Tag Archives: medieval legal history

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

A non-burning issue

A little gem from the archives …

A 1306 case from the Gloucestershire gaol delivery roll (National Archives JUST 3/105 m.9.) tells an intriguing tale: a dramatic scene seems to have taken place in court during a homicide trial at the session. Alice, daughter of John de Mercombe and wife of Richard de Sydenham, was accused of killing Richard. All homicides were felonies – and thus might end in capital punishment and forfeiture – in this period, but the killing of a husband by a wife was regarded as far worse than a run-of-the-mill slaying: later classed as a form of treason (petty treason), it was seen to be deserving of particularly painful and spectacular punishment – death by burning. So Alice seemed to be in a lot of trouble. She pleaded not guilty (well, you would, wouldn’t you – no likelihood of mercy if she admitted to killing her lord and master, overturning the natural order of things etc. etc.) and I was anticipating a deeply disturbing end to the episode. But Alice had a defence: rather a good one – she said her husband was alive and was in the court. And it was confirmed that he was. On the one hand, hurrah – apparent miscarriage of justice (and hideous end) avoided. On the other hand, hmm – was she indicted by mistake or through malice (whether involving Richard or not)? Somebody clearly had questions to answer.


Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Brand on medieval judges and juries

Paul Brand (2016) ‘Judges and Juries in Civil Litigation in Later Medieval England: The Millon Thesis Reconsidered’, Journal of Legal History, 37:1, 1-40.

Professor Brand takes a less pessimistic view than did Millon of whether medieval juries actually followed what appeared to be the ‘official’ legal rules (as seen in legal texts) as opposed to making decisions based on their own discretion. Looking at plea roll cases c. 1300, he finds a clear connection between what the rules appear to have said should happen, and what did happen. Judges and courts helped keep decisions consistent with the rules, and the pleading process, in framing issues sent to the jury, also ensured some control.

Impeccably argued and bristling with hard-won documentary evidence, this needs the reader’s full attention, but is worth the effort. It will be an important point of reference for anyone looking at medieval law, and a check on the common temptation to look for exceptions to rules, to emphasise dissent and resistance, in legal history. This article is a powerful reminder that medieval judges and juries often pulled together, and law texts might be reflected in practice.