Women do not often feature in the records of legal proceedings in the early modern period; one reason for this was a woman’s status, particularly if she was married. A wife had no legal standing of her own; her husband owned everything within the marriage – even the clothes she wore (unless pre-nuptial agreements had been negotiated). Wives were therefore unlikely to enter into legal proceedings unless supported by their husbands; an exception would be in church courts. Spinsters and widows could, and did, take advantage of the legal process in their own rights. The records of Stratford-upon-Avon’s Court of Record feature women as litigants, both as claimants and defendants, albeit in a small proportion of cases.
On 5 May 1557 Agnes Yat, represented by her lawyer, Richard Simmons, entered a plea of debt against Richard Harrington for an unpaid amount of 20 shillings (£1). Harrington had borrowed the money from Yat on 20 September 1556, to be repaid upon request. ‘[A]lthough frequently asked, [Harrington] has not yet returned the aforesaid 20/- … he has so far absolutely refused to return [the money] to her and is still refusing.’ Yat also claimed she was eight pence out of pocket due to the unpaid debt. On 6 October the Court found for Yat and issued what is today called a distress warrant: the serjeants-at-mace were to raise 20/- from Harrington’s ‘goods and chattells’ and an extra 2/4d for Yat’s ‘expenses & costs involved with her suit’. The full £1/2/4d was to be paid to Yat at the next Court sitting.
On 21 June 1559 Isabella Mawdesley (or Moseley) entered a plea of debt against John Rowse for non-payment of wages. Mawdesely declared that ‘at the festival of St. Michael the Archangel’ [in] 1577 Rowse had retained her to undertake housewifery for him for one year. For this he would pay her sixteen shillings and one pair of shoes ‘at the feasts of the Birth of the Lord, the Annunciation of the blessed Virgin Mary, the Birth of John the Baptist & St. Michael the Archangel [25 December, 25 March, 24 June and 29 September respectively] in equal instalments’. Mawdesley declared she had served Harrington ‘well & faithfully … for three quarters of the year and seven weeks’ up to 12 August 1558. Rowse had not paid her to that date, an amount of 14/4d. Although she had asked for payments Rowse ‘has so far refused to render them to her & is still refusing’. She also claimed she had been ‘damaged & [had] losses to the value of ten pounds’. On 5 July Mawdesley requested of the Court a period of imparlance – a stay of hearing to allow for negotiation between the parties. On 6 September the Court directed that arbitration should take place and that Francis Burbidge and Henry Biddle were to be arbiters. The parties were directed to ‘bring [the case] to a conclusion before the next sitting’. Nothing further is recorded of this case.
Finally, a case which is interesting for its circumstances and the tacit suggestion that sumptuary law had been breached. Sumptuary legislation was introduced in England in the fourteenth century, following the lead of some European states. The law was an attempt to curb excess expenditure on luxury items such as food, furnishings and dress. Certain clothes, for example silks and satins, could be worn by the wealthy only and lists of who may wear what were promulgated. These laws made a person’s status immediately recognisable, and everyone, sartorially at least, knew their place. Henry VIII’s reign saw four Acts ‘agaynst the wearing of costly Apparrell’ alone. Shortly before the legislation was revoked the Borough Quarter Sessions of 13 January 1604 heard a presentment that ‘the greatest part of the inhabytants of this towne [are] wearing theyr reparrel contrary to the statutt’.
On 3 April 1594 Elizabeth Trout entered a plea of defamation of character against Elizabeth Hancock. Trout claimed Hancock had said she (Trout) had ‘robbed her master at London after the decease of her mystres of all her mystres clothes, and came downe into the countrye, and hyd her heade for the space of halfe a yere, and afterwards florished abroode in the saide clothes lyke a gentlewoman, but after that she was taken and carried to London, where the same clothes were recevid agayne by her master without anye punishment’. Hancock was represented by a lawyer, Thomas Watkins, who argued that Trout ‘ought not to maintain her … action [because Trout’s declaration] and the material contained in same are not sufficient in law … and [Hancock] has no need to reply to them’. The case was adjourned until the next sitting. Upon reconvening on 17 April Hancock entered ‘a plea of action … that she did not say the words in Trout declaration’.
We will never know what came of this claim and counterclaim as nothing else follows; no further argument and no Court decision or direction are shown.
These cases show that women could, and did, initiate legal proceedings on a footing equal to men. The cases show that all three women, all unmarried, had money enough to enter legal proceedings as they had to pay into the Court for the case to be heard, and two employed lawyers, a further expense. At least the first two cases are not dissimilar to cases heard in civil courts or employment tribunals today; in many ways things have altered little in four hundred years – certainly not the speed of the justice system.
 Warner, Lyndan, ‘Before The
Law’, in The Ashgate Research Companion
to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, eds Polska, Allyson M., et al, Farnham, 2013, pp. 237-38.
 Ibid., p. 241.
 Bearman, Robert (ed.), Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon and Other Records, Vol VI 1599-1609, Dugdale Society, 2011, p. 287.
 This statement transcript was by James Halliwell in his Ancient Manuscripts and Records of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1863, p. 200.
I am indebted to Dr
Robert Bearman for bringing to my attention, and guiding me through, the
translated transcriptions of the borough’s Court of Record; and to Margaret
Webster, who undertook the formidable task of transcribing them.