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.

Stabbing stories: a Lincolnshire brawl

Travelling justices in Lincolnshire in 1287 dealt with a complaint of violent misconduct brought by Robert Salemon or Saleman, against Hugh de Mixerton (Misterton?).[i] This rough translation [Covid, no access to the big Medieval Latin dictionary …] gives an idea of how matters proceeded.

See the source image

Robert’s story was that, on a particular day just before the hearing,  he had been on the royal highway in the parish of St Benedict, Lincoln, when Hugh had got in his way and first abused him,  then he had taken out his knife and given Robert a really large wound in the arm, in contempt of the king and his justices, who were in the town, against the king’s peace and damaging Robert to the tune of £40.

Hugh denied that he had done anything which amounted to force and injury, anything in contempt or against the king’s peace, and any trespass against Robert. He said that it was in fact Robert who blocked his way and abused him, rather than the other way round. Robert, he said, had threatened to kill him and had drawn his knife, knocked him to the ground and attempted to stab him in the neck, but the knife thrust had failed to hit flesh, instead ripping Hugh’s hood. Hugh said that while he was being held down on the ground, he stabbed Robert to avoid being killed, this stab being quick and barely scratching Robert. He insisted that he could not have avoided his own death in any other way.

Both men put themselves on the jury.

The jurors (including, it is noted, some who had seen and heard the brawl) gave, on oath, a third version of the events in question. They said that Robert was on the high road and found Hugh’s wife standing with Hugh, that Robert lifted this woman’s clothes up, part of the way up her lower leg (usque ad dimidiam tibiam). At this, Hugh asked him to stop, and Robert grabbed Hugh by the arms, threw him to the ground, slashed at him with his dagger and ripped his hood, but did not wound him. Hugh, getting up, wounded Robert with his own dagger, but he could have got away without using his dagger on Robert, if he had wanted. The justices examined the wound in court and decided that it did not amount to a mayhem, and could easily be healed.

For this reason and also because the jury found that Robert had started the fight, it was decided that both Robert and Hugh should be custodiatur for a trespass done while the justices were present in town. Afterwards, both Hugh and Robert made fine with a mark (each).


And this is interesting because ….?

Well, it is always instructive to see records in which we actually get a flavour of opposing cases being put. Here, the two protagonists presented opposed versions of events (Hugh attacked Robert, Robert attacked Hugh) but neither told a tale much resembling that of the jurors. Both men left out the involvement of Hugh’s wife and Robert’s apparently predatory behaviour towards her. It is easy to see why Robert left it out – he wanted the story to be about a totally unprovoked attack. Perhaps the reason why Hugh left it out is a little less obvious – it would seem that he felt it was a safer bet to construct a story of self defence against Robert’s attack on him, rather than suggesting that he was acting in defence of his wife’s reputation. The law on self-defence pleas in homicide was by no means settled at this point (see, e.g., Green, Verdict According to Conscience), and it seems likely that the contours of self-defence as a saving plea in other areas was at least as unsettled. The simple, two-man, story may have seemed the best tactic. Alternatively, we might speculate as to whether the jury might have considered Hugh’s wife to be ‘no better than she ought to be’ one way or another. In any case, it was a bold strategy to tell a story contrary to events which had taken place in the sight and hearing of jurors.

I also find interesting the way in which the wound is discussed here. One of my projects for next year’s study leave will involve mayhem offences, so I am on the lookout for references to it. Here, we have an inspection in court, in which judges seem perfectly happy that they can determine whether or not a wound will easily be cured (no idea of ‘expert’ assessment) and a sense that the borderline between mayhem and trespass is defined partly in terms of permanence, as well as seriousness, of injury.

Finally, it shows the difference in outcome, depending when an offence occurred: Robert and Hugh were in particular trouble because all of this happened while the royal justices were in town, and was therefore worse than an everyday low-level brawl, since it was taken to be a contempt of the justices, and, through them, the king whose law was being administered.




[i] JUST 1/503 m. 37 (IMG 7961). Mettingham’s Lincolnshire assize roll 1285-9, hearing in 1287.

Private compensation and fear of castration in medieval Nottinghamshire

An entry on the Nottinghamshire trailbaston roll for 1305-6 tells an intriguing tale of certainly illicit, possibly unwelcome, advances made by one Master William de Newark, to a girl or woman called Beatrix, daughter of Walter Touk, the response of Beatrix’s family to this, and the way in which this was eventually resolved.[i] Once I am free to get to libraries once more, I look forward to being able to check up on some of the personalities involved, but, for now, the entry itself is worth noting.

In the trailbaston session (an ad hoc, mostly ‘criminal’ judicial session, one of several sent out at this time), jurors of the wappentake of Newark presented Walter Touk, Henry his son, and others, for an assault on Master William de Newark, parson of the church of North Muskham. They were accused of having imprisoned and detained him with force and arms and against the king’s peace until he made fine with them for 50 marks, and of having made off with two swords, worth four shillings, belonging to Richard Cauwode, a servant of Master William.

Walter and Henry told a different story, denying that they had committed any trespass against the king’s peace. Exactly how the more detailed tale came out is unclear – was it volunteered by Walter and Henry, who thought that there was nothing wrong with what they had done, or did the jurors learn about it in some other way? Anyway, the jurors told it this way …

Walter Touk, his wife (who doesn’t get a name here), his daughter (Beatrix), and Henry, went to Master William’s house, in North Muskham, to ask him to eat with them. (The Touks and Master William would therefore seem to have been on good terms, but it was not to last …) William spoke secret and unseemly words of love to Beatrix (oculta et indecentia verba de amore), and then he came to Walter’s manor of Kelham at twilight. Secretly, William entered the house. Henry (Walter’s son, Beatrix’s brother) became aware of this incursion. Henry and John de Dunwyche, his groom, followed William, and entered the room where he was, to find William and Beatrix sitting together (with Richard Cauwode, William’s servant, there as well). Henry and John took out their swords and hit William and Richard. John wounded them both. Walter heard some shouting. He came and did not allow any more damage to be done to the intruders. Nevertheless, the Touks made it clear that they thought William had wronged them in a serious way, and had, in particular, damaged Beatrix’s reputation (enormiter defamavit & … scandalizavit) and they demanded that he compensate them at once for this with 50 marks, or else he would face serious consequences (not exactly specified, but sounding severe and physical). William, terrified by these threats, and fearing that they would otherwise castrate him,  agreed to pay. Henry wrote in his own hand a document obliging William to pay him 50 marks. William authenticated it with Henry’s seal, because he did not have his own seal there, and delivered the deed to Henry. The document was made in the presence of Walter, Henry’s father, who, according to the jury,  consented to the requiring of emends and the making of the document of obligation. On the matter of the alleged taking of two swords, the jurors said that John took from Richard a sword, a bow and arrows (worth 9 ½ d) so that Richard did him no damage with them, and that, if Richard had asked for their return, this would have happened.

Rather than continuing to a straightforward finding of culpability or acquittal, the roll notes that the matter was referred upwards to Parliament, and, on a date in 1306, Henry Touk came to Westminster before the council and made a fine for himself and Walter with £20. It says no more of Master William, nor of the two servants, nor of Beatrix.


So What?

Well so quite a lot. This case has several interesting or suggestive legal historical nuggets.

I have found that these trailbaston rolls are particularly rewarding in their illustration of the location of certain borderlines, uncertainties and arguable issues in the common law. To a greater extent than in ordinary plea rolls, in these rolls, we often see people bringing cases, and jurors, showing what they thought the law should be, or where they were unsure as to what it was. Here, it would appear that there was some doubt as to whether the tale of the events of that evening in Nottinghamshire was enough to mean that the defendants were not guilty of an offence. The jurors clearly did not dismiss it, and the whole thing was sent off to be dealt with by a higher power, rather than by the common law. This may have something to do with the relative wealth of the defendants, but the nature of the case itself was probably also debatable. It seems likely that there was considerable sympathy with the efforts of the Touks to make Master William pay for his misconduct – clearly seen as a grave wrong against them all. At what point did forceful action against somebody who had sneaked into one’s house and was perhaps making moves towards violation of a daughter  cross the line into (social or legal) unacceptability?  Castration of sexual offenders was not an unknown response (and may have been official policy in some earlier periods, though not by this point), and settlement of quarrels by financial payment was likewise often tolerated. In a world which assumed a certain degree of self help, was the ‘privatised compensation plan’ thought up by the Touks completely indefensible?

The roll deals with the criminal assault side of things, and so does not go into the question of the compensation agreement. Presumably Master William would have been able to avoid paying by claiming duress of imprisonment. As a social fact, though, it is quite revealing. First, we should note the degree of literacy and technical skill which is implied in Henry’s ability to draw up an obligation, to insist on its being sealed (even if, surely, having William use his seal would have invalidated it) and delivered.

In terms of the background, it is impossible not to be frustrated at the lack of information about Beatrix and her role. We do not know Beatrix’s age, but can assume that she was unmarried, and therefore probably quite young. Was she in any sense a willing participant in events with Master William? Did she understand what was going on? How did she come to see things after the intervention of her brother and father? Perhaps all that can be deduced is that the evidence about the secret and indecent words of love must have come from her (otherwise they would not have been secret, would they?) so that suggests at least a later preference for family and reputation over an involvement with Master William. To a modern reader, it is difficult not to see this as something of a ‘grooming’ situation – man of God and trusted friend of the family, ‘our little secret’, etc. The truth, however, cannot be judged at this distance.



[i] JUST 1/675 m. 2 (AALT IMG 4702).

A Planetary Kiss Goodbye to 2020

Gwen Seabourne on Twitter: “Jupiter and Saturn thinking about getting friendly.#GreatConjunction #Kiss” / Twitter

Tonight, I finally found a good place to go and look at the night sky event of 2020, the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Semi-confined as we still are, here in Bristol (now Tier 2 rather than Tier 3, but, apart from it still not being OK to lick doorknobs, or indeed people, I have lost track of what that means…) it took a bit of thought to come up with a decent lookout spot, and it started to … persist … down with rain just as I was setting off, but the view from the Downs was not bad at all.

Of course, apart from just enjoying the phenomenon, with my birdwatching binoculars (I am a strictly part-time stargazer) my mind could not help but run over various DEEPER MEANINGS: about things appearing to be touching, but in fact being spectacularly distant, about human longing to see and feel connections – life, the universe and everything.  (Never quite left the angsty sixth form phase).

And then, equally ‘of course’, off my thoughts went to LEGAL HISTORY – because one of the reasons this celestial event is so cool is that it comes around very infrequently. What, I asked myself, was going on in the world of history/legal history at other points when this conjunction could be seen? Which historical heroes and villains might have seen it? Well, my old chum Edward Coke (ruffs, bad temper, casual relationship with the truth …) was around the last time the internet says it happened (in 1623) but would not have been able to see it, since on that occasion, it was too close to the sun. We are told that the last time it would have been possible to see the event was much further back, on 4th March 1226. The resonance which this has for me, and where I am now, is that, at this date, Eleanor of Brittany, unfortunate Angevin noblewoman and subject of an article I wrote long ago (Gwen, Eleanor of Brittany and her Treatment by King John and Henry III as well as cropping up in other works, was involuntarily resident in Bristol, confined in the castle, and, not that she knew it, never again to be allowed her liberty. No doubt other interesting things were going on at the time (Carpenter’s Henry III Part I is earmarked for reading when I get a bit of spare time over the holiday, so I will be better informed shortly) but that rather self-centred connection is the one which suggests itself this evening.

Anyway, it seems appropriate, somehow, that 2020 should be rounded off by a celestial marvel, the ‘purblind Doomsters’ putting piffling humans in our rightful place good and proper. Here’s hoping that 2021 becomes calmer and less interesting for historians of the future.




Star Trek: The Legal Generation?

There are a fair few trials in the original incarnation of Star Trek, but it is in The Next Generation that we really get legal. It kicks off with a trial (camply omnipotent villain Q puts on a trial of humanity, dressed up as a rather Civil Law looking judge),

See the source image

and continues in a very law-focused way, before coming back to the idea of Q trying Picard as representative of humanity, in the very last episode – pronouncing that ‘The trial never ends’. Captain Picard being rather more of a thinker than Captain Kirk, there is more scope for quite involved legal issues, and it is arguable that law and trials are major themes of TNG – even more so than poker and detective-fantasies, the tedious holodeck and Deanna Troi’s expert jumpsuited counselling (‘But what do you think?’; ‘I think you know the answer to that’ and similar insights). Anyway, I think there’s enough of a pretext for a Star Trek post on here, so here are some of the legal and law-adjacent bits I found interesting. (There is also all sorts of slightly ponderous stuff about the Prime Directive, and treaties, but those don’t float my space-boat to the same extent).


Crime, trial  and punishment

Q’s trials of humanity are, to say the least, questionable in terms of the vagueness of the charges (‘being a grievously savage race’…) and the procedure. They are far from the only ‘criminal’ cases in TNG. These also jumped out at me as interesting.

1:8 features the hapless Wesley Crusher in danger of being put to death by lethal injection for a trivial infringement of a law he didn’t know about on a planet of irritatingly physically perfect dimwits. Cue some argument about the Prime Directive and the nature of law. Bad knitwear fans everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief – Crusher lives to wear terrible jumpers another day. And let’s not mention the quilted waistcoat monstrosity of 7:20 – nearly as ‘criminal’ as the faux-Scots accents and geography featured in 7:14).

3:14 has a long drawn out trial to determine whether Riker can resist extradition to Tanuga IV to face charges of murder and perhaps attempted rape, under a system which presumes a person guilty until proven innocent (obv. Prime Directive would mean he’d have to be tried in that way if he was extradited). There is much on hearsay evidence and its acceptability (fine as far as the Tanugans are concerned, not as the Federation sees it), and a reconstruction is important in exonerating Riker.

3:17 has a lot of content involving Klingon law and customs. Lt Worf’s father is falsely accused of treason – of having betrayed a Klingon colony to the Romulans (they of the shoulder pads, Mary Quant hairdos, Warbirds and cloaking devices). He is dead, but this doesn’t matter much, as a finding can still be made, and it will stain the name of the whole Mogh family, including Worf and his brother. The Klingons are clearly very cool (best boots in space, and those groovy sashes .. ) and their legal procedure involves challenges and battle. We don’t get all the way through a case, sadly, as Worf nobly accepts disgrace, despite his father’s innocence, for the good of the Klingon empire, set to be blown apart if the truth emerges (that the actual traitor was somebody very powerful). 4:7 has more Klingon law – Lt Worf exercises the right of vengeance, challenging the killer of his mate, and killing him. Bit of an echo of the medieval appeal perhaps? Starfleet, of course, is not pleased, but Worf is entirely justified under Klingon law.

4:21 has a trial of a medical officer, Simon Tarses, for sabotage. Tarses, though innocent of that, is part Romulan and has concealed this. It is used against him by a rather crazed prosecutor/investigator. We see that the Federation has a ‘right to remain silent’ so as not to self-incriminate, just like 20th/21st century Anglo-American systems, and Tarses uses this at one point.

4:22 has resonance in relation to suicide and euthanasia, depicting Kaelon II, a society with a custom of requiring suicide (‘the Resolution’) when a person reaches 60, so that they do not decline. There is a clash between the Prime Directive and the magnificent Lwaxana Troi (Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed) over whether to stop nice almost-sixty-year-old scientist Timicin from going back to his planet to kill himself in accordance with the custom. In the end, he goes back, and she rises to the occasion, to go and be with him at the end.

5:12 has a novel crime – rape by invading the mind – perpetrated on Counsellor Deanna Troi by Jev, a telepathic Ullian, who hijacks a memory of her and Riker, and intrudes himself into it. There is no justice here, however. Showing the limits of law?

5: 16 – more Klingons, more suicide. Worf is paralysed after a rather ignoble accident, and wants to kill himself, asking Riker to assist. The method to be used is (of course) both ritualised and bloody – a jagged dagger to the heart. A combination of hope of medical help and a wish not to desert his slightly troubled son Alexander turns him away from this decision. Interesting absolutist/relativist discussion of suicide and disability for Klingons by Riker and Picard.



Personhood v. property comes up in relation to Lt Commander Data (an android), in 2:9.  There is a highly charged court scene in which Capt. Picard has to argue what is apparently a novel point. Of course, he prevails, and Data is ruled not to be property (and so cannot be experimented on contrary to his will). Data also features in an interesting discussion in 6:9 ‘The Quality of Life’ (20:20-22:30) about what life is. I am seriously thinking of using this in a forthcoming paper on the beginning of life in medieval law. That would cause amusing confusion in an audience of legal historians.

There are bits and pieces on sex and gender – and, while some of it is a bit more progressive than Kirk-era stories, there are some curious failures to imagine that things could change. On the prescient side, we have, e.g., 5:17 which introduces us to the J’naii, a people who have (almost entirely) evolved past the idea of sex/gender. One of them, Soren, falls for Riker, of course (he is, apparently, irresistible – just don’t see it myself …) and comes out as ‘really female’. There is a trial of a sort, ending with some sort of treatment which removes this aberrant feeling of sexedness, leaving Soren content and Riker sad (as he has fallen in love with her within half an hour’s acquaintance – not saying the man’s shallow, but …). On the ‘aren’t aliens backward about these things’ front, we have the Ferengi, who apparently don’t let their women do much, or, indeed wear clothes (1:5), and the Klingons seem mostly to favour men in public functions (though the women do get clothes). There are also arranged marriages –  as in the ill-fated union planned for everyone’s favourite Betazoid/Human Wellness-Adviser-Before-Wellness-Was-A-Thing, Deanna Troi and some drippy doctor bloke 1:11, and in the story of the metamorph woman bred and trained as a peace-weaver in 5:21. (The former marriage does not work out, leaving Troi to have a complicated and wide-ranging love life, but the second goes ahead (non-interference and all that) despite the fact that the (hot) woman ends up ‘bonding’ with Picard, and will now have to spend her life with a deeply unattractive and unworthy politician). Curiously un-prescient (I hope), however, is the assumption that, in the 24th C,  somebody as high-powered and independent as Beverly Crusher would have taken the name of husband 1, and not only taken the name of husband 2, but kept it after a divorce (7:26).



A couple of others worth mentioning …

We get legal again in 4:13 with an attempt to enforce a very old contract between a supposed deity/ demon, Ardra, and the people of a planet (Ventax II) she allegedly helped to sort their planet out, in return for a promise that the people’s descendants would submit to serve her in a thousand years’ time. Top legal strategy here from Data and Picard, using a Ventaxian precedent to demand arbitration. We then have an ‘arbitration’ which looks very much like a US style trial, complete with ‘objection!’ etc., and some pretty good arguments as to performance, but then goes off on a more sci-fi path with some flashy demonstrations of Ardra’s powers, debunked when our heroes get control of her boxes of tricks. She is confounded and imprisoned as a fraud.

6:10 and 11 are the place to go for those who like a bit of international/intergalactic law. Picard is captured by the evil lumpy Nazi-ish Cardassians (yes, the name-similarity with the not-at-all-crass-and-charmless family of reality TV fame is quite funny – this is where excessive plastic surgery could lead) and tortured, but not without getting out an objection that this is contrary to the Seldonis Convention – sounds v like Geneva Convention (crossed with the Selden Society???). There is a bit of a legal issue though in terms of him possibly being a spy rather than a POW.

There is also a lot to think about in terms of colonisation: this is treated as almost entirely unproblematic, which is all very of its time, though generally what is being colonised (by the Federation at least) is uninhabited planets, and at least Picard seems to be very open-minded about what amounts to ‘life’ and should be left alone.


‘The Trial Never Ends…’

But the show did. Now I have finished filling in the gaps of my viewing of both Original Star Trek and The Next Generation, and Netflix is pushing Deep Space Nine on me. I am not sure whether I am ready to ‘boldly go’ there yet. There seem to be a lot of episodes and I am not convinced it’s worth the commitment. On the other hand, I do fancy Voyager, and may miss some important lore by not following things through .. maybe in Stardate 2021?

GS 12/12/2020

Presuming expertise: opinions on prolonged gestation in the Barony of Gardner case

In the course of researching for a paper on how the law, over a long period of time, and in different jurisdictions, has handled scientific uncertainty with regard to the beginning of (legally valued/protected) life and paternity, I have become a little obsessed with an a little corner of family/succession law, that of ‘adulterine bastardy’. An ‘adulterine bastard’ was a child born to a married woman, but whose biological father was not (or was held not to be) the man married to the woman at the time of conception. Before the development of DNA testing, it was impossible to be sure on this matter, and before the development of blood testing – which could at least rule out some men as fathers – in the early 20th century, matters were even less certain. Central to the legal strategy found in several different legal systems,  for dealing with such uncertainty, was some form of presumption that a child born to a married woman was the legitimate offspring of her husband, unless that was impossible. Impossibility became watered down over time in various ways, but I will not explore that here. What I will discuss is one aspect of this little niche area, and its potential impact and interest for wider areas of study. This aspect is the question of the upper limit for human gestation, and the exploration of this question in the Barony of Gardner case of 1824-5. An account of this case is easily accessible online, thanks to and it seems to me a really interesting resource for teaching both Legal History and also areas such as gender and history, and the history of medicine.

The case concerned the right to a peerage – guess what, the Barony of Gardner. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of it – not one of the big ones, but there are those who value such baubles above and beyond the money and land, and that was all the more so a century ago.

The source, Denis Le Marchant, Report of the Proceedings of the House of Lorde on the Claims to the Barony of Gardner (London, 1828),  was written by a barrister – and it should be noted that he was not exactly a disinterested fan of obscure legal points, but counsel for one side in the case (the side of the petitioner, i.e. Alan Legge Gardner, apparently legitimate son of H and W2, in opposition to Henry Fenton Jadis/Gardner, who claimed to be the legitimate son of H and W1, but was, problematically, born after a long absence by H, which would mean that, for him to be legitimate, the pregnancy would have to have lasted 311 days). The case was heard in 1825 before a committee of the House of Lords.

There is quite a story – of foreign travel, adultery and apparently brazen lying. What I want to focus on, in particular, however, is the lengthy (though not complete) account of the examination of witnesses on the question of the possible length of gestation (and whether a gestation of 311 days was possible). This begins on p. 13.

There was a long list of medical men, variously described as physicians, surgeons, accoucheurs, and pairs of these titles. Some sported ‘M.D.’ labels, most did not. These are their names:

Charles Mansfield Clarke, accoucheur

Ralph Blegborough, M.D.

Robert Rainy Pennington, Esquire, accoucheur

Robert Gooch, M.D., accoucheur

David Davis, M.D.

Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville, physician

Dr J. Conquest, physician

John Sabine, Esq. surgeon and accoucheur

Dr. Samuel Merriman physician and accoucheur

Dr. Henry Davis, physician

Dr. Richard Byam Denison,physician

Dr Edward James Hopkins accoucheur

Henry Singer Chinnocks, Esquire, surgeon and accoucheur

Dr. James Blundell, physician

Dr. John Power, physician accoucheur

After the ‘medical men’ had had their say, some women were allowed to speak, both in a ‘professional’ capacity, and also to give evidence as to their own experiences as to length of pregnancy. Mary Tungate. midwife was followed by the following women who had either experienced, or were experiencing, long pregnancies: Mary Wills, Mary Summers, Mrs. Mary Gandell, Isabella Leighton, Mary Parker, Mrs Sarah Mitchell. It is interesting to imagine the presence of these women, and especially pregnant Mary Parker, in the masculine environment of a House of Lords committee. I was interested to see that discussion relating to the midwife Mary Tungate seemed to assume that she was to be assimilated to a ‘medical man’ for the purposes of an exception to the rule against hearsay evidence: 170-1. The women were all deployed by the side wishing to show that it was not impossible that the child born after 311 days of absence was legitimate. It was admitted – 247 – that ‘they were not persons of high rank or distinction, — no one can think that such persons would expose themselves to a cross examination on the details of their pregnancy’. This does not seem very polite treatment for women who had submitted themselves to this ordeal.


The ‘medical men’ (and Tungate) were routinely asked the length of time they had spent in practice, the extent of their experience, their views of normal gestation periods, and the possibility of longer periods. Most answered around the 39-40 week mark here. Some cited instances of longer periods and thought the 311 day pregnancy a possibility, while others were quite sure that it was not. There were some interesting outlier views – including a late survival of the idea of differences relating to the sex of the foetus, with boys staying longer in the womb than girls – 152. Questions also demonstrated something of a lay obsession with the formation of nails as an indicator of gestational age – e.g. 15, 37.

There were some interesting exchanges on matters of authority (which was more important – the learning of well-known medical writers, or the experience of doctors themselves?) and of evidence – could the medical men use their notes (answer – this seems to have been allowed, if they were in their own writing and contemporaneous, as an aide-memoire: see, e.g., 60, 66, 119, 136. The meticulous note-taker, Dr Granville, in the end had some of his patients brought in, so as to circumvent objections that this was not the best, or legitimate, evidence – 87]

There were also some slight episodes of sparring about confidentiality – it is interesting to see ideas of patient confidentiality at this early stage – see, e.g., 66, 133. This concern about confidentiality apparently did not apply to the wives of the medical men themselves – two of these women were given as examples of women who had had long pregnancies – 67, 111 – (and appear to have kept period diaries – I remember being told this was a good idea, in the excruciating one-off assembly on this topic given at my school – obviously the reason was to be ready for possible evidence before a House of Lords committee…).

[Should you be interested in the result, Alan Legge Gardner won, and became Third Baron Gardner. Honour and bloodlines prevailed. Or something. That seems of considerably lesser interest than the enquiry itself, which seems to have been on a fairly large scale, and to have shown some interesting differences of professional opinion in this still-early period of formalisation of medical training and expertise. I am still working on how it fits into a longer story of uncertainty in this aspect of ‘the secrets of women’, which remained officially mysterious, and open to some very odd theories and evidence, into the twentieth century].




From Wikipedia.

Loss of entitlement

Continuing to research the weird and wonderful world of ‘adulterine bastardy’, including some interesting claims for very long pregnancies, and some questionable treatment of women, as witnesses and as possible ‘adulteresses’, I have been reminded of the recent run-out of this area of law, in relation to the holding of peerages. The Pringle case,  In the matter of the Baronetcy of Pringle of Stichill [2016] UKPC 16 featured the displacing of a line which had, since the early 20th century, been in possession of the title. Then DNA testing revealed that there was no chance that the person presumed to be entitled in the current generation was actually a lineal descendant of the first grantee (which is the requirement in this sort of case). The case gave rise to some interesting and humane comment – I particularly valued G. Black, ‘Identifying the legal parent/child relationship and the biological prerogative: who then is my parent?’ Jur. Rev. 2018, 1, 22-41, and B. Häcker, ‘Honour runs in the blood’, L.Q.R. 2017, 133(Jan), 36-41, which explored comparative rules on challenging paternity, and considered the problems associated with upsetting family units in situations well beyond that of peerages. My own thought, though, was that, while, in general,  it is absolutely right to be cautious about wholly prioritising genetic over social relationships, especially if the latter are long-lasting, in the context of hereditary titles, a strong focus on DNA could serve a very useful purpose. I have no time for the whole business of hereditary entitlement to ‘specialness’, from the monarchy downwards – it is embarrassing, babyish nonsense – but even those who shut their critical faculties down with ideas about the magical powers of particular families would have to think again if they were confronted with the likely fact that they were no more immune from infusions of unexpected genetic material than anyone else’s family. A respectable Legal Historian cannot of course suggest that it would be worth a thought for anyone invited to a royal garden party or the House of Lords bar, who has the opportunity to collect a DNA sample.


Detriment, conscience and the fine art of judicial shade

As the Land Law year rolls into co-ownership/constructive trust season, I was interested/irritated* (*delete as applicable) to see the appearance of another in the seemingly unending  parade of common intention constructive trusts cases: O’Neill v Holland [2020] EWCA Civ 1583.

Sometimes these things make me wish that (ALERT: mostly gratuitous Legal History reference coming up, to justify inclusion in ostensibly LH-centric blog) the Statute of Uses had done a better job of stamping out the whole law-equity separation business, but never mind – they must be read and inwardly digested.

This was a Court of Appeal case, centred on (parts of) a case which had been dealt with by a District Judge, District Judge Obodai, and then, in a County Court, by HHJ Pelling. The ‘live’ part of the dispute centred around a house in Farnworth, Bolton (53 Worsley Road for those keen Land Law fans who want to enter it on their Constructive Trusts Cases Maps … well, there might be such people). Ms O’Neill wanted reaffirmation of an earlier holding that this property, held in the sole name of Mr Holland, was in fact held on trust for both of them, and that she had a 50% equitable interest. She got it.

The main point of Land Law interest was, I suppose, discussion of whether it would matter if there was not specific pleading of detrimental reliance, or a specific finding of it, in the circumstances that, as far as the CA was concerned, there was in fact evidence of detrimental reliance. Answer – no. Also, there was a bit of an attempt to expand the importance of ‘unconscionability’ as something which could make up for lack of (pleading of? or actual?) detrimental reliance. This did not work. Nevertheless, the CA seemed happy that there had been evidence of DR – with particular reference to not sorting out legal/equitable positions earlier on, as a result of a misrepresentation that Ms O’Neill would not have been able to obtain a mortgage. (A minor legal point – I confess I had to look up what an ‘equity of exoneration’ was – mentioned early on, at 12).

Apart from that, I found myself going back to a bit of an obsession – how judges in judge-only trials present their views of those who have given evidence before them. Clearly they are going to have to evaluate credibility, and prefer one version to the other, but there is quite a variation in how critical, or condemnatory they are prepared to be. I have mentioned this in previous posts. Here, the DJ went for it in a fairly strong way. As Henderson LJ put it, at para. 9, ‘It is fair to say that the District Judge was distinctly unimpressed by the evidence of these witnesses, and in particular by the evidence of Mr Holland whom she described on more than one occasion as “a stranger to the truth”.’ Also, at 49, Henderson LJ noted that Mr Holland had been held by the DJ to have given evidence which “beggared belief”. This view of the party’s honesty was thus stated, and repeated in the easily-available public judgment (and by those commenting on it …). Not for the first time, I do find myself wondering about what that must feel like – if the parties know.

On a related matter, when judges’ cases are appealed, there is an issue of the level of ‘shade’ to be ‘thrown’ on them (see how down with the kids I am!). Here, Henderson LJ, at 7.,  is a touch sniffy about the fact that the DJ’s judgment ‘[ran] to 50 pages and 184 paragraphs’ and suggested at 18 that she had ‘fallen into error’ by not using existing case law properly. At 46., he gives us ‘The relevant findings of the District Judge are contained in paragraphs 154 to 161 of her judgment. With respect to her, they could sometimes have been more clearly expressed and are not always entirely easy to follow.’ Relatively mild, I suppose. In relation to the decision in County Court, he says, at 60, ‘In my respectful opinion, Judge Pelling adopted too narrow a view of the District Judge’s findings of fact, and he was also wrong to take the view that detrimental reliance had not been pleaded sufficiently or at all by Ms O’Neill’ . Possibly slightly more ‘respectful’? I am not sure. It would certainly be interesting to consider the range of different ways of dealing with/ disagreeing with lower level decisions which are used by appeal courts, by whom, and in relation to whom. A project for somebody?

Finally, this touched on another of my obsessions – questioning gendered writing in legal documents. As another page on the blog makes clear, I am not in favour of the rather frequent use of ‘emasculation’ in legal discourse, to indicate weakening/ worsening. I wonder whether similar concerns apply to the description of things, including judgments, as ‘seminal’ (here, at 27, we have the ‘seminal speech’ of Lord Diplock in Gissing v Gissing [1971] AC 886.’ Does it need the sperm-related subtext? (Could a speech ever be ‘ovular’, and if not, why not?). Or can this usage be excused on the ground that the word is wider than human sperm, and takes in all sorts of ‘seeding’? A point to ponder.





Not entirely ‘perswasive’?

In between teaching and admin., at the moment, I am working on something touching on decisions relating to the presence of life and legitimacy. Today, I am pursuing bits and pieces on the legitimacy/’bastardy’ side of it, and looking at the splendidly titled Lex Spuriorum by a very early 18th C lawyer.[i] Usually, in this enquiry, I have found my mind occupied by the disturbingly condemnatory attitudes and language, and the writing-off of so many children, people, as ‘bastards’, and somehow not as good as others, despite self-evident lack of personal guilt in the ‘sinful’ nature of their conception. Today, however, I have been ‘going off on one’ in a different direction, after looking at the preface of this book.


In this preface, Brydall felt it necessary to justify himself – why was he writing the book? What ‘perswaded’ him (love that spelling!) to publish it? His specific answer to that is interesting (and a little hard not to laugh at): his alleged motives include writing ‘To let the People of this prefent Age fee, what great Difadvantages Children born out of Holy Matrimony do lie under, which might … very much deter Men and Women from ever purfuing unlawful and exorbitant Embraces, of which this Nation, as well as foreign Countries, have been deeply guilty.’ Unlawful and exorbitant Embraces should, obviously, be discouraged, but the idea that people intent on a bit of exorbitant Embracing would stop, read a treatise, find it ‘perswasive’ and think better of their plans, seems … just a little far-fetched.

Postscript – It is a measure of my current preoccupation with all things REF that my mind immediately went to ‘ooh – that’s a bold claim for the potential “impact” of a piece of writing’.


GS 22/11/2020


[i] John Brydall of Lincoln’s Inn, esq., Lex Spuriorum or the Law Relating to Bastardy (London, 1703).

Quantitative methods

And this qualifies as Legal History because …

  1. Some people who do LH like to count stuff (my own efforts here are a bit amateur, but some people do it very well …)
  2. Er … virus… bit like plague …
  3. It needs to be noted for future Legal Historians and other historians.

It is … shall we say interesting … to note that my dear employer, and presumably the decision is one by the senior management team, has changed the way that it is publishing information on coronavirus, now that the cumulative total of cases looks very bad, and the institution is hovering around the top 5 or 6 according to the UCU dashboard (all the others above it being in known hotspots in the NE and NW and E Midlands).

Pleased to see that somebody is trying to fight back:

Otherwise, feeling pretty powerless, as there is so little accountability for all of this. Sometimes, all that’s left is resistance by limerick. So here’s one I found earlier (in my head):

‘Our priority is the health and safety of our staff, students and community’ [signed, from a safe distance, some very well paid people with an interest in minimising the impression that they are putting other people in harm’s way, ]

We care about students and staff,

don’t want you to worry – don’t laugh –

we promise you, that’s

why we’ve swapped scary  stats

for a sweet, soothing, ‘what virus?’ graph.


GS 30/10/2020

Bastardy, Presumptions and a Plague of Beatrixes

(Sheldon arms, apparently: see VCH reference, below)

I am writing something about difficult questions at the start of life – determining whether (legally recognised) life is present in a foetus or newborn, and determining legitimacy – from periods before the development of some important medical techniques and instruments (to c. 1900 –  in 10,000 words …). One of the aspects I am investigating is the use of presumptions, to help come to an answer, when everyone accepted that there was a high level of uncertainty. An important presumption in the area of determinations of legitimacy was the common law’s long-lasting and rather strong presumption of legitimacy for a child born to married parents. I have just spent quite some time chasing down a Year Book/Plea roll match for an interesting case from the later years of Edward III, which has a bearing on this, and, since it won’t get more than a short mention, perhaps no more than a footnote, in the paper itself, I thought I’d write it up here.

The Year Book report is Seipp 1370.044 or YB Pasch. 44 Edw. III pl. 21 f. 12b. The Plea Roll record is CP 40/438 m. 370d (AALT IMG 5516). It is a Common Pleas case. As is often the way, the names in YB and PR don’t match up, but I think we can be pretty certain that these documents refer to the same case. There is also  information in other sources which gives some indications about the people involved in the case.[i] This is my reconstruction of the whole story, based on all of this.

There was a need to determine whether or not a girl was to be classed as ‘legitimate’ or ‘a bastard’ at common law, in order to deal with a land dispute. The land in question was in the West Midlands of England, in Warwickshire, centred on the manor of Sheldon, and included different parcels of land and associated rights. Once upon a time, it had been held by Henry de Sheldon and Beatrix his wife (HS and B1) and John Murdak had been granted an interest which would come into play if HS and B1 died without heirs of their bodies.

This had all happened in the 1330s. The central characters in the 1370 dispute were Thomas Murdak, knight (TM), son of John, who claimed that he should hold the land, and  a married couple, (Sir) John de Peyto and Beatrix his wife, who  were in fact holding some of the relevant land and rights. John and Beatrix (JP and B2) argued that they held a tenancy for life in the land, from one Beatrix (B3), eventual successor of HS (as daughter of John de Sheldon, JS, who was HS’s son and heir). When they wished to use B3’s superior right as the foundation of their own right, and against TM’s claim to it, TM made the argument that they could not do so, because B3 was a bastard. (And bastards were outside the scheme of succession at common law).

Why was there a doubt about B3’s legitimacy? Well, it seems that the circumstances of her birth were slightly unusual: she was said by JP and B2 to be the posthumous child of JS, born to his wife after a short marriage (at most fifteen days), though conceived before the marriage. TM told it rather differently: in his version, there had been some very dubious behaviour, which could mean that there was no real marriage, and so no presumption of legitimacy, and also, in fact, B3 was the child of another man entirely. His tale was of a very unwell JS, sick to death with plague, and not in his right mind, being physically carried to the church in Yardley, to marry (desponsare de facto) ‘some woman’ (not named – the odds seem to be in favour of her having been called Beatrix, like everyone else …) who was, at the time ‘grossly pregnant’.  As he told it, this was part of a fraudulent plan, essentially to do him out of his rights, which, remember, would come into play on the death of HS and B1 and their legitimately procreated heirs, and to protect the holding of JP and B2. JP and B2, however, expanded on their version, stating that B3 was in fact the biological child of JS: he and B3’s mother had been lovers (and had had two previous children) and he had promised to marry her, then impregnated her with B3 before going off to Calais for three months, and, on his return, he had fulfilled that promise. Though he had been ill, he had been sane and had married her at the behest of his conscience (presumably wishing to ‘make an honest woman of her’, and secure her future provision). They had lived together for a fortnight, then he had died. B3 had been born afterwards (interestingly, neither a date of birth, nor a gestation period, is included). Essentially, their tale denied both the ‘not JS’s biological child’ and the ‘not a valid marriage’ aspects of TM’s case.

Argument continued, with the aim of narrowing things down to one issue which could go to proof. According to the Year Book report, there followed some back and forth about exactly how pregnancy, espousals and legitimacy worked together, as far as the common law was concerned. TM’s side had a go at saying that the fact that it was accepted that B3’s mother was very pregnant before the espousals meant that Alice was a bastard. This seems to imply an argument that pregnancy had to start, as well as end, after espousals had been made.  This argument did not prevail, but it is interesting that it could be made, since it suggests the possibility of insisting on very exacting standards of continence and of ‘bastardising’ quite a number of children born within a marriage. The orthodox, less exacting, rule was stated by Fyncheden JCP: a child would be found to be legitimate, if the mother was pregnant by the man she then married, and she married him before the birth. Interestingly for my investigation, though, his reported words also suggest that a child conceived in the period between promise to marry and actual marriage (I have been doing too much Land Law because I automatically think of this as ‘conception between contract and conveyance’) does not automatically get the benefit of the strong presumption of legitimacy which would have applied to a child conceived after marriage.

In the end, rather than deciding B3 was definitely a bastard, (either because she was admittedly conceived before marriage, or because the marriage was invalid), or deciding that the conclusion would rest upon her presumed legitimacy as a result of having been born after the espousals, it was decided that the issue to be put to a jury was to be (effectively) whether the biological father of Alice was HS or the ‘other man’. This strikes me as a rather difficult thing for a jury to conclude upon, and it is interesting that it was thought feasible that they could do so. Also of interest is the point that the fact of there having been espousals did not blot out the possibility of B3 being found to be a bastard. My inquiries into later versions of the presumption of legitimacy within marriage show some interesting ups and downs in terms of its strength, and what sort of doubts might be entertained about paternity after the mother’s marriage, but it seems that, at least at this point, challenging legitimacy in these circumstances was a real possibility: if the ‘unloaded’, neutral, question ‘was X or Y the biological father of Z’ could be left to a jury, there would seem to be a fairly even chance of a finding of bastardy or of legitimacy. I am also pondering the issue of there having been a particular fascination amongst common lawyers at this point for the question of bastardy/legitimacy within marriage – another project I have done looked at a case from just before this one, Tyryngton v Beauchamp (1369),[ii]  the report of which saw common lawyers introducing a gratuitous discussion of just this issue (that case did not concern a child whose legitimacy was in dispute, but the report shows lawyers ‘going off on one’ about this).

The reporter loses interest once the issue is identified, as is usual, but the record tells us (some of) what happened in the end. The record includes later stages of procedure, which went on for some terms, and, to cut a long story short, TM dropped out, and so the case came to an end, leaving JP and B2 in possession of the land. There never was a jury verdict. It may be that some deal was struck, or it may be that TM decided that a jury would not have believed that B3 was the biological child of the mysterious ‘other man’.

So there we have it – for my immediate purposes, it represents an interesting stage in the development of doctrine around determinations and presumptions of legitimacy. More broadly, it is fascinating both legally and socially. The legal structure is set up so that it is in order – and perhaps it is an early resort – for claimants to land to cast aspersions about the sexual behaviour of non-party individuals. We see insights into a plausible story of a long term non-marital relationship which might be regularised on the point of death, and also a deep-seated suspicion of deathbed marital dealings (generally of the ‘woman as gold-digger’ variety: given the unequal system of real property, such marriages would tend to be for the benefit of women rather than men). If the background to this case was indeed a recurrence of plague, it is also interesting to ponder the effects of such crises of mortality on law and practice with regard to marriage, legitimacy and succession.

[And then of course there is the oblique evidence provided for the otherwise unknown ‘Statute of Beatrixes’ (or should it be ‘Beatrices’?), under which all female children in the West Midlands were required to be called Beatrix.]



(For more on bastardy in common law and canon law, and jurisdictional issues, in medieval England, including a 1364 case which might also support the idea of particular attention on this issue in this era, see, e.g. R. H. Helmholz, ‘Bastardy Litigation in Medieval England’, American Journal of Legal History 13, (1969): 360-83).

[i] VCH Warkwickshire (not going to pretend I can get to libraries at the moment):

[ii] William de Tyryngton and Johanna his wife v. John Beauchamp del Holte and Joan his wife (1369).CP 40/435 m.387, 387d (IMG 773 and 1857(; Seipp 1369.059; YB 43 Edw. III Trin. pl. 5.