The reign of Queen Elizabeth I is sometimes known as the golden era, but it wasn’t all golden especially if you were catholic, as was Roland Jenks who lived in Oxford during this time. He worked as a bookbinder and the combination of his religion and his occupation already made him target as a suspicious person. One evening in 1577, after enjoying one too many ales in his local tavern, he let slip a couple of things which he should not have said about the queen. He soon found himself imprisoned in Oxford Castle.
During this period, prisons were not a form of punishment, they were more a holding place you waited at until you received your real punishment which was always a public one. Roland had to wait in the castle until the court met to deal with his case (this type of court was called Assize). The court finally assembled on the 4th of July and after a trial that lasted two days, Roland was found guilty and was sentenced to spend three days at the pillory.
Technically, you might say that three days and nights locked in this wooden frame was not the worst punishment one could receive, even if it meant that people could throw anything they liked at you (rotten food and dead animals being the most popular); but you should know that there was one more feature to the pillory. It was not enough just to lock your hands and head in, it was also important that you would not be able to look away from the people who were aiming at you and so your ears were cruelly nailed to the board. This meant that after three days, you would unfortunately end up with two half ears because there was no way to release yourself from the pillory without losing some or all of your organs of hearing.
You can only imagine that Roland was not happy with the verdict and as soon as it was given, he cursed the court and everyone in it out loud. This period was past the medieval days, but even in the 16th century, curses were not something to take lightly. Especially when after a few days, the curse started to work..
One by one, members of the court started to fall dead: the two judges, the sheriff, the court clerk, the jury. A real panic spread among the elite of Oxford when the death toll reached 300 people. All the dead were men and all were members of the protestant elite of Oxford (or in other words, the people who were in court during that day of Jenks’ trial). To the people of the Elizabethan era, this court was now known as the Black Assize and to them, it seemed like a punishment from god to protestants. The curse of Roland Jenks had another immediate effect: this was the last time the court assembled at Oxford Castle.
To modern researchers, there is much better explanation for what happened rather than considering the reason behind the deaths a curse. Spending two days in the great hall of Oxford Castle in the middle of the summer and next to the county jail (which was not the most hygienic of places) could have had serious repercussions to your health and today, experts believe that the population of the court actually caught a type of typhus and that this was the cause of death.
And what about Roland himself? Well, the poor man did lose half his ears in the pillory, but he then immediately left England and moved to a place more suitable for Catholics, France, where he enjoyed a long life.
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