Self defence and God’s deliverance: an attempted rape indictment from Buckinghamshire

Content warning: as will be obvious from the title, this refers to sexual offences

Here is a little extra snippet for considerations of medieval women and the law. Yes, I am obsessing about a few words once again…. This time, it’s a rather interesting formulation in an indictment from Buckinghamshire, from the file of Hillary term 1440.

A certain John Snelle of Wendover, Bucks,[i] miller,  was in trouble. He had been indicted before royal officials, and the case  was now being dealt with in the KB.[ii] The allegation was that John had, on Tuesday before the feast of the translation of St Thomas [7th July] 1439 at Wendover, come to the  land of Henry, prior of St Mary Overy (Southwark), in Wendover, with force and arms, and had attacked and beaten Isabella Webbe, wife of John Webbe. The beating was said to have been so bad that her life was despaired of (not an uncommon thing to state). Less usually, there is a specific allegation with regard to John Snelle’s intention to commit a further offence: he wanted to have sex with Isabella (carnaliter concubere) there and then, (so, a rape in our terms, given the coercion) and would have managed this, had she not defended herself, through divine intervention [gratia dei mediante, se ipsam defendisset].

Not-wholly-unexpected-anticlimax spoiler – an entry on the KB plea roll for Easter 1440 notes that John was acquitted. Aren’t they always, when it’s anything to do with rape? Nevertheless, this indictment interests me because of the interlaced divine intervention and self defence aspects of the foiling of the attempted rape.

It seems to me that, while self defence was certainly ‘a thing’ in medieval law, a ‘defence’ to homicide and batteries, its application, with regard (a) to women and (b) to rape, was uncertain. In its best-known guise, in homicide cases, self-defence narratives tended towards a rather masculine paradigm: defendant was cornered, had no option but to use significant force, to preserve his life, and that his mind was full of the need to defend himself, not a felonious, and/or premeditated, intention to kill. This classic self-defence story assumes that the party who is attacked is armed and capable of inflicting a deadly injury on the attacker, and that it is credible that the attacker would be able to kill the party who is attacked. None of this is impossible in a F-F, F-M, or M-F encounter, of course, but, given average physical build and predominant gender roles, it would be significantly less likely to fit medieval women than men. It does not cover some of the more predictable deadly responses of those women attacked by somebody who sought to kill them, which might involve some time between attack and deadly defence. If we go beyond homicide, and ask whether a woman who (feared she) was about to be raped, and killed her assailant, would escape capital punishment. I tried to look at this issue a little in my recent Women and the Medieval Common Law book, and noticed a certain discomfort with regard to whether a woman was in any sense entitled to kill a man trying to rape her.[iii] In at least one case, an allegation of attempted murder was spliced into the allegation of attempted rape, to back up a possibly uncertain case.[iv]

This 1440 case may, perhaps, suggest less of a discomfort about whether women should be allowed to use deadly force in these circumstances, and more of a disbelief that they could actually resist. Isabella seems to have needed God’s help. ( I did spend a while attempting to understand how her self defence and God’s intervention would work together… did God somehow let her win, in the way trial by battle was supposed to work, or was it an independent bolt of lightning type of thing, meaning that her feeble mortal efforts at self-defence were a bit beside the point? But let’s not let our heads explode … overthinking …). Of course, the fact that God had her back would also tend to make the accused sound rather worse. Not only was he attempting to commit an offence against a mortal woman, but he was struggling against the Almighty himself.

Of course, even with the allegation of God’s involvement, it was still impossible to get a conviction of a man for a rape offence. That, of course, is not an entirely historical problem.





Image: St Mary’s Church, Wendover, because, like, God …


[i] ‘Gateway to the Chilterns’, apparently.

[ii] Order to that effect 25th Jan, 1440

[iii] pp. 131-3.

[iv] JUST 3/220/2 m. 57; JUST 3/210 m. 29d.