Crimes of Violence in seventeenth-century Norfolk

The extent to which early modern England was a violent society has long been the subject of debate. In a 1983 article in Past and Present Lawrence Stone criticised the degree to which Alan Macfarlane had presented early modern England as “an exceptionally peaceful and violence-free society”.[1] Stone used data analysed by T.R. Gurr to argue that although homicide rates had been falling throughout the medieval and early modern period, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were between five and ten times higher than today.[2] The issue became a debate when James Sharpe criticised Stone’s handling and interpretation of the data, although he agreed with most of the overall findings.[3]

One of the difficulties with measuring levels of violence over long periods via homicide rates is that like is not being compared with like. Medical, forensic and policing advances mean that today a victim of a violent attack is more likely to survive, but on the other hand the perpetrator of the attack is more likely to be discovered. To Sharpe an important issue was whether early modern English men and women thought that they lived in a violent society.[4] However, this is an equally difficult question because different societies will have a different tolerance to violence. According to John Beattie, in early modern England “there was a much greater tolerance … of aggressive physical force than today [and] a greater willingness to regard such behaviour as an acceptable means of maintaining authority or settling disputes in both public and private arenas”.[5] Beattie argued that the violence involved in official punishments such as hanging, burning, branding and whipping was indicative of the acceptability of violence as a means of establishing discipline.[6]

This essay investigates the experience of violence amongst the inhabitants of seventeenth-century Norfolk via the county’s court records. I have looked at non-fatal assaults that probably took place on a daily basis in alehouses, streets and workplaces; at assaults that went too far and ended in murder charges; and, since throughout history a large proportion of assaults have taken place within families, I have looked at violence in the household. In addition to the court records I have analysed some examples of early modern street literature to see what that can tell us about contemporary perceptions of violent crimes and their perpetrators.

Abuse and assault

A wide range of offences involving abuse or assault were brought before the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts. Lack of detail means that it is often difficult to identify the background to many of the lesser breaches of the law, particularly where abuse was involved; many cases probably involved little more than an aggressive verbal attack. Minor assaults were the product of a variety of circumstances, from alehouse disputes to resisting a constable’s authority. However, some of the more serious assaults involved large numbers of people, sometimes charged with riot or riotous assembly or forcibly entering property and assaulting the occupants.

Abuse and assault were two of the most common offences to be prosecuted in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts. Surviving court books record some 247 cases of abuse and 491 violent assaults, making a total of 738 cases. In addition, other offences such as riotous assembly and forcible entry also involved accusations of assault. Whilst this is a large number of offences compared with some other categories and may initially give the impression that this was a violent county, in fact it averages one case every seven weeks; although, as with other crimes, the level of prosecutions is unlikely to reflect the real number of assaults. The pattern of prosecution suggests that both abuse and assault were predominantly male offences; men were responsible for eighty-three per cent of prosecuted assaults and seventy-seven per cent of cases of abuse.

Because indictments for violent assault often contain more background information than those for property crimes, which usually merely listed the items stolen, detail of social status or occupation of the victim is much more often available. Of those cases that do provide such information, twelve per cent of plaintiffs were described as labourers, thirty-two per cent were tradesmen of various types, 4.8 per cent were yeomen, 3.6 per cent gentlemen, six per cent widows, and 41.7 per cent were officials such as constables and bailiffs. Given that some of those described as tradesmen and widows were likely to have been as poor as those designated labourers, it seems reasonable to assume that around one quarter of plaintiffs in crimes of violence were from the poorer classes. Clearly, in the case of assault, victims from the lower social groups were prepared to pay the costs involved to ensure that their assailants were taken before the courts.

Figure 1 shows the pattern of prosecution for abuse and assault in Great Yarmouth quarter sessions and Norwich Mayor’s Court over the seventeenth century. Prosecution levels are fairly consistent for most of the first half of the period at between thirty and forty per five-year period, then there is a mid-century decline when the activities of the courts may have been affected by the civil war and the subsequent commonwealth regime.[7] Interestingly, there is then a peak of prosecutions during the next twenty-five years at a time when the conventional view is that levels of interpersonal violence were declining.[8]

Figure 1

Figure 1. Prosecutions for abuse and assault before Great Yarmouth quarter sessions and Norwich Mayor’s Court, 1600 – 99 [9]

This pattern is similar to, although much more marked than, that which Sharpe found in Essex. He plotted assault indictments at Essex quarter sessions for the period 1620 to 1670 and found a steady increase over that period.[10] It seems unlikely that this phenomenon can be explained as a product of an expanding population, as that increased gradually rather than in an explosion. The most likely explanation is that levels of prosecution of the crime increased rather than the incidence of assault per se, possibly reflecting a growing concern about violence, particularly in Great Yarmouth where most of the increase occurred; although the Yarmouth court records give no clue as to why this should have been so. Clearly more work needs to be done on levels of violent crime in order to establish the geographic extent of a pattern which, on the face of it, contradicts the established picture of a change from a more to a less violent society.

Punishments for this type of crime were fairly standard depending on the offence involved. Those charged with abuse were normally either bound over to future good behaviour or sent to Bridewell, unless the abuse was aimed at the constable, when a period in the stocks was likely. Assault convictions nearly always brought a fine, and this could range from 6d to £20, often depending on the status of the person abused. This latter point is illustrated by the case of three Norwich men, George Tovy, William Gowyn, and Francis Wilburgh, who were charged before Norwich quarter sessions in 1635 with an assault on Sir Hamond le Strange. Whilst the exact nature of the assault is unclear, it arose after a dispute about passage of le Strange’s coach in the street, during which the three accused were said to have used “opprobrious & incivill tearmes” towards him. The court fined each of them £20.[11] Fines also tended to be higher if a group of assailants had attacked an individual. In 1632 Geoffrey Bouche, Agnes, his wife, William Boothe, Thomas Durrent, and John Smoth were charged before King’s Lynn quarter sessions with assaulting Margaret Dawson. Bouche and his wife were fined £10 each and the other three received £2 fines.[12]

Beattie has claimed that it is likely that the courts commonly responded to indictments for assault as if they were a civil action between the disputants rather than a breach of the public peace.[13] It is true that on occasion there is a suggestion of a brokered settlement, as, for example, when John Parnold was accused before Norwich quarter sessions in 1698 of assaulting Peter Norton, the court being informed that the two disputants had reached an agreement.[14] Whilst this sort of arrangement may have taken place when the assault took place as part of an interpersonal dispute, it is unlikely to have done so in the large number of attacks on local officials, when the phrase “against the public peace” frequently appeared in the indictments. Of the assault cases that identify the victim, ninety-eight such attacks were on constables, twenty-three were on aldermen, and sixty-three were on other officials, including bailiffs, overseers, churchwardens and members of the watch.

The position of the constable could be a very difficult one. Whilst most undoubtedly did their best to carry out the job effectively they were always under the control of the more important officers in the community, who were usually drawn from the wealthier sections of the neighbourhood. If they failed to carry out their duties diligently they could find themselves in front of the magistrate. Dalton explained that “if the Constable (being present at an Affray) doth not his best endevour to part them, it being presented at the sessions of the peace, such Constable shall be deepely fined for it”.[15] In 1611 Norwich constable William Bradford was fined 10s for not coming to the aid of a local man.[16] James Gryffon, a Surrey constable, described some of the difficulties of the role in a ballad he wrote in 1626:

Some parish puts a constable on,

Alas! without understanding,

Because they’d rule him when they have done,

And have him at their commanding;

And if he commands the poor, they’ll grutch,

And twit him with partial blindness;

Again, if he commands the rich,

They’ll threaten him with unkindness.

To charge or compel ’em he’s busy, they’ll tell ‘im;

In paying of rates they’ll brawl;

Falls he but unto do that he should do

I’ll warrant you displease them all.

He goes on to complain how he is caught in an impossible position, between the justices and his neighbours and can please neither:

The Justices will set us by the heels,

If we do not as we should;

Which if we perform, the townsmen will storm;

Some of them hang’s if they could.[17]

Abuse and assault were an occupational hazard for the petty constable. In 1600, when a Norwich constable went to the house of William Longe, who had been complained of for tippling, his son Nicholas drew “a dagger at the constable … threaninge to kill him yf he cam into his fathers house”.[18] Norfolk justice, Nathaniel Bacon recorded how, in September 1608, Henry Hopkins “refusinge to obey the constable … did refuse to goe to his house. And the constable setting him by the heeles Hopkins threw both stones and a stoole at the constable wherw[i]th he stroke him upon the side of the heade”.[19] On occasions violence could be even more serious; Thomas Swayne was sent to Norwich gaol in 1604 for “stabbinge Nich[olas] Stanford the constable of Fybridge”.[20]

It was not only men who offered violence to the constable. When constables were sent to the house of Isabell Luin in 1617 to search for stolen goods, she did “most violently abuse” them and called them “thefes & rooges & hoaremaisters”.[21] When a Norwich constable had to deal with the lewd behaviour of John Brothers in August 1604 he was attacked by Brother’s wife.[22] In 1606 Margaret Dawes was set in the stocks for “abusinge of the constable in Berestrete & Drawinge of blud of him”.[23]

Even when the constable managed to make an arrest the prisoner was liable to assault him in trying to escape. Robert Browne, constable of East Wymer, complained to Norwich quarter sessions that when he arrested Sam Dunton the younger in February 1633, the prisoner did “violently rescue himselfe … & tooke up a great cudgell & threatned the constable to beate him therew[i]th yf he should come to take him”.[24] In 1635, Christopher Frary, constable of Coslany, Norwich, went to serve a warrant to commit John Dussinge to Bridewell for keeping an unlicensed alehouse. Dussinge escaped from him and then stood in his entry “with a knife drawne in his hande” saying that he would rather lose his life than be taken.[25]

Members of the watch were at no less risk. When John Mast, Robert Slye, Giles Stymowe and John Watten went as part of the watch to search the house of Edward Sone in Norwich during a hue and cry after a horse theft in 1632, “the said Sone … did violently assault John Mast the watchman & abuse the residue of the watch & the like misbehavior was comitted by Anne Sone & Brigitt Sone his daughter”.[26] Even during their routine patrol the watch might be assaulted. When Thomas Ellys and his fellow watchmen were going about their duties in Norwich in 1616 they came across John Powle sitting in the street between twelve and one o’clock at night. When they asked him what he was up to “he strooke James Armes another watchman a box on the eare And then the watchmen sett him in stockes & hee brake the stockes & gate out & then the said watchmen tooke him agayne and he strake the said James Armes with a knife & cutt his hand”.[27]

An even more difficult task for the constable or the watch than entering a house to search for a suspect or stolen goods could be searching an alehouse. According to Keith Wrightson, alehouses were perennial threats to public peace.[28] Peter Clark has argued that they were seen by local rulers to be places of disorder that bred crime.[29] They were certainly, on occasion, places where fights broke out, crimes were planned, stolen goods were disposed of, and prostitutes plied their trade. The difficulty that local officeholders had in controlling them was exacerbated by the fact that there were so many unlicensed premises; over five thousand cases of running unlicensed alehouses were brought before the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts.

Whilst there is only limited evidence of serious offences taking place in alehouses, they were the location for many petty disputes that sometimes led to violent assault. William Taylor of Wilton was said to be a “common maintainer of disorder in his house”, with the “drinkeing and ryotinge” causing so much disquiet that the neighbours could not sleep.[30] William Winkes of Norwich was said to have kept an alehouse where illegal games took place after midnight and other disorder took place. When Joseph Meeke was drinking there one night in January 1689 an argument arose during which, a witness later deposed, several men attacked Meeke “in a most Grevious maner the said Meeke at the same time cryieing out Murder”, one of the attackers beating him with a whip.[31] One of the standard punishments for those who became involved in alehouse brawls was a period in the stocks, a punishment that the constable was entitled to carry out on his own initiative, if he could control the offender enough to make the arrest.[32] In 1610 Edmond Dawson of Swaffham was said to have been stocked “dyvers tymes” for his drunkenness, although he was also known to have broken out of them and carried on his behaviour.[33]

Although a large number of assaults were against officials, it is clear from the records that most attacks were part of an interpersonal dispute, sometimes long-running, the violence often being spontaneous rather than planned. Thomas Feltwell of Pentney, near King’s Lynn, had warned Robert Runcton on previous occasions about forcibly coming through his grounds with his horses and cart. When he did so again in July 1647 Feltwell struck Runcton’s horse with a stick, whereuppon “the said Runcton did then fall upon him with a hatchett and did mayme him uppon his arm”. In the ensuing fight Runcton “fell soe violently upon him as he burst his bowells”.[34]

Elizabeth Cornewall had a dispute with John Dyer over money that she claimed he owed her for a looking-glass. When Dyer wouldn’t pay her, Cornewall sat down at his house and refused to leave until she got her money. She claimed that Dyer and his wife, Catherine, then attacked her and beat her so badly that she was “very much brused in severall places of her body and is very dangerously ill and … in Danger of Death”.[35] Although the majority of assaults were carried out by men upon other men, women were also clearly capable of violence. In October 1654 Jane Barker and Sara Grimston started by calling each other names such as “scabb asse Queane”, but soon began fighting, Thomas Grimston informing that Jane Barker beat his wife on the side of her body with a flail.[36]

Other assaults occurred when members of a community decided to take the law into their own hands, perhaps after no official action had been taken against someone they suspected. On occasions some of the chief inhabitants of the community were involved in such actions, as was the case in the complaint of Agnes Fenn, a ninety-four year old widow from Worstead. In 1604 Sir Thomas Grosse of Catton, accompanied by several gentlemen and yeomen, were said to have accused her of bewitching a neighbour, Simon Cocke. She claimed that, armed with rapiers, daggers, and other weapons, they forced her “into the chamber where the saide Simon Cocke did lye sicke of a fowle infectiouse disease”. They then attempted to get her to admit to bewitching him and to beg for his forgiveness. When she refused to do so, she claimed that they beat her and then forced her to sit down on a stool they had prepared into which “they had stooke daggers and knives w[i]th sharpe poyntes upwards”. They then “tooke upp fierbrands and cast Gunpowder and flashed it” in her face, telling her that “they woulde burne her for a witch threateninge to cut of her heade and flinge her out of the windowe”.

The same group of men were said to have already failed in an attempt to use the law to get rid of their suspected witch. The previous September they had accused her before the county sessions at Wymondham of bewitching a child of one of their number, but the case had been thrown out by the grand jury. It might have been thought that a ninety-four year old widow, described as “so very poore” that she lived at the “benevelence of hir frinds”, would have found it impossible to fight against such prominent adversaries, but not only were the courts clearly not intimidated by the difference in social status, she must also have had friends who were not, who were willing to finance her action in Star Chamber.[37] However she managed it, she is an excellent example that even the very poorest members of society were able to find a way to participate in the justice system.

When such groups of people assembled together and carried out an assault they could possibly find themselves charged with the more serious offence of riot or riotous assembly. ‘Riot’ was a term that had a wide definition in early modern England. According to Dalton only three people needed to “assemble themselves together, to the intent to doe any unlawfull Act, with force or violence, against the person of another, his possessions, or goods” to constitute an unlawful assembly. If they “move forward, toward the execution of such an Act … this is a Rout.” However, “if they doe execute any such thing in deed, then it is a Ryot”.[38] Large gatherings obviously presented a particular problem to local rulers, as they had no police force to control what may become a violent mob. [39]

In seventeenth-century Norfolk, riot was overwhelmingly a male offence; of the ninety-eight people charged only four were women. It is, of course, possible that many other women were involved when large groups assembled together, but it is likely that men would have been arrested as the chief protagonists, and that the ambiguous legal position of women under the control of men may have saved them from prosecution in such cases. When Anthony Roberts of York complained to Star Chamber that he was attacked by “uncivill unrulye and disorderlie persons” in the streets of Rotherham, he stated that “the moste of them [thought] themselves laweles because they were women”.[40]

For most cases of riot in seventeenth-century Norfolk the records are not detailed enough to indicate the circumstances that led to the offence, but considering the punishments meted out in the majority of cases they were clearly not viewed as serious disturbances. In January 1622, for example, Norwich Mayor’s Court sent three men and one woman to Bridewell for a “Riott in Conesford Street”.[41] Most convicted of riot were fined; Robert Raylie and John Rutter were fined £3 each in 1665, and Robert Wiseman and Francis Cross, two Wymondham butchers, were ordered to pay 20s and 15s respectively in 1691 by the Norwich quarter sessions.[42] Great Yarmouth quarter sessions appear to have regularly charged people with riot, although the formulaic nature of the indictments used in the court records hides the detail and they seem to have often used the term ‘riot’ merely because three or more people were involved in a disturbance. In any case the punishments, ranging from fines of 3s 4d to 16s 8d, hardly indicate major offences.[43]

Most of the riot cases before the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts were really personal disputes rather than large-scale uprisings such as those that had occurred in the county during the previous century.[44] That is not to say that there were not more serious disturbances; Norwich saw much worse cases of riot in the 1640s. In December 1646, for example, a long-term dispute regarding excise duties on meat, ale and other goods exploded into a riot led by Norwich butchers, which, some of the aldermen claimed, put their lives at risk. When attempts were made to arrest some of the protagonists, armed rioters intervened resulting in damage to property. Unrest over this issue was not confined to Norwich, but spread into the rest of the county and to other parts of the country. Eventually parliament was forced to reduce the duty in order to quell the disturbances.[45]

A much more serious situation flared up in Norwich in 1648. As many as one thousand individuals gathered together in the city to prevent the mayor, John Utting, being forced to journey to London to appear before a House of Commons committee. Utting had refused to declare void the election of Roger Mingay, a royalist, as alderman of Mancroft Ward, despite an ordinance forbidding the election of royalist supporters to such positions. The rioters became completely out of the control of their leaders, many of them were armed and they began to attack the homes of parliamentary supporters. Troops under the command of Colonel Charles Fleetwood, who were mustered at East Dereham, about twelve miles west of Norwich, entered the city in order to bring the mob under control. However, in the battle that followed on 24 April, barrels of gunpowder stored at the county ammunition depot exploded and up to two hundred of the rioters were killed.[46] According to a contemporary report “the blow shook the whole city, threw down part of some churches, wounded and killed many of the town, and one of the troopers hurt by it: legs and arms found in the streets torn from the bodies, and about a hundred and twenty of the citizens missing”.[47]

At the trial that followed in December 1648 at Norwich quarter sessions twenty-four rioters were fined £30 each, being imprisoned until they paid, and eight men were sentenced to be hanged for murder.[48] John Utting and one of the aldermen, John Tooly, were ordered to appear before a House of Commons committee, which, in September 1649, decided that the two men had agitated the rioters and had done nothing to stop them; Utting was fined £500 and Tooly £1,000.[49]

As the cases above illustrate, riot could involve anything from a gathering of three people to over a thousand. Generally, it was the offences committed whilst ‘riotously assembled’ that determined the punishment, and in the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts that could be anything from a fine of 3s 4d to being hanged for murder. However, the local courts were not the only place before which allegations of riot were brought. Until 1641, Star Chamber also claimed jurisdiction over cases involving riot. The vagueness of the legal definition of riot and the fact that it only needed to involve three people meant that private individuals involved in disputes, often over assault or property, were able to bring them before the central court if they worded them in such a way to make it at least look as if riot was involved. For example, when a group of about twelve men arrived at the house of Thomas Gayton of Holt, Norfolk, in 1613 they were said to have assembled “in warlike manner”. They “riotously and rowtously” marched towards the house, armed with “swords daggards pike staves corseletts brushbills musketts [and] gunnes”, putting “him and his household in great fear & p[er]ill of there lives”.[50]

The violent aspect of many of the cases that ended up before Star Chamber was the forcible entry involved and often these were really disputes about possession of property. However, by wording the complaint in such a way that it appeared to have involved riot the dispute could be brought before Star Chamber, probably in the hope that the complainant would gain some higher recompense or, at the very least, cause as much inconvenience and cost as possible to his adversaries. According to Barnes sometimes the complaint in Star Chamber occurred in addition to litigation going on over the same dispute in a local court.[51] However, given that only twenty cases of forcible possession appear in the quarter sessions records of seventeenth-century Norfolk it is possible that local, unofficial action involving the reclamation of property or payment of compensation may have avoided the necessity for court action in many instances.

Forcible entry or disseisin was defined by Blackstone as “violently taking or keeping possession with menaces, force, and arms, of lands and tenements, without the authority of the law”.[52] The usual punishment for those found guilty was a fine, which could be quite high. When Edward Phillipps appeared before Norwich quarter sessions in 1663 charged with “a forcible entry into a mesuage in the possession of Richard Wright & Henry Daynes”, he was fined £10.[53] Most of those accused were landowners and so were usually of a higher social status than those they attempted to dispossess. When Andrew Wilkins, a North Walsham husbandman, took out an action in Star Chamber in 1606 against forty or fifty “lewd and evill disposed p[er]sones” they were said to have been led by three gentlemen and a yeoman. He complained that whilst he was away they assembled at his house with “swordes bills pickstaves pitchforcks and other weapons” and “in most outragious forcible and violent manner burst and breake downe the dores walls and glasse windowes”. They then went on to throw his wife, son and daughter down the stairs. When Wilkins arrived back at the property and found the mob he claimed that he “labored them by gentle and curteous speeches p[er]swacons and intreaties” to leave, but they continued to assault him and his family, finally carrying them to the stocks at North Walsham.[54]

It was clearly impossible for one man and his family to protect themselves against a large group of armed assailants. When such an assault took place at night it would have been even more frightening, especially with no police force to call for protection. When a group of over twenty, armed with “swords daggers rapiers & pike staves”, assembled themselves “riotouslie” at the house of Robert Flatman in March 1613, they found the gates and doors of the property locked as the family were all asleep. The commotion awoke the household just as the door was smashed open and the mob entered the hall. Flatman complained that not only were he and his family assaulted and thrown out of the house in their nightshirts, but that his wife was beaten, stripped naked and carted.[55]

The Norfolk evidence suggests that the social status of those who used the law for redress against violent assault depended on the category of the offence. Whilst violence against constables and more senior officials more likely involved attacks on those of middling rank, those against lesser officers such as members of the watch would have been against poorer men and women. Members of the labouring class were also more likely to have been involved as both assailant and victim in alehouse or street brawls. Many of the complaints against individuals for assault or abuse over a long period were signed by the offender’s long-suffering neighbours, as, for example, was the complaint against Isabell Luin, who, it was said, “abused a great part of hir neighboures from tyme to tyme”.[56] In many of the cases involving property attacks the victims were poorer tenants being assaulted by their richer landlords, sometimes aided by groups consisting of their friends and retainers. The case involving the ninety-four year old widow Agnes Fenn illustrates that even when poorer members of a community were abused by their richer neighbours they could find ways to take the matter before the courts.

Whilst the overall picture of violent assault in seventeenth-century Norfolk is not a particularly unexpected one, with its variety of interpersonal disputes, alehouse or street brawls, forced entries, and even the occasional riot, there is, nevertheless, an interesting pattern that emerges that doesn’t follow the generally accepted view. It may be that an unexpected deviation on a graph is the product of local circumstances or the fact that only comparatively few cases for just one county are being analysed, but enough difference exists to be able to conclude that the normally accepted pattern of interpersonal violence in the seventeenth century is still far from being a definitive one.

Murder in the community

Murder has always been seen as the most heinous of violent crimes, and the early modern evidence indicates that when killing was premeditated it was likely to receive the severest of punishments in the courts. It was the premeditated nature of the crime that defined it as murder; when the courts determined that a death was unintended they could either decide that no one was culpable or categorise it as manslaughter. That murder was viewed so seriously is indicated by the fact that, in 1547, it was one of the first crimes from which benefit of clergy was removed.[57] Dalton provides the following contemporary definition of murder: “when one man upon malice pretended, prepensed, or precedent, doth kill another feloniously, viz. with a premeditate and malicious mind, whether it be openly, or privily done, this is felony of death”.[58] Manslaughter, on the other hand, was “when two doe fight together upon the sudden, or meere chance, without any malice precedent, and one of them doth kill the other”. Although this was also “felony of death”, in the case of manslaughter “the offender shall have the benefit of Clergy”.[59]

Popular involvement in the legal process in the event of a murder came with the collective responsibility on the town or village in which it took place to seek and apprehend the murderer. A verbal ‘hue and cry’ was traditionally the means by which the alarm was raised; although by the seventeenth century it could also be by signed warrant from a justice of the peace. However, in 1622 Dalton still prescribed that “every man shall follow the hue and cry, and whosoever doth not, shall bee attached to appeare before the Ju[stices] of gaole deliverie”.[60] Once the hue and cry had been raised it was then passed from constable to constable until the murderer was apprehended. If the community in which a murder took place did not apprehend the culprit they could be fined, sometimes quite a large sum, for their failure.[61]

As there was no police force to determine in advance what category of charge should be made against someone in a homicide case, it was normal that the indictment should initially be for murder, leaving it up to the court to decide whether premeditation and malice were present. In all cases of violent or unnatural death it was initially the task of the jury at the coroner’s inquest to make a finding as to the cause of death. However, this decision was not binding on the indictment, and even if a coroner’s jury determined that a death was an accident or was manslaughter, there could still be a charge of murder. It was then for the grand jury to determine whether there was a case to answer and for the trial jury to decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty of murder or whether it was, in fact, manslaughter.[62] In seventeenth-century Great Yarmouth, where many of the coroner’s inquest reports survive in the quarter sessions books, the indictments are often virtually a word for word copy of the inquest jury’s findings. However, the outcomes of the subsequent trials were often different. In the cases where the coroner’s jury named a person responsible for the death, the trial jury found that fifty per cent were guilty of murder, a further twenty-five per cent were guilty of manslaughter and twenty-five per cent were found not guilty.

As is the case with other felonies, a complete picture of murder trials in seventeenth-century Norfolk is impossible due to the lack of surviving assize records for most of the period. However, because, unlike many other counties whose records have been analysed, the courts of quarter sessions in Norfolk were still trying serious felonies at that time, it is still possible to examine ninety-six such cases. The details of twelve cases comes from the extant assize files, a further ten were heard at the assizes but had the outcomes recorded in the Norfolk quarter sessions files, and seventy-four cases came before the county’s quarter sessions. This contrasts with Essex, for example, where Sharpe found no murder trials at all in the quarter sessions records between 1620 and 1680.[63]

Table 1 shows the outcome of the Norfolk trials. As it indicates, murder in seventeenth-century Norfolk was predominantly a male crime, seventy-two per cent of all those charged were men. However, this is lower than both Surrey, where Beattie found that ninety-one per cent of those charged between 1660 and 1800 were male, and Essex, where Sharpe found eighty-four per cent male.[64] The dominance of men is likely to reflect the fact that they were more likely to respond physically in disputes than women, who more often used words, and that they were also more likely to be carrying weapons or tools that could kill. Not only does the Norfolk evidence show that far fewer women than men were charged with murder, but also that when they were, they were less likely to be found guilty. Twenty per cent of men indicted were either found not guilty by trial juries or their draft indictments were marked ignoramus by grand juries. For women this increased to nearly fifty-two per cent.

Table 1

Table 1. Outcome of homicide trials in all Norfolk courts, 1600 – 99

Whilst a good run of indictments has survived for most of the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts they usually provide only sketchy detail of the events leading up to the offence. Nevertheless, indictments reveal some useful information about how the murders were committed. For example, even where there is little other detail the indictment usually stated what weapon was used. The most common method of murder was by stabbing; thirty-five per cent of victims were stabbed with either knives or swords, twenty-six per cent were beaten with either a wooden or an iron bar, a further sixteen per cent were said to have been beaten without any weapon being mentioned, and thirteen per cent were poisoned. Sailors from Great Yarmouth used knives, whereas swords were used by those higher up the social scale – yeomen and gentlemen. In all the cases involving poison the accused were women, supporting the view that women generally used less physical means to murder; although one women, Margery Todd of Stalham, was said to have murdered Daniel Turpin in a much more gruesome way, using a hatchet on him.[65] Poisoning was viewed as one of the worst kinds of murder: a statute of 1531 classed poisoning as high treason, the prescribed punishment being death by boiling.[66]

Although there is not always information to allow an assessment of social status, the general impression is that the murderer was better off than those involved in many other categories of crime. Of those whose occupation was recorded, there was only one labourer and one wife of a labourer; most others had a trade of some sort. Around forty per cent of those accused were either sailors or connected with maritime trades, many clearly involved in disputes or drunken brawls in Great Yarmouth. Amongst other trades there were shoemakers, a beer brewer, a basket maker, a thatcher, a felt maker, a glover and a vintner, so these were not the poorest members of the community. At the higher end of the social scale there were also yeomen, gentlemen, a ship’s commander and a baronet. The baronet was Sir Thomas Pettus of Rackheath. It was said that in April 1667 he attacked one Thomas Baxter “w[i]th a certain club”, and “upon the left side of his head felloniously did strike, giving to the said Thomas Baxter then & there one wound mortall”. Unfortunately there is no record of the outcome of the trial.[67]

Although most of the recorded murders were carried out by single individuals, some groups were charged after a death. The Norfolk quarter sessions minute book for 1653 records that ten men were said by the coroner’s jury to be responsible for the death of one John Booth. However, with no further mention of them the outcome is unknown.[68] Great Yarmouth was the location for several serious assaults resulting in deaths, usually involving groups of sailors. In June 1632 a group of seven sailors were charged after the death of Richard Harpley, who was killed with a knife. Five of the seven were found guilty, four of whom were hanged.[69] In 1677 eight men, three of whom were described as gentlemen, four as sailors and one a vintner, were involved in an assault on a Great Yarmouth butcher, John Ward. During the assault one of the gentlemen, Thomas Booth, thrust a sword into the side of Ward, killing him. Six of the group were sentenced to be hanged, although all but Booth had their sentences respited. A margin note in the sessions book records that “Capt. Booth was comander of a Man of Warr & was executed”.[70]

As I have shown, attacks on local officeholders were not infrequent. A particularly difficult job could be that of bailiff. In 1668, three bailiffs were employed by Bartholomew Stone, a Norfolk attorney, to serve an attachment on the goods and chattels of one William Mason. Clearly Mason was ready for them, for when they got close to his house he appeared with a scythe in his hand, saying “Come on if you dare, I have knowne of your comming allmost all this day I am provided for you”; Mason then returned to his house and shut the door on them. One of the bailiffs, John Bayly, went to look through the window, but immediately that he put his face to the glass Mason attacked him with the scythe. One of the other bailiffs, George Mordy, deposed that Bayly fell from the window exclaiming, “I am a dead man & letting his sticke fall out of his hand, he fell downe dead, his throate being cutte, & gushing out of blood & a peice of the skinne of the right cheeke was carried & cutt off by the said Sythe”. When Mason threatened, “I have dispatched him & I will serve you too if I can come neare you” it was time to fetch the constable, illustrating one of the many difficulties of that job. However, on this occasion he was able to apprehend the murderer.[71]

Whilst the records contain details of gruesome murders such as this, on most occasions deaths appear to have been the result of assaults that went too far, usually after some disagreement, particularly when those involved had been drinking. A typical example was the 1675 dispute between husbandman Henry Middleton and Henry Daveney, a local gentleman, who had spent some time drinking together and negotiating the sale of a horse. During their drinking session, an argument broke out between Daveney and a Mr. Sebbornes, with Middleton apparently siding with Sebbornes. Middleton was later to depose that he met up again with Daveney on the way home, at which time Daveney called him “a Rogue & A traytorly Rogue for takeing of Mr. Sebbornes parte whereuppon he swore God damn him you Rogue I will kill you”. A struggle ensued during which Middleton claimed that Daveney struck him, and whilst he tried to ride away Daveney had the better horse and was able to catch him and pull him off his mount. The struggle continued, during which Daveney “swore often times God damne him hee would kill him and Ripp him with his knife”. However, it was Daveney that ended up dead, Middleton claiming that “hee did strike Mr Daveney twoe or three blowes on the face & head with his Fist after which hee was downe”. Whilst Middleton was charged with murder he was found guilty of manslaughter on the basis that he was defending himself. Of course, the only witness to all this was Henry Middleton himself, so the court had to decide whether they believed his version of events or not; fortunately for him they did.[72]

Malcolm Gaskill has described the way that information in murder cases in early modern England might be “selected, ordered and shaped to assert a moral truth”.[73] Natalie Zemon Davis has also suggested that although a moral truth may be, in part, fiction, it does nevertheless allow the real truth to prevail.[74] Witnesses will have often told their stories with an objective in mind and will have used their experiences and beliefs to manipulate their tale to meet this objective.

A 1677 case from the Norfolk quarter sessions shows how evidence could be managed to allow what was eventually admitted to be the real truth to emerge. In December of the previous year, William Cobb, Robert Wells and Robert Ampleford were drinking together at a friend’s house near Swanton Morley, Norfolk. All three left at about seven o’clock in the evening to walk home, Cobb and Wells claiming that they eventually left Ampleford to go his own way and did not see him again. However, at some point on the way home Robert Ampleford was murdered and his body thrown into the river. A neighbour, John Seeley, informed that he saw the three drinking together and that “some bad words did passe from Ampleford to Cobb for which Cobb did strike Ampleford 2 or 3 blowes upon his brest”. However, although Robert Seeley of Swanton Morley deposed that he overheard Wells and Cobb talking the next day and saying “Lord have mercy on us! What is become of this Rob[er]t Ampleford who made noe answere but held downe his head & smiled”, with no further proof the local justices were taking no action.

Then, in January 1677, Ampleford’s son-in-law, Thomas Bone, gave evidence that when he was walking together with his mother-in-law at about ten or eleven o’clock at night Ampleford’s ghost appeared to them. Henry England of Honing deposed that he was with them and also saw “the same Apparition … & being very much affrighted at it he did fall downe almost dead”. The following month England was giving evidence again, this time that the ghost of Robert Ampleford had appeared to him and said “Cousen Henry goe with mee & I will show you where Cobb have layd mee, who have killed me & stabd me with a knife & have throwne mee into the river & have drowned mee”. Mary Ampleford followed this up with not only a similar story of her husband’s ghost, but also a claim that when she walked past Cobb’s house on the way to the well she overheard Cobb saying to his wife, “By God I have layd old Ampleford asleepe”. Very shortly after, faced with this new ‘evidence’ Robert Wells was telling the real truth, despite Cobb offering him his best cow and forty shillings to keep quiet. Soon Cobb was in prison awaiting trial for murder. Whilst clearly the evidence of the apparition was a fiction, eventually it ensured a confession as to what really happened. To use Davis’s phrase, it was a ‘moral truth’, that allowed justice to be done.[75] Keith Thomas has explained that in such cases “the ghost’s role was to provide a justification for the public denunciation of the criminal by a witness when the conventional evidence was not adequate to secure a prosecution”.[76]

Pamphlet and ballad accounts of murder cases tell that ghosts occasionally appeared after such events, either to inform on the guilty party or to make a confession. The ballad The Disturbed Ghost tells that an apparition of Edward Avon of Marlborough in Wiltshire appeared to both his son and son-in-law. He was said to have confessed that he owed money that he had borrowed from a friend, but that he had denied the fact and refused to pay when it became due. He then took them to a spot in a wood where he explained that he had a buried a body after he had committed a robbery and murder thirty-nine years before.[77] Contemporary beliefs were not just limited to the intervention of ghosts in murder cases. It was also believed by some that if a murderer touched the body of his or her victim then the corpse would begin to bleed. This phenomenon, known as cruentation, was a feature of several pamphlets and ballads.[78] Thomas has argued that these beliefs acted as a deterrent to potential murderers, who might otherwise think that they could get away with an unwitnessed murder, as there was always the chance of being supernaturally detected.[79]

Some pamphlet accounts of murder trials were obviously sensationalised in order to attract readers, however, others seem to be a more or less accurate reporting of the facts. The account of the murder of a Norfolk gentleman, identified by the author as Esq. Beddingfield, by a Mr. Barney in July 1684, seems to be of the second type. It begins with the usual religious message, which states that “If we look abroad in the World, and take a survey of the Actions and Transgressions of Man-kind, we may observe that God very rarely suffers Sin to go Unpunished even in this World: and more especially his Justice takes notice of the Sin of Murder”. We are then told that the timing of this murder coincided with the Norfolk assize sitting for July 1684, a fact that allowed justice to take a swifter course than usual in this case.

Among the county gentlemen attending the assizes were Mr. Barney and Esquire Beddingfield, who were drinking together on the Saturday night, until about two o’clock in the morning, “at which time happening they on a Discourse that raised some Dispute and Difference between them … Words arose between them, and increased to such a height, that Mr. Barney Drew upon the Esq; and by 8 several Wounds in his Body: Four of which were found in his Back the Esq; was Slain”. We are told that although Barney tried to escape, the noise had raised others in the house, “the Gates were immediately shut, and the Pursuit was such that Mr. Barney was forthwith Taken”.

The next day he was taken before the assize sitting, where he could only explain that he was under the influence of drink and say how sorry he was. He clearly had little in the way of defence for, the pamphlet tells, “the Petty jury without stiring from the Bar, brought him in Guilty … whereupon he immediately received his Sentence”, which was that he was to be hanged in Norwich market on the first day of August, only a week away. However, at the time of the pamphlet’s publication Barney was still awaiting this punishment, which means that the story had been written and printed in just a few days, clearly it was hoped that such fresh news would improve sales. The pamphlet ends with the usual moral message – a warning to others not to fall into like crimes, for “justly the Judgement of God pursues the Criminal”.[80]

Considering the crimes committed and the fact that some accounts were to an extent sensationalised, it is somewhat surprising that authors were generally restrained in their descriptions of the character of the killer. Whilst the murder that Barney had committed was described as “barbarous”, the murderer himself, we are told, although contentious, “was of a very Good Family, being the second Son of an Ancient Baronet … and a Person of known Worth, Loyalty and Integrity”. Another pamphlet describing the “Tryal and Condemnation, Execution and last Speech” of Robert Foulkes of Ludlow, Shropshire for murder and adultery in 1678, refers to the murderer as “that unfortunate gentleman”.[81] This is not just the case with male murderers; Walker points out that there is “little difference in the description of male and female criminals” in murder pamphlets.[82] In fact, in some pamphlets female murderers are treated with sympathy, the author making a point of explaining the unfortunate circumstances that led to the crime, usually mistreatment by a man.[83]

Pamphlet descriptions, alongside evidence from depositions, can be useful in giving us some idea of contemporary perceptions of murder and murderers. Sharpe has claimed that in the seventeenth century “the readiness of juries to acquit homicide suspects … indicates that the response to an accusation of homicide was not one of immediate horror”.[84] However, there is a clear impression in both the popular literature, where murders are described with such terms as “bloody and barbarous” and “inhuman”, and the depositions presented at Norfolk trials that murder was still viewed with seriousness and revulsion. Several authors complain of the commonplace nature of the crime. The ballad Murder on Murder, published in 1635, which tells of the crimes of Thomas Sherwood and Elizabeth Evans who were sentenced to death for three murders, complains that

There’s scarce a moneth within the yeare,

but murders vile are done.

The Son, the Father murdereth,

the Father kills the Son,

Twixt man and man there’s such debate,

Which in the end brings mortall hate.[85]

Richard Johnson also observed that in London “a man may find out fellowes, that for a pottle of wine will make no conscience to kill a man then a Butcher a heart”.[86]

However, despite these complaints, most evidence suggests there was a declining homicide rate throughout the early modern period. Rates of violent crime are said to have roughly halved between the late sixteenth and the end of the seventeenth century.[87] Having said that, the homicide rate in early modern England was still much higher than it is today. The qualitative evidence from depositions also provides the impression that some individuals were quick to use violence or to pull weapons when involved in disputes, particularly when arguments began in alehouses.

Whether all this means that seventeenth-century Norfolk was a violent place to live is difficult to say; the questions asked in the debate between Stone and Sharpe in Past and Present in the 1980s are still as difficult to answer: did early modern English men and women think that they lived in a violent society, and how do we measure what a violent society would have been for them?[88] Unfortunately whilst a collection of ninety-six indictments and a few depositions over one hundred years may provide us with some clues, it is impossible to extract concrete answers.

Violence in the household

In early modern England most domestic conflicts, if they required any action at all, usually found resolution in the ecclesiastical courts or, if the neighbours judged them to be a serious enough challenge to the patriarchal ‘natural order’, they might attract some form of shaming ritual. It was only the more extreme cases of domestic violence, usually resulting in the serious injury or death of one of the parties, which attracted a criminal prosecution.

It is impossible to quantify domestic violence, as the majority of instances will have gone unreported. The frequent use of informal mediation will often also have gone unrecorded.[89] However, as with other crimes involving violence, infanticide apart, the vast majority of such serious domestic incidents that did reach the courts were carried out by men. Around ninety per cent of all those accused of domestic violence before the seventeenth-century Norfolk courts were male.[90] This could include violence against wives, parents, children or servants, but most often wives were the victims. Sixty-three per cent of all such cases involved violence to a wife; in only four per cent of cases were husbands the target. A further eighteen per cent of cases involved violence against parents, eleven per cent against children, and four per cent against servants.[91]

Limited violence by male household heads under a system based on patriarchy could be something of a legal grey area. Theoretically, the difference between domestic violence by men and women was that men were legally entitled to use limited violence against a disobedient wife, whereas violence by a woman against her husband was never legitimate. In practice, however, the situation was not so straightforward. Whilst husbands may have been allowed to correct or discipline their wives, the extent to which force should be used was subject to varying opinions.

Many household manuals and legal works urged the extremely limited use of violence. Matthew Bacon, whilst conceding that “the husband hath … power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force within the bounds of duty, and may beat her” urged that this should not be done in a “violent and cruel manner”.[92]  The writer of The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights declared that whilst there may be occasions when a man might beat his wife “he shall neither doe nor procure to be done to her any bodily damage, otherwise than appertaines to the office of a husband for lawfull and reasonable correction”.[93] The contemporary Homily on the State of Matrimony, although lamenting “how few matrimonies there be without chidings, brawlings, tauntings, repentings, bitter cusings, and fightings”, pointed out that if a man beat his wife “that is the greatest shame that can be, not so much to her that is beaten, as to him that doth the deed”.[94]

Contemporary writers often described the ideal state in which families were expected to live as ‘quietness’. When Stephen Gall was examined as to why he had left his wife in 1597 he claimed that “the cause why he went away from his wief was because he cold not lyve quyetly in his owne howse & therfore he sought his quiett”.[95] Quietness implied the pursuit of agreement and consensus and it was expected that when a couple failed to live up to this ideal their neighbours had a responsibility to bring them back to order.[96] The role that neighbours might play in either the containing or reporting of domestic disputes is illustrated by a case before the Norwich Mayor’s Court in 1606. The wife of Thomas Stokes made a complaint that her husband had beaten her. However, the court found that she was also at fault and ordered that “yf their neighboures shall complayne of eyther of them, the p[ar]tey of whome the complaynt shalbe first made, shalbe whipped at the post”.[97] Similarly, in the same year, it was reported that “William Kyffyn & his wife live very unquyetly” and it was ordered that “yf they fall out agayne That then the ffirst gyver of the offence & begynn[er] shalbe whipped”.[98]

When neighbours found it impossible to bring a couple to quietness, they might submit ‘articles of misdemeanour’ against the guilty party or parties to the justices, as they did against William Wright of Saham Toney, Norfolk, in 1611. They objected that “he hath lyved very disquyetly wt his wyffe & very many tymes in most vigorous mann[er] beaten hir”. They also claimed that “when any of his neyghbores hath requested him to lett his wyffe come into him & to use hir as his wyffe he mysuseth & revyleth them calling them … knaves”.[99] Thomas Munsaugh was also reported to Norfolk quarter sessions by his neighbours, who claimed that he “hath so inhumanely misused his … wief that she hath oftentymes gone to have drowned herself”.[100] The articles of misdemeanour requested the justices to bind the accused to future good behaviour.

Sometimes a complaint also added that a husband was failing to maintain his family. Seven neighbours of Edmond Mole reported that he “doth live very unquietly with his wief and child not givinge them anny sustennance at all”.[101] On occasions a husband was said to have used up all his wife’s dowry or earnings and then lost interest in her. Norfolk assizes, sitting in Norwich in 1667, heard that William Browne, after selling everything that his wife Susan “had gotten togeather by her labour and Industry” spent it all on other women “with whom he was suspected to have too much familiarity”, and then finally sold his wife “unto one John Simper for five pounds”.[102] Inhabitants of Scoulton complained to Norfolk quarter sessions that Robert Kirbye had forced his wife to sell her land and “by extraordinarie spendinge” had squandered it. He was also said to keep “a verie lewde wenche” at nearby Hingham and when he went to visit her “for feare his wif should followe him he did hange a paier of horse chaines uppon hir legges”.[103]

Neighbours or family members often intervened on behalf of women who suffered beatings from their husbands, but if they did not the unfortunate wives could find themselves in a difficult position. They could always report the violence to the justices themselves, in the hope that this might stay their husband’s hand in future. However, they usually had to go back home after doing so and faced the prospect of further violence for their trouble – a difficult choice when, like Mary Chapman of Swaffham Market, they may already have been in fear of their life. She reported to the justices at Norfolk quarter sessions that she was afraid that “Edward Chapman, her husband, will kill Her or doe her some Bodily Harme”.[104] Her fears proved to be justified, for five years later she was informing Norfolk assizes that “her husband came into the house … where she was readinge and struck her three blowes on the face that felled her to the grounde, soe as she was dazled for the p[re]sent and that uppon the blowes two of her teeth dropped out [and] that she bled two or three quarts of blood”.[105]

Some women were willing to inform on their violent husbands. Ann Bytson of Narborough informed the justices at Norfolk quarter sessions in 1629 that “her husband Henrie Bytson did spurne her on the side, and bente two of her ribbes”. A few days later he “beate her wth the toungs and did breake two of the vaynes of her arme And further he sayd he would wringe her necke apeces”.[106] But any help that the court might provide for the wife was, at best, often only temporary. William Whately advised that although “some men are so violent as the wife may be in danger to have her brains knocked out” she did not have the right to leave the matrimonial home. “She may fly to the magistrate and seek safety with a purpose of returning upon such security, but she may not fly quite away from him with a purpose of not returning”.[107]

When attempts to restrain or reform a violent husband were unsuccessful, then action in the courts was often the inevitable outcome. However, given that some indictments reported violence over a long period of time, it seems that most cases that went to court only reached that stage when all other courses had failed. It is interesting to note that when matters went that far it usually seems to have brought resolution, for there are only three records of the same man being charged twice for violence towards his wife in seventeenth-century Norfolk. On occasions the threat of punishment for future incidents appears to have been enough. For example, even though Peter Astoe of Norwich was reported by his neighbours in 1607 to have beaten his wife “in most extreame manner”, the threat of banishment from the city or being whipped at the post was sufficient to ensure that he made no further court appearances.[108]

In Norfolk, punishments for assault against a wife were rarely severe; most found guilty spent a period in Bridewell or a few hours in the stocks. By the time the accused appeared in court matters had also had a chance to cool down and the wife may either have come around to forgiveness or may have been in need of her husband’s wage-earning powers. In 1605 Margaret Fletcher presented herself at Norwich Mayor’s Court to plead for her husband’s release from prison, even though he had been committed there for “beatinge his wife & puttinge hir in danger of hir life”.[109] When John Campe appeared before the same court the following year charged with beating both his wife and mother his punishment was remitted “at the intreaty of his wife”.[110] The most frequent punishment for the few women found guilty of assaulting their husbands was also a period in Bridewell. However, the courts were not always consistent. When John Cooper appeared before Norwich Mayor’s Court in January 1633 charged with “beatinge his wife and breakinge her Arme” he was sent to Bridewell.[111] Two months later his wife, Cecily, was in the same court charged with abusing her husband and it was ordered that she be put in the cage.[112]

Violence, or the threat of violence, by a woman may seem out of place in a society where their role was supposed to be meek and passive. However, violence by women was not uncommon. But, as Susan Amussen has pointed out, records of female violence are likely to be much more scarce than those for men, as their fights were much less likely to have led to court action as a result of serious injury or death, as their disputes were usually not the result of drinking nor did they usually involve weapons.[113] It is also likely that men would have been reluctant to report incidents of violence by their wives because they would have been afraid of the humiliation that they could potentially bring upon themselves, or even worse the ritual shaming punishments. John Hall, a Somerset blacksmith, found this out to his cost in 1616 when men from his parish “had one to ride upon men’s shoulders by the name of Skymerton” after he complained that his wife had beaten him with a frying pan.[114]

The law treated a wife’s murder of her husband particularly severely. An act of 1352 declared that because this was the killing of someone to whom the murderer was subject it should be classed as petty treason.[115] Michael Dalton set out the legal position in The Countrey Justice:

Petty treason is when wilfull murder is committed … upon any subject, by one that is in subjection, and oweth faith, duty, and obedience, to the party murdered. … The wife maliciously killeth her husband; this is pet[t]y treason. The husband maliciously killeth his wife, this is but murder. The reason of this difference is, for that the one is in subjection, and oweth obedience, and not the other. … The punishment for Petie Treason is this … the woman shall bee burned alive.[116]

When Joane See of King’s Lynn was found guilty of killing her husband in 1654 the verdict was one of manslaughter. Whilst she was still hanged, that verdict saved her from the burning that she would have been sentenced to if the decision had been that she had murdered him.[117]

Laura Gowing has suggested that to be taken seriously “women’s attacks on their husbands had to be lethal”.[118] Whilst men may have often been reluctant to report violence by their wives, when they were in fear of their lives they may have felt that they had no other option. For example, in 1625, George Whitehead of Newcastle-upon-Tyne complained “that his wife was so cruel towards him as he darst not live with her for that she had shortly theretofore almost slain him with a knife, therefore he feared that she would either cut his throat or poison him”.[119]

One way in which a man might accuse his wife with trying to murder him, without risking the shame that admitting to a physically violent attack might bring, was to claim that she had tried to poison him. When women were charged with their husband’s murder, poison, usually ratsbane, was sometimes the method used. Mary Clarke of North Walsham appeared before Norfolk assizes in October 1670, suspected of poisoning her husband, father and mother. She admitted that she bought the rat poison and that she pounded it in a wooden dish. She also admitted that she gave her mother milk in the same dish, who then “began to swell And continued very ill And like to dye”, but she denied that she intended to poison her.[120] However, in Norfolk at least, this was an isolated incident. Tim Stretton has also claimed that such incidents were far from the common occurrence that the literature of the period might suggest.[121]

When women were accused of serious violence or murder it was more likely to be against physically weaker members of the household – children or female servants. When Alice Bull of Sporle heard a noise at John Goll’s house in 1673 she investigated. When she entered the house “she found Elizabeth Goll daughter of … John Goll hanging by the neck … takeing downe the said child it fetcht three gaspes before it came to itselfe”. She questioned the child’s mother, Margery Goll, about why she had hanged the child, to be told that it was “because shee had befould the bed”. Bull went on to testify that she did “often see the said Margery strike the said child with her fist And that the jawbone of the … child was beaten in & some of the teeth beatten out”. Margery Goll was eventually arrested on suspicion of murdering her daughter.[122] It is possible that the cruelty associated with attacks like this on young children might be evidence of some kind of mental instability. This certainly seems to have been the case with Margaret Sumpter.

When a neighbour asked Margaret Sumpter of Foulsham, described as a “weake brain’d woman”, where she was going with her child, she answered that “the child and she were going to heaven”. The story emerges from witness statements that her husband, Robert Sumpter, was leaving her and, obviously being aware that she was unbalanced, asked the neighbours to keep an eye on her. After she left the house with the child some of the neighbours followed, but lost her. When they saw her again she was “wringing of her hands” and repeating, “my child is drowned”. One of the neighbours went to the moat and saw the child in the water. She brought it out, but despite the fact that “all possible meanes were used to recover it to life”, it was too late. When questioned about what had happened Margaret Sumpter could only claim that she was “distracted, as she had been several times [and] that she lost her child, and doth not know what she hath done with it”.[123]

On occasions there were clearly strained relationships in households where fathers with children had remarried. That some sort of jealousy was the reason for this can only be speculation, but there are several examples of stepmothers beating or ill-treating their stepchildren. At Norwich Mayor’s Court in 1603, Alice Thacker was ordered to be whipped “for settinge one of hir husbands children bare uppon a redd hott brandlett & for abusinge his other children with crueltie”.[124] William Lawson of Tilney St. Lawrence was said to have often complained that his stepmother beat him and caused his father to do so and that she refused to feed him. The day before he died in 1669 he told a neighbour that his stepmother had given him a blow “which he should feele soe long as he lived” and showed the wounds inflicted by her.[125] A weak father beating his own child at the insistence of the stepmother was also an occasional occurrence in these cases. The murder of John Birch of Upwell in 1668 was a tragic example.

Edward Dackes informed that about a month before John’s death, “Robert Birch his Father whipt him in A Rigorous manner” and that Susan Birch, his stepmother, “did much incourage him in itt and byd him lay on”. Clearly the beatings were an attempt by the child’s father to pacify his new wife, for another neighbour, Edward Hindes, testified that a few months earlier Birch “did violently beate the said John … with a cudgell and attempted to have struck him against the bed poste”. When Hindes intervened Birch told him “he must either kill him or make away himselfe, otherwise he should never live a quiett life with his wife”. Sometimes the child tried to escape from the beatings by running to neighbours; on one occasion he ran to the house of Robert Armitage where he stayed the night, pleading with his father the next day not to take him home for fear that his stepmother would kill him. She clearly made several attempts to do so; Anthony Pettifer informed that he caught Susan Birch throwing the boy into the river. He also stated that when he and his wife examined the child they “found severall stripes with A rod and severall Bruses upon his Body”. Pettifer claimed that he had on many occasions spoken to Susan Birch “to dissuade her from misusing the said John Birch, But she declared frequently … she was resolved she would use him the worse”.[126]

Elderly parents were also, on occasion, subjected to violent assault, by both men and women, neighbours possibly being even more likely to complain to the justices about such behaviour. The inhabitants of Newton near Castle Acre complained to Norfolk quarter sessions about Symon Keeper “for beatinge his mother extreamly and she cryinge out for help he did ringe a kettle at her eare but that her voice might not be heard and did nayle his dore fast that her neighbours could not come to rescue her”.[127] The inhabitants of Harpley informed the same court that after the mother-in-law of Henry Crow took him into her house “rent free when elswher he was not able to pay his rent he not only vexed reviled and affrighted hir continually but also did beate hir in hir howse”.[128] When the wife of William Copland appeared at Norwich Mayor’s Court in 1625 accused of abusing her mother “in most shamefull and accursed manner” it was ordered that not only should she be set in the stocks, but that she should also “aske her mother forgivenes … openly in the parishe church of St. James”.[129]

Servants could also be in a precarious situation when they found themselves living in a violent household, for the law allowed employers to use reasonable force for their correction. According to Dalton, “the master may strike his servant with his hand, fist, smal staffe, or sticke, for correction; and though he do draw bloud thereby, yet it seemeth no breach of peace”.[130] When neighbours of James Beadell of Great Massingham were questioned in 1631 about the death of Beadell’s servant William Constable, they claimed that he “did stricke the sayd William onlye three blowes wth the small end of A smalle corne Racke About the body”. However, when William went home to his mother “she did diserne some black spotts upon the Right side of her sonne wherof he complained and said his master was the cause of his death”. William died a few days later.[131]

Excessive correction could come from a master or dame. Although male servants were of course subject to the authority of their mistress as well as their master and, no doubt, on occasion received correction from them, it was more likely to be female servants that suffered severe physical violence from them. In March 1671 Frances Rice of Caston was charged at Norfolk assizes with the murder of her servant, Susan Alden. Richard Wenn described the “sad & lamentable shrieke” that he heard whilst he was working in the barn as Rice beat the girl. She had clearly beaten her severely, for Thomas Atmeare deposed that “the blowes wch he heard given were soe great that they silenc’d the noise of his & his partners flayles”. Atmeare also informed that he had been present on a previous occasion when Rice “took her head & knocked itt with all her force against the edge of a doore”.[132]

A large body of early modern street literature took husband or wife beating as its subject, and this may tell us something about prevailing ideas that shaped popular responses towards domestic violence. It might be thought difficult to make violent incidents such as these suitable subjects for broadside ballads. Certainly a ballad about domestic violence would only be humorous if the tale depicted was one of a ludicrous inversion of power or if the target was actually deserving of their punishment, perhaps a violent husband getting some of his own medicine. Nevertheless, some ballads did tackle the subject. Well met Neighbour takes the form of a conversation between two women discussing violent husbands in the neighbourhood:

Heard you not lately of Hugh,

how soundly his wife he bangd,

He beat her black and blew

O such a Rogue would be hangd.

But the message of the ballad is that men who treat their wives in such a way are cowards, for:

O fye on those dastardly Knaves,

for those that will beate their wives

They dare not with swords or staves

meet men in the field for their lives.[133]

When ballads dealt with the subject of the dominant wife the words often mocked or berated the servile husband for allowing such an upside-down situation to occur.[134] In My Wife will be my Master the husband tells that whatever he does he cannot please his wife, she will control him.

And thus you hear how cruelly

my wife doth still abuse me,

At bed, at board, at noon, at night,

she alwayes doth misuse me;

But if I were a lusty man,

and able for to baste her,

Then would I surely use a means,

that she should not be my master.[135]

Some ballads took the view that women who killed their husbands must be unbalanced. A warning for wives tells the story of Katherine Francis, found guilty of the murder of her husband by stabbing him with a pair of scissors in 1629. It tells that such women “Are ruled by the Devill” and the chorus asks, “Oh women, murderous women, whereon are your minds?” Her eventual burning is

A death, though cruell, yet too milde

For one that hath a heart so vilde.[136]

Although husbands murdered their wives much more often than the reverse, this was not reflected in the contemporary street literature, where the murderous wife was much more frequently depicted. Whilst it was the case that early modern women found ways around their theoretical submissive role to ensure that they did have a voice in their neighbourhood, violence was taking matters too far and murder as the extreme of violence made for sensational reading. Most ballads about murderous wives used a first-person narrative that enabled the women themselves to tell their story and how much they later regretted their actions, ending with a warning to others.

Let me a warning be to wives,

that are of hasty kinde,

Lord grant that all may mend their lives,

and beare my death in mind

was Alice Davis’s message at the end of The unnatural wife, which tells of how she murdered her husband by stabbing him during an argument about her refusal to lend him a shilling.[137] She was sentenced to death by burning at Middlesex sessions in 1628. The same case was the subject of A warning for all desperate women, which reminded wives of their duty to obey their husband:

Good wives and bad, example take,

at this my cursed fall,

And Maidens that shall husbands have,

I warning am to all:

Your husbands are your Lords & heads,

you ought them to obey,

Grant love betwixt each man and wife

unto the Lord I pray.[138]

Whilst ballads often used the outline of real cases to tell an entertaining or moral tale, pamphlet depictions of spousal murder trials included much more detail, usually an account of the trial itself, sometimes copies of depositions from witnesses, and often a final speech from the murderer, enabling the pamphlet to end with a moral message.[139] Frances Dolan has pointed out that rarely do the pamphlets explore motives for the murder, for if the reader began to sympathise with the murderer the moral point of the tale would be lost.[140] Whatever provocation brought about the act, and in some cases it might have been a desperate attempt to stop a husband battering his wife, it was the murder itself that was described as brutal or barbarous, sensationalised a little when necessary to attract the audience.

The strong impression that most of the street literature gives about contemporary attitudes is that excessive violence was thought intolerable. Despite the common law position regarding the husband’s ability to correct his wife, in practice it seems that when violence was used to control, especially when it reached a level that made the neighbourhood aware of it, the husband was acting shamefully. A husband who suffered violence at the hands of his wife was mocked in broadside ballads, but when that violence went too far and it became murder the wife became worse than shameful, she was barbarous and inhumane.

It is, of course, impossible to carry out any meaningful statistical analysis of husband beating as it was unlikely to be reported when it did occur. It is even questionable how much actions in court reflect cases of wife beating, both because of under-reporting and informal mediation, but also because if a husband was capable of physically assaulting his wife he was likely to be equally capable of physically stopping her reporting him.

When neighbours became aware of excessive domestic violence they were sometimes willing to take action; they might either bring the matter to the attention of the justices and request that the guilty party be bound to keep the peace, or they might sometimes intervene themselves, though on occasions this proved to be too little and too late. When Mary Davy and Thomas Eade heard a noise in a chamber at John Clarke’s house in Loddon, Norfolk, they went up to find out what was going on. Finding the door barred they made the occupants open up to find that John Goslynge had beaten his wife. Goslynge was said to have often beaten his wife badly with a dog whip and a bull’s pestle. However, despite the fact that “Crowes wief … fell out with … Goslynge and told hym he was A Beast for usinge his wief so”, and John Clark told Anne Goslynge’s father about the beatings, they did not prevent her eventual death at his hands.[141]

[1] Lawrence Stone, “Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300 – 1980”, Past and Present 101 (1983), p. 22. Stone was referring to Alan Macfarlane, The Justice and the Mare’s Ale: Law and Disorder in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1981).

[2] T.R. Gurr, “Historical Trends in Violent Crime: A Critical Review of the Evidence”, in Crime and Justice: An Annual; Review of Research iii (1981), pp. 295 – 353.

[3] J.A. Sharpe, “The History of Violence in England: Some Observations”, Past and Present 108 (1985). See also Lawrence Stone, “A Rejoinder”, Past and Present 108 (1985).

[4] Sharpe, “History of Violence”, p. 215.

[5] J.M. Beattie, “Violence and Society in Early-Modern England”, in Anthony N. Doob and Edward L. Greenspan, eds., Perspectives in Criminal Law. Essays in Honour of John Ll. J. Edwards (Aurora, Ontario, 1984), p. 36.

[6] Beattie, “Violence and Society”, p. 38.

[7] It is not clear why this mid-century decline in prosecutions should have been so great. No similar pattern emerged over the same period in Essex. See Sharpe, Crime in seventeenth-century England, pp. 187 – 90. Although the missing Norwich Mayor’s Court book will have had an affect on the figures for 1647 – 54, the levels of prosecution either side of those dates are also comparatively low.

[8] Stone, “Interpersonal Violence”, p. 25; Sharpe, “History of violence”, p. 206. See also Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, pp. 86 – 7.

[9] Prosecutions before these two courts represent 86% of the total of such prosecutions in all the Norfolk courts. (No data available for Norwich Mayor’s Court for 1647 – 1654.)

[10] Sharpe, Crime in seventeenth-century England, p. 190.

[11] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/9, fol. 119, dated 23.3.1635.

[12] NRO, King’s Lynn quarter sessions, KL/C21/1, dated 15.8.1632.

[13] Beattie, Crime and the Courts, p. 76.

[14] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/16 unfoliated, dated 7.5.1698.

[15] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 29.

[16] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/8, fol. 121v.

[17] James Gryffon, The Song of a Constable (1626), reprinted in A.V. Judges, The Elizabethan Underworld (London, 1965), pp. 488 – 490.

[18] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/13 fol. 455, 24.5.1600.

[19] Official Papers of Sir Nathaniel Bacon, pp. 23 – 4.

[20] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol.59v, 31.10.1604.

[21] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/21, articles of misbehaviour against Isabell Luin.

[22] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court 16a/14, fol. 52v, 15.8.1604.

[23] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court 16a/14, fol. 153v, 22.11.1606.

[24] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/10, fol. 30v, 16.2.1633.

[25] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/10, fol. 59, 26.3.1635.

[26] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/10, fol. 25.

[27] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/15, fol. 81v.

[28] Wrightson, “Two Concepts of Order”, p. 12.

[29] Clark, “The Alehouse and the Alternative Society”, p. 48.

[30] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/21, misdemeanours of William Taylor.

[31] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 12b(1), information of Mary Meeke and Margery Loads, dated 9.1.1689.

[32] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 30.

[33] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/17 part 2, information of John Buck, dated 17.9.1610.

[34] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/38, information of Thomas Feltwell.

[35] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 12b(1), information of Elizabeth Cornewall, dated 2.1.1699.

[36] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/41a, information of Thomas Grimston.

[37] PRO, STAC 8 140/23, Fene v Grosse, Faltricke, Scarrborough, Sturlowe, Cok and others, Norfolk.

[38] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 200.

[39] For a much fuller treatment of the law regarding riot, see Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 2002), especially pp. 38 – 48.

[40] PRO, STAC 8 247/10, Robertes v Mason, Thurgoland, Mason, Jobson and others, York. In the Fenland riots at Upwell, Norfolk, in 1637, one woman was described as “the first mover in the mutiny”. Keith Lindley, Fenland Riots and the English Revolution (London, 1982).

[41] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/15, fol. 379v

[42] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/13, unfoliated, dated 18.12.1665; 20a/16, unfoliated, dated 9.10.1691.

[43] Examples include Y/S1/1/373v, Y/S1/2/246, Y/S1/3/310, Y/S1/3/354, Y/S1/3/391, Y/S1/3/401, Y/S1/4/89v, Y/S1/4/99V, and Y/S1/4/109. Cf Robert B. Shoemaker, “The London ‘mob’ in the early eighteenth century”, Journal of British Studies 26 (1987).

[44] For Kett’s Rebellion and the ‘Commotion Tyme’ of 1549, see Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics, pp. 60 – 71.

[45] Pound, Tudor and Stuart Norwich, p. 93. For an account of the anti-excise riot in Smithfield, see Michael J. Braddick, “Popular politics and public policy: the excise riot in Smithfield in February 1647 and its aftermath”, Historical Journal, 34, 3 (1991), pp. 597 – 626. See also David Underdown, Pride’s Purge: Politics in the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1971), p. 40.

[46] A True Relation of the Late Mutiny in Norwich (London, 1648), Thomason Tract ref. E 438 (6); A Letter from Norwich of the Blowing up of the Magazine there (London, 1648), Thomason Tract ref. E 437 (12). See also Evans, Seventeenth-Century Norwich, pp. 173 – 8; R.W. Ketton-Cremer, Norfolk in the Civil War. A portrait of a society in conflict, (London, 1969), pp. 334 – 49.

[47] Henry Cary, ed., Memorials of the Great Civil War in England from 1646 to 1652 (London, 1842), p. 400

[48] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/11, fols. 110-11

[49] Details of the depositions taken from some of those involved in the riots are to be found in Sir Frederic Bateman and Walter Rye, The History of the Bethel Hospital at Norwich (Norwich, 1906), pp. 108 – 63.

[50] PRO, STAC 8 158/11, Gayton v Seaman, Richardson, Hagon, Heighoo and others, Norfolk, dated 27.1.1613.

[51] T.G. Barnes, “Due Process and Slow Process in the Late Elizabethan-Early Stuart Star Chamber”, American Journal of Legal History 6, (1962), p. 226. See also Ingram, “Communities and Courts”, p. 119.

[52] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England 4 volumes (Fourth edition, 1771), volume 4, p. 147.

[53] NRO, Norwich quarter sessions, 20a/13, unfoliated, dated 15.4.1663.

[54] PRO, STAC 8 297/5, Wilkins v Scambler, Bingle, Roberts and others, Norfolk, dated 29.1.1606.

[55] PRO, STAC 8 146/15, Flatman v Cobbe, Gooch and others, Norfolk.

[56] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/21, articles of misbehaviour against Isabell Luin.

[57] 1 Edward VI, cap. 12, s. 10. Murder classed as petty treason had been removed in 1497 by 12 Henry VII, cap. 7. Beattie, Crime and the Courts, p. 77.

[58] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 217.

[59] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 222.

[60] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 265.

[61] For example, in 1637, the inhabitants of Loders and Bothenhampton in Dorset were amerced 40s for allowing one Robert Mynson to escape after he had murdered a local man. When the victim of a murder was of high social status the fine might be much higher. In 1641, Western circuit assizes imposed a fine of £200 on the inhabitants of Wellington, Somerset, for failing to catch the killers of Lieutenant Compton Evre. J.S. Cockburn, ed., Western Circuit Assize Orders 1629 – 1648. A Calendar Royal Historical Society, Camden Fourth Series, volume 17 (London, 1976), pp. 115, 222.

[62] Beattie, Crime and the Courts, pp. 79 – 82.

[63] Sharpe, Crime in seventeenth-century England, p. 123.

[64] Beattie, Crime and the Courts, pp. 83; Sharpe, Crime in seventeenth-century England, p. 124.

[65] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/8/5, 1664.

[66] 22 Henry VIII, cap. 9. The act was repealed by Edward VI.

[67] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/20/3, 22 April 1667.

[68] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S1/7, dated 12.7.1653.

[69] NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/2, fols. 15-16.

[70] NRO, Great Yarmouth quarter sessions, Y/S1/3, fols. 407-7v.

[71] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/16/4, examination of George Mordy, dated 2 July 1668.

[72] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/31/3, examination of Henry Middleton, 11 September 1675.

[73] Malcolm Gaskill, “Reporting Murder: fiction in the archives in early modern England”, Social History volume 23, no. 1 (1998), p. 23.

[74] Davis, Fiction in the Archives, pp. 3 – 4.

[75] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions rolls, C/S3/52a, bundle 1, information of William Cobb, Robert Wells, Robert Seeley, Mary Ampleford, Thomas Bone, John Seeley, Henry England, December 1676 to February 1677.

[76] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 714.

[77] The Disturbed Ghost Or, The Wonderful Appearance of the Ghost, or Spirit of Edward Avon (undated seventeenth-century ballad)

[78] For examples of popular literature describing this phenomenon, see Gaskill, “Reporting murder”, pp. 8 – 10.

[79] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, p. 261.

[80] A Full Relation of a Barbarous Murther, Committed upon the Body of Esq; Beddingfield (London, 1684). For the hand of providence in the pursuit of murderers, see Malcolm Gaskill, “The displacement of Providence: policing and prosecution in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England”, Continuity and Change volume 11, no. 3 (1996); Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities, pp. 263 – 5.

[81] A True and perfect Relation Of the Tryal and Condemnation, Execution and last Speech of that unfortunate Gentleman Mr. Robert Foulkes, (London, 1679).

[82] Walker, “Demons in female form”, p. 125.

[83] See, for example, A Compleat Narrative of the Tryal of Elizabeth Lillyman (London, 1675).

[84] Sharpe, Crime in seventeenth-century England, p. 125.

[85] Murder upon Murder, reprinted in Hyder E. Rollins, A Pepysian Garland. Black-letter Broadside Ballads of the years 1595 – 1639 (Cambridge, MA, 1971), pp. 432 – 6.

[86] Richard Johnson, The Hangman’s Halter, and the Beadles Whip will make the Foole dance, and the Knave to skip, (London, 1613), reprinted in Joseph H. Marshburn, Murder and Witchcraft in England, 1550 – 1640 as recounted in pamphlets, broadsides, and plays (Norman, OK, 1971), p. 2.

[87] Stone, “Interpersonal Violence”, p. 26. An increase in the level of homicide prosecutions in Norfolk for part of the seventeenth century is not incompatible with a falling homicide rate, as homicide rates are measured in relation to population; Norfolk’s population increased by twenty per cent over the course of the century. Due to the missing assize records it is not possible to calculate meaningful homicide rates for the county for this period.

[88] Sharpe, “History of Violence”, p. 215.

[89] For example, in analysing quarter sessions records for Essex between 1620 and 1680, Sharpe found that in 579 indictments for assault there were none for assault between spouses, even though he found petitions of complaint. See Sharpe, “Domestic Homicide”, p. 31.

[90] This compared with eighty-one per cent of all cases of violence.

[91] These figures exclude cases of infanticide, the vast majority of which were carried out by single girls in service. See chapter 4.4.

[92] Matthew Bacon, A new abridgement of the law (Fourth edition, 1778), volume 1, p. 285.

[93] T.E., Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights, p. 128.

[94] Homily on the State of Matrimony (1563), lines 60 – 1, 295 – 7.

[95] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/13a, examination of Stephen Gall, dated 24.12.1597.

[96] Wrightson, “The Politics of the Parish”, p. 19.

[97] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol. 119, dated 5.2.1606.

[98] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol. 146, dated 6.9.1606.

[99] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/17, part 2.

[100] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/23.

[101] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/24, part 1.

[102] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/20/3. For wife selling in the eighteenth century, see E.P. Thompson, “The Sale of Wives”, in his Customs in Common (Harmondsworth, 1993).

[103] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/24, part 2.

[104] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/47.

[105] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/22/3, information of Mary Chapman, dated 3.5.1671.

[106] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/27, information of Anne Bytson, dated 10.3.1629.

[107] William Whately, A Bride-Bush, or a Wedding Sermon (1619), p. 214.

[108] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol. 163.

[109] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol. 66, dated 5.1.1605.

[110] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/14, fol. 127v.

[111] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/16, fol. 417v.

[112] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/16, fol. 428.

[113] Susan Amussen, “The Gendering of Popular Culture in Early Modern England”, in Tim Harris, ed., Popular Culture in England c. 1500 – 1850 (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 61.

[114] Somerset Record Office, Somerset quarter sessions, Q/SR/25, fol. 23, dated 1616.

[115] 25 Edward 3, cap. 2, s. 5.

[116] Dalton, Countrey Justice, pp. 213, 215.

[117] King’s Lynn quarter sessions, KL/C21/2, dated 5.4.1654.

[118] Gowing, Domestic Dangers, p. 228.

[119] Durham University Library, Durham consistory court depositions, DDR Vol/11, fols. 409 – 409v, dated 7.10.1625

[120] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/20/3, examination of Mary Clarke, dated 8 October 1670.

[121] Tim Stretton, Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England (Cambridge, 1998), p. 208.

[122] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/26/4, information of Alice Bull, dated 23.6.1673.

[123] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/49, envelope 2, examination of Margaret Sumpter, information of Susan Unda, Anne Curby and Rose Daynes, dated 24.6.1672.

[124] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/13, fol. 786, dated 20.4.1603.

[125] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/18/4, information of Catherine Anderson, dated 18.4.1669.

[126] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/17/4 part 1, information of Robert Armitage, Edward Hindes, Anthony Pettifer and Edward Dacks, dated 11 January 1668.

[127] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/20, petition of inhabitants of Newton, undated.

[128] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/23, petition of inhabitants of Harpley, undated.

[129] NRO, Norwich Mayor’s Court, 16a/16, fol. 65, dated 20.8.1625.

[130] Dalton, Countrey Justice, p. 161.

[131] NRO, Norfolk quarter sessions, C/S3/28, report of several witnesses concerning James Beadell of Great Massingham, dated 25.10.1631; information of Ann Constable, dated 27.10.1631.

[132] PRO, Norfolk assizes, ASSI 16/23/3, information of Richard Wenn, dated 29 January 1671 and Thomas Atmeare, dated 12 March 1671.

[133] Martin Parker Well met Neighbour (London, undated), reprinted in The Euing Collection of English Broadside Ballads in the Library of the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, 1971), pp. 639 – 40.

[134] Many of these used the image of the overactive female tongue as their focus; some of these are examined further in chapter 5.1.

[135] My Wife will be my Master, reprinted in J.P. Collier, ed., A Book of Roxburghe Ballads (London, 1847), pp. 85 – 9.

[136] A warning for wives (London, 1629), reprinted in Day, Pepys Ballads volume 1, pp. 118 – 19.

[137] The unnatural wife: Or, The lamentable Murther, of one goodman Davis (London, 1628), reprinted in Day, Pepys Ballads volume 1, pp. 122 – 3.

[138] A warning for all desperate women (London, 1628), reprinted in Day, Pepys Ballads vol. 1, pp. 120 – 1.

[139] For an example of such a pamphlet, see A Compleat Narrative of the Tryal of Elizabeth Lillyman (London, 1675).

[140] Frances E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars. Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550 – 1700 (New York, 1994), p. 32.

[141] NRO, Aylsham Collection, AYL/17, examinations of Elizabeth Pytman, John Clark, Thomayzen Dennyes and Mary Warde, August 1600.


© Keith Parry 2015



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