A Liverpool Elopement

An issue I looked at in a couple of articles, and which remains of interest to me, is the use of allegations of elopement and adultery to oppose medieval widows’ attempts to claim dower (a life interest in an allotted proportion of land), following the death of their husbands. When a widow made a dower claim in a common law court, those holding the land could form an ‘exception’ to the widow’s claim based on c.34 of the Statute of Westminster II (1285), arguing that the widow’s action should not be allowed, because, during her former husband’s life, she had left him of her own free will, and had gone to live with the adulterer, and there had not been a freely agreed reconciliation between husband and wife before the husband’s death.

This area is important from both legal and social history points of view. Legally, it illustrates the difficulties lawyers saw in applying a statutory provision with a number of sub clauses (on leaving, staying away, and there not having been a voluntary reconciliation), within the rules of the game of common law pleading (with all the delights of general and special pleading, and such splendid vocabulary as traverses, demurrers, rejoinders and surrejoinders). This was not just a clever intellectual pastime, however: the conclusions which lawyers reached as to exactly what each side had to allege and prove could have a great impact on the chances of a widow obtaining the important resources of dower, to support herself in widowhood, or to bring to a new marriage. One issue which could have an important impact was that of the widow who had left not of her own free will – having been abducted or forced out. If she later lived with another man, did that mean that the c.34 exception could be used, or was it necessary, in order to succeed under c.34, for her opponent to be able to say both that she had left of her own free will and also that she had then lived in adultery?

Another possible argument about the correct use of c.34 was whether it was necessary to allege that the wife had left the husband with her adulterer (rather than just having left him, and then later on lived with ‘her adulterer’): the Latin of the chapter leaves both possibilities open. A Lancashire case which I have recently found in the Common Pleas plea roll for Hillary term 1363 Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool v. Robert de Sefton,  Margery his wife and another,  CP 40/413 m. 193, gives an example of use of the exception without suggesting that the wife left with ‘her adulterer’. A free translation follows:



Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool, pleaded against Robert de Sefton and Margery his wife, for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in Liverpool, and against Hugh son of William le Clerk of Liverpool for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in the same vill, as her dower, from the endowment of her former husband, Thomas.

And Robert and Margery and Hugh, by John de Blakeburn, their attorney, said that the same Maria should not have dower in these tenements, because they said that, long before the said Thomas, former husband etc. died, the said Maria had eloigned herself from her husband, and lived with William de Maghell, chaplain, her adulterer, in adultery, in Liverpool in the same county, without ever being reconciled with her said husband, from whom she is claiming dower etc., and they are ready to prove this, and ask for judgment etc.

And Maria said that she should not be excluded from her action by virtue of this allegation, because, at the time of the death of the said Thomas, and long before, she was living with him, and reconciled without the coercion of Holy Church. And she prays that this be inquired of, and the said Robert, Margery and Hugh similarly. So the sheriff is ordered to make 12 [jurors] come etc., by whom etc., a month after Easter, to [swear to the truth] etc.”


Aside from its legal interest in terms of the elements of pleading, two further points are worth mentioning. First, it is noteworthy that the alleged ‘other man’ is a chaplain: a great deal of suspicion seems to have existed in relation to the sexual mores of chaplains, with their supposed celibacy and their privileged access to women, and this is not the only chaplain/adultery case in the c.34 jurisprudence (see, e.g., CP 40/192 m. 233d), Secondly, the idea that a woman might leave her husband to live with another man for a time, and then might be reconciled – whether or not true in this case, it must at least have seemed a plausible set of circumstances – raises some interesting queries with regard to medieval marriage and gender relations. As the statute itself suggested, it does seem that at least some medieval men might be prepared to forgive and take back their wives, and we see this being claimed here. Why might men do this? The statute suggests that some reconciliations were achieved through the Church’s coercion of the husband. The coercion of others – family, neighbours – would be another possibility. But it is also conceivable that at least some strands of medieval thought took a rather less ‘once lost, always lost’ (T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, c. XV!) view of chastity than would come to be the case in later eras.

GS 22/5/2017.


See on this area of medieval law:

P. Brand, ‘“Deserving” and “undeserving” wives: earning and forfeiting dower in medieval England’, Journal of Legal History, 22 (2001), 1-20.

G. Seabourne, ‘Copulative complexities: the exception of adultery in medieval dower actions’. in M. Dyson and D. Ibbetson (eds), Law and Legal Process: substantive law and legal process in English Legal History (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), 34-55.

G. Seabourne, ‘Coke, the statute, wives and lovers: routes to a harsher interpretation of the Statute of Westminster II c. 34 on dower and adultery’, Legal Studies 34 (2014), 123-42.

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

Adultery and violence in the medieval West Midlands

Here’s a case I found in a roll relating to theWorcestershire trailbaston sessions of 1306 (JUST 1/1032), when looking for something else entirely – so interesting it deserved a blog post.

On m. 4d (AALT image 2700), we are told that Johanna, wife of Edmund Sneed was indicted for having gouged out (extraxit) the eyes of Christiana daughter of Thomas de la Twychene at Hampton Lovett. The sheriff of Worcestershire had been ordered to have Edmund and Johanna before the Justices ‘to respond to the King for this trespass’, but he had to report that Edmund had not been found. The coroner and several credible members of the county community gave evidence that Edmund was on his way to the Curia in Rome. Johanna came, though, and was asked how she wished to plead to the trespass. She said that she was not guilty and submitted to a trial by jury.

Many medieval records are less than expansive after this point in proceedings, but, here we get some interesting material from the jury, rather than the all-too-frequent blank ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. It is reported that the jury said Edmund Sneed had been involved in an adulterous liaison with Christiana (tenuit … in adulterio) and often withdrew himself from  Johanna, beat and mistreated her, and moved her from the house in Worcestershire to another house he had in Warwickshire. There seems to have been a partial reconciliation, since they said that Johanna came back to Edmund and lived with him at Hampton Lovett, but Edmund was still involved with Christiana. Johanna was said to be aggrieved and provoked (gravata et commota) by this state of affairs (as it were) that, on a day which the jury could not specify, but which was in the year 30 Edward I (i.e. 1301-2), she asked Christiana around to Edmund’s house to discuss the adultery. Christiana came as requested, but rather than a civilised discussion of their situation, a fight broke out between them. Johanna is said to have hit Christiana and put out her eyes. (I am a bit puzzled as to exactly how to imagine that happening: surely actually removing somebody’s eyes requires something other than a blow? How inappropriate would it be to ask about this next time I am at the Eye Infirmary?)

The jury also felt moved to say that Edmund and Johanna had always provided for Christiana, and continued to do so, (which would indicate a fairly long term commitment, considering the date they said the eye-gouging had occurred) but noted the insecurity of Christiana’s position. This is certainly an interesting passage in relation to provision of care for those with disabilities and impairments. It suggests some form of informal taking of responsibility by Edmund and Johanna, outside legal proceedings. We might wonder, however, just how desperate Christiana must have been, to accept help from the very person who had caused her very serious injuries.

There seem to be traces of sympathy for Johanna (and lack of sympathy for Christiana as no better than she ought to be?) on the part of the tribunal, and perhaps an effort to find a way to excuse Johanna’s actions. The report tells us that the jury was asked how old Johanna was at the time of the eye-ripping, and whether she had been in her right mind. The jury, however, did not take the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘pious perjury’ to let her off the hook: they said that she was twenty years old, and sane. Johanna was therefore committed to jail, with the instruction that the case was to be heard at Westminster on Monday in Pentecost week.

Most unfortunately, I have found no trace of the case in the relevant plea roll, so, unless and until some other evidence turns up, the story ends there, with no answer as to how the justices at Westminster would have handled it. Nevertheless, there is a lot to think about here. There is a fair amount of reported sexual misbehaviour in medieval legal records, but the story of the supposed summit meeting between two women who had been involved with the same man, and then the extreme violence, is very unusual. In relation to Johanna’s violence, there is thinking to be done about what was expected, and countenanced, in terms of the behaviour of a wronged wife towards ‘the other woman’. Interesting that the medieval Welsh legal triadic literature suggests some leeway for wives hitting ‘the other woman’ (though certainly not eye-gouging).

Then there is also the report that the married couple were in some sense looking after the ‘other woman’ in her impaired state, and the intriguing story of Edmund’s trip to Rome – not, we might note, some sort of repentance pilgrimage to Rome in general, but specifically to the Curia. Something matrimonial seems most likely – though going in person to the Curia would not be standard practice.

So – lots of loose ends, but, apart from anything else, this record shows just how useful trailbaston (and plaint) rolls of this period can be in giving glimpses of a world of facts and legal ideas often effaced in the increasingly standardised forms in King’s Bench and Common Pleas rolls.



Allegations of women being hit so that their eyes are said to fall out can be seen in S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: marital violence in later-medieval England (Leiden, 2007), e.g. at 161 and 177-8. While some descriptions of such extreme and horrifying episodes may have been somewhat exaggerated attempts to portray a woman in conformity with saintly models, this case, with the subsequent apparently impaired and needy state of Christiana, probably records a genuine incident of eye-gouging.


8th May, 2017.

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

28th April, 2017.

Surviving an execution

The law relating to executions is in the news at the moment, as pharmaceutical companies battle to dissociate themselves and their drugs from killing as opposed to healing (see, e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/13/arkansas-executions-lethal-injection-drug-makers ). Over in my world of medieval study, as a side-note to a current project on unauthorised hanging, I have been turning my attention to botched or failed – or successful and yet not final – executions. The first fruit of this is my ‘work in progress’ list of those who survived executions. It’s into double figures and no doubt there are many more instances out there: I am sure I will be adding to the list over time.

The victims (or not) are mostly male, mostly thieves, and many of the stories involve hanging, removal and revival in a church. Few are very detailed, but there are some interesting themes emerging. First, although there has been a lot of attention on the best-reported case, that of William Cragh of c. 1290, and the idea of miraculous resurrection after definite death (in that case, through the intervention of proto-saint Thomas de Cantilupe: see Bartlett, The Hanged Man: a story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University, 2006), most cases are not quite on that model. In more ‘secular’ sources, a few of those who survived excited talk of miracles, but even these instances do not seem to have been regarded as full resurrections.

They may be seen as miraculous escapes, or, at times, the result of blunders by others. Ropes breaik or people revive after having been taken down from the gallows. It is generally impossible to know whether there were interventions meant to defeat the intention of killing the convict – interference with ropes, or deliberate early removal from the gallows – as opposed to blunders and mistakes (certainly, there are other, clear, examples of deliberate rescue), but some, at least, of the stories suggest genuine surprise at the survival of a condemned person, as well as a lack of reliable testing for the expiry of life.

These cases certainly underline the important observation made by Henry Summerson: “It may be a sign of the extent to which present-day society has distanced itself from the realities of capital punishment that the word ‘execution’ is commonly misused to describe a killing that has been carried out in a manner quick, clean and efficient. A medieval execution at least was commonly a messy business, unskilfully carried out.” (H. Summerson, ‘Attitudes to capital punishment in England 1200-1350’, in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), 123-34, 132). Aside from the fact that modern systems generally do not allow their blunders to affect the ultimate outcome, by tending to reprieve those who have somehow managed to survive, the criticism is applicable to modern death-dealing legal systems as well.


19th April, 2017.

Easements update: Regency Villas in the Court of Appeal

Regency Villas v. Diamond Resorts [2017] EWCA Civ 238

Regency Villas was one of those rare cases to engage with  the law students’ favourite question, ‘can a certain right be an easement?’ – a chance to use the Ellenborough Park test on something other than parking rights or storage. It concerned certain rights  for those occupying one piece of land to go onto a neighbouring piece of land (Broome Park Estate, Barham, Canterbury) for a variety of recreational and sporting reasons (including swimming, golfing, tennis and squash playing). This brought up the issue of whether rights which were ‘merely’ recreational could be said to accommodate the dominant tenement, as required by In Re Ellenborough Park [1956] Ch. 131, and whether they were too vague to ‘lie in grant’. It gave lecturers a chance to bring the concept of ius spatiandi out from the back of the cupboard. The upshot of the case was that the rights in question were allowed, and the sensible deduction from it was that the objection to something as merely recreational would be unlikely to work in future. Unusually for such a case, it went up to the Court of Appeal, and the judgment has just been reported, so what has the Court of Appeal  done with it?

Reminder of the facts

The dispute centred on a grant made in 1981,

“for the Transferee its successors in title its lessees and the occupiers from time to time of the property to use the swimming pool, golf course, squash courts, tennis  courts, the ground and basement floor of Broome Park Mansion House, gardens and any other sporting or recreational facilities … on the   Transferor’s adjoining estate”

This was held at first instance (HH Judge Purle QC) to amount to a grant of an easement or easements. The ‘servient owners’ appealed, claiming that the rights in question could not be easements because of (a) the expense involved in maintaining the factilities, and (b) the change of facilities since 1981. If some of the rights involved were easements, they contended that others were personal rights only, and that the judge should not have allowed them as a ‘bundle’ of easements as he did.

Over to the CA: (judgment delivered by Sir Geoffrey Vos)

  1. Yes (again) to recreational easements

First of all, the CA agreed with the first instance judge that the fact that a right may be classed as recreational is not a bar to its qualification as an easement.  Care was taken to deal with one of the most frequently-cited snubs to such rights, and to affirm (i) that the list of easements is not closed and (ii) that the list must move with the times (as interpreted by CA judges).

At [56], there is a decisive rejection of the ‘mere recreation’ Baron Martin’s view in the Exchequer case of Mounsey v. Ismay (1865) 3 H. & C. 486 at page 498, that there could not be easements for “mere recreation or amusement”:

“… [A]n easement should not in the modern world be held to be invalid on the ground  that it was “mere recreation or amusement” because the form of physical exercise it    envisaged was a game or a sport.  To be clear, we do not regard Baron Martin’s  dictum as binding on this court, and we would decline to follow it insofar as it suggests that an easement cannot be held to exist in respect of a right to engage in recreational physical activities on servient land.”

The idea of moving with the times is emphasised at [1]: “‘Since [the time of Ellenborough Park], the culture and expectations of the population of England & Wales have radically changed.  This case has to be considered in the light of those changes.’ and at [54]: “…[T]the views of society as to what is mere recreation or amusement may change …”

The way in which the CA thinks that societal views have changed, indicating the need for a change in the rules about what qualifies as an easement, relates to the regard in which  physical exercise is held:

[54]: “…Physical exercise is now regarded by most people in the United Kingdom as  either  an essential or at least a desirable part of their daily routines.  It is not a mere recreation or amusement.  Physical exercise can, moreover, in our modern lives, take    many forms, whether it be walking, swimming or playing active games and sports. We cannot see how an easement could … be ruled out solely on the grounds that the form of physical exercise it envisaged was a game or a sport rather than purely a walk in a garden.” [54]

This might appear to be good, healthy and unobjectionable, but there are certainly some things to think about as well.

As is the way with property law decisions, this is presented as the product of a process of deduction and analogy, using both previous decisions and supposedly ‘common sense’ assumptions about life and land use.

I am not sure, for example, how many people would find the inclusion of justifications based on the allowance of profits a prendre for hunting and fishing purposes a very appealing argument.  In addition, judges do leave themselves open to a certain amount of questioning when they use some sort of normality criterion or implication when working out whether something passes the test for qualification as an easement. We may feel a little bemused, for example, by the inclusion of the information that [66] “The utility and benefit to a dominant dwelling or timeshare property of the ability to use a next-door tennis court is obvious to any modern owner.  Many country homes these days have their own tennis court or courts precisely as a benefit for the occupants.”  or [71] “…[T]he utility and benefit to the dominant tenement of the ability to use a next-door swimming pool is obvious.  As with a tennis court, some modern homes have their own pools as a benefit and a utility for the occupants.”  We may also feel that there is a certain unreality in the suggestion at [76] that “We are all familiar with the teams of groundsmen and greenkeepers that [high quality golf] courses need to employ to maintain them to the high standard that players frequently desire.” (my emphasis and disbelief).

  1. What’s in and what’s out?

The CA did think that the rights ought to have been split up and considered individually, rather than as a bundle [51]. They proceeded to look at nine different potential easements, ranging from use of the ‘formal Italianate garden’, through golfing, to use of post-1981 facilities.

So it was yes to: use of the ‘formal Italianate garden, croquet lawn, putting green and golf course but no to the right to use the reception, billiard room and TV room and other facilities within a building on the servient tenement, or a restaurant. This rejection was justified in very property-law terms, as [79] “the right granted is really not in the nature of an easement at all.  It is not about the use of any land, but the use of facilities or services that may for the time being exist on the land.”

While one may be glad to hear that “A restaurant is not like a toilet…” [79] there is food for thought in the distinctions being made here between different activities, and who is most likely to be in a position to benefit from them (so – yes to golf and tennis, no to TV, billiards, eating). Although the steps of the decision are often explicitly linked to the particular wording of the grant or facts on the ground, or realty and personalty (except when using an example based on profits, which certainly mix these concepts), there must also be an issue about the paradigmatic landowner or occupier of a dominant tenement who is lurking in some of this thinking. What does it mean for those who are not physically able (or who just prefer billiards to golf)? Is there a gendered aspect to any of this?

As far as the swimming pool was concerned, things were slightly more complex. In principle, an easement would have been legitimate in this area, but there was a problem – the servient owners had filled in the original outdoor pool and built another, indoor one. Because of the time factor and the change in location, no easement was allowed over the new pool. It was not [80] a ‘direct substitute’ for the original pool  [Crystall ball – look out for disputes over the difference between substitution and improvement on the one hand and extension on the other]. The ‘dominant tenants’ might, however, still have an easement over the (now-non-existent) original outdoor swimming pool. (The sometimes almost whimsical area of ‘non-abandonment despite non-existence’ is one of my favourite parts of easements). The court left that to be sorted out separately.


A specific issue with regard to this case was that the slightly odd way in which the original transfer dealings were carried out might have led to particular rights being lost within 24 hours. This was something which seems to have weighed in favour of construction of the rights as easements at first instance (since this would tend to mean that they would survive), The CA was keen to keep separate the questions of qualification as an easement and acquisition of an easement: [62] “the parties’ intentions cannot ultimately validate an attempt to grant an easement of a facility that cannot in law be the subject of an easement”. A good model for law students to follow.


Conclusion and musings

On the specific facts of the case, this judgment showed a narrowing of the rights allowed as easements, compared to the first instance decision. Nevertheless, from a law student’s point of view, the most important thing is the reaffirmation of the fact that it will not be possible to challenge the legitimacy of  an easement simply because it is ‘recreational’.

For those who would like to take it further, there are a few things to ponder here. This does seem to be an area in which rather a lot of value judgments about land use and recreation can be brought in under cover of black letter property law principle. Arguments by analogy from the paradigm of the private right of way do seem to be rather creaky, particularly when the facts are far removed from the original context of the law of easements. Whereas many familiar easements cases involve individual landowners, this was about something rather more commercial. There are property companies and groups of companies involved. There is golf rather than ‘taking out small children in prams or otherwise’. Does Ellenborough Park, even with extensions (or improvements) really work in this context? The ways in which property lawyers consider these matters (including a sadly glossed-over ‘rather academic’ debate as to the nature of water in a swimming pool as realty or personalty – [71]) may well seem to many people to be as baffling as the words ‘incorporeal hereditament’ themselves.

GS 5/4/2017

After Ilott

[Apologies – not Legal History. Having a bit of a succession enthusiasm at the moment!]

Not surprising to see press attention on wills, families and charities, following Ilott. The Guardian has a piece about a family aggrieved at the fact that their relative’s will left a large amount of money to a private school: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/mar/18/how-1m-inheritance-slipped-family-grasp-challenging-will-heather-ilott

But the explanation of the Ilott case here is not quite right – Heather Ilott was not awarded money ‘ on the grounds that her mother had acted in an “unreasonable, capricious and harsh” way towards her’, but because she qualified under the Inheritance Act for reasonable financial provision. Not the same thing (there is a better explanation lower down in this rather rushed looking article). Also, it’s rather simplistic to say (as anonymous ‘solicitors’ are made to do here) that Ilott in the Supreme Court straightforwardly upholds testamentary freedom. Clearly not the case when the testator did not want her daughter to get anything, and she was awarded £50,000.

There are much more interesting questions which should arise from the juxtaposition of Ilott and this case (will of Sybil Jenazian), in particular whether charity fundraising techniques could possibly amount to undue influence (the private school ran active fundraising campaigns, predictably targeting particular people connected with it: contrast the less specific connection between Melita Jackson and the animal charities in Ilott). There is also the point that this is about cousins  as opposed to mother-only daughter, as in Ilott, so generally a much harder argument for reasonable financial provision.


From a narrative point of view, the story here does not really match Ilott very closely: it could be summarised as ‘possibly inappropriate pressure on possibly vulnerable testator’ as opposed to the ‘spiteful charity’ trope seen in Ilott.  There is, however, a definite similarity in terms of the huge amount of ill-feeling generated by inheritance and disinheritance.


No longer waiting for Ilott: preliminary thoughts


The Supreme Court heard Ilott v Blue Cross [2017] UKSC 17 before Christmas, and has now published its decision in this, one of the biggest cases on succession law in several years:


It was a case about a will, and, specifically about an adult daughter’s challenge to her mother’s determined efforts to leave her nothing of her (relatively modest) estate. The mother in question, Mrs Melita Jackson, had instead favoured a group of charities, and had left specific instructions that any attempt by her daughter, Heather Ilott, to upset this arrangement should be resisted. Heather did indeed mount a challenge, based on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. This allows a range of relations and connections of a deceased person to claim reasonable financial provision from the estate, under certain circumstances.

The case had gone through several stages before this, with judges interpreting the Act, and their own task under it, in rather different ways. While most seemed content to accept that Heather Ilott should be given some sort of support from her mother’s estate, there were varying views as to what sort of an award she should receive – how much, and in what form, and what should it represent?

The (unanimous) Supreme Court decided to allow the appeal of the charities in this case, which, as far as Heather Ilott was concerned, meant that the provision she would be getting from the estate went back to £50,000, the sum fixed on by DJ Million, rather than the substantially higher figure which the Court of Appeal had decided upon.

In real life, Heather Ilott’s loss may not be as large as it appears from these bald facts: the SC judgment makes it apparent that some sort of arrangement has been made between the charities and Heather Ilott, presumably to soften the blow of this decrease in provision. From the point of view of the charities, this was clearly a difficult case to handle, since they risked looking extremely, well, uncharitable in trying to reduce the award made to a woman who was, clearly, in unfavourable financial circumstances. Nevertheless, it was clearly important to them not to concede ground in the area of challenges to money left to them by will, given that this is one of their major sources of income.

The decision itself, although it is in favour of the charities involved, and has been welcomed by the charity sector more generally, is relatively cautious. It is hedged about by the familiar reluctance to define terms, insistence that cases turn on their own facts, and comes complete with a Lady Hale critique of the current state of the law (and the failure of the Law Commission to deal with its problems). It was not to be expected that one case could deal with the genuine and longstanding tensions between a feeling that a person should be able to do as she wishes with her own property, a power extending even after death, and an instinct that there is an obligation to support and maintain particular close relations, if found ‘deserving’ (or at least ‘not undeserving’). (It is often suggested that ‘testamentary freedom’, unaffected by the latter obligation, had a relatively short life-span, but that is to ignore the centuries of exploitation of a variety of devices – particularly, but not only, those involving uses and trusts – to achieve control beyond death in the pattern of succession to land and personal property.) On top of that ancient tension, there are large issues of principle in relation to the relevance of tax and benefits considerations in these sorts of decision, deserving of more rounded and thorough consideration than would be possible on one individual set of circumstances. No doubt both the implications of Ilott itself and the wider issues will be considered in detail by succession law commentators in the coming months.

It has been a long drawn out case for those involved. For those of us watching it unfold, it has been interesting in many ways. The Supreme Court case before Christmas was the first televised SC case I have ever watched (and yes, I did watch it all the way through!), which was quite educational, if not especially dynamic. I have also found it instructive to look at the press coverage of the case. There is a lot of criticism of the deceased mother, Melita Jackson, who is characterised as spiteful and unreasonable. This draws upon comments by counsel, claimant and judges. It may or may not be fair – Mrs Jackson is not around to give her side of the story, or to object to the way in which she has been portrayed. The lack of an opportunity to answer back is inevitable in wills cases, but it can be rather uncomfortable: I find it rather disturbing seeing such one-sided contentions about deceased people (I found the airing of the alleged delusions of a woman with Alzheimer’s in Lloyd v Jones [2016] EWHC 1308 (Ch) particularly sad: I don’t think any of us would like to think that the general public would one day hear the claim that we had had delusions involving aliens, witches, dead people and being burgled or poisoned by Saddam Hussein, and were incontinent). It would also be interesting to examine the comments in Ilott and in comparable cases to see whether certain types of criticism are more likely to be applied to female as opposed to male testators: that’s going on my list of ‘one of these days’ projects. (At least one very gendered ‘below the line’ comment here sums up the case as entrenching ‘the human right to be a b***h’ – their stars, not mine: http://www.legalcheek.com/2017/03/supreme-court-backs-three-animal-charities-over-struggling-daughter-on-benefits-in-a-row-about-her-dead-mums-will/#comment-1009330 ).

It has been interesting to observe the Telegraph, and, in particular the Daily Mail, as they make very apparent the tensions noted above. Although Heather Ilott (despite having claimed various benefits and tax credits over many years, and thus not being the sort of person they usually favour) is generally portrayed in a fairly sympathetic light, there is also a clear concern with testamentary freedom (particularly when defence of testamentary freedom can be combined with a dig at ‘out of touch’ judges: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3178080/MAX-HASTINGS-judges-tell-leave-money-wills.html ), and, when wider conclusions are drawn from the litigation, the reader tends to be cast in the role of testator, rather than badly-off IHA claiman (e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11766651/Your-will-can-be-ignored-say-judges.html )

(If anyone wants to see a somewhat lower level of commentary, then the ‘below the line’ comments on the Express article on the case are a good (in the sense of predictable and depressing) place to start: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/779633/Supreme-Court-rules-award-woman-left-mother-will-charity-payout).

So – lots to think about: certainly in terms of immediate effects, but also in terms of attitudes revealed by the case and its coverage, and in terms of longer historical traditions of allowing and limiting control of property beyond death. No doubt I will be coming back to this.


GS 15/3/2017

Further coverage

A couple of days on, we get this in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2017/mar/17/charities-court-disputes-contested-wills-melita-jackson?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter – a condemnation of charities for ‘interfering’ in contested wills. It may be right to say that there are problems with public trust of charities, but it seems harsh to describe the charities’ conduct here as ‘interfering’, since the initial active part was taken by the daughter of the deceased, asking for an alteration in the way in which the deceased’s estate should be shared out, and then asking for a larger share than was awarded at first instance. The article plays down the idea that the case has precedent value – clearly it is very important for charities to know where they stand on the vulnerability of wills which leave them money. It also ignores the fact that there does seem to have been some arrangement to limit the actual impact of the decision on the daughter in the case. It looks to me as if the charities were very well aware of the possible PR issue. Whatever one thinks about the weight which should be attached to testtamentary freedom, this does look like an issue which needed a thorough workout in court, in an effort to sort things out for the future. Whether Ilott has done that is, of course, a different matter…

18/3/ 2017 General message that we should be able to do what we like in our wills in Janet Street-Porter’s opinion piece: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/melina-jackson-will-charities-rspca-cut-daughter-out-supreme-court-sad-reflection-a7636056.html – though might have been an idea to read the judgment or summary a bit more carefully … suggestion here is that the will ‘stands’ and Heather Ilott gets nothing – the SC just put things back to DJ Million’s conclusion that Heather Ilott should get a lower sum than the CA awarded.

The Art of Law: update

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 (http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_282282_en.pdf ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog (http://vifgage.blogs.ilrt.org/2013/04/07/p-is-for-profile-henry-viii-in-the-rolls-of-the-common-pleas/ ). In a 2015 blog post, I noted the appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210. This looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explores the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?



Going back to all this for another project, it seems to me that there is still a lot to explore here. In particular, I was intrigued at the illustrations at the foot of one late 15th C roll, associated with the name Forster. A couple of the illustrations have come up in recent tweets and on the cover of a recent book, but there is room for a study on ‘the Forster hand’ and its illustrations – ranging from a female tavern worker, to a woman clubbing a man, to a self-harming chimera, a rosary, a heron/crane gobbling a snake/eel, and fish (with nostrils) – all in CP 40/840 – Common Pleas roll for Michaelmas 1471. definitely going to pursue this character through some other rolls.

Gwen Seabourne


Emasculation-watch, updated

In doing my pre-tutorial reading for a cycle of land law tutorials on proprietary estoppel, I came upon a well-known case comment entitled ‘Emasculating Estoppel’ ([1998] Conv 210). I am always left wondering why academics and lawyers are so keen on the imagery of emasculation, and why they are not more frequently ‘called out’ on the implications of using a word which assumes that that which is good and useful has male genitalia, and that its goodness and usefulness are located in the aforesaid genitalia.

It really is pretty common, and is often used in rather odd ways. A quick database search threw up examples relating to the emasculation of:

  • various statutes and statutory sections (including a section of the Equality Act – particularly inappropriate?:  The Queen on the Application of Mrs JH, Mr JH v Secretary of State for Justice [2015] EWHC 4093 (Admin) at [22]; See also, e.g. Gold Nuts Limited and others v. Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs [2016] UKFTT 0082 (TC) at [218])
  • ‘all the provisions of the statute’: Hudson v Parker (1844) 1 Robertson Ecclesiastical 14; 163 E.R. 948 at 40.
  • other regulations (‘Emasculating TUPE: transfers of undertakings and the concept of the “economic entity” L.T. 2002, 3, 23-28
  • a tax (The Queen on the application of: Veolia ES Landfill Limited et al.[2016] EWHC 1880 (Admin) [182]
  • the beneficial principle of proprietary estoppel: Thompson’s article, and also Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18 at [98](Lord Neuberger combines an emasculation image with ‘fettering’ here – all a bit S & M sounding).
  • the doctrine of restraint of trade (‘EC competition policy: emasculating the common law doctrine of the restraint of trade?’R.P.L. 2007, 15(3), 419-431
  • the doctrine of legitimate expectation (R v IRC ex p MFK [1990] 1 WLR 1545 at 1569–70
  • the option (‘Emasculating the optionVAT Int. 1997, 15(1), 1380-1383).
  • a regulation’s purpose (M v W [2014] EWHC 925 (Fam): [34]
  • a sanction (JKX Oil & Gas Plc v Eclairs Group Ltd [2014] EWCA Civ 640 [124] and [126]
  • a right (Neil Pattullo v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs [2014] UKFTT 841 (TC) [85].
  • ‘the meaning of the deed’ (meaning to distort? Westlaw Case Analysis, Adedeji v Pathania, Chancery Division 22 April 2015).
  • the concept of ordinary residence (Regina (Cornwall Council) v Secretary of State for Health and another [2015] UKSC 46 at [145]
  • incentives (Lloyds Bank Leasing (No 1) Limited v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs [2015] UKFTT 0401 (TC) at [14])
  • the High Court’s role: Ghosh v GMC [2001] 1 WLR 1915 at [34]
  • obligations in a mortgage deal (Mark Robert Alexander (as representative of the “Property118 Action Group”) v West Bromwich Mortgage Company Ltd  [2016] EWCA Civ 496 at 81).
  • warranties (P &P Property Limited v Owen White & Catlin LLP, Crownvent Limited t/a Winkworth [2016] EWHC 2276 (Ch) at [101])

So – we see pieces of legislation and various less tangible things and ideas portrayed as damaged male bodies – decidedly odd at best.

Perhaps the oddest and most jarring use of this imagery is in Regina v “RL” [2015] EWCA Crim 1215 in which a barrister is said to have indicated (at [12]) that ‘the combined effect of the judge’s rulings was so to emasculate his cross-examination of boys A and B that he was in effect reduced to putting a bald proposition and having to accept the answer given by the boy concerned without further elaboration.’ Hard to know what to say to that – just – really? Best choice of words?

There may be some hope that people are beginning to see that this might be best avoided – applause for the appearance of a set of “” around the word in  Miss S C Hall v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police 2015 WL 5202319, before Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing DBE, at [32] in her judgment. So, other judges, academic commentators, barristers, what about trying out ‘undermine’, ‘weaken’, ‘render useless’ or some such non-violent and not unnecessarily gendered phrase? Go on – it won’t ’emasculate’ your scholarship.

Postscriptt/Update 24/02/2017

More Land Law preparation, more emasculation!

Fundamental human rights are ‘at risk of emasculation’ in Lord Neuberger’s judgment in Mayor of London (on behalf of the Greater London Authority) v Hall and others [2010] EWCA Civ 817 at [37]. And we have an act ‘emasculating’ a doctrine (the Land Registration Act 2002 and adverse possession, respectively) in: M Dixon, ‘The reform of property law and the LRA 2002: a risk assessment’ (2003) Conv. 136, at 150 and again at 151, See also Conv. 2005, Jul/Aug, 345-351; Conv. 2011 335  at 338 and (on prescription this time) Conv. 2011, 167 at 170. The use of ‘emasculation’ in relation to adverse possession has a slightly different character to many of the uses noted above, at least 2003 Conv 136, 151, the emasculation of the doctrine by the LRA scheme ‘does of course, mean the end of adverse possession as a threat to the security of registered title.’ So removal of the doctrine’s metaphorical male genitalia = removal of a threat/danger. Intriguing.

Watching out for more, and would specially like to find the bingo row of ‘emasculation’ plus a ‘mistress’, plus a cricketing metaphor in the same case or article.