On a cold mid-November morning in 1597, a bloated body floated face down in the murky waters of the Thames. After being fished out, it was identified as Richard Augier, a double-reader and treasurer of Gray’s Inn who’d been reported missing since 12 November. On examination, the surgeons concluded that he’d been strangled, his body then dumped in the river.

Suspicion for his murder immediately fell on his youngest son, also called Richard, and his daughter-in-law, Agnes. Edward Ingram, a porter at the Inn, also stood accused of being involved. The case gained notoriety and the Privy Council wrote a letter to various members of Gray’s Inn, including Richard Topcliffe, a zealous priest-hunter who tortured Catholics at the Tower of London, Bridewell Prison and even in his own home. One of his favourite methods of torture involved the manacles (the prisoner climbed two or three wicker steps and their hands were manacled then lifted up above their heads before the steps were removed, leaving the prisoner hanging by their arms for hours or days at a time). In its letter, the Privy Council suggested ‘yf by those persuasions and other meanes you shall use you shall not be able to bring them to confesse the truthe of this horrible facte, then we require you to put them both or either of them to the manacles in Bridewell…’

Whether they were tortured or Topcliffe’s reputation alone was sufficient, both Richard and Agnes confessed to the murder. Ingram continued to protest his innocence and was given the opportunity of trial by jury. He must have been convincing, as the jury found him not guilty. Richard and Agnes, however, were both condemned to hang at Tyburn.

Agnes appears to have escaped this fate, but her husband was not so lucky. Early on a January morning in 1598, he left the confines of Newgate Prison in a closed carriage wearing his best clothes (being rich saved him from travelling on an open cart and enduring the jeers of the crowds). The coach stopped at least once on its way to the Tyburn Tree (near Marble Arch) to allow him the benefit of a stiff drink. He needed it. Executions were public entertainment and anything up to 100,000 people would have gathered to watch his ‘hanging match’. A rope was placed over Richard’s neck and his foothold pushed away, ensuring a slow death to give the cacophonously jeering crowd a good show.

Augier was not the only member to be murdered at Gray’s Inn. One night in early 1651, William Ardington and his wife Mary crept into the rooms of under-treasurer Thomas Tisdale. Mary slit Tisdale’s throat as he slept ‘killing him instantly’ and in March 1651, they were both condemned to hang.

In November 1591 Catholic-hunter Topcliffe stood outside the house of Swithun Wells on Gray’s Inn Road. Inside, Edmund Gennings, together with Polydore Plasden, were holding mass. As Topcliffe and his men tried to break the door down some of the congregation, including lawyer Sydney Hodgson, held the door closed until the mass concluded, at which point they surrendered peacefully. All participants were condemned as traitors, including Wells who was not present. Most died at Tyburn – hung drawn and quartered in the customary manner for traitors – and later martyred.

With his customary cruelty, Topcliffe had the gibbet for the priests and Wells erected opposite Wells’ own house (where Verulam Buildings now stand). On the scaffold, with the rope around his neck, Gennings reportedly said something which so offended Topcliffe that he ordered Gennings be cut down sooner than usual from the hanging. Gennings was thus alert as they drew and quartered him. Gennings, Plasden and Wells are listed among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Middle Temple can also lay claim to famous traitors. Brothers Thomas and Robert Wintour (pictured above) were admitted to the Inn in 1590. Thomas, rather than practise law, went abroad to fight as a soldier. On his return, he was one of the first to join Robert Catesby in the Gunpowder Plot and later drew in his brother. The brothers escaped the initial arrests after Guy Fawkes’ discovery, and fled North. Thomas was involved in the shoot-out at Holbeche House in November 1605, where he was shot in the shoulder and captured. Robert evaded capture until January 1606.

Their trial in Westminster Hall began on 27 January 1606. Edward Coke (of Inner Temple) was the Attorney General prosecuting. The prosecution’s case rested on two main pieces of evidence. The first was Thomas’ confession (though there is some doubt about whether he actually signed it or whether his signature was forged), gained under torture in the Tower. The second was a record of conversations overheard between Thomas and Fawkes who had been placed in neighbouring cells. Coke relied heavily on both pieces of evidence.

Thanks to their legal training, they pleaded not guilty, not because they denied involvement in the plot, but because they questioned the wording and thus the validity of the indictment. The outcome of the trial was never really in doubt, though, and they were all found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Robert was executed in St Paul’s Churchyard on 30 January and Thomas was executed at Westminster the following day.

The conspirators were not the only ones to suffer following the plot. Henry Percy, also of Middle Temple, was suspected of being involved owing to Thomas Percy being his distant relative. He was fined £30,000 (around £7.1m today) and spent 17 years imprisoned in the Tower. He had a fairly comfortable imprisonment since he managed to install a bowling alley in his rooms.

1683 was a further eventful year for Middle Temple. Members Robert West, Richard Goodenough and Nathaniel Wade conferred in pubs and (allegedly) huddled in the dark under the columns next to Temple Church as they formulated the details of the Rye House plot. Both Charles II and his brother and heir James were known to be attending Newmarket for the horse meet. On their return to London their carriage had to pass along a narrow stretch of road near Rye House where the plotters intended to strike and kill them both. However, a fire at Newmarket saw them return to London early, thereby (albeit unwittingly) thwarting the plot. The authorities only became aware of the plot after the event thanks to an informer. All three men, among others, were arrested. It’s not clear what happened to West, but Wade fled to the Dutch Republic and Goodenough was subsequently mentioned giving evidence at the trial of another conspirator.

These macabre and often brutal events reflected in microcosm the events and upheavals of the world around the Inns and, for good or ill, are a fascinating and integral part of their history.