Category Archives: bastardy

‘Four seas’ and an island delusion: some thoughts on ‘bastardy’ doctrines

[This was also posted last week on the Centre for Law and History blog]

In August 1850, a jury in Liverpool heard the case of Wright v. Holgate. The jurors’ job was to make a decision about the ‘legitimacy’ of a child, Tom Wright. Was this three-year-old the ‘lawful’ offspring of Thomas Wright, butcher and cattle dealer, and his late wife, Susannah, or was he another man’s son, and thus a ‘bastard’ (specifically, an ‘adulterine bastard’)? The question had arisen during a dispute about property of the Holgates, Susannah’s family, who were cattle dealers of some standing in the Halifax area. If Tom was ‘legitimate’, he had a share; if he was a ‘bastard’, he did not. The jury heard a selection of views on the former spouses from acquaintances and neighbours, brought in to comment on whether they had had the opportunity to have sex at the relevant time, so that Thomas might be Tom’s biological father, and on the character of Susannah. She was portrayed, in the somewhat gossipy testimony,  as ‘no better than she ought to be’, and given to entertaining a variety of men other than her husband at her house. After only a short discussion, the verdict of the twelve male jurors came back: ‘bastard’.[1]


As far as the law of the time was concerned, that was the end of Tom Wright’s importance, and, since the relevance of ‘bastardy’ in legal and social terms diminished massively over the course of the twentieth century, this case might well raise in the minds of modern legal scholars that cold dismissive phrase: ‘of no more than antiquarian interest’. Even so, I am going to use this post on our newly-launched blog to suggest that there are, in this case, and in this area, some things which are worth the attention of thoughtful legal scholars of the twenty-first century, as well as those of us who are unashamed of our antiquarian tendencies.


‘[B]ound in with the triumphant sea’ [2]

Though the case ended up in a common law court in the port city of Liverpool, much of the action had taken place inland, in Halifax and Rochdale. That being so, my maritime references might seem a bit inappropriate, but there is a justification for getting a bit nautical when considering the law of adulterine bastardy. Accounts of it often mention a particular test for whether or not a husband would be presumed to be the father of the child: had he been ‘within the four seas’ at relevant times for procreation? The phrase was mentioned in the judge’s summing up to the jury in Wright v. Holgate:

‘When a married woman has a child, the presumption is in favour of its legitimacy. Formerly, indeed, the presumption was, that if the husband continued within the four seas, and was alive at the child’s birth, such child could not be a bastard. But now the law allows inquiry…’


Here, we see the splendidly named judge, Sir Cresswell Cresswell, taking a moment to contrast the enlightened times in which he and the jurors were living with what he saw as the less perfect doctrine of former times. He felt it important to tell them that the question as to whether a husband was, or was not, ‘within the four seas’ at relevant points was once  something close to being decisive of the legitimacy of a child borne by his wife: if the opportunity of access was shown, using this criterion, no further inquiry as to the probability of there having been sex between the spouses, or the likelihood of somebody other than the husband being the child’s father, would be permitted. As well as the touch of self-satisfaction that things were so very much better in the world of 1850, we may note that there is something of a lack of specificity as to just when ‘formerly’ was. The legal past is an undifferentiated mass, unworthy of closer consideration.

In fact, the law on adulterine bastardy in general, and the place of the ‘four seas’ idea within it, had been far from unchanging over previous centuries. My research in this area has led me to conclude that the question of whether or not the husband was ‘within the four seas’ was not always – perhaps not usually – quite as central as Cresswell’s statement implies. The treatment of the ‘four seas’ phrase, from its first appearances in medieval cases,  shows different levels of emphasis, as well as movement between less and more literal understandings, and between geographical and political interpretations of the ‘seas’ and the land they were taken to enclose.

There were always difficulties with delineating the ‘four seas’. Despite Shakespeare’s best efforts to suggest that it was a ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’, England never has been, an ‘isle’ (‘sceptred’ or otherwise). The inconvenient existence of a land border, rather than a sea, between England and Scotland was never quite overcome, there were complications to the west: was Ireland ‘within’ or ‘without’ the western sea, and what of more distant ‘possessions’ of the English crown? The neat phrase ‘within the four seas’ did not make a very sure foundation for a rule about presumed legitimacy, and it was de-emphasised, and weakened in practical importance, from the eighteenth century onwards.

Its day was long over by 1850, yet it continued to hold the imagination of those discussing this area. Sir Cresswell Cresswell was not alone in his reference to ‘the four seas’; they continued to echo in commentary into the twentieth century. This lingering is probably due, in part, to the power of a well-turned phrase on the mind and memory of common lawyers. An attractive image or phrase may draw attemtion to one part of a more complex area of doctrine, at the expense of inconsistent or qualifying factors which are less amenable to neat encapsulation.[3]

That leads me to ask why ‘within the four seas’ was an attractive concept to common lawyers of the ninetennth and twentieth centuries. I would like to suggest that its appeal lay in its fitting in with broader currents in the self-image of the common law, as a robust, independent, intellectual ‘island’, keeping at bay the ‘foreign’ forces of civil law and canon law. The law on bastardy was marshalled as an example of the distinctive nature of common law, holding back the tide of other ideas. An account of another, more prominent, nineteenth century ‘adulterine bastardy’ case was, for example,  at pains to point out England’s defiance of attempts to introduce ‘foreign’ rules with regard to legitimation:

‘In England the sturdy independence of our ancestors soon checked the encroachments of the priesthood. Neither the civil nor the canon law ever formed part of the law of the land.’[4]

Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that there was mutual reinforcement between the idea of the common law as an intellectual island, aspects of its idiosyncratic and precocious centralised development acting somewhat as  ‘a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands’, and the idea of the pre-eminence of a test founded upon the assumed existence of England as a discrete and identifiable sea-bordered landmass.


Concluding and continuing thoughts: a father for ‘no man’s son’, dried up doctrine and Doggerland

I started with a young child, his future prospects apparently settled by a brief jury discussion and a stark verdict of ‘bastard’. Another phrase which will be familiar to those who have looked at this area, (or, indeed, at nineteenth century literature), would seem to apply: as a bastard, he was filius nullius – no man’s son. If he really was regarded as not having a father, we might have expected his care to be left to the local workhouse. I am cautiously optimistic, however, that entries I have found on the census for 1851 and 1861 show that Thomas Wright, despite having been found to be a ‘cuckolded’ husband, and not to be the father of Tom, did look after the child, providing a home for him in Rochdale, and setting him on his way to receiving at least some education. As with ‘within the four seas’, so with ‘filius nullius’:  too great a focus on a well-turned phrase, taking as literal what was understood to be at least partly metaphorical, could divert us from a more complicated reality.

Like the ‘four seas’ idea itself, much of the law which obtained in the case of Tom Wright has now been swept away, and, if we want to know who is a child’s biological father, then DNA testing can give a virtually conclusive answer. Nevertheless, I think these remnants have much to tell us about lives and thought of the past, about solutions to what seemed to be matters beyond human knowledge, about proof and policy, about how common lawyers of one era thought of and used the law of the even deeper past. Since we know that a vivid maritime image can stay with us, I will end with the one which always comes to my mind when dealing with such material: it is that of Doggerland – an area formerly of considerable human activity, now beneath the sea as a result of climate change. Most of us will never visit it, but it is important to know it is there, both for practical modern purposes, and also for deeper understanding of those who have navigated these spaces before us.

Thank you for your company on this brief voyage.

Gwen Seabourne

August, 2021.

[1] See, e.g., Times  20th July, p. 7 and 20th August 1850, p. 7, Manchester Guardian 21st August 1850, p.6. Halifax Guardian  24th  August 1850, p. 3,  27 July 1850, p. 7; Globe 20th  August 1850, p. 4; Evening Mail 22nd  July 1850, p. 3. Report: ER 175 503; 3 Car. & K 158.

[2] Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, John of Gaunt.

[3] See, e.g., Andrew Culley and Michael Salter, ‘Why study metaphors?’,  K.C.L.J. 15 (2004), 347-366.

[4] Denis Le Marchant, Report of the Proceedings on the Claim to the Barony of Gardner (London, 1828), xxx.

Images – the watery one is from the port of Liverpool, ft. a dock of the period and some water, which seemed appropriate. The bovine one is a nod and a moo to the trade of the Holgates and Wrights – cattle in the Halifax area).

This material comes from a current project on bastardy, I will be presenting a fuller version as a paper at the Society of Legal Scholars conference in September 2021 (paper all written and recorded in case of emergency – so I did something useful in recent self-isolation!), and some of it will probably feature as part of a chapter I am writing for the ‘Known Unknowns’ project, headed by Dr Andrew Bell and Dr Joanna McCunn

‘Lyvelode’ and imperfect living: a fretful family in the 1450s

I came across an interesting story whilst on one of my ‘bastardy’ trawls today – something in the Close Rolls for March 1459 which has things to say about bastardy but also about other things, including marriage and mental incapacity.[i] Read on if that sounds like your sort of thing …

By his own account (in English!), Edward Sely of Ditton,[ii] husbandman, had got himself into a bit of trouble. He had allowed himself to be drawn into some litigation, fomented by a London mercer, Rauf Marche. Rauf, using Edward’s name, had gone to law, to try and disinherit a relative of Edward’s, one Simon Sely, of London. Rauf had been putting forward the claim that the rightful heir to property once held by Laurence Sely of London, a claim to which passed, indirectly,  to the late John Sely of Chiseldon (JS1),  was Edward, rather than Simon, because, so he said, Edward’s father (JSA) rather than Simon’s father, John Sely of London (JS2), was the legitimate heir of JS1. This, however, was not trewe.

In Edward’s narrative, JS1 had had a rather eventful life. He had fled his original home after having killied a miller ‘by ‘infortunat case’, and lived as a labourer in Cranford, Middlesex. Perhaps concerned that the law would catch up with him, he had used different names during his time in Cranford, and was known as both ‘John Bartholomew’ and ‘John Sely’. He never felt safe enough to claim his rights in the family property either. He did have a family of his own, however, albeit not in the most straightforward way. He had two sons, both called John (thank you so much for that!) – with a woman called Dionise Cranford, sister of a squire. These sons (JSA and JSB) were ‘bastards’, since JS1 and Dionise were not married. They then did get married, and had a son, called (of course) John – this was JS2, eventually to be the father of Simon. So, under the rules about legitimacy and inheritance, JS2 and then Simon were the rightful heirs to JS1, rather than and JSA (and Edward) or JSB.

It is possible that JS2 never really knew about his claim to property formerly belonging to Laurence – the narrative tells of an occasion late in JS1’s life (when he was over 80) when he tried to get the help of JSA’s wife Christian (Edward’s mother) to encourage his ‘childerne’ to ‘laboure to have recovere’ of the ‘lyvelode’ (property) to which he was entitled in London and Bristol, and to get him in contact with JS2, who was his ‘rightful here’. Christian dutifully reported to JS2 what JS1 had said, and the father and son discussed it. JS1 laid upon JS2 the responsibility of suing to recover it, giving him all of the proof he had of his entitlement, and telling him where there was further evidence. He also told JS2 what he wanted to happen to the property, if he recovered it and then JS2 had no issue – he would prefer it to go to JSA and JSB than to ‘any other straunge persones’.

JS2 does seem to have made efforts to recover the property, but it is not clear what the outcome was. What seems to come out of Edward’s narrative, however, is that there were some tensions in the relationships between the three sons of JS1: JS2, JSA and JSB. JS2 needed money to get his lawsuit(s) going, and asked for the help of his ‘bastard’ brothers. JSA – despite his wife’s earlier co-operation with JS1 and JS2 – refused outright. He would neither give nor lend JS2 any money, despite the offer of a share in any winnings. JSB, however, was prepared to make a sacrifice to help out JS2 – he sold two of his plough-oxen and gave JS2 the money.

By 1457, JS2 seems to have died, leaving Simon as the potential heir. At some point before 1459, however, Rauf Marche had entered the picture, seeking out Edward and trying to find (or concoct) a claim on his behalf (searching in ‘frary books’ to sort out JS1’s children). He also had an accomplice/partner, one ‘John Squery late of London, gentleman’. As Edward told it, Rauf and Squery (we are not going with another ‘JS’…) badgered him on different occasions, using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach – he was entitled to property in and around London (nice) and since he didn’t sue to recover it, he was ‘accursed’ (a bit nasty). Rauf, somewhat in the manner of a dodgy PPI mis-selling recovery company – told Edward he couldn’t get the property without Rauf’s help. This, of course, would not come free – thus the deal which Edward suggests he was manoeuvred into: if the claim was successful, Rauf would keep the property until he got back his expenses. Edward claimed that he had not really understood it all – ‘for as moche as he is a lewde man and not lettered’.

All of this does make Edward sound a bit ‘lewde and not lettered’, or at least unwise, since he is, essentially, admitting to having taken part in a dishonest agreement to try and disinherit his relative and the rightful heir to the property in question. Would there be mercy for him? Would there be come-uppance for Rauf? Would Simon get his inheritance? Would anyone remember poor, virtuous and self-sacrificing JSB (now, apparently, dead)? As so often, it’s a big ‘I don’t know’ on all of that. The entry is, however, still interesting in numerous respects, several of which come out in the discussion above, and one which I have kept as a bonus, because it is very interesting, though I am not quite sure what to make of it, and also because it is not entirely necessary to the tale Edward told about property and dubious litigation.

  1. JS1’s lengthy period as a fugitive

We could see this as an indication of the lack of efficacy of the machinery of ‘criminal justice’ at this point – since JS1 clealy lived for decades without being brought to trial for the death of the miller. However, another view is possible – note the lengths he went to, to avoid being tried: distance, name change, keeping his identity and family connections secret from his own sons until he was close to death. All of that suggests a degree of fear that he might be found.

  1. Property matters[iii]

The reason I looked at this was the ‘bastardy’ and inheritance angle – and that is relatively straightforward. The entry confirms contemporary lay understanding that subsequent marriage did not legitimate pre-marital children as far as inheritance to land was concerned. There is interesting material on property, though, in the interactions of JS1 and his family, and Edward and Rauf with regard to the recovery of the property. I note the argument based on a duty to try and recover family property (and the ‘accursed’ position of the person who does not do this). That strikes me as an interesting point of view to consider. Was that just flannel – a way of dressing up self interest? Or was it a real feeling that this was something owed to one’s lineage?

  1. Marriage and mental incapacity

This is the bit I held back, though it comes up quite early in the narrative. Edward’s story about his father’s early days living in Cranford has something more to say about the relationship between JS1 and Dionise, the squire’s sister. According to the story, after the (‘illegitimate’) birth of JSA and JSB, Dionise’s brother, and other people made JS1 marry her. They were, apparently unhappy at the irregular state of this union – ‘their imperfite lyvyng’. JS1 was not at all keen – he was ‘right loth’ to marry Dionise. Why? Because she had some sort of mental incapacity. In the now-jarring language of the times she was (so it is said here) ‘an idiotte’. There is a tiny bit of additional information about this judgment, though, to be honest,  it is not exactly … informative (to me at least). Dionise ‘knewe no worldly reason in so moche that she wolde calle a noble a nubble’. That does seem rather a problem with pronunciation than anything else, but I may well be missing something. Is it perhaps a vague echo of some of the older medieval tests of capacity which involve basic financial acuity – since a ‘noble’ was a unit of currency – or is the problem with a lack of respect for the entitled? I am imagining various mildly racy meanings for ‘nubble’ but haven’t found anything to back them up … Or is that some sort of proverbial expression which would convey a lot more to contemporaries? I do hope somebody better-informed will clear that up for me one day.

Finally, Edward’s choice to include this material about Dionise (his grandmother) is interesting – why would he do that? Perhaps the most obvious implication is that he was trying to justify JS1’s tardiness in getting married to Dionise. It doesn’t really make him look too good, though, to suggest he thought Dionise was fine for sex but not for marriage, does it?




[i] CCR 1454-61, 355-7. There is one other easily accesible (from home – general pandemic issues and also currently under specific order to stay at home as a close contact of an infected person … with that infected person … viral sword of Damocles or what?) record which corroborates parts of this story: it’s from 1457.

[ii] Dinton, Bucks?

[iii] (I am using ‘property’ like a modern lawyer – note that that word is not used once in the entry itself – which is quite interesting in itself, but concepts of property in the medieval common law is probably a bit too big a topic for a quick blog post).

Image – tree, family, complexity and stuff … Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Tragedies and miracles: snippets on improbable problems

Battling on with the bastards  – today, a couple of gems from an early modern text which raised an eyebrow and a smile.

The book is William Sheppard, Epitome of All the Common & Statute Laws of This Nation, Now in Force (London, 1656) – quite an ambitious task our William set himself – all of the law – and we have to salute the creative thinking behind some of the entries. Like some modern exam-setters, the author seems to have liked thinking up slightly unusual scenarios, to test to their limit the propositions of law he laid down.

c . 33. includes some thought about a very unfortunate set of circumstances:

(p. 179) ‘If one marry a Woman, and die before night that he lie with his Wife, and 6be have a Childe after, it seems it shall be accounted his Childe, and Legitimate.’

Even more … niche … is the possibility of virgin birth in the discussion at p. 181 of what to do when somebody married ‘a virgin* with childe’ (apparently legitimate too).

It’s good to know these things.



* No, don’t tell me he is using ;virgin’ in some other non-technical sense. I am sticking with poking fun at early modern lawyers.

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

“Whoso[ever] bulleth my cow …”; of beef and ‘bastardy’ in nineteenth-century Halifax

My current obsession is Wright v. Holgate, a case from 1850 (I know – ludicrously up to date …!). It is going to form part of a paper I’m giving at the SLS conference in Durham at the beginning of September. In fact, I have got so into it that I might use it as a sort of framing device for the whole thing.[1] The paper is about fairly doctrinal legal things (though I’d like to think that there are some deeper insights too) but there is certainly more to the case than I will have time to deal with there, so I think it deserves a bit of a blogging as well.

The case, which appears in contemporary newspaper reports and a law report,[2] starts with a will, that of a cattle dealer from Halifax (West Yorks) a certain Jonas Holgate. Let’s call him JH 1, since, as you might guess, what with naming of sons being a bit conservative at this point, there is also another Jonas Holgate who is relevant here, the less than lovely JH 2. Anyway, JH 1 owned some property in the Halifax area. There were several Holgate offspring, including JH 2 and a daughter, Susannah. JH 1’s will left shares of his property to each of the children, and after them, to their lawful offspring (i.e. legitimate children). By 1850, both JH 1 and Susannah were dead, and there were disputes about the property. The whole thing was in Chancery, under the name Patchett v Holgate, and there is more to it than this question, but one thing which did come up for argument was whether Susannah had lawful issue. A Master in Chancery reported in the affirmative: there was a son, Tom Wright, who was born to Susannah whilst she was married to one Thomas Wright (butcher and cattle dealer). So, young Tom would succeed, we might think. Easy. But no.

It was objected that the child was not the lawful issue of Susannah and Thomas, but was in fact a bastard (specifically an ‘adulterine bastard’): another man was the child’s biological father. Bizarre and cruel as it now seems, this question of legitimacy/bastardy was a crucial one at the time: if Tom was legitimate, he would get the property, but if he was a bastard, he would get nothing. It would be good for the other descendants of JH 1 – JH 2 amongst them – if he was found to be a bastard, since that would make their shares in the old man’s property bigger.

Why did the question of illegitimacy arise here, and how was it solved? Well, it is worth rewinding a few years and filling in some key details of the less-than-happy family life of the Holgate-Wright dynasty.  Susannah and Thomas had married in 1836. In 1839, however, they had separated ‘by mutual consent’. Tom was born on 7th March 1847.  At this point, Susannah and Thomas were still legally married: their separation appears to have been private or informal. There were allegations that Susannah had been having sex (or ‘connection’ as they prefer to say) with people other than Thomas during this separation. As the lawyers in the case make clear, however, the fact that other men might be the biological father of a child was not enough for the child to be held a ‘bastard’ at law – if there was some prospect that the husband was in fact the father – i.e., if he had had ‘access’ to Susannah at the relevant time – then the law was supposed to make it hard to ‘bastardise’ the child, deploying a presumption of legitimacy.

Thomas gave an affidavit, swearing that he had in fact had ‘connection’ with Susannah on a number of occasions since 1839. Both had remained within the same area, sometimes both in Halifax, and at other times Thomas went as far as Rochdale (Boobdale as one of the newspaper machine-transcribed accounts has it – foxed by a smudge along the bottom of the row – and I know I shouldn’t chuckle at breast-related slips, but, clearly, still got some growing up to do …) but actually that is not so very far from Halifax, and his cattle-focused work meant that he had to come to the cattle market at Halifax every so often. He stated that, on these occasions, he and Susannah had indulged in bouts of  outdoor connecting. This did not pass the lawyers without objection – one apparently finding Thomas’s claim that he had ‘had  intercourse with Susannah a number of times, in open air, within half a mile of Halifax’ ‘utterly incredible’.[3] There was some wrangling over what sort of evidence could be used to get to the bottom of paternity disputes like this. I will get into that a bit more in the SLS paper, but for now, let’s just say that it was decided to send the dispute about (il)legitimacy over to a common law court for determination, so off it went to Liverpool, to a hearing before Cresswell J (the marvellously named Sir Cresswell Cresswell) and a jury. It now goes under the name of Wright v. Holgate (or Holdgate), or in the English Reports, as Tom Wright (an infant) v. Jonas Holdgate and Others.

After the disputes about whether it was acceptable to hear Thomas Wright’s affidavit about bouts of spontaneous al fresco connecting with Susannah, one might have thought that care would be taken to ensure that only unimpeachably fair and relevant evidence was allowed to reach the jury’s ears. Not at all. There was a great deal of gossip about the deceased Susannah, who, clearly, was not able to defend her own reputation or her son’s interests. She was no better than she ought to be, and violent with it. It is hard to see how violence could be relevant to the issue, as opposed to simply being a bit of additional mud-slinging. More prejudicial than probative, anyone?  Probably not surprisingly, a jury of Victorian men who passed a cetain property qualification, decided to withdraw from her, from Tom and from Thomas the benefit of the doubt. A bastard Tom was found, and that was the end of his participation in the Chancery suit.

There is certainly much here which seems deeply questionable from a modern, liberal, perspective, in any case deploying the concept of ‘bastardy’. I think that there are also relevant criticisms of this particular case within its own time and terms – thus, I think that the interpretation of rules of evidential exclusion were inconsistent, and the summary of the law on bastardy prior to 1850 certainly included inaccuracies. More on all of that in the SLS paper.

The thing I want to finish on here is a little reflection about the role of Thomas Wright, and the fate of Tom Wright. As noted, following the decision in Liverpool, Tom Wright disappeared from the property case. He was a bastard, as far as the law was concerned. The case was focused on his status with regard to his mother’s family, but the finding also implied, as a matter of logic, that he was not the legitimate child of Thomas Wright either. Thomas would have been entirely within his rights to leave the child, and his maintenance to others, such as the local workhouse, or one of Susannah’s alleged ‘paramours’. Apparently he did not do this, however. I checked census returns for 1851 and 1861 and turned up something which struck me as a bit heart-warming. ‘Thomas Wright’ is not, of course, the rarest of names, but when I found a pair of Thomas Wrights living in Rochdale, with a man named Wilkinson (the same surname as of one of our Thomas Wright’s employers, in Rochdale), with young Tom having the right place and year of birth, and Thomas senior and John Wilkinson described as ‘butchers’, I think I can be cautiously optimistic that I have found a less-than-miserable ending for our pair. Thomas the elder has gone by 1861, but 14 year old Tom is now a ‘pupil teacher’, living with John Wilkinson and others, which does seem to indicate a degree of fortune greater than one might have imagined. Thomas Wright comes out of the story rather well, I think. He swooped in after Susannah’s death, when JH 2 had put Tom into the local workhouse, had paid for his care, and clearly had taken him off to try and make a life together in Rochdale. I suppose that, up to 1850, we might have interpreted this as an attempt to keep control of a potential cash-cow (sorry) – as Thomas did involve himself in the litigation surrounding JH 1’s property. After the finding of bastardy, however, any such ungenerous interpretation has to be abandoned. I think it’s hats off to Thomas Wright. Perhaps he was ‘in a low condition of life’, as one newspaper sneered,[4] but he comes across as rather less mean-spirited than others in the tale, and, in particular, the charmless uncle of young Tom, Jonas Holgate 2.


1st August, 2021.





[1] It is a bit of a gift that the case has a heavily bovine context, since there is a frequently-trotted-out proverb about legitimacy and marriage in medieval and later sources, ‘Whoso bulleth my cow, the calf is mine’ – grim but memorable, isn’t it? Will be working with that, though have rejected a more elaborate metaphorical structure running that proverb together with another common tag in adulterine bastardy, relating to the husband’s presence ‘within the four seas’. May have looked up ‘sea cows’ at one point, and toyed with the idea of finishing with a picture of a Steller’s sea cow (extinct), but luckily realised that that was too pretentious even for me.

[2] Newpapers, see, e.g., Times  20th July, p. 7 and 20th August 1850, p. 7, Manchester Guardian 21st August 1850, p.6. Halifax Guardian  24th  August 1850, p. 3,  27 July 1850, p. 7; Globe 20th  August 1850, p. 4; Evening Mail 22nd  July 1850, p. 3. Report: ER 175 503; 3 Car. & K 158. (There are also potentially relevant papers in the National Archives: TNA C 14/847/H142, but I am still not able to get at those).

[3] Evening Mail 22nd  July p. 3.

[4] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 24th  August 1850 p. 8.

Photo by Quaritsch Photography on Unsplash

Blood and impurity: a Victorian ‘bastardy’ case

… And the ‘bastardy’ work continues to bring up unexpected things …

Just now, Hooper’s Law of Illegitimacy led me to this insight into the sex life, or at least views of sexual behaviour, of the Victorian judge …

The case is Bosvile v Attorney General (1887) 12 P.D. 177, a case involving a dispute as to whether a child, Arthur, was or was not to be held the legitimate son of Bosvile. Mr and Mrs Bosvile’s marriage does not seem to have been all a respectable Victorian might have wished – I am afraid there was a ‘paramour’ in the picture. While there was a presumption that a husband was the father of his wife’s child even if she did have a paramour, this was, by this point, very much open to rebuttal, as long as there was what a jury considered very strong evidence that H was not the father. Naturally, this state of affairs (!) brought in the possibility of some fairly intimate revelations (as well as showing differences of opinion, and doubts, about possible periods of gestation).

In this case, clearly there had been evidence from a servant – a lady’s maid – about the timing of Mrs Bosvile’s periods. The period of gestation in the case was just about possible, according to contemporary views, but it could not be stretched back any further than the point at which Mrs Bosvile had left H. The lady’s maid’s evidence was that at that point, Mrs Bosvile was menstruating. This may have been used in two distinct ways. First, it seems to have been used in relation to likelihood of conception at that point – so, if H and W did have sex, conception would be unlikely. That’s one thing. But  there is also a strong suggestion that husbands and wives would be unlikely to have sex if W had her period. Butt J (let’s be mature and not make any jokes about the name …) was pretty sure on that point (at 183). No doubt Victorian judges would find the idea a little messy and unpleasant, but, given the general strength of both presumptions of legitimacy, it is interesting that a bit of blood would be thought to tell against it. The tide was definitely on the turn in relation to these cases, and the evidence acceptable to rebut a presumption. A nice little counterfactual question is: what would have happened, if there had not been a breakthrough in terms of blood testing, and then much later DNA testing, for paternity, in the 20th C?



Image – Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

Bachelor, Doctor, Lawyer: Wilfrid Hooper LL.D. (solicitor)

In my continuing researches into aspects of ‘bastardy’ law, I recently had cause to read Wilfrid Hooper LLD (solicitor), The Law of Illegitimacy: a treatise on the law affecting persons of illegitimate birth, with the rules of evidence in proof of legitimacy and illegitimacy, and an historical account of the bastard in mediaeval law (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1911).[1]. The name was vaguely familiar to me, as it had come up in earlier work on women and law.[2] and I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging into his story. We hear so much about the ‘great men’ of late-19th C/ early 20th C legal history: wouldn’t it be good to know something more about the mostly-forgotten figures of this era, the ‘lesser’, local, legal historians? Rhetorical question – my blog, my rules, so yes, it would! What I have found, in my morning of investigation, is, I think, interesting in and of itself, and also suggests some areas and themes for further thought.

Who was Wilfrid Hooper?[3]

He was born in Reigate, in 1880 or 1881, the youngest child of ‘a well known local family’ – that of Mr Thomas Rowland Hooper (architect) and Mrs Elizabeth Hooper (née Perren). This relatively privileged background gave him the chance of more education than most of his contemporaries would have had – and until he was 11, he was a pupil at Reigate Grammar School; then he went to boarding school, at Oatenham School. He does not seem to have gone to university prior to embarking on a legal career – so he is not in the Maitland class of privilege, clearly – but was articled to some London solicitors, ‘the brothers Benson’, a firm which became ‘Withers, Benson, Birkett and Davies’. While working his way into legal practice, he also worked at acquiring some university qualifications, as an external, private, student, and achieved his LL.B. Hons in 1902. He was admitted to full-blown legal practice in 1903, when he was entered on the roll of solicitors. He did time in the office of Harvey Ford, in London, before, in 1906, setting up his own practice in Reigate, in a room in his father’s offices in Market Hall. He took on a pupil, H.S. Holt, who eventually, in 1937, became his partner. Hooper only gave up practice in July 1950. Newspapers show that his practice included real property as well as ‘crime’ and ‘tort’ work.[4]


His entry into the legal profession and establishment of a practice did not indicate the end of his academic ambition, however, because, in 1910, he entered for and was awarded his  LL.D. at the University of London – based on his work on illegitimacy which became the book I have mentioned. He continued to write on legal and historical subjects for much of the rest of his life. He was a ‘big cheese’ in the Surrey Archaeological Society, contributing to its transactions and serving from 1937-47 as Hon Sec. His ‘local history’ works included a Story of Reigate through the Ages, and he was apparently working on a history of Dorking at his death. He also wrote about less Surrey-based matters, including courts, sumptuary laws, [5]the law on women, and seems to have an interest in the (lawyer and) poet, Cowper.[6]

He also had other interests, legal (SE Surrey Law Society. Poor Persons Committee 1923 – 50), political (borough councillor for SE Reigate ward 1921-33)[7] and miscellaneous (school governor for Reigate Grammar School, for example). (The obituary also notes – without detail – that he served in the  1914-18 war).

The personal life angle is rather intriguing – he was a bachelor until he made a late marriage – only a month to the day before he died. He died on Saturday 2nd September 1950, aged 69. This was said to have been due to complications caused by an accident in January 1950: he had fallen in his office, and banged  his head on an iron safe, and another in May, when he fell in the street. He seems to have gone into a nursing home after that. Wilfrid had ‘day release’ from the nursing home to get married, on 2nd August 1950, at the Congregational Church in Reigate, to the widow of a solicitor, Mrs LL Nightingale, widow of Mr Thomas Nightingale.[8] He returned to the nursing home until 24th August, and then was discharged – presumably into the care of his new wife.[9]


Thoughts and themes

It is interesting to consider what all this tells us about ‘the middling sort’ of legal historian, the ‘amateur’, (who also feels qualified to opine on a variety of matters from architecture to literature, agriculture to economics) the ‘local’ expert.[10]

Hooper clearly had some ambition in the academic line – or was keen to be recognised as a skilled (legal) historian. He made the effort to acquire an LL.D., and one presumes that he did not object to being called ‘Dr Hooper’ – this is certainly the way he is described in most newspaper articles (though the Daily Mail demotes him to ‘Mr’).[11] He does not seem to have been an obvious academic superstar (or, perhaps was not sufficiently silver-spoon-showy) however, achieving a ‘second division’ result in his LL.B.[12] There are also signs that he was not quite in the mainstream of historical study – e.g. he wrote an article debunking the existence of a ‘pilgrim’s way’ between Winchester and Canterbury in the medieval period, unaware that C.G. Crump at the PRO had recently done exactly the same thing.[13]

I suppose we are seeing the point at which history, law and legal history draw apart, and specialised disciplines are created. While Hooper still felt that he had something to offer in all departments, from an academic and practical perspective, he probably outlived the days when it was realistic to combine so many different enthusiasms and be taken seriously in them (without rather higher social standing than that of a Surrey solicitor).



Image – the man himself.

[1] London Daily News, Tuesday 4th  July, 1911, p.3. The price is given as 12s 6d and I suspect it was less of a hit than Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit’s Painting Book, which is listed above in the ‘Juvenile’ section, at 1s.

[2] He wrote The Englishwoman’s Legal Guide (London: David Dutt, 1913).

[3] My main source for the basic facts is the obituary report in Surrey Mirror, Friday 08 September 1950, p. 5. Clearly this may be rose-tinted, but it ought to be relatively reliable in this case, I think.

[4] Times 20/6/1933 p. 30. Surrey Mirror 8/6/1915 p. 2.

[5] Wilfrid Hooper. “The Tudor Sumptuary Laws.” English Historical Review, vol. 30, no. 119, 1915, pp. 433–449.

[6] See, e.g. Times 4/11/1931, p. 11,

[7] His politicking deserves a separate post, I think. There is some great material from one of his victories, and the very British ‘burn’ by his defeated rival…

[8] Elsewhere she is called Janet, mind you: Surrey Mirror 8/9/1950, p. 1.

[9] The Daily Mail – on-brand as ever – says only that he had substantial assets: £44, 944 DM 30/12/1950, p.5.

[10] He gives his views on architecture in Banbury Guardian 1/8/1912, p.3.

[11] 30/12/1950, p.5.

[12] Times 4/11/1902, p. 8.

[13] Times 11/11/1936, p. 11; Observer 29/11/1936 p. 13.

Discerning paternity: James Percy and his moon-mark

And today in bastardy studies …

I have been mostly looking at an odd little area: the use of evidence of resemblance in assigning paternity of ‘bastards’. This has taken me down an another interesting little side-road, to the story of a trunk-maker called James Percy or Piercy (1619-c. 1690), who claimed to be related to the powerful Percy family (earls of Northumberland, wardens of the March, general top-dogs in the north of England over several centuries ….), and, indeed, to be entitled to inherit the earldom This will not be new to Early Modernists, or peerage fanciers, I dare say, and JP even made it into the ODNB, but I had not come across the story before.

James was not a bastard, but he is relevant to investigations of paternity more generally, in that part of the case was a physical resemblance, to wit, … a mole in the shape of a half-moon, which was the emblem of the earls of Northumberland:

‘God hath been pleased to make a true decision himself, which may be a president, for he sent the claimant from his mother’s womb with a crescent into the world, which is God’s ensign of truth, and the very badge belonging to the Percies, earls of Northumberland.’ (The case of James Percy, the true heir male and claimant to the earldom of Northumberland (London, 1680) p.7)

This mole/birthmark seems not to have made it into the ODNB’s telling of the tale, which outlines James’s relatively humble upbringing and the fate of his claim to the earldom, launched in 1671, the previous (11th) earl having recently died, without a living son (his wife having given birth to a stillborn posthumous child in 1670/71). Not hugely surprisingly, the dowager countess, mother of the 11th earl, was not having it. She went hard on behalf of Lady Elizabeth Percy, the more expected contender, and used all sorts of procedural and practical tactics to make it hard for James to make out a case. There were proceedings in the House of Lords, petitions to the king and other recipients. James’s story was not constant. Things dragged on for about 20 years, with James publishing his argument in an attenpt to gain support for the claim, and the case was only finally kicked out by the HL in 1689, with more than a little cruelty (see the ODNB entry for the ‘public humiliation’ which was ordered for poor old James, but probably not carried out).

So – an interesting story, but one which has been somewhat twisted in its reception in some legal sources. My route into the story was via 19th and 20th C reports of bastardy/exhibition of child cases from US jurisdictions, which were concerned with whether or not it was appropriate to give any weight to resemblance between a child and the man alleged to be its father. Percy’s story reaches the American cases via citation to a slightly throw-away footnote in Howell’s State Trials 12, p. 1199,  in the report of another case entirely. Some of the US reports make fairly expansive claims about what the law was, or had been, in England, and the case of James Percy is cited as uncomplicatedly showing that evidence of resemblance as an indicator of paternity was perfectly fine, and that this applied to bastardy cases (despite the fact that James was claiming not to be a bastard – otherwise of course he could not feasibly have claimed to be earl of Northumberland, entitiled types being rather strict on this point). I have more to do on resemblance evidence in paternity cases, but am not convinced that the crescent moon mole in Percy could really support the conclusions which seem to have been drawn from it.




Image – a crescent! c/o Wikimedia Commons. Really wanted to find a proper Percy moon and shackle, but best I can do is this slightly banana-esque number. Odd shape for a mole, isn’t it?


Byways and rabbit holes in ‘bastardy’ research

Today, I have mostly been creating a very interesting internet search history by looking up variations of the word ‘bastard’ in various legal and historical databases. I have a legitimate (!) reason to be doing this , as I prepare a paper on such things for the SLS conference, but it does still feel a bit like being back at school and looking up rude words in the big German dictionary in preparation for an (eventful) exchange trip to Hamburg.

Anyway, all of this searching revealed some interesting uses of ‘bastard’ – the expected ones (status, insult) plus some more metaphorical, with various products and concepts described this way (not always with the same implications). This will all be useful stuff for the SLS paper. But I spent a happy few minutes going off down another path, when a ‘bastard’ reference brought me back to questions of sex and gender, and the way in which they were understood in different historical and cultural contexts. This is something I touched on in c. 1 of Women in the Medieval Common Law, but I had more notes on it than I could use in the book, and it struck me that there are aspects of the area which I’d like to revisit.

The first step from ‘bastard’ searching to issues of sex/gender was coming across a case of mistake as to whether a ‘bastard’ child was male or female, in an article in the excellent Welsh Newspaper Archive. It caught my attention because of its Bristol context (I am very aware that, though I have lived here for ages, I have not really made an effort to write about it, so it is always good to find something with a local angle). The case was an attempt by the mother of a child to enforce maintenance payments for the child by the man she claimed was the father (this is all long before DNA tests or even blood tests, so in a world of extreme difficulty in pinpointing paternity). It took place in Bristol, before the local magistrates, in 1869. The Western Mail of 10th June, 1869 notes that there had been an ‘EXTRAORDINARY MISTAKE IN THE SEX OF A CHILD’. The defendant, Daniel Williams was charged with failure to pay sums due under a ‘bastardy order’ (i.e. an order that the man said to be the father of a child should pay towards its maintenance). The mother in the case was the splendidly named ‘Jane Vulture’. On the defendant’s behalf, it was argued that the order in question had specified that he had to pay to support a male child, born on 9th November, 1866, but the child now brought for inspection was female. Ms Vulture may, perhaps not have been able to read, since the story seems to have been that she signed statements about the child which were read out to her – and now claimed that she had never said it was a male, and that that must have been a mistake by the clerk. Sadly for her, this did not sway the court, and the case against Williams was dismissed. Who knows the rights and wrongs of it – was this a different Baby Vulture from the one initially the subject of an order, or did Williams take advantage of a clerical error to weasel out of his responsibilities? The case was not, however, quite what I had thought on seeing the headline. Given current controversies about the validity of biological sex and gender identity, I jumped to the conclusion that this was a case of ‘intersex’ or something similar. Wrong, I think. There is no suggestion of the possibility of doubt here.

And where did that lead me next? Well, I did wonder what contemporary ideas were about this now-contested borderline, so I had a little search for that odd old term ‘hermaphrodite’. That came up a fair bit in my medieval investigations, and I had already had glimpses of its later uses, so it was interesting to probe a bit more in easily-accessible online archives of newspapers from the 19th and early 20th Cs. This turned up two definite but unequally sized strands of material – a few cases of what do look like possible cases of ‘intersex’, but far more metaphorical uses of ‘hermaphrodite’.

On the ‘factual’ side, there are newspaper reports which seem remarkably like medieval/early modern ‘prodigy/monstrous birth’ stories. Note, for example, tales of ‘hermaphrodite’ babies in Llanfynydd in 1851 and  Cardiff in 1906. There are certainly things to consider here, in relation to tone of report, and the apparent response of parents and medics. It is the more metaphorical usage of ‘hermaphrodite’ which particularly interests me, however. This comes up in relation to transgression of gender norms – such as a female cyclist wearing some form of trousers, in a ‘funny’ article from 1896. It is also used in relation to linguistic gender, in relation to bardic expression, in articles from the Welsh-language press, e.g. in 1851. Interestingly, it also crops up in areas with little to do with gender, even in its linguistic form, simply denoting an idea of mixture, or odd/uncomfortable/inappropriate mixture. Thus we have ‘moral hemaphrodisim’, ‘political hermaphroditism’ and even nautical and military hermaphroditism (mixed types of rigging and mixed army-navy organisation respectively). In many ways, there is an overlap with the metaphorical use of ‘bastard’ for mixed concepts, which is coming up in the SLS paper I am writing (‘bastard feudalism’, ‘bastardy’ in relation to the Scots ‘not proven’ verdict, amongst other usages). I am yet to work out when it would have been appropriate to use ‘hermaphrodite’ and when ‘bastard’ – presumably the latter is a little more critical than the former, though both are somewhat critical. More work to do!




Image – a rather gratuitous bunny. Yes I did choose the title to enable me to use it …

Photo by Quinn Secker on Unsplash


“Bastard Pauper Lunatics” and Victorian establishment values

Slightly listlessly looking for a bit of inspiration for SLS paper on bastardy etc., I was drawn into references in 19th C numbers of the British Medical Journal. This really is ‘foreign country’ territory – despite not really being so very long ago.

The page I alighted upon was one which promised something with a title making up a  full bingo-row of cold-hearted dismissive Victorian vocabulary: ‘Bastard Pauper Lunatics’. This (it was a letter) was indeed chilling – eugenic theory in full throated cry, despite the ‘civilised’ nature of expression, medium and audience. It was part of what was said to be a debate about what to do with the apparently frightening numbers of young pregnant ‘imbeciles’ turning up at workhouses. Solutions seem to have been at least as much concerned with condemnation and cost as with help and protection.

Just this one page (The British Medical Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1868 (Oct. 17, 1896), p. 1153 ) shows a lot about middle and upper class Victorian attitudes. On the one hand we have thinly veiled loathing for those in poverty or with mental incapacities, and also racism (including two-for-the-price-of one gratuitous racism): on sanitation in Egypt, it is stated as fact that ‘Sanitation in Egypt, as in India, has to contend with an ignorant, apathetic, and obstructive population …’ On the other hand, there is sympathy – rather gushing sympathy – for a recently deceased Archbishop of Canterbury and headmaster of Wellington College (an socially exclusionary  school) and an ailing prominent surgeon.

I can’t help but remember that this comes from the same world as the early Selden Society, and the ‘fathering’ (observe scare quotes – don’t like this usage at all) of English Legal History. It really seems like time to give some serious thought to the ways in which the discipline may have been influenced by its early environment. I know I am not alone in thinking this. Possibly some of that might make its way into the paper.



Maritime maths: ‘within the four seas’

Ahoy there!

Today’s papers include a report that those who know about these things have decided to designate the waters around Antarctica an ocean (as opposed to just ‘the waters around Antarctica’). I cannot comment on the geographical rights and wrongs of this,[i] and, looking at it in terms of eco-systems and current patterns etc., I have no doubt it makes sense, but it feels a rather odd thing, doesn’t it, splitting up water into separate named areas, as if it they were discrete, borderable, landmasses? This designation of separate oceans or seas has resonances[ii] with one aspect of my recent research into the law of adulterine bastardy.

Until the twentieth century, there was some legal relevance in knowing whether or not somebody was a run-of-the-mill ‘bastard’ or an ‘adulterine bastard’. The latter designation was used for a child  born to a married woman, but not the child of her husband. The law sometimes had to sort out disputes in which a wife/widow alleged that the child was that of her husband, but somebody else (the husband or an alternative heir, perhaps) claimed that the child had been fathered by somebody else. Just how this was to be done changed over time, but, for several centuries, roughly from the fourteenth century to the early eighteenth century, a key question in legal process around this matter was whether or not the husband had been ‘within the four seas’ at the relevant time for conception of the child.[iii] If he had, he was presumed to be the father in most cases. The question which arose for me, when I came across this criterion, was ‘which seas do we mean, then?’. Presumably the Channel and the North Sea are reasonably easy (if we ignore the Isle of Wight, Scillies and Channel Islands), but does the western ‘sea’ bring Ireland into the equation or not, and where on earth is the northern ‘sea’ (have we forgotten that the border with Scotland is a little bit on the landy side?). If we factor in the whole of the area controlled by the king of England, that might include parts of modern France as well, for much of the relevant period.

There is some discussion relevant to the issue in early modern sources. In relation to jurisdiction, Selden interprets ‘Within the Kingdom’ as ‘within the Southern, Eastern and Western Seas’ and, on the vexed question of the ‘northern sea’ writes of  ‘That Northern Sea which washeth both sides of that neck of land whereby Scotland is united to England’. (which may not be the most practical of borderlines). and ‘clarifies’ this as ‘within the outmost bounds of the English Empire in those four Seas, or within the opposite shores of the Eastern and Southern Sea or Ports belonging to other Princes, and within the bounds of the Northern and Western Sea, which indeed are to be bounded after another manner ; but yet to be bounded : that is accordirng to the extent of possession Westward beyond the Western Shores of Ireland, and by the first beginning of that Sea, which is of the Scottish name and jurisdiction’. [iv] He notes a late fourteenth century case in which somebody tried and failed to make the argument that Scotland itself was ‘within the four seas’ – which I must track down.[v] It may, in fact, have received a slight ‘unionist’ twist in the minds of Scots at least, in the nineteenth century – one treatise at least, while stating that it does not have great force in Scots law, implies that the common law test relates to ‘residence of both parents within the islands of Great Britain’.[vi]

By this time, however, English law had moved on from relying so heavily on the ‘within four seas’ formulation. Why? Well I am sure that there are various reasons, including some of the odd results which might be produced if the presumption was given the sort of weight sometimes suggested. I think there might have been another factor too. Coke, perhaps deciding that there were serious practical problems with the whole maritime delimitation issue, decided to interpret the problem away: stating that it just meant ‘within the kingdom of England and the dominion of the same kingdom’.[vii] This represented a  move from geography to political control. It may also have contributed to the decline of the concept. Coke’s work, of course, came at a time when England and Scotland were beginning their period of global attempts at colonisation, and  a criterion and a test which might be interpreted as a presumption of legitimacy even when husband and wife were on different sides of the Atlantic was probably destined to be [wait for the maritime image …] jettisoned.





[i] (I stopped geography at 16 and last memory of it is of a fairly major error in the map-work exam, in which none of the blue had been printed on the paper, which made it rather hard to discuss bodies of water, as required …)

[ii] ‘Sounding the depths’ is hinted at here, you see – this is high literature …

[iii] This expression also occurs in some procedural matters, at an earlier time – I have not investigated this yet. See, e.g., 29 SS, 225; 113 SS 138; 18 SS, 234.

[iv] John Selden, Of Dominion (1652)  387.

[v] p. 388.

[vi] James Fergusson, Treatise on the Present State of the Consistorial L in Scotl&: With Reports of Decided Cases (Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute., 1829), 199.

[vii] Co Litt 107a

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