Tag Archives: adultery

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.

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.

Medieval Labour Law: interesting defences


Not so long ago, I noted a fifteenth century case in which an employee alleged abusive behaviour on the part of a master (See 4th January, 2014). Here’s another little nugget, this time from the fourteenth century, and a period of particular employer-employee (or master/servant) tension during the reign of Richard II.

The King’s Bench roll for Trinity term 1389 (KB 27/5513 m. 25; AALT image 59) includes the case of John Clerc of London, saddler, brought to court under the labour laws of Edward III, accused of leaving his employment with John Somervylle, without reasonable cause or permission.  He was said to have left before the end of his one year contract.

Clerc alleged that he had had reason to leave – and the reason was an interesting variation on allegations of beating. He said that Somervylle had accused (or ‘defamed’) him of having slept with Somervylle’s wife, and this had resulted in Clerc being summoned before the ecclesiastical authorities in London, where he had purged himself (gone through the ecclesiastical form of proof of innocence). Somervylle had proceeded to stab Clerc in the chest, and, said Clerc, if the knife had not hit a bone, he would have been killed. He was, therefore, in his view, fully justified in leaving Somervylle’s employ.

Unsurprisingly, Somervylle denied everything, and so matters were sent to proof with a jury. Here, medieval legal records go silent. All we hear is that the jury found in favour of the master – perhaps because Clerc’s story was a pack of lies, perhaps because jurors chosen on the basis of their property were likely to side with a master rather than his servant. Still, Clerc must have thought that this story might work, which suggests that the scenario he came up with, if it wasn’t true, was at least a plausible course of events. And that says some interesting things about expectations of violence, intimate relations and reaction to adultery in fourteenth century England.

(Clerc was ordered to pay his former master the thumping sum of 100s 7 1/2 marks, and this offence also left him liable to imprisonment),

GS 10.3.2014