Self defence and God’s deliverance: an attempted rape indictment from Buckinghamshire

Content warning: as will be obvious from the title, this refers to sexual offences

Here is a little extra snippet for considerations of medieval women and the law. Yes, I am obsessing about a few words once again…. This time, it’s a rather interesting formulation in an indictment from Buckinghamshire, from the file of Hillary term 1440.

A certain John Snelle of Wendover, Bucks,[i] miller,  was in trouble. He had been indicted before royal officials, and the case  was now being dealt with in the KB.[ii] The allegation was that John had, on Tuesday before the feast of the translation of St Thomas [7th July] 1439 at Wendover, come to the  land of Henry, prior of St Mary Overy (Southwark), in Wendover, with force and arms, and had attacked and beaten Isabella Webbe, wife of John Webbe. The beating was said to have been so bad that her life was despaired of (not an uncommon thing to state). Less usually, there is a specific allegation with regard to John Snelle’s intention to commit a further offence: he wanted to have sex with Isabella (carnaliter concubere) there and then, (so, a rape in our terms, given the coercion) and would have managed this, had she not defended herself, through divine intervention [gratia dei mediante, se ipsam defendisset].

Not-wholly-unexpected-anticlimax spoiler – an entry on the KB plea roll for Easter 1440 notes that John was acquitted. Aren’t they always, when it’s anything to do with rape? Nevertheless, this indictment interests me because of the interlaced divine intervention and self defence aspects of the foiling of the attempted rape.

It seems to me that, while self defence was certainly ‘a thing’ in medieval law, a ‘defence’ to homicide and batteries, its application, with regard (a) to women and (b) to rape, was uncertain. In its best-known guise, in homicide cases, self-defence narratives tended towards a rather masculine paradigm: defendant was cornered, had no option but to use significant force, to preserve his life, and that his mind was full of the need to defend himself, not a felonious, and/or premeditated, intention to kill. This classic self-defence story assumes that the party who is attacked is armed and capable of inflicting a deadly injury on the attacker, and that it is credible that the attacker would be able to kill the party who is attacked. None of this is impossible in a F-F, F-M, or M-F encounter, of course, but, given average physical build and predominant gender roles, it would be significantly less likely to fit medieval women than men. It does not cover some of the more predictable deadly responses of those women attacked by somebody who sought to kill them, which might involve some time between attack and deadly defence. If we go beyond homicide, and ask whether a woman who (feared she) was about to be raped, and killed her assailant, would escape capital punishment. I tried to look at this issue a little in my recent Women and the Medieval Common Law book, and noticed a certain discomfort with regard to whether a woman was in any sense entitled to kill a man trying to rape her.[iii] In at least one case, an allegation of attempted murder was spliced into the allegation of attempted rape, to back up a possibly uncertain case.[iv]

This 1440 case may, perhaps, suggest less of a discomfort about whether women should be allowed to use deadly force in these circumstances, and more of a disbelief that they could actually resist. Isabella seems to have needed God’s help. ( I did spend a while attempting to understand how her self defence and God’s intervention would work together… did God somehow let her win, in the way trial by battle was supposed to work, or was it an independent bolt of lightning type of thing, meaning that her feeble mortal efforts at self-defence were a bit beside the point? But let’s not let our heads explode … overthinking …). Of course, the fact that God had her back would also tend to make the accused sound rather worse. Not only was he attempting to commit an offence against a mortal woman, but he was struggling against the Almighty himself.

Of course, even with the allegation of God’s involvement, it was still impossible to get a conviction of a man for a rape offence. That, of course, is not an entirely historical problem.





Image: St Mary’s Church, Wendover, because, like, God …


[i] ‘Gateway to the Chilterns’, apparently.

[ii] Order to that effect 25th Jan, 1440

[iii] pp. 131-3.

[iv] JUST 3/220/2 m. 57; JUST 3/210 m. 29d.

Sophisticated tastes in fifteenth century Rochester

Well this one appealed to me today – no particular research reason (though I suppose it links, rather vaguely, to my PhD work on regulation of victual sales etc.), just rather interesting to see some details of medieval sneakiness. And maybe having been drinking a glass or two of Law School prosecco (REF results day!) made it jump out as well …

It’s a Kent case from the King’s Bench roll for Michaelmas term 1440, (and see the indictment, here) about dishonest selling of wine. Thomas Elbrygge (also accused of other market-related offences) was indicted for having, on 3rd May, 1439, at Rochester, taken six bottles of old wine of La Rochelle, which was defective in colour and taste and unfit for human consumption, and mixed them with old Spanish wine, and then done various things to try and disguise the appearance, smell and taste of this combination. Egg white comes into the picture, in relation to making the concoction look better, there is also use of ‘gum’ – resin, I think – and pitch – mmmm! – apparently so that it would smell like the fancy Romney and Malmsey wines.  He then sold it as Romney and Malmsey, which was, of course, false and fraudulent, and obviously endangered the king’s people.

I was rather taken by the use of one particular word: along with being a fraud and a falsifier, Thomas was said to be a ‘sophisticator’ of wine. Interesting how words change in meaning over time, and this is a nice example of a real switch in terms of positive or negative implications. We would now generally like the idea of being ‘sophisticated’ – not sure I have ever achieved it, mind you – not so our predecessors. The Sophists of classical philosophy do not get a good press, and medieval people definitely did not want their wine to be sophisticated.



12th May, 2022.

Image: some wine, not, as far as I know, adulterated/ ‘sophisticated’.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Labour law and extremely small medieval Londoners

I have noted a few cases on labour/employment law over the years, but this is a new one for me, and a fairly secure Year Book-Plea Roll match[i] – names almost line up, though there are some changes of story …

Let’s go to the London area, in the 1350s, and observe what is clearly a fairly extreme shortage of workers …

The entry, labelled ‘Middlesex’, sets out the case against Robert Brewer de Holborn and Elena his wife, and Matilda daughter of Philip de Cornwaile, recently servant of Thomas Cheris, cutler. These three were sued on behalf of the king, and himself, by Thomas Cheris, on a writ founded on the recent labour legislation (Statute of Labourers (1349), 23 Edw. 3, ch. 2). Robert and Elena had allegedly admitted Matilda into their service before her term of service with Thomas was up, and Matilda had left Thomas’s service before the end of her term, without licence or reasonable cause. Both offences were ‘in contempt of the king’, to the damage of Thomas, and contrary to the legislation.

Thomas’s contention was that Matilda had been in his service, in St Stephen’s parish, Coleman Street ward, London, under a contract which ran from 21st June, 1349 for the next seven years, but left before the end of that term. without licence, on 5th October, 1354, and was taken on by Robert and Elena in the St Andrew’s parish, Holborn, Farringdon ward, and retained, (in contempt of the king,  to the damage of Thomas – to the tune of 20 l., according to Thomas – and against the form of the ordinance.

Robert and Elena’s answer to this, as far as the plea roll was concerned, was that they had done nothing wrong, since Matilda was too young to have made a binding contract to the effect alleged by Thomas. Having examined Matilda in court and inspected her body, the court decided that she was within age, and could only have been about three years old when Thomas said she was initially retained, so that she could not then have contracted with anyone, or entered into a covenant. As far as the case against Matilda was concerned, Thomas lost – he would take nothing and was in mercy for a false claim. We might think that the case against Robert and Elena would have to fall too, given the problem with Matilda’s ‘covenant’ with Thomas, but not so: that case went on, and Robert and Elena, in the end, put themselves on a jury on the issue of whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. [Here, the entry ends].

The Year Book tells a broadly similar tale. One character is called William Brewer of Holborn, rather than Robert, and he is bringing, rather than defending the suit, and Matilda is said to be the defendants’ daughter rather than the daughter of somebody else entirely (though possibly that relationship is forgotten later on in the report – it certainly seems odd that it is not used in argument) but still, I think this is the one.

The YB story is that a  writ on the Statute of Labourers is brought against ‘a man and his wife’ (Ds) and their daughter, ‘M’. M had allegedly covenanted to serve P for seven years, but left without reasonable cause, before the end of her term. The Ds had then retained her, contrary to the statute. As with the plea roll version, there was an inspection of the girl, and it was decided that she was too young to have made a binding contract as alleged, so that part of the case failed, but the case against the Ds continued. Year Books being Year Books, we get more of an account of the sparring before the eventual issue was reached, and it is pretty interesting.

There was, apparently, some argument about the interpretation of the Statute of Labourers: the Ds’ counsel  argued that the statute concerned covenants for usual terms, i.e. one year, not seven. Essentially, the point was that it was incorrect to build a case on the statute here. Expanding upon this, it was argued that, if this was allowed, a writ on the statute could be used for a covenant for a lifetime of service, or for a thousand years – which was clearly regarded as ridiculous.

Counsel for the Ds also, we are told, had a go at making  something of a coverture point – the writ was against both H and W, but a feme covert could not employ anyone, as ‘all would be said to be the act of the husband’, and, clearly, it would be wrong for the wife to end up in prison for her husband’s act – so using the statute, which did prescribe imprisonment for this offence, would certainly be inappropriate. Willoughby JCP was not entirely in agreement with the coverture argument, and made quite an interesting intervention, to the effect that ‘common understanding’ was that, if somebody was retained in the service of one spouse, s/he was regarded as being in the service of the other too. (So, coverture fans, I suppose that indicates more of a unity approach to coverture than a domination approach – or, indeed, just something a bit more practical and a bit less in thrall to any particular theory; something which showed an understanding of employment in small scale ‘family business’ situations).

The YB has a little more on the question of M[atilda]’s age. It was a serjeant, Finchden, who showed her to the court, asking them to observe that she was nine, and so could not bind herself contractually. The court, we are told, both ‘saw’ and ‘examined’ her (luy vist & examina – let’s hope that this was nothing traumatic, eh?), and agreed that she was nine, so not bound by a covenant. They also made the faultlessly logical comment that she would have been younger when the covenant was actually made (‘a long time past’).

That sorted out the case against Matilda, but, agreeing with the plea roll, it didn’t mean that the Ds were off the hook. Argument clustered around (i) whether M could be regarded as having been in P’s service, despite not having been working there on the basis of a binding covenant, and (ii) whether or not there was a difference between removing M from P’s service and retaining her after she had left P’s service. Both pleading and statutory interpretation aspects of those questions came into play. Sensing that the court was not on their side, the Ds were scared off these legal issues, and just went to more general pleading,[ii] though there is a slight difference here from the ending of the plea roll entry. That had made the issue for the jury one of denying that Ds had retained M. Here, it is whether or not Matilda was retained by Thomas as he stated in his writ. This does seem to me quite an important difference, but I suppose that it indicates that the YB report writer had lost interest once the thing seemed to take this more factual turn, and so was not really bothered about what it was exactly that the jury was to decide. What he cared about was the cut and thrust of discussion in court, rather than the lives of little people outside the ‘Westminster (Hall) bubble.’

So what?

Well, there is all sorts here – pleading and statutory interpretation for those of a technical persuasion, employment practices and the treatment of children for those with more soc. and ec. hist. interests, and some chat about coverture for gender hist. types. I am struck, as ever, by the differences between PR and YB – it really does seem, sometimes, as if there is immediate and deliberate distancing of the material put into reports from the actual case involved. Perhaps needs a warning at the start like TV shows loosely based on true historical events.  (And no, let’s definitely not get into ‘what is truth?’ … )





[i] YB Pasch. 29 Edw. III f. 27 p. 29;  Seipp 1355.085  = CP 40/381 m. 59d or a hat will be consumed … The YB account here is, of course, founded upon David Seipp’s work.

[ii] The YB report is interested, too, in the technical pleading point that this had moved from a purely legal argument to an issue of fact.

Image – site of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street … not very atmospheric, or suggestive of medieval labour law, I admit.

Covered in translation

Quick snippet: given my background as a native of Abergavenny (‘Mountains, Markets and More’… top tourist advertising, eh?) I am always keen to understand how bits of ‘the common law of England’ have applied in the Land of My Fathers, and so, whilst working on coverture, I have been interested in the question of how the relevant terms: ‘coverture’, ‘feme covert’, etc., would have been translated into Welsh.

This turns out to be slightly complex.  The origin of ‘coverture’ etc. is clearly French, and English language sources continued to use feme covert into the twentieth century (there are even some pieces of legislation which use the term still ‘on the statute book’ – e.g. Prescription Act 1832 s.7 – so, in a sense, it is still part of English common law, offensive though that is). Add to that the fact that ‘coverture’ is not a concept which was known to ‘native’ Welsh law,[i]  so that there is not a ready-made traditional word to use, and we end up with the apparently messy translation issue I have encountered.

The modern specialist Welsh-English legal dictionary,[ii]  has, for ‘coverture’, bod yn wraig briod, i.e. ‘to be/being a married woman’. And I suppose for most modern purposes, that would do, though it does not quite capture the abstract nature of coverture, nor its oppressive implications. What other possibilities might there be? I have done a little digging in old newspapers, and in older dictionaries. This seemed a sensible move because, although ‘coverture’ was not a Welsh law thing, following the 13th C conquest,[iii]  and 16th C union, it was part of the law applied in Wales as in England. That would mean that Welsh speakers could be expected to discuss it. How would they do so?


The answer seems to be ‘in English or French, or, if in Welsh, in a variety of different ways’  The big old 1852 (general) dictionary of Daniel Silvan Evans has seven different terms for feme covert. Some, like the modern law dictionary’s version, are essentially ‘married woman’ (gwraig briod, gwraig briodol… ) but there are a couple which are, perhaps, to be trying to link back to aspects of Cyfraith Hywel, and others which have a slightly different feel, adding an extra layer to ‘coverture’. Some link to the old idea of cowyll may be seen in ‘gwraig gowyllog’ and ‘gwraig dan gowyll’.[iv] Others emphasise the concept of nawdd – protection or patronage. Thus, we have the wordy ‘gwraig dan nawdd ac awrdurdod gwr’ and snappier ‘gwraig wrnawdd’.[v] It would certainly be interesting to consider the differences of nuance between the ‘English’ (well, French, but you know what I mean) version (no active party indicated, rather abstract, somewhat neutral in terms of hierarchical positioning) and the masculinity-emphasising, hierarchically positioning Welsh versions (dan is very much ‘under’, by the way).


For ‘coverture’, the dictionary goes for ‘gorchudd’, which might be understood more like ‘veiled’, or a series of more generally applicable words to do with lids etc. ‘Cowyll’ gets a mention. It also has ‘bod dan orchudd, nawdd, neu awdurdod gwr’ and ‘cyfiwr neu ansawdd gwraig briod, gwrnawdd, gwrnoddiad’.  Both the protective, patronage-indicating nawdd and the emphasis on the masculinity of the protector are seen in the usage dan nawdd ei gwr which is the translation in an 1882  Welsh language newspaper of ‘under coverture’.


So – preliminary investigations suggest that this is a bit involved. The politics of translation, especially as between the languages of a conqueror and the conquered, are pretty complex, and this, I suppose, is an area which will have seemed obsolete before the renaissance of legal Welsh, and technical translation, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There may not be one answer, therefore. But an interesting question, on’d ife?




[i] That sounds positive, doesn’t it, but in fact it’s not because life was great for medieval Welsh women under Cyfraith Hywel – it’s because women just generally could not hold real property, so there was no need to create that sort of abstract idea to handle their status. Weirdly, it is probably the less discriminatory nature of English common law land rules – women disadvantaged but not disqualified – which contributed to lawyers coming up with ‘coverture’. So an oppressive idea arose from a situation of marginal advantage … Women’s history is twisty!

[ii] Robyn Lewis, The New Legal Dictionary (English-Welsh) Gomer Press, Llandysul, Ceredigion, 2003, p.266. Thanks to Gwilym Owen for putting me on to this!

[iii] (still time to pull it back … Owain will come again etc. etc.)

[iv] Cowyll was a payment to a new wife, after consummation of the marriage, a recognition of her (now ‘lost’) virginity. (It’s gowyll here due to a soft mutation following dan, in case you are wondering …)

[v] Extra bonus find on this trawl – the existence of something called a ‘cover-slut’ – some sort of apron to hide one’s dirty clothes (in Welsh, bryntgudd). Definitely one to introduce into everyday conversation wherever possble…

Image: ragged dragon flag … I am sure it says something profound about nations, language etc. etc., but will leave you to draw your own conclusions … Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

Coverture points in a cause célèbre

As I have been mentioning (rather a lot!) in recent posts, I am currently pulling together a few thoughts on coverture for what one might generously describe as ‘a paper’, for a conference on that topic.[i] The content will be mostly medieval, with a few links to the law and legal history of the present.[ii] I do enjoy delving into a bit of 19th and early 20th C ‘public awareness’ stuff too though,[iii] and the thing which really strikes me about discussions of coverture in that period is the level of opposition based not on ideas about oppression and limitation of women’s lives, but about the ill effects coverture might have on men, or the ways in which women might use it to their advantage (unfairly, of course …) to escape some liability. I have touched upon this sort of thing in a previous post concerning the deployment  of coverture as a (sneaky) way of escaping debts. Another implication of coverture, which seems to have caused exaggerated fear amongst Victorian newspaper readers and writers, arose in a more felonious context: there was concern that women might take advantage of ‘marital coercion’ to weasel out of the consequences of serious crime.

Since well before the Norman conquest, English law has had some idea of taking into account the possibility that a wife might participate in offending conduct not because she chooses to do so, and is generally a bad lot, but because her husband forces her to offend, or to join in his misconduct in one way or another.[iv] Early accounts are focused upon theft, and to suggest that there was ever a broad ‘doctrine of marital coercion’, such as might be used to avoid the consequences of homicide, would be a fairly large exaggeration. This spectre was, however, raised in the 19th C press. We can definitely see it in accounts of ‘The Bermondsey Murder’ and its aftermath in newspapers of 1849.

The story of this much-discussed homicide was as follows:[v] a man called Patrick O’Connor had been shot with a pistol, and bashed over the head for good measure, in Bermondsey. Result: death. His ‘mutilated remains’ were found in August 1849, (and the corpse’s false teeth seem to have played some part in identification). Suspicion fell upon a married couple, the Mannings.[vi] Mrs (Maria) Manning was caught in Edinburgh and Mr (Frederick Charles) Manning was caught in Jersey.[vii] He then said that Mrs Manning had instigated the whole thing and fired the shot to the head of O’Connor (as he went down some stairs).  Amongst the general enjoyment of a horrible crime, and the potential of a bit of scandal, there was, apparently, some concern that ‘the law of coverture’ would let Mrs Manning off the hook (or the gallows …). That people might be concerned about this was implied by a letter to the Times by one ‘W.E.K.’ of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.[viii] Was this a response to genuine concern or a gratuitous display of having read a bit of obscure law? I am not sure. In any case, W.E.K., plonking down the authority of Hale, reassured Times readers that ‘the plea of “coverture” being urged as a shield over the acts of Mrs Manning’ would not actually work in this context. As he put it, ‘The public may rest satisfied that the plea of coverture will not shield Mrs Manning from the sword of offended justice.’  Phew – so that was all right.  The pair, having sold a lot of newspapers, were convicted and executed.[ix]

The ’marital coercion’ point was not the only ‘coverture’ point relating to this case. We also have discussion of property and allegiance aspects. The property point arose once both the Mannings had been apprehended, when there was something of a dispute as to how to deal with the money found on Mrs Manning at her arrest. Could Mr Manning have it (at least, some of the money not obviously pinched from Mr O’Connor) for his defence, because … coverture and all …[x] That whole ‘man gets all the personal property’ part of coverture could certainly be a bit of a problem in the situation in which spouses were both accused of a crime and were going a bit ‘cut throat’ in their defence, with separate representation to fund … The allegiance point related to jury composition.  ‘Coverture’ meant Mrs Manning was unable to secure a trial by a jury made up half of aliens, as she wished, because she had married an Englishman.

Finally, and more of a ‘women in general’ point than a coverture point as such, there is endless fascination in the gendered nature of reporting of criminal defendants. Far more attention is paid to the clothes and appearance of Maria Manning than is the case in relation to her husband. It also seems very important to know how attractive she was (woman accused of murder: hot or not?). The authoritative view given in the Times of 24th August, 1849 was that, while she was ‘very neatly dressed’, and had ‘easy and graceful manners’, she was not ‘by any means what may be styled beautiful, as some of the papers have asserted’. Ah, glad we cleared that up. Obviously deserved to hang then.




Image: Maria Manning, from this.  Officially not beautiful, right?

[i] Still looks more like a collection of individual points as opposed to a coherent whole – hey, a bit like coverture itself … and I have in no way just gone in my head from the idea of a paper on coverture to the fact that, in ‘rock, paper, scissors’, paper covers rock ….

[ii] Sorry, early modernists, once again your period is being treated as ‘the flyover centuries’ … love you really …

[iii] i.e. doing lazy online searches of old newspapers …

[iv] Shameless self-citation – see c.6 of my Women in the Medieval Common Law. Other accounts are available.

[v] Times, 18th August, 1849  onwards: there seem to be daily reports,

[vi] Mrs Manning, nee Maria Rue/ de Roux,  was ‘a native of Geneva’, or of Lausanne, though I am sure that her foreignness had nothing to do with the negative attitude of the press …The suggestion was that O’Connor and she were ‘at it’.

[vii] Lots of detail on detectives, police co-operation etc., for those who like that sort of thing; also note that Mr Manning, on the run,  was tucked up in bed by 9.30 – a slightly incongruous touch?

[viii] Times, 29th August, 1849.

[ix] Times, 14th November, 1849. I am, no doubt, sounding rather flippant, but, as well as acknowledging that this is all grim beyond words, I do have a serious academic concern relating to this material, It is this – I note that a fair amount of modern scholarship on coverture takes the line that women (implicitly a fair number of them), rather than being ‘helpless victims’ of coverture rules, managed to use their artificial relegation from full personhood to their own benefit. We should, I think, at least pause to note that this idea of flipping an oppressive doctrine to one’s own advantage was present in the minds of those deeply invested in maintaining discriminatory structures.

[x] Times 5th September, 1849.

Looming deadline …

Currently working on this, for a conference at the beginning of May. Fingers very much crossed that nothing comes up (Covid, incompetence about some paperwork or other …) to stop me going, because the conference looks great, and it is so long since I have been away from the UK. Writing the paper is proving a bit challenging though – in my efforts to avoid duplicating things others will be discussing, or have discussed, I have somehow ended up going very high concept, not to say …. a bit more pretentious than usual … with rather a lot of textile and bedlinen imagery … hmm – a triumph or a disaster???

GS 14/4/2022.

Update, 22/4/2022 – I have dropped the weaver, in favour of something smuttier, (see below) but don’t think that that means it’s less pretentious – no, there is now an additional layer of embracing images … may well be about to disappear up own backside … Ah well, go big or go home, I suppose …

Wedding un-dress: a ‘vulgar error’ occupying Victorian men of letters

No doubt people who know more about the 18th and 19th Cs would be familiar with this, but it was a new one to me …

Whilst continuing my investigations of coverture, I came across [dis-covered?] a rather scandalous supposed marriage custom, which was considered to ward off some of the obligations which a husband would incur, in the normal course of things, in relation to his wife’s debts. The generally sensible C.S. Kenny notes the existence of ‘an old legal superstition … that a man does not become liable for his wife’s debts if she marries him in her shift’.[i] The idea was that this practice of turning up for the wedding without much in the way of clothing showed that the bride was not bringing property to the groom, and, since his obligation to pay her debts could be conceived of as a consequence of, or some sort of balance to, the property she brought to him, he was not undertaking to pay the debts. Kenny, in an essay published in 1879,  tells us that ‘old newspapers’ give examples of such marriages. Checking that up sounds like an enjoyable little project for a less busy time.

For now, I note that there are some exchanges on this in Notes and Queries in the 1850s, referring to these events as ‘smock marriages’ or marriages ‘en chemise’ (in French, so much posher – or more sexy and salacious?) all started off by a question by one J. Eastwood, who found a ‘Curious Marriage Entry’ in the ‘register books of a small village in Wiltshire’ (frustratingly not named! – though there is mention of a parish, Chiltern All Saints! – which presumably = Chitterne, near enough to Warminster), to the effect that Anne Sellwood, who was married to John Bridmore ‘in her smock, without any clothes or head-gear on’, on 17th October, 1714’. [ii] Another correspondent, C.H. Cooper, noted that this business of smock marriages and their supposed effect had been pointed out as a ‘vulgar error’ in a work of 1842, but also that it was ‘still prevalent at Cottenham [Cambs]’.[iii] The field of operation of the ‘vulgar error’ was extended north and west by a further letter from one Shirley Brooks, who reported it in Shropshire, and also came up with an ingenious interpretation of its supposed justification: the bride was conceived of as purchasing her husband’s protection – so entering into a contract – but if she came to him with nothing, then there was no consideration for that purchase of protection. Clever, eh? Mad, but clever.[iv]

It is also said to have been known at Kirton, Lindsey (Lincs) – possibly in even more scandalous form: there is mention of ‘a state of nudity’. As ‘K.P.D.E.’ puts it, on the authority of  ‘a venerable person’, there had been an example of the practice, in that ‘highly civilised town’, in his lifetime, the bride to be leaving her home ‘from a bedroom window’ and putting some clothes on while on the ladder, coming down.‘[v]

It is mentioned, in historical scholarship, in the context of whether or not it preserved a woman’s financial independence.[vi] (Contrast this context with the concerns of the Notes and Queries letter writers, who were really bothered about the other side of the coin: the husband’s independence of claims relating to his wife’s debts).

I find myself wondering how this particular myth might have grown up. What conversations might there have been in the lead-up to a marriage, with brides being persuaded to eschew dressing up, in favour of a spot of streaking? And what place might there have been for the desire to see – and write about  – [more or less] naked women?



Image – no, not a naked woman. Nor some sort of racy undershirt, of the sort to quicken the pulse of a Victorian Notes and Queries reader. We are sticking to safer ground here, with a general suggestion of love and such … using swans. Things are much simpler for swans … Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash



[i] C.S. Kenny, The History of the Law of England as to the effects of Marriage on Property and of the wife’s legal capacity (London, 1879). 94.

[ii] Notes and Queries, 1st ser, vol VI, 485, 561; (1852)

[iii] N & Q 1st ser. vol. VII, 163 (1853).

[iv] ibid.

[v] N & Q VII, 17. Further 18th C examples are given, from Kent and London, and a later query mentions an early 18th C instance from Yorkshire: N & Q vol. 152 (1927) p 169, by P.D.M. See also R. Chambers, Book of Days vol. 1 (London and Edinburgh, 1863), 259, cited in Erickson, below.

[vi] e.g. A.L. Erickson, Women and Property : In Early Modern England, (London,  1995( 146.

Law and love in the local papers

Here’s one for those with a high tolerance for Victorian humour – a ‘gem’ I turned up while on the hunt for coverture references (there is a brief one, but so much … more). I have had it in my file for a while, under the heading ‘Putrid lawyer love note’, which may give the game away slightly …

It is to be found in that essential publication, the Glamorgan, Monmouth and Brecon Gazette and Merthyr Guardian for 30th December 1843, and you can see it via Welsh Newspapers, courtesy of the National Library of Wales, here.

The letters pages of these papers demonstrate just how much time some people had on their hands – here, the correspondent is one ‘Lycurgus’ (how they did like their classical references … are we not impressed?) makes up a ‘funny’ story about having picked up a piece of paper dropped by a buzy attorney at unidentified assizes, which – how amusing – turns out to be a love letter, pressing the lawyer’s case with the woman he wants to marry. Even more amusingly, the attorney has stuffed it full of legal language, e.g. ‘Cupid … has taken my heart into custody and will not accept of bail’. There are tipstaffs, green wax, affidavits, nonsuits, rejoinders, demurrers, enfeoffments (though the printer struggled with that one), Ca. sa., , essoins, and all manner of other legal terms and things. And the killer argument in favour of acceptance? ‘‘How vastly preferable the title of a feme covert to that of a feme sole’. I can only say Hmmm!

Once the queasiness dies down, it is quite an interesting little piece of whimsy, suggesting wide recognition of the sorts of technical terms lawyers might use – procedure and pleading terms are to the fore. And although it is mocking lawyers, it is doing so quite gently – so, an interesing snippet on the reputation of the profession, I suppose.

(The letter goes on to greater depths, with an abysmal poem about a husband and wife arguing … I do so hope that there was no Mrs Lycurgus …).



Image – suggesting love and suchlike. Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

‘A buxom dame’ playing coverture games?

On a bit of a fishing trip for coverture snippets in 19th C newspapers (diolch unwaith eto,  Welsh Newspapers Online), to get a sense of ‘lay’ understanding of the law in this area, it came home to me how interested, and how frequently disapproving, 19th C newspapers were when use was made of coverture as a defence to a claim for payment – i.e. when a woman said that she was not obliged to pay a sum of money, because she was married at the relevant time. The tone of reports is very much that this is something of a dodge. My instinct is always to be on the woman’s side (not an academic article, so I don’t have to pretend to be all neutral observery) since she is there existing within a system which does not work in her favour on the whole, and why should she not use this defence, which comes as the logical consequence of discriminatory property rules? She might well be married, so why should she not use that fact?

There is what struck me as a slightly unusual report of this sort in the Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser for 15th February 1850. This tells of a case in far-away Warwick, at the county court. There, the ‘buxom dame’ of my title, a certain Mrs Knowles, was facing one Mr Tidmarsh, a draper. The woman was dressed in mourning clothes, ‘weeds’, to mark the passing of her recently deceased husband, and the draper was trying to make sure that he was paid for supplying them: ‘£5 17s. for funeral articles of female attire’. The potential problem for the likes of Mrs Knowles was one of timing: we would imagine that the mourning attire would be ordered after her husband’s death, and that, therefore, she would be a widow. That, in turn, would mean that she was not a feme covert any longer, and could not use the coverture defence to a claim for payment for the clothes. Mrs Knowles, however, had an answer to that: she had, she said, ordered the clothes during her husband’s life, at his command. She thought that that would put the deal safely back into the ‘during coverture’ time-frame, and let Mrs Knowles off the hook. It didn’t work, however – coverture did not cover what was thought to be ‘too ready compliance’ with a request to get the mourning clothes sorted. Drapers and suppliers of gloomy black things across the country probably breathed a sigh of relief. Had it gone the other way, they might have had real problems getting paid when a husband died.

Maybe Mrs Knowles was ‘trying it on’, but the idea that Mr Knowles had in fact given a ‘dying command’ of this sort isn’t entirely impossible, is it? The Victorians were so very formal and maudlin about death ritual that I can just about imagine some expiring bloke obsessing about what his (buxom) wife would wear at the funeral, and trying to get it all organised ahead of time.

Anyway, as it turned out, Mrs K would have had to stump up for the deathwear – but at least the prevailing custom of remaining in black for quite some time would have meant that she would get a decent amount of use out of it, I suppose.




Image: some black fabric, such as might be supplied for funereal purposes. Photo by Julissa Santana on Unsplash

Coverture, consciousness and chocs

I am looking forward to going to a conference on coverture, in a few weeks, and trying to find a few new angles on the topic. I am interested in the medieval aspects, obviously (Bracton’s sister, not Coke’s or Blackstone’s, right?). But also rather intrigued by the other end of things – the dwindling and shadows left behind in the twentieth century in particular, though there are still a few neglected survivals in ‘the statute book’ which could and should be extirpated.

A smile was raised when I came upon a late (1945) manifestation of unity-of-persons coverture theory, via a Modern Law Review article, and then some newspaper reports. It came up in a criminal case, but we are not talking about the higher end of criminality … the heinous offence was that of a man travelling using the return part of his wife’s ticket.

Arthur Donald Floyd was hauled up before Tonbridge magistrates in 1945, accused of an offence under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 s. 5(3)(a) and by-law no. 6 of the Southern Railway Co, in having used the return portion of a ticket which his wife, Doris, had bought, and which was, explicitly, non-transferable.


Floyd was found not guilty.


So far, so banal (and so, so trivial …). The interesting part is that some  newspaper reports stated that the reason for the not guilty verdict was based on the unity species of coverture, i.e. it did not matter that the ticket was non-transferable, since it had not been transferred: husband and wife were one person in law. Now, it seems that this unity view was aired in the case, but it was not the reason for the decision. While the Times report of 5th December  1945 puts the observation that a man and his wife were one person at law in the mouth of the Chairman of the Bench, Mr H.Vivian Phillipps, it seems that this unity point was made by or for Mr Floyd, not by the magistrates. Mr Phillipps wrote to the Times, and his letter was printed on 8th December. It insisted  that the not guilty finding was based not on a deduction from coverture/unity, but on the view that Donald Floyd had not in fact intended to defraud the Southern Railway Company.[i][ii] The unity idea seems to have come not from the magistrates but from Floyd himself. who, in the account of the Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, said he thought – indeed, was sure – the rule about not using somebody else’s ticket did not apply because spouses ‘became as one in the eyes of the law’  when married.[iii]


It seems rather an interesting example of the absorption into general consciousness of the possibility of using a unity conception of marriage as a way out of a legal difficulty (and, note, by a man rather than a woman …).

Possibly even better was discovering a usage of coverture hitherto unknown to me at least – in relation to cakes and chocolates! At times indicating ‘icing’, at times ‘coating’, it comes up in a number of (amusingly non-slick) advertisements, and the odd account of the food rationing rules of the 1940s. In the 1920s, Clifton’s chocolates (‘the chocolate with an unconditional guarantee’) had ‘the finest coverture’ (as well as ‘intriguing’ flavours – not sure I want my chocs ‘intriguing’, really)[iv] In the 1930s, Warren Chocolates had ‘good’ coverture as well as ‘original’ centres (sardine? mustard? Again, I am not sure I really want originality as opposed to loveliness in a choc, though, to be fair, we do get the sharp claim that they are ‘very enjoyable’ – got to love 1930s advertising … ).[v]

In the 1940s, as we get into rationing, there is much concern about the future of cakes – especially wedding cakes. In July 1940, there was reassurance by the Ministry of Food that chocolate coverture would not be prohibited (unlike some other cake adornment options).[vi]


Obviously, I am now


  • trying to see a way to use chocolates with original and/or intriguing centres in a pretentious way to illustrate coverture in law and practice
  • wondering whether Donald and Doris Floyd became more hardened criminals, slipping down the enticing slope from railway ticket offences to … whisper it … the wrong sort of cake icing ….





[i] Williams, G. L. (1947). The legal unity of husband and wife. Modern Law Review, 10(1), 16-31; Times, 5th and 8th December, 1945, 9th May, 1846.

[ii] Poor old Mr Phillips: trying to make sure things were correct … in fact the lack of intention was later found to be irrelevant, since the offence under the Regulation of Railways Act 1889 s. 5(3)(a) and no. 6 of the by-laws of the Southern Railway Co, was constructed in such a way that a lack of intention did not mean a lack of guilt.

[iii] Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser, 7th December, 1945, ‘Man Can Use Wife’s Railway Ticket’.

[iv] Scotsman, 12th  April, 1924

[v] Waterford Standard, 17th April, 1937

[vi] Scotsman, 15th July, 1940; Daily News (London), 26th  September, 1941 – this one is headed ‘Iced Cake Law’ – how has this not become a sub-discipline in Law Schools???

Image: Photo by Jessica Loaiza on Unsplash

Who is feeling peckish?