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Coverture and the Marital Partnership in Late Medieval Nottingham: Women's Litigation at the Borough Court, ca. 1300–ca.1500

  • Teresa Phipps


Women engaged in litigation in Nottingham's borough court as both plaintiffs and defendants for a variety of reasons relating to trade, household provisioning, misbehavior and interpersonal disputes. This article examines how women's litigation was determined by the doctrine of coverture and the way that women's marital status shaped and defined their experience of the law. In doing so, it explores how these pleas reveal the workings of the marital partnership within a late medieval English town. In order to contextualize the experiences of women “under coverture,” the article first traces the ways in which all manner of female marital and household identities were documented in the court records, analyzing the descriptors that court scribes attached to individual women's names. The article highlights inconsistency in the way that women's identities were recorded and in the way that the marital partnership was represented through the litigation of spouses in the borough court. The dual focus of this article not only adds new evidence to ongoing discussions of the nature of medieval coverture but also interrogates how we identify coverture and women's marital statuses based on the evidence of court records.

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1 CA1278, rot. 22, Nottinghamshire Archives (hereafter NA). Eleven shillings would have paid for a substantial amount of fish: in South Staffordshire in 1461, herring cost 1/4d. each, so 11s. equates to 528 herring. See Dyer, Christopher, Everyday Life in Medieval England (London, 1994), 106. This sum was also greater than the annual rent of 8s. for a messuage (a house and its associated buildings and land) in the town in 1374. CA1278, rot. 17, NA.

2 On coverture, see Stretton, Tim and Kesselring, Krista, “Introduction: Coverture and Continuity,” in Married Women and the Law: Coverture in the Common Law World, ed. Stretton, Tim and Kesselring, Krista J. (London, 2013), 323; Stretton, Tim, “Coverture and Unity of Persons in Blackstone's Commentaries,” in Blackstone and his Commentaries: Biography, Law, History, ed. Prest, Wilfred (Oxford, 2009), 111–28; Stretton, Tim, “The Legal Identity of Married Women in England and Europe 1500–1700,” in Europa und seine Regionen: 2000 Jahre Rechtsgeschichte, ed. Bauer, Andreas and Welker, Karl H. L. (Cologne, 2006), 309–22; Sara M. Butler, “Discourse on the Nature of Coverture in the Later Medieval Courtroom,” in Stretton and Kesselring, Married Women and the Law, 24–44; Beattie, Cordelia, “Married Women, Contracts and Coverture in Late Medieval England,” in Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, ed. Beattie, Cordelia and Stevens, Matthew Frank (Woodbridge, 2013), 133–54.

3 See Stretton, Tim, introduction to Marital Litigation in the Court of Requests, 1542–1642, ed. Stretton, Tim (Cambridge, 2008), 26.

4 de Bracton, Henry, On the Laws and Customs of England, trans. Thorne, S. E., 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1968–77), 4, 287. On the writing of the treatise, see Barton, J. L., “The Mystery of Bracton,” Journal of Legal History 14, no. 3 (August 1993): 1142.

5 Bracton, Laws and Customs 2:353.

6 Stretton, “Coverture and Unity of Persons in Blackstone's Commentaries,” 112, 115.

7 Stretton, “Legal Identity of Married Women, 312–13; Beattie, Cordelia, “Married Women's Wills: Probate, Property and Piety in Later Medieval England,” Law and History Review 37, no. 1 (March 2019): 132.

8 Butler, Sara M., “Medieval Singlewomen in Law and Practice,” in The Place of the Social Margins, 1350–1750, ed. Spicer, Andrew and Crawshaw, Jane L. Stevens (Abingdon, 2016), 5978, at 60.

9 Butler, “Discourse on the Nature of Coverture,” 39–40. See also Beattie, “Married Women, Contracts and Coverture,” 133–54; Matthew Frank Stevens, “London's Married Women, Debt Litigation and Coverture in the Court of Common Pleas,” in Beattie and Stevens, Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 115–32; on early modern women see Cathryn Spence, “‘For His Interest’? Women, Debt and Coverture in Early Modern Scotland,” in Beattie and Stevens, Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, 173–90; Bailey, Joanne, “Favoured or Oppressed? Married Women, Property and ‘Coverture’ in England, 1660–1800,” Continuity and Change 17, no. 3 (December 2002): 351–71; Erickson, Amy Louise, “Coverture and Capitalism,” History Workshop Journal, no. 59 (Spring 2005): 116; Finn, Margot, “Women, Consumption and Coverture in England, c.1760–1860,” Historical Journal 29, no. 3 (September 1996): 703–22.

10 Stretton and Kesselring, “Introduction: Coverture and Continuity,” 15; Butler, Sara M., Divorce in Medieval England: From One to Two Persons in Law (Abingdon, 2013), 12.

11 Goddard, Richard, “Surviving Recession: English Borough Courts and Commercial Contraction, 1350–1500,” in Survival and Discord in Medieval Society: Essays in Honour of Christopher Dyer, ed. Goddard, Richard, Langdon, John, and Müller, Miriam (Turnhout, 2010), 6988.

12 On the definition of trespass, see Woodbine, George E., “The Origins of the Action of Trespass,” Yale Law Journal 33, no. 8 (June 1924): 799816, at 802. Phillip Schofield, “Trespass Litigation in the Manor Court in the Late Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries,” in Goddard, Langdon, and Müller, Survival and Discord, 145–60, at 147–52.

13 Beattie, Cordelia, Medieval Single Women: The Politics of Social Classification in Late Medieval England (Oxford, 2007), 3, 1516; Butler, “Medieval Singlewomen,” 60. See also Laughton, Jane, “Women in Court: Some Evidence from Fifteenth-Century Chester,” in Harlaxton Medieval Studies: Proceedings of the 1991 Harlaxton Symposium, vol. 4, Rogers, Nicolas, ed. (Stamford, 1994), 8999, at 91; Dunn, Caroline, Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100–1500 (Cambridge, 2013), 52.

14 Erickson, Amy Louise, “Mistresses and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs,” History Workshop Journal, no. 78 (October 2014): 3957.

15 Beattie, Medieval Single Women, 14.

16 Ellen Kittell found thirteen different status identifiers applied to women in medieval Douai: citizen, daughter, companion, popular epithet, kin, location, spouse, [widow], mother, occupation, religious affiliation, sibling, social class, and no description at all. Kittell, Ellen E., “The Construction of Women's Social Identity in Medieval Douai: Evidence from Identifying Epithets,” Journal of Medieval History 25, no. 3 (September 1999): 215–27, at 218–19.

17 These samples have been selected at intervals across the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries where the court records are relatively complete in order to provide the most accurate overview of all female names recorded each year. A small number of women in each sample have been counted under multiple categories where they were described using more than one term, for example by name alone and as daughter or widow.

18 Beattie, Medieval Single Women, 3.

19 CA1262, CA 1279, CA1296, CA1322/I, CA1374, NA.

20 CA1370, NA.

21 Barron, Caroline M., “Introduction: The Widow's World in Later Medieval London,” in Medieval London Widows, 1300–1500, ed. Barron, Caroline M. and Sutton, Anne F. (London, 1994), xiixxxiv.

22 Mate, Mavis E., Daughters, Wives, and Widows after the Black Death Women in Sussex, 1350–1535 (Woodbridge, 1998), 94; Barron and Sutton, Medieval London Widows, xii; Stretton, Tim, “Widows at Law in Tudor and Stuart England,” in Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Cavallo, Sandra and Warner, Lyndan (Harlow, 1999): 193208, at 195.

23 CA1291, rots. 9, 10d, 11d, 18, 19 (all NA).

24 CA1291, rots. 4d, 5, NA. Matilda and Hugh agreed with permission of the court, and Hugh was amerced 3d.

25 CA1291, rot. 13d, NA.

26 John de Rossyngton v. Margaret de Stapulton; John de Lyndeby v. Margaret de Stapulton. CA1291, rot. 26, NA.

27 CA 1294, rot. 1, CA 1295/I, rots. 4, 5, 5d, 7d, NA.

28 CA1374, NA.

29 CA1258a, rot. 16, NA.

30 CA1258a, rots. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, NA.

31 CA1374, rot. 90, NA.

32 Stretton, “Widows at Law,” 199–200.

33 For daughters of burgesses, this was understood to have been when they became capable of carrying out the tasks required by a woman of her station, probably between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. See Phillips, Kim M., Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, c.1270–c.1540 (Manchester, 2003), 3233.

34 The same patterns have been noted for female adolescents in the countryside. See Bennett, Judith M., Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock before the Plague (Oxford, 1987), 6776.

35 CA1262, rot. 12, NA.

36 CA1262, rot. 13, NA.

37 For example, Margery of Quarndon v. John son of Henry le Meirman—debt of 4s. 8d. for service. CA 1262, rot. 16, NA.

38 In medieval Douai, 70 percent of women described as daughters were acting independently. Kittell, “Women's Social Identity in Medieval Douai,” 222.

39 Bennett, Judith M. and Froide, Amy M., “A Singular Past,” in Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250–1800, ed. Bennett, Judith M. and Froide, Amy M. (Philadelphia, 1999), 138, at 3; Bennett, Judith M. and Whittick, Christopher, “Philippa Russell and the Wills of London's Late Medieval Singlewomen,” London Journal 32, no. 3 (November 2007): 251–69, at 253–54.

40 CA1375 106, NA.

41 CA1377 13, NA.

42 Butler, “Medieval Singlewomen,” 62.

43 Joan Litster de Baceford, singlewoman, presented for buying and selling grain at illegal measures. Stevenson, W. H., Records of the Borough of Nottingham, vol. 3 (London, 1889), 36. In York, the descriptor singlewoman also appeared from the 1480s onwards; Beattie, Single Women, 131–32. London women were also described as singlewomen slightly earlier in the sheriffs’ court records of 1461–62; Stevens, Matthew Frank, “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, (July 2012): 6788, at 78.

44 CA1374 12, 1491-2; CA1375 10, 1494-5, all NA.

45 For example, John Misterton gentilman; Thomas Stevens de Horlay husbondman. CA1375, 1494-5, NA.

46 Powell, Edward, Kingship, Law, and Society: Criminal Justice in the Reign of Henry V (Oxford, 1989), 67, 136.

47 Baker, J. H., “Male and Married Spinsters,” American Journal of Legal History 21, no. 3 (July 1977): 255–59, at 258.

48 Kowaleski, Maryanne, “Women's Work in a Market Town: Exeter in the Late Fourteenth Century,” in Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe, ed. Hanawalt, Barbara A. (Bloomington, 1986), 145–64, at 157. See also Lindström, Jonas, Fiebranz, Rosemarie and Rydén, Göran, “The Diversity of Work,” in Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society, ed. Ågren, Maria (Oxford, 2017), 26.

49 She sued John Smyth de Langley in 1492 for a debt of 4s. CA1374 136, NA.

50 CA1370 137, NA.

51 Beattie, Cordelia, “Living as a Single Person: Marital Status, Performance and the Law in Late Medieval England,” Women's History Review 17, no. 3 (July 2008): 327–40, at 334.

52 On Nottingham women in court, see Phipps, Teresa, “Gendered Justice? Women, Law and Community in Fourteenth-Century Nottingham,” Transactions of the Thoroton Society, no. 118 (2014): 7992.

53 For more on women and credit, see Phipps, Teresa, “Creditworthy Women and Town Courts in Late Medieval England” in Women and Credit in Predindustrial Europe, ed. Dermineur, Elise (Turnhout, 2018), 7394.

54 On medieval women's work, see Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town”; Hutton, Diane, “Women in Fourteenth Century Shrewsbury,” in Women and Work in Pre-industrial England, ed. Charles, Lindsey and Duffin, Lorna (Beckenham, 1985), 8399.

55 These statistics were calculated from full year samples of 1323–24, 1375–76, and 1394–95, drawing on a total of 965 suits. See Teresa Phipps, “Urban Women and Local Justice: Gender, Society and Litigation in Fourteenth-Century England” (PhD diss., University of Nottingham, 2015), 113. On women and debt in other towns, see Stevens, “London Women,” 67–88; Stevens, “London's Married Women”; Spence, “‘For His Interest’?”; Kowaleski, “Women's Work in a Market Town.”

56 Phipps, “Urban Women and Local Justice,” 120. On the marital partnership, see Hanawalt, Barbara A., Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London (Oxford, 2007), 197–98.

57 Stretton, Tim, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998), 135.

58 Stevens, “London's Married Women,” 117.

59 Stevens, “London Women,” 75.

60 Ewan, Elizabeth, “Scottish Portias: Women in the Courts in Mediaeval Scottish Towns,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 3, no. 1 (1992): 2743, at 39.

61 Mate, Daughters, Wives and Widows, 187; McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston, Working Women in England Society, 1300–1620 (Cambridge, 2005), 95.

62 Muldrew, Craig, “‘A Mutual Assent of Her Mind’? Women, Debt, Litigation and Contract in Early Modern England,” History Workshop Journal, no. 55 (January 2003): 4771, at 54, 58.

63 The economic partnerships of couples is also revealed in Chester debt pleas. See Laughton, “Women in Court,” 92.

64 Hanawalt, Wealth of Wives, 278–81. Married women registered as femme sole (as if single) could trade independently of their husbands.

65 CA1291, rot. 13d, NA.

66 CA1268, rot. 2, NA.

67 CA1292, rot. 13, NA. Motley cloth probably referred to cloth woven from threads of multiple colors. See The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing, Accessed 10 August 2019. Richard Plattes was a regular figure in the court and served as bailiff in 1389–90.

68 Spence, Cathryn, Women, Credit, and Debt in Early Modern Scotland (Manchester, 2016), 4648.

69 CA1328, rot. 3d, NA.

70 Bennett, Judith, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: Women's Work in a Changing World, 1300–1600 (Oxford, 1996), 2430, 53–54.

71 CA1299, rot. 13, NA.

72 CA1299, rot. 2, NA.

73 CA1279, rot. 9, NA.

74 CA3492, rot. 3, NA. Wives were rarely named individually for brewing against the assize at Nottingham.

75 CA1291, rot. 22, NA.

76 CA1292, rot. 16d, NA.

77 CA1296/I, rot. 12, NA.

78 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 135–37.

79 Stevens, “London's Married Women,” 118–19, 129.

80 T. E., The Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights (London, 1632), 213.

81 CA1374 107, NA: “Et postea predictus Thomas Copeland cepit in uxorem predictam Margeriam per quod action accrevit eisdem Thomae et Margeriae ad habendas et exigendas de prefato Thoma Hygyn et Joan exore sua predictas parcellas etc.”

82 CA1384 58, NA.

83 Butler, “Medieval Singlewomen,” 64, 67.

84 Muldrew, “Women, Debt, Litigation and Contract,” 54–57; Shepard, Alexandra, “Manhood, Credit and Patriarchy in Early Modern England,” Past and Present, no. 167 (May 2000): 75106, at 90–91.

85 CA1276a, rot. 12d, NA.

86 CA1268, rot. 1d, NA.

87 CA 1304/I, rot. 23, NA.

88 On women and trespass litigation, see Phipps, Teresa, “Misbehaving Women: Trespass and Honor in Late Medieval English Towns,” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 43, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 6276.

89 CA1274, rot. 4d, NA.

90 CA1274, rot. 1d, NA.

91 CA1297, rot. 3, rot. 8, rot. 10d, NA.

92 CA1321/I, rot. 6d, NA.

93 CA1321/I, rot. 8, NA.

94 CA1262, rot. 2, NA.

95 CA1261, rot. 5, NA. This absence may mean that they only reported Henry guilty of the attack on Agatha, or that the scribe may have chosen only to record one part of the verdict.

96 “Despexit verbis contumelicis necnon.” CA1297, rot. 23, NA. John Drapur also separately sued William Asshewe for detinue of twelve pounds of woolen thread that he was meant to dye for him. This was presumably what Alice Drapur had gone to collect from Asshewe's house, called “his place” (“ad locu”).

97 CA1259, rot. 8, NA.

98 CA1262, rot. 1, NA.

99 CA1324, rot. 7, NA.

100 CA1374, 81, NA.

101 CA1375, 79, NA. Thomas Orbney was reported not guilty.

102 CA1375, 80, NA.

103 Stretton, Women Waging Law, 129–35.

104 CA1296/I, rot. 21, NA.

105 CA1290, NA. On the legal career of Agnes Halum, see Phipps, Teresa, “Female Litigants and the Borough Court: Status and Strategy in the Case of Agnes Halum of Nottingham,” in Town Courts and Urban Society in Late Medieval England, ed. Goddard, Richard and Phipps, Teresa (Woodbridge, 2019), 7792.

106 Muldrew, “Women, Debt, Litigation and Contract,” 53.

Coverture and the Marital Partnership in Late Medieval Nottingham: Women's Litigation at the Borough Court, ca. 1300–ca.1500

  • Teresa Phipps


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