The town of Ormskirk is full of eccentricities but, as Titus Cragg discovers, the shooting of a local farmer is hardly a joke. The crime leads to a series of further deaths, each of which they trace back to a compact made by a group of young people twenty years earlier, with sinister consequences for all involved. Between them Cragg and Fidelis must unravel this tangled thread and follow it as far as Lancaster Castle and the summer assizes, where a young girl will be on trial for her life and, if found guilty, at risk of death by judicial burning at the stake.
Secret Mischief is a story of light and of darkness. The vivid, raucous texture of eighteeenth century Lancashire, full of humour, bizarre characters and unexpected reversals, covers a sinister plot of greed and unscrupulous murder. Titus Cragg and Luke Fidelis must be at their alert best if the villains are to be unmasked, and justice finally done.
Published by Severn House Publishers Ltd (ISBN-13 978-0727890702) Secret Mischief is issued in hardback in the UK on 26 February 2021 and in the USA on 4 May 2021. It is available as an e-book in all territories from 1 April 2021.
Guilty unless proven innocent: what it was like to be tried for your life in Georgian England
Nowadays it is generally regarded as the bedrock of criminal trials: accused persons have to be proven guilty by their accusers. Indeed, the accused have the right to remain silent in face of the accusations against them. This may not always be wise, but the right exists simply because the burden of proof is not on them. They are innocent until proven guilty.
It was not ever thus. In 18th century England — the world of my Cragg and Fidelis novels — there was no presumption of innocence. A defendant had to prove they didn’t do it, and if they stayed silent they were presumed guilty.
In Secret Mischief one of my female characters is sent for trial at Lancaster Castle on a charge of ‘petty treason’ – that is, of murdering her employer. This was a capital offence, although for women it wasn’t a hanging one. The prescribed penalty for females was to be burned at the stake.
Like all people arraigned in England on a murder charge my character is brought before the assize court. This court’s role was specifically to try serious (and usually capital) cases, and it was held in various centres around the country where travelling judges from London “on circuit” presided. Assizes were held twice a year and usually lasted a week. They provided a great excuse for extravagant social gatherings, with raucous crowds demonstrating in the streets for and against individual defendants, while officials staged solemn and complicated ceremonies. At the end of an assize week all those sentenced to death were publicly executed at some site usually just outside the boundaries of the town or city. Huge crowds gathered to watch.
The defendant in such cases was more often than not somebody poor and ill-educated, and very probably illiterate. Such a person’s chances of understanding what was going on were slim. Much of the legal language used by lawyers (a mixture of Latin, medieval French and English) would have been largely gobbledygook to them. The procedures of the court would also have been ill-explained and their possible fate if found guilty — being burnt alive in the case of my character — must frequently have been only half understood. Nor was any allowance made for their age: children were tried as if they were adults.
My character’s entire future depends on whether she can counter the prosecutor’s charges to the satisfaction of judge and jury, and to do so entirely without help. A trained lawyer will lay out the case against her, yet she will not be allowed the equivalent representation. When the prosecution produces witnesses to speak against her, there will be no one but herself to cross-examine them.
It is difficult for us to imagine how frightened and isolated these defendants would have felt. But it was not until the 19th century that defence lawyers entered the picture, with the ability to address the court, call and cross-examine witnesses, and sum up the defence case at the end. Without such legal assistance the dock at a Georgian assize trial was a very lonely place indeed.