If there is anyone not heartily sick of my over-posting on petty treason, here is where you can see the latest thoughts … a working paper on SSRN.
And who can resist another moody fire pic from Unsplash …
This is dangerously late for my tastes, but a serendipitous choice of podcast to accompany me on a walk the other day (something by Lucy Worsley on Queen Victoria) brought me to a story I had never known. Undoubtedly those who work on the 19th C know all about it, as may others with a better all round general knowledge, but I had not heard of the episode, and, as it happens, it has some relevance to a project I am just finishing (the one on ‘unknowns at the start of life’, inc. bastards and the beginnings of human life).
The episode involved a young(ish) aristocrat, Lady Flora Elizabeth Hastings (b. 1806), who occupied the position of Maid of Honour to the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mother). She died in 1839, after something of a scandal, which does not make Queen Victoria and her court look at all good.
Briefly, the problem arose because Flora had a swollen abdomen, and of course it was rumoured that she was pregnant (no doubt euphemistically whilst being – shock – unmarried …. She denied it, but the rumour went round the court, and was enjoyed by those – including the Queen – who were at odds with the faction represented by the Duchess of Kent, and so, by extension, by Flora. A physical examination was insisted upon, and Flora agreed to it, despite the humiliation, because she wished to end the scandal and rumour attached to her name. The examination came back negative (though there is some suggestion that the doctors, despite having certified non-pregnancy, were suggesting to Queen Victoria that Flora might still be pregnant). Flora got very ill and died, however, and public opinion was against Victoria and her doctor. After Flora’s death, it was made clear that she was not pregnant, but had had cancer. The matter was much discussed in the press, and it did nothing for the reputation of court or medical profession.
Using a letter she had written to her uncle, Mr Hamilton Fitzgerald, published in the Morning Post (2) supplemented as to dates from the other sources below, the following timeline can be constructed:
As the Lancet put it,
‘The publication of this postmortem examination is the best reply which could have been given to the slanderers of an illustrious personage, and of a distin]guished physician. No mental emotion could have produced, or even considerably accelerated the progress of the diseaae from which Lady FLORA HASTINGS died ; and if the symptomatic swelling of the abdomen were, by some, mistaken for pregnancy, it could not have been by one who knew that in pregnancy the swelling is developed from below upwards.’ (1)
There were, shall we say, differences of emphasis in terms of whether it was an outrage or a rational scientific thing to insist on examining Flora’s abdomen. Guess which side the Lancet was on … want a clue?
‘Had Lady Flora Hastings permitted her physician to have made an accurate external examination of the abdomen, at an eurly stage of her complaint, she would probably have been spared the pain and humttiation to which she was subsequently exposed. Many a female has undermined heutth and compromised existence, through similar feelings of mistaken delicacy’ (3)
(translation: ‘The ladies, eh – what are they like! It was her own silly fault!’]
The resonances this episode has for me, and my projects, concerns detection of pregnancy and the role of medical expertise in this. One of the things which comes out of an examination of the history of pregnancy detection in the more strictly legal context (for deferral of execution, or for the purposes of succession disputes) is that there was quite a difference between England and Wales on the one hand, and the rest of western Europe, on the other, in terms of who was given the task of saying whether a woman was, or was not pregnant. In England and Wales, the use of women – the jury of matrons, or jury de ventre inspiciendo – continued long after it was phased out in other jurisdictions, in favour of (male) medical professionals. Instinctively, we may see the medical professional model as preferable. This case troubles those waters somewhat – since it seems to bring home the questionable nature of medical expertise (and ethics?). It certainly damaged the reputation of Sir James Clark himself. It does make me wonder whether, at that stage in the history of medical research and education, there might have been some over-claiming of expertise.
To somebody coming from a modern Law School, the case also, of course, raises the hackles, in that it seems to amount to the forcing upon a (very sick) woman of an unpleasant and humiliating examination. For all that Flora agreed to the procedure, after her initial horror, this appears very much to have been something she thought she had no real option not to suffer: the rumours and scandal were bad enough, but she was also told that she would not be allowed to attend court functions if not ‘cleared’ of being pregnant (and thus a total, hopeless, sinner …) Neither Flora nor contemporaries seem to have gone down a ‘coerced consent’ line in their objections, but there was certainly outrage at the gossip and the persecution of this poor woman, and the rough, questionably competent and generally unpleasant conduct of the doctor.
Queen Victoria not at all nice – official.
Image – Flora, from source 4, below. Not a very good drawing, I must say.
Rather later than many people, I have finally had a chance to have a good look at the latest delivery from the Selden Society – A.H. Hershey (ed.), Special Eyre Rolls of Hugh Bigod 1258-60 Selden Soc vols 131 and 133. These have been waiting for me in my pigeon hole at Bristol for a while, but I have only just been able to get into the Wills Memorial Building, after returning from my travels, to get my paws on them. As you will see from the image above, in my clumsy eagerness, I managed to injure myself during the ‘unboxing’ process. I managed to leave some blood spatters on one of the books, so my DNA is now on them, I suppose. Hard core legal historian or what?
The volumes are editions (and translations) of some eyre records (JUST 1/1187, JUST 1/1188 JUST 1/1189, National Archives fans) from sessions by Bigod, the justiciar, just after the big King-barons upheavals of Henry III’s reign, and they are well worth a look for anyone interested in this period, or in legal history generally. From the point of view of my research, there are some interesting entries on non-fatal injury, and on pregnancy/foetuses, and, as ever, I remain interested in seeing the extent to which women are dealt with in the commentary, index etc.
So, a few points …
(There are also lots of general land cases, procedure etc, for those who like that sort of thing, preferring their legal history a little less bloody …)
The species of ‘petty treason’ concerning women who were accused of killing their husbands is something which has interested me for some time, and I have included a number of notes on particular cases on this blog. At the moment, I am trying to think slightly more broadly, as I prepare a paper for a conference in 2022. The theme for the British Legal History Conference 2022 in Belfast is ‘Constitutional Change’, and it struck me as not too much of a stretch to do something on ‘petty treason’ there, because of the specific link which was made by the Statute of Treasons 1352 between acts against the King and his realm on the one side (which we might, slightly anachronistically, call ‘high treason’) and acts against smaller-scale ‘constitutions’, in the home, the workplace, the religious house (which come to be called ‘petty treason’, from the fifteenth century onwards). At the moment, I am working on two particular sub-issues in this area, which, though they may seem to be rather separate, do have a certain connection (to my mind at least) in that they involve complexities which are the product of choices made by common lawyers in their construction and positioning of women within the rules and procedures of the common law.
The first of these areas is that of understanding of ‘petty treason’ itself: was it ‘really’ a sort of treason, or a sort of homicide? That is not simply a problem of abstract classification, but something with potential practical effects, in terms of procedure and pleading. Looking at other systems, which did not take the slightly metaphorical route of extending treason (wholly or partially) to the ‘petty treason’ offences,[i] I do find myself questioning whether doing this may have been an unnecessary complication. What, really, was thought to be gained by partly assimilating the ‘non-regal/regnal’ offences to high treason? It was not necessary to do this, in order to punish offenders in a particularly distinctive way – since this was already happening well before the legislation. At least one of the categories (the religious one) does not seem to have been a real concern (I am yet to find any examples of charges based on it), and there do not seem to have been floods of master-servant cases (impressionistic – I need to do more digging here, but there do not seem to have been too many). Moving offences between treason and homicide might have some justification in terms of removing the possibility of benefit of clergy, but that would not explain the inclusion of wives who killed their husbands – since they could not claim clergy anyway. So, unless it is to be dismissed as ‘all talk’ and posturing, lashing out of ‘the authorities’ after the Black Death etc., etc., this is a bit of a puzzle. I think I need to see where else the extension of treason followed a similar pattern.
The second area of possibly unnecessary complexity involves the interaction between husband- killing and a series of rules and attitudes about women which had been laid down, or were being laid down, in the common law by the later medieval period. These were: misogynist views about women’s nature and capabilities; ‘property law’; rules about principal and accessory; and rules about the bringing of appeals. None of this arose by accident, and nor was it inevitable, and yet common lawyers felt themselves unable to choose not to allow it to cause complications and distortions in particular sorts of case. This is particularly evident in cases involving more than one person, including a wife, being accused of involvement in the killing of a married man. It is hard enough to decode those cases in which a wife is accused of participation with another or others, in one legal action: we cannot get much purchase on questions as to whether her participation is being exaggerated or underplayed, whether to assume or believe allegations about her sexual entanglement with other participants. Even more difficult, however, are the cases in which the wife accuses one person, and then somebody else with a decided interest in getting her out of the way, but also a likely personal interest in the deceased – his brother or heir – accuses her of having been involved. There are a couple of these mentioned in posts here, and I remain uncertain as to exactly what was going on in some such cases, as I have mentioned. I do have theories, some of which I ran past a seminar in October (you can hear something of them here if you are interested), but there is certainly room for more thought. Perhaps the most intractable sort of case was that which also brought in complications involving an heir who was the child of both the deceased husband, and also the allegedly homicidal mother – how should property questions and forfeitures be handled in such a case. There are signs that the common law was not thought up to handling these at all, in a later fifteenth century case relating to the Chaworth family,[ii] in which there was a resort to petitioning. The case is considered in Payling, S.J.,’Murder, Motive and Punishment in Fifteenth-Century England: Two Gentry Case-Studies’, EHR CXIII (1998) 1-17 (and I am trying to integrate into my account now, and to see how it relates to the several slightly inconsistent things which common law sources say on the subject of rights to bring an appeal for the death of a murdered married man).
All in all, it is hard not to see some of the complications in this area as deriving from the unresolved tension between different constructions of women: capable and incapable; persons and not-persons; objects of particular pity and protection and objects of particular fear. I would not say that this tension was unique to the common law, but perhaps – to change my physical metaphor – greater balance than some systems between the binaries I have just set up made things particularly difficult. And perhaps the common lawyers’ metaphors themselves – coverture and petty ‘treason’ and the rest – also made their own contribution to the whole complex business of legal response to intra-familial violence. Onwards I go …
[i] I have been spending some time looking at Scots law in particular – very interesting and different law of treason from that found in the common law, followed by very abusive imposition of the English rules after Jacobite scares. I think the contrast with Scotland would work well in my paper, though I am a little hesitant about blundering in as an outsider and non-expert…
[ii] KB 27/816 m. 70 (1465); KB 27/817 m.105; KB9/308 m. 82.
The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 contains an entry relating to proceedings against a clerk, Thomas Harvy, for alleged offences in Norfolk. Along with others, he was accused of ambush, assault and robbery, and, alone, he was accused of a sexual offence. He pleaded not guilty to all of the accusations, and, after some delay, a jury found him not guilty.[i] There is nothing unusual in any of this: experience with these sources has taught me that, despite that bloody reputation of medieval law-enforcement, acquittal rather than conviction and grisly punishment, was the norm in such cases. The way in which the allegation is put, however, is unexpected, and, it seems to me, something worth drawing to the attention of scholars outside the small world of medieval legal history.
As will be obvious from my title, the unusual aspect to the entry is in its description of the sexual offence with which Thomas Harvy was charged.
Here it is, in free translation:
On Monday 11th January, 1434, at Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) before William Paston, William Godrede and William Yelverton, and their colleagues, justices of the peace, the jurors presented that, on 1st October 1433, Thomas Harvy of Testerton, clerk (clericus) … broke into the house of John Serjeant of Colkirk, at Colkirk, and attacked Margaret, John’s wife, wounding her shamefully with a certain carnal lance called, in English, a ‘ballokhaftitdagher’, and so he continued to do until that day, setting a bad example etc., to John’s great damage and against John’s will.
What is going on, and why do I think that these few words are worth anyone’s time?
This part of the allegations against Thomas Harvy involved sexual misconduct, but was not on the usual spectrum of felonious rape and ‘ravishment’ charges seen in medieval common law records. It does not follow the pattern of rape charges, in that there is no allegation of ‘felony’, nor of ‘carnal knowledge’ against the will of the woman. It does not follow the pattern of ‘ravishment’ charges, in that there is no reference to abduction, nor any mention of the removal of the husband’s goods. The complaint is, rather, that the misconduct took place on (and continued to take place on) the husband’s premises. Despite the talk of wounding and weapons, there is every chance that this would have been understood by the (all male) jury, judges and the scribe who wrote the matter up on the King’s Bench plea roll, not to have been an allegation of rape (as they understood it) but an allegation of sex which was problematic only in that it was between parties who should not have been having sex, as opposed to being problematically violent or problematically non-consensual.
It would, in fact, almost be possible not to spot that this is a sexual offence: after all, with the attacking, wounding, and reference to lance and dagger, it sounds rather like a serious ‘general’ assault with authentically medieval weapons. I am fairly sure, though, that those weapons are not what they seem. Apart from the fact that a lance or spear would be an unusual weapon in a case of breaking, entry and assault, there are sexual/anatomical overtones to both ‘weapons’ mentioned. I would be inclined to question my reading (and perhaps wonder whether the ‘lance’ was some sort of butchery implement) if there was only one of these suggestive ‘weapons’, but seeing both together makes a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and to refer to male genitalia. Such a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls, but the use of weapon-imagery in relation to sex will not be unfamiliar to scholars steeped in literary sources.[ii]
I have come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.[iii] It is consistent with an idea of sex as a battle, or a joust, with the understanding that weapons were profoundly masculine items, and with the view that normal, un-transgressive, heterosexual sex was thought (at least by those who were in a position to leave clues to their views) to involve an active man and a passive woman, and a degree of force. The reference to the ‘ballock hafted dagger’ can be fitted into a similar pattern, but it is both less familiar and more fascinating. Some rapid research on a term I had never encountered revealed that ‘ballock-hafted daggers’ (more commonly just ‘ballock daggers’) were real weapons,[iv] with a characteristic guard, featuring two swellings clearly thought to resemble testicles. The sexual symbolism of the ballock dagger may be considered to have been enhanced by the fact that they were thrusting rather than cutting weapons, and by the fact that they appear to have been worn hanging outside the clothing in the general area of the genitals.[v] No contemporary, surely, would have failed to ‘get’ the reference.
I am aware that I have blundered into the territory of the literary scholar. Having arrived here, however, I will, tentatively, note two further points of interest with regard to the ‘ballock dagger’ reference. First, it does seem to me to be a slightly different sort of imagery to that of the ‘carnal lance’. The material dagger is named after male genitals, and male genitals are suggested by the reference to the dagger. This strikes the non-expert at least as crude, in more ways than one. I wonder if my second amateur lit. scholar point is also connected with the ‘crude’, in a sense: while the rest of the record is in the high-status, learned language, Latin, this word is in the people’s language, English. There is considerable scholarship on the issue of ‘code-switching’ in the literary context, though less has been done on this practice in the context of the records of common law.[vi] It seems likely that use of an English word here would have had an effect – it is certainly arresting now, to come across it after line upon line of Latin – but speculation about just what effect that would have been is, I think, something to leave to those with deeper knowledge.
Retreating (more or less) to the home turf of the legal historian, it also seems worth noting a possible impulse from medieval common law’s own formulaic nature towards thinking and talking about interactions in ‘weaponised’ language. Those of us who spend long periods of time looking at plea rolls probably tend to filter them out, but in fact entries on these rolls are full of weapons. It was necessary to specify the exact sort of axe, knife or pike used to inflict a homicide, for example (and to set out its value). It was also usual to allege that a trespass was carried out with swords, bucklers and knives (even when it definitely wasn’t). The common law records fairly bristle with armaments, real and fictional, and that is another context within which these metaphorical expressions should be placed. I wonder if it is possible that the lance and dagger images were intended to perform a legal, jurisdictional function, moving Thomas Harvy’s misconduct from being the sort of illicit sex which would have fallen to the jurisdiction of the church to being the sort of peace-breach which sounded like the business of the royal courts.
This case did come to an end, as far as the process of the common law was concerned. Whatever the truth of the matter, Thomas Harvy was found not guilty. I am not going to offer anything so neat as a conclusion to this post. It is, after all, one of the advantages to blog posts that they do not have to follow the rules of the formal academic article game. Besides that, I do not want to conclude, suggesting that I have said the last word on any of this – I am sure that I have not, and nor do I want to. Another of the advantages of the blog post format is that it increases the chances of coming to the attention of scholars outside one’s own little niche, and this one will have accomplished something if its short and basic remarks can encourage a wider body of scholars – particularly scholars of language and literature – to think that there might be something of worth for them in the records of the medieval common law.
The inclusion in these records of the unusual form of expression which I have been discussing raises many questions. We may wonder whether, perhaps, this way of talking about sex and anatomy was widely to be heard in legal proceedings, but usually weeded out before the final plea rolls were produced. The relationship between speech and record in medieval court proceedings is, unfortunately, almost entirely unknowable. Those involved in the administration of common law were, of course, men of their world, and absorbed and reflected back contemporary literary trends and thought on the relationship between men and women. We can only speculate as to the effect on any women who did find themselves involved with this sort of clubby, ‘bantering’, hostile environment (and, though we cannot come to any firm conclusion, such as might be suitable for submission to a traditional academic journal, I think that it is rather important that we do speculate about this).
3rd November, 2021
[ii] See, e.g., D. Izdebska, ‘Metaphors of weapons and armour through time’, in W. Anderson, E. Bramwell, C. Hough, Mapping English Metaphor Through Time (Oxford, 2016), c. 14; C. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2001), 42; R. Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, third edn, (Abingdon, 2017), 26, 151, 172; Robert Clark ‘Jousting without a lance’, in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn (eds), Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001), 143-77, 166. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Brepols, 2018) suggests this meaning too, in its sixth variation on ‘hasta’.
[iii] KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442); KB 9/359/mm 67, 71; AALT IMG 141 (1482). The latter is mentioned in M. Mate, Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death : Women in Sussex, 1350-1535, (Woodbridge, 1998), 48.
[iv] Ole-Magne Nøttveit, ‘The Kidney Dagger as a Symbol of Masculine Identity – The Ballock Dagger in the Scandinavian Context’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 39, no. 2 (2006), 138-50.
[v] Noettveit, 143.
[vi] See, e.g., G. Dodd, ‘Languages and Law in Late Medieval England: English, French and Latin’, In C. Barrington & S. Sobecki (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Law and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 17-29.
Image: daggers (reproduction) including, on the left, a ballock dagger. Photograph curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Today’s searching in old law books for references relevant to my mayhem project took me to a book, and an author, I’ve not encountered before (though he has made it onto HeinOnline, and was, apparently, the author of some other, cracking-sounding reads on agricultural holdings, land and contemporary criminal procedure): John Wynne Jeudwine (1852-1928).[i] He was a barrister, a fellow of the Royal Hist. Soc., and clearly had a sideline in law and history books. The one I was looking at was his Tort, Crime and Police in Mediaeval Britain (1917) (a snip at 6/- !). I picked it up on an open shelf, but it is in fact also there on archive.org. It did have a little bit which will come in handy in relation to mayhem and the tort/crime borderline, but also some excruciating views about one of the big issues of the day – the possibility of women becoming barristers like him (p. 239 ff, stop before you get to police and clairvoyance …)
I suspect that our John thought himself quite a wit and stylist, and he came up with the following killer (and in no sense self-satisfied) argument about the issue:
Sorted! Thanks Mr Jeudwine!
Wonder how he reacted to the entry into the profession of women. I suspect some of the trailblazers would have made mincemeat of him [when not suppressing a desire to talk loudly about the best design of hat, and how great it is not to have to get paid the same as other barristers!]
[i] Times, Tues 1st Jan, 1929, p. 1.
Not too long ago, I noted a case from 1418/19 in which a woman called Marjory appealed two men of offences relating to the death of her husband, John Chaloner, only to be appealed herself for this same death, and being convicted, and, apparently, burned, for ‘petty treason’ (see this blog post). Well, now another of these double appeals has turned up: cue a bit of comparing and contrasting!
A pair of entries on an Oxfordshire gaol delivery roll for 1407 tell us that Emma, widow of John Handes, had come and appealed Roger Sutton of the death of John her husband, giving the required pledges for prosecution. Her appeal alleged that, on Wednesday 6th July 1407, at Chipping Norton, Roger had killed John with a dagger (price 1d), feloniously. Rather than pleading guilty and going to jury trial, as I was expecting, Roger decided not to put up a fight – he said he could not deny this, and so all that was left for a jury to do was to appraise his assets. There was not much to appraise: there were, apparently, some clothes, worth 20d, but no land or other goods or chattels beyond the clothes. The man himself was to be hanged.
The second appeal was by William Handes, brother and heir of the deceased John. He appealed Emma of the death of John, and his pledges to prosecute were noted. His appeal explained that Roger had done the actual killing, but Emma advised and ‘consented’ to it. She was also alleged to have paid Roger for his felonious work (2s). Unlike Roger, Emma was ready to fight. The jury found her guilty though, and sentenced her to burn. Emma had no assets, it was recorded. She did not burn, however: first she had the sentence deferred, by claiming pregnancy, and having this confirmed by a ‘jury of matrons’. Generally, deferral means deferral, but, in this case, this period seems to have given Emma a chance to seek a more permanent way to avoid execution: according to the patent roll, she was pardoned.[i]
Spot the differences?
Clearly, the later Chaloner case and this one share a basic pattern: W appeals X for the death of H; H’s brother and heir appeals W. X and W are both sentenced to death; W claims pregnancy. There are obvious differences, in that the pregnancy claim is accepted in Emma Handes’s case, but not in Margery Chaloner’s, and in that Emma manages to secure a pardon (whereas, as far as my investigations have been able to establish) there was no such pardon for Margery.
Another difference is that there is not the intriguing overlap in personnel in the Handes case which we see in the Chaloner case: in the latter, both of the widow’s pledges to prosecute were apparently relatives of the deceased husband, including the brother who would appeal her; in the Handes case, that is not obviously the case. Following on from this, while I do wonder whether there might have been some pressure or deception in the Chaloner case, helping Margery to bring an appeal against others, and then appealing her too, to ensure that everyone involved was convicted, or, indeed, to get rid of somebody who would have had claims on the deceased’s property) it is harder to see that in Emma’s case. It is still hard, however, not to be suspicious that the motives of her brother in law in appealing her might not have been entirely about getting justice for his brother.
It is worth a brief word about the pregnancy deferral-pardon element of the Handes case as well. Here we see the jury of matrons in action. The fact that they found her to be pregnant suggests that she was in a fairly advanced state of pregnancy, but the months allowed to her presumably gave her a chance to make her request for a pardon. Just what lay behind that is unclear – was the allegation of her involvement found to be trumped-up nonsense, or was there some other reason for the exercise of mercy? The short note of the pardon does not tell us, unfortunately.
A final intriguing element is that, as well as her pardon for the conviction on the appeal brought by her brother in law, Emma Handes also received a pardon for another appeal, in this case brought by a certain Roger Taillour of Chipping Norton. Could this be the same man as Roger Sutton? And where is this approver appeal? I haven’t turned it up yet, though it seems unlikely that it is made up. If it does exist, it brings in yet another dimension to the case – some sort of odd vicious triangle, which certainly needs some more thinking about. There may be another instalment, if I find more …
[i] CPR 1405-8, pp. 371, 470, 10 Oct 1408.
Image – slightly gratuitous church. It’s St Mary’s Chipping Norton. Well somebody probably went there at some point, in between all of the killing and accusing, didn’t they?
The case concerns an indictment of rape, made against John Wheler of Bridgwater, in Somerset, chaplain. He was accused of having, on 20th March 1482, broken into the house of a certain Alice Lye[i] , at Huntspill, attacked her, raping her and ‘having carnal knowledge’ of her, against the king’s peace.[ii] The matter had been presented in a sheriff’s court – the ‘tourn’ of Richard Morton esq. – on 4th April, 1482, at Highbridge, Somerset.
It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has looked at this sort of material to find that the whole thing fell apart, and the accused chaplain walked free. In this particular case, the route to that expected conclusion was not via the blank ‘not guilty’ of a jury, but via the ‘you don’t have jurisdiction’ route: sheriffs were not supposed to hear such serious ‘criminal’ cases.
I suppose we might conclude, or muse about, a couple of things from this:
[i] There is no more information about her.
[ii] Note, no mention of her will.
Today’s tale of less-than-happy relationships comes to you courtesy of entries on legal records from 1439.
A record of the Inquest at Bromham, Bedfordshire, on 18th May, 1439, on the body of Alice wife of William atte Halle of Bromham, labourer, notes the jurors’ view of events leading up to Alice’s death. They said that Alice had been pregnant, and suffering from a variety of complaints (whether pregnancy-related or not is unclear), and William had made the decision to kill her. On 7th May at Bromham, he had a certain dish (a posset? it would seem to involve milk curds – the word is balductam) made, and put various venemous powders in it, i.e. arsenic and resalger),[i] and gave the dish to Alice to eat, saying that it would make her well, and, believing his words, she ate, and was immediately poisoned, swelling up, being ill until 17th May, and then dying of that poisoning. He had, therefore, feloniously killed his wife. There is more: a record relating to the gaol delivery at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 notes that William was there because he had been indicted for having feloniously killed Alice, by putting poison (arsenic and resalgar) in her food on 7th May, so that she had died on 18th May. Above the entry, unless I am misreading it, we see a note that he was found guilty, and ordered to be drawn and hanged.
There are some nuggets in the inquest record which are worth noting.
The account of the poisons used suggests a knowledge, and an availability, of these substances, down to a relatively lowly level. As for the swelling effect, and the lingering for 10 days, that is something which might be of interest to medical historians – is that plausible? Can we say anything about that without knowing how much was allegedly used, and how would one know that swelling was due to poisoning as opposed to pregnancy or other pre-existing conditions?
The narrative of William’s lies about the food being likely to help Alice get better also tells us something about plausible relationship dynamics: a wife would be likely to trust her husband; a husband of ‘labourer’ status might be involved in his wife’s care. I suppose it also tells us something about accepted nutrition for sick pregnant women.
Drawing and hanging was the classic punishment for ‘petty treason’. I have been collecting examples of spousal homicide for quite a while and I had got used to seeing a nice (well, not nice at all, but you know what I mean) neat distinction between the treatment of W kills H (= petty treason, those convicted are burnt) and H kills W (= ‘just’ homicide, those convicted are hanged). This looks like a court – or somebody – ‘getting the law wrong’ then. Maybe it’s just a ‘blip’, or maybe it shows us particular distaste for this offender, or these facts. On the face of it, it is presented as a ‘normal’ homicide – all we get in terms of motive is the usual ‘malicia’. There is no use of ‘treason words’ like proditorie, as we might see in a servant kills master, or W kills H case. There is the idea of William ‘imagining’ Alice’s death, which is something of a link with ‘high’ treason jurisprudence. Other factors which might be relevant are (a) the poisoning and (b) the pregnancy. Poisoning would be singled out as particularly worthy of spectacular punishment in the next century.[ii] Might this suggest a whisper of a previous connection between treason and poison? As for pregnancy – well, the question of the common law’s attitude to the foetus, and its possible ‘rights’ is a huge topic, which I plan to get into rather more in the coming year, but suffice it to say at this point that, while it was thought worth mentioning by the inquest, the pregnancy is not mentioned in the gaol delivery entry, which, I think, is some indication that it was not considered to be the key to the raised level of offence.
An interesting oddity then, and I will have to work out how to fit it into my ‘spreadsheet of doom’ on petty treason.
[ii] ‘Acte for Poysoning’ (22 Hen. VIII c. 9; SR 3, p. 326).
Image: general theme of love and such … this one is clever but just a little sinister. Or maybe that’s just me …
[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’.
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’ 
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.
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.’
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.
 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.
 Shakespeare, Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, John of Gaunt.
 See, e.g., Andrew Culley and Michael Salter, ‘Why study metaphors?’, K.C.L.J. 15 (2004), 347-366.
 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