Land, law and life: the unexpected interest of medieval tenancy by the curtesy

By Prof Gwen Seabourne, Professor of Legal History (University of Bristol Law School)

Window from St Mary’s church, Ross-on-Wye, Joseph with Jesus.

Even for those who enjoy spending their time with historical legal records, plea roll entries relating to medieval land law cases may not be high on a list of interesting areas to investigate. The vocabulary is often off-putting and the records somewhat formulaic and repetitive. Nevertheless, patient digging in these apparently monotonous sources can turn up information on some big, important issues of medieval thought and belief. My recent research on an area of medieval land law, published in the Journal of Legal History,[i] sheds some light on one of the biggest questions of all (in the medieval period or subsequently): what is life?

Juries and lawyers sometimes had to wrestle with questions of the presence and proof of life in cases involving tenancy by the curtesy. This was the widower’s life interest in land, following the death of his wife. Crucially, in order to qualify for this right, the widower had to have produced live offspring with his wife. Because of this requirement, medieval courts and lawyers had to make decisions in some very difficult cases in which there was doubt and disagreement as to whether a baby, now definitely not alive, had ever been alive. How did medieval people distinguish life from its absence, the fleetingly alive from those who were (in modern English) stillborn? (more…)

The all-women jury in R. v. Sutton (1968): ‘of no more than minor interest’?

By Prof Gwen Seabourne, Professor of Legal History (University of Bristol Law School)

In a manslaughter case held in Swansea in 1968,[i] an unusual order was made. Thesiger J. decided that it should be heard by an all-female jury. He made the order under a discretion granted to him by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, the first, and apparently the only time that such an order was made in Wales or England.

The possibility of ordering a single sex jury has long since been removed, but R. v. Sutton was and is important as an event, and as a working-out of the implications of the early, limited, moves towards women’s participation in public life which came with the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. The fiftieth anniversary of the case (and the approaching centenary of the 1919 Act) seems an appropriate moment to sketch some of its claims on our attention. (more…)

Potions and prosecution: a case from medieval Herefordshire

By Dr Gwen Seabourne, Reader in Legal History (University of Bristol Law School).*

© M.J. Seabourne. Tomb of John de Swinfeld, Hereford Cathedral
© M.J. Seabourne. Tomb of John de Swinfeld, Hereford Cathedral

In 1292, Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border, received a visit from the royal justices, touring England with a view to hearing legal disputes, investigating crimes and making a tidy profit for the king from the various fines imposed upon individuals and communities. Precociously bureaucratic, the machinery of royal government recorded much of what went on before the justices, bequeathing to future generations priceless insights into life and law at this early time.

One intriguing case from the rolls of this 1292 session gives important glimpses of several different aspects of medieval law and life. As I have noted in a recent article in Social History of Medicine, Isabella Plomet, a woman from Hereford, managed to obtain some measure of legal redress from Ralph de Worgan, a surgeon of sorts, who was found to have agreed to treat her for leg problems, but actually gave her a drug called dwoledreng and proceeded to rape her. (more…)

Law, history and adulterous wives

By Dr Gwen Seabourne, Reader in Law (University of Bristol Law School).

© http://www.traditioninaction.org/
© http://www.traditioninaction.org/

For centuries, English  common law saw married women as inferior to their husbands, disadvantaged in terms of legal rights and to be protected from themselves and from the outside world. Most formal legal disadvantages have been removed, so it might well be asked why modern lawyers should bother to look at the old laws.

One insight from history which is important for those working to consolidate gains already made and to make further improvements in the legal position of women is that there has been no straightforward, as-the-crow-flies, journey from oppressive medieval rules to enlightened modern ones. This comes out particularly in my recent work on the laws about adulterous wives [see G Seabourne, ‘Copulative complexities: the exception of adultery in medieval dower actions‘, in M Dyson and D Ibbetson (eds) Law and Legal Process: : substantive law and procedure in English Legal History (Cambridge, 2013),  34-55; and ibid, ‘Coke, the statute, wives and lovers: routes to a harsher interpretation of the statute of Westminster II (1285) c. 34’ (2014) 34(1) Legal Studies 123-42]. (more…)