Tag Archives: fifteenth century

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

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


Not sparing the rod: a fifteenth century schoolmaster’s defence

The King’s Bench plea roll for Trinity term 1410 has a trespass case which sheds a little light on ideas about discipline in medieval education.

John Bolter v John Fferlogh (1410 KB 27/597 m. 44d; AALT image 0382) is a Devon case. John Bolter alleged that Fferlogh had assaulted and beaten him in Ottery St Mary, on Monday after the feast of All Saints in the first year of Henry IV (Monday 3rd November, 1399). Fferlogh’s attorney denied any wrongdoing, saying that, at the time in question, Bolter had been ‘of tender age’ and had been his pupil, learning grammar, living with him at Ottery St Mary. Bolter, he said, had frequently got himself into the company of bad boys, and company which did not befit his status, was not learning either grammar or good morals nor obeying Fferlogh. Fferlogh had taken action to chastise and inform Bolter, had removed him from the bad company he had been frequenting, told him off and had chastised him with a small rod on a number of occasions, and it was stressed that he (Fferlogh) had not beaten him through malice, but only in this way.   Bolter stuck to his story that this was a trespass and Fferlogh to his excuse, and so the matter was sent out to proof.

As ever, it is impossible to say whether or not Fferlogh was telling the truth that he had acted only in the manner he stated, or whether he might have acted with a different intention, or more violently. It is interesting, however, to see what both sides presumably regarded as appropriate chastisement. Fferlogh’s story would not have been stated in this fashion, had such chastisement, for such causes, at such a level, been regarded as inappropriate. Note in particular the insistence that the rod in question was ‘small’ – suggesting a degree of thought about what was legitimate practice in informal corporal punishment, and the construction of a test in terms of size of weapon as opposed to damage to the person being punished. Such a rule would later be said to have applied in the context of marital chastisement.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the former pupil had waited so long to bring this action – perhaps only doing so once he was of an age to start his own litigation. No limitation principle operated to stop him doing so.

GS 31/1/2014

For an earlier ‘school corporal punishment’ case, see William Cornewalle of London, taverner,  v. Adam Aas, vicar of the church of Oakley (Beds) CP 40/430 m.241d (1368). This is also an allegation from some time before – from 25 Edw III (1351-2). Adam claimed that William was his pupil, and he had his him as was customary, with a rod, (no size specified) for his faults. The jury did not agree with Adam’s defence, and William was awarded damages.  Both cases are quite illuminating on the subject of what was regarded as ‘reasonable chastisement’ in the educational context, and show that grudges could be borne over long periods for perceived brutality. Also, it is interesting to note that the jury here found it perfectly plausible that a cleric might be brutal to his pupil.