Category Archives: bastardy

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

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Semen and semantics – considering legal metaphors[i]

A little reading this morning on law and metaphor, as I think about the paper I need to write for the SLS conference in September,[ii] which is going to look at bastardy, legitimacy and law/legal methods (a bit more on it here). Not surprisingly, others – lawyers and legal academics – have considered the issue of metaphorical talk in law, though, luckily, not the precise issue I mean to discuss.

Metaphor is an important theme for those of us interested in the history of women and law – especially in relation to coverture, so it is something which has been on my mind quite a bit in recent years. The bastardy angle is slightly different though – I want to think a little more expansively about the links between some of the problematic metaphors and expressions used in relation to bastardy and legitimacy (especially the ‘born within the four seas’ tag, in relation to adulterine bastardy,  but others too) and the process of ‘legitimate’ legal development, considering metaphors of (male POV) reproduction (and its impossibility), ‘father figures’ in law and legal history.[iii] In 20 minutes. Will it work, or will I end up getting too far into areas (language, jurisprudence) of which I know very little? We shall see.

My general reading so far has highlighted the sheer number of doctrinal tests which ‘get metaphorical’ – in all areas, but perhaps especially on the ‘civil’ side). Writings highlight their utility or problems, but there is probably quite a lot to say about their use as display within the legal profession and to/by its academic associates.

One thing I have noticed in my reading up to now is the difficulty people seem to find in writing about legal metaphor without using metaphors in that discussion itself. For example, this one at 257 states that  ‘[l]egal discourse is pregnant with metaphor., ’[iv]  this one (at p. 8) discusses metaphors ‘taking root’ in legal and other language, while this one, is generally wary of legal metaphors, but can’t resist (at 19) referring to a ‘seminal judgment’. That last one is a term I dislike – I know that semen-seminal could be interpreted generally, as ‘seed’/seedy (OK, I know, ‘seed-related’), but let’s be honest, sunflower seeds are not the first sort of seed that comes into anyone’s head in relation to those words. (And quite apart from the gendered sperminess of it, it has a rather uncritical aspect to it, justifying the process of legal development as somehow inevitable).[v] I certainly need to do some more thinking about how the apparently morally-neutral biological idea of the ‘seminal’ judgment relates to the morally-inflected legitimate procreation metaphors seen in some other places.

(And a final random thought – what would we call an ‘Ockham’s Razor’ for metaphors?).



[i] (I know – tabloidy title: never claimed to be classy …)

[ii] (seems a long way off but I already know I am going to have a large batch of marking in August, and, well, a break after the current lot might be quite nice/necessary if I am not going to collapse)

[iii] Thinking about this now, the main rivals to the fatherhood metaphor for legitimate legal development are probably that of botanical growth, that of rivers  and that of orthodoxy/heresy. Also n.b. the absolute ‘metaphor bingo line’ would be refs to fatherhood + ‘seminal’ + legitimacy.

[iv] Ah – takes me back to the ‘negative pregnant’ in medieval pleading …

[v] Maybe it’s compound metaphor as well, since presumably semen came to be used for … well … semen … before the motility of sperm was observed (otherwise, clearly, the people who choose words would have gone with something a bit more tadpoley). I can see I have work to do …

Photo by Erik van Anholt on Unsplash

Legitimate distraction

In today’s between-marking interludes, doing a case-search for something I am writing on ‘bastardy’. This keeps turning up 19th C cases with Bastard as a surname (Polden v Bastard; Nicolls v. Bastard…). Would have thought that would be a pretty mortifying surname in the days of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with all of their illegitimacy-related plots, and all of the very real legal implications and social stigma of ‘bastardy’. Seems odd that it was not jettisoned. (Is it still with us? Can’t say I have ever been introduced to a Mr Bastard, Ms Bastard or Professor Bastard).

(Top prize for the most Blackaddery sounding ones, though, must go to some earlier examples – so we have Bastard, Administrator of Bastard, who was Executor of Bastard v [disappointingly not Bastard, but] Jutsham 94 E.R. 996 1 Jan 1738  Barnes 444 | [1738], and the simple but classic Bastard v. Bastard 89 ER 807| (1690) 2 Show. K.B. 81.)



Image: Wikimedia Commons.

(PS Fans of the author, Mr Collins, ought to have an information site about him called Wilkiepedia, oughtn’t they? Maybe they do.)

The Barmaid’s Belly: a late case of de ventre inspiciendo

Today, I am researching (in so far as it is possible, without usual access to libraries, archives etc.) a late instance of the writ de ventre inspiciendo – ordering the inspection of a woman claiming pregnancy, by women, in civil proceedings. It has come up in my research on ‘Unknowns at the Start of Life’ for a swiftly approaching paper (April), and needs a bit of thought.  The case was heard in Knight Bruce VC’s court, on 8th May, 1845.[i]

It involved a dispute about a trust. A ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’ had some property – he held it as tenant for life, and the remainder was held by trustees on a thousand year term, on trust to provide money for Blakemore’s issue, and the remainder was for the people bringing the action here.

The petitioners were not able simply to have the property, however, because there was a competing claim, from the ‘gentleman of the name of Blakemore’s wife: this woman claimed to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child, and, if that was so, then the child would be entitled to money from the trust. It was therefore in the interest of the petitioners to cast doubt on this claim to be pregnant with Blakemore’s child.

The petitioners proceeded with the doubt-casting by portraying both Blakemore and his widow as dubious characters. It is not altogether clear why they needed to have a go at Blakemore himself, but apparently there were affidavits which ‘represented [him] to have been a man of dissolute and intemperate habits’. It was probably with a view to having a go at both of the spouses that they stressed that he had ‘married the barmaid of an inn in Wales’ (not just some barmaid, but a Welsh barmaid – just at the time that Welsh women were about to be insulted quite horrendously in the treacherous Blue Books, as being of extremely easy virtue). Blakemore had, so they said, come to London, leaving his Welsh barmaid wife behind, and died in January 1845. He was dead then, so the petitioners couldn’t have a go at him any further, but they had not finished with the widow Blakemore. They said that she had ‘carried on adulterous intercourse’ with the groom of her husband, during the latter’s absence before his death, and after she was widowed, had started to live with the groom ‘as man and wife’ (and as if that was not bad enough ‘at a certain public-house in Wales’, and the ‘subsisting connection’ was ‘one of sin’ (rather than there having been a second marriage).

The report is a little telegraphic (v. much the latest thing – see how on point my tech reference is?) but it is clear that an order was made for an inspection of the widow, by a ‘jury of women’. Although some of the evidence on behalf of the petitioners seems to have been not that the widow was not pregnant, but that she was not pregnant with her dead husband’s child, the inspection would not have been of any value in relation to that issue. Perhaps the point is that they were trying to discredit both the existence of a pregnancy which had begun during the marriage, and also, if that failed, to do the more difficult job of rebutting the presumption that the child of a married woman was her husband’s issue. This had become a little less difficult in the first part of the 19th C, but very strong evidence was still required.

So, the petitioners’ case can, perhaps be understood. The puzzle, from my point of view, is that there does not seem to have been much interest in the press. Why did I expect that there would be? Well, sex, adultery, class, bashing the Welsh – good ways of getting people to read your paper, I would have thought. Then there is also the de ventre inspiciendo process itself – now something of a rarity in civil cases, and, when it was proposed in a case in 1835 (of which more in a later post) it was considered quite, quite scandalous, and cruel. Could the difference possibly have been that between a respectable English tradesman’s wife – easily believed to be too delicate to be poked and prodded (the situation in the Fox case of 1835)– and a Welsh barmaid, who could not be imagined to have any finer feelings? Surely not.

Further details on the parties, the story, and whether there ever was an inspection of the body of the much-maligned Welshwoman will have to await the great re-opening of the archives. Another one for the pile!



(Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash)

[i] Blakemore v Blakemore 1 Holt Eq. 328; 71 ER 769; In re Blakemore, 14 L.J. (NS) Ch. 336 (1845).

Blood and Brothers


One of the matters I touch on in the forthcoming Women and Medieval Law book is the basis for the right to bring an appeal – an individual prosecution – in the medieval period. Appeals are important in a consideration of women and the common law, because they were a way that women could initiate a ‘criminal’ case, though they were shut out from participation in other methods – especially presentment/indictments. To cut a long story short, there are various statements which purport to set out accepted limitations on the matters women could appeal (most prominently mentioned as allowed are homicide of a husband and rape) but there are also many, many examples of women bringing other appeals; and a little study makes it apparent that the ideas about why women can ever bring appeals (in a system which prevents them from other routes of prosecution) are not at all clear. There are a number of different ideas floating about, including revenge, particular damage and likely physical proximity to the offence.

Because the book was about women, I did not get into a related issue: if a single man is killed, who has the right of appeal? This is an interesting one, partly in terms of the ‘answer’, but mainly in terms of the way arguments are made about it, so it deserves a short exploration here (no doubt to be updated as and when I find new cases on it).

At least in 14th and 15th C cases, a definite ‘pecking order’ was understood, as between the brothers or sons of a slain man, and somebody accused by the appeal of a younger brother could legitimately say that this was invalid, because this was the wrong person to be bringing the appeal: the right lay in the older brother.  In a case in 1314, for example, (KB27/218 Rex m. 10 (IMG 24)) from Worcestershire, a woman, Margery, wife of John I,  and John II, were accused by one William of killing his brother, Thomas. Margery was accused of killing Thomas by hitting him in the head with a stone, while John II held him by the throat. Apart from denying wrongdoing, Margery argued that she should not have to answer the appeal, because William had an older brother, John III , and it was this John III  who should have brought the appeal. It ‘naturally pertained’ to John III to prosecute it, and he was ‘nearer in blood etc.’  It seems to have been another point on which the appeal failed, but it was at least an outing for this idea about ‘the wrong brother’.

It is not proximity, but ‘worthiness’ of blood which is the justification given for preference of the elder over the younger brother in cases from the 1330s:  KB 27/310 Rex m. 6d (AALT IMG 333), KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245)  and KB 27/312  m.3 (AALT IMG 290). (KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245) features an argument as to whether the alleged elder brother exists (was inventing an elder brother a tactic which might, or buy some time?). The matter was raised in some later Year Book reports too. Seipp 1467.041 and 1468.007 – and Markham J was apparently concerned about whole blood and half blood relationships (only the former would do, so must be mentioned, tracing the blood of victim and prosecutor in the appeal).

An earlier fifteenth century case showed a difficulty which could arise for younger brothers – what if there was an older brother, but he was not interested in bringing an appeal, or not able to do so? Seipp 1412.047abr notes a case in which the older son of an allegedly murdered man was a monk, and the upshot seems to have been that there was nothing to be done – the younger son did not have a right to appeal here.

So what?

Well – as a younger sibling, I am not happy at the idea that the older sibling has ‘worthier blood’ (though would that work with women, or would they have some coparcenry-equivalent pattern, with any sister being as good as any other?).

Less self-centredly, it has got me thinking about blood, and how it figures in different areas of law (free/unfree status, bastardy, succession more generally, attainder and ‘corruption of the blood’, rape, assault and ‘drawing blood’ as a threshold or evidential requirement… probably more).  And how does ‘blood’ relate to ‘flesh’: how do lineal and matrimonial relationships interact one with another? Maybe one day this will all fall into place in my mind and end up as a paper on ‘The Law of Blood’. Interesting, anyway to try and work out what ideas about blood were present here. Clearly it would need to bring in theological and medical ideas too. But probably not vampires.