Category Archives: Women

A place of safety? Unconventional use of a convent in medieval Lincolnshire

I am supposed to be checking proofs and engaging with the horrors of the online proof-reading tool, but somehow am not, because I found something maddeningly fabulous and tantalising in a plea roll, which just needs a quick comment. I don’t think I can sneak it into the book (Women & Medieval Common Law – out scarily soon – dread, dread) at this stage – definitely no more than a surreptitious additional reference, if it doesn’t mess up the page layout – though it could be relevant in a couple of ways (and indeed also links up with both my last book and also a couple of blog posts for more respectable places which I have ‘on the go’ at the moment).

The entry is on the Rex roll of the KB for Trinity term 1331,[i] and it relates to the case of a woman called Agatha, who was indicted for the homicide of her husband, William del Cote. So it looked as if it might have been going in the direction of several ‘petty treason’ cases which I have found, and would end with a laconic little ‘comburr’ in the margin, indicating that the woman had been sent off for burning, but no! There may well be an entry which says just that – I have not tracked down the relevant gaol delivery roll entry, if it exists – but this King’s Bench roll is at one remove from the homicide case itself, and is a presentment by jurors from Kesteven in Lincolnshire of an alleged conspiracy to stop ‘justice’ being done.

The Kesteven jurors stated that John de Camelton, until recently prior of Sempringham, John de Irnham and Hugh de Swafham, fellow canons of the said prior, and John de Nevill of Stoke, had conspired together in relation to Agatha. She had been indicted, arrested and held in Lincoln prison, until she was brought before the justices of gaol delivery at Lincoln castle. (There are no dates for any of this – helpful!) At the gaol delivery session, she remained ‘mute’ – i.e. did not plead. She was remitted to prison by order of the justices, presumably to be ‘encouraged’ to speak via the harsh regime imposed upon such accused as ‘stood mute of malice’. It was at this point that the conspiracy allegedly sprang into action. John de Camelton and the others brought a writ to have the indictment and Agatha brought before the king’s court, and, in the meantime, she was taken to Sempringham, amongst the nuns, and the jurors reported that she was still living there, and the crime remained unpunished. They had some thoughts on why the intervention had occurred: John de Camelton had been paid 200 marks and two bottles of wine.

The sheriff was ordered to summon the alleged conspirators. John de  Irham and Hugh de Swaffham came and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and put themselves on the country. The jury of knights and others said that Hugh was not guilty, so he was acquitted, but they said that John de Irnham was guilty, so should be committed to prison. (Logically, this meant that one of the others had to be guilty as well, as John de irnham could hardly conspire with himself). The new prior of Sempringham came and made a fine for John de Irnham.

Still pretty much locked down, and supposed to be doing other things, there is a limit to how far I can take this at the moment, but it does seem interesting, in at least two respects. First, there is the possibility of it representing a show of sympathy with a woman facing the awful prospect of being burnt for the killing of her husband, and who had not managed to speak for herself at her trial. Assuming that the Kesteven presentment is not a complete lie, it may be interpreted as an instance in which the accused decided, for noble, family-saving reasons – not to co-operate with the trial, in the knowledge that she might die a mistreated prisoner, or else as a situation of such trauma that it left her unable to speak up or make a defence. Alternatively, if they are right about the money and wine, it might just have been a case of corruption (albeit one with an outcome which modern readers are likely to prefer).

The second reason for my particular interest in this is that the action allegedly concerned the priory of Sempringham, a Gilbertine house in Lincolnshire, which, at this very time, was the place of effective incarceration of a figure of my obsession –Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ‘banged up’ in this flat-land, English, convent, at a distance from her father’s power-base in Gwynedd. I delved into her history in my last book, Imprisoning Medieval Women, and have always hoped to find out more. (I also have a ‘very back-burner project’ about the many and various ways in which clerks writing records for the English crown managed to mangle ‘Gwenllian’ – the inability to handle the magnificent Welsh LL has a long history).[ii] This entry, of course, does not touch her directly, and yet it is an interesting hint both at the possibility of dubious security at Sempringham (in the sense of the crown, or royal justice, not being entirely in charge), and also at the sort of company she might have been keeping in the small community there.

The limited poking about that I have been able to do suggests that John de Camelton was an interesting fellow. He comes up in complaints and petitions suggesting further undutiful behaviour.[iii] And there seem to have been various disputes involving the priory and its (male) officials, at this point, and earlier in the century.[iv] By the time the 1331 entry was made, however, ex-prior John was described as debilis, so perhaps his rebellious days were over.[v] As for the silent centre of the story, I wonder whether I will ever find out what happened to the unfortunate (or fortunate?) Agatha. Proofreading has to come first for now, then marking, and writing other things on the January ‘to do’ list, but I will definitely be making further efforts to flesh out this story.




[i] KB 27/285 Rex m. 14 (IMG 461).

[ii] The account of Sempringham in the in VCH calls her ‘Wencilian’.

[iii] TNA SC 8/34/1671; CPR 1330-34, p. 60.

[iv] See, e.g., Joyce Coleman, ‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Raid on Sempringham Priory 1312’ (1999) The British Library Journal; KB 27/278 Rex m. 27 (IMG 403); KB 27/285 Rex mm. 6, 14 (IMG 444, 462).

[v] KB 27/285 m. 12 (IMG 456-7).

‘Lunacy’ and legal records

Deep in ‘the Before Times’, back in 2019, I posted something on a medieval ‘criminal’ case with a specific and detailed ‘defence’ of lunacy, that of Alice Brytyene, from 1309. Since I have just found another one, it seemed a good opportunity to revamp and update the post, adding in the new case.

See the source image

Alice’s case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6 (AALT IMG 136). The record tells us that Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur], i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).

The second case comes from the King’s Bench plea roll of Trinity term 1328 – in the ‘Isabella and Mortimer’ period of Edward III’s reign. It is to be found at KB 27/273 Rex m. 29d (AALT IMG 318), and is from a gaol delivery session at York castle, on Monday [13th June, 1328].

The report tells us that Agnes, wife of Roger Moyses was on trial for the killing of Adam son of William Moyses, at Harwood [Dale?] on Monday [16th May, 1328], having been indicted for this at a coroner’s inquest. She was asked how she would defend herself, and said that she was not guilty, putting herself on a jury. The jurors said that, for a long time before the incident, and after, and at the time, Agnes had suffered from a mental illness linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, which caused her to lose her mind to such an extent that she acted without being able to tell the difference between right and wrong (sepius prout luna crescit & decrescit tali infirmitate consueta est gravari quod ipsa amens sepius devenit penitus ignorans quid agit non discernendo malum et bono). They said that on the day in question, Adam, a 12 year old, came into the house in Harwood where Agnes was on her own, and she was suffering from the condition at that time. (laborans in infirmitate). When Agnes became aware that Adam had come in, she grabbed him by the throat and held him so tightly that he died. Afterwards, Agnes simply remained in the house until the constable and bailiffs came and arrested her. The jurors were asked whether Agnes had killed Adam felioniously and with malice aforethought, or without intention (ex amencia … vexebatur), and responded that Adam was killed through per amenciam and not through felony or malice/intention. Agnes was therefore to be sent to prison to await the king’s grace.

So what?

It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, I have not turned up a pardon for either Alice or Agnes, but I am reasonably hopeful that they would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been their fate after these grisly episodes.

Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, but usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that the word is regarded in a mundane way, as a general label for people with some obvious mental disorder, and was rather cut off from its etymological association with the moon. These two records, however, show at least some people going further into the matter, and emphasising the lunar explanation of (some, episodic) mental disorder, explaining odd, violent, behaviour on the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. They make the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about the killers having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.

There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well. In the case of Alice, her community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, before the incident in question. Agnes was alone in a house – was this some sort of precautionary confinement, or did she live alone?) It is interesting to note that a woman was assumed capable of throttling a twelve year old male, and that Agnes’s condition must have been well enough known and accepted for it to be regarded as having persisted during the killing of Adam, despite the fact that it would appear that there were no immediate witnesses (since we are told she was alone in the house).

It is also worth pondering the fact that these were both women. My impression has been that ‘violent insanity words’ are more usually found in relation to males – furiosus, freneticus etc. are more commonly found than their female equivalents. These two ‘violent insanity’ cases which bring in the moon, are, however, about women. Now, two cases hardly amount to a basis for a theory, but it is hard not to start going off on a train of thought concerning ideas about women, the moon, menstrual cycles etc. Worth bearing in mind, and seeing whether future finds fit in with it at all. [Oh, and if we want to get really spooky and conspiracy theoryish about it, we might note that … everything seemed to happen on a Monday in these cases, that I am writing about it on a Monday, and I am .. OK, too far. But interesting, no?]


Mirrors and Borderlands: some Lockdown reflections on a recent project

In what now seems like the very far-off pre-lockdown part of 2020, an article of mine was published, the culmination of a project I had been working on for two years or more, and had presented, at different stages in its development, to audiences at the International Medieval Congress in 2017 and the British Legal History Conference in 2019. Before the current crisis began, I had decided to write something about it for the Law School research blog. In this post, I will do that, but since this unexpected period of locked-down working has prompted more general reflections upon work and life, I will also offer some personal reflections on the project, and some of the more general thoughts about law, history and scholarship which are presenting themselves to me with some force at the moment.

I: The Article

Judging a Hereford hanging: Agnes Glover v. Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others (1457)[i] considered the events of a few days in the spring of 1456, when the English city of Hereford was taken over by a mixed Welsh and English force, led by notable men of south east Wales and Herefordshire. William Herbert and Walter Devereux, along with their kin and connections, the Vaughans. A member of the Vaughan family – Watkin Vaughan – had been killed in Hereford, slain with an arrow through the heart, as one record has it, and the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan allies came to Hereford to seek justice or revenge for this outrage. They obliged local citizens to try and convict six Hereford men for the killing, then proceded to hang them. Legal action followed, as Agnes Glover, the widow of one of the hanged Hereford men attempted to prosecute the main offenders. The case went on for some legal terms, but, in the end, there was a spate of pardoning, and nobody was punished in accordance with the full rigour of the law.

Perhaps it may seem unremarkable that there would have been an episode of disorder at this point in time (as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ period geared up) or in this particular area (the English-Welsh border having a reputation for tension), and unsurprising that nothing much came of the widow’s attempts to bring to justice those who had caused the death of her husband (since so many medieval ‘criminal’ cases ended without conviction and punishment). Nevertheless, this incident and associated cases seemed to me to be worthy of further investigation, and discussion, partly because of the unusual nature of the available records, and partly because of some issues relating to ciminal law and ideas about law which were striking to a legal historian, but had been left out of political historians’ treatment of the Hereford incident.


i: The records

The documents in this case are much richer than those available in relation to many medieval offences. There are records from ‘the centre’ – the plea rolls and indictments which make a formal note of the (many) stages of legal proceedings. There are law reports in the ‘Year Books’. These were accounts of arguments in cases deemed to be of special interest, made and circulated by lawyers. Putting together report and record can really expand understanding of the proceedings, and it is always very satisfying to be able to match up the different sources. A great bonus in this case is that there is actually even more contemporary material besides these ‘legal’ sources. Most importantly, the incident and its aftermath have left a trail in Welsh poetry, and there is also a reference in an English source, the Paston Letters. Welsh poets of this, ‘the golden century of praise-poetry’ were predisposed to favour the Herberts and Vaughans, as powerful figures in Wales and the borderlands, and also important patrons of the Welsh bards. Perhaps not surprisingly, all things considered, the literary evidence proceeding from this school of poetry gives a positive spin on what might otherwise look like banditry. The relevant section in the English Paston Letters, on the other hand, shows considerable contempt for the Welsh, and ignorance of their language and customs.[ii]


From my own point of view, this was by some distance the best treasury of contemporary sources I have ever worked with in my legal historical investigations, and it was backed up by some very fine secondary scholarship. The work of Dylan Foster Evans and Helen Fulton on the relevant praise poetry, and on William Herbert, was essential.[iii] There was also the rewarding experience of working with an excellent thesis from the 1970s, on fifteenth century Hereford, which I had out on loan from Swansea University.[iv] Holding and reading that physical volume, typed on one side of the paper only and corrected with Tippex and painful care, and with a ‘borrowed by’ list at the front containing the signatures of several of the most prominent late-medievalists of the twentieth century, brought an unexpectedly vivid connection with more recent history, with things which have passed away in my own lifetime.


ii: Borders and centres

My research, particularly in integrating the law reports into the story, showed me that the common law struggled to fit cases like this – cases of wrongful execution following some sort of legal proceedings – into the available modes of prosecution. It seemed as if some sort of limit to the ordinary law of felonious homicide, centred around a simple ‘man 1 hits or stabs man 2, man 2 dies instantly’ paradigm, was being reached. The reports show lawyers grappling with whether this could really be treated just like any other killing, and whether someone like Agnes Glover should have a right to bring a criminal prosecution. In a criminal justice system which relied on private initiative for some prosecutions, and which had not wholly accepted that dealing with killers was the crown’s business alone, these questions could be troubling. Previous political historical treatment of the 1450s has tended to pass over this, its accounts of the weakness of central control emphasising local corruption and royal incompetence, but I argue that at least part of the problem was caused by the common law’s uncertainty and the flaws in its procedure.


In terms of geographical borders and centres, this research gave me much to consider in relation to the attitudes of different groups to the common law and its reach within the realm of the king of England. While the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan faction were prepared to make some concession to co-operation with common law processes, their main strategy was forceful and extra-legal. It might be seen as inflected with a Welsh sensibility, given the particular emphasis placed upon the duty of kinsmen to respond to the death of one of their own which is to be found in native Welsh laws, but this distinction should probably not be taken too far: Cyfraith Hywel, the collected laws of the Welsh, did not favour forced show-trial and execution, and kin-vengeance was still part of the thinking behind some aspects of English common law procedure as well.


One of the additional perspectives which a legal historian can bring to this area comes from consciousness of the ‘time travelling dimension’of law reports, as they are handed on from one generation to the next, their arguments to be re-used and developed. When a case such as Agnes Glover’s appeal of Herbert and Devereux is made the subject of law reports, it takes on a life of its own, being cited in future legal works and cases, shedding what are considered unnecessary details and, in the process, changing in meaning. Within the common law tradition, the case soon dispensed with the need to name the claimant, and mangled some other names. It also cast off its geographical moorings, so that, in printed Year Books, it looks as if the location was Hertfordshire rather than Herefordshire. This may be a slip of just one letter, but it does demonstrate that the root of the dispute, in violence on the English-Welsh border, was not regarded as particularly crucial by the common lawyers in and around Westminster. Central control might not be terribly effective on the ground at this period, but it had a strong grip on the minds of the elite members of the legal profession.



II The Reflective Bit: the historical and the personal

In my early years as a lecturer and researcher, mentioning that my area of investigation held not only intellectual but personal fascination would have been unthinkable, so wedded was I to the idea of academic objectivity that any admission of emotional engagement with the subject of my research would have struck me as entirely unprofessional. I have learned since – from colleagues, from scholars I admire, from life – that detachment is not always the Holy Grail. Thus, I no longer have a problem with putting a few personal reflections ‘out there’ in this form (I did edit them from this for the Law School blog, mind you! Still some work to do …)

First of all, it’s worth explaining that I have particular reason to find all this interesting. The Herberts and their relations the Vaughans were based in what really is the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Places such as Abergavenny, Raglan and Tretower, which feature amongst the relevant locations of the raiders, are deeply familiar from childhood, and resonate from the parchment. The language of the poets resonates too, and presenting this paper to the British Legal History Conference was the first time I dared to recite a line or two of Welsh poetry in that decidedly Anglo-centric gathering. It felt a little like speaking the language of the Elven realm, if not in the land of Mordor (where the shadows lie), at least in the Shire. As J.R.R.T. had it in the 1950s, ‘Welsh is beautiful’.

The other thing I find extremely satisfying in projects like this is bringing to light the stories of women of the past. It was good to be able to bring Agnes Glover out into the open, and to show both her determination to try and do something about the loss she had suffered, and also what she was up against, in this attempt.


Concluding thoughts: moving on from Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin

As is so often the way, and despite the unusually full range of records relating to her case, Agnes Glover gives us the slip in the end, disappearing from the record as her litigation ground to a halt, and Herbert and Devereux, pardoned, lived to raid on other days. Watkin Vaughan was commemorated by praise poets and avenged with impunity.[v] It feels a little ungrateful, having got a couple of conference papers and an article (as well as some good teaching material for the undergraduate Legal History unit) out of these characters, to bid them farewell, now, but it is time to move on. I will, however, be expanding on two of the themes raised in this research in future projects, currently at an early stage, one on wrongful execution, and the other on insulting the Welsh, so Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin may be back for the odd cameo appearance.

Gwen Seabourne

May, 2020.

[i] Midland History 45:1 (2020) 2-17

[ii] N. Davis (ed) Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 172.

[iii] H. Fulton, ‘Guto’r Glyn and the Wars of the Roses’, in ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’ Ysgrifau ar Guto’r Glyn a Chymru’r bymthegfed ganrif; essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, ed. D. Foster Evans, B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013), c.2; D. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan (d. 1469) family history and personal identity’, same volume, c. 4; D. Foster Evans, ‘Murder in the marches: poetry and the legitimisation of revenge in fifteenth century Wales’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18/19 (1998-9), pp. 42-72.

[iv] A. E. Herbert, ‘Public Order and Private Violence in Herefordshire, 1413-61’, M.A. Thesis, University of Wales, Swansea 1978.

[v] Elegy to Watkin Vaughan of Bredwardine. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan’, p. 100; D. Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a’i Deulu (Aberystwyth 2000), poem 23

Top Ten Gwens: a mostly trivial list

Named after my grandmother, and as an embodiment of Welsh heritage, I have always been proud of my name (it’s the sort of bone-headed pride which comes despite not having a hand in the choosing of it). Today, this splendid name seems to be in something of a decline – even on the lists of Welsh baby names (it’s all about Seren, apparently). So here, to assist in the Gwenaissance, is a list of fabulous Gwens of past, present and the imagination…

  1. Gwen Cooper (Torchwood) (she’s not English, you know) See the source image
  2. Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd (definite Xena, Warrior Princess vibe) See this rousing trailer: – I’m not the only one who thought Xena.
  3. Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn (tragic stolen medieval baby princess, but has her own society)
  4. Gwen John (artist) (talented, slightly scandalous).
  5. Gwen Guthrie (nothing going on but the rent: first non-British Gwen I ever came across: international Gwen-solidarity)
  6. Gwen(ffrewi) St Winifred – she of the bouncing head, decapitation/stiched back on miracle: well, well …
  7. Gwen(doline) Mary Lacy, from Malory Towers. Misunderstood and misrepresented by her goody two-shoes over-privileged boarding school nemesis, Darrell Rivers. Quite right not to like lacrosse.
  8. Gwen from the film Gwen (a bit scary, but nice big GWEN on the poster – good for Gwen-awareness… )
  9. Gwen Stefani (what is she up to? Deserves her place for barking brilliance of Rich Girl)
  10. Gwen Torrence (official fastest Gwen in the Gwenlympics )

Go Gwens!



And hello to a new Gwen

New to me at least – check out this piece on Gwen Farrar – a vintage comedic Gwen (category: Gwentertainment)


A blow to Gwen-awareness

This week, like much of academia in the UK and elsewhere, I have been in recording and captioning mode, as we prepare for the new Blended Learning World (the sensible bit  – online learning – rather than the ludicrous face to face during a pandemic bit) and I have learned a terrible truth: the captioning software does not recognise the name Gwen. I am therefore ‘when seaborne’ … Not so bothered about the second bit – in fact my family did spell it without the u until c. 1900 when they decided Seabourne was posher, or something. But not recognising ‘Gwen’ – clearly an outrage!

Historical Gwen Injustice

This one is not at all trivial. The first woman executed in Wales for witchcraft, during the reign of Elizabeth I, was, apparently, a Gwen: Gwen ferch Elis to be exact:

An injustice at more than one level.

Gwens in space …

Watched an old favourite tonight – Galaxy Quest, I had forgotten its Gwen-relevance, with Sigourney Weaver as Gwen Demarco: See the source image


This just in …

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We have all dashed off a quick email and included a few typos, but … shocking lack of Gwen-awareness here.


Two sorts of labour: maternity and employment, medieval style

Officially not ‘work’: this is a contribution to solidarity with workers everywhere, and everywhen…

[This one seems an interesting case to note today, somehow, as my union, the UCU, is striking once more to try and do something about deteriorating working conditions, and the pitiful progress on gender and other equalities issues which appears to satisfy university management.]

The plea rolls of the fifteenth century Court of Common Pleas have a lot of ‘labour law’ cases, based on the post-Black Death labourers legislation. Although each concerns a dispute which mattered massively to the individuals involved, the records are mostly fairly repetitive: parties argue as to whether there had been an agreement to serve, or a leaving without permission, or a removal or enticing away of a servant by another employer. Occasionally, though, there is one which stands out and lets slip something which goes a small way to illustrating the world of employment relations. Such a case is that of Nicholas Welkys and Geoffrey Molde, cleric, of Royston, Hertfordshire, at CP 40/645 m.39, from Easter term 1422.

Nicholas alleged that Geoffrey had stolen away his servant, Alice Valentyne. Nicholas said that she had been employed by him, at Royston, on a one year contract, as a domestic servant (ancilla). Geoffrey’s action, on the feast of St Stephen, in the king’s eighth year,[i.e. 26th December 1420] had caused him to lose her services for ‘a long time’ (in fact 6 days) which had damaged him to the tune of ten pounds. There were the required allegations of force and arms and the whole thing being against the king’s peace, though whether or not there was likely to have been any sort of force depends on whether one believes the story of Nicholas or that of Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s story was that he had done nothing wrong because he had actually retained Alice, from the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist in year 8 [i.e. 24th June, 1420?], for a year, as an ancilla. According to his version, on the feast of [the translation of ] St Edward, King and Confessor [13th October, 1420], Alice had left Geoffrey’s service without licence or just cause, had gone to work for Nicholas until [26th December], then, of her own free will, returned to Geoffrey, who had the better right to be her employer, and had, consequently done Nicholas no damage.

Nicholas agreed that Alice had been hired by Geoffrey earlier on, but claimed that, on the feast of St Edw Conf yr 8, because Alice was heavily pregnant, near to giving birth and unable to serve Geoffrey as envisaged, Geoffrey had given her permission to leave his service, and Nicholas had hired her from that day, for the following year. She had served him in Royston, so he said, until Geoffrey had abducted her with force and arms.

Geoffrey said he had not allowed Alice to leave his service. A jury was ordered to be summoned to decide whether there had, or had not been such permission, and so whether Geoffrey could be guilty of the abduction offence alleged.

I have not yet tracked down the outcome, but, as is often the case, the pleading itself discloses some interesting nuggets about medieval employment and attitudes to women, and pregnancy. Whatever the truth as to whether Geoffrey gave Alice permission to leave, it is very clear that being heavily pregnant was seen as a reason to end the employment relationship. We would not expect a medieval employer to have much of a maternity leave policy, perhaps, but it does raise questions about how working women coped with late pregnancy and birth. If Nicholas’s story is true (and it was presumably seen as at least plausible) the implication seems to be that Alice had to, and was able to, find a new place while at an advanced stage of pregnancy. That struck me as both sad (in terms of the apparent desperation on her part) and also interesting (in the sense that Nicholas seems to have been willing to take her on whilst pregnant and unable to do much, if any, work).

There are, of course, all sorts of other questions – such as who was the father, and what happened to the baby. Inevitably we will wonder whether Alice had been subjected to abuse, or whether she might have had some sort of approximately consensual relationship with Geoffrey. Might her surname, ‘Valentine’, even indicate some involvement in sex work/concubinage? No answers to those, but intriguing all the same.


Matrons, medicine and maternity

This morning, I have been listening to a podcast of a late-2017 seminar paper from the Institute of Historical Research Late Medieval seminar:

Zosia Edwards (Royal Holloway), ‘Pregnancy diagnosis in the later Middle Ages: medical methods and courtroom procedures’

This was of interest to me in relation to two projects/areas of on-going research: my monograph on women in the medieval common law and my work on curtesy and live birth/still birth.

Its central focus was the divergence between a rich textual tradition of learned medical writing on techniques of diagnosing pregnancy and the common law’s approach, apparently scorning such learning, or the use of (male) ‘medical experts’ in favour of the judgment of ‘lay persons’: mainly ‘matrons’, though with some involvement of knights (in land cases). It includes some very good examples of both medical diagnosis and common law practice.

The divergence between learned texts and common law practice is striking divergence, and has been commented upon to some extent (e.g. by S.M. Butler). There is much to be said about the common law’s emphasis on jury findings as opposed to those of ‘experts’, not just in the medieval period and not just in medicine. In addition, it seems to me that there are also other particular  explanations for the difference in procedure in relation to pregnancy which would be worth consideration. First, the medical texts and the investigation in common law felony cases were directed at slightly different questions. In the case of the medical texts, the search (however dubious we might find the methods) was for the presence of any pregnancy. At least in the case of the ‘pregnant felon’ cases, it was a search for confirmation of a woman’s claim that she was pregnant with a ‘quick’ child: thus a less ‘expert’ and sensitive test might be thought to suffice. In addition, there does not seem to have been a desire to avoid all possible killings of pregnant women: witness the approach to those claiming a second pregnancy, the possible presence of a foetus not being sufficient to defer execution. Views on the value to be accorded by the law to the foetus at various phases of existence were in a state of development/flux in the medieval period, and trying to bring together the attitudes encapsulated by legal texts and plea rolls relating to foetuses in homicide, abortion, curtesy and other land cases is a task with which I am wrestling. A paper on determinations of live birth in relation to curtesy temp. Edward I is on its way to publication, but I would love to expand into a more general overview of ideas about the foetus/newborn in different categories of legal case. One of these days.


Judging the feelings of women

[see also my blog on this for the Bristol Law School: ]

Centenary commemorations of an important step towards inclusion of women in the legal system of England and Wales will soon be upon us: it is almost 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 removed sex as a disqualifying factor for participation as a juror. Obviously, and importantly, this did not lead to equality either between men and women, or between women in different categories in terms of wealth, class, education or ethnicity. Nevertheless, it was a significant victory, won by persistent and righteous effort, and it deserves to be marked.


While the Act meant that women could be jurors, it also gave judges a discretion to choose a single sex jury (s.1)[i] This power could be used to exclude women from cases thought inappropriate for them. Excluding women was its usual function, but the section does envisage women-only juries too, ‘as the case may require’. Cases, it seems, were not thought to require women-only juries, for almost half a century following the act, but there is an interesting case from the late 1960s in which a judge decided to use it in an unexpected way, excluding all males from a jury. It is with this case that this post is concerned.[ii]


The case concerned the death of a small child: Miya Bibby Ullah  – a girl of three – in South Wales, in February 1968. The girl had died after having been scalded in a bath by her aunt, the accused, Margaret Ann Sutton, of an address in Cardiff.


The decision to order a women-only jury was made by Thesiger J when he heard the case at the assizes, in Swansea. Both the reasons for his decision and the responses to it are interesting. There are slightly differing accounts of Thesiger J’s reasoning, but there seem to have been two things which pushed him to insist on a female jury: (i) this was a case about child care, and women would know more about that than men, and; (ii) there was a need to have some insight into the feelings of women. “The judge said he felt that this was essential because it involved the bathing of a baby and the feelings of women were concerned.”[iii]


Leaving aside the gender stereotyping involved in this, it might seem that, if this was a matter of ‘expertise’, then witnesses, rather than jurors, would be able to provide it. It shows a strange lack of faith in male jurors to imagine them incapable of weighing up evidence relating to child care or feelings. The actual reasoning might have been a little different: it was not that men could not understand these matters – indeed, it was not that there was actually a need for an entirely female jury, but Thesiger wished to ensure there was a significant female presence in the jury, and the Act did not allow him to stipulate quotas of males and females, only all one or the other.

It is clear that the decision was Thesiger J’s own – in fact both the prosecution and the defence objected to his order, and the defence used it in an appeal. These objections are worth some consideration, as the lawyers do rather tie themselves in knots.


According to the Times report,[iv] Sutton’s counsel, Aubrey Myerson QC, said that making the order for an all-women jury would be an abuse of the judge’s discretion. What was his objection? The case was too emotive for a jury of women to be able to hear and decide without the steadying influence of a man or men: “this was a case which was emotionally power-packed, and to empanel a jury solely of women would present great problems because of that. It was going to be very difficult for 12 women without stability of any man being present, to apply an objective mind without partiality to the evidence in the case”. This says interesting things about women’s perceived inability to function rationally when faced with upsetting circumstances, if not helped by a man. There are, of course, implications in terms of what was supposed to happen when juries included both men and women. Myerson also made a comment straightforwardly denigrating women’s intelligence: [any jury of women was] not going to apply to the facts of this case the breadth of vision normally given by a jury in which there were men.” There we are – men: breadth of vision and their presence serving to broaden the vision of poor, narrow-visioned women. It might of course be that women in a mixed jury should just shut up and let men give full expression to their breadth of vision.


Myerson had a better point in relation to the judge’s assumption that just by being female, women jurors would be able to understand the accused: they were not, he said, going to be “a jury of women in the same age group as Sutton, or with the same background or intellectual capacity of the accused”.


The prosecution (T. E. Rhys Roberts) also objected to the order, on the ground that the subject matter was too upsetting for women: “the emotive value of injury or death to a child on a woman … would take it outside the bounds one expected of a jury”.


There was an attempt by the defence to change the jury by way of multiple challenges, but they were simply replaced by other women. The case proceeded.

Myerson, having lost on the question of an all-women jury, attempted to use the sex of the jurors to his (client’s) advantage, exhorting them: “In your historical role, the part you have to play is to show, in the discharge of the duties you have undertaken, that you can demonstrate to one of your own sex that high degree of fairness, that high degree of impartiality, and a complete lack of bias that reflects on your part an understanding of the mind of this woman in circumstances that can only be reflected by the acquittal of this woman.” An interesting, cajoling, tactic, but one which did not work for him: Sutton was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.


Although the law reports do not mention this, newspaper sources all describe the child as ‘coloured’. Clearly, this seemed to them a relevant fact. Nobody else is described in racial terms. It looks as if  the inclusion of the child’s ‘colour’ is less about diminishing the loss or offence, and more about building up a picture of what many readers would consider the undesirable and disorderly family life of the Suttons. Thus, the accused was a ‘spinster’ mother of two, with another on the way, from Splott (a poor part of the city) and there were hints that she had been moved to treat the child unkindly because her television watching had been interrupted. The fact that she was ‘unemployed’ was noted. The ‘mixed race’ of her sister’s child might well also have suggested to some that the Sutton sisters were ‘no better than they ought to be’.


There is also some comment on the female jurors: newspaper reports tell us that one of them could not read the oath; that they were “middle aged”, and that half of them had changed outfit from one hearing date to the next. Whether that last point is emphasising the frivolity of the outfit-changers or the poverty of the re-wearers is not clear (but the attire of male jurors is not much commented upon).


Sutton appealed against conviction and sentence, in part based on an argument that there should not have been an all-women jury. Her counsel at the appeal argued that having an all-women jury had been unfair to her, because the details of the case were “so harrowing that prejudice was likely with an all-women jury”.[v] No prejudice in that remark at all.


The Court of Appeal (Lord Parker LCJ; Ashworth J; Davies LJ)[vi] expressed disapproval of the use of the all-women jury ‘even if the case was highly emotional’. (There is some disagreement in the establishment as to whether women’s ‘emotional’ ‘nature’ is a good or a bad thing in terms of fitting them for jury service. I may not have the breadth of vision to understand it, of course). The court did not agree that Thesiger J had acted beyond his powers or in an arbitrary way, however. The conviction and sentence stood and the possibility of all-women juries remained in theory, though Sutton did not lead to a flood of similar orders for all-women juries.

Two things would be interesting to know: (i) why did this suddenly crop up so long after the Act; and (ii) what sort of cases were originally envisaged as likely women-only jury cases? In addition, it would be interesting to see the papers relating to this case which are in the National Archives, but not due to be opened until 2044. One for legal historians of the future.



R v Sutton (Margaret Anne) (1969) 53 Cr. App. R. 128

Times Tuesday, April 30, 1968, 4; Wednesday, May 01, 1968, 4; Thursday, May 02, 1968. 5; Friday, May 03, 1968, 3; Tuesday, Nov 19, 1968, 7;

Guardian 19 Nov 1968, 5.

Daily Mail 3 May 1968, 4.

Anne Logan (2013) ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70, Women’s History Review, 22:5, 701-716.

[i] Anne Logan (2013) ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70, Women’s History Review, 22:5, 701-716

[ii] Logan, 705, 706.

[iii] Times (London, England), Apr 30, 1968, 4.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Guardian 19 Nov 1968, p. 5.

[vi] R v Sutton (Margaret Anne) (1969) 53 Cr. App. R. 128

Coke fanboys and a cheer for F. Pollock!

I recently had occasion to go over the report of Bebb v. Law Society [1914] Ch. 286 (woman wants to be solicitor; not allowed to; takes legal action; loses, because obviously women can’t do such things – they should know their place), and, apart from its steam-from-ears-inducing unfairness,  it has some interesting material for those of us who are not fans of Sir Edward Coke (some might find the words ‘over-rated ruff-wearing misogynist’ spring to mind – I could not possibly comment).

On the depressing side, it is an example of just how ludicrously deferential judges of this period were to Coke: even when he was citing the dodgy Mirror of Justices. Cozens Hardy MR at 293, ‘[T]he opinion of Lord Coke on the question of what is or what  is not the common law is one which requires no sanction from anybody else …’ while Swinfen-Eady LJ, at 296 goes with ‘It is said the authority of the Mirror is impugned. But the authority of Lord Coke is not …’ and Phillimore LJ 298 ‘Lord Coke … is only a witness, no doubt, as to the common law, but he is a witness of the highest authority’. Creepy, craven stuff. Still, I suppose the deification of Coke meant there was no need to do proper Legal History research.

Pollock, editor of the Law Reports, however, had Coke’s number, noting in a footnote that his citation was incorrect and that there was some corrupt spelling (fn on  p. 292) and in a footnote on p. 295 that ‘Coke, according to his frequent habit, felt bound to support his living knowledge of  practice by citing an apocryphal authority’. Quite right too, F.P.

All of which has left me wondering:

(1)    When did the Coke-idolisation thing end’; and

(2)    What is the most Coke-worshipping statement in a law report? I will be looking out for this from now on.

Coke’s Marriage and Treatment of his Wife and Daughter

Those writing about Coke have generally given him a rather easy ride in relation to his treatment of his wife and daughter. It is hard not to find his ‘gold digging’ matrimonial conduct and his swift and secret second marriage anything other than discreditable and distasteful, but Baker’s introduction goes no further than saying that he ‘later had cause to regret’ i: Baker, Introduction to English Legal History, 4th edn 2002, 480t). No mention of the whole abduction of daughter to force her into obviously unsuitable marriage for his advancement in the favour of important people …

‘The second Mrs Coke’, a.k.a. Lady Elizabeth Hatton is subject to straightforward, and deeply gendered, insult elsewhere: being called a ‘harridan’ in Barnes and Boyer,  Shaping the Common Law from Glanvill to Hale 1188-1688 (Stanford CA, 2008) p. 120. The abduction of his daughter is mentioned here, at p. 127.  but there is not any real criticism and nothing on the lack of suitability of the groom.

Mephitic metaphor

I am not sure we really want the mental pictures conjured up by the idea of the common law as Coke’s ‘jealous mistress’ [A.D. Boyer,  Sir Edward Coke and the Elizabethan Age (Stanford UP 2003), 32. There are all sorts of dubious metaphors about the common law, or justice, as a woman, but does it need to be a ‘mistress’, with all that that imports, and does it need to assume that there is a recognisable, accepted idea of ‘the jealous mistress’. Just unnecessary.






Early modern medical snippet

I am neither an early modernist nor a medical historian, but came across an early modern medical case recently and thought it was worth sharing, for the benefit of those who know more about these things.

Brashford v. Buckingham 79 ER 65 and 179 , Cro. Jac. 77 and 205, is a King’s Bench case from 1605-7 (Trinity 3 James I, and Hilary 5 James I),  concerning a promise to pay a healer £10 for healing a wound, and then a dispute as to whether payment was due. It is not especially surprising to see an action of this sort in this context (it is an ‘action on the case’, not unexpected in the medical context), and the main legal point which was of interest to the reporter concerned a technical issue of the appropriate parties, but it did strike me as slightly unusual in that the ‘medical practitioner’ was a woman.  Curing a wound which was worth £10 does sound like fairly serious medical treatment, and being trusted to do so by somebody who can pay £10 suggests a high reputation for healing. The woman in question deserves some attention from early modern medical historians.  Sadly, this will mean trawling through four KB plea rolls: KB 27/1391, 1392, 1403 and 1404, since the report (annoyingly) does not give a roll or membrane number. One day …

Another triumph of legal science from Sir Edward Coke: the Great Lady and the Baboon

Despite his high reputation, there is a lot not to like about Coke (gold-digger, involvement in some very abusive trials and persecutions,  tendency to misrepresent and mis-cite medieval cases …). It is, therefore, always satisfying to be able to point out his grosser follies in the field of ‘legal fake news’. They don’t come much grosser than his much-quoted tale of the Great Lady and her sexual relationship with a baboon.

This comes in his discussion of buggery. [3 Co. Inst. 59] From buggery, he goes on to bestiality (grudging admission that this is justified by the statute he is discussing, which also does so), and this is illustrated by the story of the Great Lady who manages to become pregnant by a baboon. Coke places this some time before the passing of Henry VIII’s act against buggery  [25 Henry VIII]. Neither the lady nor the baboon is named, and it is not clear whether a human-baboon baby was supposed to have been produced. Obviously this is biological nonsense, and it looks as if Coke is caught out either making things up or not checking his plea rolls to confirm the facts. Nevertheless, it is quoted over and over again, without any doubt being cast upon the tale – such was his canonisation.  [E.g. in Anon., A Treatise of Femes Coverts or the Lady’s Law (London, 1732), 52; and there are examples at least into the 1820s].

If it is not absolute fabrication, the story might have its origin in some very unfortunate and misunderstood birth of a very disabled baby, given a back-story blaming the mother. We know such tales were told. If it is a fabrication, that fits in all too well with Coke’s striking, and sadly influential, misogyny, which damaged women’s chances of improving their legal position for centuries after his death: cases on areas including dower and the right to practise law frequently cited Coke to the disadvantage of women. And yet this was a man who alleged that a woman and a baboon could conceive a baby.

The anti-Coke backlash starts here!