Robert Morgan had a gnawing suspicion that John Morgan, his eldest son and the rightful heir to Mapperton Manor, would not do right by his mother and many siblings. Fending off his own son’s capricious temper from death’s door, Robert added a clause to his last will and testament that if John interfered with either his mother’s or brother’s use of land left to them for their lives, he would lose any right to the legacy passed on to him.
Robert Morgan was right to doubt his son, but not even his premonitions of John’s misdeeds could have suggested the tragedy that befell the family. Anne Morgan, John’s younger sister, married Nicholas Turbervile of Winterborne Whitechurch. Meanwhile, Robert Morgan’s widow married again to another well-propertied member of the gentry, William Stourton.
All three families—Morgans, Stourtons, and Turberviles—were Catholics in an age when the Crown saw Catholicism as a poison to be purged from the body politic. Elizabeth I and her ministers passed a parade of oppressive laws stripping Catholics of property, titles, political rights, and religious freedom. The Crown could seize the property of a Catholic. If a Catholic priest came into the hands of the authorities, he would be tortured and hanged. Spreading Catholicism, or aiding a priest, was tantamount to high treason and punishable by death.
The laws persecuting Catholics made uncompromising dogmatism difficult to attain for families who refused to convert to the Church of England. Nicholas Turbervile had put his Catholic faith to one side so that he could serve as High Sheriff of Dorset. No one could take public office unless he took the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the Church of England and Elizabeth I as queen, and Tuebervile took the oath. As High Sheriff, he could both maintain order in the county and promote the family’s own political power. There was more pressure on men to deny their Catholic faith in public life, so it was often up to women to pass the Catholic religion to the next generation and keep their commitments to the Church of Rome untarnished. This was in part because a female Catholic took on fewer risks than her male counterparts: A married woman had no legal right to her household’s property while her husband lived, so the Crown would not take away the family’s property if she refused to accept the Church of England. No woman could hold public office no matter whether she was Catholic or Protestant, so the laws barring Catholics from positions of power affected them only indirectly. Still, the Crown had no qualms about imprisoning women for treason, and the Catholic women who staunchly stood by their faith and harbored secret priests took on grave risks.
Crisis broke out amid the Morgans, Stourtons, and Turberviles when the three families gathered together for a meal on Stourton’s estate for a meal in the hall adjoining a small chapel. Turbervile had arrived to tell his mother-in-law that Anne, at home in Dorset, was soon to give birth to another child. Somehow, the ever-abrasive John Morgan raised his sister’s faith as a point of strife amid what ought to have been an amiable dinner celebrating the imminent birth. He attacked Anne for abandoning her Catholic faith, thereby abandoning the root that bound her family to the one, true church in Rome. Perhaps he even implied she was not worthy to be a mother unless she proved herself to be stronger in her faith. He admitted that Turbervile had to take the Oath of the Supremacy to serve as sheriff, but upbraided him for what he saw to be Anne’s inadequate piety. Turbervile broke into a temper, defending his wife as doing all she could for the Catholic Church amid the oppressive rule of Elizabeth I, and challenging Morgan to explain how exactly he was championing Catholicism. Morgan found no words adequate to the immensity of his anger, so he unsheathed the thin dagger he carried at his waist and stabbed Turbervile. The knife pierced six inches through his chest, and Turbervile died then and there.
Mary was shaken with grief. Her own son had murdered her son-in-law, deprived her unborn grandson of a father, and left her daughter a widow. They carried the body of the murdered Turbervile into the chapel, and then both Morgan and Stourton rode to the gaol. Stourton was soon released, but Morgan faced a trial and the possibility of the death penalty.
Anne, incensed and burning for revenge, dragged herself to testify against her brother even as she was recovering from the birth of her child. Although she had not been at the scene of the murder, Morgan believed that she alone turned the court against him and ensured that he would hang.
Guilt did not consume Morgan as he faced the gallows. He went on chastising his sister for her loose faith and urging her to shoulder her responsibility as a Catholic woman until his dying day. In a letter to his mother, he presumed he, not Anne, was the wronged sibling, writing, “Bless and forgive the widow… You are the root of her, and she is a reed subject to many winds; if she forsake her root there is a great danger these times will make her wither.” To his sister, his words were both harsh and patronizing. While he wrote that she had expelled any natural love he had once felt for her, he assured her that all the same he found it in himself to love her as a Christian. He urged her to, “first serve God thyself and bring up thy children in His fear…Never lift up thy plumes again… Comfort thy heart and live for thy children’s sake… Trust thine own root unless thou perish. Written by the dying hand of sometime thy brother, by thee overthrown.”