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“A Besy Woman … and Full of Lawe”: Female Litigants in Early Tudor Star Chamber

  • Deborah Youngs


This article considers the opportunities available to, and the constraints to be negotiated by, female litigants at the court of Star Chamber during the reigns of the early Tudor kings. Star Chamber was a prerogative court and grew in popularity following the transformation and clarification of its judicial functions under Thomas Wolsey in the early sixteenth century. While it has suffered losses to its records, around five thousand cases still survive from the early Tudor period, including nearly one thousand cases involving female litigants. Unlike those in other Westminster courts, such as Common Pleas, Chancery, or the Court of Requests, Star Chamber cases have yet to be fully examined for what they can tell us about women's access to justice and their experience of legal process. This article begins by surveying the number of cases involving female litigants, showing that far more women came to the court as plaintiffs than as defendants. The numbers were significant—in line with Chancery—but still show women as a minority. Drawing on a wide range of examples, the paper explores the major factors determining, and limiting, women's active roles as litigants, taking into consideration cultural expectations, legal practice (including the operation of coverture), and, where detected, individual decision-making.

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1 See for example, Stretton, Tim, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998), 3941. See also Cioni, Maria L., Women and Law in Elizabethan England with Particular Reference to the Court of Chancery (New York, 1985); Hawkes, Emma, “‘[S]he Will … Protect and Defend her Rights Boldly by Law and Reason …’: Women's Knowledge of Common Law and Equity Courts in Late Medieval England,” in Medieval Women and the Law, ed. James, Noël Menuge (Woodbridge, 2000), 145–61; Moore, Lindsay R., “Women and Property Litigation in Seventeenth-Century England and North America,” in Married Women and the Law: Coverture in England and the Common Law World, ed. Stretton, Tim and Kesselring, Krista J. (Ithaca, 2013), 133–38, at 118, 121, 123.

2 Accounts of the court's early development can be found in Bayne, C. G. and Dunham, William Huse, Select Cases in the Council of Henry VII (London, 1958); and Guy, J. A., The Cardinal's Court: The Impact of Thomas Wolsey's Star Chamber (Hassocks, 1977).

3 It was the king's claim to offer justice to all his subjects that gave them access to prerogative courts. See Griffiths, Ralph A., “The English Realm and Dominions and the King's Subjects in the Later Middle Ages,” in Aspects of Late Medieval Government. Essays Presented to J. R. Lander, ed. Rowe, J. G. (Toronto, 1986), 99; Melanie Katrina Lloyd, “The Privy Council, Star Chamber and Wales, 1540–1572” (PhD diss., Swansea University, 1987). For Cheshire's judicial independence, see Thornton, Tim, Cheshire and the Tudor State, 1480–1560 (Woodbridge, 2000).

4 Research undertaken on female litigants in later sixteenth-century Star Chamber includes Walker, Garthine, “‘A Strange Kind of Stealing’: Abduction in Early Modern Wales,” in Women and Gender in Early Modern Wales, ed. Clarke, Simone and Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, 2000), 5074.

5 Guy, Cardinal's Court, 52–53.

6 Baker, John H., The Oxford History of the Law of England, vol. 6, 1483–1558 (Oxford, 2003), 118.

7 Bayne and Dunham, Select Cases; Guy, Cardinal's Court, 79. The original proceedings and proofs of Star Chamber are housed in The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, UK, under the class mark STAC.

8 Bailey, Joanne, “Voices in Court: Lawyers or Litigants?,” Historical Research 74, no. 186 (November 2001): 392408, at 393; Beattie, Cordelia, “‘Your Oratrice’: Women's Petitions in the Late Medieval Court of Chancery,” in Women, Agency and the Law, 1300–1700, ed. Kane, Bronach and Williamson, Fiona (London, 2013), 1730, at 20.

9 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 13. See also Walker, “Strange Kind of Stealing,” 54; Smith, Jamie, “Women as Legal Agents in Late Medieval Genoa,” in Writing Medieval Women's Lives, ed. Goldy, Charlotte and Livingstone, Amy (New York, 2012), 113–29, at 115; Kelleher, Marie A., The Measure of Women: Law and Female Identity in the Crown of Aragon (Philadelphia, 2010), 1012; Seabourne, Gwen, Imprisoning Medieval Women: The Non-Judicial Confinement and Abduction of Women in England, c. 1170–1509 (Farnham, 2011), 130.

10 J. A. Guy has estimated that while plaintiffs alleged riot and unlawful assembly in nearly half of the cases during Wolsey's chancellorship, in only 7 percent of cases is there any real evidence for it. See Guy, J. A., The Court of Star Chamber and Its Records to the Reign of Elizabeth I (London, 1985), 26, 52; Cooper, J. D., Propaganda and the Tudor State: Political Culture in the Westcountry (Oxford, 2003), 136–45.

11 Blatcher, Marjorie, The Court of King's Bench, 1450–1550: A Study in Self-Help (London, 1978), 26.

12 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 40n80. For the observation that the court may have been less popular in general by Elizabeth's reign, see Brooks, Christopher W., Law, Politics and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2009), 38.

13 Guy, Cardinal's Court, 30.

14 Blatcher, Court of King's Bench, 29.

15 National Library of Wales, MS 6620D, fol. 20r. The case was originally heard by the Council in the Marches on 27 April 1528 (and given a favorable outcome to the plaintiff) before going to Star Chamber and subsequently the Court of Requests; TNA, REQ 2/13/73.

16 Dodd, Gwilym, Justice and Grace: Private Petitioning in the English Parliament in the Late Middle Ages (Oxford, 2007), 214.

17 See, for example, TNA, STAC, 2/12/310; STAC 2/17/26; STAC 2/18/167; STAC 2/22/248; STAC 2/27/113 and STAC 2/27/142.

18 TNA, STAC 2/26/126; she reiterated the complaint in STAC 2/18/42. On the other hand, her adversary Richard Golborne accused her of dwelling in London simply to vex him; TNA, STAC 2/18/216.

19 Guy calculated that the gentry formed 28.7 percent of litigants and yeomen/husbandmen 25.4 percent; Guy, Cardinal's Court, 109. See also Elton, G. R., Star Chamber Stories (London, 1958), 9.

20 In most cases, social identifiers are only noted when mentioned in relation to husbands; hence we find a widow of a husbandman (TNA, STAC 2/27/86), a labourer (STAC 2/24/427), and a shoemaker (STAC 2/29/74). The difficulties of determining the social standing of women involved in court cases is noted in Kelleher, Measure of Women, 8.

21 TNA, STAC 2/28/18.

22 Guy, Court of Star Chamber, 23.

23 Some information on sentences is available for the later sixteenth century; see K. J. Kesselring, Star Chamber Reports, BL Harley MS 2143 (List and Index Society, special series, vol. 57, 2018).

24 Catalogue entries where wives are not currently mentioned as co-litigants include those in TNA, STAC 2/16, fols. 181–2; STAC 2/17/389; and STAC 2/18/224.

25 TNA, STAC 2/20/223 (bill of complaint); STAC 2/26/394 (list of interrogatories); STAC 2/24/34; and STAC 10/4/82 (depositions). A full discussion of this case and other related sources can be found in Youngs, Deborah, “‘A Vice Common in Wales’: Abduction, Prejudice and the Search for Justice in the Regional and Central Courts of Early Tudor Society,” in The Welsh and the Medieval World: Travel, Migration and Exile, ed. Skinner, Patricia (Cardiff, 2018), 131–54.

26 Guy, Court of Star Chamber, 20. The careless and misguided treatment of Star Chamber records in previous centuries makes it unlikely that a definitive number of cases dating to the early Tudor kings will ever be determined; not all files can be attributed to specific suits (particularly in the case of the numerous uncatalogued depositions in TNA, STAC 10), and odd records remain scattered in other classes. Fortunately, the catalogue is currently undergoing revision; my thanks to Dr. Amanda Bevan, Dr. Sean Cunningham, and Dr. Euan Roger of TNA for their assistance.

27 In totting up the number, I have counted as a single suit all related documents that focus on the same subject and with the same named litigants. In some instances, the issue remains constant, but the defendant has changed, and so it has been counted as a separate suit. I have searched TNA, STAC 1, STAC 2 (catalogued material), and STAC 10 boxes 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 18 (which contain the earliest Star Chamber material). Some documents pertaining to cases temp. Henry VIII's reign are also in STAC 3, although those featuring female litigants relate to suits found in STAC 2 and STAC 10.

28 Tucker, Penny, Law Courts and Lawyers in the City of London, 1300–1550 (Cambridge, 2007), 234–35, 238. Other studies offer similar percentages, although through different means. For example, Emma Hawkes calculated that women comprised 15 percent of litigants in Chancery bills originating in Yorkshire during the fifteenth century; Hawkes, “‘[S]he Will Protect,’” 151.

29 TNA, STAC 2/28/12. This followed their attempts to seek justice at courts in Chester and the Council in the Marches of Wales. See TNA, STAC 2/6, fols. 282–92.

30 See, for example, London's sheriff's court, where in 1461–62 only 23 percent of cases featuring female litigants involved a female plaintiff, whereas 78 percent involved a female defendant. Matthew Frank Stevens, “London Women, the Courts and the ‘Golden Age’: A Quantitative Analysis of Female Litigants in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” London Journal 37, no. 2 (2012): 67–88, at 74.

31 Haskett did note a gradual increase in the proportion of women as respondents and a decline in their proportion as petitioners during the later Middle Ages. This shift might reflect women's “increasing participation in matters of property and inheritance, or a more vulnerable state as executors or heirs.” Haskett, Timothy S., “The Medieval English Court of Chancery,” Law and History Review 14, no. 2 (Autumn 1996): 245313, at 286–87.

32 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 38–42. See also Stevens, “London Women,” 117.

33 Whyte, Nicola, “Custodians of Memory: Women and Custom in Rural England, c.1550–1700,” Cultural and Social History 8, no. 2 (2011): 153–73, at 154; Goldberg, Jeremy, Communal Discord, Child Abduction and Rape in the Later Middle Ages (Basingstoke, 2008), 47; Wood, Andy, The Politics of Social Conflict in the Peak District, 1520–1770 (Cambridge, 1999), 132–33; Ewan, Elizabeth, “Scottish Portias: Women in the Courts in Mediaeval Scottish Towns,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 3, no. 1 (1992): 2743, at 31–32, 36.

34 TNA, STAC 2/22/320.

35 TNA, STAC 2/24/402.

36 TNA, STAC 2/4, fol. 109 (her deposition); STAC 2/11/17 (the bill where Dionysis is named as an eyewitness).

37 Kelleher, Measure of Women, 43.

38 TNA, STAC 2/23/271.

39 TNA, STAC 2/18/162.

40 Whyte, “Custodians of Memory,” 155, 169.

41 Jones, Karen, Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England: The Local Courts in Kent, 1460–1560 (Woodbridge, 2006), 3639, 204–5.

42 On courts viewing violence by women as unnatural, see Müller, Miriam, “Social Control and the Hue and Cry in Two Fourteenth-Century Villages,” Journal of Medieval History 31, no. 1 (2005): 2953, at 41–42.

43 For an analysis of female assailants and their significant role in disputes over property, see Walker, Garthine, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2003), chap. 3, particularly 75–77.

44 For example, TNA, STAC 2/18/219; STAC 2/24/383.

45 TNA, STAC 2/21/70.

46 For example, TNA, STAC 2/4, fols. 92, 194–95; STAC 2/6/279 STAC 2/10, fols. 47, 79; STAC 2/11/31; STAC 2/13, fols. 23, 171; STAC 2/21/70; STAC 2/29/31. At the commandment of their husbands: TNA, STAC 2/29/21; STAC 2/6/68.

47 TNA, STAC 2/33/287.

48 For example, TNA, STAC 2/10, fol. 53; STAC 2/17/277. For the (potentially) gendered use of weapons, see Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order, 78–79.

49 TNA, STAC 2/25/281.

50 TNA, STAC 2/10/130.

51 As was argued, for example, in the cases involving Edith Darnell (TNA, STAC 2/12/166), Anne Harwell (STAC 2/26/479; STAC 2/25/237), and Joan Stanton (STAC 2/18/228).

52 Alice Symonds took several cases to Chancery, including a few where she acted as executrix for her second husband, Robert Symonds. She had previously been married to John Chaffy, an inn-holder in Illminster, and had presumably gained considerable experience negotiating with people. TNA, C1/279/39, C1/284/49, C1/442/15, C1/446/15, C1/1513/78.

53 TNA, STAC 2/23/271.

54 TNA, STAC 2/18/216. These accusations call to mind Juan Luis Vives's criticism of women as “bablyng, and busy, and troublous,” quoted in Stretton, Women Waging Law, 51.

55 Hanawalt, Barbara A., “Of Good and Ill Repute”: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England (Oxford, 1998), 124.

56 Alice Swetenham, however, petitions once on her own and in another petition appears alongside her father-in-law. See TNA, STAC 2/26/30 (her own petition); STAC 2/18/162 (alongside her father-in-law).

57 For example, TNA, STAC 2/33/66.

58 The verbs most regularly used in these cases are “to ravish” and “to take away.” The majority of cases in Star Chamber relate to abduction, often with the intention of forced marriage, although sexual assault is likely in several cases.

59 TNA, STAC 3/7/40.

60 TNA, STAC 2/19/71; STAC 2/23/4; STAC 2/25/68 (Kebell); STAC 2/26/105 (Roberts); STAC 2/18/228 (Stanton); STAC 2/18/15 (Typlary); STAC 10/1/21 (White). Margaret Kebell's case has been discussed in E. W. Ives, “‘Agaynst Taking Awaye of Women’: The Inception and Operation of the Abduction Act of 1487,” in Wealth and Power in Tudor England: Essays Presented to S. T. Bindoff, ed. E. W. Ives, R. J. Knecht, and J. J. Scarisbrick (London, 1978), 31–43. For more on Katherine Roberts, see Deborah Youngs, “‘She Hym Fresshely Folowed and Pursued’: Women and Star Chamber in Early Tudor Wales,” in Kane and Williamson, Women, Agency and the Law, 73–85.

61 Seabourne, Imprisoning Medieval Women, 129–30.

62 Caroline Dunn, Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction and Adultery, 1100–1500 (Cambridge, 2013), 97. It must also have been the case that some of these instances were actually elopements and the suits were brought by irate male family members against the actions of the women allegedly abducted. Dunn, Stolen Women, chap. 4; Sara Butler, “Runaway Wives: Husband Desertion in Medieval England,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 2 (2006): 337–59, at 341–44; Youngs, “A vice common in Wales.”

63 TNA, STAC 2/22/18. See Ives, “‘Agaynst Taking Awaye of Women.’”

64 TNA, STAC 2/26/59; STAC 2/34/152.

65 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 130–32. See also the introductions and essays in Stretton and Kesselring, Married Women and the Law, and Beattie, Cordelia and Stevens, Matthew Frank, eds., Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe (Woodbridge, 2013).

66 While the vast majority of suits featuring assaults on wives were brought by husbands alone, in a small number of cases the wife appears as a co-litigant. There is no obvious pattern, although one possibility is that the wife was named in those cases where the husband was not an eyewitness: for example, where a wife was alone when attacked and so traumatized by the assault that she had lost her “perfytt wytt and reason.” TNA, STAC 2/13, fol. 241.

67 For comparison with other central courts, see Loengard, Janet, “What Is a Nice (Thirteenth-Century) Englishwoman Doing in the King's Courts?,” in The Ties That Bind: Essays in Medieval British History in Honor of Barbara Hanawalt, ed. Mitchell, Linda E., French, Katherine L., and Biggs, Douglas L. (London, 2010), 5570, at 59. By contrast, wives as co-litigants were not visible, and increasingly invisible, in fifteenth-century London courts. Stevens, “London Women in the Courts,” 75.

68 Margaret, wife of Thomas Forster, merchant of London, petitioned Star Chamber because she feared that her husband, who was “lakkyng sufficient naturell reason how to guyde himself,” had been duped into giving his goods to the charterhouse in the city. TNA, STAC 2/33/64.

69 TNA, STAC 2/4, fol. 124.

70 TNA, STAC 2/24/427. Wives might also petition together, as in the case of the three women who brought an action against the abbot of Bury St. Edmunds concerning the imprisonment of their husbands in the Fleet; STAC 2/1, fols. 23–27.

71 Anthony Musson, Medieval Law in Context: The Growth of Legal Consciousness from Magna Carta to the Peasants’ Revolt (Manchester, 2001), 84.

72 Erickson, Amy Louise, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), 150; Stretton, Tim, “The Legal Identity of Married Women in England and Europe, 1500–1700,” in Europa und seine Regionem: 2000 jahre rechtsgesgchichte, ed. Bauer, Andreas and Welker, Karl H. L. (Cologne, 2007), 309–22, at 315–17; Cioni, Women and Law, 173.

73 TNA, STAC 2/3, fol. 62.

74 TNA, STAC 2/35/39.

75 TNA, STAC 2/17/202.

76 For example, Thomas Lewis was accused of beating his wife and trying to poison her. TNA, STAC 2/21/62. Very few men brought marital issues to Star Chamber; the odd example includes a suit regarding a pre-contract (STAC 2/25/176) and one where a husband accuses his wife and son of trying to dispossess him (STAC 2/6, fol. 62).

77 In this way, it closely compares to Chancery. Sara M. Butler, Divorce in Medieval England: From One to Two Persons in Law (London, 2013), 6.

78 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 136–38.

79 In other words, the Council in the Marches of Wales.

80 TNA, STAC 2/23/176, 178; punctuation added.

81 For example, TNA, STAC 2/23/249, where the bill concerns the wife's goods, refers to events prior to her marriage and is written entirely from her perspective; the husband's name is his only obvious input.

82 See, for example, the bill of Robert Bate, a Lincolnshire merchant, which recounts his wife's persistent attempts at seeking justice at the Sleaford quarter sessions for her eviction from the family home while he was abroad, yet in this bill he is the sole plaintiff. TNA, STAC 1/1/25.

83 TNA, STAC 2/17/26 (bill); STAC 2/22/349 (answer of John Higham); STAC 2/24/42 (the interrogatories of John Higham).

84 TNA, STAC 2/15/369.

85 TNA, STAC 2/15/368A.

“A Besy Woman … and Full of Lawe”: Female Litigants in Early Tudor Star Chamber

  • Deborah Youngs


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