Author Archives: vifgage

About vifgage

Professor Gwen Seabourne teaches and researches Legal History, with a particular focus on the medieval period. She is the author of two books and several articles, mainly on this period of Legal History. Current interests include women in legal history and legal humour. This site does not purport to reflect the views of her employer, nor to constitute legal advice.

Looming deadline …

Currently working on this, for a conference at the beginning of May. Fingers very much crossed that nothing comes up (Covid, incompetence about some paperwork or other …) to stop me going, because the conference looks great, and it is so long since I have been away from the UK. Writing the paper is proving a bit challenging though – in my efforts to avoid duplicating things others will be discussing, or have discussed, I have somehow ended up going very high concept, not to say …. a bit more pretentious than usual … with rather a lot of textile and bedlinen imagery … hmm – a triumph or a disaster???

GS 14/4/2022.

Update, 22/4/2022 – I have dropped the weaver, in favour of something smuttier, (see below) but don’t think that that means it’s less pretentious – no, there is now an additional layer of embracing images … may well be about to disappear up own backside … Ah well, go big or go home, I suppose …

Wedding un-dress: a ‘vulgar error’ occupying Victorian men of letters

No doubt people who know more about the 18th and 19th Cs would be familiar with this, but it was a new one to me …

Whilst continuing my investigations of coverture, I came across [dis-covered?] a rather scandalous supposed marriage custom, which was considered to ward off some of the obligations which a husband would incur, in the normal course of things, in relation to his wife’s debts. The generally sensible C.S. Kenny notes the existence of ‘an old legal superstition … that a man does not become liable for his wife’s debts if she marries him in her shift’.[i] The idea was that this practice of turning up for the wedding without much in the way of clothing showed that the bride was not bringing property to the groom, and, since his obligation to pay her debts could be conceived of as a consequence of, or some sort of balance to, the property she brought to him, he was not undertaking to pay the debts. Kenny, in an essay published in 1879,  tells us that ‘old newspapers’ give examples of such marriages. Checking that up sounds like an enjoyable little project for a less busy time.

For now, I note that there are some exchanges on this in Notes and Queries in the 1850s, referring to these events as ‘smock marriages’ or marriages ‘en chemise’ (in French, so much posher – or more sexy and salacious?) all started off by a question by one J. Eastwood, who found a ‘Curious Marriage Entry’ in the ‘register books of a small village in Wiltshire’ (frustratingly not named! – though there is mention of a parish, Chiltern All Saints! – which presumably = Chitterne, near enough to Warminster), to the effect that Anne Sellwood, who was married to John Bridmore ‘in her smock, without any clothes or head-gear on’, on 17th October, 1714’. [ii] Another correspondent, C.H. Cooper, noted that this business of smock marriages and their supposed effect had been pointed out as a ‘vulgar error’ in a work of 1842, but also that it was ‘still prevalent at Cottenham [Cambs]’.[iii] The field of operation of the ‘vulgar error’ was extended north and west by a further letter from one Shirley Brooks, who reported it in Shropshire, and also came up with an ingenious interpretation of its supposed justification: the bride was conceived of as purchasing her husband’s protection – so entering into a contract – but if she came to him with nothing, then there was no consideration for that purchase of protection. Clever, eh? Mad, but clever.[iv]

It is also said to have been known at Kirton, Lindsey (Lincs) – possibly in even more scandalous form: there is mention of ‘a state of nudity’. As ‘K.P.D.E.’ puts it, on the authority of  ‘a venerable person’, there had been an example of the practice, in that ‘highly civilised town’, in his lifetime, the bride to be leaving her home ‘from a bedroom window’ and putting some clothes on while on the ladder, coming down.‘[v]

It is mentioned, in historical scholarship, in the context of whether or not it preserved a woman’s financial independence.[vi] (Contrast this context with the concerns of the Notes and Queries letter writers, who were really bothered about the other side of the coin: the husband’s independence of claims relating to his wife’s debts).

I find myself wondering how this particular myth might have grown up. What conversations might there have been in the lead-up to a marriage, with brides being persuaded to eschew dressing up, in favour of a spot of streaking? And what place might there have been for the desire to see – and write about  – [more or less] naked women?



Image – no, not a naked woman. Nor some sort of racy undershirt, of the sort to quicken the pulse of a Victorian Notes and Queries reader. We are sticking to safer ground here, with a general suggestion of love and such … using swans. Things are much simpler for swans … Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash



[i] C.S. Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the effects of Marriage on Property and of the wife’s legal capacity (London, 1879). 94.

[ii] Notes and Queries, 1st ser, vol VI, 485, 561; (1852)

[iii] N & Q 1st ser. vol. VII, 163 (1853).

[iv] ibid.

[v] N & Q VII, 17. Further 18th C examples are given, from Kent and London, and a later query mentions an early 18th C instance from Yorkshire: N & Q vol. 152 (1927) p 169, by P.D.M. See also R. Chambers, Book of Days vol. 1 (London and Edinburgh, 1863), 259, cited in Erickson, below.

[vi] e.g. A.L. Erickson, Women and Property : In Early Modern England, (London,  1995( 146.

Law and love in the local papers

Here’s one for those with a high tolerance for Victorian humour – a ‘gem’ I turned up while on the hunt for coverture references (there is a brief one, but so much … more). I have had it in my file for a while, under the heading ‘Putrid lawyer love note’, which may give the game away slightly …

It is to be found in that essential publication, the Glamorgan, Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian for 30th December 1843, and you can see it via Welsh Newspapers, courtesy of the National Library of Wales, here.

The letters pages of these papers demonstrate just how much time some people had on their hands – here, the correspondent is one ‘Lycurgus’ (how they did like their classical references … are we not impressed?) makes up a ‘funny’ story about having picked up a piece of paper dropped by a buzy attorney at unidentified assizes, which – how amusing – turns out to be a love letter, pressing the lawyer’s case with the woman he wants to marry. Even more amusingly, the attorney has stuffed it full of legal language, e.g. ‘Cupid … has taken my heart into custody and will not accept of bail’. There are tipstaffs, green wax, affidavits, nonsuits, rejoinders, demurrers, enfeoffments (though the printer struggled with that one), Ca. sa., , essoins, and all manner of other legal terms and things. And the killer argument in favour of acceptance? ‘‘How vastly preferable the title of a feme covert to that of a feme sole’. I can only say Hmmm!

Once the queasiness dies down, it is quite an interesting little piece of whimsy, suggesting wide recognition of the sorts of technical terms lawyers might use – procedure and pleading terms are to the fore. And although it is mocking lawyers, it is doing so quite gently – so, an interesing snippet on the reputation of the profession, I suppose.

(The letter goes on to greater depths, with an abysmal poem about a husband and wife arguing … I do so hope that there was no Mrs Lycurgus …).



Image – suggesting love and suchlike. Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

‘A buxom dame’ playing coverture games?

On a bit of a fishing trip for coverture snippets in 19th C newspapers (diolch unwaith eto,  Welsh Newspapers Online), to get a sense of ‘lay’ understanding of the law in this area, it came home to me how interested, and how frequently disapproving, 19th C newspapers were when use was made of coverture as a defence to a claim for payment – i.e. when a woman said that she was not obliged to pay a sum of money, because she was married at the relevant time. The tone of reports is very much that this is something of a dodge. My instinct is always to be on the woman’s side (not an academic article, so I don’t have to pretend to be all neutral observery) since she is there existing within a system which does not work in her favour on the whole, and why should she not use this defence, which comes as the logical consequence of discriminatory property rules? She might well be married, so why should she not use that fact?

There is what struck me as a slightly unusual report of this sort in the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser for 15th February 1850. This tells of a case in far-away Warwick, at the county court. There, the ‘buxom dame’ of my title, a certain Mrs Knowles, was facing one Mr Tidmarsh, a draper. The woman was dressed in mourning clothes, ‘weeds’, to mark the passing of her recently deceased husband, and the draper was trying to make sure that he was paid for supplying them: ‘£5 17s. for funeral articles of female attire’. The potential problem for the likes of Mrs Knowles was one of timing: we would imagine that the mourning attire would be ordered after her husband’s death, and that, therefore, she would be a widow. That, in turn, would mean that she was not a feme covert any longer, and could not use the coverture defence to a claim for payment for the clothes. Mrs Knowles, however, had an answer to that: she had, she said, ordered the clothes during her husband’s life, at his command. She thought that that would put the deal safely back into the ‘during coverture’ time-frame, and let Mrs Knowles off the hook. It didn’t work, however – coverture did not cover what was thought to be ‘too ready compliance’ with a request to get the mourning clothes sorted. Drapers and suppliers of gloomy black things across the country probably breathed a sigh of relief. Had it gone the other way, they might have had real problems getting paid when a husband died.

Maybe Mrs Knowles was ‘trying it on’, but the idea that Mr Knowles had in fact given a ‘dying command’ of this sort isn’t entirely impossible, is it? The Victorians were so very formal and maudlin about death ritual that I can just about imagine some expiring bloke obsessing about what his (buxom) wife would wear at the funeral, and trying to get it all organised ahead of time.

Anyway, as it turned out, Mrs K would have had to stump up for the deathwear – but at least the prevailing custom of remaining in black for quite some time would have meant that she would get a decent amount of use out of it, I suppose.




Image: some black fabric, such as might be supplied for funereal purposes. Photo by Julissa Santana on Unsplash

Coverture, consciousness and chocs

I am looking forward to going to a conference on coverture, in a few weeks, and trying to find a few new angles on the topic. I am interested in the medieval aspects, obviously (Bracton’s sister, not Coke’s or Blackstone’s, right?). But also rather intrigued by the other end of things – the dwindling and shadows left behind in the twentieth century in particular, though there are still a few neglected survivals in ‘the statute book’ which could and should be extirpated.

A smile was raised when I came upon a late (1945) manifestation of unity-of-persons coverture theory, via a Modern Law Review article, and then some newspaper reports. It came up in a criminal case, but we are not talking about the higher end of criminality … the heinous offence was that of a man travelling using the return part of his wife’s ticket.

Arthur Donald Floyd was hauled up before Tonbridge magistrates in 1945, accused of an offence under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 s. 5(3)(a) and by-law no. 6 of the Southern Railway Co, in having used the return portion of a ticket which his wife, Doris, had bought, and which was, explicitly, non-transferable.


Floyd was found not guilty.


So far, so banal (and so, so trivial …). The interesting part is that some  newspaper reports stated that the reason for the not guilty verdict was based on the unity species of coverture, i.e. it did not matter that the ticket was non-transferable, since it had not been transferred: husband and wife were one person in law. Now, it seems that this unity view was aired in the case, but it was not the reason for the decision. While the Times report of 5th December  1945 puts the observation that a man and his wife were one person at law in the mouth of the Chairman of the Bench, Mr H.Vivian Phillipps, it seems that this unity point was made by or for Mr Floyd, not by the magistrates. Mr Phillipps wrote to the Times, and his letter was printed on 8th December. It insisted  that the not guilty finding was based not on a deduction from coverture/unity, but on the view that Donald Floyd had not in fact intended to defraud the Southern Railway Company.[i][ii] The unity idea seems to have come not from the magistrates but from Floyd himself. who, in the account of the Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, said he thought – indeed, was sure – the rule about not using somebody else’s ticket did not apply because spouses ‘became as one in the eyes of the law’  when married.[iii]


It seems rather an interesting example of the absorption into general consciousness of the possibility of using a unity conception of marriage as a way out of a legal difficulty (and, note, by a man rather than a woman …).

Possibly even better was discovering a usage of coverture hitherto unknown to me at least – in relation to cakes and chocolates! At times indicating ‘icing’, at times ‘coating’, it comes up in a number of (amusingly non-slick) advertisements, and the odd account of the food rationing rules of the 1940s. In the 1920s, Clifton’s chocolates (‘the chocolate with an unconditional guarantee’) had ‘the finest coverture’ (as well as ‘intriguing’ flavours – not sure I want my chocs ‘intriguing’, really)[iv] In the 1930s, Warren Chocolates had ‘good’ coverture as well as ‘original’ centres (sardine? mustard? Again, I am not sure I really want originality as opposed to loveliness in a choc, though, to be fair, we do get the sharp claim that they are ‘very enjoyable’ – got to love 1930s advertising … ).[v]

In the 1940s, as we get into rationing, there is much concern about the future of cakes – especially wedding cakes. In July 1940, there was reassurance by the Ministry of Food that chocolate coverture would not be prohibited (unlike some other cake adornment options).[vi]


Obviously, I am now


  • trying to see a way to use chocolates with original and/or intriguing centres in a pretentious way to illustrate coverture in law and practice
  • wondering whether Donald and Doris Floyd became more hardened criminals, slipping down the enticing slope from railway ticket offences to … whisper it … the wrong sort of cake icing ….





[i] Williams, G. L. (1947). The legal unity of husband and wife. Modern Law Review, 10(1), 16-31; Times, 5th and 8th December, 1945, 9th May, 1846.

[ii] Poor old Mr Phillips: trying to make sure things were correct … in fact the lack of intention was later found to be irrelevant, since the offence under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 s. 5(3)(a) and no. 6 of the by-laws of the Southern Railway Co, was constructed in such a way that a lack of intention did not mean a lack of guilt.

[iii] Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 7th December, 1945, ‘Man Can Use Wife’s Railway Ticket’.

[iv] Scotsman, 12th  April, 1924

[v] Waterford Standard, 17th April, 1937

[vi] Scotsman, 15th July, 1940; Daily News (London), 26th  September, 1941 – this one is headed ‘Iced Cake Law’ – how has this not become a sub-discipline in Law Schools???

Image: Photo by Jessica Loaiza on Unsplash

Who is feeling peckish?


The charms of Cambridgeshire? An indictment for ignoble quackery

Here’s an interesting little story which caught my attention this morning …

It comes from the record of a gaol delivery at Cambridge castle, on Monday 25th February,1387, and the narrative emerges from an indictment before justices of the peace. The story was that a certain John de Toft had, on Thursday 26th April, 1386, come to Elsworth (apparently a ‘small and lovely south Cambridgeshire village’) to the house of a man called John Cowhird. John Cowhird was probably not able to hird any cows at that point, as, we are told, he was very ill (maxima infirmitate detentus fuit). John Toft allegedly said that he could and would cure John Cowhird of this illness. What was more, he would do this ‘for the love of god and for charity’. A good deal, so John Cowhird probably thought … all he had to do was let John Toft borrow two golden nobles (coins as opposed to those with inherited titles, you understand …). These were not for John Toft’s personal use – perish the thought – but to make a charm. He said that he had enclosed the two nobles in a sheet of lead, and made a charm which he hung around John Cowhird’s neck. In reality, it was said, John Toft had taken the nobles.

The jury found him not guilty, so matters end abruptly, and we hear no more of poor John Cowhird and his malady (nor of how it was that a ‘cowhird’ – if, indeed that was JC’s actual job – had gold coins lying about the place). Did John Toft ‘get away with it’ and live to cheat another day? As ever, we can’t know.

We legal historians are used to such frustrations, and have to be fairly ‘glass half full’ types in research, taking what we can from the provoking records left so us. In that spirit, here are a few quick observations:

  • On offences: this seems a rather interesting example of indictment for an offence of dishonesty beyond the usual mundane robberies and breakings and entries which are ten a (stolen) penny in these rolls. It is not dressed up as felony, despite the fact that two golden nobles would undoubtedly take it over the line into capital punishment territory: worth considering what that says about the contours of the various theft/fraud-adjacent offences in medieval common law.
  • On ‘medicine’: well, there is a lot going on here! We don’t find out what poor old John Cowhird’s illness was, but we do see something about beliefs and practices relating to medicine at a fairly low social level. It is not hugely surprising that it was thought plausible for serious illness to be cured by charms and masses, or the intervention of an individual who is not described as having any sort of ‘professional’ qualification. The complaint here is not that JC was tricked by a clearly fraudulent promise, it is that JT did not create the charm in the way he promised, and in fact made off with the nobles. It would seem to have been seen as a plausible method of securing a cure, to hide away some valuable for a period of time. This sort of trick has come up in another 14th C magic/fraudulent practice case I spotted a while ago – and clearly this sort of ruse depended on people accepting the idea of a ‘hide something valuable’ route to a (miraculously!) positive outcome. From an amateur psychological point of view, that seems fascinating – in the context of this case, it tells us something about medieval ideas relating to ill health and recovery from it, doesn’t it? It seems to me as if the idea is that the supposedly temporary renunciation of contact with one’s valuable chattels  is thought to have some influence over the course which the illness will take. Is this because it is a sacrifice/offering, or a demonstration of faith, both, neither? It also, perhaps, says something about medieval people’s attitude to their personal property: if being separated from it for a period, being unable to touch or see it,  was a significant sacrifice, then doesn’t that tell us that they felt a very strong link to it? One of the things in legal history about which I often wonder is whether we underestimate the intimacy of the loss felt by those of past societies whose personal property was stolen: it is easy to read back the strict distinction now felt between offences against the person and against property, but is that accurate, when we travel back to earlier periods? I do wonder about this for various reasons. This case may well demonstrate a blurring of the border which modern lawyers and others would see between bodily harm and harm to property: somebody like John Cowhird might well accept that his  physical wellbeing was linked to chattels, and, of course, there is a sense in which bodily survival and thriving is linked to the chattels which can be traded for food and shelter, even leaving aside the whole question of charms, magic and religion.





Image: more relevant than my usual efforts, isn’t it? It’s your actual noble, from the time of Richard II, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The miller and his (alleged) killers: an approver’s appeal of petty treason

A little bit more petty treason trivia In this case from a gaol delivery roll for a delivery at Warwick, Wednesday 20th February, 1381, and subsequent proceedings…

The entry tells us that John Basset of Huntingdonshire had come before the sheriff of Warwickshire and one of the coroners, on Wednesday 6th February, 1381, and confessed, with details, to relatively small scale theft. and to being ‘a common thief’. He turned approver – accusing others of offences, in order to try and save his own skin –  and appealed John Wright of having been involved, with him, in attacking and killing one Ralph, miller of ‘Hulle Mulle’[i], on Saturday 20th February, 1378. He also appealed Juliana, Ralph’s wife, of consenting to this killing. John Wright and Juliana were therefore arrested. All three were brought before the court, by the gaoler. John Basset repeated his appeal. John Wright pleaded not guilty and declared himself ready to defend himself by his body, as was usual in approver appeal cases. Battle was to be at Warwick, Monday 22nd July, 1381. In the interim, both men were sent back to gaol.

Juliana also pleaded not guilty, but battle was not seen as a fit form of trial for women, so jury trial was agreed to there. Jurors were summoned for the same day as the battle. Juliana, too, was sent back to prison until then. It did not in fact go on on the day in question, for technical reasons, but it is noted that, on Monday 21st July, 1382, the two Johns were brought to court by the gaoler, all ready for the fight. They fought, and John Wright won. The approver, John Basset, was therefore hanged,[ii] and John Wright acquitted. Juliana was also acquitted (without jury trial) de accessorio.

This confirms, rather neatly, that, despite being later called ‘petty treason’. and being, from the mid-14th C, called ‘a sort of treason’, the allegation that a wife had killed her husband was treated more like a ‘regular homicide’ than treason, in so far as the non-principal was concerned. In treason, we would expect each person to be treated more or less separately – at least as far as the law was concerned. In homicide, though, a difference was made between the killer and those who assisted in some way, or agreed to the deed. Clearly, this is the way Juliana’s alleged offence was treated – as dependent upon that of John Wright – so that, when he was acquitted, she had to be, too.

It does add a bit of a footnote to my thinking on petty treason, in the context of approver appeals, and joint participation petty treasons. When women are accused of involvement in the killing of their husbands, it is quite often as accessory rather than principal, and such accusations, depending, as they did, on actions which might be read in different ways, or even just on ‘consent’, were relatively ‘easy to make’, at least the woman accused in this way by an approver would be acquitted if the ‘principal’ could beat the approver in battle. If the ‘principal’ was a strapping chap, that might feel like a bit of a better bet than trusting the case to the decision of a jury – the process in regular indictments. For a woman wanting to ‘bump off’ her husband, it might be quite a good strategy to work with a pair of assassins, one beefy and the other scrawny, to ensure that the scrawny one was caught, and rely on him turning approver against the beefy one, losing, and then logic dictating that you would be off the hook, if the principal ‘walked’.

No doubt I read too many twisty mysteries and detective novels and should get out more.




[i] Feels as if it should be ‘Mill Hill’, but I am not wholly confident. Said to be near Castle Ashby, anyway.

[ii] We might wonder whether John Basset in fact made a very serious error here – he admitted involvement in a homicide, which put him at risk of execution, when it is not clear he needed to do so, since, if there was such a homicide, it seems to have been a bit of a ‘cold case’. And the value of his admitted thefts was not huge …

Image – some grain. Such as might be milled. Yes, a bit desperate/lazy, but nice picture, with, for me, suggestions of the fine ‘death by grain’ scene in the film Witness, Photo by Lutz Wernitz on Unsplash

Feathers flying at a medieval Gloucestershire talent contest (?)

(Or, ‘Oh for the wings of several doves’)

Here’s a story which doesn’t end well, for at least one man and probably for several medieval birds, but which nevertheless has a certain charm, and affords some interesting glimpses into women and gender as well as fighting.  It comes from the crown pleas section of the rolls for the Eyre of Gloucestershire, 1287.[i]

Jurors of the vill of [Chipping] Campden reported that there had been a bit of a fight there one Sunday in 46 Henry III (1261-2) as a result of goings on at a singing and dancing event for women. Now, the entry does not quite say this, but I assume that this was in some sense a competitive event, with the prize being … pigeons! (Or ‘doves’, if we want to buy into pro-columbidae propaganda strategy…). To be absolutely honest, there is no ‘competition’ word, it just says that the women were singing and dancing ‘for pigeons’. So it could be some weird pigeon-pleasing event laid on by the women of the area, or something of semi-religious significance (doves, Holy Spirit and all that)[ii] or general carolling.

Whatever was going on exactly,[iii] it all turned rather unpleasant. Just like the judgment of Paris, only more … pigeony … it seems there was some dispute as to who should get the pigeons. A certain Walter de Campden wanted to give them to one woman with whom he was connected (I am assuming she was a Campden lass), but others, including Henry [le Parker], groom of Simon le Barber, came and took the doves and gave them to another woman, of their affinity. Thus, the fight was sparked off. Henry shot a man in the belly so that he died at once. Henry then ran away, but was followed by the men of Campden and caught, taken back to  Campden and imprisoned. He was only detained there for two days, however, before a mob of supporters broke him out and took him to Tewkesbury.  The fighting seems to have escalated from that point, and the men of Campden and Tewkesbury clearly had a bit of a beef, and the whole thing was still on their minds in 1287.  Some of those involved had died by 1287. Henry still seems to have been alive, but had fled, and was outlawed.

Of the pigeons and the rival singers and dancers we hear no more, very sadly.

The homicide and the Campden – Tewkesbury rivalry are, of course, interesting, but it’s the nuggets about women singing and dancing in the hope of going home with a pigeon or two that intrigues me. All and any information about social activities beneath the elite level is valuable, and I rather like to think of the excitement that women must have had preparing for this sort of event. Even if it did end in a homicidal bloodbath from time to time …




Image: some pigeons, obvs. Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

[i] For other records of the same case, see here, here and here.

[ii]  – though I note that we are not told that it was some special festival – it’s just ‘some Sunday’ in a particular year – and surely if singing for pigeons was attached to some particular feast, surely we would be told what it was …

[iii] [And if anyone thinks I have got this wrong, do let me know – it’s always possible. May well be that every medievalist should know that singing for doves was very much a thing, or meant something utterly different to what I am imagining here … but I have never come across it before.]

Snaps and snippets

There is no pretence at narrative here, just two interesting old books I was looking at today, when moving some things out of my office …

Thing number one: I had forgotten that I had a signed copy of one of Holdsworth’s works – but here are some pictures, for those interested in legal history celebs:

Thing number two: I am intrigued by the fact that my edition of Stephen’s Digest of the Laws of Evidence (3rd edn, 1877) has a single case report, Kemm v. Garbutt and others, pasted in the front by an enthusiastic owner (I assume it was not a random individual going around doing this to the books of others …). I have not yet tracked down what this case was, but it is a succession case which seems to be rather earlier than the date of the volume. Particularly charming/tantalising is the handwritten comment of the paster – ‘How well it answers’ …




Approvers, abjuration, accessories and adultery allegations: a Lincolnshire petty treason saga


I had left off from the petty treason work for a bit, and was looking for mayhem stuff today, but somehow petty treason doesn’t seem keen to leave me alone – and this one caught my attention, in the Easter 1377 E KB plea roll: a Lincolnshire case involving an approver (i.e. somebody telling tales in an attempt to save his own skin) and an accusation of husband-killing, with a dash of adultery…

The roll notes that Peter de Walworth of Winterton became an approver before the king’s coroners,[i] and acknowledged that, on Thursday 30th January, 1370, he had feloniously killed Geoffrey de Stokes at Winterton, and appealed Robert de Nafferton, vicar of the church of Winterton, and Thomas, Robert’s servant, of being accessories, and also appealed Katherine, Geoffrey’s wife, of having consented to the killing, and abetted it.

Before another coroner, it was presented that Robert de Nafferton, and Peter, here said to have been his servant, had confined Geoffrey in the vicarage, in relation to a loan of money, and, on the aforesaid Thursday, murdered Geoffrey (it uses this word) with a hatchet to the head, and then buried the body in the vicarage pig-sty, to hide the murder.  This presentment also apparently accused Katherine of consent and help.

The matter now came before KB, but it was said that Katherine had already been acquitted before GD Fri 28th February 1371 (and furthermore that she was ill now).  A search was made, and the relevant GD entry found, which showed that a jury had indeed acquitted her.

This entry put the narrative of the offence in similar terms, though there are some nice touches, such as the phrase on intention/malice aforethought, an area of much debate in modern scholarship, which is ‘ex malicia longo tempore pr[a]ecogitata’, and a bit of scandal-mongering, or mud-slinging, accusing Katherine of adultery with Robert the vicar.

The coroner’s rolls were also examined, and these showed that Robert de Nafferton, alleged naughty vicar, had abjured the realm for this offence. Here and here are records of this abjuration – he was sent off to go to foreign parts via the port of (Kingston upon) Hull. Katherine had been charged and found not guilty. This can be confirmed by cross-referencing the gaol delivery roll entry here.  She was now acquitted (again).

So what?

Well, briefly, there is an interesting narrative, with resort to an adultery story to tie in the woman. It is also interesting procedurally and socially, in terms of the long exposure of Katherine to the risk of being found to have killed her husband: if nothing else, it should show the extent of the impact of the law of petty treason on individual women – the apparent inability of the system to put an end to potential liability meaning that a substantial number of years of Katherine’s life are likely to have been affected. Pretty terrifying.



[i] On Peter’s wider career as an approver, see this GD entry.