Tag Archives: curtesy

Discourtesy about curtesy: land squabbles in Victorian ‘Brecknockshire’

Another set of documents on the list for the next National Archives trip involves a raid into the nineteenth century, to tie up some loose ends relating to tenancy by the curtesy (widower’s right to hold land after wife’s death, which, at common law, depended on the birth of a living child to the parents). (It may also involve a pleasant field-trip to Powys). I need to know more about the case of Jones v Ricketts (judgment: 5th May, 1862).[i]

This was a case with two main points, and seems to have drawn contemporary attention principally for the ‘other point’, i.e. the one not relating to curtesy. This concerned sale at an undervalue of an interest in land. It seems to me, though, that there are probably some interesting gleanings to be had, on attitudes to curtesy, and the big question of life, and how to prove it, in the case, and the papers relating to it, which seem to be available in the National Archives.[ii]

The case involved a farm. Its recent history was that, in 1850, one Catherine Jones had been the freeholder. She had then married Ricketts (the defendant in this case).  In August 1852, it was said that they had a child. (The report, in slightly judgey fashion, sniffs that ‘one child only’ was ‘born of the marriage’). This alleged live birth was disputed by the plaintiff, Jones. The plaintiff, according to the report ‘insisted [that the child] was not born alive’. The defendant, on the other hand, claimed to be tenant by curtesy by virtue of this birth, and said that the child was ‘born alive but died shortly after its birth’. It was not disputed that Catherine had not lived very much longer – dying in April 1853, nor that, at that time, the right to the remainder was with Thomas Jones, Catherine’s father.

Not long after his wife’s death, Ricketts bought Thomas Jones’s interest for £ 200, and it was conveyed to him (using the correct formalities: by deed, on 11th June, 1853. Clearly not too deep in grief to be unable sort out his property rights … I am rather taking against Mr Ricketts …)

The next relevant point with regard to the interests was in December 1859, when Thomas Jones died. He died intestate, and the plaintiff, Jones (a Jones in Wales – that’s going to be a fun search …) was his heir under the intestacy. Jones the Plaintiff then sued Ricketts, challenging his right as tenant by the curtesy (on the basis that there was never any live issue of the marriage), and alleging that the sale had been at a serious undervalue, so should be set aside.

On the undervalue point, the plaintiff stressed that, in 1853, Thomas Jones was ‘in reduced circumstances’ and was ‘living with the defendant in a dependent position’, and, furthermore had had no independent professional advice (all sounds a bit Barclays Bank v. O’Brien/undue influence, doesn’t it, Land Law fans?). He claimed that the freehold of the property, Brechfa-Isha, was worth at least £1000, and the reversion much more than £200. He also suggested that the £200 had not actually been paid. He asked that the deed conveying Brechfa-Isha to Ricketts ‘might be declared fraudulent and void, that the Plaintiff might be let into possession, and that the Defendant might account for the rents’.

There was, apparently, evidence for and against the live birth, though the court came down in favour of it. (This is where I am hoping the papers will give some more information as to just how the argument went, and what sort of proof was regarded as sufficient). Ricketts was tenant by the curtesy.

On the undervalue point, the court agreed with Jones the Plaintiff that the reversion had been undervalued – it was worth £238. There may be something of interest in the method of valuation of the land, and on the costs points, for those who like that sort of thing, but I am not sufficiently ‘up’ on either aspect to make any informed comment.  It does seem to have been the ‘sale at an undervalue’ aspect which got the attention of the press in Wales (including one of my favourite publications, The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – sounds a jolly paper, doesn’t it?).[iii] The curtesy point seems to have been uncontroversial, which is interesting for the common narrative of dower and curtesy being rather irrelevant, and perceived as a silly hang-over from the past, at this point. The question of ascertaining whether there had been life, or not, in the unfortunate child of Catherine and her husband really does not seem to have grabbed people’s attention. It is a lesson, I suppose, in the distance there may be between the questions we find important, and those which engaged the interest and critical faculties of lawyers, and journalists, of the past.

There is some accessible evidence about the characters involved. The Welsh census of 1851, shows an entry for ‘Llandefalley, Breconshire’, (now Llandefalle) with a household including John Ricketts, aged 45, a farmer, Catherine Ricketts, 27, his wife, her father, Thomas Jones, widower, 62, labourer, plus four Ricketts sons and several servants, and a visiting elderly stocking-knitter.[iv] The name of the house is Trebarried, and it looks to have been a very substantial place.[v] There is also a record of Catherine’s burial, in April 1853, at the church in Llandefalle, in ‘Brecknockshire, Wales, Anglican Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1538-1994 (p. 39).  I am yet to find a record of the child’s birth or burial – which is not to say it does not exist (just – lockdown). And there may be a cemetery tourism trip on the cards, to see if I can track down any of the adults involved (would the birth be mentioned on Catherine’s gravestone, if it exists, I wonder). Also not irrelevant to this plan is the fact that the relevant church in Llandefalle (St Matthew’s or St Maelog’s according to allegiance) has medieval paintings![vi] Now I’m definitely going to have to persuade somebody who can drive to take me there, when all this is over.



[i] Jones v Ricketts (1862) 31 Beavan 130; 54 E.R. 1087  Curtesy case, Brecon. investigate. S. C. 31 L. J. Ch. 753; 8 Jur. (N. S.) 1198 ; 10 W. E. 576.

[ii] Cause number: 1860 I/J96. Short title: Jones v Ricketts. Documents: Bill,… | The National Archives

[iii] ABERDARE.|1863-03-20|The Cardiff Times – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

OUTLINES OF THE HISTORY OF POLAND.|1863-03-21|The Merthyr Telegraph and General Advertiser for the Iron Districts of South Wales – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iv] subdistrict of Merthyr Cynog, 6b piece 2489, folio 669, p.1, household 1,

[v] Trebarried, Llandefalle | Coflein I have not managed to turn up ‘Brechfa Isha’ as a place name in the area – though we do see upper and lower Brechfa (Uchaf and Isaf – lit. superlatives, but would translate as comparatives) on this map: Brechfa-isaf – Recorded name – Historic Place Names (rcahmw.gov.uk) ‘Isha’ is, presumably a corruption of the latter.

[vi] Llandefalle | Felinfach Community Council St Maelog, Llandefalle © Philip Pankhurst :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

‘Stillbirth’ or fleeting life? Beyond curtesy

I recently published an article on tenancy by the curtesy in medieval England:

Gwen Seabourne (2019) ‘It is necessary that the issue be heard to cry or squall within the four [walls]’: Qualifying for Tenancy by the Curtesy of England in the Reign of Edward I, Journal of Legal History, 40:1, 44-68, DOI: 10.1080/01440365.2019.1576359

Curtesy is a topic which touches upon traumatic and tragic childbirth, and the difficulty in determining whether or not a baby was ever alive (in order to decide whether or not a man had produced ‘live issue’ with his wife, and thus qualified for curtesy. As is not uncommon, I have now come across something I’d love to have included in the article: linked chronicle accounts of a birth ending in the death of mother and baby, with some interesting inclusions and omissions of information.

The narratives are mentioned in L.E. Mitchell, ‘The most perfect knight’s countess: Isabella de Clare, her daughters and women’s exercise of power and influence 1190-c. 1250’, in H.J. Tanner (ed), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power 1100-1400 (2019) c.3, p. 61, citing Matthew Paris,  English  History  tr. J.A. Giles (3 vols HG Bohn, 1889) I:255.

The unfortunate mother was Isabelle countess of Cornwall (wife of Richard, earl of Cornwall, and daughter of William Marshall and Isabella de Clare). Her demise was noted to have occurred in 1240, along with that of her baby, named Nicholas. She was said to have been ill with jaundice, and to have been sufficiently forewarned of her impending death to make her confession. The birth itself was skated over, and there is an interesting disparity with regard to the state of her offspring: Mitchell notes that ‘the nurses hoped that the child would be born alive, but it was dead’, whereas the child was said, elsewhere to have been born alive, but not lively or not active (vivo, sed non vivido – H. Luard (ed.), M. Paris Chron. Maj. vol 4) and there is no particular mention of the nurses, who, in Giles’s version, named the child despite the fact that it was dead. I would like to check the MSS on this, since the state of the child is potentially crucial in terms of both common law (child born dead does not ‘count’ in the same way to give father property rights – though in this case, Richard had already ‘passed’ this test, with previous live births) and canon law/theology (a dead child can take no benefit from baptism, and the ‘nurses’, though they could perform emergency baptism, had no right to perform this sacrament on what modern parlance would term a stillborn child). Vincent’s account of Richard of Cornwall in the ODNB also says that the child was ‘stillborn’. Perhaps it seems a ‘picky’ point, and it did not seem to have any immediate practical consequences for Richard, or anyone else, whether the baby was ever alive. In relation to curtesy, and the roughly  contemporary accounts of curtesy, such as those in Bracton, however, the possibility that a dead baby may have been baptised is important, since it feeds into Bracton’s suggestion of the likelihood of fraud and mis-reporting by those present at a birth of the state of the baby.

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.


Curtesy and crying

A Year Book note on curtesy, and the requirements which a man must meet in order to claim to hold by the curtesy of England (proof of a live birth to his wife – specifically a baby’s cry being heard) YB Trin. 20 Edw I pl 39; Seipp 1292.88 refers to the case of Richard Danyel v Richard de la Bere (Herefordshire Eyre 1292) JUST 1/303 m. 6.  Richard Danyel, claiming the land formerly held by his mother, argued that Richard had not had qualifying issue with Cecily. De la Bere claimed that Cecily had given birth to his (qualifyingly noisy) child at Bishopston. A jury was summoned (the Year Book has some comments on the appropriate place from which to draw a jury when the alleged birth was in one place and the land in another). The jury told a sad tale of a very sick baby and an emergency baptism at home, then a brief visit to the church, after which it died, without having qualified, in auditory terms, as the right kind of offspring to give the father a right to curtesy. The crying test for curtesy is being taken seriously – and, as this case shows, could be used to exclude severely unwell children, even if they appear to have been viewed alive by at least a priest. Richard Danyel did not pursue the case, and should have been amerced for this failure, but was forgiven because he was a minor. Exactly what his role was in this story is unclear, but it does not suggest a happy family.