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A Piece of the Puzzle: Women and the Law as Viewed from the Late Medieval Court of Chancery

  • Cordelia Beattie


This article uses fifteenth-century Chancery court bills to demonstrate how women negotiated solutions to social and legal disputes not just in Chancery but through a variety of legal jurisdictions. This approach sheds light on women's actions in courts where the records have not survived, and it also adds nuance to the long-running debate about whether equity was a more favorable jurisdiction for women than the common law. By bringing into view other jurisdictions—such as manorial, borough, and ecclesiastical ones—it demonstrates how litigants might pursue justice in a number of arenas, consecutively or concurrently. Some women approached Chancery because they did not think they would get justice in a lower court, while others were keen that their cases be sent back down so that they could be fully recompensed for the offences against them. A fuller understanding of the disputes to which Chancery bills refer complicates our understanding of why women “chose” Chancery. Chancery is only one piece of the puzzle of how women negotiated justice in late medieval England, but its records can also shed light on some of the missing pieces.

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1 The National Archives (hereafter TNA), C 1/60/177 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485], dated by its address to the bishop of Lincoln.

2 “Frend” could denote a relative as well as a comrade; see Middle English Dictionary Online, s.v., “frend” (n), 4,, accessed 27 July 2019.

3 Baker, J. H., An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (London, 2002), 101–3. Before the reign of Henry VI (1422–1461), the petitions were usually written in French.

4 Timothy Haskett reviewed this debate and argued that Chancery was not an equity court in the later sense of the term until ca.1540: Haskett, Timothy S., “The Medieval English Court of Chancery,” Law and History Review 14, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 245313, at 249–80. Subsequently, Penny Tucker argued that “equity” might still be used as a generic term, even if no firm set of equitable principles had yet been developed: Tucker, Penny, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery: A Comparative Study,” English Historical Review 115, no. 463 (September 2000): 791811, at 795.

5 On the relationship between Chancery and church courts, see Biancalana, Joseph, “Testamentary Cases in Fifteenth-Century Chancery,” Tijdschrift voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 76, no. 3/4 (2008): 283306, at 304–6.

6 Tucker, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery,” 798.

7 Avery, Margaret E., “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Court of Chancery under the Lancastrian Kings,” Law Quarterly Review, no. 86 (January 1970): 8497, at 90–93; Jones, W. J., The Elizabethan Court of Chancery (Oxford, 1967), 1115.

8 Haskett, Timothy S., “The Presentation of Cases in Medieval Chancery Bills,” in Legal History in the Making: Proceedings of the Ninth British Legal History Conference, Glasgow, 1989, ed. Gordon, William M. and Fergus, T. D. (London, 1991), 1128, at 20–21. For early modern comparators, see Erickson, Amy Louise, Women and Property in Early Modern England (London, 1993), 116; Stretton, Tim, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998), 8283.

9 Guy, J. A., “The Development of Equitable Jurisdictions, 1450–1550,” in Law, Litigants and the Legal Profession: Papers Presented to the Fourth British Legal History Conference at the University of Birmingham, 10–13 July 1979, ed. Ives, E. W. and Manchester, A. H. (London, 1983), 8086, at 85–86: for urban suits in the years 1515–1529, 91 percent are bills alone. Some bills are endorsed with a decree, but decree rolls were not kept by Chancery until 1534–35.

10 Guy, “Development of Equitable Jurisdictions.” He was aware that further research in C 4, which contains assorted answers, replications, and rejoinders from the Court of Chancery before 1660, might help in this regard. However, for this study, searches using variant spellings of names and places only turned up some related bills in C 1 and not any related pleadings in C 4 (see note 49).

11 On the crafting of bills by lawyers, scribes, and petitioners, see Haskett, “The Presentation of Cases in Medieval Chancery Bills”; Beattie, Cordelia, “Servantes, femmes et veuves: Lire le genre dans les suppliques féminines à la cour de la chancellerie anglaise à la fin du Moyen Age,” Cahiers électroniques d'histoire textuelle du LAMOP 8 (2015): 128,

12 Sara M. Butler found only six such cases in the cause papers for the province of York from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth century; Butler, The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England (Leiden, 2007), 134. The only surviving visitation for Hereford is for 1397: Bannister, A. T., “Visitation Returns of the Diocese of Hereford in 1397,” English Historical Review 44, no. 175 (July 1929): 279–89; Bannister, A. T., “Visitation Returns,” English Historical Review 45, no. 179 (July 1930): 444–63. Butler discusses some Chancery bills that reference domestic violence but not this particular case: Butler, , “The Law as a Weapon in Marital Disputes: Evidence from the Late Medieval Court of Chancery, 1424–1529,” Journal of British Studies 43, no. 3 (July 2004): 291316.

13 The town had legal privileges conferred by charters in 1227 and 1256; Ballard, Adolphus and Tait, James, eds., British Borough Charters, 1216–1307 (Cambridge, 1923), 156, 159. Leet records survive from 1434: First Great Leet Book, 1434–1563, Shropshire Archives, BB/F/1/1/1.

14 See also Gowing, Laura, “Ordering the Body: Illegitimacy and Female Authority in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society: Order, Hierarchy, and Subordination in Britain and Ireland, ed. Braddick, Michael J. and Walter, John (Cambridge, 2001), 4362, at 45.

15 Loengard, Janet Senderowitz, “Legal History and the Medieval Englishwoman: A Fragmented View,” Law and History Review 4, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 161–78, at 172.

16 See, for example, Beard, Mary R., Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (New York, 1946), 198203; Greenberg, Janelle, “The Legal Status of the English Woman in Early Eighteenth-Century Common Law and Equity,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, no. 4 (1975): 171–81.

17 Cioni, Maria L., Women and Law in Elizabethan England with Particular Reference to the Court of Chancery (New York, 1985).

18 Cioni, Maria L., “The Elizabethan Court of Chancery and Women's Rights,” in Tudor Rule and Revolution: Essays for G. R. Elton from His American Friends, ed. Guth, Delloyd J. and McKenna, John W. (Cambridge, 1982), 159–82.

19 Erickson, Amy Louise, “Common Law versus Common Practice: The Use of Marriage Settlements in Early Modern England,” Economic History Review, 43, no. 1 (February 1990): 2139, at 22, 25 (emphasis in original).

20 Erickson, Women and Property in Early Modern England, 116.

21 Spring, Eileen, Law, Land, and Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993).

22 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. Menuge, Noël James (Woodbridge, 2000), 145–61, at 145, 153.

23 Haskett, “Medieval English Court of Chancery,” 281–82, 286.

24 Stevens, Matthew Frank, “London's Married Women, Debt Litigation and Coverture in the Court of Common Pleas,” in Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe, ed. Beattie, Cordelia and Frank, Matthew Stevens (Woodbridge, 2013), 115–31, at 124.

25 Tucker, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery,” 798–99; Pronay, N., “The Chancellor, the Chancery, and the Council at the End of the Fifteenth Century,” in British Government and Administration: Studies Presented to S. B. Chrimes, ed. Hearder, H. and Loyn, H. R. (Cardiff, 1974), 87103, at 89.

26 Haskett, “Medieval English Court of Chancery,” 286.

27 Haskett, 286–87.

28 TNA, C 1/60/238 [1480–1483 or 1485]; the bill is dated by its address to Thomas [Rotherham], archbishop of York, as chancellor.

29 On wives as executors, see Kettle, Ann J., “‘My Wife Shall Have It’: Marriage and Property in the Wills and Testaments of Later Mediaeval England,” in Marriage and Property, ed. Craik, Elizabeth M. (Aberdeen, 1984), 89103, at 100–2; Archer, Rowena E. and Ferme, B. E., “Testamentary Procedure with Special Reference to the Executrix,” Reading Medieval Studies, no. 15 (1989): 334.

30 For example, see Gross, Charles, “The Medieval Law of Intestacy,” Harvard Law Review 18, no. 2 (December 1904): 120–31, at 129–30. For Bristol, the surviving late medieval wills are to be found in civic registers; Wadley, Thomas Procter, ed., Notes or Abstracts of the Wills Contained in the Volume Entitled the Great Orphan Book and Book of Wills, in the Council House at Bristol (Bristol, 1886); E. Veale, ed., The Great Red Book of Bristol, 5 vols. (Bristol, 1931–53), 1:2, 4, 8, 16, 18.

31 Wadley, Great Orphan Book, 5–177.

32 TNA, C 1/60/238.

33 There is also a similar statement in the bill of widow Mawte Calwey, whose husband died intestate. She was “put oute of the same house oonly in hir feble clothing wherin she than stode.” TNA, C 1/64/778 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

34Quae sua propria dici poterunt sicut de robis et iocalibus.” George E. Woodbine, ed., Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, trans. Samuel E. Thorne, 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA, 1968–77), 2:179. For the canonist Lyndwood's broader definition, see Donahue, Charles Jr., “Lyndwood's Gloss Propriarum Uxorum: Marital Property and the Ius Commune in Fifteenth-Century England,” in Europäisches Rechtsdenken in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Festschrift für Helmut Coing zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Horn, Norbert (Munich, 1982), 1937.

35 Mich. 33 Hen. VI fol. 31b in David J. Seipp, “An Index and Paraphrase of Printed Year Book Reports, 1268–1535,” Legal History: The Year Books, Boston University,, 1454.041. “Apparaile” is the term the justices use for “paraphernalia”; see also Mich. 18 Edw. IV fol. 11b, Seipp 1478.075.

36 For example, see TNA, C 1/58/421 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485]; TNA, C 1/60/204 [1475–1480]; TNA, C 1/64/1049 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485]; TNA, C 1/64/1130 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

37 TNA, C 1/60/238.

38 Peter Fleming, Women in Late Medieval Bristol (Bristol, 2001), 7.

39 The only surviving court roll for the sheriffs’ court of London is for 1320: see the Matthew Stevens, introduction to London Sheriffs Court Roll 1320 (London, 2010), British History Online,, accessed 13 July 2017.

40 TNA, C 1/64/738 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

41 Carlin, Martha, Medieval Southwark (London, 1996), 108–14.

42 McSheffrey, Shannon, “Sanctuary and the Legal Topography of Pre-Reformation London,” Law and History Review 27, no, 3 (October 2009): 483514, at 483, 485. In another work, McSheffrey discusses a number of Chancery bills that reference sanctuary, but not this particular bill: McSheffrey, Shannon, Seeking Sanctuary: Crime, Mercy, and Politics in English Courts, 1400–1550 (Oxford, 2017).

43 Helmholz, Richard. H., “Bankruptcy and Probate Jurisdiction before 1571,” Missouri Law Review 48, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 415–29.

44 TNA, C 1/64/738. For another bill that refers to the doors of the property being sealed (in this case, while the widow was burying her husband), see TNA, C 1/48/60 [1473–1475].

45 Helmholz suggests that a wife might have been given a forced share of her husband's estate before the claims of creditors, but he cautions that he only has two examples from the same diocesan court (Chichester, post-1527), and possibly a third from Rochester (1499): Helmholz, “Bankruptcy and Probate Jurisdiction before 1571,” 424–25.

46 Falling “nonnsued” is a common strategy, according to Chancery bills. For example, see TNA, C 1/46/171 [1467–1472, possibly 1433–1443]; TNA, C 1/48/43 [1473–1475]; TNA, C 1/64/1130; TNA, C 1/169/5 [1486–1493 or 1504–1515].

47 McSheffrey, “Sanctuary and the Legal Topography of Pre-Reformation London,” 487–88, discusses the other liberties in medieval London, within the city limits or on its immediate outskirts.

48 TNA, C 1/43/31 [1433–1443 or 1462–1472]. On arbitration and love days, see Powell, Edward, “Arbitration and the Law in England in the Late Middle Ages: The Alexander Prize Essay,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, no. 33 (1983): 4967.

49 TNA, C 1/64/1049 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485]. Thomas Walssh was involved in another Chancery case: TNA, C 1/17/214-5. It is dated by its bundle to 1407–1456, but when it is linked with a surviving replication in C 4, we can see that the case was heard in Chancery in 1477: TNA, C 4/6/32.

50 It was most likely the mayor's court, which could handle all civil pleas, although there was also a Tolsey court for commercial matters, a staple court, which focused on commercial credit, and a court of Piepowder, which should have dealt with outsiders only, but see the case of Johan Detton, below. On the courts, see Fleming, Women in Late Medieval Bristol, 1–2. For a Bristol widow in the Tolsey court, see TNA, C 1/60/204 [1475–1480]. A Bristol wife claimed that her opponent got actions taken against her “in dyverse cortes” in the city: TNA, C 1/64/1140 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

51 TNA, C 1/46/344: the endorsement is dated Friday 28 July, and so this and the address to the bishop of Bath and Wells as chancellor narrow the date range to 1471 (most likely), 1437, or 1443. The bill notes that the original debt was 25s., but the verdict that Vernon should pay 35s. is written twice, and so the latter amount seems to be accurate. Either the initial notation of 25s. is a mistake or the court had awarded Detton substantial damages.

52 Charles Gross, ed. and trans., introduction to Select Cases Concerning the Law Merchant, vol. 1, Local courts: A.D. 1270–1638, Selden Society 23 (London, 1908), xiii–lv, at xiii–xxvi.

53 TNA, C 1/46/343 [1467–1472, possibly 1433–1443].

54 For a discussion of how coverture was optionally applied in manorial courts, see Miriam Müller, “Peasant Women, Agency and Status in Mid-Thirteenth to Late Fourteenth-Century England: Some Reconsiderations,” in Beattie and Stevens, Married Women and the Law, 91–113. Some Chancery bills did use neglected coverture as part of their argument for moving cases from customary courts. For example, see TNA, C 1/32/344 (Canterbury, [1465–1471 or 1480–1483]); TNA, C 1/46/47 (London, dated to 1471 by matching writ: TNA, C 244/112 no. 105); TNA, C 1/64/755 (Coventry); TNA, C 1/64/1140 (Bristol; [1475–1480 or 1483–1485]).

55 Carlin argues that the bishop's court in Southwark was particularly notorious in this regard; Carlin, Medieval Southwark, 218–19. For a discussion of such allegations in relation to London's juries, officials, and judges, see Tucker, Penny, Law Courts and Lawyers in the City of London, 1300–1550 (Cambridge, 2007), 345–49.

56 TNA, C 1/66/52 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485]. For more on this court, see Kowaleski, Maryanne, Local Markets and Regional Trade in Medieval Exeter (Cambridge, 1995), 337–8.

57 TNA, C 1/64/755 (1485). William Rowley was a sometime sheriff (1486) and mayor (1492, 1496–97) and seems to have been one of the twenty-four from 1485 to 1504; hence my narrower dating of the bill. Mary Dormer Harris, ed., The Coventry Leet Book: or Mayor's Register, Early English Text Society original series nos. 134, 135, 138, 146 (Berlin, 1907–1913), 522, 528, 542, 581, 602.

58 TNA, C 1/64/1130 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

59 The bill does not make any specific allegations about what happened in this house beyond being visited by “yong wyld men” and being “of no sad [sober] rewle,” but such allegations are common for brothels, disorderly alehouses, and innkeepers who took in “vagabonds.” Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370–1600 (Cambridge, 1998), 68–81.

60 TNA, C 1/64/1130.

61 TNA, C 1/80/12 (1486).

62 TNA, C 1/64/198 [1475–1480 or 1483–1485].

63 TNA, C 1/153/64; TNA, C 1/73/17; TNA, C 1/15/189. The first and third of these are addressed to the archbishop of Canterbury as chancellor, but TNA has dated them differently: the first as 1486–1493 or 1504–1515, and the third as 1443–1450 or 1455–56. The earlier dates seem likely for both as the petitioner (and husband) are named as defendants in an action ca.1433, and one of the named opponents, Simon Grene, can be linked with two other bills dated 1426–31. TNA, C 1/12/35; TNA, C 1/7/99; TNA, C 1/7/170.

64 TNA, C 1/73/17. TNA, C 1/153/64 is very similar but alleges that one William Harman instead of Simon Grene was involved. However, subsequent documentation suggests that it was the bill involving Grene that went forward. On commissions, see Jones, Elizabethan Court of Chancery, 12–13; Avery, “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Court of Chancery,” 91–92.

65 TNA, C 1/73/18 [1443–1450 or 1455–56].

66 TNA, C 1/15/189. (For the date, see note 63.)

67 TNA, C 1/46/424 (probably (1462–1472); see note 68 below.

68 Tucker argues that the frequent requests for corpus cum causa writs was probably because it would have been easier for strangers to get bail from Chancery than from London's city courts; Tucker, “The Early History of the Court of Chancery,” 800. Eleanor Cotton was from Cambridge, and she used the argument that the court in London was “foreyn” in order to get a corpus cum causa writ in a bill relating to an action of trespass; TNA, C 1/46/113. Cotton seems to have been a frequent visitor to Chancery as there are surviving chancery writs relating to actions of debt and trespass taken against her; TNA, C 244/112 nos. 173–75, 114 (1471–72). See also Patricia M. Barnes, “The Chancery Corpus Cum Causa File, 10–11 Edward IV,” in Medieval Legal Records Edited in Memory of C. A. F. Meekings, ed. R. F. Hunnisett and J. B. Post (London, 1978), 429–76, at 454–55, 462–63. Barnes comments that a married woman, as feme covert, could take no part in her own recognizance (435), but Eleanor Cotton did (454, 463).

69 TNA, C 1/67/93; the dorse of the bill contains the chancellor's verdict, dated 5 February 1478. A translation of the bill and the schedule of her goods that was attached to it (from Middle English), and the verdict (from Latin), plus summaries of Robert's answer, Katherine's replication, and Robert's rejoinder, can be found in A. R. Myers, ed., English Historical Documents, 1327–1485 (London, 1969), 493–96. These other documents can be found in TNA, C 1/67/94-7.

70 TNA, C 1/64/836 [ca.1478].

71 Christine Winter, “Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London” (PhD diss., University of London, 2012), 51.

72 Bassett, Margery, “Newgate Prison in the Middle Ages,” Speculum 18, no. 2 (April 1943): 233–46; Winter, “Prisons and Punishments in Late Medieval London,” 51.

73 Avery, “As Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Court of Chancery,” 95, 97.

A Piece of the Puzzle: Women and the Law as Viewed from the Late Medieval Court of Chancery

  • Cordelia Beattie


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