Category Archives: Women

Unfinished business: sexual misconduct in medieval Middlesex

I have found some additional material relating to an indictment I mentioned in Women in the Medieval Common Law,[i] though no conclusion. The indictment, from Middlesex, from 1385, related to a rape on Margaret. servant or maid (ancilla) of one Matilda Wherewell.[ii] It stated, on a night in 1385, Adam Matte, leprosus, had come to the house of Matilda Wherewell, in the parish of St Clements outside the bar of the old Temple in London, and bargained with Matilda to sleep with her that night,[iii] for 10 shillings. Matilda told Adam that she did not want to do this, but that she had a certain very beautiful servant called Margaret,[iv] who was lying in one of Matilda’s chambers, and he could sleep with Margaret if he paid Matilda the sum mentioned. Adam agreed and paid the money to Matilda. Straight afterwards, Matilda led him to the chamber where Margaret was lying. She told Adam he could do what he wanted, and locked the two in the room. Adam, feloniously, grabbed Margaret around the neck, threw her to the ground and raped her. Straight after this felony, because of the foulness of the rape, and Adam’s disease, Margaret became unwell, ‘losing her mind’, and continued in this state until she died, three days later. It was emphasised that Matilda had consented to, aided and abetted the commission of the felony.

Matilda’s first tactic, when she was tried in 1386, was to say that she should not have to answer this charge, since she was an accessory, and Adam, as principal, had not been convicted or outlawed. This worked, and Margaret was bailed to appear at future sessions. Later that year, another tactic emerged: flight. Her sureties were fined for failing to produce her,[v] and the sheriff of Middlesex was to track her down,[vi] and so it goes on until 1387,[vii] but then the trail fades away, and as is all too common, Matilda seems to disappear.


So what?

Well, I used it in the book to illustrate the reach of common law beyond principal offenders, to include those facilitating offences, and to note that this could make women amenable to prosecution as accessories, even when they were not regarded as capable of committing an offence as a principal. I think there is more here, though.

Prostitution/sex for sale

If the indictment is anything resembling the truth, it is an example of commercial sexual exploitation of an entirely unwilling servant – and perhaps a situation in which ‘prostitution’ seems a more appropriate term  than ‘sex work’, with the element of at least some exercise of will which seems to be bound up in that latter term. The picture given is one of an unaware servant exploited by Matilda, for her own financial benefit, who is unconsenting to the point of having to be locked up in a room with her ‘client’.

‘Leper’ as sexual predator

The story also brings together ‘lepers’ and illicit sex, in a way which will chime in with other ideas about lascivious ‘lepers’, from polemic and literature. It also seems quite interesting from the point of view of regarding it as plausible that somebody with leprosy might be wandering around looking for sex in a highly populated area. I cannot claim expertise in medieval disease or response to it, but this strikes me as unexpected. If this was indeed a person with leprosy/Hansen’s disease, then the idea that Margaret might have contracted it from him in a few days is beyond unlikely. The idea that she might be traumatised and ‘lose her mind’ seems rather more plausible, given the circumstances, and the horror of this disease in medieval Europe.

Legal points

It is, as noted in the book, interesting to see a woman accused as an accessory to rape, though she could not be a principal. Matilda’s contribution to the rape is significant, according to the indictment. It would not have happened without her, it would appear.

Given the structure of the offence and indictment, Matilda’s argument about principal and accessory was logical enough. If the man accused did in fact have leprosy, or was thought to have it, however, could he have been prosecuted? I don’t think that common law procedure had a strategy for trying those with feared and contagious conditions like this. In a sense, a ‘leper’ might be the perfect principal for an exploitative employer like Matilda (or the version of Matilda suggested by the indictment) – one the common law would not touch.




(image, halfpenny of Richard II, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

[i] KB 9/167 m. 8 (IMG 17), mentioned at p. 126 of Women in the Medieval Common Law.

[ii] (The indictment looks like ‘Whorewell’, at least to those of us with very questionable eyesight. The materials discussed here show that it was  ‘Wherewell’, however, and thus probably a simple geographical name, relating to Wherwell, Hants, rather than, as I had imagined, a sort of occupational designation/jeer, attached to a woman who appears to have been involved in selling sex, one way or another).

[iii] These terms are notoriously difficult to translate, perhaps impossible in terms of capturing the nuances. It is clear that this is about sex, not accommodation.

[iv] (Or, as the KB 27 version has it, a servant called Margaret Pulcheriman. Makes a difference, doesn’t it? The latter suggests the sort of ‘trade name’ which might be used by a sex worker, and would seem to relate the unwillingness to the state of the particular man, rather than to the more general unwillingness of a servant not generally selling sex).

[v] AALT Page (

[vi] AALT Page (

[vii] AALT Page (

Between cause and effect: the length of lingering deaths

There is an interesting (if, obviously, horrible) local murder case in the press today, for anyone looking at the issue of causation, and the potential time-gap between offending action and death, which action may still be amenable to prosecution as homicide. Rather than simply being a matter of later discovery of, and prosecution of, a murder, the death of Jacqueline Kirk was relatively recent (2019), but the criminal action being assigned as its cause (setting her on fire) occurred 21 years before that. This leapt out at me today, quite apart from its horror and human interest, as connecting to an academic interest which I have long had in ideas about causation of death, and the issues surrounding ascribing criminal culpability in cases of ‘lingering death’, in so far as we can gather them from medieval legal records – and on which I plan to work in 2021-2. There are differences, of course, in that there can now be considerably greater certainty about factual causation than would have been the case in the ‘premodern world’, but causation in the law of homicide is never just a matter of fact, but mixes in all sorts of judgments about blame and appropriateness of bringing belated legal proceedings, so this recent case, and the discussion which it will no doubt encourage, will be an interesting lens through which to examine my material (though I have to say that, while there are certainly some very belated prosecutions, I have not found any attempts to argue for a ‘lingering death homicide’ of anything like this length, in older materials – no doubt to a great extent because people subjected to serious violence such as being set on fire would be unlikely to survive long, without modern medical interventions, but there are fascinating changes in ideas about the moral/legal aspects of causation to track as well).



Image (and yes I know this is not the court where the accused appeared yesterday, but the new one is a bit ugly: also good to see a statue in Bristol which is not obviously in need of a toppling): Stone statue of Justice by Edward Sheppard, the old Magistrates Court, Bridewell St., Bristol, dated 1879

Presenting (and Indicting): talk on medieval sexual offences

In between the marking and admin today I am getting ready for a talk tomorrow (online, of course – in this case, with academics from various European universities, and nominally ‘in’ Paris – may purchase a croissant and coffee to get in the mood, since it starts relatively early). The topic is sexual offences, and the overall topic of the project, historicising sexual harassment. It is a challenge, to present the oddities of medieval common law to a mostly non-common-lawyer audience, but it has also been interesting preparing this, with a slight external perspective, thinking about what will be unfamiliar, and where the audience will probably know rather more than me (e.g. presenting on law-French to a ‘room’ full of French scholars is a new one on me).

I am looking at ways of making this available beyond the seminar itself, though I am not sure I want to go on with my experiment in YouTubing. Sticking it up on Mediasite and sending links on request might be the answer, should anyone be interested.



Pictures (and words) at an (online) exhibition

We are all hoping that it will be safe to end the pandemic restrictions at some point not too far into the future. Historians are aching to get back into archives on the old basis, without booking or the frustration of being able to book, and to attend conferences once again. Nevertheless, many of us have found some aspects of ‘remote scholarship’ quite positive. I have certainly attended far more talks and seminars over this past year and a bit than ever I did in the Before Times. For example, I have watched a large number of seminars in London at the IHR, which, ordinarily, due to the travel time and expense, I would not have attended. To drag myself there in person, the subject matter would have to be absolutely central to my interests, whereas this year, I have been going and having my horizons broadened in all sorts of directions. I think it has been a bonus for postgraduate scholars, and early career researchers too. And it has been wonderful to have the participation of scholars from all over the world in these gatherings. I imagine that many series will go back to their previous pattern once they are able to do so, but I hope very much that that won’t be the case with all of them – I am sure that there is scope for continued history/legal history online seminars in the future. More on that in due course, I hope.

The other sort of ‘event’ I have enjoyed ‘attending’ has been the online exhibition. I have always been a haunter of museums of all sorts, from childhood enthusiasm for those glass cases of coins and badly-stuffed-and-posed animals, through intense teen art-staring, to an appreciation for slightly more off-beat, interactive things in more recent times – so one of the pains of lockdown has been not being able to see new exhibitions in person. It has been eased by some of the creative things done, e.g. by the National Archives, and various universities; and today (as a reward for hitting my afternoon marking target!) I visited an online exhibition about women’s magazines  between the world wars, Exhibition ( Women’s history is, of course, an interest, but I feel rather ill-informed about the era of my own grandparents. So much popular history of this era is dominated by ‘the rise of the Nazis’ and ‘the abdication crisis’ that the lives and enthusiasms of ordinary women can easily be drowned out – so it is good to see careful work being done on such things.

Lady Rhondda features prominently (and I do know about her, from suffragette studies, as well as because she was a big figure in Monmouthshire, which is Seabourne family home turf) along with Time and Tide. There’s so much more, though. I had never heard of The Woman Engineer –  and it’s rather heartening that there was such a publication. There’s a bit on political campaigning, relating to equalising the franchise, amongst other things. There is fashion too – with those unfeasibly long thin figures of women in suits and hats (pronounced ‘hets’ in a clipped R.P. in my head), and material on careers, and problem pages. Some of the design is very attractive.  (And who knew that Good Housekeeping in the 1930s featured articles on international politics by Helena Normanton? Well, not me!).

Anyway – I enjoyed that. As with the online seminars, I think there is a future for this format. Have a look before it disappears. As for me, well, time, tide and the marking pile (electronic) wait for no woman …



Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

Lechery, pressure and escape in medieval Lincolnshire?

The entry I am interested in today is from the Michaelmas 1371 King’s Bench plea roll,[i] arising as part of a series of indictments relating to an alleged ne’er-do-well of Lincolnshire, Robert Gascall of Wold Newton. A Lincolnshire jury had accused Robert of a series of offences, some of them dating back several years, to 1364, ranging from homicide, through theft, to general menacing behaviour. The one I am interested in is a little more unusual, however.

Robert was accused of what we might define as sexual harassment or using sexual harassment as pressure for financial gain. The story was that one Joan Fettys of Bondeby had come to Glanford Brigg, apparently having business with an ecclesiastical court, on 3rd October, 1368, and Robert somehow got her into his room (I am assuming bedroom). Joan was said not to have known anything to Robert’s discredit (though by this point, according to the list of allegations, he had committed a number of offences, including homicide). When Robert had her in his room, he said he should have her as his concubine, and she refused. That, though, was not an end to the matter. Robert would not allow her to leave until she paid him off. The deal involved three pounds of silver and a purse with a silver clasp, price 40d.

There was difficulty, or reluctance, about getting him to appear for trial, but eventually Robert did appear to face this and the other charges. He was (surprise!) acquitted. A royal pardon was involved in relation to the homicide,[ii] but for the offence relating to Joan, and the other offences, he was simply found not guilty.


So what?

This one is interesting to me, in relation to the general picture of the treatment of women in medieval common law, but also, in particular, in relation to a paper I am preparing on traces of ideas about sexual misconduct/harassment other than rape, in medieval common law records, for the AVISA project. Such traces are rather scarce, and this one has some interesting aspects and hints, which I am currently turning over in my mind.

What can I do with it? Well, obviously there’s no way of getting anywhere with the ‘truth question’.  I think, though, that I can at least say that the entry shows that people (men) thought:

  • that the law might, or should, act here;
  • that this was unacceptable treatment of Joan
  • that it was something which added to their other accusations of Robert, who was clearly seen as a trouble-maker.

(It also strikes me that there might be a worthwhile investigation of the ways in which such multi-part indictments were put together, and their overall narrative. One interesting little touch here is the description of the exchange between Robert and Joan, when he is suggesting that he should have her as his concubine: reference is made to God’s help, as being involved in her resistance to this proposition. This does seem both to raise sympathy for Joan, and also to condemn Robert further).

In terms of the project aim to try and elucidate a historical background to condemnation of sexual misconduct, it is one of the fragments of evidence which show that ‘popular’ understanding of the relationship between law and sexual misconduct was much more complex and interesting than we might imagine, from the grim procession of appeals and indictments of rape. I look forward to discussing this further.





(Featured image – somewhere in the general vicinity. Hard to know what sort of image to use with a story of sexual harassment/pressure, so geography seemed a half-decent option).



[i] KB 27/443 Rex m. 34 (IMG 0223).

[ii] I have not found this yet. The homicide charge is mentioned in CPR 1367-70 p. 262.

[iii] (You know you are a dyed-in-the-wool legal history obsessive when all that is keeping you going through a hugely tiring and stressful time with ‘it all kicking off’ in the day job is the thought of that interesting little case which is crying out for a quick think and write up … That has very much been me today: good to get to it at last!)

A ‘Petty Treason’ Oddity

This really is a snippet, but, I think, worth mentioning as a little footnote to various recent posts on wives being treated as ‘petty traitors’ for killing their husbands.

A gaol delivery entry for a session at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 (JUST 3/210 m. 31) noted that William atte Halle of Bromham in Bedfordshire, labourer, had been indicted for the felonious killing of his wife, Alice. On 7th May the same year, at Bromham, he had allegedly posioned her food with ‘some deadly poison called arsenic and resalgar’. She had died on the 18th May. William’s not guilty plea was unsuccessful. He was found guilty and was ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

The marginal note here, ‘distr’ & sus’ is not the usual expression of punishment for an ‘ordinary’ felony – we would expect just the ‘sus’ – referring to the hanging. ‘Drawing and hanging’ is usually only seen in cases of ‘petty treason’ convictions of men (so, servant kills master cases and counterfeiting). A husband killing his wife was not petty treason, since this was a category which related to offences against hierarchy, so there was no conjugal symmetry here. So was this a mistake? Was this particular case seen as particularly heinous for some reason? Could it have been the poison? A mystery – perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

I am also interested in the ‘cause of death’ aspect. Those who have ever done me wrong will be pleased to know that I have no expertise in the art of arsenic poisoning, so I do not know whether a death 11 days after ingesting arsenic would be likely to have been caused by the arsenic. Either way, it is interesting that a medieval jury would think so, and it’s one for my ‘post attack lingering deaths’ spreadsheet.



(Photo by Raphiell Alfaridzy on Unsplash – OK it’s a bit random, but generally suggesting meal preparation …)

Owning words: some musings on categories and captivity

I have had cause to think quite a lot about the idea of people as property. Amongst other places in which this has come up in my teaching and research have been: medical law (yes – once upon a time used to teach that) where it features in relation to embryos and organs, for example; property law (can you have property in a corpse?) and of course legal history. In thinking about the history of women and the law, it is not uncommon to see references to the effect that ‘oh well, of course women used to be the property of their husbands/fathers etc.’. I have never been very happy with this line – apart from anything else, it often seems to be something of a device to encapsulate and dismiss a whole messy and uncomfortable area of historical (mis)behaviour, a somewhat ‘othering’ tendency too (for, if older dispensations can be seen as stark, and starkly different from present ideas, any nasty continuities and analogies of injustice can be ignored). I made some comments on the ‘women as property’ idea in the recent book on Women in the Medieval Common Law. It continues to bubble away in my mind, and here are a couple of other thoughts on it.

  1. Working with words and processes

One of the reasons why it might feel right to make a link between legal treatment of women and property in chattels is the recurrence of words in legal process relating to both categories. Thus abduxit would be used in relation to both the removal of a woman and the removal of a sheep, and relevant legal processes might also bear some resemblance, one to another. I am not sure, though, that that can be taken to indicate that ‘women were property’ in any meaningful sense.[i] The truth is that there were limitations of both linguistic and procedural sorts which go quite some way to explaining why there would be such similarities. The linguistic issue is that those choosing words for legal process and its records had a limited selection from which to select, and we should be slow to infer from the use of a term in two different legal contexts that it was understood in an identical sense in both. To take a possibly silly example, just because the verb used in relation both to wrongful cutting of a tree bough, and also to wrongful removal of a person’s arm in a sword fight would be amputavit, it does not mean that medieval common lawyers thought people and trees were the same. Likewise, the ‘vocabulary’ of legal process was finite, and the fact that a husband’s action with regard to the removal of his wife looks a bit like an action for the removal of a chattel cannot be taken too far. As students of legal history will know, the process of putting a set of facts into a few pre-existing procedural patterns is one of the hallmarks of common law development. Of course, the fact that the husband is accommodated in seeking legal action in relation to wrongs to his wife shows that he was seen as, and made, her superior – but I am not convinced that this should be seen as ‘property’ rather than ‘power’.

  1. Women/slaves/property

The links between ‘women as property’ and the explicit treatment of enslaved people as property are potentially problematic. Those noting the difficulities of women, or involved in campaigning for improvements in women’s rights have long made the connection (see also Jacobites, American independence fighters). It is particularly hard, now, to understand the viewpoint of those who talked of the injustice of women’s position in terms of ‘slavery’, while living in an age which did not reject the slave trade or the material benefits derived from such exploitation. See, for example,these lines from  a poem which makes this analogy:


Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762),

Epistle from Mrs Yonge to Her Husband (1724)[ii]


All bargains but conditional are made;

The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;

Defrauded servants are from service free;

A wounded slave regains his liberty.

For wives ill-used, no remedy remains,

To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.

O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue.

The change is justified by something new;

But we must sigh in silence – and be true


It did strike me today, however, when reading a review of a new publication on resistance by enslaved women, that, if we proceed with extreme caution, there could be some useful transferring of ideas for modern scholars of women’s history from the growing body of work done on enslaved people. In particular, I was arrested by the observation of the author, Rebecca Hall, that slave traders, afraid that there would be resistance by those being shipped into slavery, insured against cargo insurrection, and noting the complete contradiction between (explicitly) calling something a cargo (and really treating it as such – see the Zong Massacre) and yet admitting that there is a human will there. The point which is useful, from the point of view of women’s history, is not exactly the ‘persons as property’  part, it is the ‘subordinated persons as amenable to being put into whichever legal class we want, maybe even two arguably contradictory classes at the same time’ idea which is implicit. That unrepentant mental gymnastics point certainly applies to the history of women’s legal treatment (see one of my recent posts, on petty treason) , and I think deserves some further thought.



[i] Let’s leave aside the difficult question of defining ‘property’, and comparison of ‘property words’ and expressions in different languages. I am sure a better linguist would be able to do more with the comparative aspect of this, though I do enjoy this distinction between English and colloquial Welsh: ‘I have a cat’ v. ‘Mae cath gyda fi’ (= ‘There is a cat with me’). If you will excuse a reference to extreme high culture, it is somewhat reminiscent of the distinction between ‘You belong to me’ (Police, The, ‘Every Breath You Take’) (stalky and unacceptable) and Swift, T. ‘You Belong With Me’ (a touch desperate, perhaps – the object of Ms Swift’s affections in this classic work clearly not being worth it – but both ‘relatable’ and acceptable).

[ii] Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 580, footnote – ‘In 1724, the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages, and collected £1,500. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed”. Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune’. I have long used this as a source in my undergraduate legal history teaching.

Image: Photo by Junbeom Ahn on Unsplash Clearly not a medieval sheep, but there to show property rights – indication of ownership in its ear-tag, see.

Conjugal juxtapositions: petty treason and prosecution strategy in medieval Leicestershire

After many years of comparative neglect, medieval married women (of a non-queenly, non-noble sort) have been considered with much greater care, in the historical studies of recent years.[i] It has, I think, become clear that not even classical legal historians – with their customary focus on doctrine and procedure, rather than people – ought to be muttering ‘coverture’, as if that magic word gave a straightforward answer to all possible questions relating to wives and common law, and then moving back to writs and institutions.

A glimpse of the complexity, and perhaps contradictions, involved in common law construction of the married woman can be seen in a remarkable pair of entries on a Leicester gaol delivery roll from the reign of Henry V.[ii] These entries, from a session in 1419, revolve around the death of a certain John Chaloner of Leicester, and those found to have been involved in that death. John’s wife, Margery, had brought an appeal (individual prosecution) against John Mathewe of Leicester, tailor, accusing him of killing her husband in his bed, on a Saturday night in November 1418, and accusing Richard Bargeyn as an accessory to this offence. These men were found guilty, and they were ordered to be hanged.

So far so not very surprising: bringing appeals for the deaths of husbands was an acceptable role for a wife. By this time, they no longer had to claim that they had held their dying husband in their arms, in order to justify their prosecution of his alleged killers: it was simply uncontroversial that a wife could bring such an appeal, despite the general restrictions on prosecutions by women. They had their uses.

Immediately after this un-astounding entry, there is, in fact, something of a surprise. Margery, formerly appearing as the wronged and avenging widow, is cast in a different role entirely.  She herself was the subject of an appeal, by the self-declared brother and heir of John Chaloner, John Smyth of Moreton, and was accused of participation in the death of her husband. A jury found her guilty of this and she was ordered to be burned. Presumably rather desperate, Margery then asked for a respite of the execution, claiming to be pregnant. The usual procedure was performed, with the ‘jury of matrons’ assessing Margery’s body. They adjudged her not pregnant, however, so the burning was ordered to go ahead.

This second case would be grim, but not in any sense odd, were it not for the fact of its association with the first appeal, and the role-switching which all of this involved. A woman was seen as an adequate bringer of an appeal against others, despite herself being the subject of an appeal for the same offence. In some ways this looks a little like an analogue of the approver appeal, in which one member of a criminal gang turns on the others and accuses them. Unlike the successful (male) approver, however, Margery was not immune from the consequences of her alleged actions. The idea that a woman suspected to have participated in her husband’s killing, could bring an appeal against her fellow-felons is one which was put forward in a judicial aside by William Babington, one of the justices of gaol delivery in this session, just a couple of years later, in a case in the Exchequer Chamber. It seemed rather unlikely to me, until I saw this case (and I am afraid I said so, in my recent book).[iii] I still find it a bit odd, but, clearly, it happened. It shows the ‘double edged’ effect of marriage – it was her marriage which gave Margery standing to pursue her appeal, but it was also her marriage which laid her open to especially spectacular punishment, when she herself was  convicted.

I note that Margery had, as pledges for the prosecution, John Smyth and Robert Chaloner, and then John Smyth had Robert Chaloner and one other man as his pledges. This suggests that the double appeal strategy was no accident, and that there was a very strong idea that if there was a wife, she was the one who had to bring an appeal for her husband’s death.  There was, presumably a reason why John Smyth could not simply appeal against Margery, and then, once she had been burned, as heir, appeal against the other alleged perpetrators, if he so desired – I imagine that this was to do with principal/accessory issues (the entries are not very detailed on this). I am yet to work out why Margery might have been co-operating with the man who was about to prosecute her to her fiery destruction. Was force involved, or trickery, or did she think she might somehow escape conviction and execution? In any case, the moving force in the legal process seems to be John Smyth, the heir to John Chaloner, who comes out at the end of the grisly story rather better off and not under suspicion … officially.



(Image: Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash. It’s not actually John Smyth watching, obviously).

[i] See references in GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, c. 2. Anyone new to the area would be well advised to start with Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World  ed. by Tim Stretton and Krista Kesselring (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013) and Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. edited by
Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2013).

[ii] JUST 3/195 m. 72d.

[iii] GS, Women in the Medieval Common Law, 99.

Passion, poison, pardons … and pins: law and death in medieval London

When looking through medieval records, it is especially interesting to see the many occupations by which people (mostly men) were identified. Noting a man’s trade or position becomes essential in the fifteenth century, but is normal before that, and so we learn of various agricultural and industrial specialisms – some which seem very ‘niche’ to the modern reader. Such a specialised trade is that of ‘pinner’. The pin-making industry (pindustry?) is not something to which I have ever given much thought, though I have been doing some quick research on it today, in connection with an interesting case from the reign of Richard II, about a London pinner and his household.

This case can be seen in entries on a King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1386, telling of an inquiry which the London civic authorities were ordered to carry out, by a writ dated 20th August 1386, and which took place in the Guildhall on 27th September 1386.

From this material, we find that our pinner, Hugh Bromhill, was married to a woman called Margery, and was employer to the other main character in the story, John de Shrewsbury. Hugh, perhaps, seemed to outsiders to be well-placed both in his trade and his domestic life. That, though, was not the truth of things, at least not according to a jury of London men. Yes, it was an inquest jury. Yes, he ended up dead. And yes, those of a suspicious nature, given to salacious speculation, there was allegedly something going on between Margery and John.

The story, as told by the London jurors, went like this. The pair had killed Hugh in the parish of St Martin Pomary in Ironmonger Lane in the ward of Cheap. Why? Well – John, at that time Hugh’s employee, a cardmaker (there’s another niche trade for us)  and Margery had been involved in an illicit relationship. They had slept together often, both at Hugh and Margery’s house and also in other secret locations. Not secret enough, however: Hugh learned what was going on, and threw John out.

We do not know why, but Hugh took John on once more. This makes me warm to him rather – but it was a mistake. John and Margery now, according to the jurors,  plotted Hugh’s death. On Thursday 1st September 1384. They put arsenic powder and realgar (arsenic sulphide, according to the internet – well actually it said ‘arsenic sulfide’, but I just can’t …cool alternative name – ‘ruby of arsenic’) in Hugh’s food and drink. The unsuspecting Hugh ingested it and fell ill, declining over a period of days, and dying early in the morning of 3rd September, in his house.

John and Margery then ran off, and were received by William Coventry, pinner, in the parish of St Mary le Bow, Ward of Cheap, Robert Byssheye in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw,  Nicholas Luffenham, wiredrawer, in the parish of St Benet Fink in the ward of Broad Street. These receivers were said to have known just what Margery and John had done. An innkeeper John de Harwell had also accommodated John de Shrewsbury, at his inn in the parish of All Hallows, Bread Street ward, but the jurors were careful to say that he did not know about the felony his guest had committed.

This all looked as if it might be heading for a burning for Margery, and a drawing and hanging for John de Shrewsbury, as the wife and servant of Hugh respectively, and so petty traitors both. But no.

Margery came to court in January 1389, and produced a pardon for offences between 1st Oct 1382 and 31st May 1388. This is CPR 1385-9, 519. (We have to wonder what else she had been up to! One suggestion is that is was really concerned with the Brembre/Northampton kerfuffle. Could it be that Margery was ‘repurposing’ a pardon to cover things it was never intended to cover?). She was also waving another letter, dated 2nd December 1388, telling the justices not to molest her, which I have not yet managed to track down. This all worked to ward off the possibility of conviction and punishment. She used her status as a citizen of London to get out of jail. John was, apparently dead by the time proceedings came to an end, and the people who had received the pair walked free.

All a bit anticlimactic perhaps, but still, some things to think about.


Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

I think we have to conclude that Margery was somebody with a bit of clout in the pinning/wiredrawing community, since she got the support of a number of people, who sheltered her and John S, and helped out as sureties during the court cases. (Either that or all of the pinners just hated poor Hugh). Amongst a slightly less pin-focused group of Londoners, the evidence about Margery is equivocal. The inquest jurors were not backward in pinning (!) the blame on Margery and John S, leaving them open to the death penalty, with the extra relish of punishment for ‘petty treason’. On the other hand, however, Margery was acknowledged to be a citizen of London. If this  was a case in which she took over the status of citizen following the death of her husband, then it does seem interesting that a suspected husband-killer would not have been blocked from this, in some way.  In any case, she had enough money or (p)influence to obtain a pardon, during a period when the killing of husbands does seem to have been a particular concern to ‘the authorities’, which seems noteworthy. There is some easily-found evidence about the property interests of Hugh and Margery. Hugh had an interest in, and perhaps lived in, a tenement and shop in the parish of St Martin Pomary. Margery was his executor (which does suggest that he trusted her). I wonder if there is any more information on her, lurking about anywhere.

  1. Relationship drama

A woman committing adultery with her husband’s servant was fairly transgressive. The entry shows some interesting hints of the thinking of medieval (male) jurors about gender and hierarchy. It is one of those situations in which two different hierarchies collide – John S is the man but he is also the employee, so on the one hand he was the superior, on the other hand, the inferior, of Margery. How was the jury to understand the couple’s interactions in that case? Well, they seem to have gone with an unusually equal portrayal. As far as the sex was concerned, the pair ‘slept together’ and Margery is given some of the initiative at least. As far as the killing went, rather than the more usual story which is given in such situations, of the male doing the killing while the female procures or encourages, this was very much a joint venture. They acted with ‘unanimous assent’, and the poisoning activity is described in the third person plural.

  1. Cause of death

Poisonings – or alleged poisonings – are always interesting. The type of toxin used is not unusual really, but perhaps the separation of arsenic and realgar says something about popular understanding of poison, and we do have a few more details than usual on how it was administered, and the length of time it took to act and to prove fatal. Another one for my ‘lingering death’ spreadsheet and considerations of causation.

  1. Petty treason

How does this affect the picture of attitudes towards petty treason which I have been building up? It does trouble things a little, doesn’t it? Although wives killing husbands certainly had to be scared of being consigned to the flames, and the troubled state of England in the later fourteenth century did push authorities at various levels towards exemplary burnings of husband-slayers, not even this was immune from the prerogative of mercy. Thus Margery was left to enjoy her pins and presumed relative prosperity after the demise of her apparently unlamented spouse.


7th May, 2021.  

(Image, Photo by Lisa Woakes on Unsplash – and yes, I know they aren’t medieval – just going for a general essence of pin).

To Marry and to Burn: punishing domestic treachery in medieval England

(A version of this was posted on the Bristol Law School Blog on 24th May 2021.  I will continue to update this version, including adding to the ‘grand total’ mentioned in the sixth paragraph below, as I find new instances).

One of the less enthusiastic endorsements of marriage is to be found in the words of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘it is better to marry than to burn’. His point was that celibacy was the best way to live, but those too weak to resist the temptations of the flesh could take the second best option of monogamous marriage. Before the Protestant Reformation in England, there were those who followed what this passage portrayed as the higher path, dedicating themselves to a life of celibacy and the service of God in monasteries and convents, but for most people, the expectation was marriage. Marriage and fire were, however, not as distant, one from the other, as St Paul’s words would imply.

Marriage in medieval England was understood to be hierarchical, with the husband expected to control and correct the wife, and the wife to obey the husband. He was (again in words attributed to St Paul), ‘the head of the wife’.  No doubt, as a great deal of historical research over the past few decades has shown,  there were many variations in practice, with more and less amicable situations, more and less mutual respect.  Even so, the husband’s authority over the wife was a fundamental principle, with real consequences; and one of these was connected with fire.

We can see an example of this connection between marriage and fire in an entry on a medieval legal record from the late fourteenth century. This notes a case from Essex, dealt with by John Cavendish and others, sent to the county as royal justices, in 1378. An indicting  jury of twelve men had said that, when John Trilly junior was lying in bed one Saturday night, his wife, Margaret, and a certain  John Robat of Walden, killed him with an axe or hatchet. The suspects were arrested, brought to court, pleaded not guilty, and accepted jury trial. Unfortunately for them, the trial jury said that they were both guilty, as well as noting that, at the time of the killing, Margaret was John Trilly’s wife. It was ordered that John Robat should be hanged. Margaret, however, was to be burned.

From at least the first half of the fourteenth century, and probably from the thirteenth century, the accepted punishment for a wife who killed her husband was death by burning. This was an unusual mode of execution: most convicted felons (including husbands convicted of killing their wives) faced the rope rather than the fire. For those of us for whom capital punishment of any sort is entirely abhorrent, it may be difficult to feel particularly exercised about the use of one method of ending a life rather than another, so long ago. (We may, though. note the reference, in a document relating to the execution of Anne Boleyn, of the move from burning to decapitation as a matter of royal mercy, as some sort of indication that there was seen to be a difference, at least in the sixteenth century), and it is certainly the case that, for a legal historian, it is important to try to look into the flames, and see what can be learned from past law, past practice.

Why burn husband-killers? Three overlapping factors were relevant: sex/gender, marital status and nature of the offence. This was not, in fact, the only type of offence in which a woman might be burned while a man would face a different penalty. The same applied to counterfeiting offences, and to killings of one’s employer, and there are occasional, earlier, examples of women being burned for other felonies. The use of burning for husband-killers is, however, clearly connected with a wish to make a particular example of those who transgressed against the hierarchical understanding of marriage. For a wife to kill her husband was not simply homicide, but a form of rebellion against her natural superior. It was mentioned in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and from the fifteenth century onwards, it came to be called ‘petty treason’.

The burning of husband-killers has tended to be minimised in classical accounts of legal history, and is sometimes assumed to be associated with the Statute of Treasons. My research in this area has, however, highlighted both the longer, deeper association of husband-killing and fire, and also the greater number of examples of women consigned to the flames for this offence than had previously been suggested. While they were never numerous, there were certainly enough of them to confirm in the minds of lawyers and the population more generally, that this was the expected outcome, in the event of a conviction for husband-slaying. I have discussed the matter in a chapter of my recent book on women and common law in medieval England, and continue to collect examples of women sentenced to death by burning, from the vast corpus of medieval legal records which remain to us. The current total on my ‘spreadsheet of doom’, compiled from work on records of late medieval criminal sessions (13th-15th Cs, the majority being from the late 14th C and early 15th C), stands at 65 burnings ordered for women convicted of husband-killing. While it is not possible to elicit comprehensive, reliable, statistics from such searches, it may be of interest to note that this is considerably higher than the number of executions for rape which I have seen in the same records, though considerably lower than the number of executions for theft, for example. It is certainly high enough to be worthy of attention.

The idea that the offence was particularly heinous and should be punished in this spectacular and symbolic way was not something which was being imposed on communities by ‘the powers that be’: it was something much more pervasive. In some contrast to other areas of crime, in which jurors were willing to bend facts to let defendants avoid punishment, trial jurors, and those men in local communities in a position to initiate prosecutions by indictment or presentment, seem to have been keen to ensure that husband-killers would be burned. On occasion, we see them making it clear that a woman charged with homicide was married to the deceased at the time he was killed, though this might be obscured by the fact that she was now married to somebody else. This was done so that conviction would lead to burning, not hanging. There seems to have been no doubt in the minds of the leading men in medieval communities that it was right to mark out husband-killers in this way.

The fact that the penalty was used, and accepted as appropriate by men at different social levels, over a long period of time, would seem to make it likely to have exerted an influence on the minds and behaviour of married women. This is particularly so, if we add in other things which I have noted emerging from my archival work: accusations were sometimes made on what looks like a relatively slender basis, with rather quick leaps to an accusation that a woman whose husband was killed by somebody else was ‘in on it’, and even over-zealous prosecution when the husband was not, in fact dead at all. These findings do tend to suggest that the threat of fire as a judicial penalty, as well as an eternal punishment, is something which should receive further consideration in studies of medieval marriage and gender, as well as law.

As well as telling other people what they ought to think is worthy of investigation,  a post on a research blog  is a good place to include a little reflection on the process of conducting research. I began looking at this area as a result of being unconvinced by the accounts I had read in secondary sources, and suspicious that they were over-simplifying matters, in a way which played down the importance of the executions of women by burning. To understand what more there was to say, and how accounts might need to be adjusted, it has been necessary to trawl through a very large number of pages of medieval manuscript (in recent times, this has been via the magnificent Anglo American Legal Tradition collection of scanned images), looking for accusations of husband-killing, and orders that somebody should be burnt. Finding a needle amongst the fields of haystacks does sometimes feel like a bit of a ‘win’, each instance strengthening the emerging argument. Nevertheles, each time I come across one of the Latin abbreviations indicating that a burning has been ordered, in the margin of a roll, there is the realisation that it indicates a terrifying end to a real person, as human as the rest of us. I have come to recognise that that feeling, that discomfort, that connection, is itself important in an investigation of the people whose lives and deaths are noted in the rolls.


Here endeth the lesson.


1st May, 2021.

(Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash)