Tag Archives: coverture

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.

‘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?


Violent husbands and tort liability – interesting new article

The latest Journal of Legal History has an interesting article on the genesis of the marital tort immunity, preventing wives suing their husbands: