A Tale of Two Packingtons

William R. Cooper

We know from many sources that the early 16th-century merchants of London were particularly interested in helping forward the reformation of England, but two of them, the Packingtons, were more involved than most, it seems. The two may well have been brothers: one was directly instrumental in rescuing Tyndale's enterprise (which was about to founder) by supplying England with the New Testament, and the other possibly because of mistaken identity, was to become the earliest recorded victim in London of murder by gunshot. The two, Augustine and Robert, were probably sons of Sir Johns and Lady Ann Packington, Sir John being chirographer (or notary) of the Court of Common Pleas towards the end of the 15th century, and Lady Ann being the founder of certain almshouses in Fleet Street.[1] Foxe, in 1563, relates (out of Hall) the episode concerning Augustine Packington thus:

At this present year the New Testament was newly translated and imprinted by William Tyndale, wherewith the Bishop of London [Tunstall] being aggrieved, devised how to destroy that false [and] erroneous translation as he called it. It happened that one Augustine Packington, a mercer, was then at Antwerp where the Bishop was. This man favoured Tyndale, but shewed contrary unto the Bishop. The Bishop, being desirous to bring his purpose to pass, communed how he would gladly buy the New Testaments. Packington, hearing him say so, said: ‘My lord, I can do more in this matter than most merchants here if it be your pleasure, for I know the Dutchmen and strangers that have bought them of Tyndale and have them here to sell. So if it be your lordship's pleasure, I will assure you to have every book of them that is printed and unsold.’ The Bishop, thinking he had God by the toe, said: ‘Do your diligence, gentle Master Packington. Get them for me and I will pay whatsoever they cost, for I intend to burn them all at Paul's Cross.’
This Augustine Packington went unto William Tyndale and declared the whole matter. And so upon a compact made between them, the Bishop of London had the books, Packington had the thanks, and Tyndale had the money.
After this, Tyndale corrected the same New Testament again and caused them to be newly printed so that they came thick and threefold over into England. When the Bishop perceived that, he sent for Packington, and said to him: ‘How comes it that there be so many New Testaments abroad? You promised me that you had bought all.’ Then answered Packington: ‘Surely, I bought all there was to be had, but I perceive they have printed more since. I see it will never be better so long as they have letters and presses. Wherefore you were best to buy the presses too, and so you shall be sure.’ — at which the Bishop smiled, and so the matter ended.[2]

So much concerning Augustine Packington. There are those today who doubt the truth of the story, though it has to be said that there were many still alive when Hall and Foxe published it that could easily have pointed out its falsity were it not true. And why make it up anyway? It does throw a fascinating sidelight on Bishop Tunstall of London though, the most lenient of the conservative bishops when it came to harrying Protestant heretics. None were ever burned by him, and indeed he actually flouted church law when he released Bilney outside the hall as he left. It is impossible to imagine a Fitzjames, a Stokesley or a Bonner smiling having realised that they had been duped by a heretic, but with Tunstall, that much, at least, rings true. Moreover, the story has an interesting and somewhat humorous sequel concerning Bishop Tunstall. Again Foxe tells us:

In short space after, it fortuned that George Constantine was apprehended by Sir Thomas More which was then Chancellor of England, [being] suspected of certain heresies. During the time that he was in the custody of Master More, [and] after diverse communications, amongst other things More asked of him, saying: ‘Constantine, I would have thee plain with me in one thing that I will ask, and I promise thee I will shew thee favour in all other things whereof thou are accused. There is beyond the sea, Tyndale, Joye, and a great many more of you. I know they cannot live without help. There are some that help and succour them with money, and thou being one of them hadst thy part thereof and therefore knowest from whence it came. I pray thee tell me, who be they that help them thus?’
‘My lord,’ quoth Constantine: ‘I will tell you truly. It is the Bishop of London that hath holpen us, for he hath bestowed among us a great deal of money upon the Testaments to burn them. And that hath been, and yet is, our only succour and comfort.’
‘Now by my troth,’ quoth More: ‘I think even the same, for so much I told the Bishop before he went about it’.[3]

We know of Constantine and the contact that he had with Tyndale when he was in London in 1523 from other records.[4] But did Tunstall know the effect that his timely injection of cash would have on the stalled project of the English New Testament? I like to think he did. After all, as Bishop of London, he was a financial administrator in his own right and the author of the first English book on mathematics.[5] So he was certainly no fool when it came to knowing all about solving cashflow problems, problems of which even Thomas More could see the danger and took the pains to forewarn him of it. So perhaps that smile of his was the smile of a secretly contented victor rather than the smile of the defeated. But as a final sequel, we have the strange case of Robert Packington and his murder on 13th November 1536, (an incident verified by Stow in his Survey of London, 1598).[6]

Once more, we are indebted to Master Foxe:

In this year, Robert Packington, mercer of London, a man of great substance, yet not so rich as discrete and honest, dwelled in Cheapside and used daily at four of the clock, winter and summer, to go to prayer at a church then called Saint Thomas of Acres, but now named Mercer's Chapel. And one morning amongst all other, being a great misty morning such as hath seldom been seen, even as he was crossing the street from his house to the church, he was suddenly murdered with a gun, which of the neighbours was plainly heard and by a great number of labourers there standing at Soper's Lane end.
He was both seen [to] go forth of his house, and the clap of the gun was heard, but the deed doer was never espied nor known. Many were suspected, but none could be found faulty. Howbeit, truth it is that forasmuch as he was known to be a man of great courage, and one that could both speak and also would be heard, for at the same time he was one of the Burgesses of the Parliament for the city of London, and had talked somewhat against the covetousness and cruelty of the clergy. Wherefore he was had in contempt with them, and by one of them shamefully murdered. The cause of whose destruction was one Doctor Vincent, Dean of Saint Paul's, who hired a certain stranger for sixty crowns to do the deed, thinking it to be well done to make such a man away. But afterwards repented at his death by his confession to his ghostly father, as we are credibly informed by men both of great credit and worshipful estimation. [7]

Stow adds to Foxe's testimony by telling us that the murderer himself confessed to the crime on the gallows as he was being hanged at Banbury for other offenses.[8] But it is difficult to think of a motive behind Dr Vincent's ordering him to murder Robert Packington, unless we consider the strong possibility that it was Augustine Packington who was the intended victim. By his clever ruse, Augustine had, ostensibly, made a public fool of Tunstall and the entire conservative cause, a deadly enough crime in its own right, even though its victim, Tunstall himself, was happy to merely smile at the matter and leave Packington unmolested. Moreover, it was nothing new to hear a burgess of Parliament like Robert Packington criticising the clergy in the Commons. Even members of the clergy had done as much, and it would not have been seen as sufficient cause to commit murder in a public place. There were, after all, heresy laws to snare him with if all that was needed was to silence him. But rather, the killing of Robert Packington bears all the hallmarks of a vengeance killing, inspired by an officer of the Bishop of London who had been stung by Tunstall's inaction into committing an act of murder on what was to prove the wrong man.

In all, the Packingtons left an indelible mark, not only on the history of London, but upon the history of the Reformation as a whole, and we can certainly say that had it not been for Augustine Packington's lively and courageous ingenuity, then Tyndale's New Testament might never have reached these shores in anything like the numbers that it did. And what greater or more lasting monument could a man of those days have than that?

W R Cooper, November 2000



  1. Stow, John. 1598. A Survey of London (facsimile of 1911 printing) Alan Sutton. 1994. p.296.
  2. Foxe, John. Actes & Monuments. 1563. John Daye. London. p.443.
  3. ibid. p.443.
  4. Cooper, W. R. 1998. ‘A Newly-Identified Fragment in the Handwriting of William Tyndale’, Reformation vol.3. p.327 (see also footnote 10 of that page).
  5. Marsden, Bruce. 1996. ‘Seeking a Language in Mathematics.’ Reformation. vol.1. p.181.
  6. Stow. p. 257.
  7. Foxe. p. 256.
  8. Stow. p. 257.