Over the years there have been many thorns in the flesh of lawyers and in January 1640 a particular thorn was removed when the former Balliol man Isaac Atkinson was hanged at Tyburn. The son of a wealthy Berkshire landowner, Atkinson was sent down from university after paying no attention to his tutors. Disinherited after a series of misalliances with women in the locality and his inability to keep his hands off his father’s serving girls, he took up the road as a profitable way of life.
He began by breaking into his father’s house, taking 200 guineas and a horse and leaving behind an insulting little poem. It began:
‘Sir, you your son did often bully
Because he never read in Tully.’
Atkinson then robbed a parson in Uxbridge who had preached a sermon about thieves in the night, saying as he had robbed him during the day he had not sinned. He then turned his attention to the law; or, more accurately, to lawyers. He robbed William Noy, Charles I’s attorney general, saying that he had a writ of capias and computandum against him. Noy, apparently, asked him his authority and Atkinson pulled out a pair of pistols which, he said, had ‘as much authority in them as any tipstaff’.
It is estimated that, following lawyers as they rode to assizes, he robbed over 160 in East Anglia alone, clearing in the region of £3,000. His downfall came when his horse displayed the same tendencies as its master. Atkinson had tied it to a gate when he held up a market woman in Brentford. She showed some courage and threw her bag over a hedge. Atkinson went to retrieve it but the horse broke loose to try to cover the woman’s mare. She escaped and alerted the authorities.
Atkinson was caught near Turnham Green, where he shot and killed four of his pursuers before being taken to Newgate and sentenced to death. He does not seem to have behaved well in prison, continually mocking the parson and trying to cheat the hangman by stabbing himself with a penknife on the morning of his execution.
The crowd had expected and hoped that as an educated man he would make a sparkling speech on the scaffold. But all he is reputed to have said was, ‘Gentlemen, there’s nothing like a merry life and a short one.’ He was 26.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor