Tag Archives: legal history

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.




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 …

Life, death, dower and the twitching of legs

I have recently been doing a lot of work on the history of proving the presence or absence of life. My particular focus has been on medieval England, and on determining whether or not a baby, now dead, was ever alive so as to qualify the father for certain property rights (tenancy by the curtesy: article on its way). That has been fascinating, and I am sure there is more to discuss and discover on that point, but it is also part of a bigger question for the law, on drawing lines between life and death. This is important in criminal cases – e.g. in working out whether a person was killed by X or by Y – but it is also crucial in relation to various succession questions. As well as the curtesy cases in which there is a need to determine whether or not a live child was produced, there are cases in which it is necessary to work out the order of deaths. How was this decision made in the past?

There are two broad issues for legal historians: by what mechanism is the question decided, and by what test is it decided. My curtesy work has shown me that neither question leads to an entirely straightforward answer. Today, I came across an ‘order of death’ case from the 16th C which has set me thinking about this in a wider context.

The case, called Broughton v. Randall in the English Reports, though more properly Morgan Broughton, armiger v. Margaret, widow of Robert ap Rondell Cro Eliz 502. 78 ER 752; appears on the King’s Bench plea roll for Trinity 1596 (38 Elizabeth I), starting at KB 27/1339 m. 876 (AALT IMG 0945).  It is in the report, however, that something is said about the ‘order of deaths’ issue. This was a dower case from Denbighshire, Wales, in which Margaret was claiming land currently held by Morgan. The land in question appears to have been held jointly by Robert and his father. Both were hanged at the same time. Margaret’s chance of dower depended on it being decided that Robert had outlived his father. She was successful, and this was, according to the report, because Robert’s legs had been observed to twitch after his father was still. I am not qualified to say whether that really is a good indication of life in a meaningful sense, though I am inclined to be doubtful.

I have drawn a blank, so far, on Robert, his father and their crime, though that does seem an interesting avenue to pursue one day. Also interesting is the fact that this is a Welsh case – since there is much to be discovered about the ways in which the Welsh were arranging their property holding in this period. As far as the pinpointing of death is concerned, however, this does show the inventive approach which might be taken to establishing the facts for legal purposes. Its use of movement as a criterion is also very interesting as a counterpoint to the test in curtesy, which was traditionally more sound-focused.

Shaming and sheep (Baa baa black … ram?)

Reading some early modern material, in the (forlorn) hope that I might find something useful on tenancy by the curtesy (a recent obsession), I came across more than one reference to a strange procedure allegedly used in relation to free-bench (the equivalent to dower, for land held by ‘unfree tenure’, according to various manorial customs.

The procedure was allegedly used in cases in which a widow, who would, in the usual course of things, be entitled to free-bench, had had an illegitimate child after her husband’s death. ‘Incontinence’ (and, indeed, remarriage) would often mean that she lost the right. But there was, apparently, a way out: all she had to do was present herself in the manor court, riding (possibly backwards) on a (possibly black) ram, (possibly holding its tail) and reciting the following verse:

“Here I am

Riding upon the back of a black ram,

Like a whore as I am;

And for my Crincum Crancum

I have lost my Binkum Bankum;

And for my tail’s game

Have done this worldly shame;

Therefore pray, Mr Steward, let me have my land again.”


This would, so we are told, act as condign penance, and she would not be forfeited.

The sources in which I have seen this are 17th and 18th C, and the procedure is sometimes linked to particular manors in Berkshire, Devon and ‘parts of the West’. [See, e.g., Anon., A Treatise of femes coverts or the Lady’s Law (London, 1732), 128; G. Jacob, A New Law Dictionary 6th ed. (London, 1750) under ‘free bench’; G. Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature vol. I (London, 1994), 333].

Is this just ‘horrible legal history’ or was it really ‘a thing’? It does chime in with various rough music and carnivalesque/misrule practices, but it is hard to see that performing a humiliating verse in this manner would have been thought to cancel out the ‘shame’ of producing an illegitimate child, evidence of sexual misbehaviour by a widow which was frequently seen as serious and deserving of severe property consequences. (And is it actually possible to ride backwards on a ram?) Early modern England – bit of a mystery.



Mysterious goings-on in Clerkenwell

The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/24/england-cathedrals-back-to-middle-ages-mystery-plays-pageants-chester-st-albans .

Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.

The scene:

Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary

The cast:

The prioress

The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)

The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)

The modern reader

The plot:

The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.

The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.




References and reading

The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9149425

If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922)  (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)

A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …



Medieval Sporting Memories

The (male, football) World Cup started today. I am not much of a sport fan (missed out on the team-supporting gene and seriously disliked Fever Pitch – but will refrain from going off on a ‘New Opium of the People’ rant…) but by weird coincidence, football cropped up in my medieval legal history reading today too. There I was, reading an interesting article about 15th C proof of age inquests, and whether they were all a pack of made up nonsense (M. Holford, ‘”Testimony to some extent fictitious”: proofs of age in the first half of the fifteenth century’, Historical Research 82 (2009) 632-54 at 637) when some instances of football-related injury jumped out at me. Thought they were worth a quick blogging.

In Inquisitions Post Mortem vol. 22, inquisitions no. 189, 360, 361 and 364, all relating to Essex, some of the men who were confirming the date of birth and baptism of different, younger, men, with a view to showing that the young men were old enough to inherit land, did so by reference to injuries sustained while playing football, (ad pilam pedalem) more than two decades previously. Now, it may be that the stories were untrue, or ‘boilerplate’, but perhaps they can still show us/ remind us of a couple of interesting things:

  1. They are all (left) leg injuries. The tibia is mentioned. That seems noteworthy. Football medieval style always seems to be portrayed as something a bit more like rugby/American football, without the rules (or, in the latter case, the shiny trousers). But shin injury does suggest that the game they are talking about is actually something a bit more like your actual football.
  2. These are all men of a certain age – forty-somethings, talking about their glorious sporting exploits when they were young things in their early twenties. (Possibly, off-parchment, they regaled the assembled throng with tales of having had trials for Arsenal or medieval equivalent, and how their promising careers were ended by the aforesaid injury).
  3. It seems to be accepted that having a game of football (with or without shin-splitting) after a baptism was ‘a thing’, which is a nice little detail about medieval birth celebrations. Possibly, if mixed with celebratory alcohol, the apparent frequency of shin injuries (‘shinjuries’?) is explained.

Perhaps I am coming round to football after all. To be continued, if I find any other good football/legal history/medieval cross-over material …

14th June, 2018.

Football is a bad thing – official

World cup still on then …

There were statutory provisions against football in the later medieval period (see particularly 2 Richard II, c. 6: Statutes of the Realm II, 57, 11 Henry IV, c. 4, SR II,163). It is more complicated than that, of course: there was not a clear objection to football itself (despite its apparent danger to the shins of the English): the ‘beef’ was mainly with the fact that it distracted the lower orders of men from their archery practice, and, perhaps, that it might be the occasion for disorder. Legislation also hit out against those dreadful disrupters of society, quoits and bowls. And an investigation of many lower court rolls shows a reluctance to report and punish men for playing football (see McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 98, 133).

18th June, 2018.

Truth and (a sort of) reconciliation? Scenes from a medieval Suffolk marriage

A plea roll record of a land case from the end of the reign of Edward I gives an interesting view of medieval marriage (or one particular medieval marriage at least), gender and families of different types.

JUST 1/1323 m 77d sets out an assize case heard by Retford and Spigurnel, justices of assize in various southern counties of England, in summer 1303 (with updates until 1304). It concerned land in Suffolk, in Somersham and Nettlestead, and the question was whether Ralph Norreys and his associates had been within their rights to eject John Dunning from the land, or whether John had the better right to hold the land, so that their actions had been an unjust ‘disseisin’ (more or less ‘dispossession’).

Both men’s cases involved telling the story of dealings with the land in recent times, so as to establish their family connection and right to it. Part of this story was the tale of the marriage of Alan de Bosco and Agnes Norreys. Putting together the story they told and the facts found by the jurors, this is what happened … (and yes, usual warnings about not believing everything which appears in the record applies, but there is no obvious reason to doubt this) …

Alan was married to Agnes when he (at least) was below the age of majority (this was 14 for boys, and the jurors say, very precisely, that he was 13 years and 7 weeks old at the time). They lived together for a short period – quarter of a year – and then Alan suddenly left, going off to Cambridge for three years. While he was away, Agnes took service with Robert, parson of the church of ‘Flokton’ (Flixton?). Robert and Agnes had a child, William. Then Alan came back from Cambridge. As soon as she found that he was back in Suffolk, Agnes went to Alan’s house, with the infant William, but Alan would not let her in, and swore that William was not his son, since, so he said, he had never had sex with Agnes. Agnes then sent William back to Robert, who acknowledged him as his son. Afterwards, Agnes went straight back to Alan, who took her back in as his wife kindly (benigne) and in due course, they had a child, called Geoffrey.

The key issue for the land case was whether or not William was Alan’s son. To cut a long story short, Ralph traced his right through William while John traced his through Geoffrey. If William was not Alan’s son, Ralph would have no chance of success. Although that might seem an easy legal issue, if this story is the truth, or something like it, there were complications. The rules about legitimacy, and who was to be regarded as a man’s legitimate son, were not entirely biological. In a world which had no blood or DNA testing, a lot of reliance had to be placed on probability, reputation and presumption. The starting point was that, if a child was born during the course of a marriage, then that child was the legitimate child of the spouses (with associated property rights after the death of the parents). As the common lawyers charmlessly, and repeatedly, put it ‘Whoever bulls the cow, the calf is yours’ – meaning that, even if a wife had been impregnated by somebody else, the child would be presumed to be the husband’s legitimate issue. The presumption could be rebutted, however, if it was completely impossible for the husband to be the father – e.g. if he had been imprisoned abroad for years and came back to find a child. Thus careful questions were put to the jurors to ascertain whether Alan had come back from Cambridge during the three years, or whether Agnes might have gone to meet him somewhere. Apparently not. They were also asked about local opinion – who was reputed to be William’s father (answer: Robert and not Alan). Things would seem to have been going John’s way, on the whole, though clearly this was not as watertight an ‘impossibility’ case as the ‘husband abroad in prison’ scenario. But here the legal procedure ground to a halt, and all there is is a series of additional ‘court dates’ and an instruction to the judges to get on with it. It may be that there was some uncertainty as to whether John had managed to rebut the presumption of legitimacy. Leading common lawyers had been prepared to accept some fairly fanciful suggestions as to how an apparently distant husband might have managed to father a legitimate child, in a case from an earlier term in the same year (Seipp 1304.027rs; https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=1531 ) opining that he might have come to the county in which the wife lived, by night, without anyone knowing, so that John might not have been regarded as ‘home and dry’. I hope to track down more on this litigation, but it may take some time.

As interesting as the legal point, if not more so, is the ‘social’ material here. The early marriage is not particularly surprising, perhaps, nor the young husband’s departure (did he go to Cambridge University? I am put in mind of the folk song ‘The Trees They Do Grow High’ …) but what happened afterwards is less predictable. We cannot know anything about the willingness or otherwise of Agnes in relation to the sexual relationship with Robert the parson, but we can say (i) that it seems to have been well-known in the area; and (ii) that Robert was willing to acknowledge William as his son, and take him in. William would go on to have descendants of his own. The reconciliation of Agnes and Alan is fascinating: she was prepared to give up her child and he was prepared to take her back if she did so, despite the fact that all the neighbours knew him to be a ‘cuckold’. No pressure from the Church seems to have been involved. It seems to me that this story has interesting things to say about medieval men, women and communities, and the importance of engaging with initially off-putting and ‘dry’ sources like land law cases, if we want to learn all we can about medieval families and attitudes.



Almaric, (not quite) the Champion of the World

A Year Book report of a Common Pleas case of Easter term 1364 YB Pasch. 38 Edw. III pl. 16 f. 10b (Seipp 1364.046) can be identified with the plea roll record: Abbot of St Peter of Gloucester v. Almaric le Botiller CP 40/ 417 m. 111. Here, Almaric was accused of having trespassed against the Abbot’s rights by going into some of land in Gloucestershire in which he had rights of free warren (a species of exclusive property right in certain animals located there), and taking away his rabbits, hares, partridges and pheasants.

Almaric denied most of the accusation, and made an interesting defence in relation to the hunting and retrieval from the Abbot’s land of a pheasant, saying that the pheasant had originally been on Almaric’s own land, when the falcon (in the record, it’s a sparrowhawk) was loosed to chase it, but the pheasant had retreated to the Abbot’s land, and the falcon had followed and killed it there; Almaric had gone in to retrieve his falcon’s prey. This defence seems to show that there would only be a warren trespass offence if the hunt had begun within the Abbot’s warren. The Abbot’s next plea seems to confirm that, since it argues that the pheasant was within the warren when the falcon was set on it. It was this issue of the pheasant’s starting point which was arrived at as the matter to put before a jury,although Knyvet, a Common Pleas judge, observed that, wherever the unfortunate pheasant had begun, Almaric’s entry into the land to retrieve it would have put him in the wrong.

Clearly, the answer would have been further training of the sparrowhawk to get it to bring its prey back to the falconer. Almaric could then have stood outside the warren, waiting for the abbot’s pheasants to stray, hunt them with his trusty sparrowhawk and cause no end of annoyance to the man of God.

GS 31/5/2017

Medieval employment law: workplace sexual harassment in fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Years ago, I wrote my Ph.D. on economic regulation in medieval England, eventually turning it into my first book, Royal Regulation.  In both thesis and book, I decided to concentrate on sales and loans, and left out an obvious area of royal intervention in ‘the market’: regulation of wages and employment, especially under the Ordinance of Labourers 1349 and the Statute of Labourers 1351. This omission was due, in part to the vast body of evidence which would have had to be examined, in order to do a proper job of assessing the legislation and jurisprudence. There was also the fact that the area seemed to be well covered by works such as Bertha Haven Putnam’s still-splendid Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers, and some of the ideas to be found in Palmer’s English Law in the Age of the Black Death. Working through medieval plea rolls these days, I frequently come across ‘Labourers’ cases, but, all too often, the dispute boils down to ‘You were my employee and you left before the contracted term was up’ v. ‘I was never your employee’ ‘Let’s go to proof’ ‘OK then’. and the roll says little more about the matter. Occasionally, however, there is a case in which we actually see a bit more, and learn a bit more about understanding and interpretation of the law in this area. That is certainly so with a case I turned up yesterday in the Common Pleas plea roll for Michaelmas term 1363.

Thomas de Queldale v. William de Ramkill and Elena de Hustwayt (1363) CP 40/416 m. 128d is a case brought by the former employer of Elena de Hustwayt against Elena and a chaplain, William de Ramkill. Thomas claimed that Elena was his servant, employed under a contract for one year, but left his employ before that time was up, without permission and without reasonable cause, and was thus guilty of an offence under the Ordinance of Labourers. William de Ramkill was accused of having committed another offence against the same legislation, by hiring Elena while she was under contract to another employer. Rather than the usual denial of having been employed by Thomas on the terms which he had stated, however, Elena argued that she had had reasonable cause to leave.

It was certainly possible to argue ‘reasonable cause’ on the basis of excessive beating or failure to provide for a servant, and Putnam’s book has examples of both. Elena’s objection, however, was different: Thomas, who was, she stated ‘a married man’, had often pestered her for sex. (The Latin of the text is ‘frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam’ – which is rather intriguing in terms of ideas about gender, will and sexual consent, and I plan to consider it at greater length elsewhere). Thomas denied that she had left for this reason. It appears as though he is more concerned to question causation of her departure, rather than denying that there was such lecherous behaviour on his part, but this could be a result of common law pleading rules. In any case, he managed to convince a jury that she had left without cause, and that the pestering had not happened. So Elena’s defence failed, and she and William were held both to have damaged Thomas and also to have acted in contempt of the King (because of the breach of royal legislation). It is not very surprising that this was the outcome – juries, made up of local men of some property, were not at all inclined to find in favour of employees in these Labourers cases. It may, however, be rather unexpected – bearing in mind the general difficulty in securing any kind of redress for or recognition of sexual offences – to see pestering which apparently fell short of rape or attempted rape being acknowledged to be a possible ‘reasonable cause’ for a female servant to leave her position, which could absolve her from liability under the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Year Book report of this case, so there is no evidence of the sort of conversations which lawyers might have had about the acceptability of the plea. Nevertheless, it is another piece in the very complex puzzles of (a) the attitudes of medieval men towards medieval women and (b) the ‘position of medieval women’ (e.g. should we choose to play up Elena’s ‘agency’ or her claimed victimisation?), and I will certainly be looking out to see if I come across any other comparable cases.

Here is a free translation of the case:

William de Ramkill, chaplain, and Elena de Hustwayt, recently servant of Thomas de Queldale of York, cutler, are attached to respond both to the King and also to Thomas, in a plea of why, whereas the same King and his council, for the common utility of the King’s realm, ordained that if any servant of whatever status or condition, retained in anyone’s service, should leave the same service before the end of the contracted term, without reasonable cause, or permission, s/he should be punished with imprisonment, and that, under the same penalty, nobody should receive into their service or hire such a person, William retained Elena, who was in the service of Thomas, at York, and who had left the same service before the end of the contracted term, and without reasonable cause or permission, to go into the service of William, despite William having been asked to restore her to Thomas, in contempt of the King and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance. And of a plea why Elena left the service of Thomas before the end of the term contracted between them, without reasonable cause and his licence, to the contempt of the lord King and the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc. And, in connection with this, Thomas complains that whereas Elena, was retained at York on the eighth October, [1362], to serve Thomas from [11th November 1362] for the whole year following that, taking for her salary 12 shillings, and, before the end of the term, i.e. on [2nd June, 1363], without cause etc, left for the service of William, who took her on and retained her, in contempt of the lord King, and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc.

And William and Elena come in person, and deny all force and wrong etc. And William says that he did not take in and retain Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc., as is supposed above, and puts himself on the country as to this. Thomas does the same. And  Elena says that she accepts that she was retained to serve Thomas for the aforesaid term, but she says that Thomas is a married man and often tried to persuade her to let him have sex with her against her will (frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam) so, for this [good] reason, Elena left the service of Thomas. And she asks for judgment as to whether Thomas can maintain this action against her, in this case etc. And Thomas says that Elena left his service before the end of the contracted term, going into the service of William as counted above etc., and that she did not leave his service for the reason she alleges above. And he asks that it be enquired of by the country. And Elena does the same. So the sheriff is ordered to cause 12 [men] … [On we go through the process – pledges for Wiliiam and Elena’s appearance, the case goes off to York, to be heard at Easter time,  … we get to the jury] And the jury found that William had taken in and retained Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance, as supposed above, and that Elena left her service before the end of the contracted term, entering William’s service, without reasonable cause, and without the cause alleged by her, as Thomas complained above. And they assess Thomas’s damages caused by William’s admission and retention of Elena at 60s. Elena is amerced a mark for her [illegal] departure. Therefore it is decided that Thomas shall recover the aforesaid 60s damages against William, and 1 mark from Elena. [More process – we learn that William and Elena are to be arrested, and that William does pay Thomas the 60 s – in autumn 1369, via Thomas’s attorney, Robert de Acaster – and is acquitted. No word on Elena though.]


GS 27/05/2017


If you liked this, why not try:

B.H. Putnam, Enforcement of the Statutes of Labourers during the first decade after the Black Death, 1349-1359 (Columbia, 1908). https://archive.org/details/enforcementstat01putngoog

L.R. Poos, “The Social Context of Statute of Labourers Enforcement.” Law and History Review 1 (1983), 27-52.

R.C. Palmer, English Law in the Age of the Black Death, 1348-1381: A Transformation of Governance and Law (Chapel Hill, 1993).

G.C. Seabourne, Royal Regulation of Loans and Sales in Medieval England: Monkish Superstition and Civil Tyranny (Woodbridge, 2003).

For concern about sexual misbehaviour from the other side, i.e. attempts to ensure that young employees behaved appropriately, see Rh. Sandy, ‘The us of indentures to control apprentices’ behaviour in medieval England’, Gotffennol  5 (2017), 23-26.



Licence, Denial and Disobedience: a ravishment case from fifteenth-century Oxfordshire

Today I tracked down the Plea Roll entry corresponding to Anon. (1461) YB Mich. 1 Edw. IV pl. 2 f.1a; Seipp 1461.018: the King’s Bench report, Thomas Wilcotes v John Newers, can be found at KB 27/802 m. 43. It is a ‘ravishment of wife and goods’ case, in which the plaintiff is complaining that the defendant has taken away both his wife and also some of his goods. The offence was well-established, having been introduced under Edward I, and there are many examples of its use in medieval plea rolls, although there is debate as to what we should understand ravishment or raptus to mean in this context. Much attention has been paid to the idea that a proportion of these cases might, in fact, have been consensual on the part of the wife, who wanted to leave her husband. Wilcotes v. Newers is relevant to the idea of consent – but it is the consent of the husband which is alleged, not that of the wife.

The story, briefly, is that Eleanor, wife of Thomas Wilcotes, had been taken away from his house and kept for an unspecified period at the house of her kinsman, John Newers.  Wilcotes alleged that this taking was against his will, (and also listed a number of items which he said had gone missing with his wife) but Newers had a different version of events: he said that Wilcotes and his wife had been at odds for some time, and Wilcotes had given him permission to take Eleanor away to his (John’s) house, and to try and encourage and cajole her to be obedient to her husband. As far as Newers was concerned, he had done nothing which was against the law, since he had this permission. Wilcotes’s side had tried to argue that, even if there had been permission, Newers would still have been guilty of an offence, but this did not seem to go down well with the court, and so the issue which would go to the jury was whether or not there had in fact been a granting of permission by Wilcotes to Newers.

What I am going to say next will be all too familiar to those who have had dealings with plea rolls: it is not clear what the end result was. The entry peters out after listing steps taken to have the case tried in Oxfordshire, where there were problems with finding an appropriate jury, and noting that it was to come back to King’s Bench, and, so far, I have not found any sign of later episodes (though Thomas Wilcotes is involved in litigation with another Newers in 1462).

Even so, having this much is very interesting. Whether or not Wilcotes had given Newers any sort of licence or encouragement to become involved, it is notable that it seemed a plausible story that a kinsman might be brought in in this way, and might hold and pressurise his kinswoman to be obedient to her husband. This suggests an interesting collaboration between men in enforcing women’s obedience, and at the same time it is based on the idea that some husbands are not capable of keeping their wives appropriately subservient: so there is a rather equivocal message here about the situation of women (nothing new there then). There are also some good comparisons to be made between the information in the two different documents, Year Book and Plea Roll, and I hope to have time to include these in a paper I am writing for a fast-approaching conference in Swansea in June.

To go back to the story, I would really like to know why Thomas Wilcotes brought the case: was the story about planning and permission a lie – or did the plan just make an unhappy marriage even worse, leading him to lash out in frustration against his partner in the failed Operation Make My Wife Do What I Want?

GS 12th May, 2017