An Easter larceny, 1691

Brodie Waddell

I was browsing the Old Bailey Online for seasonal crimes, as one does, and came across this case from the Proceedings of 27 May 1691:

Rebekah Williams, Widow, was Tryed for Robbing Edward Veron , on Easter-day last, of Goods to a considerable value. Mr. Veron swore, That his Shop was broke open at Ipswich, and that the Prisoner offered several of the Goods to sale in London, at a Goldsmiths, where she was taken; but she proving her self a Married Woman, by vertue of the Covering she was Acquitted.

We have, in other words, a woman who allegedly participated in stealing from a shop on Easter, but escaped unpunished because she was married at the time.

Early Modern John recently described an Old Bailey case from around the same time as ‘both amazing and infuriating at the same time’ – and the case of Rebekah Williams undoubtedly falls into that same category. The record includes tantalising hints about the culture of the time, but also fails to explain the parts that seem to be most in need of explanation.

The first question is about the significance of the day of the crime. It is obvious why criminals might plan a break-in for ‘Easter-Day’ – presumably everyone else would be at church and the theft would be less likely to be detected. But what would the jurors think of such a crime? Would they be inclined to treat the accused more severely because the crime was both a theft and a profanation of the year’s holiest day? Would the prosecutor draw attention to this? Sadly, the record is entirely silent on this point.

The second issue is influence of Williams’ marital status. This seems to be a case of ‘feme covert’. As the OBO explains:

The legal principle of the feme covert, by which women could not be held responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (since they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied, but it may have led juries to exonerate some married women, particularly when their husbands were convicted for the same crime.

The principle had a much more significant role in commerical affairs and inheritance than in criminal law, but it theoretically applied to cases of theft as well.1 But why, then, was Williams listed as a ‘widow’? How did she ‘prove’ her marriage? Why wasn’t her husband mentioned and, in fact, prosecuted? I’m inclined to imagine a scenario something like this … Williams and her husband robbed the shop in Ipswich, but only she was caught selling the goods in London. She admitted the crime but claimed that she was coerced by her husband, who – conveniently – died before the trial. But this is all merely speculation. Here too the record is silent.

In the end, what we are left with is a woman who seems to have committed a potentially capital crime on the most sacred day of the Christian calendar, and who walked away from the court unscathed.


1 For the significance of ‘feme covert’ in the economic sphere, see Joanne Bailey, ‘Favoured or oppressed? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660-1800′, Continuity and Change, 17:3 (2002), pp. 351-372 (ungated); and the work of Amy Erickson. For the role of gender in early modern crime, see Jenny Kermode and Garthine Walker (eds) Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (1994); Garthine Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (2003). The law of coverture is also described on Wikipedia.

Something for Good Friday (it would be Rood not to)…

Jonathan Willis

Just a little something for Good Friday: I don’t know how many of you know the parish church of St Catherine, Ludham, Norfolk, but like so many of the county’s churches it has a solid medieval pedigree and is really worth a visit!

I went there last summer (remember summer?!) on the trail of an early commandment board, and while I’m still not convinced that I found one there, I did come across something rather special. Ludham has one of those vast, flint-clad churches so characteristic of East Anglia, a result of huge wealth generated by a thriving local economy, and particularly the strength of the cloth trade. Anyway, one of the main attractions is its beautiful, intricate medieval painted screen:

But more interesting I think, at least from an early modern perspective, is the contents of the chancel arch. Viewed from the nave, it contains a striking, early example of an Elizabethan Royal Arms, declaring Vivat Regina Elizabeta alongside the motto Non me pudet evangilium Christi, ‘Let me not be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ’.

Arms like this are rare enough, and I’ve not come across any other examples with this particular motto, but on the reverse side, facing into the Chancel, is something quite spectacular: a rare survival from the Catholic restoration of the reign of Mary I, a painted Rood. Christ crucified in the centre is surmounted (I think) by the dove of the Holy Spirit, and flanked by (probably) Mary and John the Baptist, two other saints, and two crowned, winged figures who I think are unmistakably angels:

Beyond that, the rest is speculation. We have very little to compare either example to, and it may be that Ludham was just an extremely compliant parish when it came to obeying the capricious religious policies of the Tudor monarchs. Perhaps this Rood was nothing special, just a rare example of the sort of stop-gap measure adopted by hundreds of churches across the country, and which the death of Mary prevented from achieving greater permanence. But (and this is surely the reformation historian inside me) it is also tempting to read a more polemical narrative into the actions of Ludham. Was their strident Elizabethan declaration not to be ashamed of the gospel in part a defence against charges of conservatism of the type embodied by their Marian Rood? Both Rood and Arms survive today purely by chance, hidden away until they were rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century. How fortunate for us that they do: now we just have to figure out what to make of them!

Eating Animals: A Bit of History

Mark Hailwood

The recent horsemeat scandal – demonstrating just how crooked much of the meat industry is – has provided vegetarians with some potent new ammunition for those well-trodden dinner-table debates with their carnivorous cousins. But who can claim to have history on their side? Both parties offer up arguments based on our historical relationship with eating animals: meat-eaters often reach all the way back to our hunter-gatherer origins to suggest that quaffing down animal flesh is an inherent part of human nature; veggies refute the necessity of eating meat, pointing out that for most of human history the vast majority of the population have subsisted well enough on the peasant diet of bread, beer, cheese and vegetable stew, with meat being both an elite luxury and a rarity until the twentieth century.

Meat-munching caveman

Meat-munching caveman

Bruegel's Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding: beer and broth all round! (via wikimedia commons)

What do early modern English sources suggest about the history of eating animals? Elites were certainly capable of putting their meat away, and both quantity and variety were the order of the day. At the wedding of his daughter in 1582, Lord Burghley served up the following over three days of feasting: 6 veal calves, 26 deer, 15 pigs, 14 sheep, 16 lambs, 4 kids, 6 hares, 36 swans, 2 storks, 41 turkeys, over 370 poultry, 49 curlews, 135 mallards, 354 teals, 1,049 plovers, 124 knots, 280 stints, 109 pheasants, 277 partridges, 615 cocks, 485 snipe, 840 larks, 21 gulls, 71 rabbits, 23 pigeons and 2 sturgeon. No horse though.[1]

More surprisingly, Craig Muldrew has recently shown that even the poorer members of society were eating considerable amounts of meat—those involved in physical labour such as farm servants or agricultural labourers routinely consumed between 1 and 2 pounds of meat a day in the seventeenth century, the equivalent of a 16 ounce steak or two! [2] One mid-eighteenth century guide to running a farm advised that workers be served at breakfast with ‘minced Meat left the Day before’ with ‘a mixture of shred Onions and Parsley’; at lunch some ‘Broad Beans and Bacon or Pork one day, Beef with Carrots… another day’; and after some bread and cheese in the afternoon a dinner of ‘pickled Pork boiled hot with Broad Beans’.[3]

Hogarth's 'O the Roast Beef' (via wikimedia commons)

Hogarth’s ‘O the Roast Beef’ (via wikimedia commons)

The range of meats consumed by the ‘peasants’ was not as extensive as that served up at aristocratic feasts – the staples for the lower orders were pork, bacon, mutton, and most of all, beef. Indeed, the idea that beef was a particularly central foodstuff to both the English diet and identity dates from at least the sixteenth century. The physician Andrew Boorde wrote in 1542 that ‘Beefe is a good meate for an Englysshe man’ and ‘it doth make an Englysshe man stronge’, [4] and this association of the English with beef was well-entrenched by the time William Hogarth produced his 1748 painting, ‘O the Roast Beef of Old England’, which you can see depicted an English innkeeper lugging a huge hunk of beef past an envious looking French monk and a group of hungry-looking French soldiers eating a watery broth. Continue reading

The wandering, pipe-smoking Jacobite

Brodie Waddell

King William III was a greedy, irreligious, oppressive usurper. Worse still, he was a Dutchman. Or at least these were the sort of things one might hear in many of the alehouses of northern England at the end of the seventeenth century.

Definitely a bit too Dutch for his own good.

I’m going to be giving a talk at the Institute of Historical Research on Thursday (March 14th) on ‘The Present State of England: Modernity and Memory in the Hard Times of the 1690s’, and I thought I’d share one of the many, many seditious denunciations of William III’s regime that I’ve come across during my research into this topic. Sadly, this one probably won’t make it into the talk, but I’ll be sure to include a couple of others.

This case comes from amongst the mess of unsorted and unnumbered despositions from the Palatinate of Lancaster held at The National Archives at Kew, specifically PL 27/2. In May of 1700, according to a chapman from Manchester named David Smith,

one James Scott a wandering person this day … did declare … that his present Majestie King William had noe more religion in him then his pipe in his hand & that all that he cared for was to please his people & to gett mony together & that he love a finger of King James’ hand more then he loved King Williams body

One needn’t have a detailed knowledge of later Stuart political culture to decipher the complaint. William III had a reputation as an aloof, cold monarch, which may partly explain why Scott had so much more ‘love’ for James II’s finger than for the current king. Likewise, the king’s continental Calvinism was regarded as somewhat suspect by many Church of England clergymen, which may help to explain Scott’s reference to his atheistical pipe.

However, I’d guess that Scott’s dislike come primarily from the other fault that he mentions here: ‘all he cared for was to please his people & to gett mony together’. This was surely a reference to William’s foreignness and his very aggressive fiscal policies: ‘his people’ were presumably the Dutch courtiers whom he brought over with him, and his need ‘to get mony together’ resulted in taxation more than doubling in less than a decade. As I’ll explain on Thursday, these were ‘hard times’ and, as a result, the king’s regime was widely resented for his foreignness, his favouritism and his predilection for expensive European wars.

If anyone else has come across similar material from this period, I’d love to hear about it.