Tag Archives: Marriage

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

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective IIC: Marriage

Laws of Ice and Fire: George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire cycle from a legal historian’s perspective

Part II

Substantive Law

C: Marriage

Marriage is important in Westeros, as it was in medieval Europe, for the regularisation of sexual conduct and the orderly transmission of property. In the world of Song of Ice and Fire, marriage laws and customs differ on religious, cultural and territorial lines.

In ‘the Faith’, (the ‘new’ religion of seven gods, or a seven-fold God), marriage must be between one man and one woman [World: 5058]. This also appears to be the case in those following the way of the Old Gods of the North. Not everyone has always stuck to the monogamous model, however. Some Targaryens took more than one wife [World: 1399] while the Ironborn have only one ‘rock wife’ at home, they are allowed as many ‘salt wives’ as they can capture and keep [World: 5058]. Despite attempts to outlaw the practice of taking these additional, captured, wives, [World: 5248], the Ironborn maintain it at the time of the Song cycle. The Dothraki seem to allow at least khals more than one wife, and amongst traditionalist Dothraki, the khal’s bloodriders share his wives {I:379]

Marrying close family members is regarded as wrong (‘seen as a sin by the Faith’, ‘hated by the gods’ [II:236] and ‘a monstrous sin to both old gods and new’ {II; 451]) by most in Westeros, but the Targaryens frequently married siblings or other close kin, sometimes justifying this as necessary to keep pure ‘the blood of the dragon’ [World: 1399; I:29]. The twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister also have a long term incestuous relationship, but keep it secret [I:468], though Jaime dreams of marrying Cersei, and also marrying their children to each other [III:236].

Marriage is prohibited to the Kingsguard and the Night’s Watch, [I:72, 498], to silent sisters and septons and septas [III:261]. and the maesters also are celibate [II:17]. At least for a man of the Night’s Watch, marriage could lead to capital punishment  [IV:435], though less permanent breaches of the oath of celibacy are not taken very seriously (Jon Snow notes that men of the Night’s Watch visiting prostitutes ‘was oathbreaking too, yet no one seemed to care’ [I:751], and Dareon does not regard visiting prostitutes or undertaking a one night ‘marriage’ to a prostitute as serious or dangerous breaches of his oath [IV:435].

There appear to be at least social conventions concerning the requisite age or level of maturity for completion of the marriage. Thus, when Robert Baratheon proposes that Sansa Stark and his heir, Joffrey, are betrothed, Sansa is eleven and Joffrey twelve. He says that the actual marriage ‘can wait a few years’ [I:45]. Tyrion proposes that Myrcella weds Trystane Martell of Dorne when she reaches her fourteenth year [II:289]. Menstruation rather than a set age seems to be enough to make a girl old enough for marriage. Magister Illyrio noting that Daenerys Targaryen ‘has had her blood. She is old enough for the khal’ [I:30]. One marriage which does not seem to fit this pattern is that of the baby heiress Lady Ermesande Hayford to Cersei Lannister’s thirteen-year-old cousin, Tyrek (a match motivated by a wish to obtain the child’s lands) [II:363, 896; III:48]. This appears to be regarded as a full marriage rather than a mere betrothal, despite the bride’s tender age and presumed lack of consummation. Perhaps it is technically a betrothal, or open to disavowal when she reaches majority, though practically and politically, such a disavowal would be extremely unlikely (In the event, Tyrek disappears, presumed dead, so the point is moot).

Marriage may involve two stages – the contract or betrothal, which may be revoked, though it is considered binding in honour, and the final marriage [I:45; II:479]. A royal betrothal or marriage contract is considered void, and vows are cancelled, according to the Faith if the bride’s family are involved in treason against the groom, as is alleged against the Starks by Joffrey and his supporters [II:819].  The marriage ceremony itself, in the Faith, involves the making of vows before witnesses, in the presence of a septon, and symbolic removal of a ‘maiden’s cloak’ (with her father’s sigil or colours) from the woman, and its replacement with the bride’s cloak (featuring her husband’s emblems), demonstrating her move from her father’s protection to that of her husband [III:318, 669]. Consummation is also necessary, and might be preceded by the bawdy ‘bedding’ custom, which functions as confirmation that bride and groom at least had the opportunity and capacity to consummate. There may  also be the exhibition of sheets after the wedding night, as an additional confirmation that the marriage has been consummated.

The people of Westeros adhere to different religions, and marriage rites vary. Generally, there do not seem to be arguments as to whether a marriage conducted according to one rite is regarded as valid by the adherents of other religions. Some may choose to make sure that there will be no problem by holding a double ceremony, in both godswood (for the Old Gods) and sept (for the Seven or New Gods)  [II:474]. There may be problems of ‘conflict of laws’ with regard to more foreign traditions, however. Thus, a Westeosi rite marriage would not be recognised in Meereen – unless Daenerys Targaryen marries Hizdahr according to the rites prevailing in Meereen, they will not be regarded as being lawfully married, so that any children they have will be illegitimate [V:478]. Since Daenerys more or less complies with this, one must conclude that she assumes this ‘foreign’ marriage would be seen as valid in Westeros.

Marriage may be arranged, and strong pressure may be brought to bear, but some form of consent is necessary. Daenerys does not want to marry Drogo, initially, but her brother Viserys orders her that she will. [I:35]. She ‘consents’ to sex (and therefore ‘completes’ the marriage) with Drogo on their wedding night (it is presented in this way, though there is so much mention of fear that one must presume that a low threshold was being employed] [I:103]. Similarly, even a marriage forced upon a vulnerable woman, with the threat of violence and mistreatment, might be regarded as not sufficiently outrageous as to be impossible to maintain Thus, ‘the Bastard of Bolton’ forced Lady Hornwood to say her vows to him in appropriate form, in order to acquire her land, later starving her to death. A maester pronounced that ‘Vows made at swordpoint are not valid’, but it is thought that the Boltons would be unlikely to accept the invalidity of this marriage which brought them valuable lands [II:474]. The wildings’ custom of bride-stealing [World: 571] was not seen as excluding consent. The stealing was, rather, a way of showing stealth and bravery, such as a wilding woman might be thought to admire.

At least in the upper echelons of Westeros society, lords have a role and a responsibility with regard to female tenants. A liege lord has a duty to find a suitable husband for widowed female tenants [II:229]. This right or responsibility may be politically useful. Theon Greyjoy, for example, speaks of making a marriage alliance using his sister, Asha [II:350]. The right may be used vindictively, as when Joffrey and Cersei arrange a marriage between Tyrion and Sansa Stark. Joffrey has this right because Sansa is a royal ward, and her brother – who would otherwise have the right – has been attainted a traitor  [III:317]. The right is not available to those below the rank of lord: thus a castellan cannot make marriage pacts [V:653].

As was the case in medieval Europe, marriages can, on certain, restricted, grounds, be ‘undone’ (which seems to mean that, as with divorce a vinculo matrimonii, it was as if it had never happened). The marriage of Tyrion Lannister and the peasant girl or ‘whore’, Tysha, for example, was ‘undone’ at the behest of his father Tywin, (perhaps on the ground that it had been entered into through deception) [II:581], and a marriage not consummated – such as Tyrion’s marriage to Sansa Stark – can be set aside ‘by the High Septon or a Council of Faith’ [III: 364].

Once married, Westerosi husbands have considerable control over their wives’ person and property. They can chastise an adulterous wife [World: 90]. Again, though, this was not uncontested. Dorne, influenced by the rules of the Rhoynar, did not allow husbands to chastise wives in this way [World: 90] According to a decree from the reign of Gaemon Palehair, ‘husbands who beat their wives should themselves be beaten, irrespective of what the wives had done to warrant such chastisement’ [World: 6916].

Even in mainstream Westeros, there are limits. In particular, the chastising husband was restricted in that he must use ‘a rod no thicker than a thumb’ [World:1313] – an echo of the post-medieval distortion of common law spousal chastisement limitations known as the ‘rule of thumb’. And Queen Rhaenys Targaryen, doing justice in the absence of King Aegon, whilst accepting that ‘the gods make women to be dutiful to their husbands’, so that it was lawful for them to be beaten, decided that the number of blows should be limited to six (representing each of the gods, save the Stranger, who was Death) [World: 1313]. In a case in which a man had beaten his wife to death, she judged that the blows exceeding six had been unlawful, so that the brothers of the dead woman could ‘match those blows upon the husband’ [World: 1313].

It appears that the law in Westeros includes something along the lines of common law coverture, since Daenerys notes (implicitly as a difference’ that ‘in Qarth man and woman each retain their own property after they are wed’’[II:528]. She discovers, however that they also have a ‘custom that on the day of union, a wife may ask a token of love from her husband and the husband from the wife’ – these ‘requests’ not being amenable to denial [ibid.] Also suggesting the husband’s power over property brought to the marriage by the wife is the description of the Boltons using a (forced) marriage as a way of acquiring immediate rights in the wife’s lands [II:474].



I:          George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

II:        George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings

III:       George R.R. Martin: A Storm of Swords

IV:       George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

V:        George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

World: George R.R. Martin, E M Garcia Jr, L. Antonsson, The World of Ice and Fire: the untold history of Westeros and the Game of Thrones

Number references refer to pages in I – V, but to Kindle locations for World.


Gwen Seabourne