingly ill, though not physically. Freeman took to feeling disgust when his father was around and took to hiding for long periods. He would go to London without telling anyone and spend all his allowance on mistresses, gambling and clothes.

Easter Day was on 15 April, 1655. The two brothers were summoned to be at home for the festival. Both boys had grey doublets for riding but George had gone off without knowing that his manservant had packed Freeman’s doublet by mistake: George had worn it out and had it repaired. A week after Easter Sir George heard the boys arguing over the doublet in George’s bedroom. His comment was ‘what a do is here about a foolish doublet. Get you to bed!’ Next day the argument continued and Sir George warned Freeman that if he didn’t do as he was told he’d lose his allowance. Two days later the argument returned and, for the first and last time, Sir George thumped Freeman who went white and sat in aggrieved silence for nearly five hours. He decided he had no future and should kill his father and brother.

The 7th August was a fine day and Freeman rose early, opened a chest and took out a butcher’s meat cleaver and a dagger. About 5.00 a.m. he tiptoed into his brother’s room where George was sleeping heavily on his left side. Freeman hit him five times with the back of the cleaver. George was mortally wounded and very bloody. As his brother turned onto his back and moaned, Freeman took the dagger and stabbed 7 times around the heart - George still moaned. Freeman threw the cleaver out of the window and, feeling more victim than murderer, went to his father’s room. He drew the bed curtains and shook the sleeping Sir George with his bloody hands. ‘Father’ he said ‘I have killed my brother’. Sir George tried to take it in. ‘What sayest thou? Hast thou, wretch, killed thy brother? Then thou hadst best kill me too!’ ‘No sir’ said Freeman ‘I have done enough’, to which his father replied ‘Why, then thou must look to be hanged.’

Servants were called and Freeman locked in his bedroom. Someone saddled a horse and went to the Justice of the Peace. Father and son never met again. The Assizes met in Maidstone, Freeman pleaded guilty and was thrown in the dungeon.

On August 21st Freeman Sondes mounted the scaffold and was hanged on Penenden Heath.